Understanding dictatorship to safeguard democracy: The Stasi Records Archive as a tool of transformation

“We live your history!” That is what a visitor said after touring the Stasi Records Archive a few weeks ago. The visitor was Chinese, exiled from his homeland as a critical journalist fearing detention. “We live your history” – meant that what he had learned about the content of the archive and the way a secret police had persecuted people 30 and 40 years ago sounded to him like a report from his home country he was forced to leave in the world of today.

This is an experience we share often with our international guests. As we explain the story of the archive and the communist past that led to its formation, all sorts of associations of current issues come to the fore. It is a past that is very much alive albeit with different actors and in different contexts. The universal story of the archive is the story of how human rights get systematically oppressed, how they are being fought for and gained and how they are continuously to be safeguarded in society today. In that sense the Stasi Records Archive stands as a tool symbolizing the transformation from dictatorship to democracy and very much serves as an inspiration to protect human rights every day.

“The Stasi Records Archive stands as a tool symbolizing the transformation from dictatorship to democracy and very much serves as an inspiration to protect human rights every day.”

Repression: A Monument to Surveillance

To understand the content of the Stasi records and their power and helpfulness today, a brief look at their origination is helpful. After World War II, Soviet domination of the Eastern half of Europe led to a bloc of communist regimes. One central tool to ensure the communists’ hold on power was the use of secret police organizations.

The East German Ministry for State Security was founded in 1950 under the supervision of Soviet operatives, like all Eastern European secret police units. From its inception it considered itself the “shield and sword” of the party, which in East Germany was called the SED, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. The Stasi saw itself as a force in the service of the party to protect the communist revolution from all enemies under all circumstance.

Its operations and their documentation, the Stasi files, are firmly rooted in this logic and psychology. For forty years the Stasi set out to protect the party’s hold on power by treating its own people as one of the central most dangerous sources of instability. As long as people were adhering to the demands of the communist party and fulfilled their “socialist duties”, as laid out from kindergarten to work place, life under communist rule was bearable.

In fact many people, once aligned with the authoritarian demands, felt they led a secure life where housing and education was provided for and they could live their personal lives in peace. However, expressions of unwillingness or dissent would quickly land you in the sights of the Stasi. Those forms of dissent could be anything from adhering to a religious faith to refusing military education at school, from listening to Western music to reading books not part of approved literature. The Stasi’s core mission was to gather information as precautionary strategy to prevent any utterance from turning into a problem that endangered the party’s hold on power. As forms of dissent could be manifold throughout society and untold numbers of people could be defined as “enemies”, the Stasi’s prime objective became to have eyes and ears everywhere in society.

One of its central tools in this endeavor was to use regular citizens as informants. In the end, in 1989, about 180,000 of these “unofficial collaborators” or IM in German, in their Stasi terminology, were registered as active in the files. Add to this the over 91,000 official employees of the ministry in 1989 and the result was the largest secret police apparatus in the Eastern European context of the Cold War in ratio to population.

This is the description of the quality of the records: An enormous documentation of the everyday lives of East Germans. As such its legacy in writing can be seen as a monument to surveillance.

Revolution: Regaining Control over Stolen Information

When in 1989 the people of East Germany and the other Eastern European nations began to rise up against what was essentially Soviet communist rule, demanding free elections, free media and freedom to travel, much of the revolutionary protest and anger would be directed at the parties. But since it were the secret police units who were tasked with enforcing the denials of access to human rights, action against the Stasi was also called upon.

By early November 1989 the Stasi had begun to destroy documents. That in turn prompted in early December East Germans to occupy the buildings of the Stasi all over East Germany in order to stop the destruction of the files. Civil rights activists understood back then that these documents should be seen as evidence of human rights violations. Their destruction thus would be tantamount to making this evidence disappear.

When on January 15, 1990 citizens also pushed themselves onto the premises of the Stasi headquarters in Berlin, the power of the dreaded secret police had ultimately been broken. It was from those activities that citizens’ committees formed and guided the process of how to handle the records, now under control of the people. “To each their own file” had been an often heard demand during the demonstrations. After forty years of being spied upon and living under the rules of the party, East German citizens wanted access to the stored information.

As a demand by the people who had just toppled a regime in a Peaceful Revolution, the opening of the archive was hard to deny in the ensuing process of German unification. The saved records were made available for the people. The archive actually opened on the day of German unification, October 3, 1990. This origination story of the archive that came out of the Peaceful Revolution is equally important in defining its active role today.

It was the peoples’ demand to regain control over the information that led to the opening. It was their desire to “free themselves” by breaking the domination over the stolen information that made immediate access to personal information possible. In addition, the idea of actively rehabilitating injustices with the Stasi documentation was also an organic part of this movement.

Reappraisal: A Tool for Transformation

The archive’s origination story can be seen as an active contribution to democratic dialogue as it relates to how united Germany dealt with the injustices committed in the communist era. To address these injustices committed against the citizens of the then united Germany was an obligation of the state and the records and their astounding access delivered a base for this process. Never before had a complete archive of state secrets covering a period of 40 years been made available to contribute to a process of reappraisal of the past.

However this particular past also holds the learning tools for today’s decisions. Looking at the mechanisms of the communist dictatorship enriches our sensibilities for what values we want to fight for in today’s society. Looking at the mistakes of the past and bringing them out in the open also serves to support the legitimacy and trust-worthiness of the current democracy.

In fact the vetting of public employees that the Stasi Records Act allowed was believed to be necessary in order to strengthen the trust in the democratic system of the united Germany. No hidden connection to the secret police should linger undetected inside the democratic institutions.

The very fact that secret state documents were accessible have also established a precedent long before access laws to current public documents were established in Germany. It was an empowering idea for citizens that they can access state data and hold those in state functions accountable.

In its now almost 30 years of existence the archive also became a sounding board for larger questions looming in the field of democratic values and threats. Time and again the Stasi Records Archive has been consulted to find answers to the many issues around surveillance in contemporary society. Particularly since 2013, the year of the Snowden revelations about the US-American NSA and other intelligence organizations and their surveillance of citizens, the BStU was included in many dialogues about the meaning of surveillance.

The “monument to surveillance” of the past became a consultant for state surveillance in general, when questions were posed such as: Is today worse than yesterday? What does a state do with all the data? What is the difference between data gathering and surveillance in democracy and dictatorship? Our archive allows a unique look behind the veil of state secrecy. It enables the study of the mechanisms of secrecy and how a state can act upon very personal information. This turns it into a learning tool for today’s challenges.

“The “monument to surveillance” of the past became a consultant for state surveillance in general, when questions were posed such as: Is today worse than yesterday? What does a state do with all the data? What is the difference between data gathering and surveillance in democracy and dictatorship? Our archive allows a unique look behind the veil of state secrecy. It enables the study of the mechanisms of secrecy and how a state can act upon very personal information. This turns it into a learning tool for today’s challenges.”

The archive also contributes to the idea of human rights education. In studying the systematic ways in which the Stasi restricted access to human rights it allows an appreciation of the rights we are all so accustomed to in functioning democracies. The archive has also been visited by many guests from all over the world who bring their home conflicts to the archive to understand what the opening of the files and their public discussion have contributed to the goal of a peaceful coexistence after conflict. In that sense the Stasi Records Archive is a tool for transformation, a school for democracy and a teaching tool for human rights.

Roland Jahn

Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records

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