Stasi downfall Turning the Tables

East Germany's secret police, the Stasi, was hated for its powers of control. Yet its fall 25 years ago was surprisingly quick, and mercifully painless.
No filing cabinet required: Citizens plunder Stasi files in early December 1989.

Twenty-five years ago last week, courageous citizens occupied the many district offices of the secret police, the Stasi, in East Germany. Their main aim was to stop the destruction of the hated organization's millions of files.

Just days before, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the entire top echelon of the Socialist Unity Party, the SED, had resigned, effectively bringing an end to the German Democratic Republic. Only the Stasi seemed to be continuing to function.

The ferment started in the southern city of Erfurt, but quickly spread to other provinces and the capital Berlin.

In Erfurt, a church employee noticed smoke and clouds of ash rising from the local headquarters of the Stasi. A garbage collector reported that charred papers were being carried away.

The secret police was destroying the traces of its activities.

Then, when it was discovered that Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski, the official responsible for providing the GDR with foreign currencies, had disappeared without a trace, the anger of many citizens reached boiling point.

In Berlin, the New Forum, a civil society organization that had emerged from the new protest movements in the GDR, called upon people to resist, but without violence.

Civil liberties campaigners had already made their views known to the SED Prime Minister Hans Modrow. On Monday morning, there were discussions with his state secretary and even with the leaders of the Stasi.

The Stasi was something special; the apparatus was larger, the surveillance more intense, German, pedantic.

The New Forum feared that now weekly Monday evening demonstrations, large-scale protests expressing civil dissent that had contributed to the fall of the Wall, could get out of control with the outrage over the Stasi cover-up.

During the night, someone made copies of New Forum leaflets at a factory in Erfurt. Four thousand of them were distributed at once.

Organizations in the city called for an occupation of the Stasi district headquarters.

Barbara Sengewald, one of the protestors, recalls that when she got a call, she went straight into action. She was familiar with the New Forum's appeals and was one of the many who set out for the despised Stasi building in Andreasstraße that day.

Why was it the Stasi that became the focus of people's outrage, and not the government? The secret police had not been targeted in most of the other Soviet-bloc countries that had or would revolt.

But the Stasi was something special; the apparatus was larger, the surveillance more intense, German, pedantic – it was an overwhelming declaration of distrust towards responsible citizens.

 

</a> Citizen committee members negotiate with a military prosecutor and Stasi officials in Erfurt on December 4, 1989.

 

On the morning of December 4, 1989, only a few people had gathered in front of the Erfurt Stasi headquarters by 7 a.m. A few women sought to organize support in the municipal and district administrations, in factories. Ms. Sengewald wanted to use the public prosecutor's office to stop the destruction of files.

But more and more people kept arriving. A vehicle of the public transportation service blocked the entrance to the Stasi building.

A delegation of ten citizens was eventually allowed into the Stasi headquarters. But the others refused to be driven away by the police.

Barbara Sengewald remembers: “They had lost their heads completely.” Now the tables were turned. The Stasi was imprisoned in its own building. The citizens would not budge.

That afternoon, Ms. Sengewald had to rush to the local school, pick up her daughter and leave her with friends. This was a citizens' revolution, and people had other responsibilities as well. In the evening she was back, organizing a citizens' office.

The news from Erfurt led to a breakthrough in Berlin. The head of the Stasi, Wolfgang Schwanitz, agreed that no files would be destroyed. Citizens were to be allowed to verify that for themselves.

In Cottbus, the police even mobilized citizen activists in order to inspect the Stasi headquarters together with them.

The reason the leadership gave in so quickly was simple: The head of the government, Hans Modrow, slyly intended to make the civil rights activists jointly responsible, avoid violence and win new authority for himself and the SED.

He sacrificed the secret police for this purpose. The Stasi officials, confused and obedient, allowed this to happen.

At each site in the GDR, the scene was played out differently. In Potsdam, it was only a handful of persons who entered the Stasi building, without knowing whether they would come out unscathed.

In Cottbus, the police even mobilized citizen activists in order to inspect the Stasi headquarters together with them.

In Leipzig, the secret police capitulated shortly before the Monday demonstration.

Even though the Stasi was still armed to the teeth – it would have functioned as an army in a civil war – things remained peaceful throughout the crumbling country. Citizens' committees sprang up and for the most part neutralized the group that had been known as the “shield and sword” of the SED.

The occupations of Stasi buildings from December 4 to 6 are considered the prelude to the inspection of the files, which any German citizen now has the right to do. But back in those days, the Berlin headquarter of the secret police were still operating. It was only occupied on January 15, 1990.

During those December days, there was a different zeitgeist. The contents of the files were considered far too explosive for the agitated masses to read them. In this period of upheaval, the daily agenda was more important.

Eventually, in 1992, citizens would gain access to the records, through a newly established authority.

 

This article originally appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]egel.de