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Stasi archives Berlin – Stash of secret police records now open

by Jan 10, 2019Berlin

The records of the Stasi, former East German secret police, are stored at the federal archive in Berlin and as of 2018 are open to the public.

For more than three decades, the dreaded state police (Stasi) in East Germany kept reams of secret files on its citizens. As of 2018, the Stasi archives Berlin are now open for public tours.

The trove of 43 kilometers (28 miles) of paper records are just part of the exhibits now available in the former Stasi Berlin archives building as of June 2018. This building is on the former Stasi “campus” of buildings — now called the “Campus for Democracy” – which housed the Stasi headquarters of the East German secret police.

Also on the campus is the Stasi Museum Berlin, an open-air exhibit (thus open 24/7) about the fall of the Berlin Wall, and an informational center filled with brochures and booklets for the taking. Just around the corner is the former Stasi Prison Hohenschönhausen, considered a house of terror during the East German reign, which you can also visit with a guide.

Stasi Archives Welcome Room

Four floors of Stasi exhibits and information

Four floors at the Stasi Archives Berlin are open for guided tours and are filled with insightful, provocative exhibits (called “Access to Secrecy”) about how the secret police operated, its legacy, the filing system, and information about particular cases. All is in both English and German, with photos, documents, audio recordings, films, and other exhibits.

Stasi archives Berlin tour guide explains an exhibit

Although the tours — offered in both English and German, with two types that alternate each week – only officially last 60-90 minutes, you are then free to wander around the exhibits as long as you like (You can also visit them independently). We promise that you will want to spend more than 90 minutes since there is so much to digest, so much shocking information about how the secret police tracked its citizens, and how those records were filed, used and abused.

Stasi Archives Berlin Index Card

Treasure trove of old Stasi records

However, you only get into the archives themselves with a guide, and even then, the guide has a guard – using what German like to call the “four-eye concept,” meaning there is one set of eyes and then another set of eyes to watch to first set! The current commission for oversight of the records of the former German Democratic Republic wants no missteps and no risk of anything happening to the records.

And don’t dream of getting too close to the paper files still stacked up on the shelves or, for that matter, touching them. Current employees are working to organize the decades-old files, which have been stored in climate-controlled, triple-locked, fireproof, rooms and chambers. Standing just inches from files, the desire to reach out and touch history is overwhelming, but a waggle of the finger and the raised eyebrow of a guard will stop you.

Stasi Archives Files Room

In total, our guide said, there are 111 kilometers (69 miles) of Stasi archived materials in different centers around Germany. You can also visit the Stasi Museum Leipzig, the former headquarters there. There were also more than 90,000 Stasi employees, of which 57,000 were in Berlin in the Magdalena Street headquarters. Our guide noted that just the mention of “Magdalena Street” meant “Stasi” and elicited great fear since it had such power to ruin lives and even kill.

Files on many of the 16.6 million East German residents

Think about these numbers: In addition to the miles of documents, there are

  • 47 shelf kilometers (29 miles) of filmed documents
  • 41 million file cards
  • 7 million photos, slides and negatives
  • 30,100 film, video and audio recordings, and
  • 15,000 bags of “fragmented material” (When the GDR was about to fall, employees started ripping up, burning, mixing with water, and shredding as much as they could, which current employees are painstakingly trying to put back together.)

Employees also engaged in what Germans translate as a campaign to “untidy” files by simply tossing them all up in the air and mixing them up so to make the job of recreating files as difficult as possible.

Requesting your personal file at Stasi archives Berlin

Under federal law called the Stasi Records Act, passed in 1991, any individual can request to view his or her files – or possible files – with certain limitations. And all files are protected. Some such searches after the fall of the wall resulted in uncomfortable revelations, for example, where a woman discovered her husband had been spying on her and reporting the information as a Stasi informal collaborator, of which there were 180,000. We know of former East German citizens who adamantly refuse to request their files – likely because of the possibility of shocking information that could upend lives.

Stasi Archives Catalog Cart System

Nevertheless, the agency receives about 40,000 requests each year, a number the government expected to go down greatly after the first few years of access but have in fact not gone down as much as expected. In the year ended in November 2018, nearly 43,000 such requests came in, compared to 49,000 the previous year. Since files became accessible, officials reported in November 2018 there have been 3.2 million requests to view files.

With the Stasi Museum Berlin, the Stasi archives, and the 0pen-air exhibition in the courtyard now open, plans continue to use the remaining buildings for other public uses, from arts to non-profits.

