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Big Brother Is Still Haunting Society in Germany's East

Rüdiger Hinze took a scrap of paper from his eyeglass case and read four names: Jäger, Kopp, Schulze and Schreiber. "Those are the code names," he said, "of the people in this village who spied on me for years."

A retired teacher, Hinze keeps the list of false identities with his glasses to be regularly reminded of the people who spent years recording each person he met, each card game he played, each word he uttered -- and then passing on the information to the East German state security service, known as the Stasi.

This village of 1,200 was close enough to what was then the border with West Germany to be of particular interest to the Communist secret police. A teacher like Hinze who was disinclined to sing the praises of Bolshevism was a reasonable target for inclusion in the 125 miles of files that are the legacy of perhaps the most spied-on society in history.

Like many people in Germany, and in other post-Communist states in Central and Eastern Europe, Hinze, 54, has recently read his Stasi file. The 100 pages have left him stunned, perplexed. Who informed on him? Why such detail? How could he live in such a society?

These are questions that haunt millions of Europeans even a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Indeed, in Germany the tide of questioning is rising.

When Hitler's Reich collapsed in 1945, Germans spent 20 years avoiding a full confrontation with Nazism. German valor at Stalingrad outweighed German murder at Treblinka. Only under the insistent pressure of the postwar generation in West Germany -- the 1960's revolutionaries who are the rulers of today -- was history stared in the face.

Erich Honecker, long the leader of East Germany, was not Hitler. But his police state of 17 million people boasted 95,000 full-time Stasi agents, more than double the number of Gestapo agents in Nazi Germany, which had four times the population. As in the postwar period, a delayed reaction to the trauma of dictatorship is becoming clear.

"Applications to see Stasi files are rising sharply and now run at 15,000 a month from individuals," said Johannes Legner, a senior official at the government commission that oversees the six million files. "It's the same story as in 1945: partial amnesia is followed by awakening. I believe the real wave of interest and generational conflict are still to come."

Legner was born in 1954. He recalls asking his parents: what about Auschwitz? He is convinced that similar questions will come from the generation born in the decade since Communism collapsed: Were you a secret informer for the Stasi? How could you live and look at that wall? How did it feel to be part of a police state?

Of course, the very existence of the commission for which Legner works and the access to their Stasi files granted German citizens shows the lengths to which Germany is going to be more open about its history than it was in 1945.

Elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, countries have wrestled in different ways with the issues of justice and reconciliation, but in general few former Communists have served prison sentences, and the vetting process to keep government positions free of diehard Marxists is slowly winding down.

The Federal Republic is immeasurably more democratic in its soul and in its convictions than the shell-shocked "Volk" that emerged from the rubble of Hitler's war or any incarnation of Germany since the modern state was formed in 1871.

But the trauma of the Stasi still inhabits Germany, adding another layer of suspicion and interrogation to a society that has already spent more than half a century trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.

A few trials and convictions -- including the recent one of Egon Krenz, the last East German leader and longtime head of state security -- have done little to heal wounds that lie deep or to satisfy Germans that any form of justice is possible for intrusions into their lives that are still not fully understood.

At the most immediate level, the confrontation with what the East German state security apparatus did is simply not over yet. More than 300,000 people are waiting to see their files, and the wait is generally at least two years from the time an application is filed.

In addition, a vetting process continues. About 1.6 million people in public service, including teachers and police officers, have already been screened, and about 20,000 remain to be processed by the so-called Gauck Commission, named after the Rev. Joachim Gauck, a former East German dissident who heads the panel overseeing Stasi files.

The vetting does not always lead to dismissal: in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, for example, only a third of the teachers known to have had contact with the Stasi have been dismissed.

Discretion is widely used by the Gauck Commission in the hope that people who may have spied under extreme pressure will be able to start anew.

Demands from public entities and private companies for such clearance is declining. But with personal applications to see files going up from 10,000 to 15,000 a month, there is no prospect of the commission, with its 2,800 employees, being disbanded.

At a deeper level, the impact of the Stasi is becoming clear. East Germany was a sophisticated repressive society. After the violence of the Stalinist period, the state -- like others in Central Europe and the Balkans -- did not employ murder on a wide scale. Rather, its aim was what the Stasi called the "decomposition" of people.

Decomposition meant blocking people from acting. It meant paralyzing them as citizens by convincing them that everything was controlled. It meant the relentless application of a quiet coercion leading to compliance.

"For the East German state, it was better to have no activity than an activity out of the Stasi's control," said Legner, who lived in West Berlin during most of the cold war years. "So no wonder many Germans in the east are unable to act on their own free will today."

Certainly among older eastern Germans, this fear of personal initiative and sense of dependence on a state long seen as omnipotent have contributed to the unemployment rate of close to 20 percent in what was East Germany. The risk inherent in capitalism is simply alien. Worse, it is threatening.

