The Corner

The Lives of Stasi Agents Don’t Fade Away

The 2007 Academy Award–winning political thriller The Lives of Others brought worldwide attention to the Stasi — the East German secret police — and its ruthless efforts to control an entire country’s population between 1949 and 1989. William F. Buckley declared it “the best movie I ever saw” before his death.

Well, it’s startling to see the Stasi live on — in a manner of speaking — nearly a quarter-century after the Berlin Wall fell.

Roland Jahn, the new head of Germany’s Federal Commission for the Stasi Archives isn’t happy about the fact that his agency still employs 37 former Stasi members. The purpose of the archives was to make sure ex–secret policemen couldn’t for career purposes make their spying career disappear and to grant victims of the Stasi access to their files.

Jahn is upset that Stasi victims have to interact with people who were in charge of their monitoring and even imprisonment: “Every former Stasi collaborator who is still employed by the agency is a slap in the victims’ faces.”

But Jahn is stymied by German civil-service laws that prevent him from laying off his unwanted legacy employees. They can only be moved to an equivalent position in other federal agencies and can fight to stay where they are. “Many employees say: no way am I moving on. And so the whole affair is delayed,” Jahn told German journalists.

The revelations have embarrassed Germany’s president, Joachim Gauck, because he was the first head of the Stasi archives from 1990 to 2000 and not only hired the Stasi retreads but lobbied to make their jobs permanent in 1997 on the grounds that their expertise was invaluable. 

But to whom? Some Stasi victims have raised fears that former agents could easily destroy or alter some of the 5.1 million personal files in the archive. As would be the case with Germans, the files were comprehensive; some even include jars with body odor samples taken from those arrested — the better for dogs to hunt them down if there was an escape.

Klaus Schroeder, a historian at Berlin’s Free University, told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that “ultimately, the responsibility for giving these people uncontrolled access to high-profile files lies with Gauck.”

Ronald Reagan once quipped that “the nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program.” Apparently, for some Stasi spooks the nearest thing to lifetime employment in their chosen profession is a job tending the files of the very people they once victimized.

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