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An Enduring Legacy of a Divided Era

Germany: Twelve years after the Berlin Wall fell, access to spy agency files kept by the Communists remains a contentious issue for the nation.


BERLIN — In a dreary jumble of prefabricated buildings filling a city block, 2,500 government employees here are creating a permanent record for posterity of abuses committed against millions during the four-decade dictatorship of East German Communists.

The archivists' task is to preserve the chilling details of state-orchestrated repression, for schoolchildren and history scholars alike, today and in the future.

But even a dozen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the beginning of the end for East Germany, those delving into the misdeeds of the former Ministry for State Security--the Stasi--are nowhere near finished exhuming the past.

Imposing in its sprawl and the far-reaching repression it documents, the archive is one of the most significant legacies of the Cold War division, which began to heal Nov. 9, 1989, when the wall came down.

The Stasi files, a repository of wrongs committed by and against eastern Germans, still hold the power to disqualify job applicants, threaten collaborators with disclosure and divide a nation over whether the transgressions of public figures are mistakes to regret in private or matters society has a right to know.

As Germans pause today to celebrate the anniversary of the wall's demise, their debate about the Stasi abuses is just as fractious as it was 12 years ago.

For most, the Stasi files are little more than historical footnotes referring to intrusions that are long over. But for some, the evidence gleaned from eavesdropping, surveillance and blackmail is a disturbing catalog of moral compromises made at a time when those now seen as fellow citizens could be considered enemies of the state.

From former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who is fighting to keep his files shielded from those investigating corruption charges, to Olympic champion figure skater Katarina Witt, who contends she was a victim of Stasi spying and not an agent, the secret police network still stalks daily life.

Stasi files name more than 6 million people, two-thirds of them eastern Germans and the rest foreign diplomats, journalists, politicians and public figures who caught the eye of the ever-vigilant agency.

The archive has already received more than 5 million requests for information and still gets 10,000 new applications for access each month, said Marianne Birthler, an eastern German educator who inherited responsibility for the trove of intelligence a year ago.

Like her predecessor, Joachim Gauck, who oversaw the Stasi files for a decade, Birthler believes that the archive should be open to historians, academics and media as a resource offering insight into the workings of a totalitarian regime.

A Need to Discuss and Contemplate the Past

"It's fiction to think you can just draw a line under the past and forget about what happened," Birthler said in her Interior Ministry office in Berlin. "That is no way for a democracy to function. We need discussion, examination and contemplation of the past."

Just last week, Dieter Wiefelspuetz, the domestic affairs chief for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party in Parliament, echoed those arguments in urging amendment to the 1992 law that defines access to the Stasi files. Wiefelspuetz argues that authorities are violating a fundamental objective of the archive project by bowing to prominent figures' objections and denying researchers access to the files of "persons of historical significance," which was allowed under the 1992 law. The heads of all four leading historical research institutes in Germany backed him.

The existing law calls for Stasi files to be open for research purposes and specifies that the names of innocent third parties can be shielded while making the gist of the reports clear. But that interpretation has been challenged in court by Kohl, Witt and others who object to their exclusion from privacy protections accorded those unburdened by fame.

Among the voluminous files relating to Kohl are 9,000 pages of transcripts from wiretapped conversations he held during the first half of his 16 years as chancellor, before the 1990 demise of the Stasi. Kohl, who has refused to name the sources of illegal campaign contributions he has admitted accepting, went to court to block investigators' access to his files, leading many to assume that the transcripts might shed light on the donors.

Kohl Ruling Is Not Applied to Others

A lower court ruled in Kohl's favor in July, but Birthler appealed the decision and has declined to apply it to other controversial cases. That means each public figure must file a legal challenge to block the release of information once he or she is informed of a request for access.

Witt, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, has acknowledged contacts with Stasi officials during her years as one of East Germany's most prominent athletes but denies that she worked as an informant.

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