On Reading My Stasi Files

On Reading My Stasi Files

Mini Teaser: Two years ago I applied to the German government to see my file, in order to find out exactly what the Stasi thought I was doing. After a delay of a year and a half permission was finally given.

by Author(s): Frederic L. Pryor

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the political reunification of Germany, the new all-German government made the extraordinary decision to open most of the files of the East German secret police, nicknamed the Stasi. Some of the files had been removed by the Stasi before the communist government fell; some disappeared during the confusion occurring at the time of the reunification; and some of the files were deliberately destroyed or withheld by the new government. But in my case, five thousand pages of file materials were intact and the gaps were relatively minor. For the most part, therefore, I was able to find out what actually happened in the half year that I sat in the Stasi Investigation Prison Hohenschšnhausen on suspicion of espionage.

From 1959 through 1961 I lived in West Berlin, writing my doctoral dissertation for Yale University on the foreign trade system of the Soviet bloc, using East Germany as a case study. In the course of my research, I conducted about thirty-five interviews in East Berlin, primarily about planning and decision-making in foreign trade. I also asked questions about the price-setting process for trade with other communist nations and, to place my research in perspective, about the East German economy in general. I consulted various libraries in East Berlin and read materials unavailable in the West.

On the night of August 25, 1961--almost two weeks after work began on the Berlin Wall--I went over to East Berlin to hear a speech by Walter Ulbricht, the head of the Communist Party, to learn how he justified this action. Afterwards, I tried to visit the home of a woman who was an engineer and economist who had been helping me to compare textile firms in East and West Germany. This was one of several small research projects I began after completing the dissertation and before I was to report for a job in Pakistan in November. The East-West political situation had become tense, so I wanted to cancel our joint project and say goodbye to her. Unfortunately, the Stasi had staked out her apartment because--unknown to me--she had fled to the West a few days before. Originally, the police thought I was coming to pick up her personal effects; they arrested me on suspicion of assisting her escape.

Although the Stasi had little in their files about me, within days they had a relatively good idea of my activities and, at that point, I was charged with espionage. The order for my incarceration was issued two weeks after I was initially arrested--and about a week later than the East German law required such orders to be made. Such legal niceties, however, made little difference to the Stasi.

The Stasi was responsible both for espionage externally and for counter-intelligence work internally. Other organizations carried out regular police and security work. It was a formidable bureaucracy that even had its own language; to allow me to understand what I read in my Stasi file, the specialist who handled my case gave me a list of over twenty pages of abbreviations used in the reports. By the end of the 1980s the Stasi had about 100,000 full time workers; and, in addition, roughly another 250,000 "informal co-workers," who submitted reports on various people or topics of interest to them. This means there was one full-time or informal co-worker of the Stasi for every thirty-eight adults in East Germany. According to one specialist, if laid end to end, the Stasi's files would stretch ninety-four miles.

In relative size, the former East Germany--officially, the German Democratic Republic--appears to have had the largest secret police organization yet known in history. By way of contrast, the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo, had only about 55,000 full-time workers for a population three times larger than that of the GDR. As for the Soviet Union, I was once told by Colonel Orlov, who was the highest ranking Soviet secret police officer to escape to the West, that his organization had only 50,000 full-time workers at the time of the purges in 1937 and 1938. He was not, let me add, a completely reliable source of information.

Two years ago I applied to the German government to see my file, in order to find out exactly what the Stasi thought I was doing. After a delay of a year and a half permission was finally given. The files included my dissertation, a copy of which the police found in my car, as well as a first-rate German translation made while I was incarcerated. It also had the reports from five months of daily interrogations; the interrogation reports of those whom I had interviewed or knew on a personal basis in East Berlin; reports about each of the seventy-two pieces of paper found in my car, in my wallet, or on my person; and a full transcript of the entire "private conversation" between my lawyer and me that took place in prison shortly before my release. Of greatest interest, I also found more than 350 pages of handwritten reports about me from my cell mate, written every day while I was being interrogated.

