Family, food, travel, other obsessions.
It’s been a long, full, emotionally draining day. I will definitely need more time before I can fully process the hundreds of pages of content I tried to absorb today in just a few hours. For now I think I will just try to describe the logistics that go into spending a day in the archives.
Way back on January 8, 2011, I filled out this form. I was in Leipzig at the time, but the application was immediately forwarded to the main office in Berlin, since that’s where I had lived and worked. Two or three months later I received a very brief letter telling me simply that it had been determined that there were files on me and that they would be assembled and made accessible over the coming months. I was told to expect a wait of up to two years. As it turns out, though, it took almost three.
I received a letter in late October telling me that my file was ready to be viewed. Because files are not held on active status for more than a few months, I had to decide on rather short notice whether to come in person or only to order copies. Once I learned that an entire section of the file dealing with the embassy (the staff, facilities, etc.) could only be viewed in person, I decided to try and come. Thanks to a generous gift of miles from my brother- and sister-in-law, the trip materialized quickly.
After confirming that I would be coming and after setting up a specific day and time to come, I received an official letter of invitation for my appointment.
I’m not usually early to most events, but I was early today. The day started and ended gray and drizzly, and that seemed just right for such an undertaking.
The German government agency responsible for the Stasi files is housed in an unassuming block of a building on Karl-Liebknecht-Straße, a stone’s throw from Alexanderplatz.
On arrival, I produced my passport at the front desk and was then shown to the waiting room.
As you can see, one wall of the waiting room is covered in a large-scale photo of a portion of the archives, showing row upon row of bundled files. In my estimation, it’s an image better suited for tourists who might be curious about the Stasi past than for those about to encounter their own place in it. It felt very ominous to me.
The waiting room also features two small sculptures by artist Ruth Leibnitz, including this one called Das Gespräch (The Conversation). The expressions on the four faces are non-threatening, even gentle, and perhaps the piece is meant to suggest or promote a widening conversation about the Stasi past. But the title seemed far too ironic for me in a place filled with transcripts of conversations that were never intended to be heard.
I only had to wait for a few minutes before I was greeted warmly by Frau X, the woman assigned to my case. She ushered me into a small room where she explained procedures as well as the kinds of documents she had found and assembled in my files. These included a large file (435 pages) with details about my comings and goings, conversations, associations, etc., and a second large file all about the embassy.
She then accompanied me across the hall to the reading room, where I set up shop at one of the tables there.
At the front of the reading room sat a staff member who was available to answer basic questions. Each one only stayed for about an hour before they were relieved. No wonder, since it is almost completely silent in the room (except for the turning of pages and the occasional gasp). Each table had a binder with information about the Stasi and a booklet containing most of the abbreviations one encounters in the alphabet soup that makes up Stasi reports.
I spent the next six hours reading mind-numbing yet eerie details from my life of 25 years ago. I relived conversations and events, saw pictures of myself I never knew had been taken, was amused, angered and perplexed at the banal detail devoted to certain things and utterly baffled by the absence of other things and people I had expected to encounter.
The Stasi department responsible for reporting on me (and all other diplomats) was the Department for Counterintelligence, Foreign Agencies and Accredited Journalists (Hauptabteilung II – Spionageabwehr, ausländische Vertretungen, akkreditierte Journalisten). This is useful to know, since the focus of my files was on activities that were suspected to have been related to espionage. That focus likely also explains much of what is not in my files.
My interactions with members of the LDS church in both East and West Berlin play a major role in the files, although almost exclusively through tapped phone conversations. There is not a single mention of the many, many times I visited my East German Mormon friends in their homes.
There are two booklets filled with every single border crossing I made during my time there, including details on the vehicles I drove or rode in, who was with me and when.
There is a detailed description of the inside of my apartment — not what it looked like, but what was in it that might help them understand me better (e.g. no alcohol in my cupboards, a picture of my family, a bike.)
The aliases of four different informants appear in my files. I could not tell from context who they were. So, today I filled out four requests for “decryption of code names” (Decknamenentschlüsselung). I was told that getting that information could take another year to two years. I’m willing to wait.
After I finished going through my files and making notes, I had the staff member call for Frau X. She and I then spent quite some time debriefing. I had lots of questions for her. She helped diffuse a bit of an emotional grenade by clarifying two passages I had misunderstood. She also offered insights into other sections of my files. Some questions she couldn’t answer, but she did her best to enlighten me about things that were ‘normal’ for the Stasi that might explain things that perplexed me.
As my Sachbearbeiterin, the extremely professional and kindly Frau X thus functioned not only as my case manager but also as my caregiver. After having been responsible for assembling my file over the past three years (since apparently not everything was kept in one place), she knows its contents better than anyone, and it was her job to help me navigate it. She will continue to supervise my case over the coming months or years as my requests for copies of my files and information about the people who appear as informants in my files are processed.
It was uncanny, even sinister to have so many details of my life piled up before me, but there were no life-altering discoveries in my files. This is not the case for many citizens of the former East Germany. Marriages, families, friendships have dissolved as a result of discoveries made in Stasi files. I am lucky that mine are mostly a historical curiosity, rather than a personal tragedy.
This article from Der Spiegel-Online (English edition) offers additional insight into the Stasi files, those who help prepare them, and those who read them.
The day was just beginning when I arrived. I read and took notes all day long, without a break. By the time I left it was dark, and I was both subdued and agitated. As I stepped out into the damp, hazy evening, my head swirling with memories and questions, the Fernsehturm (TV tower) on Alexanderplatz rose into the fog before me, silent and overwhelming.