The former East German secret police Stasi was notorious for infiltrating civilian society, as well as for its foreign activities. But a planned forum on its activities abroad has been cancelled due to severe criticism.
The Stasi put many critics of the East German regime in prison for years
A controversial conference with former top level East German spies has been cancelled in Berlin. Organizer Thomas Wegener Friis said the event was to focus on the so-called HVA, the foreign intelligence branch of the secret police Stasi in the former East Germany (GDR).
"Espionage was an important part of the Cold War and we need to understand foreign intelligence in order to understand this period in history," said Friis, an assistant professor at the Center for Cold War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense.
But the Stasi archives authority BStU in Berlin withdrew its participation in the conference at short notice, sparking its subsequent cancellation. BStU director Marianne Birthler said in a statement that no expert from her office would be allowed to take part.
According to Birthler, previous public remarks by former high-ranking Stasi officers about their tasks and activities disqualified them from being serious discussion partners or even contemporary witnesses.
"It was very bitter for us that Birthler took that position against the conference," Friis said. "Her decision came as a stroke of lightning to us." The Stasi archives had initially agreed to participate in the event with an expert speaker.
The Max Planck Society, which was to host the conference, pulled out of the event as a result of Birthler's decision. According to Friis, the society said that without the BStU expert's participation, the conference could have no longer presented a balanced view of the issue.
Confrontation would have been possible
Conservative politician Friedbert Pflüger said he supported Birthler's decision.
"There should be no new stage for former Stasi offenders to propagate their take on history," Pflüger said in a statement.
Rupp, also known as Topas, spied for the Stasi at NATO for years
"Dealing with the past is important and right, but not by those who violated the human rights of millions of people in the GDR or who pursued espionage abroad for the SED dictatorship," Pflüger said. The SED, or Socialist Unity Party of Germany, was East Germany's governing party.
Historian Hubertus Knabe, director of the former Stasi prison in the Berlin district of Hohenschönhausen, now a memorial and museum, said the former Stasi speakers were in no way prepared to participate in a critical academic analysis of their one-time activities.
The list of speakers included Werner Grossmann, the last head of the HVA, and his deputies Horst Vogel and Ralf Devaux. The top Stasi spy at NATO, Rainer Rupp, was also invited.
But Friis said historians who had worked on the topic were also invited. A confrontation with the former Stasi officers would have been possible and he said the scathing criticism should be more differentiated.
"I can understand the victims of the GDR," he said, since they lived with the ruthless Stasi organization and often had bitter personal experiences with it. "But I don't understand Birthler," he added.
Stasi should not be made taboo
Professor Klaus Schroeder, head of the Research Association on the SED State at Berlin's Free University, said critics should have dealt with the issue more calmly.
The Stasi was regarded as one of the most effective intelligence agencies in the world
"There was a bit of hysteria about it," Schroeder said. "Why shouldn't academics take these arguments apart? They should have faced up to the confrontation."
Schroeder said East Germany's Stasi past was of historical significance, especially considering that key contemporaries were getting older. But it would be more suitable to have a podium discussion with former secret police and academics present to discuss and pick apart the Stasi's activities, he said.
"It's better to take on these arguments instead of making them taboo," Schroeder said.
A poor choice of date
Many critics of the conference condemned Friis' choice of timing: the weekend of June 17. This date coincided with the East German uprising of 1953, which escalated on June 17.
Schroeder said the date choice was "a provocation." But Friis said the date was chosen for purely practical purposes and "an unlucky coincidence."
Friis said he now intended to hold the conference in Denmark later this year.