UNLIKE most East European countries, Germany is now finding out just what happens when the explosive material in secret police files bursts into the open.
The latest and most severe eruption from the secret police, or Stasi, archives centers on Manfred Stolpe, former official of the East German Protestant Church who was widely admired in East Germany.
Mr. Stolpe is governor of the state of Brandenburg, one of the five new states on former East German territory. But the popular Stolpe is under heavy pressure to resign. Stasi files indicate he was an "unofficial informer" with the Stasi for 20 years under the cover name of "Sekretar."
Proof that someone was an "unofficial informer" is enough to deny him or her public office or even a low-level public-sector job.
The revelations about Stolpe, contained in 600 pages of documents from Stasi files, are ripping the German political and social fabric like no Stasi case so far. They are also causing some politicians to demand a reevaluation of Germany's approach to the Stasi files.
East Germans hardly believe the Stasi accusations can be true about a man who also negotiated the release of prisoners and secured exit visas for freedom-hungry East Germans. So far, they have seen two other east German state governors forced to resign over Stasi issues - both of whom were replaced by politicians imported from west Germany.
"Stolpe is a person east Germans identify with," says David Gill, spokesman for the Berlin office which oversees the files.
"Everywhere now, when an east German leaves, a west German comes [as a replacement]. People here feel without power," Mr. Gill says. Stolpe's case is now being investigated by a committee of the Brandenburg state parliament. Were he to resign, it would be a hard blow to east German self-confidence.
The documents also cast doubt on the integrity of the east German Protestant Church, the only institution that provided shelter for dissidents and presumed to be independent of the Communist state. But according to Gill, "the church was like any other area in society. It also had unofficial informers," he says.
The Stolpe files have meanwhile reopened a rift between the church and prominent former dissidents who feel the church failed East Germany. The church was never a real catalyst for change, the dissidents argue, because it compromised too much. Challenge to files office
The other side to the Stolpe case is the challenge it represents to the authority and methods of the office which oversees the Stasi archive in Berlin. This office is run by Joachim Gauck, who was named by the Bundestag to organize the massive archive as well as to act as a screening center to check the background of public workers, officials, judges, and prosecutors.
The main questions are whether Stasi files are reliable enough to deny someone an office or job; and whether the Gauck office should change its modus operandi or be closed.
Stolpe emphatically denies the conclusions of a Gauck office report that he was an "important [unofficial informer] in the area of the [East German] Protestant Church."
He faults the Gauck office for forming its conclusion solely on Stasi documents, from which his own file is missing. Witnesses, Protestant Church files, and his own diaries will prove his innocence, he maintains.
Although Stolpe admits he met with two Stasi workers about 100 times in 20 years, he says the meetings were in the interests of the church. Naturally he met with state officials, his supporters say, because he was the church's liaison with the state.
Stolpe maintains he never agreed to be an "unofficial informer," and that this was a term applied by the Stasi without his knowledge.
The case has led some politicians to conclude that the formation of the Gauck office was a mistake. Last week two Bundestag members from the opposition Social Democratic Party (Stolpe's party) demanded that the Gauck office close down immediately. They said the office had taken on the function of an "inquisition."
One of the two Bundestag members, Hans Wallow, told the Monitor that the logic underlying the Gauck operation is "backward." The Gauck office, he said, is "giving authority" to information gathered by criminals. He said the Gauck office should be shut down, but files should be made available to victims who can then pursue their grievances in a court of law. Special treatment
Rainer Eppelmann, a member of the Bundestag who was a key opponent of the East German Communists, says that Stolpe is receiving special treatment. He demands that Stolpe resign.
Mr. Eppelmann says Stolpe is being allowed time to defend himself and call witnesses, while "little people" with half as much evidence against them are hastily thrown out of their jobs. Even former East German Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere, who enjoyed the support of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was forced from political life by less evidence than what faces Stolpe.
Eppelmann's criticism is worth attention, Gill admits. But he says closing the office would be a "fatal" step. Were that to happen, "you wouldn't be able to counter accusations of people being falsely accused."
Meanwhile, Gill is swayed little by Stolpe's defense. Stasi files are not the only criteria by which to judge someone, he admits. But according to Stasi victims who have seen their files - roughly 1,000 since Jan. 1 - the facts in the files are presented accurately, even if character assessments are off base, Gill says.
To Stolpe's claim that he did not know he was being called an "unofficial informer," Gill responds: "Many people didn't know the terminus technicus, but they did know they were cooperating."