“Nothing is completely past. And nothing is only just history.”
“Germany…is one of the essentials nations of the western world.”
--Jorge Luis Borges
“East Germans Tell How Bonn Paid for Prisoners” reads a headline from the August 1, 1990 edition of The New York Times. The story describes how West Germany paid for the release of 33,000 political prisoners in East Germany from 1964 to 1989. It began at approximately $10,000 per individual and reached $60,000.
Tyranny can be very lucrative.
I learned about this practice in May in the eastern German town of Freiberg. During a dinner at the tranquil Hotel Silberhof, Dr. Helmut Holl of Atlantik-Brücke told myself and other journalists about these awful transactions between West Germany and the “German Democratic Republic.”
Freiberg is in the Free State of Saxony. In September, a permanent exhibition opened at East Germany’s notorious prison in Bautzen, also in Saxony. Free-thinking Germans who suffered here included the writer Erich Loest, who was imprisoned from 1957 to 1964 for “counterrevolutionary grouping.”
Journalist Robert Goldmann visited Bautzen in 2000 and described what he saw:
I saw cells in which for weeks, even months, a prisoner was forced to stand 19 of 24 hours and defecate on the floor. He got a piece of solid food every three days, had no cover in the coldest weather, endured beatings and torture, all because he had showed that he didn't share official dogma or was denounced by a neighbor currying favor with the regime.
East Germany ceased to exist in 1990, but many who tortured and persecuted conscientious Germans still live. Are these criminals in hiding like Nazis who fled to Argentina, Paraguay, and elsewhere?
No, they’re doing book launches, disrupting memorial efforts, and making websites.
Gotthold Schramm was a colonel in East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi. This year he and fellow Stasi officer Peter Pfütze released books about their “service.”
“The prisoners were treated correctly,” Pfütze said in April at his book launch in Berlin. Schramm has remarked, “We harmed no one. The GDR was not a criminal state. With good conscience, I can say the Stasi only served the people and obeyed the laws that were the laws of that time.”
“They only carried out their orders,” echoes Hans Bauer, a deputy chief prosecutor in the GDR and now head of a legal group that seeks to rehabilitate the regime. Bauer prosecuted Germans who tried to escape East Germany and claims the regime “did not commit any human rights abuses.”
“Obeyed the laws,” “only carried out their orders”—the Nazi defense lives in Germany.
On March 14, the Berlin Cultural Affairs Senate and Lichtenberg local council held a meeting about placing commemmorative information plaques at the Stasi’s Hohenschönhausen prison in Berlin. Hohenschönhausen is now a memorial and museum.
Over 200 ex-Stasi disrupted the meeting and yelled at a speaker who called Hohenschönhausen a “place of terror.” Leading the group were former Stasi espionage chief Werner Grossmann and the last head of the Stasi, Wolfgang Schwanitz. Also present was the former head of Hohenschönhausen, Siegfried Rataizik, who mocked prisoners for calling themselves victims.
Ex-Stasi have also harassed former prisoners like Matthias Melster who give tours at Hohenschönhausen. Melster was imprisoned for 10 months for trying to escape East Germany and remarks, “They come on my tours and question everything I tell them, saying I don't have enough evidence for my allegations.”
Ex-Stasi have an online presence as well. A website registered in Germany features the Stasi logo and refers to “historical revisionism” at the Hohenschönhausen museum.
This grotesquerie sounds like something out of a magical realist novel. It would be as if ex-SS members mocked concentration camp survivors at Berlin’s Jewish Museum; harassed tour guides during Holocaust presentations; and had a website denying what they perpetrated at places like Mauthausen and Dachau.
What explains the brazenness of people like Grossmann and Schwanitz?
Historian Hubertus Knabe is director of the Hohenschönhausen museum. He observed after the March 14 incident, “Since the German government has treated them [ex-Stasi] so well, even raising their pension levels several times and allowing a former employee to sit in parliament, they apparently think the time is right to rewrite history.”
“Raising their pension levels”? Indeed, the German government pays for these criminals’ retirement—which is to say the German people including Stasi victims pay for their perpetrators’ retirement. As a precursor to this abominable subsidy, fifty thousand former SS members in Germany and abroad received pensions through at least the 1990s.
Electoral trends might also explain ex-Stasi’s effrontery. In September 2005, the Party of Democratic Socialism-Left Party (PDS-Die Linkspartei) won 54 seats in Germany’s parliament with 8.7% of the national vote. The PDS arose in 1990 in East Germany as the successor to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), which was the GDR’s only party.
The existence of the Left Party seems to embolden ex-Stasi and give them a sense of impunity. “I think that as long as that party exists, there will be no sense of shame and guilt among the Stasi,” comments Florian von Donnersmarck, the director and writer of The Lives of Others.
