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.
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.”