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Germany: Possible Release Of Stasi Tapes Causes Uproar

  • Roland Eggleston

A new dispute has erupted in Germany over the files kept by the Stasi, the intelligence service of former-communist East Germany. Hundreds of files on individual East Germans have been released. Now the Gauck Authority, which controls the files, wants to release files on prominent West Germans, including former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The government says it will try to stop these plans. Munich, 18 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The East German secret police, the Stasi, tapped the phones of thousands of dissidents, visiting businessmen and even East German officials during the days of the German Democratic Republic. Its records have been used by western Germany since reunification to name those who informed on their neighbors and to find East German agents in the West.

The Stasi also tapped the phones of prominent West German politicians, including former chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl. Now the Gauck Authority, based in Berlin, wants to begin releasing some of these files to researchers and journalists. The new head of the authority, Marianne Birthler, a former East German civil rights activist, says she intends to begin releasing some of the files in January.

Her plans have created an uproar in Germany, with senior members of both the government and the opposition asking her to reconsider.

Her most prominent opponent is former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who is now being investigated for accepting illegal political donations for his Christian Democratic party during his 16 years in power until 1998. Kohl has defied a parliamentary investigation and refused to identify the source of some of the funds. Some investigators have said publicly the Stasi tapes may reveal information about the donations.

Others believe the Stasi files may provide information about the political decisions taken by Kohl's government.

When the phone taps began in 1978 Germany was governed by a Social Democratic government led by Helmut Schmidt. But for most of the time - from 1982 onward - Kohl was Chancellor.

German analysts suggest the tapes could contain information on sensitive political negotiations, possibly including some with the United States and Russia.

Kohl has been allowed to read his own files and says he has nothing to fear personally from disclosure of his phone conversations. But he has asked the courts to stop the publication of the Stasi records in his own case. The case is still before the courts and legal authorities said at the weekend that a decision is unlikely before January.

Kohl has found powerful support from the present Interior Minister, Otto Schily, a member of the Social Democratic party. In speeches to parliament over the last week and in television interviews, Schily argues the tapping of telephones was illegal under German law and the results of such criminal activity should not be published.

Schily has threatened that he may try to break the guaranteed independence of the Gauck Authority by obtaining an order from the government to prevent publication of the files.

A spokeswoman for the authority, Cornelia Schmidt, says Schily and other leaders did not protest when the Stasi records on East Germans were first opened and used for prosecutions. She says the argument then was that historical truth was more important than personal privacy. She says she sees no reason why the same arguments should not apply to West Germans:

"It would be unfair to seal the files on West Germans simply because prominent people are involved. After all, the Stasi documents on hundreds of people in eastern Germany have already been publicized. The principle then was that historical truth was more important than personal privacy. We believe the same principle should be followed now with regard to citizens from the western part of Germany."

Support for this view comes from the SPD leader of the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Harald Ringstorff, who said in a radio interview that "people in eastern Germany can see no reason why the Stasi file on Kohl should be treated differently than those of thousands of East Germans."

Even within the federal government there is support for opening the files. The Undersecretary for Eastern German affairs, Rolf Schwantz, said he believed the files should be opened. Schwantz said a distinction should be made between the privacy of private individuals and that of public figures. He says "this is an established principle and should not change because it concerns Mr. Kohl."

This is also Gauck head Birthler's point of view. In a recent radio interview, she said "historical figures cannot claim as much privacy protection as individuals. What they did or said in their public personas can be used by researchers or journalists under certain conditions."

She said her goal in releasing some of the Stasi files is to expose the machinations of the East German intelligence organization.

In an effort to calm the fears of Kohl and some other senior officials in the former Christian Democratic government, she said the Gauck authority would not agree to every request to inspect the files.

The independence of the Gauck Authority in handling the Stasi files was guaranteed when the organization was established after the collapse of Eastern Germany. The law stipulates rulings by the director of the Gauck Authority can be overruled only by a unanimous vote of the cabinet.

However, the cabinet includes three members of the Green party, which is also Birthler's party. They have made no comment on their attitude, but several analysts said it was doubtful whether the Greens would support action to undermine Birthler's independence.