After a few hours of reading my files, I began to experience many of the fears that I had during my interrogation: a general anxiety, a fear that I might have hurt other people, and a hopelessness. I felt again what it was like in my cell, and the efforts I took to maintain some type of mental equilibrium--for instance, trying to remember everyone in my third grade class. In that reading room I began to have difficulties in maintaining my objectivity and I had to remind myself that thirty-one years had passed since these events took place.
The Stasi was preparing a legal document to be used against me at a trial, and the reports did not indulge in a great deal of speculation or hysterical accusations. Rather, most of these materials were factual and sober, especially since I had technically broken their espionage laws by reading doctoral and masters theses that had been declared secret. Indeed, the proof was in my dissertation where these theses were carefully cited.
By way of contrast, the reports of my cell mate were much more speculative. During my imprisonment I had no doubt that he was reporting something to them about me. But his reports show him to have been a very active member of my investigation. It was clear that he had read not only all of the interrogation reports but also outside materials relevant to my case, as well as informal notes of the interrogator about matters that were not incorporated into the formal interrogation report. Although I never discussed my case with him, he included all of these details into his own reports in a manner which suggested that I had spoken to him about such matters. In his reports he even suggested questions for the interrogator to ask me.

From my files it appears that the Stasi used three tactics with me. First, my interrogation officer repeatedly told me that I would remain in Investigation Prison until I confessed, and that I would be unable to contact the American Embassy, my lawyer, or my family. Such isolation, of course, was stressful. One reads that many made false confessions simply to come to trial and thence to a regular prison so that they could begin to have contact with their families again. Those who did not confess often stayed in Investigation Prison for periods longer than a year and, when they finally came to trial, were given extra long sentences because they showed "no regret for their crimes." Naturally, those who did confess were convicted, even if they repudiated their confession during their trial.

Second, my interrogator tried to convince me that he knew everything about my activities. Since I had spoken to my cell mate about my West Berlin girl friend, Helga, in whom I was seriously interested, my cell mate reported that he often discussed her with me. His notes make it clear that he attempted to awake in me the suspicion she had delivered reports about me to the Stasi.

Third, my interrogator tried to obtain a completely consistent story on every detail, no matter how trivial. Most importantly, he questioned me closely about each contact I had with East German citizens, carefully comparing my answers with the interrogation reports of each of these individuals to detect contradictions and lies. In this respect I quickly realized that since I had nothing to hide, it was best to be completely candid about these interviews and, as a result, no difficulties arose from discrepancies. But the thrust for total consistency led to weeks of interrogation about each piece of paper found on me. For instance, he placed enormous emphasis on understanding one line on my Yale University library card that said "Special student, only room 413." After five days I finally realized that in my last semester at the university I had not paid my tuition on time and, as a result, was permitted only to use the Economics Study Room of the library--Room 413. Then he moved on to questions about notes on other scraps of paper. Other former prisoners have told me or have written of the days of interrogation spent on the smallest details. These were not the interrogation scenes out of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, where the prisoner and his interrogator spoke of Dostoevski; this was a prison run by bureaucrats, not philosophers.

It was the attempt to awaken suspicions in me about Helga that had the most lasting effect. Even before I was arrested, I had been troubled by something in her character that I could not articulate. I knew, of course, that if she had actually made such reports and had been truthful, she could not have harmed me. But these lingering doubts destroyed my relationship with her after I was released, because I simply could not bring myself to trust her.

Such a tactic was undoubtedly even more effective for the Stasi when they dealt with East German citizens, since these people were immersed in a society in which anyone could be denouncing them or submitting reports about them. It seems clear to me that the constant need for watchfulness and the paranoia was the most debilitating aspect of everyday life in the GDR, morally more disturbing than the material difficulties arising from the constant economic shortages or the difficulties of traveling to the West.

