This number is quite impressive, if not downright colossal: since 1991, the German archives agency Stasi has received some 7,353,885 requests for access to the files of the Ministry of State Security (MfS) of the former Germany. from the east.
Almost half of them (46%) were from people who wanted to know what the secret police of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), known as the “Stasi”, personally knew about them: their private lives. , their political opinions, possible escape plans. All of this and more is contained in the informant reports, which totaled 111 kilometers (68 miles) of files over 40 years in the GDR.
During the peaceful revolution of 1989/90, East German civil rights activists prevented the destruction of this Stasi legacy. And despite strong reservations in the West, it is thanks to their indefatigable commitment that the files were opened. A new office has been created for this purpose in reunified Germany, with a less catchy name: the Federal Archives Commissioner of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic. Colloquially, it became known as the Stasi Records Agency.
Birthdays sparked more interest
Its leader, Roland Jahn, presented his final report in Berlin. The 15th “activity report” marks the end of an era: at the beginning of the summer the agency will disappear and the files will be moved to the federal archives, 31 years after their safeguard – a decision taken by the Parliament in last November after years of discussions.
Jahn revealed that there were 23,686 case inspection requests in 2020, which is significantly lower than the figure for the previous year (35,554). But the relatively high number for 2019 may also be due to the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The same phenomenon was observed on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. It seems that increased media coverage of this historic event is triggering in many people a desire to take a closer look at their own past.
The Stasi has often played a painful role in many lives. “Some people need a long time to take care of their biographies,” said Roland Jahn. Of the applications, he said, 20% now come from relatives of deceased people seeking to confront the lives of their parents and grandparents in a divided Germany.
Requests from all over the world
The fact that the Stasi was and is much more than a purely East German problem can be seen from other figures. For example, well over 400,000 file inspection requests originated in the western German states; more than 12%. The statistics also reflect a worldwide interest in Stasi files: at least 21,000 requests come from 100 countries. The Stasi Records Agency has no information on who is behind them, although many could clearly be from former East Germans who emigrated.
But despite its imminent end, the Stasi Records Agency has been for many a success story admired around the world, serving as a role model for many countries in Eastern Europe, as well as Latin America and the Middle East, to find out how to deal with past dictatorships. Once the files have been opened, the perpetrators are often found and prosecuted. In some cases, victims find evidence of how their careers have been hampered for political reasons, and financial reparations may then be possible.
Roland Jahn, Marianne Birthler and Joachim Gauck headed the Stasi archives
Checking the Stasi’s past is still possible
This will not change after the integration of this unique institution into the Federal Archives. Even if it will lose its independence, the files will remain accessible, for the many victims of the RDA system as well as for researchers and journalists. It will also remain possible to track state officials in the past for potential Stasi ties up to 2030, thanks to a legal amendment in 2019.
Such spectacular revelations about the history of the Stasi are now rare. It was of course different in the agency’s first decade, under the leadership of GDR civil rights activist and future German President Joachim Gauck.
Some critics, such as former press office spokesman Christian Booss, see the inclusion in the federal archives as a mistake. “The Stasi research has effectively been closed,” the historian told DW, adding that claims to the contrary are “labeling fraud”.
He considers the computer-assisted reconstruction of ripped Stasi files to be, as he puts it, “de facto dead”.
Booss now heads the “Citizens’ Committee of January 15”, an association which has set itself the goal of reassessing and preserving the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin.
Roland Jahn believes, however, that “the visibility of the Stasi Records Agency with its exemplary international function will remain even after its integration into the federal archives”.
Jahn’s term ends on June 17, a date chosen with care: it marks the anniversary of the popular uprising in the GDR in 1953, which was suppressed with the support of Soviet soldiers. The second revolution in divided Germany in 1989/90 was successful. This led to the end of the Communist dictatorship and ultimately the reunification of Germany.
This article has been translated from German.
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