Stasi files chief says GDR was more than spies
Roland Jahn, the new head of the archive housing the former East German secret police files, wants to shift attention from the Stasi to the rest of the communist dictatorship in an attempt to better understand how it worked.
“I do think that 20 years of coming to terms with (East German) history has been too fixated on the topic of the Stasi,” Jahn told the Ostsee Zeitung newspaper.
“Due to this, a lot else has been lost. Normal life in the GDR (German Democratic Republic) was discussed and researched far too little. It is about everyday life in a dictatorship.”
When asked whether the Stasi had been used as scapegoat for the entire system, he said, “Right, there were many in whose interests it was to push everything onto the Stasi.
"That distracted, for example, from the responsibility of the SED (the East German communist party), which was the commissioning body of the Stasi machinery, but also from the responsibility of the people who fitted in, who were ‘followers’.”
He said that although many people in East Germany had just wanted to live their lives, it was possible to say no.
“I don’t exempt myself from this. I also ran along the prescribed route for a while. The vast majority were, like my parents, integrated people. They also preferred to keep quiet in certain situations. One could also say no. It is documented in the files that many people defied the Stasi; that many said no, refused to betray friends. One can be proud of that.”
Jahn, who took over the files this month, became a journalist after having been thrown out of East Germany by force. He had drawn attention within and outside of the communist country, to the death of a friend in Stasi custody.
He caused embarrassment before even taking over the files authority when he said one of the first things he would do would be to transfer those former Stasi employees who were still working as guards at the authority, more than two decades after the fall of the East German system.
“I respect the work of these people,” he said. “But I cannot deny the fact that victims of the Stasi have told me that every former Stasi employee in the authority is a slap in the face for them. I understand this view of the victims and would like to help to heal their wounds. I would find it good if the former Stasi employees would help to set an example. No longer working in the authority would be such a sign – that one had understood ones own role in the machinery of repression, and respected the feelings of the victims.”
He said it was important for the GDR to be understood as more than only the Stasi.
“The better we understand the dictatorship, the better we can form democracy. I see the authority as a school for democracy. We can learn to treasure better the values of freedom by learning about the lack of freedom. This is a message above all to young people – what values are important to us today, why are tolerance and truthfulness so important? Which structures make people not free, force them to betray and fit in?”