The East German secret police may have disbanded long ago, but fear of former Stasi members lives on. A court is about to decide whether a former Stasi informant can be outed in public. The answer will say a lot about how the country deals with its past.
"I walk past this statue every day," says Dieter Kiessling, pointing at the figure of a man whose face is half-covered by a mask in the shape of a sheep's head. The work by Leipzig sculptor Wolfgang Mattheuer stands in front of the town hall in the eastern German town of Reichenbach. It is called "Showing Face".
Kiessling, 57, is mayor of Reichenbach in Saxony's Vogtland region and believes it is time for Germans to be showing their faces once again. "Why," he asks, standing next to the sculpture, "did we take to the streets in 1989?"
The citizens of Reichenbach haven't been this upset in a long time, says Kiessling. He too is outraged over a story that began in his council chamber and triggered a debate in faraway Berlin over how to go on dealing with the history of East Germany. Like in some didactic play by Bertolt Brecht, Reichenbach has become the stage for events that show how injustice survives -- and how history doesn't just end.
The controversy centers around a pastor who publicly identified a former informant of the Stasi, the secret police of the communist regime of East Germany. The informant obtained a temporary court injunction preventing his name from being published, and a court is expected to rule on Tuesday whether to uphold the injunction or to lift it.
If the former Stasi informant prevails, the case will have serious repercussions for the way Germany handles the history of the communist German Democratic Republic, which collapsed with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, warns Marianne Birthler, the federal commissioner in charge of managing the Stasi's archives.
Wolfgang Thierse, a politician from the Social Democratic Party, says: "We must be able to name names, in the truest sense of the word." But isn't someone who was an informant for many years, and whose actions happened almost 20 years ago, entitled to a statute of limitations of sorts?
Room Full of Ex-Stasi Members
It all started on February 27, during a meeting in the council chamber of Reichenbach marking the launch of an exhibition about East Germany. Edmund Käbisch, a former pastor at the cathedral in the city of Zwickau, a courageous man who was persecuted by the Stasi and who has sought to clear up the past since 1989, was speaking.
The Stasi left their mark on Käbisch, who seemed nervous. His eyes constantly dart about as if his tormentors were still after him. Together with a group of students, he organized an exhibition titled "Christian Activities in East Germany," which was to be opened in the town hall on that day. Käbisch, 64, stood at the front of the room next to a video projector. He projected one image after another onto the wall, including one of a Stasi informant known as "Schubert." The man's real name was also in full view on the image.
When the presentation and discussion ended, an amiable man walked up to the mayor and told him that he was the informant, "Schubert." The 46-year-old man, identified merely as S., also apparently told Kiessling later that many former Stasi employees had been in the room. "It was eerie," says Kiessling, still taken aback by the self-confidence with which the former informant had approached him.
The incident in the town hall was only the beginning. On March 7, Kiessling received a temporary injunction order from the Zwickau district court. The court had ruled to temporarily prohibit all public mention of the former informant's name. A final decision is still pending. Meanwhile, Käbisch had to remove the relevant part of his exhibit, which, as the court saw it, "was suited, as a reference complete with personal data, to harm the reputation and good name of the plaintiff in the public eye, essentially pillorying the plaintiff."
"Schubert," the former informant, is represented by Thomas Höllrich, a lawyer and local Left Party politician. Höllrich has complained about a pogrom-like mood in Reichenbach, a town small enough for everyone to know everyone else. A second former Stasi informant has also taken legal action against Käbisch's exhibition, and he too is represented by Höllrich.
The village of Neumark where informant "Schubert" was born and where he lives again today is a quiet place with slate-roofed houses, a sports field and a church which towers over everything else. But the blinds are closed in the house of the former Stasi informant.
Ex-Snoop Wants His Privacy Protected
The former informant, whose full name SPIEGEL can't mention for legal reasons, has a successful small business in the village where several of his neighbors were victims of the Stasi. He is unavailable for comment. The man who admitted to being informant "Schubert" at the town hall in Reichenbach refuses to discuss any of the details of his case. For this reason, it is also impossible to ask him how someone who insists on his rights to privacy today feels about having violated the same kinds of rights in the past, and in a way that remains shocking even after a 20-year debate over the Stasi.
