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Stasi Files Expose Past Injustices

Some Germans worry that vigilante justice, social upheaval will accompany access to files

VERA WOLLENBERGER'S husband, Knud, swore to her by their children that he did not spy on her for the hated East German secret police - the Stasi.

He was lying.

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Ms. Wollenberger, an activist in the peace movement in the days of East German communism and now a member of the German Parliament, laid out in the press last month what it was like to discover that her own husband had informed on her.

When her husband confessed, she wrote, "Something took my breath away. Something in me cried, 'No!

She said, "What should I tell my children, who at this moment are hiding handmade Christmas presents in every corner? I don't know who their father is anymore."

Many more Germans are likely to be shocked by similar discoveries since their Stasi secret police files were opened to the public Jan. 1.

Many Germans predict social upheaval and vigilante justice, as those who suffered under the communist regime discover the identities of their persecutors - including friends and relatives.

The files, which contain information on about 6 million people, are under the lock and key of Joachim Gauck and his 800 fellow workers in Berlin. Mr. Gauck has been charged by the federal government to oversee the massive archive. Applications to see files must be made in writing to Gauck's office. Gauck's team will delete names of third parties and details they deem irrelevant to an application.

Gauck admits his office will be overwhelmed by an expected 70,000 applications per month. Although he has been given approval to expand his staff to 3,500, it will take months to clear an application. People who suffered special hardship under the Stasi, such as political prisoners and expellees, will have first priority. Requests from historians and the media will be handled separately.

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The new law is highly controversial. First, files may not be complete, since the Stasi destroyed many in 1989 and 1990.

Meanwhile, the press has complained bitterly that the law is tantamount to government censorship. The law also requires the media to return original Stasi documents to Gauck's office - documents which some reportedly paid large sums to acquire.

But the root of the controversy lies in the question of whether the pain of discovery and the risk of vigilante justice are necessary to "work out the past."

In a lengthy interview in the influential news weekly Die Zeit, Gauck said that the opening of the files to the public "will split society." He did not rule out violent reactions to file contents. In some cases, he says, he foresees people reacting "as would a mother, who, confronted with the murderer or rapist of her child, takes the law into her own hands." But vigilantism, he added, will be punished.

The intent of the lawmakers, says Gauck, "is that the citizen defines for himself: I would like to break off contact with this person; I would like to forgive this person; I would like to take this person to court.... Who, if not the person affected, has the right to decide this?"

Under the rule of law, the Stasi files would have been destroyed, because their information was collected illegally, explains Bundestag member Burkhard Hirsch, a specialist on judicial issues. But the German Unification Treaty specifically called for access to the files to be regulated. Were the files destroyed, says Mr. Hirsch, "the oppressors could get away unpunished and the victims left unvindicated." He hopes that opening the files to the public will break down mistrust and suspicion that still infe ct many relationships in east Germany.

But many east Germans have no interest in looking back, or overturning rocks which may hide painful facts.

"That time is past, and what's in my file, I know anyway," says Peter Garbe, a freelance photojournalist in east Berlin. "I have absolutely no desire to learn who said what about me, and neither do a lot of other Germans. We never trusted our neighbors, anyway," he says.

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