The Stasi's Long Shadow

During the Vietnam War, the United States dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, which was, per capita, the most bombed country in history. Nearly one-third of those bombs didn't explode on contact. It's been 40 years since the bombing campaign stopped and yet more than 100 people have died over the last couple years when they encountered these exploded bombs.

It's been 24 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the effective end of the East German state security service known as the Stasi. After German reunification, the Stasi files were open to the public. There was plenty of explosive information in those files. Friendships were ruined, marriages broke up. There were even several suicides. But there was no violent revenge. It seemed as though Germany managed its Communist-era secrecy problem in one very difficult, rip-the-Bandaid-off maneuver. It hurt. But it was over relatively quickly.

But, no, the Stasi issue continues to haunt Germany. For one thing, there is still a huge amount of paper -- 45 million pages -- that the Stasi tried to destroy by hand when the motors burned out in the office shredders and that computers and restoration experts are patiently trying to reassemble. New revelations continue to appear, like the Swedish pastor who admitted last year that he spied for the Stasi. Thousands of people each year are looking at their files for the first time and learning painful truths. Then there are the files that haven't been released because they implicate the agents the Stasi was running in the West. Talk about unexploded ordnance.

"Until today it is impossible to identify the Stasi collaborators in the West," Vera Lengsfeld told me over coffee in Berlin last February. "So, former Stasi people sit in Brussels today. One is leading the negotiations on treaties with Iceland. Another is the head of the anti-corruption department in Brussels."

Vera Lengsfeld was a prominent East German dissident who was eventually arrested, tried, and kicked out of the country in 1988. She returned after the Wall fell to become a leading East German politician and then a representative in the all-German parliament. She is very proud of the work that she and her colleagues accomplished during their short tenure as representatives in democratic East German parliament in 1990.

"For example, we made the decision that the Stasi files would be opened after reunification," she remembered. "We also proposed that Stasi collaborators and Stasi officers should not get pensions any higher than the average East German. This was even written into the unification treaty, and it was carried out for 10 years. They only got the average pension for East Germans. But then they went to the constitutional court in Germany, and this court decided that they should get pensions according to their salaries."

The Stasi continues to cast a long shadow over German reunification. But the shadow could have been much longer. "We never wanted to use the methods that the Stasi used against us," Vera Lengsfeld told me. "We rejected the idea of pursuing them or killing them or something like that. So, we have to endure that they are among us. I think this was the right decision. You cannot come out of this spiral of violence if you use the same methods as your adversary, yes?"

If she'd had a choice, Vera Lengsfeld never would have looked at her own Stasi file. But she didn't have a choice. Even before the files became public, a journalist called her up with horrifying information about the identity of her Stasi informant, someone much closer to her than she ever imagined.

We talked about her successes as a beekeeper-dissident, the differences between her parliamentary experience in East Germany and in reunified Germany, her efforts to convert military areas into environmental preserves, and her eventual disenchantment with the Green Party.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I was with friends visiting a very well known author named Christa Wolf, who lived nearby in Amalienpark. We tried to persuade her to become the president of the GDR. She refused because she said she'd had a heart attack two days before and she couldn't do any more than what she'd done already. Then we left her flat, which was on Breite Straße. It was at night. And we saw two young men dancing along the perfectly empty street. When they saw us, they rushed towards us and cried, "The Wall came down at Bornholmmer Straße, and we are going to get our wives!"

So we immediately got in our Trabant and drove 800 meters or so to Bornholmer Straße. A huge crowd had already assembled there. Then came the moment that the crowd poured across the bridge toward West Berlin. And it was amazing! I saw a barracks at the beginning of the bridge, a barracks for the soldiers who did their duty at the border. It wasn't the police but rather the border army. They stood with their backs to the wall of the barracks, and every single one of them had flowers in their buttonholes and their caps and they had bottles in their hands of either wine or champagne or beer or something like that. They stood like puppets, motionless! I went over to them. I looked for the highest officer, and I asked him, "How do you feel now?" But he didn't move a muscle in his face.

So I left him alone and went with the others over the bridge. On the west side of the bridge, I went into a telephone box to call my son. I told him that the Wall was down. After that we went to a bus stop. The regular bus was pulling in, and the bus driver was very surprised. He asked, "Well, where are you guys coming from?" It usually was a very quiet bus stop right at the border. We told him we are coming from East Berlin. And he was so surprised that he dropped his usual route and he gave us a sightseeing tour through West Berlin. This was late at night, close to midnight.

Was Christa Wolf the first person you had approached to be the president?

Yes, and the only person. It was earlier that same evening when I was with my friends watching the famous appearance of Central Committee spokesman Gunter Schabowski on TV. We heard what he said, but we didn't realize that this would lead to the immediate fall of the Wall. The only thing we thought was that we have to take the next step, and the next step would be to install a president of our own. She didn't think it was a strange request. At that time, everything sounded possible.

And why didn't you go visit anybody else after the Wall fell to make the same request?

Oh because then everything was moving so fast. Very soon we formed the so-called round table, and I was a member of the committee at the round table that was told to write a new constitution for East Germany. Everything was going so fast that we simply had to run to catch up with the development.

Let me go back in time a little bit. I am interested when you became involved in what was called here the civic moments.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.