BERLIN, March 11 (UPI) -- More than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans still flock to the archive that stores the files compiled by the Stasi, East Germany's notorious secret police.
Around 1.8 million people have made requests to see Stasi files since 1990, with nearly 80,000 requests filed last year, Marianne Birthler, the long-time head of the federal agency designed to manage the Stasi documents, said this week in Berlin.
The Stasi was one of the world's largest spy services. When it collapsed in early 1990, it employed 91,000 people and had built up a network of more than 150,000 civilian informants who spied on anyone they were told to.
Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in the East, was approached by the Stasi to become an informant. She said she refused. In 1990, after the regime collapsed and angry East German dissidents stormed the Stasi headquarters, the archives were put under federal control.
Today, anyone can file a request seeing if the Stasi had an eye on them.
One of the first people to read his Stasi file, in February 1990, was Roland Jahn, an East German dissident who was jailed for regime opposition and expelled by East German authorities to West Berlin in 1983. The files the Stasi compiled on him, he said, amounted to 30 thick folders.
"I knew that the Stasi was observing me until the last moment but I was nevertheless shocked about the kind of information they had," Jahn, 57, Thursday told the foreign press corps in Berlin.
Jahn, a soft-spoken, sober man, said he learned that good friends had spied on him, that the Stasi sent anonymous letters to his friends and family to tarnish his reputation and that nothing could protect him from the Stasi's reach -- not even living in the West.
"There were floor plan drawings of my West Berlin apartment, there was a map of my daughter's daily trip to school," he said. "I'm asking myself: What did they want with this? My daughter was 8 years old at the time."
Twenty years later, the ghost of the Stasi has vanished -- history is on Jahn's side. On Monday, the former dissident will take over the agency managing the files of the Stasi. He will succeed Birthler, a human rights activist who had been in charge of the files for roughly a decade.
"It's a very special moment for me," Jahn said. "In a way, my life comes full circle."
In East Germany during the early 1980s Jahn had started an opposition group that drew the ire of the authorities. The Stasi in 1983 kidnapped Jahn and threw him into a locked compartment of a train heading to West Germany.
The Stasi thought it was getting rid of a problem. They were wrong.
From his exile in West Berlin, Jahn smuggled books, printing machines and video cameras across the border to support the growing opposition in East Germany.
Working as a journalist for the highly acclaimed TV show "Kontraste," a German version of the CBS news magazine "60 Minutes," Jahn helped report the dire economic and human rights situation in East Germany.
With one of the cameras he helped smuggle, dissidents filmed the pro-democracy demonstrations that swept Leipzig in October 1989. Images and sounds of the chanting demonstrators were broadcast on West German television. They were also watched across the wall. Soon, the protests grew, sparking similar freedom marches across the country, which culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall a few weeks later.
While most old divisions have been bridged, the Stasi still stirs controversy-- most of its former workers are alive and some informants, for example far-left leader Gregor Gysi, have made it into top political posts. While many have had to resign because of their Stasi links, others might still work in government-funded posts.
An estimated 15,000 former Stasi workers are believed to work as civil servants.
Even the Stasi archives, with its 1,800 workers, employ 53 former Stasi members, most of them hired in the early 1990s, the agency said this week.
Most are working as security guards but one of them, an ex-Stasi lieutenant, heads the agency's information technology department, German newspaper Die Welt reported last month. Birthler and Jahn have said they regret that the former Stasi workers were hired.
"At the time, it was thought necessary to hire people who understood how the Stasi archives worked," Jahn said. "That was a mistake."
Several politicians have called for the employees to be let go.
Jahn nevertheless called the agency a "great success story" because it solidified a societal change, has been giving victims back their dignity by granting them access to their files and is helping to educate about the Stasi terror.
Even 20 years after the fall of the wall, there are things that still need to be learned about the Stasi, Jahn said.
Some 900,000 pages of files, believed to be among the most controversial documents, were hastily shredded in the final days of the regime. A test project launched by the agency aims to reconstruct them -- a labor-intensive and expensive project.
Jahn added it's important to find out more about the cooperation between the Stasi and services of Communist-led states all over the world.
"What was the Stasi's influence in Cuba, China? How has the East German spy service helped establish similar services in North Africa, in Egypt or Libya? Those are questions that are current, and should be answered," he said.
His remarks came a few days after reports surfaced that Egyptian dissidents had stormed the headquarters of the country's once feared intelligence service, just as East Germans did some 20 years ago.
|Additional Special Reports Stories|
LONDON, May 25 (UPI) --Three more suspects were arrested Saturday evening in the hacking death of a British soldier in London.
JAKARTA, May 25 (UPI) --South Korean pop star Psy will perform in Indonesia at a concert celebrating diplomatic ties between the two countries, his management agency said Saturday.
WASHINGTON, May 26 (UPI) --In the U.S. non-federal sector, older workers are more likely than younger counterparts to report being able to put their best skills to use, a survey says.