I have always been ashamed that I could not allay my suspicions about Helga after I was released. Recently I have learned that such a tactic also had a lasting effect on others. In her book about her years in East German prisons, for instance, Ellen Thiemann writes that the common criminals had much more trust in each other than did the political prisoners. Only the latter had experienced many months of Stasi interrogation.

The Stasi treatment of prisoners was relatively individualized and they did not use certain tactics on me that they used with many other prisoners, such as bullying and yelling, sleep deprivation, drugs, or bribes. One note in my files suggested that they experimented with sleep deprivation by turning on the lights every five minutes while I slept. I was such a heavy sleeper that this did not bother me, and this experiment ceased. On the other hand, I have heard of no other prisoners with a full-time informer in the cell; most of the political prisoners were in solitary confinement. Apparently they felt my case was special.

But what exactly did the Stasi think that I was really doing, other than carrying out my research? At the time of my incarceration I never knew. From the files it was clear that very quickly my cell mate latched onto the idea that I was collecting information for the preparation of a foreign trade blockade of the GDR, after that country signed a peace agreement with the Soviet Union. My official interrogator, however, never directly questioned me about this or any related matter and it is unclear what he thought I was doing. But in his frequent discussion of this topic my cell mate's reports were a perfect example of crack-pot realism. Once he had this "insight," he tried to fit everything into its framework, even when he had to distort the information at hand. In reading his reports I began to wonder whether he was the head of the investigation, rather than the interrogator. In any case, he was no ordinary stool-pigeon, and there was an important division of labor between my interrogator and him, each supporting the work of the other.

Sometimes this working relation between my cell mate and interrogator worked to my advantage. Potentially, the most difficult part of my interrogation came from a curious source. An American woman in West Berlin whom I had apparently once met was arrested and told the Stasi that it was well known among the American students in Berlin that I worked for the CIA. She even identified my picture, probably because it appeared in a West Berlin newspaper after my arrest. I told them truthfully that I could not remember meeting her; and, although they gave me all sorts of hints about which of the three pictures they gave me to identify was hers, I could not pick her out. Since they knew my memory for faces was poor--I could not even identify the picture of a man whom I had interviewed several times--I was forced to spend half a day puzzling over the identification pictures. It gradually became clear to the Stasi that she was incriminating everyone in order to save her own skin, and I had no further difficulties on her account. Contributing to their decision might have been the report of my cell mate, who wrote that I was quite amused by this effort to establish a connection and did not take it seriously. I never suspected that she claimed to know me and had denounced me.

These interrogation reports had several curious aspects. For instance, some of those whom I had interviewed expressed surprise to the Stasi that, although I was writing a dissertation over foreign trade, I asked questions about a variety of aspects of the economy they deemed irrelevant to foreign trade planning; a broad approach toward a research topic was apparently unfamiliar to them. My interview partners also did not seem particularly bothered that I inadvertently asked about state secrets since, of course, I could not exactly know I was asking impermissible questions. What was a state secret was a state secret.

Several seemed fascinated with the stationary that I used to write for appointments: two or three commented on its size, or the letterhead. I don't remember what kind of stationary I used since I never paid much attention to such matters, but this is one example among many of the multitude of trivial details in which the Stasi had an interest. One person whom I interviewed even commented to them about my "good manners." The fact that the Stasi recorded this in their interrogation report--they usually rewrote the replies to their questions in a way that focused only on the important details--suggests that they found this aspect of me particularly significant and perhaps dangerous.

Some technical aspects of the Stasi reports are bizarre. For instance, the interrogation reports never mentioned the name of Walter Ulbricht, despite the fact I was arrested after hearing his speech and had previously analyzed some of his speeches, as I had told them. Rather, they always referred to him reverently as the Chairman of the State Council, a practice reminiscent of certain religious groups, who never directly write the name of God. I also learned the reason why I did not receive the food package for Christmas that my parents sent me: the Stasi used it all up in analyzing everything chemically, spectrographically, and chromographically to detect poison. The Stasi also never delivered to me several letters that my parents had sent.

