Opening The Stasi Files: Four Reasons for Choosing Deliberate Ignorance
Why do so many people choose not to read their Stasi files?
When the reunified German government opened up the Stasi files—highly sensitive information gathered by the East German secret service on millions of individuals—it expected that everyone would want to access theirs.
Viewing their file would allow people to reclaim the life that had been stolen from them. They might realize that their divorce had been a matter of politics, that their friendships had been carefully choreographed, or that they had lost their job due to psychological warfare, not poor performance. With newfound insight into their own lives, they could “once again be masters of their own story.”
Yet decades later, not even half of the 5.25 million people estimated to believe that the Stasi had kept a file on them have applied to view their file. If people have so much to gain from exploring their past, why do so many choose not to?
Deliberate ignorance is the conscious choice not to seek or use information. It serves various psychological functions, such as regulating emotions and avoiding regret. Deliberate ignorance also plays a critical role in societal transformations. In the aftermath of war or with the emergence of a new political system, putting the past aside can promote stability and social cohesion.
In a significant step forward for the emerging study of deliberate ignorance, psychologist Ralph Hertwig and historian Dagmar Ellerbrock combined interviews with survey methods to examine why people choose not to view their Stasi files. Of the 15 reasons they uncovered, these four were the most popular:
1. The information is no longer relevant
By far the most prevalent reason people gave for not viewing their file is that the contents are not relevant. But what do they mean by that? Do they no longer care? Do they not wish to reclaim the story of their life?
In fact, many people consider the information in their Stasi file irrelevant not because they don’t care about their past, but because no amount of knowledge could undo the damage done. One interviewee said that knowing who betrayed him was irrelevant because it could not “change the past.” Ironically, the same interviewee seemed to indicate that this knowledge could be highly relevant to the present and future: It “can haunt you for a lifetime” and “destroy friendships.”
2. Knowledge may come at too high a price
People also worry that they would discover that trusted friends and loved ones had worked as informants. They want to avoid the anguish and outrage they would feel if their fears were confirmed and don’t want to jeopardize their ability to trust others. Some are concerned about whether they were—and still are—a good judge of character, like the interviewee who fears she would discover that the father of her child was an informant and be forced to conclude, “Oh God, you were totally wrong about that person.” By not reading their files, people can shield themselves from difficult truths.
3. The information may not be credible
Many former citizens of East Germany question the trustworthiness of the Stasi files. One interviewee stated that informants may have been under such pressure to deliver information to the Stasi that they faked reports: “Why should what’s written there be true? [...] They’re not holy scriptures, damn it, it’s all the work of criminals.” She refuses to “do those people the honor” of according any value to their work as spies.
4. Rejecting the file is an act of political opposition
Some former East German citizens disapprove of reunification. For them, not viewing their file is a symbolic act of rejecting the authority of reunified Germany. Others remember the positive aspects of East German life and warn against conflating the Stasi with East Germany as a whole. One interviewee described his choice not to read his Stasi file as an “act of opposition”—not against Germany per se, but against the notion that the Stasi is an accurate representation of a multifaceted political and social system.
Deliberate Ignorance in Societal Transformations
The opening of the Stasi files in 1991 marked an important turning point in German history—yet many people choose to ignore their file altogether. Hertwig and Ellerbrock’s first look at deliberate ignorance on an individual level reveals a diverse range of reasons for choosing not to know. Many are rooted in a desire for harmony and cooperation, even while governments prioritize transparency and justice. Taken together, these reasons paint a nuanced picture of individual choices not to know in political and social contexts that transform over time.
Hertwig, R. & Engel, C. (Eds.). (2020). Deliberate ignorance: Choosing not to know. MIT Press. (available free for download)
Birthler, M. (2003). Ohne Erinnerungskultur kein Selbstbewusstsein: Die Stasi-Akten und der Umgang mit der eigenen Vergangenheit [No self-awareness without a culture of remembrance: The Stasi files and dealing with one’s past]. vorgänge: Zeitschrift für Bürgerrechte und Gesellschaftspolitik, 42(1), 22–30.
Dallacker, M., Ellerbrock, D., & Hertwig, R. (2021). The unread Stasi files: How prevalent is deliberate ignorance in dealing with the past? [Manuscript in preparation]. Center for Adaptive Rationality, Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
Ellerbrock, D., & Hertwig, R. (2021). The complex dynamics of deliberate ignorance and the desire to know in times of transformation: The case of Germany. In R. Hertwig & C. Engel (Eds.), Deliberate ignorance: Choosing not to know (pp. 19–38). MIT Press. https://esforum.de/publications/sfr29_Deliberate_Ignorance.html
Hertwig, R., & Ellerbrock, D. (2022). Why people choose deliberate ignorance in times of societal transformation. Cognition, 229, 105247. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2022.105247
Hertwig, R., & Engel, C. (2016). Homo ignorans: Deliberately choosing not to know. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(3), 359–372. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691616635594