LM Archives
  12:07 PM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

Night of a thousand Stasi

Germany has been rocked by revelations of how many establishment figures and celebrities worked for the old East German secret police. Rob Knight reports from Frankfurt on the problem of playing
spot-the-Stasi agent

After German reunification in 1990 the files of the former East German secret police - the Stasi - came into the hands of the new government. It set up a commission, headed by former East German citizen Joachim Gauck, to investigate what the Stasi had been up to.

At the start of this year the files were opened. East Germans were able for the first time to see whether they were on the Stasi files, and who had been spying on them. Since then scarcely a day has passed without the press exposing people who spied on their workmates, friends and even spouses. Stories such as the tale of the East German football international who spied on his teammates are only the tip of the iceberg.

A quandary

The German government seems to be in a genuine quandary about how to handle the Stasi exposures. On the one hand it wants to make the most of them, in a bid to continue playing on the anti-communism which formed the foundations of postwar West German society. On the other hand it wants to stabilise the former East Germany (GDR) and incorporate it properly into the West. But this process of integration is being hindered by the way in which the revelations of who worked for the Stasi are continually discrediting important figures of authority in the east.

It is not surprising that the Stasi affair should attract so much attention. According to the files over 300 000 people were Stasi informers. That represents an awful lot of potentially broken relationships of one kind or another. At first the media pursued the stories avidly. But more recently the game of 'spot-the-Stasi' has turned sour. It has begun to seem as though anybody who was anybody in the old East Germany had some sort of connection with the Stasi. Among those who have been accused are top politicians from all the main parties, churchmen, artists, sportsmen and singers. The list began to seem endless.

Second thoughts

Events in February brought out the problems which the anti-Stasi witch-hunt could pose for the German government. First, Manfred Stolpe, the Social Democrat president of Brandenburg and one of the most popular politicians in the east, was implicated as a Stasi informer. As Stolpe is one of the few remaining east German politicians of any stature even some of his Christian Democrat opponents sprang to his defence. Soon after came the suicides of an east German judge and a member of the German parliament, after similar accusations had been made against them. The government and the press began to have second thoughts about the crusade against the Stasi.

Other factors too have given the government cause to reflect on how far it wants to push this 'coming to terms with the past'. It is well known that leading figures in the old GDR government had close links with the West German authorities. Yet many of these old Stalinists are now facing investigation or criminal charges, which could lead to embarrassing revelations about these same links. One potentially explosive case is that of Markus Wolf, the former head of the GDR spy service. He reputedly has in his possession the names of all those in the West who had formal or informal links with the GDR.

Rotten bloc

Another source of potential embarrassment is the case of Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski, the GDR official responsible for currency dealings with the West. He is being investigated for alleged fraud. When the investigators requested 1900 files on Schalck-Golodkowski from the Gauck commission, they were only given three. These had been carefully censored and the names of every West German with whom Schalck-Golodkowski had dealt had been crossed through.

The question of past relationships with the GDR is a particular problem for the government of chancellor Helmut Kohl. The eastern section of his party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was one of the bloc of parties which governed the GDR. As such it is inconceivable that leading members of that party would not have had close links with the Stalinist state. The exposure of these connections has already caused the resignations of top CDU members, including the first head of the post-reunification CDU in the east, Lothar de Maziere.

De Maziere, and others like him, have been replaced through the forced influx of new CDU leaders from the west. This has fuelled the feeling among east Germans that they are being colonised by westerners. Nor has it been forgotten that Kohl himself welcomed GDR ruler Erich Honecker to West Germany as a head of state as recently as 1987. To many Germans, particularly those in the east, Kohl's old West German government is itself compromised through its relations with the GDR.

Another Nuremberg

Given these difficulties, it might be expected that Kohl would call off the Stasi hunt. Instead of cooling things down, however, Kohl has gone out of his way to fuel the controversy around the Stasi issue. At the same time that even leading members of his own party were calling for the persecution of Stolpe to stop, Kohl made a highly publicised visit to the former Stasi prison at Bautzen. In addition, other CDU leaders have called for Nuremberg-style trials of all the top leaders of the ex-GDR.

Part of the explanation for this lies in the importance of the Stasi issue in bolstering the sense of identity and the authority of the German establishment.

When the German nation was divided by the Allied powers at the end of the war, the big businessmen and government officials of the new West Germany were badly discredited by their record of collaboration with the Nazi regime. They needed some new credentials as champions of freedom. They got them by institutionalising anti-communism in West German society.

Milking anti-communism

For 45 years the West German establishment based its authority upon the contrast between conditions in the prosperous West and those in the repressive GDR. Since 1990, the end of the Cold War and German reunification has removed this focus for social cohesion. But a new focus around which to cohere German society has yet to be found. As a result, the government still needs to milk anti-communism as much as it can. That is one reason for keeping the old Stalinist functionaries in the spotlight.

Another and growing factor in the equation is that far from being united, the two parts of Germany seem to be further apart than ever. The German government needs scapegoats for its own failure to solve the economic and social problems of east Germany. A recent opinion poll in the weekly magazine, Der Spiegel, found that only 22 per cent of easterners thought that the government was doing enough to help the east to recover. Unable to offer east Germans a future, the government has to blame it on the problems of the past. As a result, more, rather than fewer, former members of the GDR regime are likely to find themselves in the dock.

However, continuing the anti-Stasi campaign also poses new problems for the government. There is deepening cynicism in the east about the whole issue. People there have not lost their hatred for the old Stalinist regime, but now complain that the capitalist newcomers from the west are just as bad. Last year, easterners tended to blame the lack of progress on the persistent influence of the old bureaucrats, the 'alte Seilschaften'. Now they are as likely to blame the westerners, the 'neue Seilschaften'.

East on trial

The persecution of former functionaries of the old GDR also hinders the creation of a stable political elite in the east. This in turn makes political integration more difficult. If the present deep division between east and west Germany remains, it will hold back the emergence of a new and confident all-German identity. The Kohl government is well aware that it needs such an identity to support Germany's re-emergence at the centre of world affairs. To try to resolve the problem, it has established a special History Commission to look into the whole question of what to do about the east German past.

Meanwhile the revelations continue. To east Germans, in particular, it seems more and more like a campaign to put the whole of east Germany on trial for the past. The CDU conference last December passed a motion stating that 'at the end of the necessary clarifications, reconciliation and social harmony must prevail'. The problem is that the 'clarifications' are helping to make the 'reconciliation' ever more distant.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 43, May 1992

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk