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Return of the Gestapo

The trial in Germany of a man accused of murdering two policemen 60 years ago marks a major step forward in the rehabilitation of the Nazi era. Rob Knight reports from Frankfurt

On 9 August 1931 the German Communist Party reached a new low when it joined with the Nazis in a referendum against the Social Democratic government of Prussia. On the same day in the Prussian capital of Berlin, two policemen, Paul Anlauf and Franz Lenk, were shot dead by persons unknown. At the time, the killings were seen as revenge for the police murder of a young worker, Fritz Auge, the previous day. In those increasingly violent and uncontrolled times the murder of two policemen was not a headline event, and nothing came of the police investigations.

Nazi witch-hunt

However, after the Nazis took power they reopened the investigation as part of a general anti-communist witch-hunt. The two dead policemen were hailed as heroes and a statue erected to them in Horst-Wessel Strasse. In 1934, using evidence and confessions extracted from witnesses with the usual Gestapo methods of threats and torture, a group of 25 Communists, including one Erich Mielke, were charged with the murder. Mielke had by this time fled to Moscow and was consequently tried in his absence. The court had no difficulty in finding most of the defendants guilty. Three were sentenced to death, one of whom was executed.

In 1947 the authorities tried to reopen the trial, as part of a review of legal cases under the Nazis. But the Soviets, who at that time shared control of Berlin, refused to cooperate and nothing came of it. No more was heard of the case until after German reunification, when all the old files became available again to the West. On 10 February this year the case was reopened, with the defendant, Erich Mielke, in court for the first time.

Such an obsession with a 60-year old murder case seems bizarre, until you know that Erich Mielke was for 32 years head of the Stasi secret police in East Germany. The German government wants to bring leading members of the old East German government (GDR) to book for crimes committed against their own people. This is an extremely complex legal process, given that the GDR was an internationally recognised state, and there is no generally accepted legal framework for it. After all, if every government leader was to be held legally responsible for repressive acts committed under him or her the world's jails would be full of politicians. The German state is arguing that, because of this legal problem, it wants to use the old criminal charges against Mielke to make him pay for his later crimes.

In reality, the Mielke retrial has more to do with the dark shadow that Nazism casts over Germany's past than it does with the legacy of Stalinism. Mielke is being tried using exactly the same charges and evidence that were brought against him by the Nazis. Just to emphasise the continuity even more, his case is being tried not only in the same court but in the same room as it was in 1934. The message from the state prosecution, backed up by editorial comments from the German press, is explicit. The German establishment is saying that the Nazi legal process was legitimate and normal. It is the clearest example yet of how far the German authorities are prepared to go in rewriting the past.

Legacy of the past

Rewriting the past is an urgent necessity for Germany's leaders. They know that all the world, including the German people, have not forgotten Nazi atrocities. While Germany was recovering from its defeat in the Second World War the Nazi past was not too great a burden. Germany concentrated on rebuilding its economy and did not aspire to play any great role in world politics. But now the world has changed dramatically and Germany has once more been thrust on to the world stage as a leading actor. The gradual erosion of US power, coupled with the weakness of other European powers, is making Germany the most influential nation in Europe.

Germany has difficulties in exercising this new-found power because of the legacy of the past. Every attempt to develop its foreign policy is met by dark comments from its rivals about German assertiveness. At home as well, the German establishment faces difficulties. It has yet to create a consensus among its own people for a more aggressive intervention in the outside world.

In the eighties, leading German historians and politicians began to discuss the necessity for coming to terms with the past, as a prerequisite for a resurgent Germany. Since reunification this attempt to settle accounts with the past has passed from the realm of discussion to the world of practical politics. Recent articles in Living Marxism have noted how Germany has promoted Croatian independence in order to legitimise retrospectively both the pro-Nazi wartime Croatian government, and the role of Nazi Germany in the region. But this was an indirect apology for Nazism. Although the implications were clear enough, nobody spelled them out fully.


The Mielke trial is something else. It is an indication of how far things have changed that such an explicit endorsement of the Nazi regime can be made without provoking any protest. Ten years ago it would not have been possible for anybody to endorse Gestapo methods of evidence collection in this way. Those, such as Mielke's own lawyer, who have argued that Nazi evidence is tainted have now seen their arguments dismissed out of hand. Indeed the response of the press this time around was to question the lawyer's right, as an ex-GDR lawyer, even to participate in the new Germany's legal processes. Under pressure he has since resigned.

The Mielke trial is also being used to legitimise the past in another way. Some sections of the German press have been commenting on the absurdity of charging Mielke for this old crime while ignoring his record in the GDR. The right-wing Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) has said that it is as ridiculous to try Mielke for this old crime as it would have been to charge Goering after the war with something he did in 1920, rather than what he did during the Nazi reign. By directly comparing the Nazis with the Stalinists, the FAZ is relativising Nazism; Goering was no worse than Mielke, Hitler was no worse than Stalin, Nazi Germany was no worse than the Soviet Union.

No more guilt

This has long been a favourite theme of the right. The conclusion it draws is that Nazism was to be regretted, but then so was Stalinism, and there is no reason why Germany should feel any more or less guilty than many other countries for what happened in the past. So when one newspaper headed its trial report with the senile Mielke's question 'Is it not over yet?', the message was very clear. The past, whether Nazi or Stalinist, is over and should be forgotten. Germany should be allowed to get on with its business of becoming a major world power without having continually to look over its shoulder or apologise for what it is doing.

'Butcher' Harris

When it was announced recently that a statue was being erected in London to Britain's RAF leader 'Bomber' Harris, the German press drew attention to the fact that he was responsible for the deaths of 600 000 German civilians, and dubbed him 'Butcher' Harris. The message was that other countries have their war criminals as well - a far cry from the acceptance of 'national guilt' which until quite recently characterised Germany's attitude to the war. Just to drive the point home, one paper compared the raising of the Harris statue with Kohl and Reagan's controversial visit to the SS graves at Bitburg in 1985.

There are other examples of how Germany is now legitimising the Nazi period. It is insisting that the 1938 treaty with Czechoslovakia, signed by the Czechs under threat of Nazi invasion and under extreme pressure from Britain and France to capitulate to Nazi demands, is legally valid. This would mean that the property rights of Sudeten Germans who used to live in Czechoslovakia, which were guaranteed under the Treaty, should be upheld. No doubt there is much more rewriting of history to come.

Ideological cement

The creation of a new identity untainted by the past is an urgent necessity for the rulers of the new expansionary Germany. The old anti-communism which was the ideological cement binding West German society together can no longer operate because of the collapse of Stalinism. In addition, the rise in economic strength typical of Germany since the war is threatened by the effects of recession. To ensure social cohesion and a sense of purpose in society, the German establishment needs to discover a new ideological framework to replace anti-communism. The emergence of a more overt German nationalism is a product of these pressures.

Of course, the process of historical revision is not straightforward. There are many in Germany who view it with discomfort and dislike. It is also true that by constantly reinterpreting the past the authorities risk sacrificing the consensus which has stabilised German society since the war. At the moment, while everything seems to be going their way, Germany's leaders are prepared to take risks. But, in the future, they may regret that they had to break so decisively with the certainties of the past.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 42, April 1992

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