My purpose in reading these files was to come to terms with my past, and I had no intention of denouncing anyone who might have supplied damaging materials about me to the Stasi. Nevertheless, I was comforted to find no evidence that would lead me to believe Helga had provided any such information. Moreover, it was also heartening to learn that, with the exception of my cell mate, all of the people whom I knew in East Berlin were quite fair about me. They could well have twisted things to make it easier for themselves; in this respect my experience was quite different from those of others who have found damaging and quite untrue reports about themselves from acquaintances and apparent friends.

But my greatest relief was that my contacts with various East Germans did not lead to great problems for them, something that had been on my conscience for three decades. Of course, I could not contact them after my release to find out what happened to them, because that might have increased their difficulties. One young woman, a medical student in East Berlin, had a particularly serious problem in explaining her relationship with me to the Stasi. She had never met an American before and considered me rather exotic, as well as a good source of information about the West. I, in turn, learned much about conditions in East Germany from her. We had nothing more than a casual friendship and, during our seven or eight dates, spend most of our time talking and learning more about life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. She finally asked me not to see her again because she feared the Stasi, and I, of course, agreed. In her interrogation, however, she could not explain this to the Stasi without bringing difficulties to herself. Instead, she told them that we broke up because she just wanted to be "good comrades," while I wanted to seduce her. I was interrogated about her for three days until I finally realized what she had told them about our break-up, at which time I "confessed" to them that I had sexual intentions toward her. Since our interrogation reports now agreed, the interrogator moved on to different topics. It appears she was allowed to continue her studies.

At the time of my arrest, my closest contact in East Germany was a professor at the College of Planning. When I telephoned him during my current visit to Berlin, he sounded genuinely happy to hear from me and invited me to coffee. Since my file designated three of the ten professors at his college with whom I had contact as informal co-workers of the Stasi, I offered to tell him their names. At first, he showed no interest, even though he himself had run into some severe political difficulties later in his career and was forbidden to publish any scholarly articles. But curiosity got the better of him and he finally asked about them. After I supplied their names, he and his wife expressed more surprise than resentment. They understood full well how people could feel forced to make such reports in order to retain their jobs or to make it possible for their children to study at the university. And, of course, once people started writing such reports to the Stasi, they were trapped and could not turn back.

On February 10, 1962, the East German attorney general issued an order for me to be released. Although technically I had broken their espionage laws, he stated in his memorandum that my transgressions were minor. He wrote that since my activities did not hurt the German Democratic Republic, there was no further need to pursue my case. I have not yet learned how he arrived at this conclusion, but certainly a reading of my dissertation showed nothing that would aid a foreign trade blockade.

The attorney general might have also been influenced by reports of my cell mate about my repeated discussions with him about the trial of Francis Gary Powers, and my declaration that I would commit suicide before allowing myself to be dragged before tv cameras for an open trial. After a while, my cell mate's reports reflected total boredom with what he described as my "Powers complex," but the message may have gotten through. Another contributing factor might have been the offer of a prominent West German businessman, with whom my father had spoken, to exhibit at the Leipzig Fair if I were freed.

I was not, however, actually released until almost a month later when, ironically, Powers and I were traded for the convicted Soviet spy Colonel Abel. By holding off my release for a month, the East Germans were apparently able to do favors for both the Soviets and the Americans at absolutely no cost to themselves, not to mention enjoying the benefit of a prestigious West German firm exhibiting at their trade fair. When they told me that I was about to be released, they also took away my belt and placed a Stasi officer in my cell to prevent any suicide; apparently my threats, relayed through my cell mate, were taken seriously.

I am not yet through reading the materials on my case, especially those that were not in the Stasi files but are in the archives of the attorney general. Because of gaps in the dates of the interrogation reports, particularly toward the end of the period, it is clear that some of my files are missing and it is doubtful that they will ever be found. I also made an application to obtain the addresses of my cell mate and my interrogator to obtain their side of the story. Although I was able to obtain the address of the latter, he was not willing to engage in an exchange of letters.

