Safeguarding East Germany's Dark Past Agency Chief Says Stasi Archive Should Stay Open
The files from the massive archive of the former East German secret police are currently scheduled to be handed over to united Germany's national archive in 2019. However, the head of the special agency that currently handles the files says it should retain responsibility for the controversial documents.
He may have an official car and even a chauffeur at his disposal, but Roland Jahn prefers to walk to his meetings. Instead of a suit and tie, he usually wears jeans and an open shirt. And the fact that the agency he heads could be inofficially named after him, just as it was for his predecessors, Joachim Gauck and Marianne Birthler, doesn't appeal to him.
For the past year, former civil rights activist and public broadcast journalist Roland Jahn has been the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives. He is the man charged with looking after the secret service and intelligence files kept by the feared former East Germany until reunification. Jahn likes conducting his work through "person-to-person" talks. He doesn't want the state apparatus to change him. That surprises many. After all, he intends to keep the agency exactly as he inherited it.
Jahn's agency was scheduled to be disbanded in 2019. An agreement by both the ruling and opposition parties calls for the files to be moved to the Federal Archive 30 years after the demise of East Germany. After that time, the era of spectacular revelations of Stasi machinations would give way to a period of more sober scientific study.
Jahn is quietly trying to undermine those plans. He wants the temporary institution to become a permanent body, preserving the last institution founded by East Germany's communist overlords for all eternity.
His aims have triggered a lively debate among former dissidents and historians. Indeed they are criticized particularly fiercely within the agency's own supervisory board. When the board met at the end of March under its chairman, the theologian Richard Schröder, board members asked Jahn how he envisaged winding his agency down.
Witnesses at that meeting say Jahn was evasive on the issue. In his place, Jörn Mothes and board member Markus Meckel, East Germany's last foreign minister, presented a report: "Theories on the Future of the Agency."
In it, the two men argued for an organized dissolution of the agency and demanded concrete plans. Although they believed there should continue to be special legal regulations on the use of Stasi files, they didn't see the need for a special agency. Advisory Board Chairman Schröder agrees.
Back in 2008, Germany's then grand coalition government, comprised of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), reached an informal agreement on the transfer of the files to the national archives in 2019. That would have coincided with the expiration of the Solidarity Pact, a surtax that pays for the development of the former East Germany. In addition, all checks on the potential Stasi backgrounds of public sector workers are set to end in 2019.
Without these checks, some argue, there's no need for a special agency. After the last general election in 2009, the new coalition government comprising of the CDU, its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) promised to form a "committee of experts" to analyze the future tasks of the agency and "suggest whether and in what form these tasks can be completed in the medium and long term."
That committee has yet to be appointed. The man responsible for doing so is Jahn's boss, Culture and Media Minister Bernd Neumann (CDU). However Neumann shies away from any confrontation with the country's deeply divided dissidents. What's more, CDU strategists see the agency as a useful tool. After all, the information it contains is more potentially harmful for left-wing politicians, who may have had links with the former East German regime.
Politicians Differ over Stasi Files' Future
Wolfgang Thierse, the SPD vice president of Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag, suspects the coalition government is secretly forging a pact over the issue. He says there is "a clear mandate for the federal commissioner to consider the agency's restructuring." Thierse says Jahn shouldn't shirk his responsibilities in this respect.
Jahn's immediate predecessor, Marianne Birthler, had already tentatively approved a gradual scaling down of the agency, which still employs some 1,600 people. To cut its annual budget of about 100 million, the number of satellite offices was to have been cut from 14 to eight.
Almost unnoticed by the public, Jahn quietly shelved those plans. At a mid-April meeting with Erwin Sellering, the SPD governor of the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the two men agreed to keep the agency's three offices in Sellering's state open. Jahn says this would guarantee that the agency remained close to the people. Meanwhile, Reiner Haseloff, the governor of the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, also wants to prevent the closure of the agency's office in Magdeburg. "I would like Roland Jahn to have sufficient arguments to correct the plan for our benefit," Haseloff says.
Jahn Keeps Mum
Jahn, whose tenure runs through 2016, doesn't like being involved in discussions about his agency's eventual closure. "We'll continue investigating the past for as long as society wants us to," he says. "We provide a service." He's currently planning to turn the former Stasi headquarters into a "campus for democracy."
Such ideas are anathema for organizations that think the agency is getting in their way. One of these is the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship, which receives 3 million a year from the government and employs 25 people. SED is the German acronym for what was the Communist Party in East Germany. The chairman of the foundation's board of trustees just happens to be Markus Meckel, which explains why he's so keen to halt Jahn's plans.
Meckel isn't the only person out to clip Jahn's wings. In a series of harshly-worded letters, Thomas Krüger, the head of the Federal Agency for Civic Education (BPB), repeatedly warned Jahn about exceeding his mandate. Krüger insists that teaching people about the former East Germany is the BPB's job. "It is both sensible and necessary to discuss the future of the federal commissioner's agency," Krüger wrote.
Jahn is deaf to such suggestions. He much prefers speaking about "new tasks." Jahn doesn't seem at all worried about the future of the Stasi agency. Recently, the authority has begun allowing Germans to apply to see the Stasi files of deceased family members, and that brings the agency lots more work.