Stasi Files Revisited: The Banalities and Betrayals of Life in East Germany

By Sarah Karacs in Berlin

A West German dessert. A "flour box." A female driver. The East German secret police took an interest in all manner of banal details as it oppressed its citizenry. Now that Germany is celebrating 20 years since the fall of the Wall, more people than ever are taking a look into their Stasi files.

The files occupy over 100 kilometers of shelf space, though this doesn't even include the 16,000 sacks of shredded documents the Birthler Authority is currently trying to reassemble with the aid of computers. Zoom
AFP

The files occupy over 100 kilometers of shelf space, though this doesn't even include the 16,000 sacks of shredded documents the Birthler Authority is currently trying to reassemble with the aid of computers.

A West German pudding. That was all it took. Once the Stasi found out about it, a family breadwinner was fired from his army job and an East German household was plunged into destitution.

Even worse, the family later found out that they had been turned in by a close friend. "She was watering the plants and went through the cupboards to find a Dr. Oetker dessert," Vera Iburg, who has worked with files kept by the East German secret police for the last 20 years, told SPIEGEL ONLINE, referring to the snoop. "What was she doing? She had no business there!"

The murky world of Stasi spying is hardly a secret, particularly since the 2006 Oscar winning film "The Lives of Others." But with thousands of spies and well over 100,000 "IMs" -- unofficial collaborators -- not all accounts of Stasi spying are fit for the big screen. Indeed, Iburg says it is the personal, much more banal stories that keep her up at night. Iburg has the emotionally draining task of sitting with people as they read their files. And with Germany now celebrating two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, she has had a lot more work to do than usual this year as ever increasing numbers take an interest in what the Stasi knows about them.

A Box of Flour

Iburg's West German pudding story is by no means the only example of how mundane everyday events were picked up by the Stasi and used to change the course of people's lives. Some "suspicious activities" were nothing more than simple misunderstandings: One file tells of a man subjected to close surveillance at the Leipzig convention hall because the agent monitoring him didn't understand what he meant by checking his "mail box." The official was unaware of the English term and reported it as "Mehl box" -- a box of flour.

One tragic story that came to light was that of East German parents, who in attempting to escape to the West gave their child sleeping pills. The Stasi files report that the child died as a result.

Herbert Ziehm, who now heads up the department of requests for the Birthler Authority -- which manages the Stasi files -- said that the East German spooks also took notes on details that smacked of bourgeoisie. Ziehm, an East German, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that a look into his own file revealed that "the Stasi were very intrigued as to why my wife could drive and had a car even though she was a housewife." He added: "They were also fascinated by the fact that we were teetotallers and non-smokers. While after 20 years you can still laugh at the absurdity of it all, you always have to remember that people were getting arrested for the tiniest things."

Two-Year-Long Waiting List

The brutal nature of the East German regime means that Monday's celebrations will be tinged with melancholy. Dozens died while trying to cross the barrier which divided Berlin and Germany in two while the Stasi squelched all protest in the German Democratic Republic, as communist East Germany was called. Ziehm says that, with attention focused on reunification, many from the former East are revisiting the past in a much more personal fashion. In the last year, tens of thousands of people have headed to the Birthler Authority to finally take a look at what their Stasi files contain. Interest has been so high, in fact, the waiting list is now two years long.

The files -- which occupy over 100 kilometers of shelf space (not including the 16,000 sacks of shredded documents the Birthler Authority is currently trying to reassemble with the aid of computers) -- are testament to a darker side of humanity. And Ziehm says that films like "The Lives of Others," which indicate that many were coerced into spying on friends and neighbors, don't come close to plumbing the depths that some ultimately fall to. Friends informed voluntarily on friends and spouses even tattled on each other.

"More often than not, the Stasi did not need to apply pressure at all," he says. "In fact, many often felt snubbed if their information was deemed to be of no interest." The real motivation behind these acts of betrayal was much more humdrum than one might think. "People informed for personal gain, out of loyalty to the East German regime, or simply because they wanted to feel like they had some power," Ziehm says.

'Malicious Lies'

Not all who visit the Birthler Authority come away feeling betrayed; the Stasi didn't keep information on all East Germans. Indeed, says Ziehm, up to 50 percent of the people who apply to see their files find that there isn't one. Though it means that friends and family remained loyal, many are disappointed. "People want to blame not getting a job and other problems on having been informed on when this isn't always the case," Ziehm says. Sometimes not having a file can lead people to question the role they played in East Germany.

But it's the files that actually exist which cause Iburg the most discomfort. Every day, she sees first hand how difficult it is for people to learn that someone close has spied on them. And she is shocked by the depths to which ordinary people are willing to stoop. "It's terrible, it makes you despair at the malicious lies people would tell, and at the weakness of human nature."

Indeed, she says she feels personally haunted. "The stories are always in the back of my head whether I'm lying in bed or out in social situations. I find it hard to trust people."

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