Secret Agents and the Memory of Everyday Collaboration in Communist Eastern Europe

Secret Agents and the Memory of Everyday Collaboration in Communist Eastern Europe


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The collection of essays in Secret Agents and the Memory of Everyday Collaboration in Communist Eastern Europe addresses institutions that develop the concept of collaboration, and examines the function, social representation and history of secret police archives and institutes of national memory that create these histories of collaboration. The essays provide a comparative account of collaboration/participation across differing categories of collaborators and different social milieux throughout East-Central Europe. They also demonstrate how secret police files can be used to produce more subtle social and cultural histories of the socialist dictatorships. By interrogating the ways in which post-socialist cultures produce the idea of, and knowledge about, “collaborators,” the contributing authors provide a nuanced historical conception of “collaboration,” expanding the concept toward broader frameworks of cooperation and political participation to facilitate a better understanding of Eastern European communist regimes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783087235
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 09/27/2017
Series: Anthem Series on Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Péter Apor (PhD), a permanent research fellow at the Institute of History, Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest, Hungary, is a specialist in the social and cultural history of East-Central European countries after World War II.

Sándor Horváth (PhD), a permanent research fellow and the head of department for Contemporary History at the Institute of History, Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest, Hungary, is the founding editor of the Hungarian Historical Review.

James Mark (PhD) is professor of history at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom.

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Bernd Schaefer


This chapter reflects on the historically unique beginnings of the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic's (GDR) Ministry for State Security (MfS or "Stasi," established in 1950) and the subsequent establishment of the Stasi Records of the Former GDR (BStU) agency between December 1989 and January 1992. Appropriately, the narrative driven by protagonists of the small former dissident movement of the GDR hails this period as a triumph, when "our Stasi files" were preserved, processed and prepared for individual access by "the victims." From 1992 onward, via media, researchers and many public and private documentation centers primarily located in Berlin, Stasi records and interpretations were also disseminated into the sphere of public communication. Independent of actual outcomes of national elections and shifts in coalition governments, the opening, access and public use of Stasi files constantly enjoyed overwhelming political and partisan consensus in the German federal parliament.

In close cooperation with parts of (Western-based) German media and the BStU, the dissident legacy then sought to shape definitions of "collaboration" and interpretation of "the files" authoritatively. Since after German unification on October 3, 1990, the new five East German states' civil service had to be built basically from scratch to replicate patterns transferred from West Germany. Definitions of individual Stasi collaboration based on files, and their application to a wide-ranging lustration process, had a major impact on public political discourse in Germany throughout the 1990s. The parallelism of administrative formation, urgent lustration of personnel and instant interpretation of Stasi files (often hard to contextualize) resulted during the first three years of public access in fast-paced, constant revelations in the majority of German media organs about the Stasi ties of individuals and institutions. For an extended period, public, as well as academic, debate over interpretative standards and shades of "collaboration" was institutionally monopolized and subsequently moderated by the BStU, which claimed to be the first and most authoritative interpreter of the files. In the early period after the official opening of the files, external interpretations usually concurred with conclusions that had been reached internally. It took years before academic researchers outside the BStU were able to engage with publications issued by the internal research department of the Stasi records agency. This was due in large part to the BStU's actual management of the files, and also to its administrative abilities to set timelines and scope of access for the media, researchers and victims (the groups/ categories entitled to legal access from 1992). Various factors were able to set the pace, content and parameters of public discourse, at least during the first period after the opening of Stasi files between 1992 and 1994: certain members of the German media were quite skilled in obtaining exclusive BStU access, and they sometimes used former Stasi officers as sources; former dissidents publicly analyzed their surveillance files; and authoritative definitions of collaboration were promoted publicly by the highest echelons of the BStU agency. Overall, it took more than a decade before a rather self-referential cycle of interpretation was overcome. Assessments of collaboration became more individualized rather than generalized, and Stasi files were better integrated into both general historiography and overall narratives of GDR history and its facets.

A Special Postcommunist German Feature: Stasi Files and BStU

The question of how to come to terms with the communist past in the GDR became a major feature of public discourse in united Germany almost immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of intra-German borders on November 9 1989. The first steps in this process were initiated in East Germany by multiple civic groups and local media, which found themselves finally freed from censorship. Steps were also taken, however, by many unorganized, spontaneously acting, and courageous individuals. These activities occurred during the GDR's last year, between November 1989 and October 1990, and thus before Germany's official unification. The last GDR government took important decisions in the context of democratization — such as the application of criminal law to perpetrators, rehabilitation and compensation of victims and the opening of the files. This government had been formed after the March 1990 elections in the GDR, which represented the first free and democratic vote in East Germany since 1933. Broad political majorities reached a consensus about the public duty to address, and possibly redress, manifold issues of injustice and repression committed during GDR times. This issue was subsequently taken up by the federal parliament of united Germany, as well as by the elected assemblies of the five new states in its eastern part after the unification of October 3, 1990.

