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The Better We Understand Dictatorship, the Better We Can Shape Democracy – on Dealing with the Heritage of the Ministry for State Security in Germany

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The aim of this article is to inform readers about the legally regulated tasks of the Office for GDR State Security Documents and the experiences and scale of reappraisal of the SED-Dictatorship (SED – Socialist Unity Party of Germany) in the last 25 years. Dealing with the past and the people involved, the author follows the principle of explanation, not revenge. The main goal is to understand how people behaved and what consequences their actions had on their social and work environment. Explaining the differences between democracy and dictatorship and sensitizing young generation in this respect is one of the major challenges to the Stasi Records Agency and other institutions in the international process of revisiting the past.

“How did you manage to ensure that the victims of the dictatorship did not take vengeance on the perpetrators?” I was asked this question in the summer of 2012 by a visitor to our archives in Berlin. Farah Hached is a lawyer from Tunisia. Amid the turmoil of the Arab Spring, she quit her job as she wanted to take an active part in the reconstruction of her country. Now she is a leader of the “Democratic Lab” association and in this way she wants to support her country in its difficult transition to democracy.

The question of “transitional justice” is what brings many visitors from Arab countries to our archives, with Ms. Hached among them. They are all working now on transforming the injustice of the old regime into a new society. How can they ensure the future of a new social order? They want to learn from us how past injustice is dealt with in Germany.

“How did you manage to ensure that the victims of the dictatorship did not take vengeance on the perpetrators?” For the last 20 years, with the formation of the Stasi Records Agency, we have gained considerable experience with this timely and crucial question posed in Tunisia and other Arab countries. I always reply by saying: “We do not settle accounts with the past; we clarify it by means of using the secret police records.” This is the explanation which satisfies the victims, and in this way it makes it possible to create a comprehensive view of the perpetrators.

To this end, we found a legal solution and created a law which guaranteed transparency of state actions on the one hand and the protection of the personal rights of the victims of the dictatorship on the other. This answer seems to me to be obvious. It is, however, not so convincing at first. In countries where laws for decades obeyed the will of the powerful and not the principle of the rule of law, legal regulations do not seem to be an effective tool used for protection against revenge.

It is real-life practice that convinces the visitors in our archive. I convince them by explaining in detail how the law works and by pointing out that access to the records of the victims is something very personal; that only the people about whom the Stasi secretly collected information are allowed to see it. And that any person who was spied on and mentioned in the files, was then erased from the document, and thereby protected. Our visitors find it convincing.

I further explain to them that we should of course name the people involved in the operations of the secret police. After all, the individual who acted on behalf of the state and for the state, should not be anonymous. The fact that the state interfered with the lives of its citizens should be disclosed by means of the records. The disclosure of such information is strictly regulated and limited to the people concerned and journalists and researchers, as well as public bodies. Our Arab visitors find it impressive.

It consoles them further when I add that even in Germany the leading politicians in 1990 came close to not revealing the records of the secret police of the GDR for fear of mischief and revenge. The actions of the Germans were thoroughly planned and for over 20 years now the access to the Stasi records has been a key way to come to terms with the SED dictatorship.

The fact that we have now become a model for many societies in a rebuilding phase is in a way a side effect. But whenever I guide visitors through the archive, I am particularly aware of the uniqueness of the attempt to set up the Agency.

Reappraisal of the SED dictatorship – the contribution of the Stasi Records Agency

The form of file disclosure developed for the Stasi records has allowed for transparency and clarity, both of which form a fundamental part of the reappraisal process of the SED dictatorship in Germany. Thanks to the courageous East German citizens who saved the Stasi records from destruction, people the world over can now have an insight into the heart of the apparatus of repression and control in a dictatorship. The records are archived and made accessible both in Berlin and in twelve regional offices in the former GDR states. 111 kilometres of shelf files, which stretches to nearly 160 kilometres if filmed documents are included, constitute an impressive monument to the surveillance apparatus.

“ that [individuals] ...can clarify what influence the State Security Service has had on their personal destiny.” – this is the first and overarching purpose of the records’ disclosure as described in the first paragraphs of the Stasi Records Act (StUG). Until today, providing individuals with an access to the records that the Stasi collected about them remains one of the most extensive tasks of the Stasi Records Agency. The records often include personal items such as letters and photo albums, which can be returned to those spied upon – a rather tangible compensation for the intrusion in their lives.

