Piecing Together the Secrets of the Stasi

Piecing Together the Secrets of the Stasi

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The man who stopped Salomea Genin on the street in West Berlin, on that August morning in 1961, smiled as if he knew her. He was a “rather handsome gentleman,” she recalls, though he would have been hard to pick out in a crowd. He brought her greetings from East Berlin, from a woman whom Genin had met on a recent visit there—a secretary in one of the Arab embassies. He wondered if Genin would like to join him for coffee the next day. Genin was quite sure that she had never seen the man before in her life. Given her history, there was a good chance that he was an East German spy. She agreed to the meeting without hesitation.

Genin longed to live in East Berlin. She was born in Berlin in 1932, before the city was divided, but was forced to flee with her family at the age of six. The Genins were Jewish. One night in 1937, a boarder who was living with Salomea and her two sisters and her mother—her parents were divorced—denounced them to the local police. Salomea’s sister Franziska was sleeping with an Aryan, the boarder said, in violation of race ordinances. Franziska left for Australia two weeks later, but the rest of the family had to stay back. Salomea’s father had been imprisoned at Buchenwald as an arbeitsscheuer Jude—an indolent Jew—after being hospitalized with syphilis. When he was finally released, after the Jewish community helped Salomea’s mother pay a hundred marks in bail, he escaped to Shanghai. The rest of the family made their way to Melbourne in May of 1939, four months before the war began.

Salomea was a solitary, rootless child. Her mother had never shown much interest in her—she only got pregnant with Salomea to try to save her marriage, she later admitted—and her mother’s boyfriend showed even less. When Salomea was eleven, she was shipped off to a boarding school for seven months. It wasn’t until the following year, when her sister Renia let her tag along to a Communist-youth-group meeting, that Salomea began to feel at home. The Party was antifascist, pro-union, and radically egalitarian. Its meetings were fired with optimism and a fierce sense of belonging—everything Salomea had been missing at home. Soon, she was handing out leaflets and selling copies of Youth Voice in downtown Melbourne, reading Lenin (“Marx is too complicated,” she was told), and giving speeches on the steps of the Commonwealth Bank.

“Genin is a security risk,” the Australian Security Intelligence Organization concluded in 1951. It was the first entry in what grew to be a voluminous file. Later reports would describe her as an “unscrupulous and a fanatical Communist” and her mother and her as “a couple of mean, contemptible witches.” Genin was working as a secretary at a government-owned aircraft factory, the first report noted, but that could be easily remedied: “Her dismissal should not entail great administrative difficulties.” Three years later, having been sacked from a succession of jobs, Genin came to a dramatic conclusion. She had been to East Berlin a few years earlier, for the World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace, and had been exhilarated by the stirring rhetoric she’d heard. This was where she belonged, she thought: at the forefront of the Communist struggle, fighting to keep her birthplace free from fascism. On April 15, 1954, she boarded the passenger ship Otranto in Melbourne and returned to the country that had nearly killed her.

Or so she hoped. When Genin arrived in West Berlin and applied for residency in the German Democratic Republic her request was ignored. The East Germans thought she might be a Western spy—“They didn’t believe all my enthusiasm,” Genin recalls. The West Germans thought she was spying for the East. Each side sent agents to follow her. “At 10.00 a.m. surveillance was interrupted because two suspicious persons, presumably counter-observers, were in the vicinity,” the East German Staatssicherheitsdienst, or Stasi, reported on December 18, 1954. Genin was twenty-two years old, her file noted. She had “a stocky, powerful build, conspicuously strong haunches, a full round face, long nose, and dark blond hair.” She wore secondhand clothes, could seem shy and unsettled, and rarely made eye contact. Yet she had a “pronounced sex drive” and was “not averse to men.” All of this seems, in retrospect, unremarkable for a woman in her early twenties, alone in a foreign country and well aware that she might be under surveillance. But it worried the Stasi. They gave her the code name Stomper.

Salomea Genin’s G.D.R. passport, issued shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Salomea Genin, photographed at her home in Berlin in 2023.

Genin spent the next seven years trying to gain their trust. “The way I’m built, the higher the barrier, the more I’m convinced that I belong there,” she says. She moved to London for three years and joined the British Communist Party. She returned to West Berlin and wrote articles for the Democratic German Report, a socialist newsletter published by John Peet, a former Reuters bureau chief who had defected to East Germany from the United Kingdom. Finally, in 1961, after having coffee with the rather handsome gentleman who’d stopped her on the street, Genin got her wish: she became a Stasi informant, and later a citizen of the G.D.R.

