In 1961, renowned German novelist Günter Grass openly criticized communist East Germany for building the Berlin Wall ostensibly to prevent West Germans from infiltrating the country. In reality, the wall was more effective at preventing East Germans from defecting.
From that point on, East German secret police known as the Stasi shadowed Grass, a West German who frequently visited his neighbors to the East. In their notes, the Stasi refer to Grass with the code name “Bolzen,” or Bolt. When Germany was reunited in 1990, the Stasi’s file on Bolzen contained over 1,200 pages.
While extreme, Grass’ case was not unique. For 40 years, the Stasi wiretapped homes, bugged phones and encouraged people to come forward with information about potential government dissenters. Today, the Stasi Records Archives, housed throughout Germany, are so vast that if measured end to end, they would span 111 kilometers.
Following the reunification of Germany, government leaders made those records public. They assumed that most people living in former East Germany would want to find out if a file on them existed and, if so, read it. Knowledge, it was widely believed, would help people reclaim their life stories.
The East German regime controlled so many aspects of people’s lives, says cognitive psychologist and decision scientist Ralph Hertwig of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. Officials could decide whether someone in the country could go to university, or get a person fired from their job without explanation. They could arrest people in stealth so that their loved ones had no way of knowing where they had gone. Why would people not want to know what prompted such decisions or, perhaps, who betrayed them?
“At first glance, it seems there are many good reasons to want to find out,” Hertwig says.
That sentiment aligns with the conventional wisdom that knowledge tends to be always beneficial or desirable, say Hertwig and others. But that’s not what he and historian Dagmar Ellerbrock of the Technische Universität Dresden in Germany learned.
More people did not read their files than read them, the researchers found in an unpublished survey of over 2,300 residents of former East Germany. In a new paper, the team surveyed 134 former East Germans who opted out of reading their files to better understand their rationale. That survey, along with in-depth interviews with another 22 participants, revealed that people deliberately, rather than passively, chose ignorance, the scientists reported in the December Cognition.
The finding aligns with other research showing that, under certain conditions, deliberate ignorance about certain matters also has merit.
A survey of the 134 individuals who chose not to view their files revealed that more than 75 percent of participants cited the information as irrelevant because the past couldn’t be changed and thus didn’t need to be revisited. Over half said they did not want to know if their informants included colleagues, family or friends. And roughly 30 percent of respondents doubted their files would even reflect the truth. In effect, by denying the Stasi claim to their story, people stripped the regime of their power.
That appears to have been Grass’ stance. “These Stasi files were like a poison because they were seen as valid documents. What they said had to be true,” Grass once said. “People trusted the statements and did not consider that large parts were exaggerated or even made up.”