BERLIN (Reuters) - For thousands of former employees of Communist East Germany’s loathed Stasi secret police, next week’s 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is no cause for celebration.
While the city hosts world leaders for festivities to mark the end of Europe’s Cold War, a generation of ex-Stasi cadres will be trying to forget the night euphoric East and West Berliners danced on the Wall and fell into each others arms.
“November 9 is not a celebration at all for us,” said Hans Bauer, chairman of the Society for Legal and Humanitarian Support (GRH) which helps former East German state employees, including Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, officers.
“What happened that day has been a burden to people like us,” added the quietly spoken lawyer whose ashen complexion lends him an appearance older than his 68 years.
Experts say few of the Stasi’s 91,000 ex-employees, or its 170,000 unofficial informers, have come to terms with their role in one of the world’s most repressive organizations.
Known as “the shield and the sword of the party,” the Stasi locked up opponents of the regime. Officers tortured prisoners by isolating them, depriving them of sleep and using psychological tricks such as threatening to arrest relatives.
Instead of showing contrition, they have grown bolder in recent years. Many unofficial informers have taken legal action to stop them being named and former officers are not afraid to confront victims and accuse them of distorting history.
The GRH, with 1,500 members and thousands more sympathizers, helps former state employees fight legal battles and provides a social network for those determined to cling to their past.
Only last week, East Germany’s last leader Egon Krenz addressed ex-border guards in a hall outside Berlin decked out in old communist flags and resonating with marching music. He said he regretted he had failed to save East Germany.
“Most of our friends would say they are not at home in this Germany,” said Bauer, an East German state prosecutor. His association is waging a war over history and feels obliged to “put the record straight.”
“Anyone who had a responsible position in East Germany, their whole lives are now seen as unproductive and inhuman. That hurts their human dignity,” he said. “It may be too late to rehabilitate individuals but we want to rehabilitate society.”
Asked about the failings of the East German system, Bauer cited low productivity levels rather than a lack of freedom.
Neither the pensioners, who make up the majority of former Stasi employees, nor a younger generation of some 30,000 ex-workers who have started new lives, show repentance.
“It is very much the exception to find someone who says openly ‘I’m sorry for what I did’,” said historian Jochen Staadt, an expert in East Germany at Berlin’s Free University.
“Either people have disappeared and don’t talk or they try to justify themselves, saying the Stasi was a security service like any other,” said Staadt.
For its hundreds of thousands of victims, the Stasi was the tool of a ruthless regime. Its network of unofficial informers, some of whom spied on their own families, pervaded every day life.
The Stasi collected minute, often meaningless, details on citizens, many of whom posed no threat to the state, as the 2006 Oscar-winning film “The Lives of Others” sought to show.
A trend among suspected unofficial informers, including public figures, to take media and publishers to court to prevent their being outed, highlights both the growing sense of denial and a new-found assertiveness, say experts.
As a result, media are reluctant to name individuals.
“It’s problematic if people cannot be named as it makes history anonymous. But it is not anonymous,” said Staadt.
Not everyone denies their links.
Several senior members of the Left party, successor to East Germany’s Communists, are open about having spied for the Stasi. Despite that, the party — which is strongest in eastern states — won 11.9 percent of the vote in September’s federal election.
Staadt estimates about a third of former workers retrained or used their skills to go into the private sector. They became private detectives, qualified as lawyers or moved into insurance or property. Many forged documents and concocted cover stories.
Although former Stasi members had to be vetted before they could be employed in the civil service, critics say the checks were superficial and accuse Germany of repeating the mistakes it made after 1945 when thousands of Nazis kept jobs as officials.
The eastern state of Brandenburg revealed earlier this year it had 58 ex-Stasi officers in its roughly 700-strong police ranks and one researcher said up to 15,000 former Stasi workers were civil servants, which affords generous pensions.
Over the years, dozens of respected figures have been uncovered as having Stasi links. They include a former boss at Berlin’s prestigious luxurious Adlon hotel, and a senior journalist at the top-selling Bild newspaper.
“The perpetrators are still among us,” said Hubertus Knabe, head of Berlin’s Hohenschoenhausen Stasi jail, now a memorial.
That so many Stasi workers are leading comfortable lives and have respected jobs is traumatic for Stasi victims.
“These people never wanted this system, they fought against it, and now they’re better off than they were then,” said Mario Roellig, imprisoned for three months for trying to flee.
However, Roellig, has had some legal success of his own. Earlier this year he won damages in a libel case against a former Stasi officer who had called him a “well-known liar.”
But that is a small victory in the bigger war over memory.
“The way the perpetrators behave and the nice lives they lead is totally unjust, and an insult to the victims,” he said.
Editing by Ralph Boulton