In the two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, reporter Thomas Rogalla has covered every twist and turn in the painful legacy of the despised East German secret police, the Stasi.
But despite his experience, he never thought the story would hit as close to home as it did last month.
Two senior editors at the respected daily Berliner Zeitung, Thomas Leinkauf and Ingo Preissler, were forced to admit they had worked for the secret police after another daily scooped their paper with the story.
“I’ve been deeply involved with this topic and now, I’ve got the Stasi here in the building,” Rogalla told AFP, laughing uncomfortably.
Leinkauf confessed he had served as an informant for two years, from 1975 to 1977 while Preissler served from 1979 to 1989, when a peaceful revolution toppled the East German regime.
Rogalla, who was chosen by the paper’s editorial staff to act as their spokesman, told AFP he was stunned by the disclosures.
“If you can imagine, someone you’ve worked with on a basis of mutual trust was an informant and didn’t reveal it,” Rogalla said. “It’s hard to believe.”
Responses to the case have been mixed and reflect the different ways Germans interpret the country’s difficult past; more than 600,000 East Germans at one time cooperated with the Stasi, according to a study published in March.
But Preissler’s confession was particularly bitter for Rogalla. They had worked closely together and Preissler eventually succeeded Rogalla as political editor.
“We naturally worked on Stasi topics and he never tried to get in the way or influence anything,” Rogalla said.
Rogalla, who also spent four years as a spokesman for the archive that holds the millions of files the Stasi kept on East and West Germans, says he has not yet spoken to Preissler about his shadowy past.
The Berliner Zeitung was founded by German communists immediately after World War II. Until 1989, the paper was considered one of the official mouthpieces of the East German communist regime.
After 1989, the newspaper was privatised and is now owned by the British firm Mecom Group, which owns regional publications throughout Europe. But despite the fresh start, it was still struggling with Cold War fallout.
In the mid-1990s, 12 journalists on the newspaper’s staff were sacked after they were found to have Stasi ties. All reporters hired since 1997 are required to disclose any relationship they may have had with the Stasi. Rogalla said staff members from eastern Germany were often more critical than westerners about how clean some of their colleagues had come about their Stasi pasts.
“One colleague once told me, Ingo [Preissler] definitely has a [Stasi] file,” Rogalla said. “I said, ‘you’re crazy.'”
In a meeting of the paper’s staff, all but a handful present voted to open their Stasi files for internal review.
“There are people who don’t want their files looked through because they say, ‘I don’t need to prove my innocence,'” said Rogalla, who originally hails from western Germany. “I can perfectly understand … but I do need to prove my innocence.”
Editor-in-chief Josef Depenbrock declined to speak to AFP but in a public statement he said an independent group of academics had been asked to review the paper’s reporting for bias and accuracy. It was a story commissioned by Leinkauf that first raised questions about his past, said Rogalla.
The article published in January focused on Hubertus Knabe, a historian in charge of a museum housed in a former Stasi prison in Berlin.
“The suspicion was that Leinkauf wasn’t completely clean because he smeared Knabe,” Rogalla said.
That inkling was confirmed when a reporter from the conservative daily Die Welt requested Leinkauf’s Stasi file under an open records law.
“I hope [Leinkauf] does not remain in a leadership position,” one reader wrote on the newspaper’s blog. “His victims from Stasi times have always had to reckon with trouble. He must also have realised that, despite his youth.”
Leinkauf and Preissler continue to go to work, Rogalla said, but they are not writing or editing. The pair’s future at the paper is unclear.
“Now they’re suddenly unwanted, criticised people,” Rogalla said. “What should they do for work? They probably can’t ever write again.”