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It has been more than two years since that fateful Thursday evening in East Berlin. At a press conference, Gunter Schabowski, one of the Communist leaders in the new generation that came to power after Erich Honecker’s removal, unexpectedly announced his government’s intention to allow East Germans unrestricted travel to the West, beginning “immediately.” His intention was never entirely clear. Some East Germans, however, took him at his word. Throughout the night, they gathered at the Wall. Their numbers steadily increased until harried and uncertain border guards began to let them across. The Wall had fallen. In the next weeks and months, events would continue to outrun themselves. The nation’s first free elections sealed its fate: unification would quickly follow. The forty-year-old German Democratic Republic had come to an end.

Last summer, I traveled to East Berlin and East Germany, the culmination of a series of trips reaching over more than a decade. In 1979 I was a tourist paying my first visit. In 1984-1985, I had studied at an East Berlin seminary of the Evangelical Church, the country’s major religious body, and in 1987 and 1989 I spent several weeks visiting friends made then, many of whom, in the meantime, had become pastors and members of church-related “alternative groups.” They were helping to build the opposition movement that eventually challenged the Communist state. I had again visited the country the very week the Wall fell. And now, this time on a grant to research the contributions of the East German church to democratization, I would again be living at the seminary, many of whose instructors and graduates continue to play leading roles in shaping the future of East Germany.

During my visit, I would learn of the difficult challenges and adjustments that unification has brought. But I would be even more struck by the difficult legacy of the past. The 1989 revolution (what East Germans call “die Wende,” i.e., the turning point) has begun to bring into the open what many would rather bury: complicity in the Communist past, connections with the state security forces, and failures of intellectual integrity and moral courage. The church, which played a significant role in supporting and steering the revolution, finds itself caught in a classic theological dilemma: love or justice. Coming to terms with the past seems to require both forgiveness and accountability, both forgetting and remembering. In practice, however, they easily become contradictions that defy resolution, both personally and socially.

The history of the seminary reflects the events of postwar Europe. Before World War II, students at Berlin’s Kirchliche Hochschule (Church Seminary), a child of the German Confessing Church, used to live and take their first two years of classes—Hebrew, Greek, and Latin—at the Sprachenkonvikt (“language house”). With the division of the city, the Sprachenkonvikt found itself in the eastern sector; after the construction of the Wall, students could no longer go back and forth between it and the Kirchliche Hochschule. The Sprachenkonvikt soon became a full-fledged, five-year seminary, one of only three in all of East Germany. Under church control, it built a sharp contrast to the theological departments at the state universities: an island of intellectual freedom, maintaining a strong commitment to humanistic as well as theological education. Though the state refused to recognize it as an institution of higher learning (it had to keep its anachronistic name), it thrived, attracting not only future ministers, but others seeking an alternative to the ideological rigidity of the state universities.

With the fall of the Wall, the status of the Sprachenkonvikt has changed yet again. Berlin suddenly had too many schools of theology: two in the West—the Kirchliche Hochschule and the Department of Religion at the Free University; three in East Berlin: the Sprachenkonvikt, the theological department at the state-supported Humboldt University, and the Paulinum, which trains men and women coming to church work from other careers. Financial constraints have forced the Sprachenkonvikt to merge with the Humboldt University; within a few years, the Kirchliche Hochschule will join them.

Nonetheless, the Konvikt, as it is now known, continues to exist as a “theology house” with dormitory and study rooms. Typical of Old Berlin, it sits on a quiet courtyard, away from the busy street. On one side is the Golgotha Church, whose red bricks still bear the war’s scars. Most days, students gather under the courtyard's solitary tree, smoking, chatting, waiting for the noon meal that they eat together.

The Konvikt lies near Oranienburger Tor, site of one of the original city gates. As I arrived in Berlin, I could for the first time simply take the subway from West to East—no guards, no customs, no mandatory exchange of money. The “ghost” underground stations that the train had once passed—Stadion der Weltjugend, Nordbahnhof, Oranienburger Tor—have become regular stops again.

