When Marianne Birthler, a well-known former member of East Germany's dissident movement, appears in public she is inevitably the focus of attention and captivates the audience. The present-day head of the STASI Records Office has what is called "strong stage presence". However, the recent increase of interest in her institution's work is not due to this quality alone. Seventeen years after the STASI headquarters in Berlin were stormed, the archives of Erich Mielke, then the German Democratic Republic's Minister of State Security, still trouble the mind of unified Germany.
The disbandment of the Communist Ministry for State Security (STASI) in East Germany, the granting of access to its archives, and the investigation and ending of the legacy of the Secret Service is an experience unique in its scale. The Commission for STASI Archives began work in the summer of 1990 with a staff of 52 people. Today, the Federal STASI Records Office has 2,400 employees and an annual budget of 100 million euros.
The files in the archive take up 120,000 metres of shelving, with another 46,000 metres of records kept on film. Over 2.2 million applications from citizens to view their personal files had been dealt with by the end of 2005. Sixteen years after the opening of the archives, 80,574 applications arrived in 2005 alone. Nobody expected such enormous public interest in the secrets of the past, when the Office was established. Over the years, work on the archives was mainly oriented towards East Germany.
Citizens of the former GDR were able to learn who the informers in their circle were, public institutions vetted their employees and removed official and unofficial STASI members from certain posts, while scholars and journalists conducted their research and investigations. Until recently, STASI activities in the West were the object only of speculation or sporadic revelations.
The reason for this was the complete destruction of the archives of Die Hauptverwaltung Aufklarung, the Foreign Intelligence Service, in the turbulent weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It came to light only years later that copies of the records of some STASI agents in the West had somehow reached the American CIA. In 2003, after continuous diplomatic efforts, Germany obtained rather illegible facsimiles of this archive on 381 CDROMs, now known as the Rosenholz Files.
The latest STASI outrage was caused by the results of a three-year study conducted by experts who examined the records word by word in an attempt to identify the western citizens registered there. There were reports that the Federal Office already knew, but were in no hurry to announce, the names of the West German politicians on the files.
This resulted in public discontent, especially in East Germany, where a number of people suspected that after years of unveiling evidence that most of the public figures of the former GDR had relationships with the STASI, the truth about the secret past of western politicians might now be hushed up.
Marianne Birthler made an official announcement confirming that 43 Bundestag delegates between 1969 and 1972 had a record in the Foreign Intelligence archives. Among them were former leading politicians, including Willy Brandt, Franz Josef Strauss, and Helmut Schmidt. There was no evidence so far, she said, to show that they had acted as spies or agents. Only five of them had been proved beyond doubt to have knowingly cooperated with and received money from the STASI. As far as most of the politicians were concerned, there was simply data on file, or else they had been used as a source of information without being aware of it.
However, not all experts share the opinion of the Federal Commissioner. Both parties are relying on new, more detailed information emerging from further analyses of the archives. In Germany, people do not agree with the notion of collective responsibility for the crimes and mistakes of the Communist past. Unlike Bulgaria, where the State Security files are still closed to the public, in the Federal Commission Office you can make precise identifications and apportion blame. Or, as also happens, verify the innocence of an individual or the courage and strength a certain citizen displayed in the face of threats and repression by the state.
In Germany, nobody makes a distinction between the "bad" State Security informers and the "good" heroes from Intelligence, who defended the "national interests", as the Bulgarians are constantly persuaded to do.
The public debate over the years has proved that there were no "national interests" for the Communist country apart from the interests of Moscow, "the motherland of the world proletariat", according to the common vernacular of the time. It is only because the State Security files are closed that former secret agents or former employees of the repressive Communist services can occupy so many of the top posts in Bulgaria today. There are even several presidential candidates standing in this autumn's election for whom proof exists that they were agents.
Marianne Birthler recently expressed her regret at not having being officially invited to visit Bulgaria so far. She will certainly have something of interest to tell the Bulgarian public, if and when she is.
A Stooge for President?
A rumour had been circulating in the media and the public domain for years that Bulgaria's current president, Mr Parvanov, had a file that revealed him as a secret collaborator with the former State Security. When this summer, on his own initiative, the Interior Minister announced similar data about several well-known personalities, the president's political adversaries raised the question of his past too. Members of the Commission for the Records, which was closed by the previous government, confirmed the existence of a file for an agent using the alias "Gotse", but refrained from linking Gotse with the president. Finally, after strong public pressure, Georgi Parvanov admitted to being the person registered by State Security under the pseudonym Gotse. As a historian, he said, he had had the task of maintaining contact with a Bulgarian emigre in the West. Parvanov quickly added that by collaborating with the Communist Secret Services, he had been working only in the interests of Bulgaria. The Socialist Party, to which the president belongs, has long been pleading for the distinction to be made between "good" agents, who worked for foreign intelligence and counterespionage in defence of the national cause, and "bad" informers, who spied on dissidents and society in general.