Former members of East Germany's notorious secret police, the Stasi, have increased their public profile recently, insisting that they are being libeled by the larger society. Former Stasi victims are outraged.
A tour at the former Stasi prison in Berlin's Hohenschönhausen district
For some of the 300 people at a March meeting about changes to a former Stasi prison in Berlin, old and terrifying memories were suddenly relived as they found themselves unexpectedly face to face with their one-time tormentors.
The purpose of the gathering was a discussion of planned information plaques and a speaker at the podium was describing the facility in Berlin's eastern Hohenschönhausen district as a "place of terror, mistreatment and suffering" when catcalls erupted in the audience. Shouts of "lies" went up and several people demanded the former prison and interrogation center, now a museum and memorial to its victims, be closed.
It turns out than 200 of the audience members were former generals, officers and employees of the now-defunct Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, East Germany's secret police and intelligence service. The group was led by no less than a former deputy of Stasi head Erich Mielke himself, Werner Grossmann, and another high-ranking officer and former deputy, Wolfgang Schwanitz.
Former HQ of the Stasi in Berlin
The former head of the prison, Siegfried Rataizik, scolded the former prisoners in attendance, saying "you present yourselves as victims and declare us the perpetrators" when, he added in statement that most historians would dispute, everyone held in the facility had been treated humanely.
"Many (former prisoners) have the feeling that they are being punished a second time when things like this happen," said Hubertus Knabe, the musuem's director. "It rips open a lot of wounds."
Former victims of the Stasi, and there are many, are finding those old wounds increasingly raw these days as ex-Stasi officers take their arguments that their former organization was a regular secret service just like any other.
"They are unrepentant, almost all of them, and they've become louder lately," said Klaus Schroeder, head of a team which researches the East German regime at Berlin's Free University. "They want to rehabilitate themselves in the public eye and save their biographies."
Peter Pfütze, left, and Gotthold von Schramm have written books which present a different version of the Stasi
Earlier this month, two former Stasi officers released books that presented what many say is a whitewashed version of history. The two authors presented East Germany as a country that followed the rule of law and operated within the framework of its own constitution.
One of the books, which contains accounts from former Stasi employers, is described by the publisher as "exciting," "funny" and "enlightening."
They are engaging in increasingly aggressive propaganda, disturbing gatherings and are getting organized," said Marianne Birthler, head of the commission which administers the former ministry's files, in an interview. "This is alarming, because the SED dictatorship was not harmless," she added, referring to socialist party which ruled the country with an iron fist.
According to memorial director Knabe, it was not always like this. In the early 1990s, he said that ex-Stasi officers would sometimes visit the former prison, even talking about their activities there. But today, the only former State Security visitors the site gets are those who insist the organization was not as bad as it is painted to be. He calls it a "creeping rehabilitation" of their reputation.
Miles of incriminating Stasi files are still being sifted through
"Since the German government has treated them so well, even raising their pension levels several times and allowing a former employee to sit in parliament, they apparently think the time is right to rewrite history," he said.
He and others also worry about the influence that the new versions of history could have on young people, who could be susceptible to claims that Stasi employees were just doing their jobs, for the good of the nation.
"They want to influence the younger generation," said Bernd Stichler, head of the Association of the Victims of Stalinism, who himself was put in jail on three occasions by the Stasi. "They've had some success, because many young people don't know much about the history of the East German regime."
Softening of attitudes
Popular culture and the media have also played a role in preparing the way for ex-Stasi employees to begin work on rehabilitation. Movies showing East Germany through a nostalgic lens, such as "Sonnenallee" (1999) or "Goodbye, Lenin!" (2003), were box office hits and the first introductions for many young people to the country.
Trabant cars are a symbol of East Germany and remembered fondly by many
Around the same time, a wave of nostalgia for the GDR, called Ostalgie in German, swept the country, featuring numerous television specials that took a fond look back at aspects of life behind the Iron Curtain. The subject of the Stasi, however, was generally avoided.
"Immediately after the fall of the wall, the GDR was seen much more critically by East Germans," said the Free University's Schroeder. "But after the nostalgia wave took off in the mid 1990s, the focus has been on East Germany as a model social welfare state, not as a dictatorship."
That softening of attitudes, he adds, has made it easier for ex-Stasi officers, who disappeared into retirement or other careers after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to resurface and make their controversial claims loud and clear.
"They're doing nothing less than fighting for approval," he said.