As I reacquainted myself with the neighborhood, I noticed that Trabants had already become an endangered species. A number had simply been abandoned on the street, stripped to their thin plastic and metal shells. In nearby Tucholsky Strasse, the heart of the former Jewish quarter, one had been converted into a giant flower pot. After unification, many East Germans made a Western automobile their first major purchase. For a time, used Golfs and Opels and Fords became scarce commodities, increasing in value by two or three times their pre-unification level.

Friedrichstrasse and Invalidenstrasse, major streets near the Konvikt, had once dead-ended in the Wall. Now they are busy thoroughfares between East and West. During my visit, they hinted a cautious but confident blooming of color: neon lights, store signs, window displays. Even billboards advertising cigarettes celebrated the spirit of unification—“Lux verbindet” (“Lux unites”) showed friends enjoying each other’s company; Peter Stuyvesant proclaimed (in English): “Come together,” with people of different races, cultures, and styles offering each other cigarettes.

In the next weeks, I would find some East Germans, by contrast, describing the new economic realities as “nineteenth-century industrialism.” They are surely mistaken. Unification has resulted in mass displacement of workers, but East Germans now share in all the benefits of the West German welfare state. While East Germany has been slow in attracting Western investment, the standard of living, always the highest in the East Bloc, has already benefited noticeably from unification. People may complain about economic hardship, but they have money to holiday in Spain and France. East Germany is no Romania.

But “nineteenth-century industrialism” does reflect some people’s sense that East Germany is wide open for economic speculation and exploitation. The advent of capitalism has included all the “trash and sleaze” against which the Communists, in their yearly celebrations of the Wall, once warned. Forty years of public prudery has apparently created a tremendous market for pornography. One of the widest-selling daily newspapers in East Berlin regularly features bare-breasted women on its front page. Sex shops have quickly established themselves, as have the street walkers who, as before the war, work Oranienburger Strasse, another street in the old Jewish quarter.

Everyone talks about crime. East Berlin, like West Berlin, is still quite safe in comparison to most American cities. But there is a burgeoning business in security locks and systems. Women who once thought nothing of walking home alone at night have in the meantime become cautious and angry. In some cases, the police themselves have become insecure, afraid to assert themselves, in case the public once again perceive them as “authoritarian” and “insensitive.” While visiting Gorlitz, a small city in the southeastern corner of the country, I heard of an incident in which several rowdies had threatened to attack a group of children from Chernobyl. Only after massive public outcry did the police agree to an investigation.

One weekend, I visited Siegfried Kasparick, an old seminary friend, in Osterburg, a town of 8,000, about a hundred miles west of Berlin. Communism had never found a very strong foothold in this area of beautiful fields and forests near the Elbe River. The people pride themselves on their independent judgment and common sense. But Kasparick, now pastor in Osterburg, told me how the entire town had fallen victim to a pyramid game that promised quick wealth in exchange for minimal investment. The city council finally had to hold a public forum to deal with people’s growing anger and resentment at not receiving their money.

In the wake of a rash of robberies, many East German churches are no longer open to the public. Even cemeteries have not been spared. Near the Konvikt lies the Invalidenfriedhof, a famous old military cemetery. The Wall once ran right through it, making it largely inaccessible to the public. It has suffered not only from forty years of Communist neglect, but also from a recent wave of “capitalist” souvenir hunters intent on grabbing whatever they can while they can.

Collectors and speculators of all kinds have found that there is much money to make among people who do not yet fully understand a market economy—and who up to now had few ways to get “hard currency.” Moreover, monetary union has brought a slow, painful process of salary and price adjustments. No one is quite sure how much money he has or needs.

Over the past two years. East Germans have experienced incredible change. Many are exhausted. They have ridden an emotional roller coaster of hope and depression. First came the emigration “mania” that took tens of thousands of East Germans to the West by way of Hungary, and later Czechoslovakia, even before the Wall fell. Those who remained felt abandoned and saddened. Then, as if in response, came the mass demonstrations that eventually toppled the government. People suddenly felt elated and empowered. They proudly declared that they had achieved the first successful democratic revolution in German history. But days of disagreement and confusion soon followed. Some people wanted an independent East Germany that would embody a “democratic socialism,” while others called for quick unification with the West. The weekly Monday demonstrations sometimes deteriorated into shouting matches between different groups with different political agendas.

