In my Letter from Berlin this week, I mention the distinctly German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung. I learned it – or rather, tried feebly to learn it and all its mouth-clogging syllables – months before heading off on my fellowship to Germany. A friend who had been giving me advice about Berlin living scrawled it inside the back cover of a book I'd been reading, along with an approximate definition: "coming to terms with the past."
Of course, this word has all-too-appropriate uses in Germany. The holocaust of course comes to mind, but most recently, "coming to terms with the past" has come to find a home helping former East Germans describe their situation under 40 years of a socialist regime, during which time they were known only as citizens of the GDR, and were effectively cut off from the rest of the world – cut off from pop culture, from news, from friends and family who were in West Germany.
Much of the squashing of individual freedoms that took place during the GDR years, which lasted until 1989, was at the hand of the East German secret police, or Stasi. (For a glance at how the Stasi operated, I'd suggest the Oscar-award winning German film by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, "The Lives of Others.") The Stasi were meticulous at their terror, and kept über-detailed records of their surveillance and interrogations. Nearly one-in-three East Germans was monitored by the Stasi. And now their files are open to them.
I visited the former GDR for the first time last week by visiting Dresden and Leipzig, and in doing so learned the effect the Stasi files have had on eastern Germans – and what the files have done to Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Check out to find out more.