Ex-GDR officials gripe of persecution 20 years on

There’s no question East Germany persecuted its citizens, but have the communist regime’s henchmen been wronged since reunification? David Wroe investigates.

Ex-GDR officials gripe of persecution 20 years on
Photo: DPA

Tim Behrens wanted to study chemistry at university, so he did what most aspiring students did in the German Democratic Republic (GDR): he signed up for military service.

He was made a border guard and spent time in 1989 on the former border with West Germany where Thuringia meets Bavaria.

“It was awful,” he told The Local. “You were never alone. There was always another soldier and you never knew whether he would inform on you.”

He realised his orders to keep his East Germans from fleeing to the West meant shooting them.

“I don’t know what I would have done. If you didn’t shoot, the guy next to you would,” he said. “And you heard stories that if you didn’t shoot someone trying to escape, you’d be shot yourself.”

Twenty years later, Behrens has moved on with his life. The 39-year-old has an office job and takes photographs in his spare time. But he never got his place at university because the Berlin Wall fell before he could claim the rewards of his military service. Still, he’s philosophical about it and says it’s therapeutic to talk about the past.

There are, however, plenty of former East German soldiers, judges, Stasi officers and party officials who feel bitter and persecuted. Groups like the Society for Legal and Humanitarian Support (GRH) sprang up in the early 1990s to represent former GDR government employees who believe they are discriminated against because they did their job protecting their country.

To this day, they lock horns with the many support groups for victims of the communist regime. They have even been known to turn up at memorials and heckle, accusing the victims of lying and distorting history. The GRH – which ignored repeated requests for an interview – has also lobbied for the closure of the Hohenschönhausen memorial, the notorious Stasi prison in Berlin that has been preserved as a museum.

Politically motivated justice?

While victims claim there has been scant justice for the hundreds of thousands of people who suffered at the hands of the East German authorities, the GRH and other groups insist prosecutions of former communist officials – including border guards who shot attempted escapees dead – were illegal and politically motivated.

“The officers of the GDR and members of the MfS (the Ministry for State Security or Stasi) were pursued on legal grounds that did not meet international standards,” said Siegfried Mechler, the head of the Board of East German Associations (OKV), a GDR umbrella organisation.

“The West German courts were gripped by prosecution hysteria. Nothing was forgotten or overlooked.”

He said many former GDR employees were still paying the cost of legal fees and other financial burdens “because foreign laws were used against them.”

In fact, historians say that the reason only about 100 former GDR officials were ever convicted of serious crimes is that West German law was not applied retrospectively to crimes committed in East Germany.

Mechler also said that Germany’s “political elite” were using the Stasi’s history as a political weapon against the socialist Left Party, which is a direct descendent of the East German communist party the SED. Many of its members, including co-leader Gregor Gysi, are accused of having past Stasi connections.

While admitting there had been “shortfalls” in civil liberties in the GDR, Mechler said that, socially and economically, it was an “exemplary” state.

Light sentences

In 1992, Ingo Heinrich, a border guard, was given three-and-a-half years’ jail for shooting dead Christian Gueffroy as he tried to escape over the Wall. Several other cases followed during the 1990s. The penalties tended to be light – some were suspended sentences – but the cases raised the prickly question of whether individuals were to blame for following orders handed down by the state.

Behrens, who has nothing to do with the groups represent ex-GDR officials, says the border guards themselves bear less guilt than the people who gave the orders.

“Sometimes they didn’t have a choice. They might have been shot themselves,” he said.

“Sure, they are guilty if they killed somebody, so punishment may be necessary. But they should not be punished more severely than the guy who gave the order, or the guys who created the policy to shoot.”

And most former GDR employees are more like Behrens than the activists of the GRH, experts say.

“They are a subculture,” said Roger Engelmann, a historian at the Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives (BStU).

“They are mainly the older Stasi officers and judges who were in their 40s or 50s when the wall came down. The younger ones who weren’t so indoctrinated just moved on and re-orientated themselves to the new society.”

Another historian, Jens Hüttman of the Federal Foundation for the Reconciliation of the SED Dictatorship, agreed, saying former GDR officials, including Stasi officers, shouldn’t be judged only on their pasts.

“People do change. And that’s what we want isn’t it? For people to learn,” he told The Local. “A strong democracy should always be self-confident enough to tell people: We won’t forget what you have done in the past but we respect that you have learnt from it.”

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


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.