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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.