[Berlin Wall, 1977]
This is a major story for someone interested in archives, totalitarianism and historical memory. While I have not heard much about this in the U.S., it is causing a row in Germany. A document from the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, dated Oct. 1, 1973 was found last week in a regional archive office in the eastern city of Magdeburg. The document provides firm evidence that border guards had shoot-to-kill orders from the communist regime. Agence France Presse reports that the Stasi:
[H]ad told guards that they must “stop or liquidate” would-be dissidents.
“Do not hesitate to use your firearm, not even when the border is breached in the company of women and children, which is a tactic the traitors have often used,” the key passage said.
The East German regime had long claimed that the killings at the border, which was fortified with concrete, barbed wire and armed guards, were only a “last resort” when other methods such as firing warning shots were exhausted.
But the director of the government office that now manages the thousands of Stasi files said the document offered iron-clad evidence that the regime expected those trying to escape to the West to be killed.
“The document is so important because the political leaders of the time continue to deny there was an order to shoot,” Marianne Birthler told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.
She said the discovery proved there were aspects of a dark chapter of Germany’s past that had not yet come to light, as the country prepares to mark the 46th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall Monday.
“We have a long way to go in reckoning with the past,” Birthler said.
New Discovery or Old News?
One source of embarrassment for the government is the document in question was evidently cited in a historical anthology on the Stasi published in 1997. Deutsche Weld reports:
Klaus Schroeder, of the research center “SED-Staat” at the University of Berlin, told the daily Leipziger Volkszeitung that Birthler “without doing thorough research beforehand, left herself get caught up in the idea of announcing information that made it appear like an historically new, sensational discovery.”
On Sunday, a spokesman for the Stasi archive confirmed that the “shoot-to-kill” passage had been printed in a historian’s book on East Germany in 1997 but said it had not reached a wider audience.
But Hubertus Knabe, he director of the museum in the Hohenschoenhausen prison in Berlin, where the Stasi used to interrogate prisoners. Knabe claims though it had been published, the document was not widely known to the public.
“Many years ago, excerpts were published in an anthology, however, these did not play a role in the trials against those who shot people at the wall and their superiors.”
Joachim Gauch played a major role in opening the Stasi archives and was interviewed by Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, March 27, 2007. Click here to read a transcript.
RFE/RL: The opening of the Stasi archives revealed strong similarities between the secret services in Nazi Germany and those in the GDR. Do you see this as a basis for comparison between these two regimes?
Gauck: In Germany, we’ve learned that equating these two totalitarian systems is fruitless. In Germany, we have reason to regard National Socialism as the worst evil. But if I were an intellectual in Moscow, Tomsk, or some other part of the former Soviet Union, maybe I’d be more interested in the injustices that took place during the Soviet period, these millions of dead, these millions of people who were murdered or deported in violation of their rights. In addition, there’s the feeling [in the former USSR] that many of the past perpetrators now occupy prominent positions. This has given me the conviction that every country needs to pay the highest attention to its own wrongdoings. In this sense, there is much to do in postcommunist countries.
RFE/RL: Do you think that, like Nazi criminals, perpetrators of crimes under Soviet rule should be prosecuted?
Gauck: The issue is not simply to delegitimize communism because of the many victims and criminal acts. In this Soviet empire, the wheel of recent political history has been turned backward. All the values that the democratic movement represents in liberal countries — human rights, civil rights, freedom, autonomy of the law — has been taken away here. So in the whole postcommunism region, we see a decades-long history of political impotence, arrogance of power, and a consistent failure to legitimize the government though free and fair elections. This has generated a feeling of impotence that we still notice today. ‘There’s nothing we can do,’ says the state’s inhabitant. The state’s inhabitant is not a citizen, he’s a prisoner of the state. This heavy burden has shaped people’s mentality. I think that this, aside from the processing of the crimes, is another very important problem.