In the end, unification won out—and more quickly than even its most vocal advocates had ever anticipated. It has brought stability but also left many East Germans unsure of how well they will survive in the free market. It is not so much a question of material but emotional and psychological well-being, of self-confidence and identity. East Germans have always compared themselves to West Germans; with unification, they still feel like poorer cousins, unsure if they have any positive, significant contribution to make to a new Germany. The Trabant is cute, but it is no car for the future.

Under these circumstances, people also have a hard time thinking about the social-political reality that they have just recently left behind. Yet if studying history makes any sense, East Germans will eventually want to learn from their own. While unification has brought more than enough challenges and adjustments to occupy them for the time being, difficult questions about the past will continue to haunt the East German psyche as a whole, just as the Nazi past continues to haunt the German psyche. Indeed, coming to terms with the Communist past may be the most critical challenge before all the fledgling democracies in Eastern Europe. Social and political renewal seems to depend on open, honest confession of the crimes and mistakes of the past. Yet this very effort threatens to pit individuals and groups against one another in settling old scores.

Some of the questions are already clear. How was Communism possible? How did it once establish itself as a seemingly unalterable fact, only to crumble so quickly in the end? How could people have lived in fear of it so long? How could they have failed to resist it sooner?

The attempt to find answers has, as one might expect, a one-word German equivalent: Vergangenheitshewaltigung, literally, “mastery of the past.” This word, more than any other, is presently unleashing vigorous public discussion in East Germany. The debate is perhaps fiercest in the Evangelical Church. Church leaders have been at the forefront of the nation’s conscience, calling people to examine their own complicity in the Communist past. But the church itself is also deeply divided over the best way to come to terms with its own past.

Some East Bloc intellectuals would argue that everyone shares complicity in the Communist past. In The Power of the Powerless, Vaclav Havel, while still a dissident in the country that he has since come to head, suggested that the seductions of a modern, consumerist society made Communism possible. When people have no sense of responsibility to a larger, transcendent reality, when they live only for themselves and their material well-being, they lead “demoralized” lives. They are prey to dictatorships that promise to fulfill their needs through rational, scientific-technological organization.

The theme of an underlying spiritual, intellectual, and moral malaise has also characterized the social-political analyses of those East German theologians most committed to democratization. A book receiving considerable attention during my stay was Hans-Joachim Maaz’s Der Gefuhlsstau (roughly translated, Jammed-Up Feelings). Maaz, an East German psychotherapist who has worked in a church-run psychiatric center and treated pastors, argues that the entire nation has internalized repressive, authoritarian social structures. Even after the fall of the Wall, only an “inner democratization” and “psychic revolution” can fully free people.

I spent one afternoon asking Richard Schröder, the Konvikt’s professor of philosophy, his view of the Communist past. Schroder told me that Communism could thrive only in a society in which people had relinquished their capacity for “critical thinking.” He pointed to the impoverished status of philosophy under Communism. In East Germany, nearly every professional philosopher was trained and paid by the state. There was no independent study of “philosophy,” only the ideologically defined discipline called “Marxist-Leninist philosophy.” To the end, censorship of philosophical publications remained tightly regulated, in contrast to some of the leeway offered novelists and poets.

Schröder, originally trained as a pastor in the Evangelical Church, had to educate himself when the church asked him to teach philosophy. Like others, he found in the church a “free space” for his work. At the seminary, he could teach essentially what he wanted: the philosophical tradition, with its great questions of meaning and morality. To him, it is no accident that the Konvikt produced a disproportionate number of the leaders in the opposition movement and new political order. Schröder himself won a reputation for critical, independent thinking and found a brief but significant career in politics after the Wall fell, serving in the East German parliament as head of the Social Democratic faction.

A balding man with large, strong hands (like many East Germans, he had taught himself various mechanical and technical skills because professionals were always in short supply), Schröder told me that the present situation is not unlike that at the end of World War II. Fascism and Communism were clearly different phenomena. Hitler had enthusiastic support; the East German Communist party lacked any charisma. Yet, in both cases, a kind of mass amnesia fell over the land. After the war, one could find no Nazis. Today, few admit to having believed even a small part of the Communist dream even fewer can speak self-critically about the past.

