A Historian Pulls Back the Curtain on the Stasi

Douglas Selvage researches the ultimate database of secrets

Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East German dissident and human rights activist Mr. H's identity is still unknown to the world.  But what the Stasi, or the East German secret police, did to him in the 1970s is public knowledge because of the efforts of American researcher Douglas Selvage and other historians investigating the Stasi's secret files. 

Stasi agents were master of psychological warfare, said Selvage, speaking this past Thursday in Perkins Library's Breedlove Room. One practice included leaving an inmate in a "standing cell" where they would stand alone neglected by the police for hours, a method that was part of a dehumanization process for Mr. H. and other alleged activists.

Selvage, a historian who leads a research team at the Office of the Commissioner for Stasi Records in Berlin, said because Stasi infiltration of the East German public and its use of torture was so widespread, much of the information is in question.  To protect individuals, by law information about the suspects' personal lives cannot be given without the person's permission.

"There is a problem with using these sources because the people interrogated were under psychological pressure -- they often lied, or worse, they told the truth," Selvage said.

Selvage has worked at the Stasi Records Office since 2002. The office oversees archives of the former German secret service, documents that include investigations of activist organizations in East Germany that communicated with noted human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. The historian called the East German groups "transnational activists" because they worked on both sides of the Iron Curtain that divided East and West Germany to advocate respect for human rights.

A landmark moment for these activists came in 1975, with the signing of the "Helsinki Accords" by countries in the Communist bloc and the West that committed these countries to protection of human rights.

To the surprise of the Eastern bloc nations, dissidents started using the accords to demand political and legal reforms.

"This was a development that was troubling [to the Soviets]," Selvage said. "Charter 77 said that they would like to enter into a dialogue with the Soviet government. That was something that angered the Soviets to no end."

To muzzle the activists, the East German government commissioned the Stasi to block the human rights efforts. Some were sent to jail.  Others were forced into "voluntary" immigration.  Still others faced a stealth Stasi-led campaign of rumors and lies that undermined their reputation and effectiveness.

"The Stasi said such activism was 'human rights demagoguery hostile to the Detente,'" Selvage said. "In their distorted view of the world, there had to be some sort of Western intelligence agency behind it."

Yet, the Stasi could never prove that any direct connection to Western intelligence efforts existed, Selvage said. Instead, it concentrated on investigating the opposition circles that formed in East Germany. These groups included the Jena Circle and "Mr. H."

Selvage also noted that the fall of the Berlin Wall was sparked not by human rights activism but by the movement of people wanting to go to West Germany. Even so, he acknowledged the importance of those rights groups to sustaining peace in Eastern Europe following the fall of the Wall.

Selvage's lecture is part of a series of lectures, "From Walls to Bridges," made possible by the Trent Family Foundation. It was co-sponsored and organized by Duke's Department of German Studies.