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.”
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.
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.”