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East Germany: Crime and Punishment


I drove to Leipzig one afternoon this winter on Hitler’s old Autobahn, which had just been resurfaced with asphalt. The traffic was heavy. Outside Naumburg the Autobahn became jammed up. An enterprising motorcyclist, renting out the use of a cellular telephone, drove past the long line of barely moving cars. The traffic continued to crawl at less than ten miles an hour. East Germans have brought up so many new or used Western cars since reunification that traffic on East Germany’s antiquated roads now often comes to a complete standstill. It was almost dark when I finally reached Leipzig. I drove straight to the university where in one of the auditoriums a teach-in was taking place. Its subject matter was Aufarbeitung (the term, derived from psychoanalysis, means coping, coming to terms) with the horrors of the recent past under a regime as tyrannical as that of the Nazis though, as the saying here goes, one “with reduced criminal energy.” The speakers at the teach-ins spoke bitterly of the readiness of so many East Germans to spy on their fellow citizens as full-time and “informal” agents of the feared Communist secret police, the Staatssicherheitsdienst (Stasi).

Sensational revelations about this complicity have been common here since Stasi headquarters were stormed by angry crowds, early in 1990. Its files, or what was left of them, were seized, and Erich Mielke, the eightyfive-year-old head of Stasi, a four-star general, the recipient of some 250 decorations, and “Hero of the Soviet Union,” is now facing murder charges in a Berlin court. He is tried, oddly enough, not for violating human rights in his capacity as Minister for State Security, but for killing two Prussian policemen in Berlin as a young man of twenty-two, more than sixty years ago and well before the Nazi’s seizure of power. What is even more odd is the fact that the accusation rests on confessions, arguably extracted under torture, by the Gestapo in 1934. In court, so far, Mielke’s demeanor has been as miserable and whining as Honecker’s; he keeps mumbling that he doesn’t feel well, wants to go home, that he is frail, old, and tired. The doctors continue to declare him perfectly fit to stand trial.

Mielke’s private suit of offices, in the former Ministry of Security in East Berlin, is now open to the public as part of a recently established Stasi museum—a horror cabinet with exhibits illustrating common techniques of physical and psychological torture. Mielke’s own office is a room approximately twenty by forty feet large, furnished in shrill blues and dirty browns, cream lace curtains, and heavy, uncomfortable armchairs with clumsy wooden armrests. The style is known here as spiessig. A few plastic ashtrays stand on little knit-wool doilies. On the wood-paneled wall, otherwise bare, there is a hideous oil painting of a deer and a picture of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the notorious founder of the Bolshevik Cheka.

On Mielke’s desk is a white plaster model of Lenin’s death mask; next to it is an old-fashioned electric document shredder made in the GDR with the brand name Intimus. When I was there on a recent weekend, hushed, wide-eyed East German visitors milled through the room, fingering the buttons on Mielke’s telephone, peering into his bathroom and his wide open safe. A few Westerners were mocking the quintessentially petit bourgeois taste of this room; the Easterners seemed rather awed and self-conscious. The mood was reminiscent of the macabre opening chapter of García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch.

Investigators are still going through Mielk’s confiscated files and many prominent East German politicians, churchmen, and intellectuals previously admired as “dissidents” have been revealed as “informal” collaborators with the secret police. With every sensational revelation the public debate about them becomes more bitter. One prominent artist said to have been a Stasi spy has recently been called “asshole,” “creep,” and “shitface” on radio and television.

At the teach-in I attended in Leipzig one of the speakers railed against the “treason of the intellectuals.” Another who had somehow been able to read his Stasi dossier discovered that he had been spied upon by a neighbor, a man he had long considered a good friend. He told the audience that the Scheisskerl had come to apologize, saying, “Dear friend, I only told good things about you. I swear it!” Another speaker, who was fired from his job after one of his colleagues had informed on him, said that the man had recently called to excuse himself, saying: “As a human being it gave me serious trouble. As a Party member it was my duty.” At this point a man in the audience stood up and cried: “It’s a bitter shame that for the second time in this century tens of thousands of Germans don’t understand, or pretend not to understand, what’s wrong in blindly obeying orders.” For the second time in this century, that is, thousands of Germans excuse their treachery, their misdeeds, which included physical and psychological torture, by saying, “I just did my duty.”

A new law that went into effect on January 1 grants all citizens access to their Stasi dossiers if they have one. Many do, since East Germany was probably the most intensively spied upon society in history. The army of spies and denunciators amounted to 100,000 full-time agents and, according to the most recent counts, some 300,000 “informal informers.” East Germany had the highest per capita rate of spies, tapped telephones, and bugged living- and bedrooms in the world. One hears of Stasi undercover agents with code names such as Iago and Othello who spied on close relatives and surreptitiously poisoned relations between lovers or friends, carrying out “operative orders” (in the language of the files) to “split, isolate, paralyze and disorganize negative enemy elements.”

