East German victims lament lack of justice

The collapse of the Berlin Wall rectified East Germany’s biggest crime. But as David Wroe reports, many of the communist regime’s victims are still seeking justice for other misdeeds two decades later.

East German victims lament lack of justice
Photo: DPA

The Stasi, East Germany’s dreaded secret police, tried to murder Wolfgang Welsch three times.

The first attempt was a car bomb, which exploded but somehow failed to kill him. Next, they stationed a sniper on an English hillside next to a motorway they knew Welsch would be driving down. He missed.

The third time, in 1981, a “friend” poisoned Welsch, his wife and daughter by putting the toxic heavy metal thallium in their hamburgers during a family holiday in Israel. Against the odds, they survived, though Welsch lost his hair and spent weeks in hospital.

The friend, it turned out, was a Stasi killer, working for an assassination squad codenamed “Scorpion.” As a former East German dissident who was helping smuggle people to the West, Welsch was a prime target.

Now a writer, Welsch was dismissed as a crank until Stern magazine picked up his story. In 1994, he was vindicated when the friend, whose real name was Peter Haack, was sentenced to six years in jail for attempted murder.

The 65-year-old Welsch got his justice. But like many victims of the Stasi and the East German communist regime, he remains unsatisfied. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are dozens of lobby groups and support networks for victims. Most trumpet the message that there has never been a true reckoning of the crimes and human rights abuses that occurred in the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR).

Many victims’ advocates say failing to come to grips with this dark legacy has left a festering sore upon a reunified Germany. Others believe the country has missed an opportunity to confront the issue and lay some old ghosts to rest as the 20th anniversary of the Wall’s collapse approaches.

“Initially, the justice system didn’t want to believe me that the Stasi murdered political opponents,” Welsch said. “The fact that I had to fight for justice … left me pretty disillusioned.”

Few convictions

According to one victim’s group, the Forum for Education and Rehabilitation, in the first decade after reunification there were some 79,108 investigations, which yielded 993 prosecutions and fewer than 100 convictions. Erich Mielke, the Minister for State Security and the notorious head of the Stasi, spent less than two years in jail. He was convicted of the murders of two policemen in 1931, but not for anything he did during the GDR era.

And that is simply not enough for hundreds of thousands of victims of “persecution, false imprisonment, perversion of justice and countless other crimes,” said the forum’s chairman Reinhard Dobrinski.

The problem reunified Germany faced, according to Jens Hüttmann, a historian at the Federal Foundation for the Reconciliation of the SED Dictatorship, was that East German officials could only be tried under East German law. To apply West German law retrospectively would smack of “victors’ justice” and undermine the rule of law itself.

“Of course it was disappointing for the victims – I can understand that – but there wasn’t really a palatable alternative,” Hüttmann said. “If you’d left the principle of the rule of law behind, it could have been worse. The lack of the rule of law is one of the things that allows dictatorships to do terrible things.”

A second obstacle was the long shadow of the Nazi period. After the Nuremberg trials of the most senior National Socialists, sentences given in later trials in the 1950s were remarkably light. Germany couldn’t be seen to be treating communist perpetrators more harshly than Nazi criminals, Hüttmann said.

Yet Wolfgang Welsch believes Germany should have at least held Nuremberg-style hearings for the GDR leadership.

Grudgingly compensated

On the other side of the ledger is the seemingly grudging compensation for the victims. It wasn’t until 2007 that victims of the Stasi were granted a pension by the federal government. They are now paid €250 a month but only if they were jailed for more than six months and earn less than about €12,500 a year.

“The victims are not satisfied with this,” said Hubertus Knabe, scientific director of the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, the former Stasi prison that has been turned into a museum. “If you were a guard, you get a good pension. That is unjust and victims feel very bitter about this.”

Knabe argues that Germany’s soft approach to punishing perpetrators and compensating victims is a major factor in creeping Ostalgie – a play on words describing the sense among eastern Germans that the communist dictatorship wasn’t all that bad.

But it’s not just about jail time and money. Vera Lengsfeld, a former dissident and Christian Democratic MP, said frank discussion could go a long way to healing the old wounds.

“There was never really a debate about what kind of regime it was. They left it to the victims to confront it all and do the talking. That was a big, big mistake,” she said.

Lengsfeld knows more about forgiveness than most. After the wall fell, she learned that her now ex-husband, poet Knud Wollenberger, spied on her for the Stasi. It took more than a decade but eventually she forgave him.

“You can only forgive somebody if they are repentant. It took my former husband 10 years but … he explained why he did it and asked for my forgiveness,” she said. “But most former GDR officials haven’t repented.”

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What we know so far about Berlin’s follow-up to the €9 ticket

After weeks of debate, Berlin has settled on a new budget ticket to replace the €9 ticket for a limited time. Here's what know about the travel deal so far.

What we know so far about Berlin's follow-up to the €9 ticket

So Berlin’s getting a new €9 ticket? Cool!

Kind of. Last Thursday, the Berlin Senate agreed to implement a €29 monthly ticket from October 1st until December 31st this year. 

