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 …

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