The problem, Schröder would keep telling me, is that no state survives without a broad, public consensus. Yet, most East Germans do not want to talk about the ways in which they implicitly or explicitly supported the Communist state.

I found that this unwillingness, perhaps even inability, to discuss and analyze the past took two forms. The first was what several East German friends called Sprachlosigkeit, literally, “speechlessness.” Many people simply did not question their past involvements in state-sponsored organizations and activities. They did not ask themselves if they had done the right thing by participating, for example, in the Jugendweihe (the Communist youth dedication ceremony that had effectively replaced confirmation as a rite of passage). They did not examine the ways in which they had once lived in fear of the state and practiced forms of self-censorship that restricted them perhaps more than the state itself. They did not speak of the meaningless elections in which they had contributed to 99.99 percent majorities, or of the May Day gatherings in which they unenthusiastically but faithfully repeated the slogans of worker solidarity and international Communism.

This Sprachlosigkeit even extended to their former fears of, and encounters with, the state security forces (the Staatssicherheitsdienst , the so-called “Stasi”). Nearly every East German had once experienced the Stasi as a force of mythic proportions, capable of knowing and controlling everyone and everything. For many years, it had successfully permeated people’s spirits to the point of paralyzing their desire for change. Not surprisingly, the self-organized, mass demonstrations that helped people overcome this paralysis finally led them to the Stasi buildings themselves—at first just to march by them quietly and cautiously, later to enter and occupy them. Yet few people today are able to analyze the ways in which the Stasi actually worked or to make sense of their own irrational fears of it. Even the novelists and poets, once the ones who dared to say a little more than the state normally allowed, have grown quiet, seemingly disillusioned and disoriented, and few of those people who actually suffered Stasi harassment and imprisonment have come forward to demand rehabilitation and restitution.

One result of Sprachlosigkeit has been that West Germans, who never had any experience of the Stasi, have assumed the rather arrogant and ludicrous posture of trying to tell East Germans what to think about it. Because so few other East Germans are addressing the issue, Schroder has found himself writing and speaking about his own encounters with the Stasi, and in a recent interview with Der Spiegel he called on the West German media, instead of spreading myths and inaccuracies, to consider what East Germans could teach them.

The second way in which I found East Germans repressing the past was by scapegoating others. A whole people had been duped. Now it vented its ire against the Politburo, or the party, or the Stasi. Perhaps the most pathetic expression of this attitude were the persistent calls to arrest and try Erich Honecker, the old, dying East German leader whose picture once graced every government building and post office. (First taken to safety in Moscow, he has since had to turn to the Chileans for asylum.) The media in both Germanies make headlines with exposes of the crimes of the once privileged and powerful; unfortunately, they offer little insight into the larger problem: the “demoralization” that infected an entire people.

The revolution gave people a voice. They demanded to be treated as responsible, mature citizens. Yet they also sought recourse in the kind of self-righteous anger against their former leaders that provided a convenient diversion from the problem of their own complicity in the Communist past.

The church has sought to counter this Sprachlosigkeit and scapegoating. I spent one afternoon with Ehrhart Neubert, an East Berlin pastor who had helped found Demokratischer Aufbruch (Democratic Awakening), one of the first opposition groups to go public in 1989. Neubert, a sociologist of religion, has written extensively on the religious character of the alternative groups that began to appear in the church in the early 1980s. While these groups did not practice a traditional religious piety, the church offered them a space in which they could meet freely and speak openly. Though sometimes subject to state surveillance and harassment, they managed to develop a critical potential that helped spark the revolution. Neubert believes that the church can now offer a similar “free space” for groups seeking reconciliation between the victimizers and victims of the past.

Neubert, a thin, wiry man in his mid-forties, has himself helped to form such a group in East Berlin’s Bartholomaus Church, located in an area of high-rise apartment blocks not far from Alexanderplatz, the center of East Berlin. The congregation quietly posted signs and issued invitations. People who in forty years had never set foot in a church building suddenly appeared. Meeting monthly, the group resembles an AA-style support group. Participants enjoy a degree of confidentiality; they never identify themselves by name. Yet they have discovered a level of trust that enables them to speak quite openly about their individual pasts. Former agents of the Stasi sit next to former members of alternative groups. The agents hear the pain of those whom they once harassed. The alternative group members come to know the agents as real flesh-and-blood people, not simply as a dark, evil force.

