Democracy and Secret files: Inside Germany´s west/east, west/west and east/east divide

Bernd Schaefer

Democracy and Secret files:: Inside Germany´s west/east, west/west and east/east divide

This paper (= powerpoint presentation) is supposed to address the Call for Papers question of “Can democracies handle the opening up of secret files?”, drawing on the case of united Germany after 1990. It will be in part based on reflections of my own extensive and intensive experiences in Germany’s process of “coming to terms with the communist past” from 1991 onwards.


Unlike the new post-communist democracies in Eastern and Central Europe with their unchanged borders from the pre-1990 period, communist East Germany dissolved itself and merged into the now enlarged West German political, legal, economic, and cultural framework. The pre-dominantly Western federal government, parliament and agencies set legal parameters for the opening of the Stasi and communist archives. The Bundestag passed laws and amendments to foster and regulate the screening and vetting of German civil service employees in East Germany through evaluations of personal Stasi files. East German agency in the process consisted in state government regulations and civic lobbying activities outside parliament.


In the early 1990s, Western dominated German media, mostly TV stations and certain newsmagazines and papers now circulating in the East, drove the political process, legal decisions, public discourse and debates to extraordinary content. They did so in the scattershot, blunt and mostly scoop-oriented manner media are operating and craving for attention and audiences. Political backgrounds and convictions of individual journalists resembled advocacy and played an outsized role. The new Agency of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records (BStU) in Berlin collaborated openly and “on background” with investigative journalists to foster its interests, agenda and narrative. This overreach began to phase out after 1995 after the 1994 Brandenburg State Elections.


These processes revealed divides in Germany and resulted in a contentious, bitter and embattled, albeit non-violent, political fight for dominance and interpretation. On the surface they might have looked like a West/East divide, but though this is not entirely incorrect, there existed more nuanced layers within simple geographic dichotomies. While traditional pre-1990 left-right West/West frontline in West Germany ranged from the extremes of outright dismissal to the joyous hype of Stasi files, East/East divides on Stasi records were most pronounced, but also most sophisticated since they were based on intense, actual life experience. The East/East divide did not just run between former entrenched communist and surveilled dissidents and other victims. There was the vast majority of the “middle”: East Germans, who were neither perpetrators nor victims, neither officials nor activists, and who had no personal Stasi files at all. It was this group, soon becoming exhausted from the bickering, that was ultimately able to drive the social relevance of Stasi debates and their phase-out.


The mixture of West/East, West/West/, East/East patterns in united democratic Germany were an abnormal case. Democracies in Eastern and Central Europe had to handle and manage their secret file debates solely under “East/East” auspices, there were no other alternatives available. Experiences of German democracy are a caveat for the handling of secret files in public. Despite the unprecedented resources of German government, parliament, media, and academia, many processes were partisan, driven by advocacy, and rancorous - and thus more ineffective and unsatisfactory than they actually had to be.


In conclusion, I will try to propose some learning effects from the German experience and what could have been done differently - and better, in my opinion.  

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Dr. Bernd Schaefer, MPA

Woodrow Wilson International Center, Cold War International History Project,

Areas of Specialization

International Cold War History, German History, 20th Century Foreign Relations





Dr. phil. summa cum laude (1998)

Martin Luther University Halle (Germany)


Master of Public Administration (1991)

John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University


State Exam/M.A. (1988)

History, Catholic Theology, Tuebingen University (Germany)


B.A. (1984)

History, Catholic Theology, Political Science,

Tuebingen University (Germany)



Professional Experience


Senior Research Scholar, Cold War International History Project,

Woodrow Wilson International Center, Washington D.C.

(since 2007)


Professorial Lecturer, German Department

George Washington University, Washington D.C.

(since 2010)


Visiting Professor, Institute for German Studies

Tongji University, Shanghai

(June-July 2015)


Visiting Fellow, Institute for Occidental Studies

National University of Malaysia (UKM), Kuala Lumpur

(June-July 2013)


Visiting Professor, Pannasastra University

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

(July-August 2012)


Summer Fellow, Center for Contemporary History Research

Potsdam/Berlin, Germany

(July-August 2011)


Visiting Scholar, Cold War International History Center

East China Normal University, Shanghai

(June 2011)

Public Policy Scholar, History and Public Policy Program

Woodrow Wilson International Center, Washington D.C.

