The uncertainty and value of the Stasi files

The records of former State Security Service (Stasi) in the German Democratic Republic attract many citizens even today. However, the Stasi records show their misunderstandings and manipulation of personal information. In that case, how can/should researchers use the former secret police’s files in spite of its unreliability?

Since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the new state authorities in those countries have declassified the former secret police’s files. In particular, the Stasi records in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) have attracted considerable attention, because these documents have been continuously revealed since the law on the Stasi documents came into effect in 1991. Though the law changed in order to protect the victims’ rights in 2002, the rapid development of historical research on the GDR continued.

As a result, researchers using the files have clarified many societal and political aspects of the GDR in detail and achieved a level that by far exceeds the level of relevant research on other former communist states. The academic discussion on the GDR and Stasi has influenced not only academic spheres but also the public sphere through popular books, films, and all kinds of media. The subject has enormous potential to attract large audiences everywhere.

Researchers using the Stasi files have clarified many societal and political aspects of the GDR and achieved a level that by far exceeds the level of relevant research on other former communist states.

However, using the Stasi records bears a risk of spreading rumours and falsehoods through the media. In addition, the Stasi not only gathered information but also wrote the reports and documents with political intention as Kimmo Elo has mentioned. From this point of view, this article shortly discusses the methodology of utilizing the records of former secret police for academic research, especially for historical studies. When we use the secret police’s file, what kind of problem will we face? How should we use the Stasi records?

The shadow of the Stasi in Germany today

The past of the Stasi officers can be big scandal in Germany even today. The former officers have to reveal their past and the researchers can see and use their and unofficial collaborators’ files. Therefore, the past of them influences their today’s everyday life and position.

The case of Berlin’s former secretary of housing of the city-state of Berlin, Andrej Holm in 2017 is a good example. Holm was then a research assistant at the Humboldt University of Berlin and a politician associated with the leftist party, Die Linke. The leftist party nominated him to be an independent housing secretary under Katrin Lompscher, who was senator for urban development and housing in December 2016.

However, in January 2017, Holm lost the position due to the exposure of his past as full-time Stasi officer from September to November 1989, and his refusal to acknowledge and apologize for his wrongdoing and dishonesty. The former officers must reveal their past officially regardless of the position they held and period in which they had worked, but, he had not informed his past.

In addition, the incident became a grave issue at the Humboldt University. Holm had told a lie about his past and refused to apologize and acknowledge his past and activities even the investigation by the university. As a result, the Rector of Humboldt University of Berlin dismissed Holm from his position as a research assistant at the university.

Causes of scandal? The Treatment of the Stasi records in Germany and Finland

When the Berlin Wall fell and many citizens participated in demonstrations in East German cities, the Stasi officers tried to destroy the files they had held for forty years. However, many of their efforts failed. Since the Stasi preferred to preserve their documents from the beginning, they kept a large number of files and documents. Those secret documents remained almost untouched because the process of demise of the GDR and state sponsored organizations including the Stasi was far faster than they had foreseen.

Even today the staff of the Stasi Record Agencies continue to gather and store those records. They have found many important and sometimes shocking documents in this process. The influence is not only Germany, but also foreign countries. Needless to say, Finland is not exceptional as I show two examples.

Firstly, the case of Karl-Heinz Kurras caused reconsidering the discussion on 1968. Kurras was a West Berlin police officer, who shot the unarmed university student Benno Ohnesorg and killed him on June 2, 1967. The incident has been considered an event that changed German history and society because it was regarded as a trigger that dramatically radicalized the youth leftist protest movements.

In 2009, the Stasi file revealed that Kurras had been an unofficial collaborator of the Stasi from the 1950s to 1960s. Kurras denied the Stasi’s involvement to him shooting Ohnesorg and the officer in charge of his activity as an unofficial collaborator was already dead. In addition, the evidence that the Stasi officer ordered Kurras to shoot a citizen during the incident in 1967 has not been found because more detailed records have disappeared, and Kurras died in 2014.

In any case, the truth that Kurras was an unofficial collaborator of the Stasi offered an important occasion to revisit the event in the West Germany in 1968, at least in many German media.

Secondly, WikiLeaks leaked a part of Tiitisen lista on the internet and, a Finnish newspaper Ilta-Sanomat reported it in 2010. Besides this, the topic on the Stasi documents caused a heated discussion about the unofficial collaborators and their information about the Stasi in Finland between Alpo Rusi and Kimmo Elo. Rusi published his book Tiitisen lista, which insists that the Stasi files could clarify every societal aspect such as everyday life of the people under surveillance.

The Stasi officers fabricated stories to their own advantages for their own purposes, and had many misunderstandings.