The agent’s report after the meeting left one question unanswered, though even some of the Stasi must have asked it: Why would anyone want to move to East Germany?

Dictatorships depend on the willing. They can’t rule by compulsion alone. People support them to gain power or advance their careers, because they like giving orders or take comfort in receiving them. They act on their prejudice or pocketbook, religious beliefs or political ideals at first, then on their fear. They may not realize what they’re supporting until it’s too late. In 1953, less than a year before Genin came to Germany, more than a million East Germans took part in strikes and demonstrations across the country. They were protesting low wages and inhuman production quotas, fuel shortages and rising food prices. Within days, Soviet forces had crushed the uprising, marching on more than fifty cities and arresting some fifteen thousand protesters. In East Berlin, Soviet tanks charged into unarmed crowds and troops fired on civilians.

Genin didn’t believe any of it. Those stories were just capitalist lies, she thought. Like the American socialists who admired Stalin in the nineteen-thirties, or the Russians who support the war in Ukraine today, she accepted the government’s version of events. The Army wasn’t attacking innocent civilians in Berlin; it was protecting them from totalitarianism. The workers’ uprising was really a fascist coup. By 1954, when Genin arrived in West Berlin, more than thirty thousand East Germans were fleeing across the border into the West each month. According to Genin, this was another example of the West bleeding the East dry—luring its citizens with false hopes of wealth and ease. When the Wall went up across Berlin, seven years later, she was all for it. The East Germans had to protect themselves from bad influences, she thought. The Wall wasn’t meant to keep them in; it was meant to keep their enemies out.

“Not it!”

Cartoon by Emily Flake

When Genin finally moved to East Berlin, on May 16, 1963, her first thought was “Home at last.” She stayed in a dormitory for eight weeks, while her paperwork was processed. Then the Stasi found her an apartment in the Treptow district—a fifth-floor walkup with a sink for a bathtub and a coal-fired stove for heat—and a job as a typist at an electronics factory. They kept their distance for the first year, as she settled in. Then, one day, a man in a gray suit came to her door and rang the bell. “He said, ‘Hello, I’m from State Security,’ ” she recalled last September, when I visited her in Germany. “And I breathed a sigh of relief and let him in.”

We were sitting in her small, sunlit apartment in Berlin’s Mitte district, once the heart of East Berlin, now home to art galleries, an Apple store, and a purveyor of Swedish electric cars. Genin is ninety-one—no longer the stocky, hard-charging Stomper of her Stasi file but remarkably clear-minded for her age. She has thick gray hair, a blunt nose, and eyes that peer skeptically through oversized glasses. She speaks English with a mild accent—her bright Australian vowels cross-grained by grumbly German consonants—and tells stories with methodical precision, ticking off names and dates like items in a safe-deposit box. “There is only one way to live with my life,” she said. “And that’s to be open about the facts.” In 2009, she published an autobiography entitled “Ich Folgte den Falschen Göttern” (“I Followed the Wrong Gods”).

East Germans all seem to know a few stories like Genin’s. They tell them about their neighbors and co-workers and best friend’s cousins. They watch “The Lives of Others”—the 2006 film about a Stasi agent who spies on a playwright and his girlfriend—and shake their heads, saying, “They should have made it about my Tante Hilda.” The sheer number and surreal specificity of Stasi stories are proof of the agency’s insidious reach, of how deeply it infiltrated every corner of East German society. But they also show how thoroughly its secrets were later exposed. In January, 1992, the newly unified German government made almost the entire archive of Stasi reports available to the public: a hundred and eleven kilometres of files, divided into some nine thousand index headings, covering half a century of surveillance. It was the most radical release of state secrets in history: WikiLeaks on a vast scale.

The Stasi files offer an astonishingly granular picture of life in a dictatorship—how ordinary people act under suspicious eyes. Nearly three hundred thousand East Germans were working for the Stasi by the time the Wall fell, in 1989, including some two hundred thousand inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or unofficial collaborators, like Genin. In a population of sixteen million, that was one spy for every fifty to sixty people. In the years since the files were made public, their revelations have derailed political campaigns, tarnished artistic legacies, and exonerated countless citizens who were wrongly accused or imprisoned. Yet some of the files that the Stasi most wanted to hide were never released. In the weeks before the Wall fell, agents destroyed as many documents as they could. Many were pulped, shredded, or burned, and lost forever. But between forty and fifty-five million pages were just torn up, and later stuffed in paper sacks.

