Why DDR citizens don’t read their Stasi files

Science espionage

Why DDR citizens don’t read their Stasi files

Documents from the period are also on display at the Stasi Museum in Berlin Documents from the period are also on display at the Stasi Museum in Berlin

Documents from the period are also on display at the Stasi Museum in Berlin

Source: pa/Ulrich Baumgarten

The reports, espionage and observations of the people in the GDR were archived. Data subjects have the option to view their files. A lot of people just don’t want that. Why? Researchers have now established that.

dThe files fill nearly 111 running kilometers of shelves; they document the guarding of an entire nation. For decades, the Stasi had the citizens of the GDR observe, eavesdrop, spy on – and document everything in detail. During the peaceful revolution in 1989 Can these documents be saved from destruction and archived? Since then, those affected have been able to view their files – if they wish.

But that is exactly what many former GDR citizens apparently do not want. Although more than five million people believe that the Stasi kept records, according to a survey, only just under two million have applied for access so far. The majority would rather let the past rest – and let the opportunity to gain clarity pass untapped. How can this behavior be explained?

Ralph Hertwig of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Dagmar Ellerbrock of the Technical University of Dresden explored this question. “We are dealing here with the psychological phenomenon ofwillful ignorance, the so-called willed ignorance,” says Hertwig, director of the Adaptive Rationality research department. In their study, just published in the journal “Cognition,” the psychologist and historian explored the reasons for this.

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ARCHIVE - The archival photo from July 29, 1992 shows former GDR head of state and party leader Erich Honecker, accompanied by Chilean special ambassador R. James Holger (r) and his wife Margit (background), entering the Chilean embassy in Moscow with a clenched fist .  After the collapse of the SED regime in the GDR, Honecker fled to Moscow to avoid prosecution by the German judiciary.  In 1992, the person wanted on an arrest warrant ended up in Berlin-Moabit Prison.  After the arrest warrant was lifted in 1993, Honecker flew into exile in Chile, where he died on May 29, 1994.  Photo: EPA (to the dpa background

To do this, the researchers surveyed 134 people who assumed their files existed but refused to read them. They were able to tick why in a questionnaire with 15 stated reasons. Most of the time, the participants indicated that the information was no longer relevant to their lives today. Other motives were the fear that colleagues or friends and relatives might have acted as informants, as well as the bureaucratic burden or concerns about the usefulness and credibility of the information. But also the fear of losing trust, difficult decisions, later regrets or painful memories played a role.

Some also rejected the inspection because they saw themselves as convinced GDR citizens – or thought it wrong to reduce the GDR to the Stasi. On average, each respondent gave five reasons; also because some motives are related, as Hertwig and Ellerbrock write: “A respondent who fears that relatives or friends may have worked as informants may also fear being confronted with decisions he would rather avoid.”

To uncover such connections, the researchers conducted biographical interviews with 22 other affected people — from teachers to SED officials to housewives. The answers reveal the partly complex causes of the deliberate ignorance. For example, there is the Stasi official who is convinced that intelligence services must also protect themselves. The mother who is afraid of her daughter’s father may have been an informant. Or the pastor, who doesn’t want to be angry with the informants because they were often forced to spy on them. According to him, reading his file would only have disadvantages – for everyone.

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In fact, the respondents mainly focused on what they could lose by looking. No one thought that reading it could also dispel and alleviate a long-held suspicion. And something else stands out: although those involved claimed that the information was not relevant, they were afraid of the negative effects on their future.

The impact the revelations could have on their lives outweighed the ideals of transparency, accountability, or regret; The latter were not even mentioned, as the two researchers summarize. “Many East Germans, perhaps even the majority, do not seem to share the view that a Stasi truce is a gift of remembrance.” Ignorance can also be a blessing.

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