Did the Stasi have anything on you?

Bhavya Dore | Updated on January 15, 2018 Published on November 04, 2016

Spooks you: Placed end to end, the archive files across the Stasi’s multiple offices would stretch to 111 km. This collection, catalogued for posterity, is at the former headquarters of the East German secret police in Berlin image courtesy: BSTU

Eavesdropping equipment of the former East German Ministry for State Security (MfS), known as Stasi, is seen on display at the 'Top Secret' Spy Museum in Oberhausen, July 10, 2013. The museum presents various objects, devices and gadgets used for spying or related to espionage. Photo: Reuters   -  REUTERS

The former East German secret police’s classified information is now yours to ask for, from its headquarters-turned-museum in Berlin

A chunky, brownish-grey building dominates Ruschestrasse in an eastern corner of Berlin. All very dull, very Soviet-era stuff. This is, after all, one of the former headquarters of the Stasi — the East German secret police.

Now housing a museum and an archive, this complex was once the nerve-centre of a tyrannical regime that kept thousands of East Germans under surveillance for 40-odd years. The ruthless tools of their trade have been systematically catalogued for posterity: the cache includes bottles of people’s body odour, elaborate listening devices, and ingenious ways of taking pictures unnoticed, among others.

Along the way, the Stasi archives have managed to drag from the recesses of a dank and musty past a means to engage with it meaningfully — people can apply to see the files collected on them by the Stasi, researchers can use the archived material, and students and educators are encouraged to participate in the archive’s many programmes.

Dagmar Hovestadt, the spokesperson for the archives, had the numbers on hand: three million requests for personal records, 32,000 for journalistic or research purpose, and two million enquiries from potential employers wanting to know if the job applicant had ever been a part of the network.

And then the most flummoxing statistic of all: of the 1.1 million queries related to social security and retirement issues, many came from former Stasi officers themselves, who wanted to look at their own employment files. Hovestadt laughed at the absurdity of that one. “They also had to prove they worked there,” she said.

You can look at your personal file, if any, for free. “We consider you a victim of the State if the Stasi put you under surveillance,” she said. “It is one way for society to face the past, since it was very difficult to legally prosecute the injustices of the time and even harder to convict people, because no laws were broken according to the laws of the time.”

Only a few dozen people were convicted after the Berlin Wall fell, and that included the former Stasi chief. He, however, was convicted not for his duties as Stasi minister but for something else in his past.

“He was first tried and convicted for a murder he’d committed in 1931,” said Hovestadt. “That was deeply unsatisfying.” She pointed to the window on her right that looked onto a square. “Right there,” she said, “is where he committed the murder.”

When Germany emerged beaten and bruised from World War II, it was divvied up between the Allied powers. East Germany became part of the Soviet bloc. This further led to a panopticon-like watch on the citizens, to snuff out ‘counter-state activities’.

Enter the Stasi

“The Stasi was skilled at damaging people psychologically,” Hovestadt said. “The access to the records is one way of helping people understand who manipulated their lives. You might have experienced an unjust State but you can’t really get any recompense, so in this archive we contribute to a societal dialogue.” Placed end to end, the archive files across the Stasi’s multiple offices would stretch to 111 km. And this isn’t even the complete collection. In November 1989, as the Wall began to crumble, Stasi officers began burning files and other evidence of their activities. They were stopped midway after some citizens intervened.

Switching on her computer, Hovestadt showed us the multimedia avatar the archive is now taking, including an Instagram account, a Twitter feed, and a Stasi-Mediathek with various documents. “Some say that Germans are overly obsessed about the past,” she said. “But twice we have landed in dictatorships, so we need to ask ourselves, ‘How did this happen? What do we need to do to not run into that again?’”

And that is the archive’s broader philosophical purpose: reflecting on and learning from the past. “How do we understand the mechanisms of dictatorship?” asked Hovestadt. “This is a unique archive because it lets you look at so many little things in detail. And then you see, ‘ah, so this is how it was done’.”

The archive also organises events in conjunction with activists and periodically releases themed documents. There was a special issue on Chernobyl, for instance, containing details of the Stasi files on the disaster.

The one on The Rolling Stones — no, the Stasi didn’t actually have files on Mick Jagger and company — concerned a rumoured concert planned by the band in East Germany, with a potential to ‘lead the youth astray’.

Its very existence, brought about by a special Act, mandates the organisation in its current form to be involved in public outreach. But in some ways, it is effective by just being there. “All these secrets being aired,” said Hovestadt, “that itself has a subversive power; you get to see how secrecy works.”

Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based journalist

Published on November 04, 2016
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