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Stasi Conference

DW staff (sms)
November 17, 2007

Former East German communist spies held a meeting in Denmark, with their former boss saying their work contributed to world peace. Outraged Stasi victims said the conference brushes over the atrocities of the GDR regime.

Hubertus Knabe
Organizers said they wanted to hear from to GDR spies before time runs outImage: Fotomontage/DW

At the two-day conference, which started Saturday, Nov. 17, in Danish city of Odense, academics interested in East Germany's efforts to destabilize the West and advance Soviet interests during the Cold War were hearing the recollections of the former agents and their East Berlin-based commanders.

A letter of welcome from Werner Grossmann, head till 1989 of the Stasi department that spied on the West, was read to hundreds of people at the history conference, among them about 60 former agents.

"Scouts for peace"

Index cards with information collected by the Stasi
The East German secret police, or Stasi, created files on thousands of peopleImage: AP

Grossmann, who did not attend in person because of declining health, claimed the agents "fulfilled their mission to preserve peace."

"Unlike other secret services, we did not mount coups, murders and kidnappings," he claimed, describing the undercover agents who infiltrated the West German government and industry as "scouts for peace," adding, "We honor you for ever more."

Despite the Cold War arms race, repression and the violent crushing of uprisings until the collapse of the Soviet system in 1989, communists regularly claimed they were devoted to world peace.

Communist East Germany ran thousands of spies across the Iron Curtain, infiltrating "moles" deep into the West German administration until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Danish historian Thomas Wegener Friis, who organized the conference, said he intended the meeting, which would involve the personal reflections of the GDR's top-level spies and political leaders, to be a scholarly examination of the daily workings of the East German intelligence services.

"I leave the moral interpretation to the readers of our reports," Friis said, adding that the people directly involved in making espionage decisions in the GDR were aging and that time was running out to hear what they have to say.

Misguided attempt to deal with past

Visitors pass through the gates inside the former Hohenschönhausen prison
The former prison in Berlin's Hohenschönhausen district is now a memorial to its victimsImage: dpa - Bildfunk

But trying to produce an objective assessment of the former East German security apparatus by inviting its heads to speak is absurd, according to Hubertus Knabe, director of the memorial to victims at the former Stasi prison and interrogation center in the Berlin district of Hohenschönhausen.

"It would be like inviting Osama bin Laden and his followers to a conference on terrorism," Knabe said.

The office that deals with the Stasi archives also withdrew its support for the conference and planned to send a single "observer" to the meeting, according to Andreas Schulze, the archive's spokesperson.

"These old Stasi generals have no idea of what they have done," he told the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. "For them it is about acquitting themselves and fighting over who was at fault."

Bad sense of timing

Two people throw rocks at a tank during the June 17 protests
The June 17 protests resulted in the deaths of at least 55 peopleImage: AP

Friis, a professor at the Center for Cold War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, had originally tried to hold the conference in Berlin on June 17. But that meeting was called off after a public outcry, with the state-run archives containing the files of the East German Stasi spy agency cancelling all cooperation with the retired spies.

On June 17, 1953, the former GDR government, armed with Soviet tanks, violently crushed an uprising on the streets of then East Berlin killing 55 people. The demonstration, which began to fight a cut in wages, quickly grew to involve over a million East Germans who took to the streets in hundreds of towns and communities and called for freedom, democracy and unity in Germany.

In the days following, some 10,000 protesters and members of the strike committee were arrested. At least two cases can be proven where people were sentenced to death. More than 1,500 protesters were given lengthy prison sentences.

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