Visiting the Stasi archives Berlin

The Stasi Records Agency and its exhibits are open at no charge Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. At the time of this writing, regular tours are offered Mondays at 3 p.m.; Fridays at 1 p.m. in English; and Fridays at 11 a.m., alternating German and English, with alternating tour types. Best to email [email protected] and check on the schedule since most of the details are only in German on the website at this time.

Stasi Archives Therese Reviews Letters

The agency is at Ruschestraße 103 “Haus 7.” If taking public transit, when you exit at the Magdalena Street underground station on Frankfurter Allee, there are signs on the street to guide you, although you are right next to the campus.

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20 Comments

  1. The Stasi Archives would be an amazing place to visit. I read some books about secret files before our visit to Budapest last summer and found it absolutely fascinating the extent to which governments would go do get information on their citizens. It must have been such an unnerving time for residents. I can understand why many would simply wish to not know.

    Reply
    • Yes, Budapest has some dark history that is sobering too. We need to learn to not repeat.

      Reply
  2. What an absolutely fascinating piece of history! I had never heard of this, but it sounds like a very interesting place to visit, especially with all of the security and things they’ve done to protect the documents. I can only imagine that it would be a tough decision for people to request their documents and learn things about friends and family they never suspected!

    Reply
    • The Stasi worked so hard to keep them secret and then to try to destroy them to cover their tracks that anything is still possible. Security is a must. very interesting place to visit.

      Reply
  3. I find this absolutely fascinating and sobering. The sheer volume of records is staggering. I agree that visiting these kinds of museums as a tourist helps gain some insight into the real people that lived through these dark periods. Haven’t been to Berlin yet but it is high on the list and Stasi archives will be a must visit.

    Reply
    • Sobering is a good way to put it. Sometimes you just shake your head and wonder how somebody’s best friend — who was the best man at the wedding — could have spied on him. But that was a circumstance…. Gaining historical insight is key on travels we think!

      Reply
  4. This must be very interesting to visit- so many records! I think a tour would be the best way to get the most out of a visit here.

    Reply
    • A tour is best, then continue on your own to take in the exhibits.

      Reply
  5. Haha, 4 eyes. I guess it makes sense. So many family secrets hidden away it could be devastating. My first thought was, I’d be intrigued to read some, but I don’t know German. Thanks for bringing my attention to this unique Cold War attraction.

    Reply
    • The 4 eyes thing is something Germans used for covering how we might say “two sets of eyes” or something like that. Discovering family secrets that could ruin your life and memories would be pretty devastating, for sure. The archives exhibits are all also in English! and much of the website too.

      Reply
  6. I never knew this existed! I´m a definite history geek and I love these type of destinations so this would be a must for me. I wish I´d known about this on my last trip to Berlin, but it´s definitely on the list for next time!

    Reply
    • Berlin is a “history geek’s” heaven. yes, sometimes it’s a real slap aside the head in its darkness but vital to understand in understanding history today in context.

      Reply
  7. I learnt so much about the Stasi and different secret police through my degree. I feel this would be one of those things that I need to experience when I head to Berlin. Your guide is very thorough too, thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • You are welcome. see our other Stasi and Peaceful Revolution stories for more insights.

      Reply
  8. This is incredible, I’m definitely keeping it in mind when I visit Berlin again. The German capital has a lot of dark tourism attractions that I find fascinating

    Reply
    • Yeah, dark, but so real and so thought-provoking…. keep it on your list.

      Reply
  9. Although I was born in Berlin and now live here for over 50 years, this is part of the past that I do not like to deal with. Even as West Berliner this was always an issue for us and who knows what someone knows about me, what I do not know …

    Reply
    • Das verstehe ich voll und ganz, aber es ist trotzdem ein wichtiger Teil der Stadt…. really understandable, but it’s such a key part of the city, it remains something to add to the list.

      Reply
  10. 69 miles…I’m just letting that soak in for a minute. 69 files of files on citizens. The husband spying on his wife as an informant and more who refused to access their files because of info they knew would turn their lives upside down. That is incredible! I’ve been to Berlin and the outdoor part where the wall is but I haven’t been inside to tour. I unfortunately didn’t have that much time in Berlin, but I wish I had!

    Reply
    • Yup, that’s a hard one to wrap your arms around. seeing it is another shocker. take the time next time you are there. It’s a sobering moment that is worth the provoking of thought.

      Reply

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