Gauck Commission

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During the democratic revolution in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1989 and 1990, civil rights activists stormed the regional and central headquarters of the Ministry for State Security, the GDR's omnipresent secret police (colloquially known as the Stasi), in order to halt the destruction of records and to press for an unsparing exposure of the abuses and crimes committed by this most important instrument of repression and surveillance of the communist government. In August 1990 the democratically elected People's Chamber voted to open the files and named a member, Joachim Gauck, a Protestant priest representing the civil rights movement, to head the parliamentary commission in charge of carrying out the work involved. Putting a federal commissioner in charge of preservation and reconstruction of and access to the files made this work part of the Unification Treaty between the Federal Republic and the GDR. Gauck acted as commissioner for the two terms that were allowed and in October 2000 was followed by Marianne Birthler, an economist, Green Party member, and former dissident who had held several parliamentary and regional government positions during the 1990s.


In December 1991 the Bundestag passed the Stasi records law, providing the legal basis for the commissioner's work, which involves: 1) making files accessible to the individuals who were spied on or otherwise affected by Stasi operations; 2) answering questions from public institutions and employers about their employees' involvement with the Stasi; and 3) assisting the public in uncovering the communist government's abuses of state power and in reconstructing the past by making records accessible to researchers and the media and by maintaining its own research and education department. In order to protect individual privacy, personal files are made available only to the individual victims of Stasi operations, and only through photocopies from which the identities of other individuals, with the exception of Stasi collaborators, are edited out. As a general rule, former full-time Stasi members and unofficial informants are denied access to personal files written by themselves. Only when Stasi victims are considered "important personalities of contemporary history" is anonymity not required. Access to information about full-time and unofficial Stasi collaborators and to the other nonpersonal files is unrestricted.

The sheer size of the Stasi's inventory (112 miles of files) made it difficult to put these rules into effect. Between 1991 and 2003, some two million individuals were given access to their files, three million inquiries from public institutions were answered, and fifteen thousand research applications were processed. Because according to the Stasi records law internal documentation of the archives (catalogs, card files, registries) is not accessible to the public, every query must be answered on the basis of a separate research process executed by one of the commissioner's employees. This is often time-consuming, because parts of the documentation as well as many of the files were destroyed during the last months of the Stasi's existence. During the 1990s, the commissioner employed some 2,650 people in several divisions and in regional outposts. The commission's own research unit, the Department for Education and Research, has some eighty historians and staff members and is responsible for procuring basic historical information on the structure and functions of the Stasi and developing educational programs for the public.


The legal principles informing the commissioner's work came under scrutiny in several court decisions when former Chancellor Helmut Kohl intervened against making accessible material from phone calls the Stasi had intercepted. Objecting, on the grounds of privacy, to the exceptions made for material gathered from individuals considered historically important, he insisted on the right to preclude any use of this material without his consent. On Commissioner Birthler's insistence, the matter was appealed to the Federal Administrative Court, which confirmed Kohl's position in the particular case but defined more precise standards for balancing the individual citizen's right to privacy and the public interest in an unrestrained approach to dealing with the communist past. Substantial discretion was accorded to the commissioner in weighing the rights of historical personalities against the public interest, and scholarly research was given more weight than media exploitation.

When the commission began its work, it was generally expected that open access to Stasi files would be socially disruptive. However, this has not turned out to be the case. In fact, the Stasi records law has contributed to an open debate on how to come to terms with the past, and the examination of individual cases has proved the Stasi records law to be an important instrument in helping redress past injustices. This is particularly true in the cases of individuals revealed as unofficial collaborators, whose eligibility for public service depends on the particulars of their involvement and their willingness to clear up their involvement in an honest way.

In 2005, the future of the commission became part of the public debates about historical commemoration. In particular, the commission's research department's privileged and uncensored access to Stasi files aroused the animosity of some historians, and some sectors of the public questioned the need to maintain such a large institution more than fifteen years after the collapse of communism. In 2005 responsibility for the commissioner was transferred from the Ministry of Interior to the Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media, placing it in the hands of an undersecretary within the federal chancellery, who is also in charge of the regular federal archives. The majority of experts agree that in the long term the Stasi records have to be integrated into the federal archives, even though they are not yet fully retrieved and physically restored, and legal restrictions continue to limit access to personal files. On the other hand, in its first fifteen years of existence, the Stasi record law set new standards in dealing with the dictatorial past of an open society, and that should not be given up hastily in the name of a return to "normality." The commission's innovative work is increasingly acknowledged in other countries of the former communist bloc, where the Gauck Commission and its political independence are seen as a model democratic and pluralist way to deal with their own dark sides of recent history.

See alsoGermany; Kohl, Helmut; Stasi.


Ash, Timothy Garton. The File: A Personal History. New York, 1997.

"Die Bundesbeauftragte für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik." Available at Includes short versions in twelve languages.

Funder, Anna . Stasiland. London, 2003.

Suckut, Siegfried, and Jürgen Weber, eds. Stasi-Akten Zwischen Politik und Zeitgeschichte: Eine Zwischenbilanz. Munich, 2003.

Thomas Lindenberger