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The secret police have a file on you. Do you want to see it?

Millions of Germans were faced with that question after the collapse of communism and the Stasi – and most of them choose ignorance rather than knowledge. Is it sometimes better to forget the past than to investigate it?

In East Germany, during the communist period, people would sometimes join a queue on the basis that if others were waiting, there must be something worth having at the end of it. Siegfried Wittenburg, whose images accompany this article, photographed this waiting-for-I-know-not-what in his home town of Rostock. It was safer to take photos than to criticise the regime in words, but only just.

The Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, kept Wittenburg under surveillance from 1972 almost until its own dissolution. The last entry in his file, which concerned some photos he had exhibited of Rostock’s dilapidated old town, was dated 27 November 1989 – almost three weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He knows this because he applied to see that file in 1999. Having discovered the identities of his informers, he made peace with one of them – whom the Stasi had blackmailed – and cut ties with the others. “Ever since I cleaned up my past, I feel free,” says the 69-year-old. “I became more open, happier, warmer – and successful.”

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