About 111 kilometers of files, 1.7 million photos and tens of thousands of video and audio recordings. In 1989, this was the legacy of the Stasi, the former East German secret service. All information about our citizens, collected during interrogation, in public places and even using microphones hidden in citizens’ homes. Privacy is a fundamental right for us, but this was not the case in the German Democratic Republic.
The biggest puzzle in the world
After the wall fell, much of this persistent archive was destroyed, and the service literally threw everything into a shredder. A small part was preserved, and another part was reconstructed from the remaining parts. These excerpts are sometimes referred to as “the world’s greatest mystery”.
Historian Karen Bigsterfield digs through those archives, which can sometimes be an oppressive experience: “The strange thing is that you also start to feel like some kind of eavesdropping. You hear a lot of personal information. Sometimes it feels like it was yesterday, like you were in the room with them. “. Her research reveals horrific cases of people who have been wiretapped for years, forced to betray their families, and tortured – with absolutely no privacy.
This unchanging archive contains not only a wealth of information, but also symbolic value, as Bijsterveld says: “It shows how things can work when privacy is practically gone. When control is complete. What happened once can happen again. Democracy is always weak. Fundamental rights can fail again.”
She continues, “In some cases, a lot of information is collected, and then we always have to ask ourselves: What are we collecting for, for whom and for what purpose? Perhaps the legacy of Stasi is that we ask ourselves these questions.”
They are painful topical questions. Because we live here in a free country with privacy as a fundamental right, but isn’t it right under pressure? We may not be spied on by others, but perhaps we are from our smartphones. And we ourselves are also very generous in sharing our private lives. Information you might prefer to keep to yourself at another time – when applying for a job, for example.
The value of secrets
What does all that data about us do to ourselves? Does it make us a different person? What if you do not have the right to your privacy? These questions are central to upcoming episodes of the Atlas podcast. Next week, Petra Grays will talk to psychologist Andreas Wiesmeijer about how important it is to have a secret – which is exactly what was impossible for people in the GDR. “You can actually say that everyone has secrets, and that’s the most natural thing in the world,” Wismeijer says. “People who don’t have a secret often have a problem with that.”
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