Berlin Wall: secret police files and the memories of two Germanies

Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the German government has confirmed plans to incorporate the Stasi files into the Federal Archive.

Many people whose lives were affected by repression at the hands of the Stasi – the East German secret police – are still alive and the memories of that repression are fresh and painful.

But for another generation, this is history and the way Germany handles the public archive of the Stasi files can provide a valuable object lesson in how to manage memory.

As they mark the anniversary on November 9, Germans will also remember how citizens stormed the offices of the hated State Security Service in 1989 and 1990, demanding “freedom for my file”.

Germany has ensured that victims, researchers and the media have had access to the Stasi files. Government bodies and other large organisations can also use them to check if their representatives or employees worked for the Stasi as informants. This came into action in 1992, following the regulations outlined in the Stasi Records Law, which was overseen by the commissioner of the Stasi files. Both the law and the commissioner were the first of their kind internationally.

Now, the files will be incorporated into the holdings of the Federal Archive as a distinct body. The change will ensure the conservation of the files and allow their digitisation. The physical files will remain at the former headquarters of the Ministry for State Security and in five eastern federal states (Länder). Victims and researchers will also continue to have access to the material and some major institutions will maintain the ability to “check” their employees until at least 2030.

Alongside this, the commissioner for the Stasi files will become the commissioner for victims of the SED Dictatorship. The current post-holder Roland Jahn – a former journalist and East German dissident – supports the change, arguing that this “trophy of the Revolution” must be secured for the future. However, critics fear a line is being drawn under efforts to work through this part of Germany’s past.

On one side of this argument are those who value the symbolism of an institution conceived in the revolution; on the other, those who see the files principally in terms of a historical source to be passed to the next generation. In this sense, this is a debate about whether it is too soon to start thinking about East Germany as just another part of German history, to be approached simply as another historical exercise.

Some might say it is not soon enough. The history of the GDR has always been highly politicised. The German government spends a large amount of money on public remembrance of the former state (€100m a year, according to the Representative of the Federal Government for Culture, Bernd Neumann, in a parliamentary plenary discussion in 2013). But, until quite recently, the focus of this activity was on oppression, the Stasi, the Berlin Wall, party leaders or prominent dissidents.

This prevailing narrative has left a large part of the former population of the GDR feeling misrepresented – those who had lived relatively “normal” lives, had not experienced state violence directly and enjoyed the benefits of living outside of the capitalist system. Some reacted with what has been termed an “identity of defiance”, asserting the validity of their own memories.

Memory has thereby contributed to ongoing divisions between East and West, which can be seen in an array of social attitudes and voting behaviour – not least in the success of the anti-immigration and Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland) in the eastern states.

Pact of forgetting

While remembrance has proved divisive in Germany, if we turn to other contexts and countries we can see that an absence of memory does not heal divisions. In Spain, the 1977 Amnesty Law meant that those responsible for crimes committed during the civil war and under Francoism could not be punished. The so-called “pact of forgetting” meant that public remembrance of victims was limited.

Memories were, however, sustained by survivors and relatives of victims. As the amnesty has been challenged legally and politically, these memories have come bursting to the fore. The recent debate around the reburial of Franco’s remains provides clear evidence that Spanish society is not yet reconciled with its past and divisions remain within communities.

False public memory

It is not only state institutions that can attempt to control the public narrative and collective memory of traumatic events. In April 1989 in Sheffield, England, 96 people were killed in the Hillsborough disaster. For decades, their relatives fought against the misrepresentation of their loved ones in the media and for the right to know what happened. A degree of justice was achieved in 2016 when an inquest found that the victims had been unlawfully killed and that failures on the part of the police and emergency services had contributed to their deaths. The fans had not been to blame.

The right to speak and give testimony about traumatic experiences can be understood in this way as a form of symbolic justice. Listening to survivors and acknowledging the particular truth of their accounts is a form of social recognition. Societies cannot and should not force survivors to speak, but neither can they insist that they are silent.

German memory culture has provided victims of the East German regime with many opportunities to tell their stories publicly through films, books and in memorials and museums. Access to the Stasi files was, and will continue to be, an important part of allowing victims to reclaim their pasts. But, if that same memory culture cannot also find space for voices who remember things differently – a normal life lived in a different kind of society – the risk is that these “ordinary” citizens will reject this memory culture. If this happens, the stories of victims of the regime will fall on deaf ears.