The opening of the files has created enormous emotional tensions for those who live in this part of Germany. Much bitterness has arisen, many friendships have been broken, and many have gone to considerable efforts to denounce those who betrayed them.
The opening has led to witch hunts against prominent East German figures. As a result, there have been considerable reversals of fortune, of which the most spectacular is the case of my lawyer, Wolfgang Vogel, who spent a number of months sitting in the Moabit Investigation Prison in West Berlin. Vogel is a thoroughly honest and courageous person and is not only the best known but also the wealthiest lawyer in the GDR. He was responsible for the release of about eighty thousand prisoners and others in East Germany, many of whom were ransomed by West Germany, others of whom were traded for those arrested in the West. He also received a hidden fee from the West German government for his help in these transactions.

Before being expelled, these prisoners for whom Vogel obtained a release had either to give away or sell their property at prices set by the government; otherwise, the GDR government would take over their possessions. Such transactions had, moreover, to occur within a few hours. Relying on a paragraph in the German law allowing former East Germans to get their property back if it had been extorted from them, fifty-six of those thousands of former East German prisoners for whom Vogel had bargained their freedom have recently accused him of having extorted their property. Vogel is also accused by the West German prosecutors of failing to pay taxes on his secret West German subsidy. In late 1994 he came to trial, and, as these lines are written, the judgment has not yet been rendered. His complicated and moving story is the subject of Craig Whitney's recent biography, Spy Trader (Random House: 1993).

My parents had engaged Vogel as my lawyer before he had started his prisoner exchange business, but I first met him only shortly before my release. I was on one side of the bars, he on the other. When I visited him recently during the time I was reading my Stasi files, our positions were reversed. Although he seemed to be able to bear up under the situation, I had a hard time maintaining my composure. He had been able to help me get out of prison in a totalitarian state; but now, I could not help him get out of prison in a democratic state. Indeed, his other character witnesses--many of the ex-prisoners whose freedom he had gained, including the well-known West German politicians Helmut Schmidt and Hans-Dietrich Genscher--appear equally unable to help him.

The specialist responsible for my files made me aware of one further irony after I expressed to her my anger that my lawyer was imprisoned, while people indicted of serious criminal activity were allowed their freedom during the investigation of their cases. I specifically mentioned the name of Alexander Schalck-Goldkowski, who headed the Stasi's smuggling operations and foreign exchange manipulations that provided an important source of finance for their activities. Allegedly he was also able to send many millions out of the country to Swiss bank accounts after the Wall had fallen. She pointed out that I had cited Schalck's master's thesis in my dissertation, one of the "secret documents" that I had read which brought me so much trouble, so that I was the first person to bring Schalck's name before a Western audience.

The cases of Schalck and Vogel raise a difficult question. To what extent should (and equally important, can) prominent East Germans now be legally punished, especially if they did not break the laws of their own country or violate basic human standards of justice? Erich Mielke, the former head of the Stasi, has been convicted of murder, but of a German policeman in 1931, not of the prisoners who died or were mishandled in the Stasi prisons under his responsibility. Schalck certainly violated Western laws in his complicated trade and foreign exchange transactions, but he did not violate the laws of his own nation. Unless the money he allegedly sent to Switzerland was embezzled, by what standards should he be judged? Although Marcus Wolf, who headed the Stasi foreign espionage division, has been found guilty of espionage against West Germany, he did not violate the laws of the country in which he lived. Equally difficult problems arise in the cases of those who played only a minor role in the system--for instance, the judges who handed down stiff sentences on the basis of confessions obtained by the Stasi. These judges acted in accordance with the laws of their state, and unless they gave long sentences for trivial political offenses that violate common standards of decency, of what are they guilty?