It’s designed to bridge the gap between the end of the €9 ticket deal and the introduction of a new national transport deal that’s due to come into force by January 2023.

The Senate still hasn’t fleshed out the details in a written decision yet, so some aspects of the ticket aren’t clear, but we do know a few things about how it’ll work. For €29 a month, people can get unlimited travel on all modes of public transport in Berlin transport zones A and B. That means buses, trains and trams are all covered – but things like taxis aren’t. 

Wait – just zones A and B. Why’s that?

One of the sticking points in planning the new ticket was the fact that neighbouring state Brandenburg was reluctant to support the idea. Franziska Giffey (SPD), the governing mayor of Berlin, had annoyed her neighbours and surprised her own coalition partners by suddenly pitching the idea at the end of August – shortly before the €9 ticket was due to expire.

At the time, the disgruntled Brandenburg state premier Dietmar Woidke (SPD) complained about the lack of advance notice for a proper debate. He had previously ruled out a successor to the €9 ticket in the state. Meanwhile, the CDU – who are part of the governing coalition in Brandenburg – slammed the idea for a new cheap ticket as a “waste of money” and an attempt to “buy votes” for the SPD.

The blockade meant that plans for a Berlin-Brandenburg ticket run by transport operator VBB had to be scrapped, and the monthly ticket has instead been restricted to the two transport zones solely operated by Berlin’s BVG. Since zone C stretches into Brandenburg, Berlin couldn’t include this zone in the ticket unilaterally. 

Berlin transport zones explained

Source: S-Bahn Berlin

The good news is that zones A and B cover everything within the city’s borders, taking you as far as Spandau in the west and Grunau in the southeast. So unless you plan regular trips out to the Brandenburg, you should be fine.

However, keep in mind that the Berlin-Brandenburg BER airport is in zone C, so you’ll need an ‘add-on’ ticket to travel to and from there. It’s also not great for the many people who live in Potsdam in Brandenburg and commute into Berlin regularly. 

READ ALSO: Berlin gets green light to launch €29 transport ticket

How can people get hold of it? 

Unlike the €9 ticket, you won’t be able to buy it at stations on a monthly basis. Instead, the €29 ticket is only for people who take out a monthly ‘Abo’ (subscription) for zones A and B. If you’ve already got a monthly subscription, the lower price will be deducted automatically, while yearly Abo-holders will likely get a refund. 

You can take out a monthly subscription on the BVG website here – though, at the time of writing, the price of the ticket hadn’t been updated yet. According to Giffey, people will be able to terminate their subscription at the end of December without facing a penalty. 

What types of ‘Abos’ are eligible for the deal? 

According to Berlin transport operator BVG, people with the following subscriptions are set to benefit from the reduced price from October to December: 

  • VBB-Umweltkarten with monthly and annual direct debit
  • 10 o’clock tickets with monthly and yearly direct debit
  • VBB-Firmentickets with monthly and yearly direct debit 
  • Trainee subscriptions with monthly direct debit

People who already have reduced-price subscriptions, such as over-65s and benefits claimants, aren’t set to see any further reductions. That’s because many of these subscriptions already work out at under €29 per month for zones A and B. 

Passengers exit an U-Bahn train in Berlin

Passengers exit an U-Bahn train at Zoologischer Garten. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Can students with a Semesterticket get it as well?

That’s one of the things that still needs to be clarified. It’s possible that universities will choose to refund part of the Semesterticket price like they did with the €9 ticket. The Local has contacted BVG for more information. 

Can I take my bike/dog/significant other along for the ride? 

Once again, this doesn’t appear to have been ironed out yet – but we can assume that the usual rules of your monthly or yearly subscription will apply. So, as with the €9 ticket, if your bike is included in your subscription, you can continue to take it with you. If not, you’ll probably have to pay for a bike ticket.

In most cases, monthly BVG subscriptions allow you to take one dog with you for free, and also bring one adult and up to three children (under 14) with you on the train on evenings and weekends. These rules are likely to stay the same, but we’ll update you as soon as we know more. 

How much is this all going to cost?

According to regional radio station RBB24, around €105 million is set to be put aside in order to subsidise the temporary ticket. However, this still needs to be formalised in a supplementary budget and given the green light in the Senate. 

An S-Bahn train leaves Grünewald station

An S-Bahn train leaves Grünewald station. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

OK. And what happens after the €29 ticket?

That’s the million – or, rather, billion – euro question right now. In its latest package of inflation relief measures, the federal government said it would be making €1.5 billion available for a follow-up to the €9 ticket.

The ticket is set to be introduced by January 2023 and will rely on Germany’s 16 states matching or exceeding the federal government’s €1.5 billion cash injection. So far, it looks set to be a monthly ticket that can be used on public transport nationally, with the price set somewhere between €49 and €69.

However, the Greens continue to push for a two-tier model that would give passengers the option of buying either a regional or national ticket. Under their proposals, the regional tickets would cost €29 and the national tickets would cost €69.