In Search of My Stasi-File

With German reunification on October 3, 1990, a new government agency was established, The Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic (Der Bundesbeauftragte für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik). It was informally called the Gauck Agency (Gauck-Behörde) for short, after anti-communist human rights activist Joachim Gauck who served as the first Federal Commissioner from 1990 to 2000. The agency commonly refers to itself and is also known as the Stasi-Unterlagen-Behörde (Stasi Records Agency).

This office was responsible for preserving the records of the Ministry for State Security of the GDR, including files the secret police had compiled on individuals and stored in archives. There was a debate about what should happen to the files, whether they should be opened to the people or kept closed. The fate of the files was finally decided under the Unification Treaty between the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany, which allowed access to and use of the files under certain circumstances. Along with the decision to keep the files in a central location in the eastern part of Berlin, they also decided who would be able to see and use the files, and to permit individuals to see their own files. Following a declassification ruling by the German government in 1992, the files of the Ministry for State Security of the GDR were opened, leading people to seek access to their files. Between 1992 and 2011, around 2.75 million individuals, mostly former GDR citizens, requested access to their own files. The declassification ruling also gave people the right to acquire copies of their documents after certain information had been blacked out by a case worker, in order to protect innocent third parties.

In March 1993, I decided to join the ranks of those seeking access to their Stasi-files and sent the Gauck Agency a letter expressing my desire to see any documents they might have related to my person. The letter described in detail my scholarly work on GDR literature, my professional and private contacts with prominent GDR authors, some of whom I had hosted as guest writers in residence at Oberlin College. It provided a list of my publications and editorial work on various aspects of GDR literature. I also mentioned my many trips to the GDR and stays there, as well as my contact with the Writers’ Union and the Humboldt University. Finally, I inquired about the possible existence of a Stasi-file containing information on me and, if one did exist, how to go about gaining access to that file.

In April I received a response to my inquiry, indicating that I needed to submit two items to the Agency: a file inspection application on a special form and a proof-of-identity certificate. I dutifully completed the uncomplicated application form, dated it April 20, 1993, and returned it to the Agency along with a photocopy of my passport. In early May, I received a letter acknowledging receipt of the documents I had submitted and assigning a registry number for my application. The letter concluded with a vague and somewhat discouraging message indicating that, due to the large number of inquiries the Agency was receiving every day, the processing of my application would take some time. I did not expect that the processing of my application would take several years, but that is in fact what happened.

In June I received another letter from the Gauck Agency, this time requesting a notarized proof-of-identity certificate. I was told that the search for documents containing information on my person could not be initiated until that certificate was on hand. According to my records, I sent a notarized photocopy of my passport to the Agency on August 9, 1993, and after that I received no more communications from them.

In 1996, former GDR author Joachim Walther published his landmark study, Sicherungsbereich Literatur: Schriftsteller und Staatssicherheit in der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (Security Zone Literature: Writers and State Security in the German Democratic Republic, Berlin: Ch. Links). This 888-page book carefully documents and analyzes how the Stasi went about implementing and enforcing the SED Party’s cultural policies in the realm of literature, how it monitored and tried to influence and control GDR writers. Walther, who worked as an editor for the publishing house Buchverlag Der Morgen Berlin from 1968 to 1983, had been forced to resign from that position due to his opposition to censorship and related issues. He began working on this meticulously researched documentary study shortly after the “Wende,” the change in direction away from socialism in 1989 and 1990, following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Walther, and only Walther, was given full access to the files of all former GDR writers. In brief, his assignment was to use these documents to determine the nature of the relationship and level of collaboration between GDR writers and the secret police agency.

In the introduction to Sicherungsbereich Literatur, Walther comments on the reasons why GDR writers and artists were willing to work with and for the Stasi: “A special factor in the readiness of writers and artists to collaborate with the Ministry for State Security was the belief in utopia, along with ignoble reasons like careerism, envy, craving for power, and need for recognition.”(10) He also confirms my own conviction that high-level SED Party officials and Stasi officers overestimated by far the importance of literature in their society and the power of free speech; and that explains why they went to extraordinary lengths to suppress freedom of expression.