Schubert was recruited in 1980 at the age of 18 while he was still in school. The Stasi's "operational goal" was to have him infiltrate the local Protestant Church youth group. Only a few months later, an intelligence officer noted that information provided by the informant had "effectively supported" the ministry "in its fight against the enemy." The informant had cracked a "conspiracy" involving suspicious individuals who, as a result, could be convicted of subversive activities. "This enabled our organization to launch investigations leading to the arrest of four individuals," the report continued.
"Schubert" was praised in June 1980 and, "in recognition of his outstanding efforts in the fight against the enemy," was sent on a trip to the Soviet Union. Informant "Schubert" was worth a lot to the Stasi. His file is filled with receipts and expense accounts. He repeatedly received money from the Stasi, as well as loans, a free heating system, even Czech kroners for a trip to Czechoslovakia.
A Good Agent
He kept on doing well. In 1984, a Stasi officer noted that "Schubert" had managed to infiltrate a Protestant youth group in the city of Freiberg, where he attended the university. He had acquired a respected position there, which also involved being baptized. His baptism certificate was even kept in the Stasi file. At the age of 22, "Schubert" became a Christian -- at the behest of the authorities. His reading at the baptism stems from the Sermon on the Mount: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." "Schubert" was one of 10 informants assigned to monitor Klaus Goldhahn, the student pastor who baptized "Schubert."
The "Schubert" file came to a close with a "statement" dated Nov. 6, 1989. In the statement, the informant wrote that he was leaving the Stasi. A short time earlier, he had asked his commanding officer for assistance in buying a car. He announced that he was moving to West Germany and hinted that he planned to return one day. The statement, written three days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, ends with this sentence: "If, one day, you manage to lock up all of the ministers who have brought this domestic and international disgrace on our people, I will be the first to return."
What exactly "Schubert" meant by this is not entirely clear but his threat suddenly seems relevant. Some people appear to believe that the time has come to strike back. For example, Pastor Käbisch, the man looking into the Stasi's past, has been receiving spiteful letters from former high-ranking Stasi officers. An entire group of former interrogators signed a letter of protest against an exhibit in the former Stasi detention center in the eastern city of Halle.
People Whispering Again
In the small town of Neumark, with its 3,400 residents, fear of the Stasi lingers on. People are whispering once again. Yes, says a woman in her shop, she does know people who were arrested in the past, including two nuns. But she refuses to comment further, especially now that "the court has even silenced Pastor Käbisch." The way she talks about how ordinary people can't do anything about it suddenly evokes an uneasy sense of East German déjà vu.
One woman who was among the four arrested in 1980 wants to remain anonymous. She was in prison for two-and-a-half years because, as a student, she spent months spray-painting "Freedom Not Socialism" onto streets in the area. She says she knew exactly who had informed on her and the three others. She has run into the man many times in recent years. "He never apologized, this guy who's now become the great capitalist." She adds: "The fear is still there."
One of "Schubert's" victims is prepared to talk though, perhaps because he no longer lives in the area. Thomas Singer went to school with the informant in Reichenbach. Today he is a teacher in the state of Brandenburg near Berlin. His Stasi file contains a number of reports by informant "Schubert."
In 1980, "Schubert" borrowed a small textbook into which Thomas Singer had written the lyrics of singers Bettina Wegner and Gerulf Pannach, both critics of East Germany. Shortly after "Schubert" had returned the booklet to him, Singer was called out of the classroom, put into a Stasi car and taken away to be interrogated. "I was afraid," Singer says today. Under pressure and concerned for his family, he later agreed to cooperate with the Stasi for a short time.
Following East Germany's peaceful revolution Singer, 46, chose a different path from that taken by his former classmates. Instead of hiding and fleeing the past, he checked the box marked "Informant" when filling out the relevant questionnaire, even though he was also a victim of the Stasi.
But his honesty meant he was disqualified from becoming a government official. "Basically, I have him to thank for that," says Singer. A teacher of German and history, he often talks to his students about the things that happened in East Germany.
Singer still remembers the story 28 years on. He wrote a moving letter to Pastor Käbisch, providing him with at least a small measure of acknowledgement. After all, Käbisch has been ridiculed often enough for continuing to attach importance to the Stasi question.
A candle burns in a ring of barbed wire on the desk in Käbisch's office in Zwickau. The panel displaying the "Schubert" file is leaning up against his bookshelf. On Tuesday, the district court will decide whether to allow him and Mayor Kiessling to put it on display once again.
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