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New Berlin state secretary haunted by Stasi past

December 21, 2016

A row is brewing in Berlin's new government over the housing state secretary. Some think Andrej Holm's teenage years in the Stasi should rule him out - but others think he's vital to stopping the city's housing crisis.

Deutschland Berlin - Landesparteitag mit dem Soziologen Andrej Holm
Image: Imago/IPON

For years, Andrej Holm has been one of Germany's most well-known and popular critics of gentrification. He is also renowned as an influential professor at Berlin's Humboldt University, who has written extensively about urban development and housing policy, and taken part in a number of projects to find new concepts for social integration.

But Berlin's new center-left government - a coalition of the Social Democrats, the Greens party, and the socialist Left party - has thrust him into the lens of public office by picking him as their state secretary for housing policy. It did not take long for an alliance of conservative opposition parties and East German victims' organizations to demand the nomination be withdrawn.

"In Berlin, the old center of power of the SED [Socialist Unity Party that governed East Germany], they don't care whether someone was in the Stasi or not," Dieter Dombrowski, a former political prisoner of East Germany and now head of the union of victims' associations of communist dictatorships (UOKG), told "Die Welt" newspaper. "It's outrageous that people like Holm are being furnished with state secretary posts."

Deutschland Sondierung Koalition Berlin September 2016 - Steffen Wesner
Mayor Müller (center) is leading a new center-left government in the German capitalImage: Imago/Ulli Winkler

The new general secretary of Berlin's Christian Democratic Union party, Stefan Evers, used more drastic words: "Red-red-green is already morally finished," he declared to local public broadcaster RBB.

But even those not wielding a political axe-grinder had their reservations. The appointment was made by Katrin Lompscher, the new government's Left party urban development minister, and caused some consternation among the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens. And though SPD Mayor, Michael Müller, has so far refrained from overruling it, at least one SPD representative, Sven Kohlmeier, has already called on Holm to give up the post, both for moral reasons and to lessen the distraction he has created.

Academic support

In response, fellow academics and tenants' rights campaigners rallied to Holm's side. On Wednesday, some 350 sociology and urban development researchers released an open letter about what they described as a "discrediting campaign" against the "internationally renowned" Holm.

"As researchers it is intolerable to see the way one of our colleagues is being treated," the academics wrote. "A treatment that is clearly trying to exploit a break in Andrej Holm's biography to prevent a political change."

It is easy to see why the issue is so charged. During the election campaign, the rise in rents and the growing scarcity of affordable housing in central parts of the city became a major issue for many Berliners, and in their letter, the academics underlined that Holm was "valued as a critical observer of segregation and displacement tendencies, as much as for his constructive reform proposals."

It was important that he be a part of the new government, they added, because "the new political culture that the red-red-green coalition wants can only be founded on the competence and commitment that Andrej Holm has proven."

This followed equally passionate support from the "Berliner rents referendum" campaign - an alliance of local campaign groups - who demanded that the Berlin government resist calls to dismiss Holm.

"This is not, finally, about the person 'Holm'," they wrote in their open letter of November 18. "This is much more about the future of Berlin and which interests the government follows. A socially sustainable city development and provision of living space is, from our perspective, fundamental to the future of Berlin. The property business, and the city, value profiteers want to see Andrej Holm fail."

Deutschland Architektur Stadt Berlin Gropiusstadt
Affordable, centrally located homes have become scarce in BerlinImage: imago/epd

Caught in a lie - or misremembering?

As a new member of a German state government, Holm still has to undergo a routine security check and an assessment of his Stasi past during his trial period in office - a process that can take months. But what exactly the 46-year-old, who had just turned 19 when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, did for East Germany's state security forces remains an obscure point - and he has not helped to make it clearer.

The "Tagesspiegel" reported this month that Holm had not revealed the whole truth about his duties with the Stasi when he took his post at the Humboldt University in 2005. He became a cadet in the state security organization at the age of 14 and began officer training with the Felix Dzerzhinsky Guards Regiment aged 18 in the fall of 1989, only months before the communist regime collapsed. The Felix Dzerzhinsky regiment was an elite paramilitary squad under the command of the Ministry for State Security, and was used to suppress rebellion in the country.

The university said last week that when Holm was asked on a questionnaire about whether he had ever worked "full-time" for the Stasi, he had answered no. In response, Holm then created more confusion last Wednesday, first by saying that he had forgotten exactly what he had done for the Stasi when he answered the university questionnaire, and then saying that, after recently re-checking his own files, he had now realized that officer training did in fact constitute full-time work.

He admitted that he had misinformed the university in 2005, but this had been "unconscious." It had not been a lie, he insisted, but more a "lack of interest in details." The university has now said it will carry out its own review of Holm's file. For now, though, he will likely remain in his job and try to slow down the sale of state land to property developers.