Comprehensive exploration and detailed information about structures and methods of a dictatorial past, as well as the commemoration of acts of civic courage, opposition and resistance, were seen as necessary preconditions for a "healthy" democracy. Since 1990, all German federal governments and parliamentary majorities have been very clear in their expression of the necessity for a reappraisal of the communist dictatorship, and they have all provided ample funding in order to ensure that this perceived need is met. Wide-ranging and intense efforts by federal, state and local governments, the media, and civic society dealt in multiple ways with the range of issues raised by the demise of the GDR. Hardly any other democracy in the course of the twentieth century was financially able and politically willing to undertake more initiatives and steps towards application of various instruments of transitional justice in order to come to terms with the lasting legacy of a fallen dictatorship. Both quantitatively and qualitatively, since 1990 united Germany has had the means of doing so in the case of formerly communist East Germany.

Securing the Stasi files

When communist regimes in East Central Europe gradually lost their political power and in the second half of 1989 were overthrown or replaced, one after the other, by peaceful revolution or negotiated evolution, a unique feature was on display in East Germany in the first days of December: democracy activists and many concerned citizens spontaneously forced their entrance into district and county headquarters of the feared and hated Ministry for State Security. The Stasi, the "shield and sword of the party," which in 1989 had 95,000 employees and roughly 180,000 unofficial informers in its databases, had spied on every segment of the population and society of the GDR for almost forty years. All in all, nearly 600,000 registered unofficial informers and 250,000 Stasi employees were supposed to monitor the people during the four decades of the existence of the GDR. This constituted the highest national ratio between intelligence operatives and the civilian population anywhere in the world.

The takeover scenario of December 1989 unfolded in major East German district cities such as Erfurt, Leipzig, Dresden, Magdeburg, Halle and Rostock, but also in many other seats of district or county governments. When rumors spread that Stasi officers had begun to destroy self-incriminating evidence by shredding or burning files, activists seized the buildings. They sealed and secured millions of remaining surveillance files with the help of cooperating state prosecutors assisted by the police. The massive Stasi headquarters and central archive in Berlin, however, where major resistance was expected, remained untouched until January 15, 1990, when it shared a fate identical to Stasi compounds in other East German cities.

In early December of 1989, the Stasi did not put up any fight to maintain control of its properties and possession of the files in its district and county seats seized by civic committees. It ceded under peaceful pressure without resorting to violence — mostly because the long-time political foundation on which its authority had been based had ceased to exist: the entire Politburo and Central Committee of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) in Berlin had resigned on December 4, 1989 and thus de facto terminated the existence of a communist party in East Germany (its postcommunist successor parties were to break away from Marxist-Leninist ideological and structural patterns of the past). As the founding mission of the Stasi as the "sword and shield of the party" disappeared overnight, some regional Stasi commanders initially gave instructions to destroy incriminating files. Smoke from chimneys of Stasi buildings and the rapid countrywide spread of news of file burnings, however, triggered a popular movement to seize the buildings and stop destruction of the records. To a large extent, activist East German citizens, many of them with dissident church backgrounds, succeeded in this. Spontaneously established "civic committees" thus laid the groundwork for a special and unprecedented feature of East Germany's coming to terms with the communist past: early on, these committees provided necessary tools and sources for a comprehensive lustration process. Also, this allowed individuals to review potential Stasi surveillance and enabled researchers to study operations from forty years of intelligence work. The securing of the Stasi files established in united Germany a major pillar of the process of transitional justice that was supposed to be established and implemented during the following decade of the 1990s. In no other former communist country in East Central Europe were records of the intelligence services secured on a comparable scale and at such an early moment after the fall of a communist regime. Furthermore, whereas in other countries of East Central Europe intelligence operatives continued to maintain access to the archives, in the case of the GDR civic activists acquired control of the files.

Opening the Stasi files

In the months following the takeovers of December 1989, Stasi records remained under seal and were guarded on site by local groups of civic activists and the police. All too transparent, and thus failed, attempts by the State Security in the GDR to maintain a reformed, slimmer intelligence service provoked the storming and seizure of the Stasi headquarters and central archive in Berlin on January 15, 1990. Following various subsequent negotiations — between the weak, unelected caretaker government under former Sozialistiche Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED) politician Hans Modrow, the Central Roundtable of the GDR (comprised of all old and new East German parties and mass organizations such as trade unions, youth associations and the National Front) and the civic committees in actual control of the Stasi buildings — the former MfS was subsequently dismantled, its employees dismissed and its archives and properties further sealed in an overall remarkably orderly, nonviolent process. On May 16, 1990, the first freely elected GDR government under Minister President Lothar de Maiziere established a government commission to proceed with the further dismantling of the Stasi and to prepare a draft for a law to regulate the storage, administration and future access to the files of the former Stasi. Subsequently, until the end of the GDR on October 3, 1990, this legal framework for all issues related to the opening of the Stasi archive and future access to its files evolved into the most distinctive East German contribution during the accelerated process of German unification, a process that otherwise was dominated and guided by West German policy making.