When Sicherungsbereich Literatur was published in 1996, I immediately purchased a copy and spent a couple of hours browsing through it. At one point, I skimmed through the index from A to Z, looking for the names of writers and other persons I knew. When I reached Z, I found “Zipser, Richard 533, 544, 546, 589, 598.” Five references to me, incredible! I then proceeded to read the reports in which my name appeared, reports from or about these four informants: Uwe Berger (poet, IME “Uwe”), Fritz Rudolf Fries (prose writer, IMV “Pedro Hagen”), Anneliese Löffler (professor of German literature, IMS “Dölbl”), and Paul Wiens (poet, IMS “Dichter”). The excerpt below is intended to illustrate the form and content of an unofficial collaborator’s report.

The lyric poet Uwe Berger, alias “Uwe,” handwritten on August 11, 1976: “June 22, 1976. In accordance with instructions, I called Sarah Kirsch [GDR poet]. I told her that Dr. Richard Zipser had mentioned her twice in his conversation with me. Specifically, he said she had recommended me, and that she and I are GDR authors of the literary genre that is his favorite. Sarah Kirsch answered cautiously. ‘When he was at my place, I gave him a number of names; yours was also one of them. He had asked me whom else I might be able to recommend.’ We then exchanged a few unimportant sentences. I tried to find out about her opinion of Zipser. But she only agreed with me when I said it might become a very valuable book. She thanked me for my call and waited for me to end the conversation. The motivation for my call was weak. Further initiatives of this sort could make Sarah Kirsch suspicious. My friendly rapport with her remained intact.” (533)

The last of these reports is about the poet Paul Wiens, who provided the Stasi with information on more than sixty German, French, Hungarian, Soviet, and Yugoslavian authors, literary critics, and human rights advocates. Included on the list of names provided in the report are three Nobel Prize winners: Heinrich Böll, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Andrei Sakharov. Moreover, we learn here that Wiens was also an informant in his private life. According to Walther, his IM-file contains private letters from the year 1972 to prominent GDR writer Irmtraud Morgner, to whom Wiens was married from 1971 on, with the notation: “from ‘Poet’, hand over at meeting.” (598) That notation alone speaks volumes about Paul Wiens’s unscrupulous character.

The informants’ references to me in five sections of Sicherungsbereich Literatur gave me the excuse I needed to approach the Stasi Records Agency again, this time with evidence that I in all likelihood did have a Stasi-file. Since more than four years had elapsed since my initial inquiry in March 1993, I wrote a more forceful letter to which I attached photocopies of the relevant passages that appeared in Joachim Walther’s book. In this letter, which is dated June 30, 1997, I asked about the status of my application to gain access to my Stasi-file, assuming that one existed. In the concluding paragraph I wrote:
The mention of my name several times in Joachim Walther’s book strengthens my suspicion that Ministry for State Security documents related to my person exist. I would therefore like to ask you, on the basis of the new information that has surfaced, to process my application as soon as possible and advise me as regards the existence of files containing personal information about me and, if applicable, grant me permission to inspect those documents. I would be grateful for a reply.

My letter had the desired effect; it got the process of locating the reports and other documents that comprise my file underway—at last! In September 1997, I received a letter from a case worker at the Agency, Ms. Eckert, indicating that the preliminary search for documents had met with success. In the letter Ms. Eckert stated that, due to the relatively small size of my file, they would be willing to make a photocopy of it and send that to me. She invited me to call her at the Agency and let her know how I wanted to proceed.

I was delighted to learn that I would not have to travel to Berlin, in order to inspect my file. I called Ms. Eckert and expressed interest in receiving a photocopy of the file and, when asked, affirmed that I was prepared to cover the expense of photocopying and shipping everything. She did not say when I could expect to receive the file, just that it would take a while to gather all the documents and then process and photocopy them.

After sixteen more months had gone by, my Stasi-file arrived in the mail on January 22, 1999, one day before my 56th birthday. That was a surprise as well as the most unusual birthday present I have ever received!