The Germans have spent the past thirty years piecing them back together. The work is done by hand at Stasi Central, in Berlin, the former headquarters of the State Security Service, and is often touted as a symbol of the country’s unwavering commitment to transparency. Yet progress has been excruciatingly slow. Creating the files took hundreds of thousands of spies and informants, but reconstructing them has been left to only a dozen or so archival workers—jigsaw puzzlers of a sort. In the decades since the Wall fell, they’ve reassembled less than five per cent of the torn pages. At this pace, finishing the job will take more than six hundred years.

Last fall, the Stasi archive launched a new effort to automate the project, in the hope that the latest scanners and artificial-intelligence programs could accelerate the process. The files have never seemed more relevant. One in five Germans now supports the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland, and authoritarian parties have been on the rise across Europe. Yet the archive has always faced opposition from two sides: politicians threatened by what its files might contain, and former East Germans who say that the files offer only a narrow, twisted view of their history—one that the West has been all too eager to promote. The Stasi files are like an endless police blotter: a meticulous, bewilderingly detailed account of an entire society’s deceptions and betrayals.

Stasi Central sits on the desolate outskirts of eastern Berlin. From the ground, it has the dingy, dispirited look of an abandoned factory: dozens of prefabricated concrete buildings hunkered around a courtyard, with their backs to the city. From the sky, it looks like a hedge maze. In 1950, when the Stasi first moved into a former finance office here, the German Democratic Republic had just been founded. Three years later, it was in a state of fear. During the workers’ uprising, protesters nearly seized the government’s headquarters, in Berlin, before the Soviet Army intervened. Afterward, when some fifteen hundred protesters had been served with lengthy prison sentences, the ruling Socialist Unity Party resolved never to be caught off guard again. It needed an early-warning system—a way to know what East Germans were thinking before those thoughts coalesced into action. The Stasi had been focussing on foreign agents and other threats from abroad. The real danger was at home.

Stasi Central, in Berlin, the former headquarters of the East German State Security Service.

Nothing was too trivial for the Stasi’s scrutiny. One facility in Berlin was devoted solely to steaming open and reading several thousand private letters a day. Another was full of engineers devising fiendishly miniaturized surveillance devices: pinhole cameras that could hide behind a buttonhole; pea-size microphones inserted into fountain pens, table legs, or fake sugar cubes. To spy on a private residence, an agent might set up in the apartment next door, drill a hole through the wall, and slip in a flexible tube with an eyepiece on one end and a lens on the other. To take surveillance pictures at night, the agent might trigger an array of infrared flashes, concealed inside a car door, when the target walked by. So few places were safe from Stasi eyes and ears that some people are said to have saved their most sensitive conversations for Ping-Pong games in the city parks. When the Stasi found out, it was later rumored, they hung microphones from the trees.

On the evening of January 15, 1990, two months after the Wall fell, more than ten thousand protesters gathered outside the main gate of Stasi Central, carrying bricks and shouting, “If you don’t let us in, we’ll wall you in!” It was a long time coming. Most Stasi offices elsewhere in the country had been seized a few weeks earlier. The East German parliament had officially ended the rule of the Socialist Unity Party on the first of December, and the politburo had resigned two days later. By then, in the city of Erfurt, three hours southwest of Berlin, there were reports of smoke billowing above the local Stasi headquarters. Were the agents burning files? Within a day, activists from a group called Women for Change had rallied citizens to occupy the building; other citizens’ groups across East Germany followed suit. The takeovers were swift and mostly by the book. The activists worked with local police and brought in newly deputized state prosecutors to secure the files. They wanted to be as clear and lawful as their predecessors had been treacherous.

Stasi Central was a more daunting target. The compound had as many as seven thousand employees and a record of ruthless brutality. It was a place of immense, forbidding power. “Nobody expected to be killed immediately, but it was intimidating,” David Gill, the head of the citizens’ committee that was formed after the complex was seized, told me. The agents at Stasi Central were soaking pages and turning them to pulp, so there was no telltale smoke above the facility. Still, Gill said, “everyone knew.” When I asked him why they waited two months to save the files, he said, “That’s a question that I often ask myself.”

