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Germany grapples with claims of ex-secret police

Published July 23, 2006

BERLIN - Almost 17 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the memory of the Stasi, the dreaded East German secret police, has come back to haunt Germany.

Former Stasi officers and high-ranking members of the defunct communist regime are causing a stir by mounting a public campaign for rehabilitation, claiming they were only following orders in jailing dissidents and upholding a shoot-to-kill policy that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people as they tried to escape to the West.

It comes as Germans are reveling in the national pride brought on by their hosting of soccer's World Cup, and are daring to hope that they have finally reached a degree of normalcy after 12 years of Nazism, 45 years of communist dictatorship and 17 years of struggling to put their divided country together again.

Hans Bauer, who heads a group called the Association for Legal and Humanitarian Support, acknowledges that as a deputy chief prosecutor, he worked closely with the Stasi and prosecuted "people who violated the law against leaving the country."

He does not directly defend the shooting policy. But he doesn't condemn it, either.

"One can only judge the shootings at the border in the context of the circumstances," Bauer said.

The East German authorities "did not commit any human rights abuses," he said in an interview in his cramped Berlin law office. "They only carried out their orders."

For Germans, that argument has disturbing echoes.

"The Nazis also said they weren't guilty because all they had done was to obey the law," said Hubertus Knabe, director of the museum in the Hohenschoenhausen prison in Berlin where the Stasi used to interrogate prisoners.

Matthias Melster was held there for trying to escape, and now works as a guide at the museum. He says he is increasingly confronted by Stasi veterans who contest his version of history.

"They come on my tours and question everything I tell them, saying I don't have enough evidence for my allegations," he said.

In March, about 200 former East German officials disrupted a public meeting about setting up information panels outside the memorial site, calling the victims liars, he said.

"Their lies make me so angry that I don't even know how to deal with all my emotions," Melster said in an interview.

Melster, 40, said he was caught trying to escape across the East German-Czechoslovak border in 1987 and spent 10 months in prison until the then-West German government bought him for hard currency - a practice that brought thousands of political prisoners to the West.

He pointed at a narrow window on the third floor of the huge gray Hohenschoenhausen prison, surrounded by watchtowers and 20-foot walls.

"That's my prison cell; I was number 312," he said. "The Stasi kept me in solitary confinement, didn't tell me where I was and interrogated me for nine hours at a time - to me that's psychological torture."

At another prison he was beaten by guards, he said.

Founded in the 1950s, the Stasi, a German acronym meaning "state security," had 91,000 full-time employees and 180,000 undercover informers. They kept the population of 18-million under blanket surveillance while the regime built the Berlin Wall and a border bristling with mines, barbed wire, dogs and self-activating machine guns.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the border came down, the Stasi was disbanded and East and West Germany were united in 1990.

Hundreds of former East German border guards and officials have since been convicted for border shootings. Most received suspended sentences, though a few ex-leaders went to jail.

Bauer, 65, said his organization has 1,500 members, among them former Stasi officers, East German politicians, lawyers, judges, soldiers and border patrol officers.

It publishes books, runs Web sites and organizes meetings to spread the message that its members are the "true victims" and that the current German establishment is "taking revenge on their old political enemies," said Bauer.

The group and others have drawn the attention of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, whose spokesman, Claus Guggenberger, said: "We are leading a broad inquiry to find out whether or not these associations are successor organizations of the Stasi."

Marianne Birthler is keeper of the Stasi Records Office in Berlin and promotes education about the Stasi past. She says she takes Bauer's organization seriously, "even though one shouldn't overrate them and in that way give them too much attention - because that's exactly what they are trying to get."

[Last modified July 23, 2006, 01:27:57]

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