East German wounds reopen as Stasi men speak out
By Mark Trevelyan, Security Correspondent
BERLIN (Reuters) – Nearly 17 years have passed since Gotthold Schramm’s world turned upside down, but his sense of outrage is still fresh.
With the collapse of communist East Germany, the former colonel in the Ministry for State Security (MfS) — universally known as the Stasi — found himself out of a job and reduced for a time to running a small grocery store.
Today he has found a new role. As the author of half a dozen books, he is one of a growing and increasingly vocal group of former officers presenting their own account of East German history and defending the work of the widely reviled Stasi.
“It’s got to the point where people say it was a ‘criminal organization’!” says Schramm, 74.
He repeats the phrase several times, almost spitting it out, and pauses for dramatic effect, his eyelids flickering.
“We’re talking about malicious imputations that have nothing to do with the reality. If there were crimes, they must be investigated, checked, and those responsible brought to book, even if they were employees of the Ministry for State Security.
“But to suspect everybody, as is happening today, and to call the MfS as a whole a criminal organization, that is something that the 90,000 former employees of this ministry cannot understand.”
Schramm’s is just one voice in a resurgent debate, fueled in recent weeks by a popular new film, “Das Leben der Anderen” (The Lives of Others), which swept the German Film Prize last week, taking seven awards.
The powerful drama, which was a surprise box office hit, examines the moral choices facing both Stasi officers and those who fell under their surveillance in the German Democratic Republic (DDR), as the communist state was known.
Some Germans, including Stasi victims, say former officials of the security service are waging a “comeback” through books, media and the Internet.
They denounce what they see as an attempt to whitewash a powerful apparatus with a network of informers that bolstered four decades of communist rule by suppressing dissent and wrecking countless lives in the process.
The issue made headlines in March, when ex-Stasi men attended a public meeting at Hohenschoenhausen, a former Stasi prison in East Berlin and now a museum, accusing directors of turning it into a “chamber of horrors.”
“I’m very worried because it’s an indicator that we have been experiencing a creeping rehabilitation of the Communist Party dictatorship for years,” Hubertus Knabe, director of the Hohenschoenhausen site, told Reuters.
Knabe believes united Germany made a mistake by not prosecuting communist-era crimes with sufficient determination. He notes that in the 16th year since reunification, not a single person linked to state oppression in the DDR is in prison.
“The criminal justice process basically failed,” he says.
For the former Stasi men, the thin record of convictions is proof that their work was blameless.
No one has been found guilty of hundreds of alleged abductions, says former Stasi Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert Kierstein, apparently overlooking spymaster Markus Wolf who got a suspended sentence in 1997 for three Cold War kidnappings.
“De facto, the employees of the Ministry for State Security have been legally rehabilitated,” the 68-year-old says, alternately removing his glasses and putting them back on as he reels off his points from three pages of typewritten notes.
Kierstein, who spent three decades at the Hohenschoenhausen prison interrogating suspected spies, says he and his colleagues demonstrated “totally clean working methods.”
The suspects had access to a lawyer from an approved list, he says. “It’s true the lawyer only had full access to the files once the investigation was over. That’s how it was prescribed in the DDR legal code. That wasn’t a Stasi trick.”
Every interrogation was recorded on tape, so it would have been impossible to extract a confession by violence, he said.
In fact, what former Hohenschoenhausen inmates say they found most oppressive was not physical abuse but the relentless psychological pressure to confess or incriminate others.
Hartmut Richter, 58, escaped to West Berlin in 1966 by swimming across a canal. Over the next nine years, he spirited 33 other people across the Berlin Wall. But he was caught in March 1975 while trying to smuggle his sister out in the boot of a car, and imprisoned in Hohenschoenhausen.
Today, he escorts visitors down the linoleum-floored corridors, past the gray cell doors with their observation hatches, through which the guards would peer every three to six minutes, 24 hours a day.
He recalls an interrogation where the telephone rang on the Stasi officer’s desk, and he heard his imminent release being discussed. It was a sham: He was sent back to his cell and left without news for days, his hope slowly fading.
“To my mind, that too was torture,” Richter says now. “It’s possible to break people without laying a finger on them.”
For the former Stasi men, Schramm and Kierstein, these were legitimate psychological tactics.
But do they still believe it was right to lock up people for criticizing the government? For the first time, the two men go some way toward acknowledging the communist state’s dark side.
“These were the laws of the DDR, that is the problem,” Schramm says in a pained voice. “There were laws that had to be obeyed. Whether it was wrong or right … we see a lot of things differently today, I have to say.”