Many ex-SED functionaries have reintegrated politically through the PDS like East Germany’s last premier, Hans Modrow. Former Associated Press foreign correspondent John Koehler describes Modrow’s background:
Modrow, a veteran communist, was SED district secretary in Dresden. It was a most powerful communal political position. Modrow was a vital cog in the apparatus of state repression. The local Stasi chief, Major General Horst Böhm, reported directly to him. Modrow was the one who ordered the Vopo, the People's Police, to resort to violence in putting down massive protests during the turbulent days in fall 1989, just before the Berlin Wall fell. Hundreds of protesters were severely beaten and jailed. Böhm, the Dresden Stasi boss, was found shot dead in his office in early 1990, just before he was to appear before a commission that had been convened to settle the future of the communist state. His death was listed as a suicide. However, an unsubstantiated rumor has it that he was murdered to prevent him from testifying about Modrow's despotic rule.
Convicted in 1993 of electoral fraud and sentenced to six months’ probation after a 1996 perjury trial, Modrow then became a member of the European Parliament.
Another GDR functionary, Left Party member Thomas Flierl, is now Berlin’s Senator for Culture. Flierl was at the Hohenschönhausen meeting and did not intervene against the ex-Stasi’s disruptions, instead calling them “historical eyewitnesses.”
“A struggle is going on over how Germans will think about the GDR in the future,” says Knabe. Likewise remarks Marianne Birthler, a human rights activist in East Germany and now commissioner of Stasi files: “We are in the middle of a struggle over how to interpret the GDR.”
The fact that this struggle exists is the problem. Certain things should not be struggled over.
What Buchenwald and Auschwitz reflect about Nazi Germany should not be struggled over.
What Bautzen and Hohenschönhausen reflect about East Germany should not be struggled over.
A prescient film appeared in 1946 called Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us). The first film made in postwar Germany, it is a meditation on memory and justice.
After the war, Dr. Hans Mertens discovers his former captain in occupied Poland is now a prosperous factory owner in Berlin. In 1942, Captain Ferdinand Brückner ordered a massacre of Polish civilians on Christmas, which has haunted Mertens since.
At one point Mertens walks with Brückner through a desolate area of rubble. “It should be forgotten,” Brückner tells him.
“You can’t forget,” Mertens replies.
The other protagonist, Susanne Wallner, has returned to Berlin from a concentration camp and reunites with a family friend in the beginning of the film. “It is so hard, so hard to forget the past,” she tells him.
“No, it is easy to forget what happened,” he responds.
Germany today projects an ethos of memory without with the crucial counterpart of justice. It projects this ethos with the memorials to East German savagery in Bautzen and Hohenschönhausen. It projects this ethos with popular and institutional support for a movie like The Lives of Others, which depicts the GDR’s terrorist essence.
Yet not one member of the East German regime is in prison.
Over 1,000 Germans were murdered trying to flee East Germany. Hundreds of thousands more suffered indelible trauma in prisons and interrogation rooms. Where there are victims there are perpetrators.
East Germany’s perpetrators walk German streets and vilify their victims.
The impunity of the GDR’s perpetrators points to societal roots. Marianne Birthler has remarked that “crimes surrounding former East Germany, in particular the heinous activities of the Stasi, no longer arouse the interest of the majority of the German population.” A member of the German news service Deutsche Welle similarly told me in May that “people are getting tired of this now.”
Thus Germany repeats the aftermath of World War II where many Nazi perpetrators were reintegrated socially and politically (in both Germanys) or imprisoned for short durations. East German perpetrators who received such small sentences include:
- Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi from 1957 to 1989: sentenced to six years’ imprisonment in 1993 for murdering two policemen in 1931, released two years later.
- Egon Krenz, the SED’s last general secretary: sentenced to six-and-a-half years in 1997 for complicity in border murders, began serving his sentence in 2000, released in 2003.
- Heinz Kessler, the GDR’s defense minister from 1985 to 1989: sentenced to seven-and-a-half-years in 1993 for complicity in border murders, released in 1998.
- Klaus-Dieter Baumgarten, head of the border troops: sentenced to six-and-a-half years in 1996 for complicity in border murders, released in 2000.
- Siegfried Lorenz and Hans-Joachim Böhme, SED politburo members: convicted in 2004 for complicity in border murders, given probation.
The murderers are still among us.
“In spite of strenuous efforts to come to terms with the past, as people like to put it, it seems to me that we Germans today are a nation strikingly blind to history,” the late German writer W.G. Sebald wrote in 1999. Germany today does not refute this assessment.
And that is an understatement.
 This is from Biermann’s essay on The Lives of Others in the German newspaper Die Welt on March 22, 2006, translated at http://www.signandsight.com/features/682.html. Biermann was a dissident songwriter and singer in East Germany exiled in 1976. His original comment reads, “Nichts ist ganz vorbei. Und nichts ist nur noch Geschichte.”
 Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions (New York: Penguin, 2000), p. 201. This remark is from a 1938 essay Borges wrote against the Nazis.