Almost six million individual dossiers are said to be in the Stasi archives (one for every second adult). They occupy shelves that have been measured and found to run 202 kilometers. Parts of the files were destroyed or stolen early in 1990. Some will probably turn up. Some, undoubtedly, are already being used by former Stasi men to blackmail people in the West, where Stasi is said to have had thousands on its payrolls. Much of the material in the Stasi archive was assembled by people who had vicious motives or at least a severely distorted picture of the world. Yet this is probably the first time that the nearly complete archive of a domestic secret police has been opened to the public. It will afford a unique opportunity to study the inner workings of a police state barely two years after its collapse. Newspapers here speak of a “Pandora’s box” and warn of the great emotional problems to be created for men and women who discover that they were betrayed by their wives or husbands or their best friends.

In the Fifties and Sixties dissidents were tortured and some were executed. In the Seventies and Eighties the cruder forms of torture were abolished. Dissidents were confined to mental institutions. The daily surveillance steadily became more intense. The material in the Stasi archive still needs to be sorted and computerized, and some that was shredded by terrified Stasi men must be reassembled and glued together. Already there are calls to “draw a line under the past” and even to burn the entire Stasi archive in the name of “national reconciliation.” But the man charged with making the secret dossiers available to the public is a nonpartisan Protestant clergyman named Joachim Gauck, himself a former Stasi victim. He keeps saying that there cannot be any national reconciliation except in truth and that he will spare no effort to expose all of the truth, however unpleasant.

It may take up to two or three years before everyone interested will get a chance to study his or her dossier. In the meantime, priority has been given to older people and those who were tortured or spent time in prison or were expelled or whose freedom was purchased by the West German government—part of the ransom money (it amounted to millions of Deutschmarks) went into private pockets. The Stasi files throw up new sensational revelations almost daily. The East German lawyer Vogel, who negotiated many of the ransom deals—as well as the most famous East-West exchanges of caught spies—has recently been arrested in this connection on criminal charges.

A dozen or so prominent Stasi victims, human rights activists, and artists were the first to see their dossiers early in January. What they found confirmed suspicions that the Stasi’s absolute power was combined with a voyeurism that was at once sick, compulsive, and destructive. The songwriter Wolf Biermann, who was stripped of his citizenship in 1970 while on a visit abroad and was never allowed to return, found over one hundred files (approximately 40,000 pages) filled with transcripts of bugged conversations, intercepted mail, and reports on the most intimate aspects of his private life. These were supplied by some seventy “unofficial informers”—friends, enemies, and colleagues, among them “culprits and victims, semi-heroes and perfect pigs,” as Biermann wrote in Der Spiegel. “The almost good and the almost bad, strong characters and big-mouthed weaklings.”

Even before the new law went into effect hundreds of sensational documents from the Stasi’s files had been made public. Many were sold to newspapers by former Stasi agents. One such document was a top-secret contingency plan, last updated on January 20, 1986, to establish concentration camps throughout East Germany. It lists in detail “specific+operative-preventive-measures to seize, hold, isolate,” and under certain conditions “liquidate” up to one hundred thousand persons with a “feindlich-negative-Grundeinstellung” (hostile negative basic attitude) to the state and its socialist institutions. The 1986 list of potential East German concentration camp inmates included “reactionary church members,” “representatives of marginal social groups,” “applicants for exit visas,” “co-signers of petitions directed against the socialist state order,” “negative-decadent youths.” (My translation does scant justice to the chilling original which is couched in bureaucratic slang filled with many-syllabled compound nouns.)

This contingency plan, reminiscent of the SS not only in its style, might well have been put into action if the Soviet Union had not abandoned East Germany in the fall of 1989. That such a plan was even contemplated in a country with Germany’s past reinforces the view of Wolf Lepenies, the distinguished West Berlin social historian, that there was reason to be

alarmed by the extent the East German state, in a frightening continuity of German history, has also been a state of spies and white-collar criminals, of lawlessness and collaborators.

The East German dissident writer Jurgen Fuchs, himself a Stasi victim, went so far as to speculate in a public lecture that some qualities of the SS were possibly inherent in the German character.

The mere mention of a person’s name on some Stasi list is enough nowadays to destroy his reputation as well as his career. Government agencies—including universities—summarily fire any official or professor whose name appears on Stasi lists as an “informal collaborator.” Yet it is possible that the Stasi agents, trying to show how active they were, put names down on the basis of innocuous conversations. Among those most recently fired was the rector of Humboldt University in East Berlin, a theologian, and the first freely elected rector of the university since 1933. He denies the charges.

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