The amateur actors in “My File and I” – among them people who worked as a teacher, soldier and artist at the time, plus a former theology student – have taken to the stage at the National Theatre of Dresden, on a set cluttered with metal shelves holding stacks of ominous cardboard folders.
During the play, they speak about how the Stasi – short for Staatssicherheit or state security – impacted their lives, their narratives interrupted by a disembodied voice coldly reading from their real personal files.
“I served two and a half years in jail for aggravated support of an escape from the republic,” said Gottfried Dutschke, who was then an assistant at the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena.
Although he never personally planned to make it through the Iron Curtain to the West, the fact that some of his friends did was enough to see him locked away, he told AFP.
“I didn’t do anything, I only refused to betray my friends to the system, but to the system, that was a betrayal.”
When he heard about the theatre project, which runs until June 30, he thought it was “important to convey this to my children, and also to other young people so they can reflect carefully on all of this”.
On the significance of the play, he said: “This is just a drop in the ocean, but it’s important that we speak.
“We need more people who served the state apparatus to come forward and say ‘yes, we made mistakes’. There is no shame in that. But that isn’t happening. No-one who watched me or spied on me has come to see me to say ‘I would like to apologise to you’. That would be a welcome gesture.”
Also on stage is Peter Wachs, who was an “informal collaborator” of the Stasi’s vast surveillance and domestic spying network.
The fact he is taking part in the project “honours him because there are very few who have done it, to express themselves in public”, said Ilona Rau, director of the Stasi archives of Dresden, which is also taking part in the project.
In another part of the play, former professor Max Fischer recounts how he realised that one of his students had informed on him. He says the Stasi then tried to recruit him to spy on a colleague who was considered subversive. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he consulted his record and discovered that his colleague had also collaborated with the Stasi.
“Madness,” said Dutschke.
The play has received a lot of media coverage in Germany, nearly 24 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, raising the question of whether such a project would have been possible earlier.
“It could have happened, but it’s interesting that it didn’t,” said Julia Weinreich, a playwright who worked with the director Clemens Bechtel on the play.
“I feel that we need a period of silence, there is a need for a certain distance, a long time to reflect on one’s own experience before being able to comment on it.”
“Now is a good time to make sure we do not forget,” agreed one member of the audience in a discussion after a recent performance.
One of the amateur actors spoke of the “therapeutic function” of the project for him, while several young people in the audience said they had discovered lives, destinies and stories that had been hidden in today’s Germany.
One of them, a woman with blonde and pink hair, said: “I’m 27 years old and come from the West. I learned more tonight than I did in school.”