By Barry McCaffrey
Haus 7 is like any other non-descript government office which was built in the 1960s.
On any given day in any other European city, thousands of ordinary citizens can be seen visiting these anonymous public offices to apply for a marriage certificate or pick up a dog licence.
Haus 7 however holds a different type of public document, one which holds a key to determining how modern Germany deals with the legacy of its past.
The building holds 111 kilometres of secret documents which were seized from the Eastern German secret police before they could be destroyed in January 1990.
There is the equivalent of 47 kilometres of film documents, including 1.8million photos, film negatives and slides with another 30,000 video, film and audio recordings all seized from the Stasi headquarters.
An additional 16,000 bags of shredded files, the equivalent of 45 million individual pages, were also recovered.
While the reconstruction of the shredded files was initially completed manually, it is now hoped that the process can be dramatically speeded up through the use of a specially designed computer system.
Despite the computer system being established in 2007, it is still in its pilot stage and remains painstakingly slow.
The Detail was granted rare access to film inside the walls of the Stasi Records Agency and was accompanied throughout by two security personnel.
What goes on within the walls of Haus 7 remains legally and politically sensitive even 24 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
While we were permitted to film inside the archive itself, we were asked not to handle or open any files.
We passed through keypad protected doors and along more non-descript corridors until we were led into a warehouse-type room with row upon row of shelves running the entire length of the room.
Thermometers keep the heat at a regulated temperature to protect files from erosion.
Each shelf can be moved along the floor by the winding and unwinding of a three-pronged submarine-type wheel.
A special code system identifies the shelves which contain raw Stasi files, which have gone largely untouched since the day they were first recovered more than a quarter of a century ago.
On other shelves sit some of the 16,000 bags of shredded papers.
Other units hold small special grey boxes in which individual pieces of the shredded files have been placed to ensure they don’t disintegrate over time.
But, Haus 7 is not a museum to an era which the reunified Germany would rather forget.
By 2014 nearly three million people had applied for access to their Stasi files.
Ironically, the only individuals who can be legally identified in the files are former Stasi officials and their informers, who under German law have no right to anonymity.
Before that, however special permission has to be granted for spies to be identified and only then to the individuals who they informed upon.
Victims retain the right to their anonymity and can access archive material for free but those who worked for the Stasi are obliged to pay for access.
The German government itself has used the archive on 1.7 million occasions to establish whether civil service employees were former Stasi officials.
More than 480,000 former GDR citizens have also applied for information from the archive to help in their requests for rehabilitation, reparations and criminal investigations against the Stasi.
Journalists and researchers have made 27,000 requests for special permission to study the files.
It has been said that, following World War II, Germany was accused of trying to eradicate the embarrassment of its Nazi past by sweeping it under the carpet.
In contrast the Stasi Records Agency organises teaching seminars and student projects so that schools can teach pupils about the dangers of dictatorships.‘THE STASI HUNTER’
For some, Roland Jahn is in an unlikely figure to head the Stasi archives, for others he is the ideal candidate for the difficult task of learning from the past.
In 1977 the communist regime in East Germany banned him from studying because he had publicly criticised the extradition of singer-activist Wolf Biermann from east to west Berlin.
In 1982 Jahn was sentenced to 22 months imprisonment for publicly flying the Polish flag of the banned Solidarity group.
Jahn was himself forcibly expelled from East Germany a year later.
Ironically Jahn’s anti-war protests led to him also being jailed by the authorities in West Germany in 1985.
Until the fall of the Berlin Wall he used his expertise as a journalist to smuggle film footage of human rights abuses out of the Eastern Bloc to be broadcast on western television.
In 1990 he was the first person to be granted access to 30 boxes of files which the Stasi had compiled on him over a 30 year period.
The files included accounts of how the secret police followed his 8 year-old daughter on her way to school.
In some sections of the media he is portrayed as a Simon Wiesenthal-type Stasi hunter.
When we meet he appears personable, open, and willing to answer any question that is asked.
