‘A lid will be put on history’: Stasi archive transfer sparks outcry

Nearly 30 years after the Berlin Wall fell, Germany's parliament voted Thursday to transfer the vast secret police files of the former East German communist regime into the Federal Archives -- despite concerns voiced by some historians and ex-dissidents.

'A lid will be put on history': Stasi archive transfer sparks outcry
Files at the Berlin Office of the Federal Commissioner for Stasi Files (BStU). Photo: DPA

One of those opposed to the move, former regime critic Werner Schulz, now a Greens party member of the European Parliament, charged that it was
“premature” and voiced fears that “a lid will be put on history”.

And the historian Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, another former dissident, told news weekly Der Spiegel it “now seems like a line is being drawn” under efforts to come to terms with the former dictatorship.

During the Cold War, East Germany's feared and hated “Staatssicherheit” or Stasi police built a repressive apparatus of surveillance and intimidation, using millions of officers and informants, bugging technology and secret prisons.

READ ALSO: Why Germany will never forget the Stasi era of mass surveillance

In the chaos of 1989-90, as the Soviet-allied police state collapsed, Stasi officers frantically shredded files and, when the machines broke down under the strain, tore documents up by hand to pulp or burn the scraps.

However, “citizen committees” stormed Stasi offices — including its East Berlin headquarters, on January 15, 1990 — and seized millions of files and torn-up documents to preserve them for the future.

After reunification in 1990, a Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records was swiftly appointed to safeguard the hoard — an astonishing 111 kilometres of paper files, more than 15,000 bags of paper shreds, over 1.7 million photographs and thousands of audio and video recordings.

In the three decades since, more than three million people have requested to view files, most of them victims wanting to know what the state knew about them and — often more painfully — what their former co-workers, teachers or even family members had reported about them.

A sign on the former Hohenschönhausen prison marking it as a 'Gedenkstätte', or memorial site. Photo: DPA

'Fit for the future'

After Thursday's parliamentary vote, the archives, much of the paper now yellowing, will from mid-2021 come under the guardianship of the Federal Archive.

Roland Jahn, the current federal commissioner, pledged that the files will remain accessible to victims, journalists and historians, and that the papers will benefit from expertise and infrastructure for preserving and digitizing documents.

Jahn, also a former civil rights activist, said the aim was to make the Stasi archives “fit for the future as we can tap the expertise, technology and resources under the roof of the Federal Archives”.

However, some critics voiced fears the Stasi papers will be swallowed up in the far bigger archive.

READ ALSO: East Germany – 10 things you never knew about the GDR

Historian Hubertus Knabe, who formerly ran the memorial at a former Stasi prison in Berlin's Hohenschönhausen district, warned that “the largest institution for dealing with the GDR (German Democratic Republic) past will no longer exist after 2021”.

A support group for former Stasi victims, the Aufarbeitungsverein Bürgerkomitee 15. Januar, cautioned that the independent status of the commissioner and the archives must never be compromised.

“There are fears that information on oversight as well as the viewing of the files” could be subject to political whims, and embarrassing information could be kept under wraps, it argued.

Jahn, asked if the restructuring was the wrong move on a key anniversary, told public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk: “Quite the opposite.”

“We are sending the message that on the 30th anniversary… we have this symbol of the peaceful revolution — that is, the access to the files and the possibility to use them — and that is something that we are securing permanently.”

By Frank Zeller and Hui Min Neo

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


‘All you need is love’: How the Beatles brought a couple on two sides of the Berlin Wall together

The Beatles famously sang "All you need is love." For Hans and Uschi Kriz, living on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall, both love and grit were necessary for starting their lives together.

'All you need is love': How the Beatles brought a couple on two sides of the Berlin Wall together
Hans and Uschi while they were dating in the Seventies. Photo courtesy of Hans and Uschi Kriz

Like many people from Berlin, the lives and love story of Hans and Uschi Kriz were shaped by the Berlin Wall, which fell 31 years ago on November 9th, 1989. I first met Hans and Uschi when I lived with their son’s family as part of a German language program.

I spent Sunday afternoons at their house having lunch, playing games, and exploring their beautiful gardens. I decided to catch up with them recently to learn more about their family history – and how the Beatles brought them together when Berlin was a divided city. 

Journey to East and West Berlin

Hans and Uschi look back fondly on the many photo albums documenting their life together. Photo by author.

Hans Kriz was born in 1949 in Regensburg in Bavaria to German refugees from Poland and former Czechloslovakia who, like many ethnic Germans, had to flee from their homes after World War II. His parents met in a refugee camp near Regensburg and got married shortly after. 

Uschi was born to two German parents in Ahrensfelde in Brandenburg in 1952, an area that was already under control of the then Soviet Union and very close to East Berlin.  

Both Hans and Uschi showed an early disregard for involving themselves in the predominant political movements of their times.  

READ ALSO: Six things you need to know about the Berlin Wall

She was initially the only child in her school class that was not a part of the Junge Pioniere, or the “Young Pioneers,” a subdivision of the larger youth movement Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ). 

Her first-grade teacher then came to her home to encourage her parents to let her join so that she could participate in the many activities run by the organisation at school. Although they were anti-Communist, they allowed Uschi to participate.

This group, similar to scouting clubs and meant for children ages six to 14, was the extent of her political involvement in the GDR. She was six years old at the time: “What did I know of the political side?,” she remembered.

Banner aHans was working as a young adult at the German Red Cross as a paramedic when he was approached by the German army and asked to do the same job as a soldier.  

Hans was working as a young adult at the German Red Cross as a paramedic when he was approached by the German army and asked to do the same job as a soldier.

He did not want to be a part of the military and found a way to ‘flee’ to West Berlin, where the occupying powers did not allow the German army to exist. 

Thus, Hans and Uschi both found themselves in Berlin — he in the West, she in the East. 

A shared love of radio

Uschi had grown up watching Western television at home, and her love of beat music followed. Western beat music was officially banned in the GDR in 1965 and the signal from American radio stations in West Germany was suppressed.  

However, Uschi and many others were still able to find a signal from the BBC and loyally sat by the radio every week to hear the program “Eine Kleine Beatmusik” at 9 pm. 

Hans also listened to the program and decided that he would love to meet young people in the GDR who also loved Beatmusik to learn about their lives behind the Berlin Wall. He wrote a letter to the BBC in London, asking them to broadcast his address and request. They agreed. 

READ ALSO: Berlin Wall fall: 'It was like Easter, Christmas and NYE rolled into one.'

For two weeks there was no answer. Then, Hans received a box full of letters, probably from “everyone who heard it in the whole GDR,” he speculates.

At first he thought he would write back to all of them, but he realised that he must choose a few to answer; Uschi’s was one of the letters he randomly selected. 

“I wanted to connect with a Beatles fan from West Berlin,” she explained.  

Love and music across the border 

Thus began their relationship over a shared love of the BBC, Beatmusik, and the Beatles in 1969. 

The letters they exchanged began as a friendly discussion about music and their lives on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. Uschi was happy living in the GDR at the time. She had her friends, her family, a garden, and her education. 

Hans would visit her as often as possible, even though doing so was difficult with the high fees and strict rules to return to the border by midnight.

Hans and Uschi's photo book shows many of the famous sites of divided Berlin. Photo courtesy of Hans and Uschi Kriz. 

Over time, they fell in love and decided to get married. Uschi remembers how risky this choice was for her: “I still had a lot of questions. What was the living situation?…I couldn’t meet his family.” It is “very complicated when one is blind and in love,” she said.   

Hans arranged for a lawyer in the West to help Uschi obtain a pass to leave East Berlin. She was working at the library of the Naturkundemuseum in Berlin when she received an unexpected phone call telling her that her pass was ready and where and when to pick it up. 

“Basically, one could say the GDR practically sold me to the West,” she explained. 

Only four weeks later on July 20th, 1975, she joined Hans in the West. Many dates are blurred in her memory, but Uschi said, “I know this one exactly.” 

They honeymooned in London, in honour of the BBC. 

Watched by the Stasi?

I asked them whether or not they felt the GDR Ministry for State Security, known as the Stasi, was monitoring their correspondence from 1969-1975.

Hans answered without hesitation: “I have a very thick Stasi file.” 

The file revealed that he was followed by members of the Stasi in both East and West Berlin. 

Uschi said she has also read her file, but much of it was nonsense to her: “I don’t understand it at all.”  

READ ALSO: How Germans are reconstructing Stasi files from millions of fragments 

The Mauerfall 

One of the photos in the Kriz family album shows a view of the TV tower at Alexanderplatz with the barbed wire of the Berlin Wall in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Hans and Uschi Kriz. 

Hans was near Checkpoint Charlie working the night shift for his job at Axel Springer when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989.

He returned to their home in Frohnau and woke Uschi, who like many slept through the surprise “Mauerfall.” She had worked a long day and was so sleepy that she didn’t believe him. It wasn’t until she saw the television coverage the next morning that she realised what had happened. 

Both Hans and Uschi were delighted when the capital of the reunified government returned to Berlin. 

I asked them if they still experience the Mauer im Kopf, or “Wall in the head,” that many German politicians and intellectuals describe as existing to this day. 

Hans immediately answered “Yes,” while Uschi said, “The Wall fell quickly for me.” 

She said that many people still view differences between the East and West very strongly. 

“My neighbour says I’m a Wossi, more Wessi [West German] than Ossi [East German],” she said, “I feel like more of an Ossi.” 

However, Uschi always viewed Berlin as one city, even when the wall still existed. She never thought of it as the capital city of the GDR, regardless of what the state authorities said. 

“I’ve always seen Berlin as one, Berliners together. For me, Berlin was always Berlin.” 

Remembering the Wall 

In Frohnau, right along the border of Brandenburg in northern Berlin, one can visit the Postenweg, the former path of the Wall that has been converted to an open bicycle path. There are still Wachturms, or ‘watch towers,’ standing. 

Hans and Uschi's son helps chip off some of the remaining Wall in Frohnau after its fall. Photo courtesy of Hans and Uschi Kriz.

Both Hans and Uschi wish that more parts of the Berlin Wall were left in place, “Perhaps even in front of the Brandenburg Gate,” said Hans. They worry that young people have no idea where the Wall was and therefore forget the history. 

Hans sighs, then quoted the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want.”