Looking Back: The Fall of East Germany's Feared Stasi 30 Years Ago


源 稿 窗
字号 +
字号 -
It was the best of times for thousands of protesters who 30 years ago stormed the Berlin headquarters of East Germany's hated Ministry of State Security, better known as the Stasi.

For them, January 15, 1990, was a time of hope - the day that spelled, in effect, the end of East Germany, or Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR). It was a state created by Moscow out of the Soviet-occupied zone of post-Nazi Germany.

The Stasi's motto was "Shield and Sword of the Party," and without an effective agency of state repression, East Germany was exposed as a shell.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier marked the 30th anniversary Wednesday of the storming of the Stasi headquarters, describing it as a "profoundly democratic act."

In the weeks before the Berlin HQ was overrun, anti-Communist protesters had celebrated as the Berlin Wall fell and while the secret police's regional stations were occupied one by one. Regional demonstrators were becoming ever bolder as the country's Communist leaders were exposed as helpless to do anything to stop them. Moscow had stayed its hand, despite appeals form East Germany's Communist boss Erich Honecker to then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for Russian military intervention.

Now it was the turn of Berliners to shutter the Stasi, in the DDR's capital, tolling the final bell on East Germany's agency of internal repression.

Shaping Putin

For a KGB colonel, though, one Vladimir Putin, it was the worst of times, a time of stinging indignity. Many of his biographers say it has shaped his autocratic governing style now as Russian president, and also his fear of anti-Kremlin protesters.

Forty-two days before the Stasi's Berlin HQ fell, Putin, who'd arrived in the DDR in 1985 to take up his first foreign posting, had a walk-on part in the huge political and historic drama playing out across East Germany and other Warsaw Pact countries. Some demonstrators who were besieging the Stasi's building in Dresden broke away and advanced across a road toward Putin's KGB installation.

Recalling the last days of Communism many years later for "First Person," a self-portrait of in-depth interviews published to mark his first term in office as Russian president in 2000, Putin says he confronted the crowd, warning protesters the facility was a Soviet military establishment. There are contradictory reports of whether he brandished a gun.

He phoned his superiors requesting support, but he was told, "We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow. And Moscow is silent."

The crowds did disperse, but Putin's biographers say the humiliation of that day has stayed with him, contributing to his determination that Moscow will never again be silent.

The anti-Communist protesters who occupied the Stasi buildings have happier memories than Putin's. Roland Jahn, a former dissident, says the 1990 storming became an important signal "worldwide."

"For the first time in the world, citizens occupied the offices of a secret police force to safeguard its files and to make them accessible later for society," Jahn told the Northwest-Zeitung newspaper. Jahn remembers "great euphoria" mixed with a "certain trepidation, a queasy feeling."

Preserving records

Not only did Jahn and fellow protesters bring down the DDR, paving the way for its reunification with democratic West Germany. They also managed in the case of the Stasi's Berlin headquarters to prevent the destruction of more than 100 kilometers of intelligence files, 1.7 million photographs and 34,000 film and audio recordings.

It was a huge trove of evidence testifying to how the Stasi persecuted dissidents and spied meticulously and obsessively on an entire population, how it executed, imprisoned and confiscated to repress dissent and demand conformity.

"We didn't want the files to be destroyed," Heinz Maier, an engineer recalled in a German TV documentary many years later. He was 51-years-old at the time of the storming of the building and his son was in a Stasi jail for having tried to flee to the West. "The lights were on in one of the buildings and I could see the windows were open on an upper floor. It was clear that files were being destroyed up there," he said.

It took protesters 15 minutes to break down the doors and enter the vast complex, numbering 51 separate buildings in an entire sealed-off block.

No Communist population was as monitored as East Germany's. There was a Stasi officer for every 180 people; by some calculations one in three East Germans were acting at some stage or another as an informant for the security service. Many were blackmailed into reporting on neighbors and friends, church leaders and their children's teachers, and others were doing so out of genuine loyalty to Communism.

Some informants were dissidents themselves, including novelist Christa Wolf, who for two years in the 1960s spied for the Stasi on her fellow writers.

East Germany's Communist leaders "felt they needed more people employed on state security than did Heinrich Himmler to protect Hitler's Third Reich," noted British academics David Childs and Richard Popplewell in their book, "The Stasi: The East German Intelligence and Security Service."

"It has been estimated that proportionate to population, the density of the informer network was seven times that of Hitler's Germany," they added.

Like other intelligence historians, they judged that "the Stasi were among the most successful security and intelligence services in the Cold War. Behind the Berlin Wall, colleagues, friends, husbands and wives, informed on each other," they said.

Nothing was too banal to be recorded. What food and household items dissidents, or those under surveillance by the Stasi, bought at shops would be recorded in their files. The Stasi kept an archive of sweat and body odor samples, which its officers collected during interrogations. "The Stasi is an example of what a security service can do when it doesn't have any budgetary constraints," intelligence historian Christopher Andrew once noted.

'Total surveillance state'

Academic John Schmeidel said the Stasi managed to turn the DDR into a "total surveillance state" with mail monitored and phones bugged - all helped by a cowed army of informants, enlisted by being browbeaten. The Stasi employed several hundred personnel at the central postal distribution center in Berlin to check on foreign mail arriving and letters being sent overseas.

"Every piece of mail that entered or left the DDR and every piece sent within the country was scrutinized," he wrote. "In an ideal world, every single letter everywhere would have been opened, photographed and evaluated, but this outreached even the Stasi. So the specialists developed a nose for appearance and weight of letters and cards, recurring addresses, patterns and especially deviations from patterns," he added in his book "Stasi: Shield and Sword of the Party."

The Stasi archives still have the power to throw up uncomfortable information, hardly surprising since the stories contained in them throw light on the darkest recesses of the totalitarian mind. East Germans have struggled to come to terms with their Communist past - especially with the scale of the collaboration by many with the Stasi.

German President Steinmeier said Wednesday during a commemoration the archives had given reunified Germany a "deep insight into the mechanisms, into the efficacy of a dictatorship."

But it has not been without disputes about what kind of access should be granted to the archives and what restrictions should be placed on researchers and journalists. Private individuals are allowed to see their Stasi files, but they can only be released to academics or reporters when the subject of the file agrees. Archivists can release information about whether any evidence exists of collaboration with the Stasi by individuals who occupied prominent social or political positions. More general files on operations and internal Stasi matters are accessible.

Still, surprises come along.

In November, the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung launched an investigation into its owner after it was revealed by a rival media outlet that he'd been an informer for the Stasi. Holger Friedrich had only recently bought the struggling publication with his wife, Silke, and the paper's shocked staff demanded to know why he had not disclosed his past association when he was in the process of buying the paper.