However, Elo criticized Rusi’s careless way of using materials and overestimating the accuracy of the Stasi records. In any case, the discussion suggests the problematic character of Stasi records because the Stasi officers fabricated stories to their own advantages for their own purposes, and had many misunderstandings, as Elo mentioned. These discussions clarify the risk of using the document of the secret police.

On 2 February 2018, a Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reported Elo might see and use the Tiitisen lista for his research as the first scholar who uses the list. Seppo Hentilä has suggested in Ilta-Sanomat that the Tiitisen lista is not to be fundamental material for the historical research, but even today, the Stasi file keeps the political and societal impact and gather the popular interests as many Finnish newspapers takes up this topic.

The forgery and misunderstanding of the Stasi files

To use the Stasi files contains the risk constantly. The Stasi files might very often include misunderstandings and manipulation of personal information.

There are three types of misunderstanding/fabrication of data: Firstly, the officials who wrote the documents did not always precisely understand the object, even if they had many reports from collaborators. Secondly, the officials wrote the documents according to what they thought or aimed for. Following the operation plan was the most important procedure for the officials.

Thirdly, there was such cases that the Stasi put some names in the files as unofficial collaborators without their consents. It means that, in some cases it is not clear that the person whose name appears in the Stasi file as an unofficial collaborator had known about this fact. Perhaps the Stasi officers fabricated them as the new unofficial collaborators, because the number of unofficial collaborators under a Stasi officer had an influence on the officer’s promotion and his/her position.

Then, how can we evaluate the Stasi file? I give two examples.

Firstly, the case of the students’ pastor Georg-Siegfried Schmutzler is a good example to understand how the Stasi misunderstood the situation and fabricated the documents. Schmutzler was arrested in Leipzig in 1957 due to his position of supporting students, students’ religious organizations, and his connections to the West Germany. After the unification of Germany, Schmutzler published his autobiography Gegen den Strom: Erlebtes aus Leipzig unter Hitler und der Stasi and participated in many conferences not only as a victim but also as a researcher.

From the detailed analysis of his own case, we can find out how the Stasi officers fabricated the file to arrest and declare him guilty. In addition, we can notice that the Stasi wrongly understood the religious organizations, related with Schmutzler, under surveillance. Even if the Stasi continued their actions against religious organizations, the Stasi officers confused and could not understand the differences between two youth organizations of church, Studentengemeinde and Junge Gemeinde.

Secondly, the file of the students’ cabaret group Rat der Spötter suggests that the Stasi files could supplement other historical materials. The Rat der Spötter was the most successful students’ cabaret group in the GDR from the mid-1950s to the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. However, the members were arrested by the Stasi after their dress up rehearsal in the front of the members of Socialist Unity Party Germany (SED)’s university party leadership, because the party members considered the programme “hostile- and counter-revolutionary.”

After their arrest in September 1961, the SED immediately broke up the group. For their rehabilitation Ernst Röhl later published a memoir Rat der Spötter: Das Kabarett des Peter Sodann in 2002, when, however, the leader of the cabaret group Peter Sodann stood as a candidate for the presidential election in Germany. The memoir might be helpful for his election and popularity.

Nevertheless, can we regard the book as reliable material for academic research? In this case the Stasi materials are useful to supplement this memoir, since the Stasi file on the Rat der Spötter includes the script for the group’s theatre play. The script clarifies the content of their play with which we can understand what the group was aiming for. The entire script remains in the Stasi records.


This writing addresses the two issues: how the Stasi materials could cause scandals even today; how researchers should approach to the Stasi materials. We cannot be too careful to treat the Stasi records given the possibilities to influence lives of those who were concerned with the Stasi. Though my examples are German and Finnish cases, we can find similar cases in Poland as well.

Indeed, the Stasi records is an important and attractive material for East German history, because it keeps special materials different from the ones in administrative archives. As shown in the case of Rat der Spötter, the Stasi records, especially the content of the play, help researchers have an essential material, which is not available from other archives. There is, however, always a risk in utilizing it. The Schmutzler’s case taught us how difficult it is for researchers to approach to what “really” happened.

The Stasi records is an important and attractive material for East German history, because it keeps special materials different from the ones in administrative archives.

Therefore, when using the Stasi files, we must keep this critical view. Administrative archives such as the Foundation for the Archives of East German Parties and Mass Organizations in the German Federal Archives and other local administrative archives keep fundamental historical records for conducting historical research, which can supplement the Stasi files.

Using archival and other materials of several types helps avoid dogmatic and biased interpretations. In principle, the aim of historians is not just to shed light on “new facts.” Theory and interpretation as well consists historical research. From this point of view, researchers must retain a critical view on the Stasi files with their theoretical flamework.

Miwako Okabe is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Helsinki.

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