Such meetings have been repeated throughout East Germany, though on an extremely small scale. Siegfried Kasparick in Osterburg has been active in promoting local school reform. He recently helped organize a meeting between the town’s high school teachers and some of their former students. It was an opportunity for the young people to express their anger at the rigid, ideological indoctrination that characterized so much of the East German educational system. Several teachers were visibly shaken; others offered apologies.

Many pastors throughout the country have also had the experience of people seeking to make confession to them and receive forgiveness. One pastor told me of a former party official who had come to him in tears. The anxieties, lies, and pressures that had ruled his life under the Communist regime bad nearly destroyed him. With unification, he too wanted to make a new beginning. Another pastor, who had been active in the opposition movement, told me how he had discovered that the Stasi had once directed his mechanics to tamper with his automobile. Though they still could not bring themselves to speak about the incident, their attitude was clearly remorseful.

Yet the church itself suffers from Sprachlosigkeit and the temptation to scapegoat those of its leaders who had worked with the Communist authorities. Despite its significant role in the revolution, broad segments of the church had once helped support the Communist order. They too were part of that public consensus of which Schroder speaks. Schroder has argued that the slogan “church in socialism,” which the church adopted to express its commitment to ministry in East Germany, too easily became its way of accepting the Communist state as an established fact. The church largely bracketed the question of the state’s legitimacy, rejecting the atheistic element of official ideology but mostly failing to question whether the state bad properly interpreted Marx and Lenin, or whether Marx and Lenin themselves bad a true understanding of the human condition.

Those once most sympathetic to the East German version of the Communist dream also seem to suffer the most from Sprachlosigkeit today, as I discovered one afternoon with Jens Langer, professor of theology at the University of Rostock. I had first introduced myself to Langer in 1987; I was interested in his efforts to establish an institute for Christian-Marxist dialogue. I soon found, however, that he lacked a critical perspective; he focused only on the possibilities, not the problems, of cooperating with the state. When we met again this time, Langer was far less sanguine about his achievements. Indeed, he had little desire to talk about Christian-Marxist dialogue, much less weigh the ways in which it had been no real dialogue at all.

I had a similar incident with Paul Althausen, a prominent East German church leader, currently director of the Paulinum. In contrast to Langer, Althausen spoke openly and proudly about his past support of the state, as if incapable of critical self-examination. Althausen, who has had a distinguished career of service in various positions of the church bureaucracy, was a campus minister in the early 1950s, a time in which the state was cracking down hard on the church. Althausen himself was arrested, accused of working for the CIA, and sentenced to several months in prison. Interestingly, the experience brought him closer to the ideals of Communism. He became active in those circles of the church seeking cooperation with Marxists. For many years, he was deeply involved in the Christian Peace Conference, a Prague-based organization that received much of its funding from the Czech government and regularly attacked Western foreign policies, while completely failing to speak about human rights abuses in the East. Althausen did not finally leave the Christian Peace Conference until 1990 and even now has little desire to analyze his past. On the contrary, he speaks with pride of the contribution he and others made to helping East Germany win international diplomatic recognition in the 1970s. He feels no qualms about the privileges he enjoyed as a result, such as permission to travel to the West. To him, Communism represented a necessary social-political alternative to the West.

Given the charged public atmosphere of scapegoating, however, it is not surprising that people are reluctant to talk about their past. Some church leaders have argued that their first task is to create an atmosphere in which people will feel freer to examine themselves. They would ask those calling for “mastery of the past” to begin with themselves and to have patience with others, rather than making them lose face. But some pastors believe that people will only examine themselves if someone else first exposes and confronts them. Bringing the truth into light may actually free people to come to terms with a past they would rather repress.

This dilemma raises profound questions. Can people be forced to admit to their complicity in the past? If confession occurs under compulsion, can it be genuine? Will people freely own their past if left to themselves? When does confession belong in the public realm, when does it best remain private?

