EAST BERLIN — THE huge, high-walled compound on Rusche Strasse in the Lichtenberg neighborhood of East Berlin looks impenetrable. The former headquarters of the infamous Ministry for State Security (the Stasis) could probably have withstood an armed assault. But last Thursday, the East German government decided that the recently renamed Office for National Security would simply be disbanded.
In its place will be two smaller offices - an intelligence agency and an antisubversion group - both under civilian control. Nearly half of the estimated 22,000 former employees of the State Security Service will need to find new jobs.
In the end, it was simple disgust that brought down the Stasis. Revelations of the agency's abuse of power were tied directly to corruption under former leader Erich Honecker.
On Dec. 6, a small group of citizens had marched to the visitors' entrance on Rusche Strasse and demanded to be let inside. Pounding on the large steel door appeared to be a futile gesture. But amazingly the door opened. At the entrance stood a worried looking Stephan Roahl, the newly appointed press spokesman. After more than 10 minutes of negotiating, representatives from the group were allowed in along with some of the television camera crews. The mood of the crowd was angry but nonviolent.
The night before, the state prosecutor's office in East Berlin had urged citizens to denounce corruption wherever they found it. And the people responded.
Regional headquarters of the Stasis were stormed and occupied in Dresden, Leipzig, Rostock, Cottbus, and Suhl. Though some violence was reported, the motivation was less for revenge than to keep the files of the former Ministry of State Security from being destroyed.
The link between the Stasis and the corruption under Mr. Honecker was the alleged network of foreign-currency schemes headed up by Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski, a state secretary in the Foreign Trade Ministry. In addition to reports that he illegally sold arms to African and South American countries, Mr. Schalck-Golodkowski allegedly sold works of art to the West for hard currency. A portion of that money is said to have gone to special Stasi slush funds.
Much of the wrong-doing has been uncovered by the East Germans themselves. In November, East German television began showing remarkable special programs detailing the privileges of the former leadership. Elf 99, an afternoon TV program for teenagers, was one of the first shows to broadcast film of Wandlitz - the walled suburb north of Berlin where top party officials lived.
``We went there because our viewers asked to see what it looked like,'' explains Manfred Herring, the show's chief editor.
The TV reports from Wandlitz had shown modern kitchens with expensive Western appliances, indoor swimming pools, and saunas. A private shopping center kept the party elite from having to wait in line like the rest of the country's citizens. Viewers saw shelves well stocked with plenty of fresh produce and many hard-to-find Western goods.
An episode of Elf 99 about Honecker's vacation retreat on the island of Vilm off the Baltic coast, provoked even more viewer response. Thatched roofed guest houses, private boat docks, swimming pools and saunas - all on an island that was closed to the public for ``security purposes.''
East German newspapers such as the Berliner Zeitung published articles about the private hunting estates of Politburo members. Game wardens kept forests stocked with large concentrations of wildlife to ensure that party bosses were able to shoot something.
The East German and foreign news media had already uncovered many of the incidents of corruption by late November. But the country's lawmakers were still shocked. On Dec. 1, a special investigative committee presented a report. It detailed how state money had been used to build plush country hideaways and that party members had more than $54 billion of hard currency in Swiss bank accounts.
Shortly after hearing the report the members of the People's Chamber voted overwhelmingly to get rid of Article 1 of the Constitution, which gave the Communists the ``leading role'' in country's government. The lawmakers hadn't even planned to discuss the controversial article that day.