Since the first citizens were given access to their personal records on 2 January, 1992, the Agency has received over 2.8 million requests to view records and to decrypt code names. Those who exercise their right to view records decide to have a look at their past, a look at their records, which gives them hope for clarification of their own biography. It takes effort. It also means that they have to overcome fear of disappointment. It is not uncommon for them to read in the files that it was a friend who betrayed them, or that a colleague was responsible for a downturn in their career. However, many people also find out that others remained silent, did not say a word, refused to cooperate. That knowledge brings clarity.

The information contained in the files also has material consequences. If it were not for the Stasi records, hardly any former victim of persecution could prove the official reasons for his conviction. Absent the rehabilitation that the Stasi files make possible, previous convictions would still be valid and compensation claims would be groundless. The judicial system in the GDR was always subject to the political interests of the SED. This is well documented in the files. Preservation of the records makes it possible to compensate for the injustice suffered under the dictatorship by means of the law. Creating transparency of the work of the secret police in the past means that people should know today whether any former Stasi-employees or informers hold public office. The Agency has so far responded to 1.7 million requests concerning the vetting of employees of the public sector. A further objective of the Stasi Records Act is to ensure that this clarity is established.

This process is designed is such a way that each public body may make a request to the Stasi Records Agency about a group of people specified in the Act. We then provide, where appropriate, relevant documentation in the event that there are indications of collaboration with the Ministry for State Security. If someone continues to hold an office in spite of indications of collaboration with the Stasi as revealed in the files, then the decision is in the hands of the relevant authorities. The transparency of such decisions and the open discussion about them are desirable goals, though ones which have rarely been achieved so far.

Documentary research conducted by scientists and journalists may also shed some light on the functioning of the Stasi. The Stasi Records Agency has processed 26,000 requests from journalists and scientists in the past 20 years. Such requests often involve a significant part of the records. Copies of thousands of pages are made available every year to researchers. Numerous publications, newspaper articles, television reports, but also documentaries reflect the results of the research.

Due to the fact that the Stasi records clearly document state actions of the party and the secret police, they function as a primary source for the explanation of the functioning of the dictatorship. Using the Stasi records to teach the public about the structure, mode of action and methods used by the secret police is, therefore, another fundamental pillar of our work. It is not only by means of its own research department, but also thanks to exhibitions, events, conferences and scientific publications that the Agency offers services to the public and provides a wide range of opportunities to come to terms with the SED dictatorship.

The dialogue with the younger generation

Almost 25 years after the peaceful revolution of 1989, fewer and fewer people in the reunified Germany have any personal experience with the GDR and what life was like in a divided Germany. They rely on the information provided to them by their parents or grandparents as well as through the media and in the course of education. Studies show substantial deficits in this matter. Young people appear not to be able to imagine the nature of the dictatorship of the SED regime and sometimes cannot see the difference between dictatorship and democracy. Accusations do not help in this regard. It is mainly a matter of providing starting points to make young people interested in these questions and raise public awareness.

If we, as a society, want to motivate and enable young people in the course of their education to create democracy today and in the future, the detailed study of our common past offers a great learning opportunity. This includes a keener understanding of how dictatorships work, even if their operations were not so brutal at first glance. It is crucial to me that young people can understand what dictatorship stands for, especially in the case of the GDR. What it means to wall off the whole nation, to limit the freedom of travel, of speech and of assembly. This includes fathoming the everyday pressures to adapt as well as seemingly trivial decision-making situations. Especially in everyday life, where one was forced to show commitment to the rulers and their ideologies in ostensibly insignificant rituals, there is a key to the functioning of the dictatorship. The very recognition of this adjustment serves as a compass to guide people in the democratic way of life.

Authentic places are particularly useful to provide information about the bygone era. Beginning in 2012, the Stasi Records Agency together with the Civic Association “Anti-Stalinist Action” (Ger. “Antistalinistische Aktion e.V.”, ASTAK) took over the operation of the Stasi Museum in “Building 1”. “Building 1” is the former official residence of the Stasi Minister Erich Mielke at the Stasi site in Berlin-Lichtenberg. “Building 1” is part of an enormous complex which housed the Ministry for State Security for nearly 40 years.

The archive of the Stasi Records Agency also has its own office. At the historic site of the former command centre of the secret police, the educational work of the Stasi Records Agency is continued. A permanent exhibition at the site of criminal masterminds has been organised in collaboration with the ASTAK. In a few years, this will create new job opportunities for young people to work at the authentic site.

The exhibition, the archive and the historic site form a unique ensemble as regards the question of the functioning of the instruments of repression. In addition to the memorial to those persecuted by the Stasi in the former prison in Berlin-Hohenschönhausen there will be another place set up in Berlin-Lichtenberg. Those responsible for the repression will serve here as a starting point for the discussion about the “GDR State Security.” A special library of the Stasi Records Agency will operate here as well. These are steps that have put us on the way to developing a “campus of democracy” right in the centre of dictatorship.

