Sunday, September 28, 2014

Let's Check Out The Stasi Archives!

In follow-up to my previous post on why this blog isn't in German: All is not lost for those of you who come here and would rather see German than English.

As I continue my personal narrative in coming weeks, I will intersperse it with original German source documents from the Stasi Archives. I will provide English summaries or explanations but not complete translations at this time, in the interest of keeping the narrative going towards its culmination in November.

Some of you are probably saying "That's cool, Claudia, but what are the Stasi Archives"? On the surface, just what the name implies: The archives of the East German Secret Police => Staatssicherheitsdienst => STAatsSIcherheitsdienst => StaSi/Stasi for short. It's noteworthy here from a linguistic standpoint that the word "Staatssicherheit" means "national security", or "homeland security" in more modern parlance.

To grasp just what the archives contain, you need to understand that the phrase "50% of East Germans were spying on the other half for 40 years" is NOT an exaggeration to make a point. It's exactly what happened. 

In East Germany, "spying" was pretty much synonymous with "report writing on type writers and submitting the reports to Stasi HQ". The government didn't send Stasi spies on secret missions. No, they were instructed to go about their lives as usual, and simply report what they observed, heard, noticed or suspected. Not only did a MASSIVE amount of this kind of spying go on, the Stasi created a written record of ALL OF IT. Most of these records are files on former East German citizens, such as surveillance reports or reports of interviews with a person's family, friends, coworkers, etc.

The archives also contain documents that discuss policy, as well as reports on what was to be done when incidents of dissent were spotted. I will focus on these particular kinds of documents - many of them are public - as I incorporate Stasi archive documents in this project.

For the 4 decades of its existence, the Stasi stored its records in central facilities in Jena, a city previously mainly known for being the home of world-class optics manufacturer Zeiss Optik, one of the very few pre-WWII companies in East Germany that survived 40 years of communism.

When archivists first entered the vast Stasi storage areas after Mauerfall to see what they had and how much of it there was, they ended up guesstimating the amount of paper stored in the archives not in number of pages, but in TONS. 

They also didn't expect the entire archive to be sorted, indexed and cataloged in any of their lifetimes. Fortunately, technology came to the rescue.

When information about the content of the archives was publicized, it started an acrimonious debate over what to do with the archives. Many former East Germans wanted them destroyed on general principle and because they were afraid what their Stasi file might contain. Other East Germans didn't want to be outed as spies. Many Westerners, on the other hand, wanted to preserve the archives for historic purposes. Like so many other matters where East and West disagreed over how to handle aspects of reunification, the former West Germany got what it wanted.

So we now have the "Bundesbeauftrage
fϋr die Unterlagen der Staatssicherheitsdienste der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik" = an administrative arm of the united German federal government in charge of the documents created by the East German Stasi.

In practice, it's a website:
(In German; click ENGLISH button at very top for the English version)

I have not yet reviewed the site in detail, but one of its main purposes is to give former East Germans access to their own Stasi files. Another is to give writers, researchers and historians access to publicly available original source material, a service I look forward to using in coming weeks. I think you will enjoy the results. 

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