Stasi files catalogue tragedy and trauma of four toxic decades

German Democratic Republic’s secret police had a pair of eyes and ears for every 230 East Germans

Some 30 years on, the files are still there. Locked away from the daylight in climate-controlled rooms, shelf after shelf of battered orange cardboard folders. Stacked on their sides, secrets and lies.

Squint your eyes and it's an art installation – Ai Weiwei does Kafka – but, up close, the files smell sour. It's the odour of coarse, decomposing paper and an appropriate whiff given the sweat and fear that still surrounds the socialist German Democratic Republic's (GDR) secret police.

"When people come to us they can smell old paper and real history, that's not something you can get with an internet search," says Dagmar Hovestädt, spokeswoman for the Stasi Records Archive.

Its task since 1991 has been to manage the legacy of an organisation that was a secret police, investigative agency, and a foreign intelligence service in one.


It is based in the sprawling complex of 50 buildings east of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz occupied by the Stasi before it.

Some 30 years after the last Stasi officers left, the complex is a popular tourist attraction and so-called “democracy campus”, where visitors learn about the flip side of post-war Germany’s socialist experiment.

In total some 1,500 people – here and at 12 regional offices – are employed to decode and contextualise the Stasi’s four toxic decades.

They see an amusing irony in how films like The Lives of Others have kept the Stasi legacy alive – and even boosted its notoriety – as it retreats into history.

"One of the greatest achievements of the Stasi was to leave citizens in the dark," said Dr Martin Stief of the research division. "Everyone knew, but the Stasi left people guessing about who was and who wasn't being observed."

The reality of the organisation, founded in 1950 as the “sword and shield” of East Germany’s ruling SED party, is often far more dramatic than any fictionalised screenplay.

There was a pair of Stasi eyes and ears for, on average, every 230 East Germans

The rotund Stasi chief Erich Mielke was proud of having eyes and ears everywhere. His organisation enjoyed remarkable reach thanks to 91,000 full-time employees who ran twice as many again "inofficial" informers (IM). There was a pair of Stasi eyes and ears for, on average, every 230 East Germans.

Behind a series of locked doors, where no tourists are allowed, is East Germany’s depositories of everyday tragedies and traumas that, for 40 years until 1989, were shovelled in on top of the decades of Nazi trauma.

In total there are 111 so-called “linear kilometres” of files accessible by 41 million file cards, linking real identities and informer cover names.

I pick up a file and scan the handwritten letter of intent by the IM "Kurt Jacobi", real name Kurt Schmuck, committing to "assist, with my full effort, the Ministry of State Security in its important tasks to protect and solidify the GDR".

In addition to the paper mountain, the Stasi left behind nearly two million photographs and audio-video recordings. Some 15,500 sacks of torn and shredded files also exist. No one knows for sure how much of the archive – in particular from the foreign intelligence division – vanished from here in the panic after the Berlin Wall fell.

That the archive is open is not a given. It is the legacy of determined East Germans who occupied the Stasi buildings in the winter of 1989/1990. Since then, seven million file requests have been registered: half by public bodies, obliged to check for ex-informers on the payroll, and the other half by media and people seeking answers about their past.

People like Petra Riemann. She was born seven years after post-war German division was sealed in 1961 and grew up in the East German town of Meiningen. Her father Lutz Riemann was a popular East German actor on stage and film and, for more than a decade, played a police officer in the popular television show Polizeiruf 110.

For Petra Riemann her father is now two people, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Six years ago Petra Riemann found out that her father lead a double life: he had a second family and, for 30 years, was Stasi informer “Richard König”.

She applied to see his file and it made for devastating reading. He detailed conversations with her friends’ parents at childhood birthday parties and chats with West German visitors such as his wife’s cousin Peer Steinbrück, a Social Democrat politician and later Angela Merkel’s first German finance minister.

For Petra Riemann her father is now two people, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and she says she has to live with the unresolved contradiction.

Lutz Riemann refuses to discuss his Stasi past with his daughter and now the two have no contact. Writing a book about the file and meeting Stasi victims has, she says, opened her eyes to how the GDR regime worked.

“Seeing the file it really hit me how he was a little snoop who made others’ lives difficult,” she said. “The GDR went after people, even those not against socialism per se but who wanted democracy and positive change. They were pursued, punished and it was very painful to realise this.”

The last three decades have been marked by countless such tales, each with different informer motivations. Some, like Lutz Riemann, are life-long communists and true believers. A minority were motivated by money; more common was jealousy or the promise of privileges such as foreign travel. Many were blackmailed into co-operating; many others rejected repeated approaches, sometimes with serious consequences.

The vast majority of East Germans had no direct contact with the Stasi

For Roland Jahn, an East German dissident and the archive's third custodian, much remains to be done.

The German parliament has just backed a plan for continued access to the files in the future while integrating his agency into Germany’s federal archives.

The vast majority of East Germans had no direct contact with the Stasi, says Jahn, yet all lived under the spell of this mechanism of control and repression.

What were the consequences of this today, he wonders, and are those consequences – in particular trauma – still palpable? “Finger-pointing about this only triggers defensive reactions whereas a process of self-reflection gives us a better chance to expose control mechanisms,” he said.

He hopes Saturday’s Berlin Wall anniversary will open a new road ahead beyond the now familiar Stasi victim-perpetrator narrative: “Perhaps in the future we need a better mix of attack and empathy, accusation and self-reflection.”

Leaving the Stasi archive, a steel fire door shuts with a firm click. In my nostrils, the sour smell lingers.