The power of authentic sites offers a unique opportunity to deepen the understanding of these times. So do the witnesses–people who can describe the functioning of the SED dictatorship from their own experience. Here come to mind those who experienced repression in the form of patronising, career manipulation, political persecution or even confinement. These are the real witnesses of life in a dictatorship. However, reflections on the everyday life of a citizen of the GDR who did not act against the regime, also constitute an important source for the study of the dictatorship.

What was it like in the GDR? How did people experience the GDR? What was it like for example, to be a teacher, a police officer or a mechanical engineer in the GDR? It is of the utmost importance to me that these discussions are open and always aim at clarification. The notion of repayment is often discussed in the public debate when the question of a person’s life in the GDR emerges – especially when the person was involved in the state apparatus or worked unofficially for the state security. But it must be made clear that here we are talking about clarification, not about settling accounts with the past. It is only through open discussion that can we actually step by step decrypt 40 years of the SED dictatorship. This is an insightful way to proceed, especially for the next generation and one that we will not be able to pursue in the same way in the future.

A comprehensive evaluation of GDR biographies is essential. It is our common challenge to create the atmosphere for this to happen. The people who have experienced the functioning of the Stasi or had a share in it can tell us about their point of view, which we can then critically analyse by knowing the files. But this calls for an atmosphere of mutual attention, openness and the assumption of individual responsibility for the injustices that were perpetrated.

The Stasi Records Agency in the context of international reappraisal

In addition to the aforementioned visitors from Arab countries who have been coming to our archive of late, the work of the Agency gained attention worldwide right from the outset. The model of the legally regulated file disclosure developed in the GDR and reunited Germany often serves as a guide and important reference point for many societies in a transitional stage from dictatorship to democracy. Irrespective of the place, there is always a discussion on how to deal with the knowledge of those in power, of the former dictators. This information can in most cases be found in the records of the dictatorship-supporting secret police and intelligence services.

The peculiarity of the file disclosure in Germany plays an important role in the discussion about the German model. We are happy to share our experiences, but we are aware of how limited these can be when transferred to other countries. As the GDR State Security was dissolved, its data also became a thing of the past. No newly established institutions file for access to the documents. Our process is unique due to the fact that not only the Stasi, but also the history of the GDR ended in 1990. This happened as a result of the transformation process of the GDR which led to its accession to the 40-year-old well-tested democracy. This looks different in other countries and we learn it every time we get in touch in the archive with a group of people who are in the process of dealing with the consequences of dictatorship. In many discussions our international partners analyse the questions which are evident to us and in this way they give us the possibility to examine our own work in a critical way.

It was completely natural to create a network of institutions dealing with the reappraisal of the secret police of the communist bloc. The creation of the “European Network of Official Authorities in Charge of the Secret Police Files” in December 2008 is a milestone in this collaboration.

Conclusions and future perspectives

20 years after the formation of the Stasi Records Agency, the use of the Stasi records remains an essential avenue for the reappraisal of the SED dictatorship. The demand for the personal access to the records remains significant. The use of the files through research and the media is also on the rise. Clarification has no sell-by date. We see it clearly in the work of the Stasi Records Agency.

Still, we are only in the early stage of understanding why the dictatorship functioned for nearly 40 years. As time goes by from the dissolution of the GDR, new opportunities for the discussion about those times emerge. Although the innerworkings of the Stasi can still be the subject of hot debate, it is also time to tell the real story beyond the Stasi’s involvement.

Why would someone be an employee of the Stasi? What did he do and think of being in its service? The records tell the story only from one point of view, namely that of the secret police. They are an important and priceless treasure. But while it is still possible to do so, people who experienced these events need to be questioned.

So what is the aim of the archive and the reappraisal? In the end, it is not about records, but about people and their fate. It is about comprehending how people behave and what the consequences of such behaviour are. The better we understand dictatorship, the better we can shape democracy.


Roland Jahn. Born 1953. In 1982 he was sentenced to 22 months imprisonment formally for displaying a Polish flag with the forbidden symbol of the non-communist trade union Solidarnosc in the GDR. After an early release from prison Jahn was forcibly extradited to West Germany in June 1983. He moved to West Berlin and began to work as a journalist – bridging the information gap between East and West. Since March 2011 he has worked as Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records.



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This article has been published in the third issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the consequences and commemorations of 1989 in Central Europe .

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