WORLD

A house of horrors

Stasi victims discover their accusers

MARY NEMETH January 27 1992
WORLD

A house of horrors

Stasi victims discover their accusers

MARY NEMETH January 27 1992

A house of horrors

WORLD

GERMANY

Stasi victims discover their accusers

Emerging from Behrenstrasse 14-16, an east Berlin office building that used to serve as headquarters for East Germany’s counterespionage organization, 56-year-old Gerd Poppe appeared bewildered and shaken. Once a prominent East German dissident, Poppe said that he knew the feared Stasi secret police had kept him under surveillance for at least 13 years, from 1976 until the fall of the Communist regime in 1989. Then, when the new German government allowed Poppe and other Germans to examine their Stasi files earlier this month, he saw for the first time the full extent of their investigation: 12,000 pages of data, bound in 12 encyclopedia-sized volumes. He discovered through the files that in 1987, the Stasi, the former East German ministry for state security, or Staatssicherheit, had even concocted an elaborate plan to destroy his marriage, including using an agent who was instructed to try to seduce Poppe’s wife, Ulrike. That plan was eventually abandoned. He also found that more than 60 fulland part-time Stasi agents had been deployed to follow him and report on his activities. Although Poppe’s file listed only the agents’ code names, he said that he was sure of the true identities of at least 30 of them—and that he had once counted some of them among his friends. He vowed to track down the rest. Declared Poppe: “We will find all of you, all of you.”

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989, thousands of anti-government demonstrators turned their wrath on what was perhaps the most hated symbol of government repression, wrecking several Stasi offices from East Berlin to Dresden, 160 km to the southeast. And among the former East Germany’s 17 million citizens, the demands for retribution against officials of the deposed Communist regime continue to grow. More than two years after the end of Communist rule, the victims of Stasi surveillance and intimidation are finally being allowed to see their files under a law that took effect on Jan. 2.

The sheer volume of information, accumulated by an estimated 85,000 secret police officials and several hundred thousand of their occasional informers, is staggering. There are six million files that would stretch for 200 km if laid end to end. And they are like a Pandora’s box—containing information, as well as disinformation, that may expose victims’ friends, relatives and even spouses as Stasi collaborators. The resnlfs are expected to have explosive—and long-lasting—social effects.

More than 200,000 people have already submitted applications to view their files, although only a few have seen them so far. But as the lines of applicants lengthen, some German sociologists say that the files could provoke acts of revenge. And last week, Peter-Michael Diestel, leader of the Christian Democratic Union in the central German region of Brandenburg, urged the government to restrict access to the files. Declared Diestel: “It is extremely dangerous because much of the information is false and no one can verify a report’s accuracy.”

Diestel also accused several church leaders of having co-operated with the East German regime, including Lutheran pastor and former dissident Joachim Gauck, who now heads the government commission that is opening the files to the public. Diestel claims to have seen transcripts that detail discussions between Stasi officials and local bishops and pastors. Declared Diestel: “Not one of them managed to survive as they did in the old East Germany without making compromises with the system.”

Published reports based on leaked Stasi files have already destroyed the careers of such senior politicians as Lothar de Maizière, the former prime minister of East Germany, who was alleged to have been a Stasi informer code-named “Czerni.” He denied the allegations, but quit politics last year. Another informant, code-named “Maximilian,” has been identified in published reports as a prominent former dissident, Ibrahim Böhme. About a month before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Stasi ordered Böhme to undergo a beating by policemen during an anti-government demonstration in front of a church. A week later, with his credibility as a dissident enhanced, Böhme co-founded the Social Democratic Party. He soon became a front-runner in the first free elections for East German prime minister. But rumors of his Stasi connections suddenly forced him to drop out of politics. When Poppe looked at his own Stasi file, he discovered that “Maximilian,” who had once been a friend, had filed reports on his activities until October, 1989.

It is partly because such allegations of Stasi collaboration created an atmosphere of distrust not only among politicians, but also other Germans, that many people demanded that the Gauck commission open access to their files. Still others argued that the documents could help offset Stasi claims that had tarnished reputations unjustly—and expose the true culprits of repression.

Mario Melzer, a 62-year-old retired east Berlin factory worker, told Maclean’s last week that he wants to see his Stasi file. Melzer said that an unknown informant wrongfully accused him of trying to steal machine parts from his factory—for which he spent a year in a Stasi prison in 1986. “Who did it? Who screwed up my life? I finally want to know,” Melzer said as he stood in line at the Gauck commission office in east Berlin to file his application, along with hundreds of other Germans shuffling quietly up to the counter with their identification papers. “I want to know who blew the whistle on me for no reason,” Melzer said, “who poisoned my life and my family’s life with lies.”

Lothar Dietz wants to know who informed on him, as well. Dietz, 51, said that in the 1970s, he was committed to a psychiatric clinic, where Stasi doctors forcibly treated him with drugs. In 1976, after he threatened to commit suicide by setting himself on fire in East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, East German authorities granted Dietz an exit visa to West Germany, where he settled in the town of Giessen, 50 km north of Frankfurt. Now, he has applied to see his file to find out who denounced him. Said Dietz: “All I want to know is if my former wife worked for the Stasi or informed on me in some other way.”

In another instance, Vera Wollenberger made a chilling discovery. Because her father had been a lieutenant-general of the Stasi, she was a child of the Communist elite. But Wollenberger left home when she was 18, she says, and became involved in the fledgling East German peace movement. It was through those activities that she met Knud Wollenberger, and married him in 1981, unaware that he was a Stasi agent code-named “Donald.” For most of the next decade, Knud Wollenberger wrote regular reports for the Stasi about his wife, her acquaintances, her conversations and even their own family life.

It was not until late last year that Vera Wollenberger, now a 39-year-old Green Party member of the German parliament, first heard rumors about her husband’s Stasi connections. She confirmed the information through friends on the Gauck commission before discussing it with her husband, the father of their two young children. She says that she is now planning to divorce him. “How could it be,” she told the German magazine Der Spiegel, “that such a love-filled father could write such things in a [Stasi] report?”

Not all the Stasi documents are so explosive. Some people who have seen their files say that the reports are largely banal, and that the Stasi appears to have been so obsessed with intimidating and spying on dissidents that it failed to detect the widespread discontent that eventually swept away the Communist state. “The Stasi collapsed largely because it was crushed by the weight of its own files,” said artist and dissident Bärbel Bohley, whose own Stasi file includes an agent’s report that she had gone out three times to put out rubbish. Added Poppe: “The facts are at once often correct and, at the same time, misinterpreted and misanalysed.”

Rainer Eppelmann, a Lutheran pastor and now a Christian Democratic Union deputy in the German parliament, said that Germans should have the right to look at their own files. Said Eppelmann: “Those who so far have had a chance to view their files have behaved responsibly.” But he warned that the experience could be traumatic. When he looked at his own file, Eppelmann told Maclean ’s last week, he suddenly “lost many of the good memories” he had of people who he now knows were informers against him. What bothers him most, he said, is that the informers “would not come to me to tell, or hint, that they had done this to me.” But Eppelmann said that he is glad he saw his file. “For myself, it was necessary,” he said. “I am more clever because of it, but also poorer in a way.” Now, hundreds of thousands of other Germans must decide whether they are willing to pay the price in trust and friendship in order to discover the truth.

MARY NEMETH with JOHN HOLLAND in Berlin

MARY NEMETH

JOHN HOLLAND