Piecing Together the Dark Legacy of East Germany's Secret Police





Ulrike Poppe used to be one of the most surveilled women in East Germany. For 15 years, agents of the Stasi (short for Staatssicherheitsdienst, or State Security Service) followed her, bugged her phone and home, and harassed her unremittingly, right up until she and other dissidents helped bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989. Today, the study in Poppe's Berlin apartment is lined floor to 12-foot ceiling with bookshelves full of volumes on art, literature, and political science. But one shelf, just to the left of her desk, is special. It holds a pair of 3-inch-thick black binders β€” copies of the most important documents in Poppe's secret police files. This is her Stasi shelf.

Poppe hung out with East German dissidents as a teenager, got blackballed out of college, and was busted in 1974 by the police on the thin pretext of "asocial behavior." On her way out of jail, Stasi agents asked her to be an informant, to spy on her fellow radicals, but she refused. ("I was just 21, but I knew I shouldn't trust the Stasi, let alone sign anything," she says.) She went on to become a founding member of a reform-minded group called Women for Peace, and was eventually arrested 13 more times β€” and imprisoned in 1983 for treason. Only an international outcry won her release.

Poppe learned to recognize many of the men assigned to tail her each day. They had crew cuts and never wore jeans or sneakers. Sometimes they took pictures of her on the sidewalk, or they piled into a white sedan and drove 6 feet behind her as she walked down the street. Officers waited around the clock in cars parked outside her top-floor apartment. After one of her neighbors tipped her off, she found a bug drilled from the attic of the building into the ceiling plaster of her living room.

When the wall fell, the Stasi fell with it. The new government, determined to bring to light the agency's totalitarian tactics, created a special commission to give victims access to their personal files. Poppe and her husband were among the first people in Germany allowed into the archives. On January 3, 1992, she sat in front of a cart loaded with 40 binders dedicated to "Circle 2" β€” her codename, it turned out. In the 16 years since, the commission has turned up 20 more Circle 2 binders on her.


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