Huffpost WorldPost
John Feffer Headshot

The File

Posted: Updated:

Once, at the request of my employer at the time, I filed a Freedom of Information Request to get his FBI file. It took a while, but eventually an envelope arrived from the U.S. government. My boss eagerly opened it up. A great deal of the materials had been blacked out. On some pages only one or two words appeared floating in the sea of black. He was disappointed by all this "redaction." He was even more disappointed by the rather slim sheaf of paper. He thought he'd merited more surveillance.

The files left behind by the Stasi in East Germany are infamous for their magnitude (more than 100 miles of files) and their breadth (covering millions of citizens). As researchers patiently reconstruct the materials that Stasi employees tried to tear up before the archive passed out of their hands, the piles of files only grows higher. Tens of thousands of people each year go through the process of looking at their files.

Marcel Rotter is one of those people. He was born in Poland but moved at a very young age with his parents to East Germany. He grew up in Thuringia, in the town of Gotha, where decided to become a teacher of Russian and German.

"In 1988, I actually spent five months in Moscow for a qualification visit at Lomonosov University," he told me in an interview last April. "That was under Gorbachev. I collected a huge number of posters from Russia and translated the captions and exhibited them in East Germany when I got back. That was something the Stasi didn't like, according to my file. I exhibited the posters at Protestant churches when they had youth days."

The Stasi were also suspicious of his family's Polish origins and opened up their mail in an effort to nose out any connections to the Solidarity trade union movement. "Once I was in Frankfurt, that's when it really started," he continued. "The posters triggered that. It was basically just from 1988 until 1989. One of the things the file said was that I couldn't really be trusted with the socialist education of the students any more. And something had to be done about me. But they never specified what. And then the Wall came down."

In spring 1989, however, the Stasi tried to recruit him. When they called him at work to schedule a meeting, saying that they were the police, he had a feeling it was the Stasi and asked a friend to be there with him when they arrived.

"When they came, they showed me their Stasi IDs," he remembered.

"I said, 'Okay, you want to build trust here. But on the phone, you said you were coming from the police and now it turns out that you are the Stasi. So, that's the first thing I don't trust about you.'

They said, 'You have to be careful on the phone.'

I thought, 'Who else is listening but you?!'

Then they saw my friend sitting there. "If we are coming at a bad time," they said, "we can come back. We would like to talk to you alone." We agreed that she would take a walk for half an hour. Which was good: it meant that we had a time limit. They said, "We need people who can help us understand the Church. Because we are not in the Church, we have problems understanding."

I said, "Sorry, I can't help you."

In the end, they asked me if I would talk to anyone about the visit.

And I said, "Sure, you saw my friend, I'll tell her about it."

"Anyone else?"

I said, "I'm Catholic, I have to say everything in confession." This was a trick I'd heard from other people. Basically I told everyone who wanted to hear about it. I think that was the best strategy. If you didn't, people would have been suspicious. The Stasi didn't really like that. That too was in the Stasi file: that I talked to everyone about their visit."

Rotter's file came in three installments. It was rather anticlimactic. "There was nothing that really surprised me," he concluded. "I thought there would be a little bit more. I was disappointed! I wasn't so interesting for the Stasi."

We met at his office at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., where he now teaches German to American undergraduates. We talked about his experience in the Army just as the Wall was coming down, what it was like to be gay in East Germany, and whether places like Gotha will ever revive economically.

The Interview

When you were growing up, what did you think you would do for a living?

When I was really little, I wanted to be a circus clown. Later, I wanted to be an actor, which teaching kind of is. Pretty early on, I wanted to become a teacher, first an elementary teacher and then later at the upper level. I eventually decided to become a German and Russian teacher and studied at Erfurt at the Pädagogische Hochschule

When you were thinking about becoming a teacher, did you anticipate that there would be any political problems?

Yes, I thought about that. I figured I'd see how far I could go. At the beginning, even though I was qualified to teach 5th to 10th grades, I started teaching 4th grade, which is a completely different curriculum -- because it was quite a new school in Frankfurt an der Oder, and there were a lot of young families and young children. It was quite fun. You could keep the teaching relatively apolitical. I took that class up to 7th grade - up to 1989 when I was drawn into the army.

Over the last year, I got in touch with some of them over the Internet. Someone posted a picture of an old class picture from that 4th grade and wrote on it, "In the back is Herr Rotter. He was cool." So, I thought, "Okay, I must have done something right."

In Poland, Russian language was mandatory, but of course no one wanted to learn it.

It was the same stigma in the GDR. Nobody really wanted to learn it. Honestly I studied it not for the love of Russian but for the love of German. You had preset combinations in education, like German and Russian, and that was the only thing for me at the Pädagogische Hochschule. Then in 1988, I actually spent five months in Moscow for a qualification visit at Lomonosov University. That was under Gorbachev. I collected a huge number of posters from Russia and translated the captions and exhibited them in East Germany when I got back. That was something the Stasi didn't like, according to my file. I exhibited the posters at Protestant churches when they had youth days. At that point, I loved having taken Russian. I excelled at it. I was at my peak in 1988, and after that it just went downhill. I can hardly build a sentence any more.

You were studying German and Russian. And you imagined before entering the army that you would be teaching that for the rest of your life?

Yes, basically.

Did you take your first opportunity to look at your Stasi file, or did you wait?

The first time I asked for it I was living in Cologne. All they had was a notecard. The second time I asked I got a little more. The third time I applied I got the rest of it. It came in increments, so I had to do some reconstructing.

I entered the files in the 1980s through my friend Martin who lived on the same street as I did. We were close, both of us active in the Catholic Church. He was a poet and a singer. He lives as an author now in Berlin. He caused some trouble with street music in Leipzig, that's how he got into the files. Because I had family in Poland, they thought I had some connections with Solidarnosc. They started opening our letters to and from Poland, and everything from the West, letters and parcels. But they didn't really do anything aside from this postal check.

Once I was in Frankfurt, that's when it really started. The posters triggered that. It was basically just from 1988 until 1989. One of the things the file said was that I couldn't really be trusted with the socialist education of the students any more. And something had to be done about me. But they never specified what. And then the Wall came down.

They didn't trust you because of the Polish connections...?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.