Since being appointed as Commissioner of the Stasi Records Agency in 2011 he has had to face new challenges, including being in charge of some former Stasi officials and informers.
While the 60 year-old insists that there is no place for former Stasi members to be allowed to work in the archive, he has had to accept that, under Germany’s employment laws, they must be allowed to keep their civil service status and can only be moved to another public body, even if they are identified as having worked for the secret police.
Can he forgive the people who had previously spied on him for all those years?
“It depends. That question also comes down to how much responsibility that person takes for their wrongdoing….for me, it was not easy to forgive, but it was not very difficult either, because I am a person who was already of the opinion that conflicts should be resolved in our society, and community with each other must be peaceable.
“So this path, explanation then reconciliation, was my choice and that’s why I could take that path.”
The archive has provided vital information to some victims of the secret police.
However its apparent inability to fully analyse the overarching context as to why some East German citizens became informers, has left it open to criticism.
Does the archive’s inability to include accounts of why people became informers mean that only half the Stasi story has been told?
“I wouldn’t say that the understanding is wrong. The interest is there, but we have a bigger picture to look at.
“We have researchers and scientists here, we have many books.
“My view, in my role as Commissioner of the Stasi Public Records, is that we need a differentiated depiction of unofficial informers.
“A system stood behind them… we see in the files how differentiated it is.
“Some did it for political reasons, some did it for money, some were in emergency situations or were blackmailed, so there were various reasons why people started.”
The former journalist admits that while the archive’s main priority must be to support the needs of victims, more could be done to encourage members of the secret police and informers to tell their stories.
“I think there has been too little of that so far. It has happened, some informers and also Stasi officials have told their stories and come clean, but that has happened far too infrequently.
“10,000 people were active and I would like more of them to tell their stories.”
The all-party Haass talks recommended the establishment of an Independent Commission for Information Recovery (ICIR), including limited immunity for paramilitaries and members of the security forces in exchange for providing new evidence on Troubles-related killings.
For its part the German model for information recovery does not allow for amnesties or immunity.
Jahn believes that it is impractical for one society to try to impose its model on another.
“Every country must look for solutions to its own specific problems.
“Germany had a particularly strong responsibility, because Germany had already been through a dictatorship.
“The way the Nazi perpetrators were dealt with in Germany did not go well, and we have learnt through that.
“We learned that it’s important that people answer for what they have done. It’s important not to just whitewash things again, but make people accountable to their society.”“THE COLD WAR CONTINUES”
However there are those who believe that the decision to open up the Stasi files has been highly damaging to German society.
Hans Bauer worked as a Deputy State Prosecutor in the former GDR.
He is chairman of the Society for Legal and Humanitarian Support, which represents and defends former Stasi members, border guards, communist judges and others who feel discriminated and victimised in the reunified Germany.
He believes that the decision to open the Stasi files has more to do with punishing those who supported the former GDR, rather than providing answers to those who were spied on and persecuted by the former communist regime.
“After 1990 there were two politically fair options: All files are closed or all the files are opened – East and West,” he said.
“None of these options was used.
“It is unique in the history that all acts of an enemy intelligence were opened – after a state unification.”
The former GDR prosecutor says that the opening of the files has led to the persecution of those who the files have identified as having worked for the communist state.
“Sure it does not surprise you that I judge the unilateral opening of the Stasi files after 1990 to be false.
“This opening was not a benefit to the citizens and the country (not only for Germany); the opening brought and brings to date a lot of damage to society. They divided the land once again, led to suspicion and enmity new. For many people it brought harm.”
However Mr Bauer claims that “irresponsible politicians” and media character assassination of those identified in the Stasi archive has fuelled the pain and division caused by the decision to allow victims access to the files.
He said some people had died by suicide or become ill.
“Because of this opening, citizens are persecuted to this day, there are prohibitions for their profession, the possibility to stand for election.
“The files will be used to continue the struggle against the GDR .
“The Cold War continues in Germany.”
SEE part four in this series: Growing up in East Germany