Up to now, most of those who have been seriously punished by the German courts since the Wall has fallen have been those like the soldiers guarding the Wall who acted under orders to shoot at people trying to escape. Others are people like Vogel, who, as a well-known person with the highest political connections, have been a convenient target of the suppressed fury of many who suffered from the East German dictatorship. Schalck, who operated in the shadows away from public attention, has not raised such wrath and has been treated more gently.

Although I gained some interesting personal information from reading my file, from a public policy perspective does it make any sense to open them? Certainly no other former communist nation has done so. In fact, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, which requires a vetting of the secret police files by a committee before a person can occupy certain key posts in the government or the economy, all other nations have sealed the files, although in most countries there have been leaks to the press for political purposes--mainly by politicians trying to smear a rival. For instance, according to an alleged Polish secret police report that was leaked, even Lech Walesa was said to have supplied information to them. Of course, Walesa has denied the charge and there has been no verification. The Czech decision has also brought difficulties, since some of those named in the files as informal co-workers apparently never delivered any information; those making the files simply wanted to appear busier than they actually were. A particularly tragic case is Jan Kavan, a well-known dissident who cannot clear his name in court because he cannot read his file--only a committee is given this privilege.

The various post-communist governments have offered a variety of excuses for not opening up the secret police files: the files are in too great a disarray; there are not suitable personnel for the purpose; such a step would exacerbate existing social tensions. Perhaps an underlying worry of these governments is that almost all leading citizens had some contact with the secret police, often quite benign.
The political advantages for the government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl of opening the files seem, however, quite clear, as a brief recitation of some crucial political and economic events reveals. After the Wall came down in November 1989, Kohl spoke of a political union of the two parts of Germany. But it quickly became apparent that this would take five or ten years. In the early part of 1990 he suddenly changed tactics and spoke of an economic and monetary union instead. I was in Germany when he made the decision for a one-to-one exchange of East and West German deutschemarks, a decision he was advised against by a variety of economic experts, including the head of the Bundesbank.

Because productivity was much lower in the East than in the West and Eastern wages were not correspondingly as low, production costs after the one-to-one conversion would be higher in the East. This would, in turn, make competition with West German firms extremely difficult and, in a great many cases, would force them into bankruptcy. But a one-to-one exchange rate corresponded to the wishes of the East German citizenry, who did not quite understand how markets operated. Kohl bowed to their desires, a decision that raised the unemployment rate from about 3 percent to 30 percent in a matter of weeks and brought the East German economy rapidly to its knees. As a result, the political union followed quickly: Kohl accomplished in less than a year what political pundits had previously declared difficult to realize in five.

But such a strategy to achieve unification also brought enormous economic pain in the former East Germany and a strong possibility that his government would fall in a few years following reunification. By bowing to the wishes of the East German citizenry to open the Stasi files, Kohl tried to accomplish two important political goals to offset these difficulties. First, he thought he effectively eliminated all competition from East German politicians. Any East German of ability who had the desire to accomplish something in that country under communism had dealings with the Stasi, since the Stasi had practically unlimited power. As a result, no politician of any stature has been able to emerge in East Germany who has not been tainted by Stasi contacts. Even so decent a man as Lothar de Maiziere, who was East Germany's Prime Minister after its first free election in March 1990, was eventually driven from political life for this reason. In 1993 Kohl wanted the next president of Germany to come from the East, but he had a relatively limited choice because of the wide net of Stasi contacts. His first choice was Steffen Heitmann, a political nonentity who had a singular capacity to enrage a large segment of Germans whenever he opened his mouth. Heitmann withdrew his candidacy.

Second, opening the files also appeared, at least superficially, to reduce the possibility that the East German population would ever re-elect a communist government. Why it did this is best indicated by the now-fading slogan on a building: "Who votes for the [successor to the communist party] votes for the Stasi; and who votes for the Stasi votes for civil war." With the slow opening of the files, the evils of the Stasi would remain in the public eye for many years.

Essay Types: Essay