25 Years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall A Revolutionary Agency

A legacy of German history: the Agency for Stasi records.
A legacy of German history: the Agency for Stasi records. | © BStU/Dresden

The Agency of the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service makes the files of the Stasi available and enables the appraisal of the history of the former German Democratic Republic.

It is one of the most fascinating public institutions of Germany, even with its bulky name: Agency of the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic (BStU). Since 1990, its archives have preserved the documents of the Ministry of State Security of the GDR, “Stasi” for short, and put them at the disposal of private persons, institutions and the public. A revolutionary agency, which, with its twelve branch offices, makes available material that was obtained between 1949 and 1990 by a constant violation of the privacy of millions of East German citizens.

The files of the Stasi form a line the length of 111 kilometres. Around 28,400 audio documents, 3,000 films and 1.6 million photographs have so far been made available. They may be obtained by application in accordance with the “Act concerning the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic”. The Stasi Records Act entered into force on 29 December 1991. That this material did not completely vanish borders on a historical miracle. For the desire to forget was present in West as in East Germany. Thus, for example, as late as February 1990, the Round Table allowed the Ministry of State Security to destroy audio recordings of personal data. At the Round Table sat the representatives of the political parties and groups of the GDR that supervised the transitional period beginning at the end of 1989. The Foreign Department of the State Security was even allowed to dissolve itself. Here almost all the files have been lost.

A clause saved the files

Even the government of the former Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl felt uneasy about the material. Media had already published Stasi telephone recordings of Western politicians. A fax from a member of the staff of the then Minister of the Interior Wolfgang Schäuble to the GDR Ministry of the Interior agreed to a “differentiated destruction scheme”. In protest against this policy, civil liberties activists occupied the Stasi headquarters. After negotiations, the various interest groups succeeded in inserting a clause in the Unification Treaty on 18 September 1990. This assured the preservation of the Stasi files. The chief negotiator was the Joachim Gauck, German Federal President since march 2012. On 3 October 1990, before the GDR’s official accession to the Federal Republic, the final meeting of the People’s Parliament elected him to be Special Representative for the Person-Related Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic, a position he held until 2000. Today Federal Commissioners are proposed by the Federal Government and elected by the German parliament. The agency is part of the portfolio of the Commissioner for Culture and Media and is divided into the departments Archive, Information, Research, Administration and Management. Its primary objective is to provide victims and their families access to the files. Researchers and journalists may also view the Stasi documents, in accordance with the Stasi Records Act. All in all, up to now the BStU has processed 2.9 million citizen requests and about 1.7 million applications for access to the files by public authorities.

International model of remembrance

As important as its work is, the future of the agency is uncertain. Its present head, Roland Jahn, has envisaged the prospect of its end in 2019. Until then the files of people who served in the civil service of the former GDR can be examined. What then happens to the files will be considered by a commission of experts, which will present its proposals at the end of 2015. Opponents of the continued existence of the agency point out that the Federal Archives, which could come into question as the new deposit for the files, is processing a significantly higher number of documents with a staff of about 700 than does the BStU with a staff of 1,550, and further reviews all documents before making them accessible and blacks out data breeches. Advocates of the agency fear that access to the files of the perpetrators will become more difficult and the protection of the victims weaker if the Stasi records are transferred to the Federal Archives.

Whatever decision is reached, the agency has also made valuable contributions beyond the borders of Germany and been praised as an international model. On 14 October 2011, Roland Jahn signed the charter for the “Platform of European Remembrance and Conscience”, with its headquarters in Prague. Participating are 13 countries that will cooperate in coming to grips with the appraisal of totalitarian systems.