Nowhere do these questions assume more intensity and difficulty than in regard to the files left by the Stasi. In the months after the fall of the Wall, members of the opposition movement slowly became aware that the Stasi bad begun to destroy documents. In Leipzig, Dresden, Rostock, and finally East Berlin itself, “citizens committees” decided to occupy and secure Stasi buildings. They believed that the Stasi past had to be preserved, analyzed, and understood.

Over the next weeks, the government, at that time composed of both Communist and opposition forces, debated what to do. Because the political situation appeared increasingly volatile, opposition leaders agreed to help destroy computer tapes that had complete directories and listings of information in the files. They sensed the power in their bands, and they feared it. They wanted to hinder the Stasi from manipulating individuals on whom it had collected information. They wanted to protect the public sphere from poisonous accusations, denunciations, mistrust, and intimidation. Moreover, they feared that the West German security police might attempt to steal information to blackmail individuals for its own purposes.

But the files themselves stretch to more than 180 kilometers. Some church leaders, such as East Berlin’s Bishop Gottfried Forck, who had taken courageous stands against the Communist state, suggested that these files be sealed in concrete or destroyed. Others, such as members of Demokratie Jetzt (Democracy Now), another of the first opposition groups to go public, insisted that individuals had a right to examine their files.

To try to make sense of this debate, I spoke with David Gill, a young Konvikt student who helped occupy and secure the Stasi headquarters in East Berlin. When the new East German parliament, elected in March 1990, formed a committee to deal with the Stasi question, a member of the committee, a fellow Konvikt student, managed to get Gill appointed secretary. The chairman of the committee, Joachim Gauck, a pastor from Rostock, eventually became head of a government agency to organize, catalogue, and research the files. With unification, this agency—the so-called Gauck-Beborde (Gauck-authorities)—became accountable to the German Bundestag, and Gauck appointee Gill to manage the East Berlin branch.

In early 1990, Gill himself had believed in destroying the files. Unification, however, has brought a political stability that puts the matter in a different light. Now, argues Gill, it is possible, indeed essential, to use the files to help the nation come to terms with its past.

Several hundred thousand East Germans (no one knows the exact number) worked officially or unofficially for the Stasi. They spied and reported on millions of their fellow citizens. They violated the basic trust upon which a free and just society depends. Few broke the law—even fewer will ever come to trial—but their abuse of the public trust constitutes ground for denying them positions of leadership in a new democracy.

The law provides for public institutions to request information from the files. As part of the process of rebuilding themselves and regaining the public trust, city councils, local legislatures, public universities, and government agencies can request the assistance of the Gauck-Beborde. The essential criterion is whether or not one worked for the Stasi. All public officials must declare any Stasi connections. If they deny having them and the Gauck-authorities find evidence to the contrary, they can lose their position.

Thus far, however, the process has been slow and inefficient. The Gauck authorities have been severely understaffed. Until recently, they bad only several hundred employees to try to handle tens of thousands of requests. The delay in examining people’s files has sometimes been a year or more. The time lag has encouraged people not to reveal their Stasi connections; many wait, hoping to slip through the cracks. Moreover, not all public institutions have chosen to examine their officials.

The church, too, has the right to have the Gauck authorities examine the files of its pastors and leaders. Whether or not to do so has generated passionate debate. In East Berlin, the debate began with a simple request from the Konvikt. Faculty members voted to have their files examined. They were in fact fairly confident that none of them had Stasi connections. They were, however, anticipating the merger with the university and knew that they would eventually have to rebuild the reputation of its theological department, which over the years had largely accommodated itself to the state.

The Berlin-Brandenburg Synod, which oversees the Konvikt, refused their request, arguing that it would establish a precedent that the synod was not ready to honor. The synod has thus far resisted examining pastors, except in cases involving clear evidence. In an open letter to churches, Propst Furian, an official in the Berlin-Brandenburg church headquarters, asked members to consider the special character of the Christian community. Church members are “brothers and sisters.” They begin from trust, not suspicion. A general examination could only undermine the church’s life and witness.

