East Germany’s infamous Staatssicherheitsdienst (State Security Service), or Stasi, monitored everything in the GDR. It ensured the security of the country’s borders, carried out surveillance on foreign diplomats, business people and journalists, and monitored domestic and foreign media. It was, however, in the surveillance of East Germany’s own population that the organization truly excelled. Very little happened in the GDR without the Stasi knowing about it: files were kept on millions of innocent citizens and insidious operations were orchestrated against dissidents, real and imagined. By the Wende the Stasi had a budget of £1 billion and 91,000 full-time employees and 180,000 informers within the East German population, figures brought into context by the punier, albeit more ruthless, 7000-strong Nazi Gestapo.
At the beginning of 1991 former citizens of the GDR were given the right to see their Stasi files. Tens of thousands took the opportunity to find out what the organization had recorded about them, and, more importantly, who had provided the information; many a friendship and not a few marriages came to an end as a result. The process of unravelling truths from the archives also provided material for many a story, including Timothy Garton Ash’s book, The File: A Personal History and the film, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Not all documents survived though: many were briskly shredded as the GDR regime collapsed, resulting in an unenviable task for one government organization which spent literally years piecing them together to bring people to justice, thankfully with some success.