Stasi, an abbreviation for Staatssicherheit (literally: State Security), is what the  secret police of East Germany were commonly called. The Ministry for State Security  (MfSS) was responsible for both domestic surveillance and espionage in the Soviet-occupied German Democratic Republic (GDR). At its peak, it employed 90,000 officers full-time. With the help of approximately 190,000 informants, it monitored East German citizens and conducted covert operations in West Germany, West Berlin, and elsewhere in the West, including the United States. Headquartered in East Berlin, in the very building that today houses Berlin’s Stasi Museum, the MfSS was widely regarded as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies in the world. The Stasi was formed in 1950 and dissolved after German reunification in 1990. In 1991, the government of newly reunified Germany passed the Stasi Records Law, under which former GDR citizens and foreigners were granted the right to view their Stasi-files. By the early 21st century, more than 1.5 million individuals had done so. I, Richard Zipser, am one of those persons.

I remember vividly when the Stasi-file arrived at my home, in late January 1999, around the time of my 56th birthday. The bulky, innocent-looking package filled the mailbox; according to the label, the sender was Der Bundesbeauftragte für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (The Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic). This federal commission with the unwieldy name was informally called the Gauck-Behörde (Gauck Agency) for short, after Joachim Gauck, the East German Lutheran pastor who served as the first Federal Commissioner from 1990 to 2000. The agency commonly refers to itself and is also known as the Stasi-Unterlagen-Behörde (Stasi Records Agency).

What a surprise! After six years of waiting impatiently, after writing countless letters to the Stasi Records Agency, most of which went unanswered, there it was! And I was more than curious to see what was inside that package. Upon opening it, I found a cover letter explaining that research in the Stasi archives in Berlin and Leipzig had led to the discovery of my file. Also, that as of December 3, 1982, my file had been labelled “KK-erfasst.” “Karteikartenerfassung” (recorded on index cards) was the designation the Stasi used for potential enemies of the state, “for persons who from the State Security Service’s perspective had given indications of hostile activity.” The letter went on to explain: “Main Department XX was responsible from 1964 on for securing and controlling the state apparatus, culture, and opposition. Department 7 of Main Department XX was responsible for securing and controlling culture, art, and literature.” And finally, it stated that the names of innocent third parties had been blacked out to protect their privacy, in accordance with German law. I discovered that holding pages under a strong light so as to read the blacked-out names was a futile exercise, for the original document had first been photocopied by a case worker, then the names had been blacked out, and then a copy of that copy had been made for me. Still, using context and memory as my guides, I was able to fill in most of the blanks without difficulty.

My file is almost 400 pages long. It is filled with information the East German secret police compiled on me in the 1970s and 1980s. The file is not a chronological or linear narrative; it is a haphazard compilation of reports containing information about my personal life, my personality, my academic background, and the nature of my work and activities in the GDR and elsewhere. There is speculation about the “real” purpose of my visits to the GDR, how these visits were financed, and the damage my publications on East German literature might cause the GDR state. The most fascinating sections are the reports written by or based on debriefings of informers, all identified with code names, who were providing the Stasi with detailed information derived from their contacts and conversations with me. The file spans a period of fifteen years, beginning in the summer of 1973 and concluding in the spring of 1988. Most of the information and reports are from the period 1975 to 1978, when I was living off and on in the GDR and working on three book projects. My file is considered to be a victim’s file (“Opferakte”), which means that only I and the case worker who read it have had access to it.

There are reports from five types of secret informers in my file; each has a code name preceded by one of the following acronyms: IM, IME, IMV, IMS, and IMB. The acronym IM stands for “Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter” (unofficial collaborator), the most common type of informer in the GDR. These persons usually were not on the Stasi payroll, but often received favors or privileges in exchange for the information they provided. IME stands for “Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter im besonderen Einsatz,” i.e., collaborators with special assignments. IMV is short for “Inoffizieller Mitarbeiter, der unmittelbar an der Bearbeitung und Entlarvung im Verdacht stehender Personen mitarbeitet;” these were the upper echelon of informers, individuals the Stasi trusted and deployed to gather information directly from potential enemies of the state. IMS and IMB were the highest level of informants, individuals whose loyalty and trustworthiness had been tested and proven beyond a doubt. IMS is the acronym for “inoffizieller Mitarbeiter zur politisch-operativen Durchdringung und Sicherung des Verantwortungsbereichs.” Informants so designated were assigned to gather information and report on suspicious activities in workplaces or areas considered important to state security, such as the cultural sphere. IMB is short for “inoffizieller Mitarbeiter der Abwehr mit Feindverbindung bzw. zur unmittelbaren Bearbeitung im Verdacht der Feindtätigkeit stehender Personen.” These informants were often in direct contact with persons considered to be enemies of the state, not only in the GDR but occasionally in foreign countries as well.

The file reveals that there were nine unofficial collaborators of one sort or another who reported on my GDR-related activities and gathered information on me for the Stasi. Three were writers: IME “Dichter” (Poet), Paul Wiens, a well-known, well-connected poet and communist party loyalist; IMV “Pedro Hagen,” the prominent prose writer and opportunist, Fritz Rudolf Fries; and IM “Uwe,” the poet Uwe Berger, a cunning opportunist motivated more by careerism than ideology. Two informers were good acquaintances, a married couple I got to know while living in East Berlin: IMV “Kurt” and IMV “Julia.” They were friends of the prose writer, Klaus Schlesinger, who introduced us. Another was a publisher, who until the 2013 publication of this book in German had not been outed as an informer. There was also IM “Dölbl,” Anneliese Löffler, a professor at the Humboldt University; she was assigned to keep tabs on me while I was working in Berlin as an IREX (International Research and Exchanges Board) scholar. Eberhard Scheibner, a functionary in charge of the international department of the GDR Writers’ Union, submitted reports periodically on our meetings and communications. And finally, IM “Frieda,” the housekeeper of the GDR’s most famous writer, Stefan Heym. There is evidence that two American Germanists, “unofficial sources,” informed the Stasi about my GDR-related activities in the United States. Although they are unnamed, I was able to identify them from the information provided. The file also contains four surveillance reports (one stretching over a three-day period), which were authorized by the Ministry for State Security and prepared by Stasi operatives. In these I have a code name: “Adler,” eagle, the bird of prey.

Most of the reports are poorly written, worse than English 101 compositions. The language is bureaucratic and wooden, laden with Stasi-jargon, marred by misspellings and grammatical errors of all sorts. Since many of the reports were drafted by Stasi personnel, this is not surprising. Some were written by the informers themselves, others recorded on tape and transcribed by Stasi personnel, and others cobbled together from handwritten notes taken in meetings between Stasi officers and informants. A favorite word, one that recurs like a leitmotif throughout the document, is “operative.”