On July 22, 1990, the GDR parliament took up its first reading of a draft on "securing and opening" the files for victims of surveillance and for researchers. On August 24, the deputies passed nearly unanimously a law providing for a comprehensive lustration of all East German parliamentarians as a first step of screening. A relocation and potential closure plan floated by the West German Ministry of Interior to move the Stasi records into the Federal Archive Koblenz, located in West Germany's Rhineland, was met by an outcry of protest in East Germany. It was considered a West German attempt to expropriate the former GDR of its history and deprive its citizens of control over access to "their files," which supposedly told the hidden story of their often-twisted biographies. Quite dramatic sit-ins in Berlin's former Stasi headquarters and a subsequent hunger strike by prominent activists and dissidents eventually rendered any relocation plans moot. Ultimate success in thwarting any plans of file relocation contributed significantly to the dissident-driven triumphant narrative of securing, guarding and opening "our" Stasi files.

On September 18, 1990, a clause was added to the Unification Treaty between the two German states according to which the future parliament of united Germany was commissioned to draft a law closely based on pertinent provisions from the August 1990 law passed by the East German parliament. With German Unification day on October 3, 1990, the Stasi records then came under the supervision of a special commissioner and his staff, whose offices were turned into an official Federal Commissioner's agency in 1991: This commissioner was East German Joachim Gauck, a Protestant pastor from Rostock and an activist from fall 1989 who had also chaired the last GDR parliament's committee in charge of dealing with the Stasi legacy. The first draft of the law stipulated access to personal files for "the affected" (commonly referred to as "the victims"), i.e., people on whom the Stasi had maintained surveillance files. It also contained a provision regarding access for researchers. Everybody with Stasi files still in his or her possession was required to surrender them to the new Stasi records agency by a certain deadline. Deliberately, the draft did not mention the question of media access, an omission that was reasonable but turned out to be rather impractical. During the turbulent years of 1990–1991 in Germany, through professional research and monetary offers, some journalists surreptitiously managed to obtain copies of Stasi files and leaked information from various sources. Potential leakers included individual members of civic committees in charge of Stasi buildings until October 1990, but also probably some staff from the Federal Commissioner's agency as well as the anti-Stasi activists' antipodes, namely dismissed and forcibly retired Stasi officers in need of money. Subsequently, journalistic outlets communicated to the German parliament that they would not abide by the Stasi draft law's clause on the surrender of all Stasi files to the BStU unless the final version of the law granted the media legal and comprehensive access to the Stasi archive. Ultimately, the media had their way, and the draft law was amended along those lines.


Excerpted from "Secret Agents and the Memory of Everyday Collaboration in Communist Eastern Europe"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Péter Apor, Sândor Horvath and James Mark.
Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Frameworks: Collaboration, Cooperation, Political Participation in the Communist Regimes By the editors; Part 1: Institutes; Chapter 1: A Dissident Legacy, The ‘Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records of the Former GDR’ (BStU) in United Germany, Bernd Schaefer; Chapter 2: In Black and White? The Discourse on Polish Post-War Society by the Institute of Polish Remembrance, Barbara Klich-Kluczewska; Chapter 3: The Exempt Nation: Memory of Collaborationism in Contemporary Latvia, Leva Zake; Chapter 4: Institutes of Memory in the Slovak and Czech Republics – What Kind of Memory? Martin Kovanič; Chapter 5: Closing the Past – Opening the Future. Hungarian Victims and Perpetrators of the Communist Regime, Péter Apor and Sándor Horváth; Chapter 6: To Collaborate and to Punish. Democracy and Transitional Justice in Romania, Florin Abraham; Part 2: Secret Lives; Chapter 7: ‘Resistance through Culture’ or ‘Connivance through Culture.’ Difficulties of Interpretation; Nuances, Errors, and Manipulations, Gabriel Andreescu; Chapter 8: Intellectuals between Collaboration and Independence. Politics and Everyday Life in the Prague Faculty of Arts in Late Socialism, Matěj Spurný; Chapter 9: Tito and Intellectuals – Collaboration and Support, 1945–1980, Josip Mihaljević; Chapter 10: Spy in the Underground. Polish Samizdat Stories, Paweł Sowiński; Chapter 11: Entangled Stories. On the Meaning of Collaboration with the Former Securitate, Cristina Petrescu; Part 3: Collaborating Communities; Chapter 12: Finding the Ways (around). Regional-level Party Activists in Slovakia, Marína Zavacká; Chapter 13: ‘But Who is the Party?’ History and Historiography in the Hungarian Communist Party, Tamás Kende; Chapter 14: Forgetting ‘Judas’. Priest Collaboration in Slovak Catholic Memory after 1989, Agáta Drelová; Chapter 15: Informing as Life-Style. Unofficial Collaborators of the Hungarian and the East-German State Security (Stasi) Working in the Tourism Sector, Krisztina Slachta.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“This excellent volume marks a genuine breakthrough in our knowledge about the everyday lives of the people who made up the secret police, of their motivations and their experiences. It challenges binary visions of the past and powerfully highlights the complexity of the term ‘collaboration.’ Ultimately, it makes a case for the human factor in the history of the repressive state.”

—Ulf Brunnbauer, Director, Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies, Regensburg, Germany

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