The communist government of East Germany had an extensive network of informers and spies who reported to the Stasi, the secret police. After West and East Germany united into one German state in 1990, historians gained access to the extensive Stasi archives. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele spoke with an expert on the Stasi files.
Dresden, 9 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- German historian Clemens Vollnhals has a unique perspective on analyzing the Stasi files.
Vollnhals spent the 1980s studying Nazi Gestapo (secret police) archives in Munich. After the collapse of communist power in East Germany and the subsequent unification of the two German states, he moved to Berlin as a researcher for the Gauck Commission. That is the federal German office responsible for investigating the secret police files of communist East Germany.
Professor Vollnhals is currently teaching at the Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarian Research of the Technical University in Dresden. He says:
"I think that all dictatorships -- at least modern dictatorships that are heavily dependent on mass controls and on mass parties as standard bearers of dictatorships -- of course display structural similarities. ... The Nazi dictatorship was without a doubt far more brutal in its methods, even if we disregard the whole complex of issues involving the Second World War, the Holocaust, the terrible crimes committed in the east during the Nazi occupation. In the course of the communist dictatorship, which lasted 40 rather than just 12 years, we can certainly discern a more refined version of the repertoire and instruments of power which led to the enormous growth of the Stasi."
Vollnhals notes that in 1942, the Gestapo had some 43,000 employees and ruled over the 80 million inhabitants of the Third Reich and the lands it had occupied. In contrast, he says, in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1989, the Stasi had over 90,000 employees and some 170,000 informers for a far smaller population of just 17 million. Thus the penetration into society was far stronger under the communists than under the Nazis. The reason, Vollnhals suggests, is that the majority of the population of the Third Reich collaborated with the regime, so the Nazis did not feel as threatened by their own people as the communist authorities did in later decades.
Vollnhals says he and his fellow historians are much the wiser today about the capabilities of the East German regime.
"One could, of course, have suspected that many political trials were influenced or co-directed by the secret police. But there was no real proof then. Today in the state security files of many trials, one can now see where exactly, how, and with what intentions there was interference."
The result of this analysis, Vollnhals says, is that today scholars have what he terms a completely new level of awareness and a much deeper insight into how socialist dictatorships functioned.
Professor Vollnhals says the East German state failed in many areas, with an overbloated bureaucracy and dismal economic productivity. So although the Stasi was extraordinarily well informed, it proved unable to prevent the peaceful revolution in the autumn of 1989, and failed in its assigned mission of ensuring the security of the communist (SED) regime. But, Vollnhals adds, the Stasi certainly prolonged the regime's life.
"If one only examines the internal administration, one can say that the first paralysis set in at the end of October, beginning of November  as the civic movement stormed and occupied the first Stasi outposts -- the district precincts. Then in mid-January 1990 came the storming of the [Ministry for State Security] headquarters in Berlin. That was the definitive end of the [Stasi] apparatus."
At the time, the German news media suspected the Stasi of staging the storming of its headquarters in a bid to steal or destroy secret files. But Vollnhals says that research into the Stasi files shows that the storming was not a diversionary move by the Stasi. Nevertheless, he notes, some Stasi agents were present among the protesters who stormed the complex -- as they were in all civic movements at the time.
The Stasi files contain names of informers as well as the reports that they filed about their neighbors, friends, even family members. Some have argued there is great potential for relationships to be destroyed when the extent of individuals' collaboration is revealed.
It almost goes without saying that Vollnhals fully supports the decision to open the Stasi files as a legal right -- not only to the victims, but also to the tormentors, to journalists, employers and other involved parties regardless of citizenship.
"It was a very correct and encouraging decision by the lawmakers back then to permit the files to be opened. The fear that had been expressed that it would only lead to fights and homicides was not borne out at all. What we have seen is that most of those concerned, by being able to view their files, left the reading room with a sense of relief."
Vollnhals notes that some people nevertheless have suffered bitter personal disappointments by reading their files, for example as he puts it, "when one finds out that there were informers among one's relatives and acquaintances who abused the trust one had placed in them." But he says many others have been relieved to be able to clearly establish who remained faithful and did not betray their friends. Professor Vollnhals says this has done much to allay unjustified mistrust.