(January-July 2010)


Visiting Professor, Institute for Far Eastern Studies

University of North Korean Studies, Seoul, Korea

(April-June 2009)


Fellow, The Norwegian Nobel Institute

Oslo, Norway

(May-June 2008)


Research Fellow, German Historical Institute,

Washington D.C. (2001-2007)


Fellow, Hannah Arendt Institute,

Technical University of Dresden, Germany



Fellow, Commission of the East German Catholic Church for Reappraisal of the GDR,

Berlin (1993–1997)







Work in Progress


Book manuscript: “Tigers in the Valley”: East Asian Communism and the ‘Superpowers’, 1968-1976”





1965 - Indonesia and the World/Indonesia Dan Dunia (Jakarta: Gramedia Publishers, 2013) (edited with Baskara Wardaya)


The East German State and the Catholic Church, 1945-1989 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010)


Ostpolitik, 1969-1974: European and Global Responses (New York/London: Cambridge University Press, 2009) (edited with Carole Fink)


Historical Justice in International Perspective (New York/London: Cambridge University Press, 2008)

(edited with Manfred Berg)


American Détente and German Ostpolitik, 1969-1972 (Washington D.C.: German Historical Institute, 2004) (edited with David Geyer)


Staat und katholische Kirche in der DDR [State and Catholic Church in the GDR] (Köln/Weimar: Böhlau, 2nd edition, 1999).


Kirche im Visier. SED, Staatssicherheit und katholische Kirche in der DDR [Target Church: SED, State Security, and the Catholic Church in the GDR], with Dieter Grande (Leipzig: benno, 2nd edition, 1998). 



Other Publications


Coming to Terms: Dealing with the Communist Past in United Germany (Berlin: Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur [Federal Foundation for Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship], 2011)


“Overconfidence Shattered: North Korean Unification Policy, 1971-1975” (Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center/North Korea International Documentation Project Working Paper #2, 2010)


“North Korean ‘Adventurism’ and China‘s Long Shadow, 1966-1972" (Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center/Cold War International History Project Working Paper #44, 2004)


The GDR in German Archives. A Guide to Primary Sources and Research Institutions on the History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation and the German Democratic Republic, 1945-1990 (Washington D.C.: German Historical Institute, 2002) (with Henning Hoff and Ulrich Mählert)


“Stasi Files and GDR Espionage Against the West” (Oslo: Institutt for forvarsstudier/Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, 2002)


Grenzen der Freundschaft. Zur Kooperation der Sicherheitsorgane der DDR und der Volksrepublik Polen zwischen 1956 und 1989 [Limits of Friendship. State Security Cooperation between GDR and People’s Republic of Poland, 1956-1989], with Jerzy Kochanowski and Wlodzimierz Borodziej (Hannah-Arendt-Institut: Dresden, 2000)



Selected Articles (since 2004)


“‘Red on White’: Kim Il Sung, Park Chung Hee, and the Failure of Korea’s Reunification, 1971-1973”, in: Cold War History 16 (2016), pp. 1-19.


“Socialist Modernization in Vietnam: The East German Approach, 1976-89”, in Comrades in Color: East Germany in the Cold War World ed. Quinn Slobodan (New York/Oxford: Berghahn, 2015), pp. 95-116.


“World War II in Selected European Feature Films, 2010-2013” (with Torsten Schaar and Raymond Selke) in: Representations of War in Films and Novels eds. Richard Mason/Jaroslaw Suchoples (Peter Lang: Frankfurt am Main, 2015), pp. 127-178.


“Zjednoczone Niemcy po 1990 roku a zbrodnie komunistyczne” in Wina i Kara: Sopleczeństwa wobec rozliceń zbrodni popełnionycj przez reżimy totalitarne w latach 1939-1956” ed. Patryk Pleskot (Warszawa: IPN 2015), pp. 424-438.



“Die Gewöhnungsbedürftigkeit deutschen Selbstbewusstseins: Die Nixon-Administration und Willy Brandts SPD an der Macht”, in Am Sternenbanner das Geschick der Arbeiterklasse: 150 Jahre Beziehungen zwischen deutscher Sozialdemokratie und den USA eds. Werner Kremp/Michael Schneider (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2013), pp. 239-251.


“Die for a Tie” und Grenzerfahrungen: Die USA im Koreakrieg”, in Korea - ein vergessener Krieg? eds. Bernd Bonwetsch/Matthias Uhl (München: Oldenbourg, 2012), pp. 85-91.


“The GDR and China during the ‘Interkit’ Period” (in Chinese), Cold War International Studies (Lengzhan Guojishi Yanjiu), 12 (Winter 2011),  S. 91-102.


“Die DDR und die ‘chinesische Lösung’: Gewalt in der Volksrepublik China im Sommer 1989”, in 1989 und die Rolle der Gewalt ed. Martin Sabrow (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2012), S. 153-172.


“Die DDR und Vietnam bis 1990: Ein besonderes Verhältnis” [GDR and Vietnam until 1990: A Special Relationship], in Deutsch-Vietnamesische Beziehungen/Quan He Duc-Viet (Hanoi: Goethe Institute Vietnam/Vietnam National University, 2011), pp. 13-19.


“Differences in Self-Confidence: East Germany, North Korea and Concepts of the Nation”, in Europe – North Korea: Between Humanitarism and Business? eds. Myungkyu Park, Bernhard Seliger and Sung-Jo Park (Münster: LIT, 2010), pp. 141-148.


“Patronage, Partnership, Contested Solidarity: The United States and West Germany after World War II”, in Geopolitics and Trajectories: The Cases of Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Germany, and Puerto Rico eds. Sungho Kang and Ramon Grosfoguel (Berkeley, CA: Institute of East Asian Studies, 2010), pp. 96-105.


