After a prolonged political debate, eastern Germans on Thursday began a potentially explosive confrontation with some of the worst excesses of the former Communist state that controlled so much of their lives.
Taking advantage of a new law that went into effect with the new year, they got their initial look into files compiled on them by the pervasive East German Ministry for State Security, known as the Stasi.
Previously, only employees of a small, special government agency established to preserve the Stasi legacy were allowed access to files, and then only in the course of running security checks on applicants for jobs in government service. Advocates of the new law allowing individuals to see their files have argued that such a step is a vital part of confronting the past in a land where that task has been especially traumatic this century.
But opponents fear it could tear apart an already fragile eastern German social fabric, unleashing waves of hatred and revenge as people learn who among them were Stasi informers.
Vera Wollenberger--a former leading dissident and current member of Parliament--discovered to her horror, for example, that one of the key people passing information for years to the Stasi about her activities had been her husband. She learned of his activities last month via a leaked document, but only Thursday got her first extensive look at other documentation assembled on her.
"These files are an extremely dangerous mix of fiction and bitter truths," she said at a news conference, where she appeared with other former East German dissidents who had been given their documents earlier in the day. "It will take a long time to come to terms with it all." Asked about any surprises in her file, she commented, "The biggest shock is already behind me."
"There will be more cases like hers," predicted David Gill, spokesman for the special agency maintaining the Stasi files.
Gerd Poppe, another leading figure in the 1989 East German revolution, said that since the collapse of communism in the East, he had learned of several individuals who had informed on him. But in the first few hours of reading his file, he discovered five more acquaintances who had passed information about him to the Stasi. He predicted it would probably be far easier for him and other political activists to digest the realities of the Stasi's intrusions into their personal lives than for those less prominent.
"I've known much of this for a long time, so I'm not as deeply affected as, say, someone who learns for the first time that their best friend has spied on them," Poppe said.
Joachim Gauck, an eastern German clergyman and head of the special agency entrusted with the Stasi files, has repeatedly cautioned individuals to think carefully before applying to see their own documents. Yet more than 3,000 individuals filled out applications at the Stasi archives' main Berlin office Thursday.
Others picked up forms at the archives' 14 regional offices scattered across what was Communist East Germany until the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989, set off a chain of events that led to reunification little more than a year ago.
Gauck said he expects to receive applications at a rate of about 20,000 a month from Germans seeking to read their own files. While most of these requests will come from the East, many prominent western Germans are also expected to apply.
The chaotic state of the Stasi archives, coupled with a severe shortage of manpower to deal with the files, will mean that many applicants will have to wait months, if not years, to see their files, officials have said.
A strong supporter of the new law, Gauck said the measure offers the chance for Germans to come to terms with the past, politically and historically. "With this, we move from the hysterical to the historical phase of this (endeavor)," he said.
Not all of those viewing their files in the first day were shocked. Baerbel Bohley, a former East German civil rights activist, said she found her files mainly boring and trivial.
"There were 10 different descriptions of how I left my apartment to empty the trash, how long I took to do it and how long I remained indoors again before going out to shop," she said. "To read that once might be intriguing, but 10 times?"
Eastern Germans are certainly not alone among those in the former Soviet-controlled East Bloc moving to confront those who helped prop up the dictatorial Communist governments. In Czechoslovakia, a search is on for collaborators with the former Communist authorities, with a list of those who worked at any time with the secret police as a key reference document. Measures against former Communists are under consideration or in operation in Poland and Hungary.
But the sheer size of the Stasi activities gives the German confrontation a dimension all its own. Those working with the Stasi material estimate that in the 40 years that the East German state existed, the secret police assembled more than 6 million dossiers on individuals--a figure equal to more than one-third of the country's population at the time it disappeared into a united Germany. If packed next to each other, the files would need a drawer 125 miles long to hold them, officials say.
Poppe said the Stasi had assembled about 50 volumes of 300 to 500 pages each on just his activities and his wife's.
The Stasi, at its peak, employed 100,000 full-time personnel and ran a far larger network of "informal" part-time informants.
Among those linked to the secret police have been Lothar de Maiziere, East Germany's only freely elected prime minister, and Ibriham Boehme, the first leader of the eastern Social Democrats.