Accessibility links

Breaking News

Germany: Berlin Exhibition Lifts The Lid On Communist-Era Secret Police

The secret police were one of the most dreaded branches of communist governments in Eastern Europe. Their agents persuaded citizens to spy on their family members and neighbors, and maintained constant surveillance of ordinary citizens by monitoring their mail and telephone calls. A current exhibit in Berlin lifts the lid on the widespread network of internal intelligence work in East Germany, one of the most repressive communist regimes. The exhibit has opened at a time when discussion is under way over how much access historians and researchers should have to the illegally monitored conversations of prominent politicians.

Berlin, 21 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A current exhibition at Berlin's Communications Museum focuses on the work of the Stasi secret police both in communist East Germany and West Germany. The exhibit is sponsored by the Gauck Authority, which has maintained the files collected by the former East German secret police.

The exhibit focuses on the methods used and information gleaned as the Stasi monitored telephone conversations and intercepted mail passing between East and West Germany. The Stasi operation lasted 29 years, and ended only with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The transcripts of the recorded mail and conversations fill some 740 meters of files now belonging to the Gauck Authority.

The first part of the exhibition deals with the work of "Department M," which was responsible for monitoring mail. But exhibition officials say most visitors are more interested in the second section, which deals with the activities of "Department 26," which listened in on telephone calls in both East and West Germany.

One official, Bettina Ruether , says Stasi files reveal that Department M read and checked the contents of up to 90,000 letters a day. Meanwhile, Department 26 operated hundreds of telephone-listening posts across East Germany, including more than 20 in East Berlin alone. "It was not only dissidents who were under surveillance, but thousands of ordinary citizens in politics, industry, international trade, and even sports. In practice, no one could ever be sure that their letters or telephone conversations were not being monitored. It helped create a climate of fear and obedience."

Thanks to modern technology, the telephone monitors were also able to listen in on the conversations of many political leaders in Western Germany -- including Chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, as well as many other politicians. This monitoring included many of their important talks with political leaders in the U.S. and other parts of Europe.

The Stasi were also able to partly monitor fax traffic between West German banks, giving the police information about the finances of important customers. Phone calls between West German police authorities were also often monitored.

Stasi files show the monitors were also active on an afternoon in February 1989 when a friend of Chris Gueffroy rang his East Berlin home to ask where he was. At that moment, Gueffroy lay dead at the Berlin Wall. The 20-year-old had been shot trying to escape to the West. He was the last person killed an the Wall.

For legal reasons, the exhibition does not include transcripts of most of these conversations. The majority of the exhibit shows copies of orders and regulations, and photographs of Stasi workers. Some photographs show tape recorders in Stasi offices with monitors listening to telephone conversations. Others show Stasi officers opening mail or checking parcels sent from the West.

The exhibition displays some of the means used for opening letters -- from the age-old method of using hot steam to open and re-seal envelopes to more sophisticated methods requiring solvents and ultrasonic baths. Special methods were used to open letters believed to contain photographs or documents which could be damaged by hot steam or other conventional means.

The exhibition includes a replay of an actual telephone conversation. Amid the normal crackling noises of a telephone line the visitor can clearly hear the sound of a tape recorder being switched on.

The Berlin exhibition makes clear the mundane everyday office work which underscored this malignant world of eavesdropping. One of the Stasi's listening posts in East Berlin was located in the State Library. The exhibition includes the work schedule for the two shifts of listeners monitoring the conversations between visitors to the library. Among the routine matters on the schedule is an order giving the time at which the late shift was required to clean the recording heads on the group of tape recorders.

Exhibit official Ruether says the Berlin exhibition is being held at a sensitive time. The government and other authorities are considering what should be done with this enormous archive of Stasi files now in the care of the semi-official Gauck Authority.

She says the present regulations governing the publication of the archive are being re-examined at the request of historians and other researchers. They want access to the records on important political events. Some prosecutors also want access to the files to help their investigations.

At present, access to the Stasi archive is very restricted. Individuals have the right to read their own file and find out who gave the Stasi information about them. Thousands have done so. Until 2006, the files may also be used to screen those applying for government jobs, such as the civil service. They have also been used in the prosecution of some prominent East German leaders. But generally the law on privacy limits access to outsiders.

"A balance has to be struck between the right to privacy and the needs of legitimate researchers. The Stasi files were collected by illegal eavesdropping and many people believe that they should not be available to the public. But historians and researchers believe they should be able to use the files to investigate the background of important events."

At the center of the controversy is former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who fell into political disgrace in 1999 after a financial scandal involving donations to his political party, the Christian Democratic Union, during the 16 years he was in power.

When Kohl refused to name the donors, it was suggested that the Stasi files on him might help reveal the names. It was already known that the Stasi had monitored the phone conversations of some CDU party officials talking about financial transactions.

Kohl vigorously opposed the release of the transcripts, arguing that the law governing the Stasi files was intended to expose the iniquities of the Stasi and should not be used against West German leaders.

In March this year, Kohl won his case when the courts ruled that even in his role as chancellor he enjoys the same protection as any private citizen. His files cannot be read by anyone without specific permission from Kohl himself.

The Kohl case led the Gauck Authority to close the Stasi archive to everyone except those wishing to see their personal files. Those trying to find a new regulation say they are seeking a balance between the right to privacy and the desire of researchers to learn more about the background to important events. They say it could take until next year to find an acceptable compromise.