Monday, May 23, 2011

Confronting the Stasi Past When the Persecuted and the Persecutors Trade Places By Stefan Berg

 Forty-seven former members of the Stasi now work at the agency charged with addressing its misdeeds. Agency head Roland Jahn, a victim of the notorious East German secret police himself, is on a crusade to get rid of them. But some think he's taking things too far.

 In March 2011, Roland Jahn was appointed the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives. Since then, the former Stasi victim has made it one of his main goals to get rid of the 47 agency employees who used to work for East Germany's notorious secret police themselves.

 An internal document reveals that most of them are currently working in the section in charge of building security, while others work as drivers, messengers, archivists or handymen. Only one is a department head. Jahn believes that having them work in his agency is a "slap in the face of (its) victims." Whatever the moral situation, the legal one is complicated: Reviews show that the employees have performed their job tasks well and provided no reason for termination.

 The federal commissioner is subordinate to Minister of State for Culture Bernd Neumann. Like Jahn, Neumann believes that one alternative is having the employees moved to other agencies. The dispute has led some prominent voices to charge Jahn with waging an unfair "manhunt" — and one that diverts attention and energy away from the agency's other tasks. And the former Stasi members worry that they will never be allowed "to shed our Stasi past."

 Roland Jahn had only been in office as the new Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives for a month before he met with a select group of about 30 agency employees with special skills in matters of state security.
 The meeting was organized by Sigurd Schulz, a union official with a well-documented past. Indeed, Schulz's name appears on the list of former full-time employees of the Ministry for State Security, East Germany's notorious secret police more commonly known as the Stasi. He worked in the personal protection department.
 Schulz is one of 47 members of the Jahn's agency who once worked for the Stasi. Ironically, they now work for an organization tasked with accounting for Stasi crimes. Almost all of them were given open-ended employment contracts under Joachim Gauck, the first federal commissioner for the Stasi archives.
 But now's there is a new man at the helm of the agency, and he's made it clear that he wants to get rid of the 47 former Stasi members. When Jahn took office on March 14, he announced that: "Every former Stasi employee who works for this agency is a slap in the face of the victims." It was a determination to get rid of this insult that led Jahn to meet with the former Stasi employees on April 14 for a sort of unofficial firing.

Victims' Advocate or Manhunter?

 Since taking office, one of Jahn's goals has been making progress in the agency's accounting for Stasi crimes. He also wants to make sure that the agency holds on to its independent status rather than being incorporated into the German Federal Archives, in Koblenz, as some would prefer.
 But now the dispute over 47 of roughly 1,800 total employees is overshadowing all other issues. In large part, that can be attributed to Jahn's own past and with the years in which he was persecuted by the Stasi, imprisoned and eventually deported to the West against his will. Now he sees himself as a "victims' advocate" who is fighting passionately and prepared to take bold risks for his cause.
 Jahn's behavior raises many issues. There's the issue of whether it's the smart thing to do and whether the employment contracts of the former Stasi members will give them the upper hand in any dispute. There's also the issue of whether people can be a bit more forgiving 20 years after the fall the Berlin Wall and German reunification. And, lastly, there's the issue of just how compatible Germany's labor laws are with morality.
 The fate of the 47 former Stasi employees has also become a matter of concern for the Germany's federal parliament and government. The federal commissioner is subordinate to Minister of State for Culture Bernd Neumann, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Neumann supports Jahn in principle — especially after Dieter Wiefelspütz, a domestic affairs expert with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), accused him of going on a "manhunt." But internal documents show just how skeptical some people at the Chancellery are about Jahn's approach.

Positive Reviews

 Only a few days after Jahn made his announcement, government officials were already scrutinizing the contracts of the 47 former Stasi members. Almost all of them started working for the agency in 1990 and 1991. Some were hired because Gauck felt that their insider knowledge of the Stasi made them "indispensable." Others had migrated from the East German interior ministry to that of reunited Germany and, from there, into positions in the offices of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives established by Gauck.
 As former Stasi bodyguards, they were viewed more like police officers, which is why so many of them are still members of the police union. In fact, at a certain point, agency managers even argued for having their temporary employment contracts extended indefinitely.
 In 2007, when Gauck successor Marianne Birthler led the agency, there was already a debate over the 47 former Stasi members. Neumann, her boss, ultimately resigned himself to allowing them to continue working for the agency. The agency's management had confirmed that they performed their duties well and that they had also been open with their new employer about their pasts. The agency also found that there was "no reason" to assume they constituted a threat.
 An internal document reveals that most of them are currently working in the section in charge of building security, while others work as drivers, messengers, archivists or handymen. Only one is a department head.

