The secrets of the Stasi: Warning from Cold War history as Putin's war runs hot

Julie Etchingham presents the documentary. Credit: ITV News

Few periods in history capture the imagination as feverishly as the Cold War. It’s spawned a myriad spy novels and films, - and as a new Western war with Russia grips Central Europe - its echoes grow louder by the day.

In a new documentary for ITV, I’ve travelled to Germany to examine one of the darkest operations and influences of the Cold War - East Germany’s notorious security wing the Stasi.

We look at how its vast surveillance system not only sounds a warning from history - but has secrets still not spilled - secrets that Britain is helping to keep.

I spent a year in Germany in 1987 - working as a language assistant in Düsseldorf. Back then it seemed impossible the Berlin Wall would ever fall. Some of the East German kids I taught whose families made it out, spoke of heartbreaking family divisions, how those left behind lived grey lives of oppression, under the eyes of the Stasi.

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There was an explosion of joy as the Wall fell, families reunited, and communism crumbled, but what lay ahead was decades of reconciliation and rebuilding.

And some of it is unfinished business.

After Germany’s reunification, the Stasi’s vast archive of millions of files was opened. For the past thirty years, anyone can request to see the file which was kept on them. The pain of this has been searing - husbands had spied on wives, neighbours on friends, colleagues on workmates. To walk through the endless corridors of folders of notes is chilling.

But some secrets have remained just that.

In the chaos after the Wall fell - an infamous file called ‘Rosenholz’, naming those in the West who’d spied or informed for the Stasi was passed to the CIA. In America and Germany, the file was opened, names named and prosecutions followed.

Wolfgang Welsch helped hundreds flee East Germany. Credit: ITV News

But the part of the file which the CIA passed to MI5 remains secret. In the 1999, the then Home Secretary Jack Straw finally confirmed the files were being ‘reviewed’ and that MI5 was investigating more than 100 Britons suspected of having been Stasi agents. No one has ever been named however, and none prosecuted.

In ‘The Stasi: Secrets, Lies and British Spies’ - we’ve spoken to British people the Stasi tried to recruit. We hear from former East Germans who worked for the Stasi - and take the man who helped hundreds flee the regime - who became known as the Stasi’s ‘Enemy Number One’ - Wolfgang Welsch - back to the notorious Hohenschoenhausen prison, where he was held and tortured. He tells us how the Stasi later tried to assassinate him on British soil.

Vladimir Putin was once a member of the Stasi. Credit: ITV News

We look at newly open court files, and ask why Britain has never named or pursued the Britons who worked for the Stasi.

And as the most famous man to have carried a Stasi ID card, one Vladimir Putin, terrorises the world afresh, we assess how the tentacles of the Cold War are laced through a war now running red hot, in the ravaged lands of Ukraine.

‘The Stasi: Secrets, Lies and British Spies’ - ITV, Sunday, January 29, 10.15pm.

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