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Hope Harris: People still have to be screened for their cooperation with the Stasi. These decisions were recently extended to 2030.
How did the united Germany deal with those who supported the communist regime in the GDR? Hope Harrison, professor at Elliott School at The George Washington University and author of After the Berlin Wall: Memory and the Making of the New Germany, 1989 to the Present).
“- All states solve this issue in their own way. The decisions about what to do with the legacy of an authoritarian regime and how to deal with the past are political decisions made by the new authorities. The decisions depend on whether the composition of the government has been completely renewed or whether it includes people left over from the previous regime. The new regime can pursue different goals: this is called “transitional justice”. Are retribution and punishment the goals of the new government? Or is the goal – to establish the truth about the past and violations of human rights? Or the goal is reconciliation and integration of all?
30 years ago, the communist GDR ceased to exist and became part of the FRG. The decisions of a reunified Germany about how to deal with the past were made by other people within the other country – they were not former residents of East Germany. It is also important to know that after the first and last free elections in the GDR in March 1990, the new parliament made it clear that its priority was to deal with the brutal past of the Stasi (GDR Ministry of State Security – GA). It was extremely important to them..
Initially, the leaders of the FRG during the process of unification of the country did not want to deal with the Stasi problem. They mainly talked about reconciliation, about the need to move on…. But the GDR did not agree with this. Therefore, in 1991, the Federal Republic of Germany adopted a law on the Stasi archives, which prescribed what to do with those who worked in the Stasi and with those who collaborated with it..
The people who held the most important positions in the GDR were prosecuted for human rights violations and killings. And some of the soldiers who guarded the border and carried out orders to open fire on people who tried to escape from the GDR were also brought to trial..
In addition, lustration was carried out: a large number of people working in the public sector had to go through checks to make sure they did not cooperate with the Stasi. Thus, politicians at the federal and local level, lawyers, prosecutors, judges and university professors, teachers, police officers, clergymen and anyone who wanted to get a permit to carry weapons – all these people had to pass such a test in the first place..
People still have to be screened for their cooperation with the Stasi. These decisions were recently extended to 2030..
Since Germany is a federal state, the application of this rule depended on the decisions of the individual states. And they all acted differently. Some – for example, the federal state of Brandenburg – practically did nothing, while Saxony did much more and took the matter much more seriously..
At that time, Prime Minister Manfred Stolpe had political power in the territory of Brandenburg. There is still debate about how closely he collaborated with the Stasi, but there is no doubt that this cooperation took place. Stolpe and his government were not interested in getting rid of people who collaborated with the Stasi.
Margot Gontard: Can Germany’s actions be considered successful?
Hope Harris: It depends on what you mean by success. Different people will define it in different ways in Belarus, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic … Someone will consider a situation a success when there will be no people associated with the previous regime in any important political positions. In this sense, Germany has achieved some success, in part thanks to a massive public debate about what needs to be done with the past..
On German television, discussions took place between people who worked for the Stasi and those who were spied on by the Stasi agents. The law established that everyone has the right to find out what materials were collected for him in the Stasi. In the event of the death of parents, their children have access to these documents. Researchers, journalists and employers also gained access to the Stasi archives. Initially, there were fears that this would lead to revenge, acts of violence and that perhaps someone would even try to kill those who followed them. But that did not happen.
Former Stasi agents and their informants behaved differently. Some said: “Forgive me, they pressured me, they had compromising information, I was forced to cooperate with the help of blackmail, I tried to protect my children.” The fact is that in the GDR, if you did not cooperate with the authorities, your children could not get into the university. Therefore, some went for it so that their children could get this opportunity..
Others cooperated because they sincerely believed in the communist idea. Therefore, when they met with the people they reported on, many of them did not repent at all. They believed that they acted correctly, that it was necessary for the country to defend the communist regime. Of course, there were those who refused to speak at all..
The German model appeals to me because they consider the ability to face the difficult moments of their past as a fundamental part of their democracy. And perhaps a partial reason can be attributed to the German mentality..
But I also remember South Africa after the end of apartheid and the work of their Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They decided that truth and reconciliation were more important than punishment and retribution. They wanted the perpetrators to tell in detail about what they had done – for the story and for the victims. As soon as the culprit told everything, he received an amnesty, everything ended for him..
M. G.: How decisions are made about the future of such people?
H.H .: In cases involving murders while trying to escape from the GDR, in most cases the judges found guilty soldiers who shot someone while guarding the Berlin Wall or border. The defendants claimed that they were just doing their job, following orders, but nevertheless they were found guilty. In many cases, they were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, but due to their pre-trial detention, many of them did not go to jail. True, they all went through the courts, the newspapers wrote about it. They needed to go through it again, to meet face to face with families who had lost their relatives, which, of course, became a certain form of punishment..
When dealing with this type of crime, the investigation must be carried out at many levels. But it is also necessary to talk about the past. One of the reasons why Germany opened the Stasi archives to researchers and journalists is to make sure that this regime is written about so that people in the future will not allow this to happen again..
M.G .: Is it possible to integrate former servants of the regime back into society??
H.H .: This worked in Germany in the long run. But for individuals, it can be a monstrous experience. An acquaintance of mine tried to escape from the GDR and was caught. They put him in jail and cruelly interrogated him. After the unification of Germany, he worked in a shop. Once a man who had interrogated him once entered the store. My friend developed post-traumatic stress disorder, he was treated for a long time and could not work, because he saw a prosperous man who, as if nothing had happened, went to shop in an expensive store.
M.G .: Is there something that peaceful protestors can do today?
H.H .: There were people in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq who secretly kept records of the authorities’ crimes. The same was done in the GDR. In the future, they could indicate what happened on such and such a day. Gathering information is very important because you need to have your own evidence, and not use data collected or falsified by the state..