Gill and I were standing at the heart of the compound. Across the courtyard stood the hulking administrative building once ruled over by Erich Mielke, the agency’s shadowy chairman. On the first night of the protests in 1990, some Stasi workers opened the gate eventually, but they diverted the crowd to a nearby cultural building. Mielke’s offices weren’t occupied until the following night, when Gill joined the protesters.

“It still smells and looks the same,” he said, as we stepped into the lobby. When he and the others first rushed in, he recalled, he looked around at all the oak panelling and the banal middle manager’s desk in Mielke’s office and thought, Was für ein Spießbürger! What a philistine. How could this place have filled them with such fear? “But, compared with the rest of East Germany, this was luxury,” he said.

Gill is now the German consul-general of New York, a seasoned diplomat with plump cheeks, impish eyes, and a calm, knowing manner. After reunification, he earned a law degree and served as chief of staff for Joachim Gauck, the President of Germany from 2012 to 2017. But in 1990 he was just a former plumber who was studying to be a Protestant minister like his father. He joined the citizens’ committee by chance, after talking to a fellow-protester who took him to meet the leaders of the occupation, and was soon elected to be its president. He was one of the few committee members with any political experience. After tenth grade, he had attended a parochial school not recognized by the state, where the curriculum wasn’t dictated by Marxist-Leninist principles. “I was unideologized,” he told me. “We had a student parliament, so I was used to debating and giving speeches—nothing you would have learned in regular school.”

Cartoon by Tom Chitty

After the Wall fell, a group of opposition leaders and East German politicians formed the Central Round Table, moderated by clergy, to oversee the transition to a new government. The citizens’ committee, meanwhile, was put in charge of deciding what to do about the Stasi and their files. There is a photograph of Gill at a press conference not long after Stasi Central was taken. His shirt is rumpled and his sleeves rolled up; his hair nearly covers his eyes. He leans over his microphone with a look of vexed intensity, as if preparing to cut off some thickheaded questioner. Even in the giddy months of the Peaceful Revolution, as it was called, the Stasi files were a point of bitter dispute. One faction of the citizens’ committee wanted to preserve them; the other wanted to destroy them. East Germans feared that the records could still be used against them. West Germans worried that the files would expose some of their own intelligence agents. Only the Stasi knew what was in the files, and they warned that the information could destroy all of East German society. “They said, ‘These files are social dynamite—the whole country will blow up,’ ” Gill told me. “ ‘People will be killing their neighbors because they worked for the Stasi.’ ”

Those in favor of destruction were in the majority at first, Roland Jahn, an East German dissident who went on to direct the Stasi archive, told me. “Many West Germans, including Helmut Kohl, were also of the opinion that these files are poison,” he said. At a minimum, the records of the foreign-intelligence service should be destroyed, the Stasi insisted. The Round Table and the citizens’ committee eventually consented. But the information wasn’t entirely lost. The C.I.A. later admitted that it had a microfilm of the foreign service’s central index system—obtained through a K.G.B. agent, some said. The index, code-named Rosenholz, listed more than a hundred and fifty thousand Stasi operatives and other persons of interest in West Germany, and nearly sixty thousand spying operations. But the specifics behind it were gone.

“That was one of our biggest mistakes,” Gill told me. “We shouldn’t have followed the fearmongers.” Stasi espionage in the West was often used against citizens in the East, he explained: “They wanted to inform themselves about the East German opposition via their West German supporters, and to know when people planned to escape.” Still, Gill and the others drew the line at destroying the rest of the files. They knew how quickly a country could forget its past. After the Second World War, the Allies tried to “de-Nazify” the West German population, insisting that former Nazi Party members compile lengthy dossiers to prove their innocence or their contrition. But most of the evidence was buried or whitewashed: fewer than seven thousand West Germans were convicted of crimes that they had committed as Party members. Twenty years later, during the student protests of the late sixties, the West German government and military were found to be riddled with former Nazis. “I think this is deep-seated in the culture—the idea that our history teaches us something,” Dagmar Hovestädt, the former head of research and outreach for the Stasi archive, told me. “We messed up twice—once horrifically. Never again should that happen.”

Days before East Germany’s first free elections, in March of 1990, word spread that Wolfgang Schnur, a longtime civil-rights lawyer and the leading candidate for Prime Minister, had been a Stasi informant. The news was hard for most East Germans to believe, but activists in the port city of Rostock, where Schnur practiced law, h

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