 Erich Mende, former Deputy Chancellor of West Germany, participated in the dissidents-for-cash exchanges. He subsequently described it as “a traffic in human beings that is very close to a slave trade” which resulted in “sterilizing resistance to the communists.” See James M. Markham, “Germany’s Trafficking in People,” The New York Times, July 29, 1984.
 Germany has 16 states, or Länder.
 “Fear and Oppression Still Linger At Stasi’s ‘Personal Prison,’” Deutsche Welle, September 8, 2006, http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,2167973,00.html.
 Robert B. Goldmann, “Lest We Forget: A Symbol of Communist Tyranny,” International Herald Tribune, December 21, 2000.
 See Uki Goni, The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Peron’s Argentina (London: Granta, 2002).
 “Books by Former GDR Secret Police Officers Spark Outrage,” Deutsche Welle, April 13, 2006, http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,1968907,00.html.
 Colin Nickerson, “German film prompts open debate on Stasi,” The Boston Globe, May 29, 2006, http://www.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2006/05/29/german_film_prompts_open_debate_on_stasi/.
 “Germany grapples with claims of ex-secret police,” Associated Press, July 23, 2006, http://sptimes.com/2006/07/23/Worldandnation/Germany_grapples_with.shtml. Bauer’s group has the innocuous-sounding name Gesellschaft zur rechtlichen und humanitären Unterstützung (Association for Legal and Humanitarian Support).
 “The Nazis also said they weren't guilty because all they had done was to obey the law,” Knabe notes. Ibid.
 Lichtenberg is a borough of Berlin.
 “Former Stasi Officers Coming Out of the Shadows,” Deutsche Welle, April 24, 2006.
 Ibid. The former Stasi employee Knabe likely refers to is Gregor Gysi, who was a lawyer in the GDR and informer from 1978 to 1989, according to a parliamentary committee’s finding in 1998. Gysi’s punishment was a fine. See http://www.german-embassy.org.uk/lafontaine_gysi_-_wasg_linke-p.html.
 In his essay on The Lives of Others, Biermann also refers to the pensions received by the GDR’s “high-ranking criminals” (hochrangigen Verbrechern). On the SS pensions, see “German minister urged to stop Nazi pensions,” BBC News, February 10, 1998. Germany ended 72 of these pensions in 2001. See Etgar Lefkovits, “Germany cancels pensions to 72 former Nazis,” The Jerusalem Post, November 14, 2001.
 Rachel Martin, “German Film Helps Rekindle Debate over Stasi,” National Public Radio, April 23, 2006, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5357872&ft=1&f=1004.
 John O. Koehler, Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), p. 23.
[i] “Despised Stasi making its presence felt again,” The Irish Times, March 25, 2006, http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/23271.html.
 Andrew Purvis, “Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be,” Time, May 29, 2006, http://www.time.com/time/europe/magazine/article/0,13005,901060529-1196386,00.html.
 “Still haunted by a communist spectre,” The Economist, June 22, 2006, http://www.economist.com/world/europe/displaystory.cfm?story_id=7090332.
[ii] For a discussion of the movie’s background, see http://www.kinoeye.org/03/11/palmer11.php.
 See Kate Connolly, “’More than 1,000 died’ trying to flee East Germany,” The Telegraph, August 13, 2003, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2003/08/13/weast13.xml&sSheet=/news/2003/08/13/ixworld.html.
 “Last Berlin Wall Shooting Case Closes,” Deutsche Welle, February 17, 2005, http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,1492398,00.html.
 See Tom Bower, The Pledge Betrayed: America and Britain and the Denazification of Post-War Germany (New York: Doubleday, 1982) and T.H. Tetens, The New Germany and the Old Nazis (New York: Random House, 1961). On the reintegration of Nazis in East Germany, see Jeffrey Herf, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), pp. 185-189.
 “Ex-Stasi chief dies,” BBC News, May 25, 2000, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/764397.stm.
 Krenz called himself “a victim of political persecution.” See Tony Czuczka, “Top East German Communist Jailed,” Associated Press, January 13, 2000. Krenz was allowed to leave prison during the day and enjoyed three weeks’ vacation each year. See “Dissidents Angered By the Release of East Germany’s Last Leader,” Deutsche Welle, December 19, 2003, http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,1064543,00.html.
 “Last imprisoned high-ranking East German official is freed,” Associated Press, October 30, 1998.
 “Ex-East German Official To Be Pardoned,” Associated Press, January 4, 2000.
 “Court Issues Sentence in Berlin Wall Shootings,” Deutsche Welle, August 7, 2004, http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,1291292,00.html.
 This is from the preface to Sebald’s Luftkrieg und Literatur (Air War and Literature), published in English as On the Natural History of Destruction (New York: The Modern Library, 1999), viii. The original version reads, “Trotz der angestrengten Bemühung um die sogenannte Bewältigung der Vergangenheit scheint es mir, als seien wir Deutsche heute ein auffallend geschichtsblindes und traditionsloses Volk."
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