"We were all children of the East German state," said Klaus Müller, a former officer in Honecker's army. "We believed what we were told and we did what we were told, in the defense of socialism."

Müller, 47, has managed to recycle himself in a united Germany as a member of the border police at the Polish frontier. "When I took off my uniform, I also stepped out of my ideology," he said. "Socialism was gone, we were told it was false and so I started to think again."

But such chameleonic changes of identity -- and there are millions of them in Germany, as across Central and Eastern Europe -- and the realization that there were as many as 160,000 unofficial informers for the Stasi have contributed to the sort of unease felt by Hinze, the teacher.

Put simply, the former Communist world is still a place where the true identity of even an old acquaintance may be difficult to fathom.

Swelling from cancer has twisted Hinze's mouth into a grimace. As a result, his voice is indistinct. But the fierce intelligence in his deep blue eyes is clear enough, as is his conviction that the East German state broke him.

After the Berlin Wall fell, he waited several years to file an application to see his Stasi file. Then it took four years for his application to be approved. Finally, earlier this year, he read the file.

Much of it was devoted to his standing in the village -- his popularity (high), his friends (numerous), his reputation at the school (good). It was noted against him that he preferred to teach the lower school classes, where instruction in the glories of Communism and the feats of the October Revolution was not prominent.

The file recorded that Hinze was approached by the Stasi in 1974, when he was 29, and offered the opportunity to become an agent. When he declined, he had to formulate in writing why he would not do such work.

"I wrote that I could not do it because I would not be able to look my family, my friends and my colleagues in the eye," Hinze recalled. "I also had to formally agree to tell nobody that I had been approached, or face the threat of what they called 'state measures.' "

The experience was psychologically devastating. The meaning of "state measures" was well known: imprisonment and likely torture. The message of the Stasi was clear enough: if you do not work with us, you are against us. It proved hugely effective in a society fashioned after the war to go on prizing obedience.

"One thing that amazed me was the resources devoted to my trivial case," said Hinze. "It became clear to me reading that file that East Germany went bankrupt in part because all the hard currency, all the top talent, was devoted to the Stasi."

The former teacher, who has received an early pension because of his illness, has now written to the Gauck Commission to see if he can discover the real identities behind those code names: Jäger, Kopp, Schulze and Schreiber.

He says he is driven by interest rather than any desire for revenge. "I am reconciled," he said. "I would not confront them."

The true names may or may not be known to the Gauck Commission, because some Stasi files were destroyed and many of the most sensitive archives were spirited away and later acquired, probably in Russia, by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The long reluctance of the C.I.A. to return those files has been a source of friction between the United State and Germany, although an accord on giving back most of them has now been reached.

"For us this is a matter of basic civil rights," said Legner. "This information was collected by Germans and belongs here. There are plenty of people whose lives have been destroyed and all we have is a code name for the person who did it. And the C.I.A. is sitting on that code, so we cannot identify who destroyed someone's life."

With the expected return of many files next year, it seems likely that hundreds or even thousands of former Stasi agents still in prominent positions may be exposed. But the files will not bring back the dead, patch up damaged lives like Hinze's or stanch the rising interest in who worked for the Stasi and why.

"The best you can hope for is a dialogue where the perpetrators confess and so you have the confession as a consolation," Legner said. "But I must say that when a man I now know spied on me in East Berlin calls and wants to talk, perhaps to excuse himself, I put the phone down. Refusing to speak to him is my own little punishment."


Roger Cohen
The Associated Press
November 29, 1999

German Stasi Tapes Code Broken

HAMBURG, Germany (AP) - Experts have broken the code of two magnetic tapes from the former East German secret police containing data on more than 15,000 agents, major German weekly magazines reported Saturday.

The tapes have information on 63,000 spy operations run by the so-called Stasi, including the aliases of agents who spied in West Germany and East Germany, the reports said. The reports, released early by Der Spiegel of Hamburg and Focus of Munich, are to appear in the magazines' Monday editions.

The decoded information goes up to Dec. 23, 1989, two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the time, initial investigation shows, about 15,000 Stasi agents were still active. Only about a third have been identified, Der Spiegel reported.

According to Focus, the decoded tapes also reveal some 1,500 targets in the West that were systematically spied upon, including federal ministries, companies, political parties and associations.

The newly decoded data is a part of the so-called ``Sira Tapes'' that the German government office for administering Stasi records already partially decoded in January. A copy of the data is included in Stasi records that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is to return in part to the German government in the spring, the reports said.

For years, Germany has been seeking the return of records that the CIA allegedly spirited out of the country after the fall of East Germany's communist government in 1989. Focus reported in June that President Clinton assured German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder that the files would be returned.


The Associated Press


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