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Germany

Dispossessed Berlin Wall Land Owners Hope for Justice

The former owners of real estate on which the Berlin Wall was built have been fighting unsuccessfully to get their property back. A recent decision from the European Court of Human Rights could improve their chances.

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Who owns the property upon which the Berlin Wall stood?

To the former owners of property that was confiscated for the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, the land they once owned can only be reclaimed under conditions they consider unjust. The dispossessed have been organized for twelve years now, however, despite all the work they have put into their cause, they have achieved virtually nothing in their standoff with the German government and the justice system.

But now, the European Court of Human Rights has given new impetus to the former property owners with its ruling last Thursday that Germany had violated the European Convention on Human Rights. The court said Germany had violated the protection of private property by repossessing land that had been allocated to farmers and refugees in the Communist GDR agrarian reform. It should have provided them with compensation. The German government is expected to be overwhelmed with a barrage of compensation claims and costs that could amount to billions.

A Berlin district court had pronounced a judgment earlier this month that although East Germany (GDR) did violate the four-power status of Berlin by building the Wall, the court could not take that as a basis for a ruling.

Violating international law

German courts have consistently applied the same logic when they have ruled in cases where former property owners have sued to regain their land. But those who lost their property 43 years ago argue that the Berlin Wall violated international law. Until German unification on Oct. 3, 1990, the Four Power Status, which established the jurisdiction of Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States over the city's four sectors, still applied to Berlin. Since the Allies had declared the city a demilitarized zone, the GDR had no right to apply its "defense law" of Sept. 20, 1961, which legalized construction of the Wall.

In 1996, the German parliament passed legislation regulating the return of Berlin Wall property. It requires people who reclaim their property to pay the government 25 percent of its current value. The government is obliged to pay the former owner 75 percent of the land's value in compensation if it cannot be returned -- if, for example, it's used for a street. Most of the former property owners don't accept those conditions.

Pithy compensation

Konrad Bautz and his mother were evicted from their house in 1961, when construction on the Wall began. They would be allowed to return in a matter of weeks, when the Western allies would leave Berlin, his mother was told. Days after Bautz and his mother moved into the apartment they had been allotted a neighbor called to tell him that GDR soldiers were demolishing his house. "I took a taxi there. The house was already missing a roof," Bautz recalled. The GDR paid Bautz 10,000 East German marks in compensation.

Since September 2003, around 600 claims have been filed for the return of Berlin Wall properties, according to the German Finance Ministry. Only a quarter of the claimants are prepared to pay the 25 percent necessary to buy back their old property. The government is using 10 percent of the real estate, which, thus, cannot be returned. More than 130 applications have not yet been processed.

Red-Green flip-flop

Around 120 people are organized in the group of former owners of Berlin Wall property. At its height, 250 people were members -- an indication that more and more owners are becoming resigned. The property owners' main problem is they have no lobby. When the governing coalition parties passed the law on Berlin Wall property, the then-opposition, the Social Democrats and the Greens, said they would reverse the law when they got in power. But when the time came, in 1998, they forgot their promise and assumed the same point of view as the former government.

Joachim Hildebrandt, a member in the owners group, said the flip-flop gave him additional stimulus not to give up. "We couldn't have been treated more meanly. And that's also why we're going to the European Court (of Human Rights) in Strasbourg."

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