May 26, 2009 / 4:58 PM / 10 years ago

Germans wake up to extent of Stasi's reach

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germans are only now starting to realize the extent to which Communist East Germany’s dreaded Stasi secret service infiltrated and influenced West Germany, the head of the state-run Stasi archives said on Tuesday.

As November’s 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaches, disclosures about the reach of the Stasi continue to shake Germany.

The Stasi had some 91,000 full-time staff by the time East Germany collapsed, in addition to a vast network of informants, who provided reports on friends, colleagues or spouses.

New findings this week by historians at the archive showed that the policeman who shot student protester Benno Ohnesorg in 1967, triggering the radicalization of left-wing demonstrations across West Germany, was an undercover Stasi spy.

“(Stasi activities) are seen as an East German theme. But the Stasi was commissioned to work in the whole of Germany and tried to achieve its goals in West Germany,” archives head Marianne Birthler said at a news conference.

Historians working for Birthler’s office found the policeman, Karl-Heinz Kurras, had been spying on the West Berlin police for the Stasi since 1955, under the alias “Otto Bohl.”

Birthler hit back at criticism from politicians and academics who said this week that the late disclosure proved the office was not researching the Stasi files thoroughly enough.

“The files have been here all this time, but no one ever asked to see them,” Birthler said.

“You really only get a development in our understanding of the files when academics and experts come to a hypothesis and start researching it,” Birthler said.

Birthler said that while there had been research into the Stasi’s involvement in West Germany, it was just one of many topics of research, and her dwindling number of employees was struggling to deal with a rising number of research requests.

“People who have sat for 10 years in an East German jail will have a different idea of what is important to work on (to West Germans),” she said.

Founded in 1950, the Stasi was seen as one of the most repressive police organizations in the world and infiltrated almost every aspect of life in East Germany, using torture, intimidation and a network of informants to crush dissent.

Birthler said Germans were still applying in droves to see the files kept on them by the Stasi. Last year her authority received 87,000 applications to look at files, down slightly from the previous year.

“But demand rose again in the first months of 2009,” she said.

“It could be related to the (20th) anniversary year. At the same time, we have observed time and time again that people are only asking to see their files now because they have apparently needed time to prepare themselves to confront their pasts.”

Additional reporting by Gabriel Dominquez

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