“Communist Vanguard Contest in East Asia during the 1960s and 1970s”, in Dynamics of the Cold War in Asia: Ideology, Identity, and Culture eds. Tuong Vu and Wasana Wongsurawat (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2009), pp. 113-126.

“Phnom Penh/Saigon 1975: Vietnamesisch-kambodschanische und chinesisch-sowjetische Machtkonkurrenz in Südostasien” [Phnom Penh/Saigon 1975: Vietnamese-Cambodian and Chinese-Soviet Power Competition in Southeast Asia] in Die Sowjetunion und die Dritte Welt: UdSSR, Staatssozialismus und Antikolonialismus im Kalten Krieg 1945-1991 ed. Andreas Hilger (München: Oldenbourg 2009), pp. 201-218.


“’Krieg schafft Revolutionen, Revolutionen beenden den Krieg’: Furcht und Ideologie in China und der UdSSR, 1969-1976”, [War Creates Revolutions, Revolutions Terminate the War: Fear and Ideology in China and the Soviet Union, 1969-1976] in Angst im Kalten Krieg eds. Bernd Greiner, Christian Th. Müller, and Dierk Walter (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2009), pp. 252-277.


“The Nixon Administration and West German Ostpolitik, 1969-1973”, in The Strained Alliance: U.S.-European Relations from Nixon to Carter eds. Matthias Schulz and Thomas A. Schwartz (New York/London: Cambridge University Press 2009), pp. 45-64. 


 “’Europe Must Not Become Greater Finland’: Opponents of the CSCE – The German CDU/CSU and China”, in Origins of the European Security System: The Helsinki Process Revisited, 1965-75 eds. Andreas Wenger, Vojtech Mastny, and Christian Nuenlist (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 124-141.


“Ostpolitik, ‘Fernostpolitik’, and Sino-Soviet Rivalry: China and the Two Germanys”, German Ostpolitik and the World, 1969-1974 eds. Carole Fink and Bernd Schaefer (New York/London: Cambridge University Press 2008), pp. 129-147. 


“The Sino-Soviet Conflict and the Warsaw Pact, 1969-1980”, NATO and Warsaw Pact: Intra-Bloc Conflicts eds. Mary Ann Heiss and Victor Papacosma (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2008), pp. 222-234.


“The Catholic Church and the Cold War’s End in Europe: Vatican Ostpolitik and Pope John Paul II, 1985-1989”, Europe and the End of the Cold War: A Reappraisal, eds. Frédéric Bozo, Marie-Pierre Rey, N. Piers Ludlow, and Leopoldo Nuti (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 64-77.


“Allied Control Council of Germany”, “Germany/FRG, Armed Forces”, “Germany/FRG, Rearmament and NATO”, “Hoffmann, Heinz”, “Kelly, Petra Karin”, “Kessler, Heinz” in The Encyclopedia of the Cold War: A Political, Social, and Military History ed. Spencer C. Tucker (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio, 2008), pp. 72, 514-517, 579, 705, 712-13.


“The GDR in the Warsaw Pact, 1945-1989”, Introduction, 27 November 2007.


“The GDR, the FRG and the Polish October 1956” inThe Polish October in World Politics ed. Jan Rowinski (Warsaw: The Polish Institute for International Affairs, 2007), pp. 197-216.


“NRD i RFN wobec polskiego pazdziernika 1956 roku”, in Polski Pazdziernik 1956 w Polityce Swiatowej ed. Jan Rowinski (Warszawa: Polski Instytut Spraw Miedzynarodowych, 2006), pp. 191-209.


“North Korean Unification Policy in the Early 1970s (as documented in the East German Archives)”, Journal of History and Culture 23 (December 2005) , pp. 35-58.


“Berlin Wall”, “U.S.-GDR Relations, ‘West Berlin” in Germany and the Americas. Culture, Politics, and History. A Multidisciplinary Encyclopedia ed. Thomas Adam (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio, 2005), pp. 135-137, 1071-1073, 1134-1139.


“George W. Bush (2001-2009): “Aufstieg und Fall einer Missionarischen Präsidentschaft”  [George W. Bush: Rise and Decline and Missionary Presidency] in: Die amerikanischen Präsidenten. 44 historische Porträts von George Washington bis George W. Bush [American Presidents in 44 Historical Portraits, From George Washington to George W. Bush] ed. Christof Mauch (München: C.H. Beck, 6th edition 2013), pp. 424-438, 505-507. 


“Weathering Moscow and Beijing: The GDR and North Korea, 1949-1989”, Journal of History and Culture 21 (December 2004) , pp. 297-336.


“Weathering the Sino-Soviet Conflict. The GDR and North Korea, 1949-1989”, Cold War International History Project Bulletin 14 (2004), pp. 25-38.


 “Kissinger’s Shadows. A Multi-Panel Conference Report”, 2004 Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) Conference in Austin, TX. 14 July 2004.





Tina Andersen