I had an opportunity to discuss these matters with Ruth Misselwitz, an East Berlin pastor. I had first gotten to know Misselwitz through her husband, who bad studied at the Konvikt at the same time as I. Both had been very active in the opposition movement and suffered considerable Stasi harassment. Ruth Misselwitz was now a member of the synodical commission charged with developing a position on the Stasi issue. I asked her how was it possible that some of those who during the revolution had called for “living in truth” (to borrow Havel’s phrase) now did not want to deal with the truth about the past. She told me that the commission bad struggled to find a solution. Especially important had been conversations with former Stasi officials. Many of them, she said, had sought to do their job with integrity. They had seen themselves contributing to the good of society. With the rise of Gorbachev, they themselves bad hoped for changes in East Germany. They bad been the first to know that the old system was no longer working, and they bad tried, to no avail, to encourage state leaders to institute change.

This process of “demythologizing” the Stasi also extended to the question of so-called “inoffizielle Mitarbeiter” (unofficial colleagues, i.e., informants). Through her work, Misselwitz had become aware of the psychological pressures that bad been brought to bear on them. There were stories of the Stasi recruiting orphans and social misfits, offering them the acceptance, approval, and love they bad never known elsewhere. For others, work with the Stasi represented a necessary concession. Perhaps a person had committed a political offense many years earlier. The Stasi agreed not to destroy his career if be would become an informant.

In any case, it appeared that many, if not all, the members of the Stasi, official and unofficial, were themselves “victims.” Since they no longer posed a threat to society, the church could now celebrate the new beginning that the revolution represented and reach out with love and compassion to those who had gotten entangled in the Stasi web. The church’s task was to find ways to show concern and offer care. Confronting people with their past would only put them in a defensive position, not free them to come to terms with it. Instead, the Synod had offered to work in confidentiality with any pastors who came forward of themselves.

Commission members were also concerned that the Stasi files were misleading. Agents and informants bad sometimes been rewarded simply for producing information; its accuracy was not always established. Moreover, in the weeks between the fall of the Wall and the occupation of the Stasi buildings, the Stasi had had time not only to destroy but to falsify documents as well.

Schroder too helped make me aware of the complexity of the problem. Some church leaders bad been regularly questioned by the Stasi; they might appear in the files, but that did not make them informants. Others had tried to make good use of their contacts with the Stasi, seeking to protect individuals against whom the Stasi had suspicions or to make the Stasi aware of public discontent with state policies.

Others, however, have found arguments against using the files unpersuasive. The Synod of Mecklenberg, in contrast to Berlin-Brandenburg, has voted to have its pastors examined. The rationale is that the church cannot rest on its laurels. It can keep the public trust that it won in the revolution only if it shows itself as ready as other public institutions to examine its complicity in the Communist past. Of all public figures, pastors in particular must be accountable to a higher standard. Waiting for informants to come forward of their own accord is like asking alcoholics to admit they have a problem: very few will ever do so, unless exposed and confronted.

I asked David Gill about the accuracy of the files. He argued that the Stasi, true to its reputation, had operated with great care and precision. The files themselves distinguish between rumor and fact. He felt confident, moreover, that little information had been lost. Documents often existed in several copies in several places; missing information could often be reconstructed from other sources. As to the question of falsification, Gill contended that the Stasi had not had time to destroy all the documents; it certainly had not bothered to change individual files.

Moreover, the files alone could help establish the degree to which an individual had actually cooperated with the Stasi. Undoubtedly there were cases of victimization. Undoubtedly there were also cases of pastors using their contacts to the church’s benefit. To Gill, the most crucial question was whether or not a person had signed a statement pledging voluntary and secret participation.

Some pastors in Berlin-Brandenburg told me that church leaders had their own reasons for not wanting files examined: they did not want people to know just how much the Stasi had successfully infiltrated every layer of the church bureaucracy, especially in East Berlin. These church leaders also feared that a population tempted to scapegoat might not appreciate the complexity of the Stasi issue. The files of at least one top church leader, Manfred Stolpe, had disappeared, leading to speculation about the nature and extent of his involvement with the Stasi. Stolpe, now minister president of the State of Berlin-Brandenburg, is highly regarded both as a churchman and a politician. One could only speculate that he had established contact with the Stasi to negotiate issues that the party refused to discuss; if such information now became public, however, it might topple him from power.

