Reading My Stasi-File

The package containing a copy of my 396-page Stasi-file arrived in the mail without any forewarning on January 22, 1999, one day before my 56th birthday. What a surprise and unusual birthday present that was! I had been waiting patiently for almost six years, wondering all the while if I would ever see my file and, if so, what sort of information it would contain. I had no idea what to expect and, in truth, was somewhat apprehensive when I opened the package. I was eager to dive in and start reading and, at the same time, somewhat afraid to start reading. It was a strange and uneasy feeling, this fear of the unknown.

Inside the package containing my file, I found a six-page cover letter from Ms. Jabs, a Stasi Records Agency case worker. The letter is dated January 15, 1999, and makes reference to my application to gain access to my file, which the Agency had received on April 20, 1993. Ms. Jabs addresses and explains a number of important matters in her letter, most of which have already been discussed in the snapshot entitled “My Stasi-File.”

Ms. Jabs points out that the information she sent me comes from Stasi records that have been compiled to date. She says one cannot rule out the possibility that additional documents related to my person will be found as the ongoing organizational work continues at the Records Agency in Berlin and other repositories. But due to the large number of applications she has to process, she is unable to inform individual applicants when new documents have been discovered. Therefore, I should consider contacting her again in about two years with regard to supplemental information. Moreover, she also recommends that I submit a renewal application to the central Stasi Records Agency in Berlin, something I chose not to do.

In order to make sense of the material in my file, I needed to organize the individual reports. I began doing this in the fall of 2002 while I was on sabbatical leave and preparing to write a book based on my file. I decided to put the individual reports in chronological order, starting with the initial entry dated June 6, 1973 and concluding with the last entry dated March 17, 1988. Once I had completed that task, I removed redundant materials such as the second copy of duplicate reports and an irrelevant report on the activities of the US Peace Corps. I then went through the document again and numbered the pages, keeping them in chronological order. From beginning to end I now had a 300-page Stasi-file, something that would tell a coherent and intriguing Cold War story—my story. The Stasi Records Agency sent me 44 additional pages in November 2002, which also took me by surprise. These were reports and information about me that had been found in the Stasi-file of GDR prose writer Fritz Rudolf Fries, who had collaborated with the secret police in the 1970s and 1980s. Some sections of my memoir, Von Oberlin nach Ostberlin (From Oberlin to East Berlin), are based on material from what I like to call the Fries/Zipser file. In April 2012, I received another communication from the Stasi Records Agency, this time a letter with six pages from the Stasi archives regarding my alleged efforts to create an “inner opposition” among persons from the cultural sphere and writers in the GDR. This supplemental material increased the length of my abridged Stasi-file to 350 pages. That is the document that would serve as the factual foundation for the memoir I published in 2013. (Note: The Records Agency sent me the additional reports because it was preparing to publish that information. It was required by law to contact persons named in such documents and give them an opportunity to object to their publication.)

As it turned out, the day when my Stasi-file showed up unexpectedly in my mailbox marked the beginning of a remarkable transformative journey for me. For, the file has enabled me to relive some important stages of my life and my academic career in ways that would not have been possible without such a document. It also enabled me to rediscover the person I was in the 1970s and 1980s, and I learned a great deal about myself through the eyes and observations of others. I also realized that my experiences in the GDR and interactions with East German writers, bureaucrats, and regular citizens—especially in the 1970s and 1980s—transformed me gradually into a different human being, into a more compassionate and politically-aware person with a more comprehensive and conservative world view. And, I think the process of reading my file and the Fries/Zipser file, assimilating and reflecting on the contents of those unusual documents, and then writing my memoir, was life-changing as well. As I now write my snapshots, each one based on a special memory, I am acutely aware that I have at an advanced age embarked on another important transformative journey.

By sharing much of my file with readers of Remembering East Germany and this collection of short prose pieces, I hope to provide them with unique insights into cultural-political, literary, and everyday life in the GDR. Few if any Americans have experienced the GDR as I did, and I am pleased to share some of my personal experiences and memories so others can gain a better understanding of what life was like in the actually existing GDR, “the other Germany,” the nation with a forty-one-year history that no longer exists.

Reading my Stasi-file closely while writing Von Oberlin nach Ostberlin was a bitter-sweet, emotionally draining experience, painful at times—e.g., when I came across unexpected deception or outright lies about my person; reassuring at other times—e.g., when the file confirmed that none of my closest friends had informed on me, something I had come to fear. Much of what I read intrigued me, and it was particularly interesting to see how most of my informants tried to make themselves look good to their handlers by distorting or omitting certain facts or even fabricating things in their reports. In the end, I realized that none of them had done me any real harm, but that realization did not make me feel better about them. The file brought back many memories, good ones and bad ones; it also reacquainted me with Richard Zipser of yesteryear, a person I realized I no longer knew. One day, perhaps, I will find another package from the Stasi Records Agency in my mailbox, another surprise. But if that package never arrives, I will not be disappointed. Again, and especially after writing my memoir and then translating it into English, I have a serious case of file fatigue and am eager for closure.

In his eloquent memoir, The File (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), Timothy Garton Ash tells us how a Stasi-file

opens the door to a vast sunken labyrinth of the forgotten past, but how, too, the
very act of opening the door itself changes the buried artifacts, like an archaeologist
letting in fresh air to a sealed Egyptian tomb. For these are not simply past experiences rediscovered in their original state. Even without the fresh light from a new document
or another’s recollection—the opened door—our memories decay or sharpen, mellow
or sour, with the passage of time and the change of circumstances. . . But with the fresh
light the memory changes irrevocably. A door opens, but another closes. There is no way
back now to your own earlier memory of that person, that event. It is like a revelation
made, years later, to a loved one. Or like a bad divorce, where today’s bitterness trans-
forms all the shared past, completely, miserably, seemingly forever. Except that the
bitter memory, too, will fade and change with the further passage of time. (108-09)