Secrets in the files: how one country opened the book on its divisive past

"My brother had been spying on us and writing down every word we said" /

By Barry McCaffrey

As politicians in Northern Ireland remain divided on how victims’ families should be allowed access to information on the deaths of their loved-ones, The Detail investigates how one model is attempting to bring closure to the citizens of the former East Germany.

The failed Haass talks attempted to broker a political agreement on a new truth recovery process for Northern Ireland in which paramilitary organisations and the security forces would provide the families of those killed during the Troubles with new information relating to the deaths of their loved ones.

A crucial part of the proposed Independent Commission on Information Recovery (ICIR) scheme is that anyone who provides information will be granted limited immunity and cannot be prosecuted.

Critics argue that the continued failure to find political agreement over how Northern Ireland deals with the legacy of the past remains one of the single biggest hurdles to a shared future.

The Detail travelled to Germany to investigate if the model it uses to allow information to victims of the former Stasi secret police could provide relevant answers for Northern Ireland.

For more than 40 years the Stasi, officially known as the Ministry for State Security (MfS), acted as a secret police force in the former communist East Germany.

From 1950 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989/90 the Stasi spied on millions of innocent citizens that the East German dictatorship suspected of disloyalty.

A key Stasi tactic was to use friends, colleagues and relatives to spy on each other.

Experts said that people became Stasi spies for a host of reasons: some because of their political beliefs, others for money or for the power, but some were forced to or blackmailed to become involved.

“IT WAS CRUCIAL NOT TO DESTROY THE FILES”

Official records show that the secret police had 174,000 East German civilians who were official and unofficial informants.

Former Stasi Colonel Rainer Wiegand estimated that the figure for informers could actually have been as high as two million.

As the Berlin Wall and the GDR began to collapse, in January 1990 thousands of unarmed protestors stormed the headquarters of the secret police.

The Stasi had desperately tried to destroy millions of secret files but the sheer volume of the papers involved led to the shredding machines breaking down under the pressure.

Carlos Jordan was one of the protest leaders who stormed the Stasi headquarters and later took part in negotiations with the communist leadership to avoid the outbreak of a civil war.

A crucial part of the talks was whether or not to destroy the Stasi files.

“The decision not to destroy the files was a very important step,” he said.

“It would have been easy to have a big fire and we could have burned mountains and mountains of files.

“Some speakers from the new parties said let’s destroy the files, it could produce a lot of hate in society.

“It could be the beginning of a civil war if you know your neighbour, uncle or sister was spying on you.

“One argument was that it could destroy the whole society.”

It would later emerge from Stasi documents that some of the pro-democracy leaders who had argued most vociferously for the files to be destroyed had actually been informers themselves.

Following the reunification of Germany it was decided to establish an archive of the Stasi files where former East German citizens could discover if they had been secretly spied on by the MfS.

To date, two million people have applied to have access to their personal files.

Controversially, the legislation which established the Stasi archive, allows individuals to discover the identity of the informers who spied on them.

While the ability to discover the identity of the betrayer has helped bring closure in some cases, in others it has led to bitter divisions between families and friends.

“I DIDN’T SPEAK TO HIM AFTER THAT”

Lutz Trenkner and his wife Ursula were jailed by the East German dictatorship in May 1984 for consorting with the enemies of the communist state – namely his older brother Ernst, who had escaped to the west before the building of the Berlin Wall.

In 1990 when Lutz gained access to his Stasi files he discovered that the person who informed on him was his other brother Henning.

Confused and angry he confronted his brother.

“He wouldn’t admit to it, but he wouldn’t deny it either,” he said.

“It was an uncomfortable conversation.

“I didn’t speak to him after that.”

Now, 24 years later the brothers rarely communicate.

“We wish each other happy birthday once a year and that’s our only contact.”

The 70 year-old is brutally honest when asked if he has forgiven his brother nearly a quarter of a century later.

“I once had a colleague who told me to see my brother as a victim, not a perpetrator.

“But even if I forgive my brother – even if I hug him – there’s always that thing that came between us, something he can never undo.”

The Detail contacted Lutz’s brother to hear his account of how and why he became involved in Stasi activity.

His family said he was not in a position to comment on the events.

“THE IMPORTANT THING IS INFORMATION”

Roland Jahn was a constant target for the Stasi during his teenage years in East Berlin during the 1970s.

After being imprisoned for publicly challenging the communist state on numerous occasions he was eventually expelled from the GDR in 1983.

In 1990 he became the first person to be allowed to read his Stasi files.

Today he is the Federal Commissioner in charge of those same Stasi files.

In recent months Roland Jahn has been critical that some members of the former Stasi continue to be employed in the Stasi archive, despite being publicly identified as former members of the secret police.

He is adamant when questioned as to whether it is appropriate for former Stasi members to be employed by his organisation:

“No, definitely not. That’s why I’m taking this path, so that they can be transferred to other agencies. We have decided here to be direct with victims, take their feelings seriously and heal their injuries. We can make sure that former Stasi people work elsewhere, in other agencies, but that this agency is centred on victims.”

While the Stasi archive has been credited for providing documentary answers for victims of the secret police, its failure to question why some people chose or were coerced to inform against their friends, colleagues and family members remains an issue.

A key criticism of the existing truth recovery system in Northern Ireland is the snail’s pace at which families are given access to information regarding the killing of their loved-ones.

In 2011 then Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson told The Detail that it would take another 25 years for his office to investigate allegations of police wrongdoing in Troubles related killings.

In 2013 the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), which was set up in 2007 to re-investigate Troubles related killings, was publicly criticised by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularies (HMIC) after it discovered that the HET was imbalanced in its investigation of killings carried out by the British army.

The RUC decision in 1998 to destroy thousands of security force files because of the potential contamination of asbestos has also been widely questioned by nationalists.

Critics argue that any decision to allow victims access to new information will be unbalanced as it is only the security forces, and not republican or loyalist paramilitaries, who will have intelligence documents which can be handed over.

While pro-democracy demonstrators managed to recover the vast majority of Stasi files before they could be destroyed, almost 16,000 bags of papers were shredded.

Over the last 25 years only a tiny percentage of the shredded documents have been pieced back together by hand.

A special computer system has now been put in place to try to dramatically speed up the process.

Jahn is non-committal over how long it will take for the files to be reconstructed.

“I am an eternal optimist and I am confident that there is a chance for us to use those bags. It’s a fascinating project, what’s being done here, putting those shredded Stasi files back together and learning from them.”

But when pressed how long Roland Jahn ‘the realist’ believes it will actually take, he concedes:

“We can’t give figures because it is in a test phase. We are looking for ways of making reconstruction faster. But I always say trying is worth it. If we don’t try it, it won’t happen. If we try it, we have a chance.”

The federal commissioner confirms that, as yet, there has been no request from Northern Ireland for advice or assistance from the German authorities on what it has learned from its own information recovery model.

“I don’t believe the Northern Irish government have directed any enquiries to us.

“I strengthened our experience in recent years, working with countries in the Arab world but also Belarus. Countries that wanted help and advice out of our experience.”

When questioned what advice he can offer politicians in Northern Ireland on the issue of truth recovery, Jahn insists: “The important thing is information. We also learn from others – we learned from the South African model. We are willing to do international exchanges, for instance we’ve worked in Eastern Europe, in countries where there were also dictatorships. So both of us could learn from each other.

“My main piece of advice would be: we should not give up on the ambition for a peaceable society.”

SEE part two of this series: The spying victim and the painful truth

Translation services in this series were provided by Nalina Eggert.