BERLIN (Reuters) - For decades, Joachim Fritsch struggled to understand why he was being denied access to higher education and passed over for job promotions again and again.
Then he got hold of a 400-page file East Germany’s dreaded secret police had compiled on him. The Stasi had arrested him back in the mid-1950s when he was just 17 years old and branded him a “provocateur” for failing to produce his identity card.
The arrest left an indelible mark on his record, leading the Stasi to watch him closely and thwart repeated attempts by Fritsch to get on with his life.
“I was absolutely overwhelmed when I read my files,” the 73-year-old told Reuters, poring over copies of his personal file in his small flat on the 10th floor of an east Berlin high rise. “You enter your past hesitantly, step by step.”
Fritsch is one of hundreds of thousands who have read their Stasi files. Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the government agency set up to oversee them is still inundated with requests and has a two-year backlog.
Founded in 1950, the Stasi was one of the most repressive police organizations in the world. It infiltrated almost every aspect of life in East Germany, using torture, intimidation and a vast network of informants to crush dissent.
Millions of Germans worked for the Stasi and provided reports on friends, family, colleagues or lovers. The files, which would stretch for 112 km (70 miles) if laid out flat, were opened up to the public in 1992, exposing a web of betrayals.
The plan was to keep the Stasi archives open for around 10 years — enough time, officials thought, for everyone who was spied on to get to their file and close that chapter of history.
But thousands of people, mainly from former East Germany, are still applying every month. In the first half of 2009, applications were up nearly 11 percent on 2008.
“We have had more applications this year because of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall,” said Martin Boettger, who heads a regional branch of the Stasi archives in Chemnitz, formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt.
“Many films and books are being made, events are being held, so it is in the public consciousness,” said Boettger, whose own file contains 3,000 pages, detailing even the most trivial facts of his life and branding him a “religious fanatic.”
Many East Germans who suffered persecution by the Stasi preferred initially to let the ghosts of the totalitarian regime rest, but are now more comfortable confronting their past.
“People were afraid of their past and of being traumatized all over again,” said Helmut Wippich, who runs a consultancy for people who were persecuted by the regime as students at school.
Wippich says his school teacher denounced him to the Stasi when he was 14. Two years later, he was imprisoned for nine months for discussing with a friend ways to flee East Germany.
“At first I didn’t want to look at my files, because it weighed on me too much,” said Wippich.
Others were simply too busy rebuilding their lives after the fall of the Wall in November 1989 to delve into a painful past.
Dana Wotschack, 37, said she had been focused on finding a job and was happy to move on from the regime under which she was brutally interrogated as a 17-year-old for tearing down a communist election poster.
Recent films about the Stasi, such as the Oscar-winning 2006 hit “The Lives of Others,” sparked her curiosity, however. When a good friend applied to see her own files, Wotschack did too.
Wotschack was disappointed when she received the news that there was no file under her name. Half of those who apply to see their files do not have one, according to Boettger, although that does not necessarily mean they were not spied on.
The Stasi began shredding files as the East German regime collapsed, and some 15,000 sacks of paper strips still need to be pieced back together.
“I thought I could have cleared my name if I had found those files,” said Wotschack, sitting in a cafe on Alexanderplatz, a square in east Berlin still dominated by communist architecture.
“I would have been happy to be able to draw a line under that period of my life.”
Many people apply in order to prove they were unjustly imprisoned, to clear their criminal record and claim compensation for any time spent in jail.
“In a dictatorship, you don’t get any proof of what happened,” said Fritsch, who was twice imprisoned by the Stasi, and whose family distanced itself from him to escape Stasi persecution.
“The Stasi archives were the only way we could find the necessary documents to prove we had been arrested, in order to be rehabilitated.”
The archive is also seen as critical to deciphering the history of East Germany and understanding why millions of people lived under a dictatorship for 40 years without showing much resistance.
“They worked with fear, spying on everyone, imprisoning masses of people, intimidating people, intervening in their career and preventing them from getting an education,” said Boettger. “The archives enable you to understand these hidden methods of a dictatorship.”
Editing by Ralph Boulton and Kevin Liffey