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Closing a chapter of East German history

March 19, 2021

The Stasi Records Agency is a legacy of the peaceful revolution in the GDR. Now its name is disappearing, but its spirit is to live on elsewhere.

Shelves with old paper files
The Stasi Records Agency stored the secret service files from communist East GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

This number is impressive enough, if not downright colossal: Since 1991, Germany's Stasi records agency received some 7,353,885 requests for access to the files of the Ministry for State Security (MfS) in former East Germany.

Almost half of these (46%) came from people who wanted to find out what the German Democratic Republic's (GDR) secret police, popularly known asthe "Stasi," knew about them personally: Their private lives, their political views, possible escape plans. All this and much more is contained in the informants' reports, which totaled 111 kilometers (68 miles) of files over the course of 40 years in the GDR.

During the peaceful revolution of 1989/90, East German civil rights activists prevented this Stasi legacy from being destroyed. And despite strong reservations in the West, it was thanks to their tireless commitment that the files were opened. A new office was created for this purpose in reunified Germany, with a name that was anything but catchy: the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic. Colloquially, it became known as the Stasi Records Agency.

Under the Stasi microscope

Anniversaries triggered greater interest

Now its head, Roland Jahn, has presented his final report in Berlin. The 15th "activity report" marks the end of an era: in early summer the agency will disappear and the files will be moved to the federal archives, 31 years after they were saved — a decision made by parliament last November after years of discussion.

Jahn revealed that there were 23,686 requests for file inspection in 2020, significantly undercutting the previous year's figure (35,554). But the comparatively high number for 2019 may also have been due to the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The same phenomenon was observed on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. It seems that stronger media coverage of this historic event triggers a desire among many people to take a closer look at their own past.

The Stasi often played a painful role in many lives. "Some need a long time to deal with their biographies," said Roland Jahn. Among the applications, he said, 20% are now from relatives of deceased people seeking to confront the lives of their parents and grandparents in divided Germany.

Occupation of Berlin Stasi

Requests from all over the world

The fact that the Stasi was and is far more than a purely East German issue can be seen from other figures. For example, well over 400,000 applications to inspect files came from western German states; more than 12%. The statistics also reflect a worldwide interest in the Stasi files: a good 21,000 requests come from 100 countries. The Stasi Records Agency has no information about who is behind them, though clearly many could be from former East Germans who emigrated.

But despite its imminent end, the Stasi Records Agency was for many a success story that has been admired around the world, serving as a model for many countries in Eastern Europe, as well as in Latin America and the Middle East, for how to confront past dictatorships. Once files are opened, perpetrators are often found and prosecuted. In some cases, victims find evidence of how their careers were obstructed for political reasons, and then financial reparations may be possible.

Roland Jahn, Marianne Birthler, Joachim Gauck
Roland Jahn, Marianne Birthler and Joachim Gauck were the heads of the Stasi archive

Check for Stasi past still possible

This will not change after the integration of this unique institution into the Federal Archives. Although it will lose its independence, the files will remain accessible, for the many victims of the GDR system as well as for researchers and journalists. It will also remain possible to research the past of state officials for potential Stasi ties until 2030, thanks to a legal amendment made in 2019.

Such spectacular revelations about Stasi history are now rare. This was of course different in the first decade of the agency, under the leadership of GDR civil rights activist, and future German President Joachim Gauck. 

Some critics, such as the former press spokesman of the office, Christian Booss, consider the incorporation into the federal archives a mistake. "Stasi research was effectively wound up," the historian told DW, adding that claims to the contrary are a "labeling fraud."

He considers it a serious problem that the computer-assisted reconstruction of torn Stasi files is, as he puts it, "de facto dead." 

Booss now heads the "Citizens' Committee January 15," an association that has set itself the goal of reappraising and preserving the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin.

Roland Jahn, however, believes that the "visibility of the Stasi Records Agency with its exemplary international function will remain even after its integration into the federal archive."

Jahn's term of office ends on June 17, a date chosen with care: It marks the anniversary of the popular uprising in the GDR in 1953, which was put down with the support of Soviet soldiers. The second revolution in divided Germany in 1989/90 was successful. It led to the end of the communist dictatorship and ultimately to Germany's reunification.

This article has been translated from German.

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.