Scores of children in postwar Germany were abused in institutions while wards of the state well into the 1970s. They now want an apology and compensation. But the government is sending mixed signals.
Reading was the exception in many institutions
They were beaten, humiliated, sexually abused and forced to do compulsory labor -- while wards of the state. Over half a million children brought up in church and state institutions between 1945 and 1975 suffered this fate in what one survivor called "child welfare hellholes."
"I was beaten and kicked into a cripple while in a home," said Dietmar Krone. "I still suffer from this today."
For 30 years, Krone kept his experiences to himself -- as did most victims of such institutional abuse. But when other former wards of the state began publicly calling attention to their plight, the 55-year-old joined them. He wrote a book about his experiences in an institution in Suechteln, today a part of Viersen near the Dutch border.
Decades after the fact, victims' groups are finally supposed to sit down in the next weeks with government, state and church representatives for a round table discussion of the situation. In December, the German parliament Bundestag unanimously passed a recommendation to the government to set up such a panel.
A petitions committee had previously recommended such action to the Bundestag after two years of deliberation.
The round table is intended to serve as a platform for all parties to clarify the background and consequences for victims. This includes rehabilitation possibilities, psychological support and compensation.
Play time, if any, was limited
"We'd like some form of material compensation," said Hans-Siegfried Wiegand, head of the German association of former institutionalized wards of the state Verein Ehemaliger Heimkinder (VEH). He said many children were forced to compulsory labor during their time in these homes.
"We are talking about 10 to 12 hours a day of hard labor for which they received no noticeable, if any, pay," Wiegand said. "The institutions themselves, as well as companies such as Braun and Miele, profited from this."
Since these adolescents were forced to work, they were refused schooling or vocational training.
"The director at my institution told me when I arrived: 'There's no school instruction here, we just need nimble workers'," Krone said. "Two hours later, I was sitting at one of the workbenches." He received monthly wages of 7.20 deutsche marks (3.60 euros, $4.75).
"And if you made an error, there were deductions -- and you were beaten or thrown into a dark cell," Krone said.
Few children in homes were able to take field trips
In addition, the work these adolescents did was not officially recognized and therefore not credited in their pensions.
"Ironically enough, only voluntary work can be considered for pension benefits -- and this wasn't voluntary," Wiegand said. He said many former wards of the state, who are today between 50 and 70 years of age, are financially struggling due to their past.
"Many are ailing or very ill, either physically or mentally," Wiegand said. "Most are poor as a result of their lives, for example by going into early retirement. They didn't have the strength anymore to continue working."
In addition to financial compensation, Wiegand said it would mean a lot to these victims to receive an "explicit recognition" of their suffering. Krone said an official apology would make a difference to him.
The Catholic Church has yet to apologize for its past
"It would restore my sense of honor and dignity," said Krone. But the regional authority responsible for his case has yet to do so, he said.
"The word apology doesn't cross their lips," Krone said. "They can't apologize; that would be a confession of their conduct."
The petitions committee's recommendation had recognized "injustice and suffering" and "regretted this deeply." Yet a dispute has arisen on several points after German Family Minister Ursula von der Leyen presented a counter draft of necessary action.
"She up front decided to rule out certain aspects," Wiegand said. This included setting up a contact point for victims and eliminating a compensation fund.
"The minister did so without consulting us at all and these decisions are actually the task of the round table," Wiegand said. "We can't put up with this."
But the ministry contradicted these statements. Press officer Marc Kinert said the ministry had not ruled out anything ahead of time, but rather would leave that up to the discussions at the round table.
"There will be open-ended negotiations on possible compensation payments at that time," Kinert said.
Protestant Church apologizes
The Protestant Church in Germany is the only organization to take responsibility for its past. Hanover's regional Bishop Margot Kaessmann earlier this month officially apologized.
Bishop Kaessmann has been straightforward in taking responsibility for the Church's past
"I can say publicly that I apologize," Kaessmann told German television NDR. "But I would say even more: I am ashamed that these things occurred in our institutions and that children were truly broken in their wills and their dignity hurt to such an extent."
Kaessmann said she welcomed the parliamentary decision to set up a round table. She said she supported the idea of a compensation fund.
"I personally think that we have to talk about compensation for people who were forced to compulsory labor in these institutions without being paid and are in dire situations today," she said. She said it was also necessary to discuss therapeutic support to help former state wards process and deal with their pasts.
But Kaessmann remains alone in her response. Catholic and state organizations, while offering their unconditional help in clarifying the situation, have yet to make formal apologies to the estimated 500,000 to 800,000 adults who spent their childhood and/or adolescence in institutionalized homes between 1945 and 1975.