History and tasks of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi-files
The agency of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi records (BStU) stores and administers in its archives the records of the Ministry for State Security ("MfS" as its acronym or colloquially termed “Stasi) of the former German Democratic Republic that were secured after the peaceful revolution of 1990. It encompasses a total of around 111 kilometres (about 50 miles) of documents and 1.4 million photos. Based on the provisions defined in the Stasi Records Act (StUG), the BStU allows access to these files to private citizens, institutions and the public.
In a historically unique act during the revolution of 1989/1990 against the Communist government of East Germany citizens occupied all 15 branches of the former Ministry of State Security of the GDR (MfS) throughout the East and forced the dissolution of the secret police. At times administrative offices of the MfS were literally squatted to prevent the destruction of the files by the then still active secret police. The goal of the citizens who took over the records was to give every citizen concerned a legal right to read the records the secret police had gathered on him or her personally. The will of the citizens and the freely elected last parliament of the GDR (Volkskammer 1990) paved the way for the safeguarding and controlled opening of the Stasi records that in large part have been amassed illegally.
On October 3, 1990, with the reunification of Germany, Joachim Gauck, a former pastor from Rostock, was named Special Commissioner to the federal government for the Stasi records. The agency originally started to work with 52 employees in the headquarters in Berlin and the 14 branches throughout the East. Today the agency runs 12 external branches in the five Eastern federal states and the Berlin headquarter.
During the founding phase of 1991 the agency was supported by a special sub commission and delegated employees from the Ministry of Interior of the Federal Republic of Germany. After a highpoint of 3.000 employees in the mid-1990s, the agency for the Stasi files is currently at just over 1.600 employees.
In the beginning a preliminary body of regulations allowed the agency to quickly start releasing information from the files in order to allow first official decisions on reparations and rehabilitation for victims of the Stasi as well as reviews of elected officials and employees of the public sector with regards to their work for the Stasi. Also first decisions on criminal charges resulting from the Stasi files were made on the basis of information released from the records.
In December 1991 the Stasi Records Act was put into law and subsequently has been amended seven times. The Special Commissioner became the “Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former GDR”. On January 2, 1992 the first citizens were allowed to look into the files gathered on them.
In October 2000 Joachim Gauck was succeeded as Federal Commissioner by Marianne Birthler, a former catechist, dissident and politician from East Germany. On March 15, 2011 she was succeeded by Roland Jahn, a journalist and former civil rights activist from the East German town of Jena.
task and structure
The Stasi records agency has one basic mission: to teach the public about the structure, methods and effects of the MfS. This defines the agency’s role in the historical, political, legal, and societal reprocessing of the SED dictatorship of the German Democratic Republic (SED being the one party that ruled the GDR for 40 years). The agency cultivates the critical public discourse about totalitarian ideas and structures by contributing publicly to the questions of coming to terms with the past.
At the heart of the agency are the archives that hold the legacy of the Ministry of State Security. They document the methods and the knowledge of those in power in the SED, the Communist state party of the GDR and its secret police through files, index cards, films, audio documents, micro fiches. With a total of 111 kilometres (ca. 50 miles) of files, over 1.4 million photos, numerous video and audio tapes from the many eavesdropping endeavours of the MfS it is one of the largest archives in Germany.
These online pages give an overview over the inventory of the archive, the work of the archivists and the state of the files. And they tell history with the stories contained in this unique archive, stories about oppression as well as stories about courage to stand up for civil rights.
With the enactment of the Stasi Records Act (StUG) end of 1991 a legal framework was provided for the different forms of access to the files. Most importantly are the provisions that grant access to the files for individuals who have been subject of the activities of the Stasi. By reading the files they are able to understand how the Stasi manipulated and changed their personal fate. Also the BStU provides information about citizens who are holding office or are working in other publicly relevant positions in relation to activity for the secret police – if found in the Stasi files and requested through a formal process. In addition scientists, researchers and journalists can formally request access to the files if they are working on historic or educational projects.
The administrative time and effort to grant access to the records to individuals, agencies and institutions, on the basis of the Stasi Records Act, is enormous. A large department of the agency (Abteilung Auskunft) is solely responsible for organizing the process of disclosure. Employees research, in cooperation with the archive, for respective files, and then prepare them for perusal by those who filed for access to the records.
Because the Stasi as a secret police massively violated the privacy of its citizens, the records, unlike procedures in other archives, undergo a strict evaluation process in accordance with current privacy and data protection laws. The records can only be released for the above mentioned specific reasons and the release is based on provisions defined in the Stasi Records Act. The labour intensive and time consuming procedure meets a still high demand by citizens to access their records. This unfortunately can lead to lengthy waiting periods for individuals while the agency is continuing to cut down its work force, as decided by the Bundestag.
In addition to the complete records in the archives the agency also stores around 15,500 sacks filled with partially destroyed files that were heading for destruction in 1989/1990. Those shredded pieces of paper are being sorted and step by step reconstructed. Once complete they are being added to the archives.
The Stasi Records agency not only organizes access to the records but also does its own research on the history of the MfS. It publishes documents and new findings through its own publications. It organizes public discussions, talks and exhibitions. On its website it informs about the latest developments inside the agency and about new insights into the process of coming to terms with the dictatorship in the former GDR. With its work the BStU contributes to a collective process of remembrance of the SED dictatorship, its victims, but also the opposition and resistance against the system. It values remembrance, information and education over oblivion, silence and transfiguration.
The agency’s own research is being supervised by a scientific council of 17 experts under the guidance of the Berlin historian Prof. Richard Schröder. He is assisted by a scientific consulting body of nine historians and scientists.
The agency of the BStU is a modern service institution that strives to work transparently and in close contact with the citizens of Germany. It is headquartered in Berlin and also has 12 branches with their own archives in the former county seats of the GDR. As a federal agency the BStU is part of the area of operation of the Commissioner for Culture and Media (BKM) in the Chancellery. It is organized in five units: the archive department (AR - Archiv), the disclosure department (AU - Auskunft), the department of education and research (BF - Bildung und Forschung), the department of central and administrative tasks (ZV - Zentral- und Verwaltungsaufgaben) and the head executive office (Leitungsebene).
The Federal commissioner is suggested by the federal government and then elected by the Bundestag. In the execution of his task he is independent and only bound by the Stasi Records Act. The control of legality lies with the federal government, the supervision lies with the BKM. His term in office is five years and can be extended once.
In the two decades since its founding the agency has shown that it is possible to legally access records of a former secret police while maintaining a balance between the interest of a democratic public and the protection of personal privacy. It has become a model for many post-dictatorial nations world-wide when deciding on how to deal with the legacy of their respective dictatorships. The Stasi Records agency is not only a German success story but has also internationally become a symbol for coming to terms with dictatorships and its effects.