Part 2: Hard Riddance

 Jahn now plans to use an expert report on labor law to once again explain how he hopes to get rid of the controversial employees. "Where there's a will," he says, "there's a way."
 But government officials have already examined the issue, and human resource experts are continuing to stress that it would be practically impossible to fire them. After all, they argue, the employees were apparently acceptable for 20 years, "so why shouldn't they be acceptable today?" Likewise, they continue, the fact that there were no complaints about them for such a long time would tend to indicate that they have distanced themselves from and turned their backs on former attitudes and actions. The agency has also given some thought to using a special right of termination known as "Lex 47," but the HR experts have warned against doing so on constitutional grounds.
 Another option could be a "golden handshake," but Jahn is opposed to offering the former Stasi employees a generous severance package to leave because some might view it as a special monetary award for former Stasi members.
 The only other possibility would presumably be transferring the 47 workers to other government agencies, which could theoretically even be done against their will. Still, people tainted with a Stasi past would be difficult to place.

Police Barriers

 Under these circumstances, it looks like Jahn has gotten himself stuck in a Stasi trap. On top of all this, even the police union is championing the cause of the former Stasi members. Deputy union leader Hugo Müller has already sent complaints to the Chancellery, the president of the German parliament and the agency's advisory board. According to Müller, Jahn is exerting "pressure by telling these employees that, if they honestly did regret their pasts, they would have no choice but to feel that they couldn't work for this agency."
 Müller also argued that Jahn has incorrectly interpreted statements made by the former Stasi members, assuming that employee remarks like "we'll see" or "it depends" constitute their consent to be transferred. According to Müller, in interviews and press releases, Jahn "even claims that the employees in question are supposedly willing to be transferred." What's more, Müller has written in the letters the treatment these employees are getting under Jahn "after spending half a career" at the agency is "completely unacceptable."
 For his part, Jahn rejects the accusations, saying that he treats the employees with respect. But Müller's letters have still had an effect, even with Neumann. In his response to the union official, Neumann wrote that the employees in question performed "their duties without reproach for more than 20 years." But he also noted that, like Jahn, he believes it would be preferable to place them elsewhere.
 Neumann is already sounding out the situation. As one who values discretion, though, he has asked Jahn to exercise moderation. Jahn's latest idea is to allow the employees to take the budget allocations associated with their positions with them to jobs in other agencies. Of course, doing so would make their transfers more palatable to their new employers. But how can people be recommended for new positions when they are being loudly "lauded" as former Stasi members?

Trapped by the Past

 Chancellery officials are also alarmed over the letter that Richard Schröder, a theologian who heads the agency's advisory council, wrote to Jahn, a copy of which was forwarded to the Chancellery. "Since you came into office, the employment of former Stasi members in the agency has become the most important issue currently associated with the agency," Schröder wrote. "This is extremely unfortunate and harmful to the task of accounting for the dictatorship of the SED," he added, referring to the Socialist Unity Party that ruled communist East Germany.
 Schröder went on to stress that the former Stasi employees working at the agency have "not been found guilty of any offences in the last 20 years. They were loyal. If they are now to be removed from the agency against their will, it will be yet another example of symbolic politics being pursued on the backs of innocent people, of the kind of politics we experienced in East Germany on a massive scale. We must be very careful not to come to resemble our adversary, only under a different name."
 Jahn disagrees with Schröder's arguments. Instead, he views a willingness to leave his agency as evidence of catharsis. It was this argument that he used on April 14 at the meeting with the 30 employees. Jahn refers to himself as a "conciliator." According to his account, he remained friendly at the meeting, saying that he had "respect for the individuals" and pointing out that Germany was a state based on the rule of law. Nevertheless, he says he urged the employees to agree to a transfer, arguing that those who did so would be making the right choice.
 Still, Jahn's arguments failed to win over even one of the 30 employees. One said that he had felt like a citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany for a long time now and that his work for the agency had made him realize what the Stasi was really all about.
 Another employee discussed the argument positing that having former Stasi members in the agency hindered its work to come to terms with the East German past. He said that, after 20 years, he no longer felt that the argument really applied to him. When discussing a possible transfer, he noted that the same thing would probably happen at another government agency. "It seems like we will never be able to shed our Stasi past," he said.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Part 1: When the Persecuted and the Persecutors Trade Places
Part 2: Hard Riddance



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