To help me think through these issues, I visited Harald Wagner, a pastor whom I had first met in 1985. Wagner had a fascinating story. He had once been a top East German athlete, nearly Olympic quality. In the early 1980s, be became involved in a group that distributed banned political and philosophical literature. He was arrested and imprisoned for nearly a year. The state tried, as it often did with political prisoners, to shove him and his family off to the West. But Wagner and his wife, despite their bitter experiences and deep discouragement, insisted on staying in East Germany. Out of a deep sense of faith, they continued to commit themselves to seeking peaceful social and political change. Wagner had eventually come to play a leading role in the opposition movement, helping to lead public protests and found Demokratischer Aulbruch. Originally, he had supported a separate, “third” way for East Germany. When he saw that unification was inevitable, he withdrew from many political involvements and concentrated on his ministry in Flolzbausen, a small town outside Leipzig.

Like many others in the church, Wagner has sought to respond to his experience of the Stasi with thoughtfulness, not revenge. Unlike some of his fellow pastors, however, he sees responsible use of the Stasi files as an essential component of corporate and personal renewal. Asking people to confront their past, says Wagner, can itself be an act of love. Justice and love need not contradict each other. The victimizer’s act of remorse can meet the victim’s act of forgiveness. Confrontation does not—in fact must not—exclude compassion.

But neither remorse nor forgiveness, I discovered, is certain. I think back to my visit with Langer. The university had just forced the director of the theological department, Helmut Fritzsche, to resign, on the basis of the information provided by the Gauck authorities. Having worked closely with Fritzsche on the Christian-Marxist dialogue project, Langer was devastated. He felt confident that Fritzsche had used his Stasi contacts for the good of the students. In so many cases, Langer claimed, the Gauck-authorities had provided ambiguous information. Moreover, Fritzsche could go to court to appeal their judgment and probably win. All I could do was ask myself: what is required here, love or justice, coming to terms with the past or making a new beginning?

Other real-life examples confronted me with similar questions and tensions. I knew a pastor who had spent several years in psychotherapy. During the chaotic days of December 1989, he bad gotten hold of a copy of his Stasi files. To his horror, he discovered that his therapist had regularly delivered information to the Stasi, which hoped to have him committed to a psychiatric hospital. He confronted the woman, but she completely denied her involvement. His files further revealed that a fellow pastor had also been an informant. Now he pondered whether or not to confront him: would confrontation only result again in denial, making both justice and love irrelevant?

In other cases, the past seemed to take care of itself. I think of Wolf Krötke, director of the newly merged theological department of East Berlin’s Humboldt University. Over the years, Krötke has won a fine reputation in both Germanies for his sensitive interpretation of Barth and Bonhoeffer. Students have admired him not only for his penetrating analyses of church and society, but also for his open spirit—be has always been a rock of support. I have known Krötke ever since I first attended Konvikt. I had even helped teach him English out of an American theological text, Stanley Hauerwas’ The Peaceable Kingdom. His apartment was in Konvikt, and I had often sat in his cool, dark office. He had never talked much of his personal past. I only knew from students that he had been imprisoned in the late 1950s: as a university student, he had composed a poem mocking Walter Ulbricht and other East German Communists of that era.

Now Krötke himself broached the subject with me. With the political changes, a number of people had encouraged him to apply for rehabilitation. He seemed to struggle to know what to do. All that was so long ago, he said. He had come to terms with it. He had no need to have his justice. Opening the case would only open old wounds. Again, I was left only with questions and tensions: was I viewing liberation or repression, healing or hurting? Could the past sometimes better be left alone, no longer a matter of either love or justice?

A fourth life story moved me most deeply of all. One afternoon, a pastor who had been active in the opposition movement told me of getting his files through a member of a citizens committee, prior to the government reestablishing control over the Stasi buildings. The files were extensive, documenting how the Stasi had bugged his home and prepared, but never executed, his arrest. What shook him most deeply was the discovery that his best friend had been an informant. He had known this man for ten years. Not only had they come to speak openly about politics, but their families had vacationed together every summer; they had shared birthday celebrations; they had hoped and dreamed together about a new kind of society, more free and just.

The shock had gone deep into his bones. To this day, his wife could not forgive the man or his wife, who had been aware of his involvement; she could not even bring herself to talk to them. The pastor himself had spoken twice to the man, by telephone. The first time the man denied everything. The pastor persisted, insisting there be honesty and openness. The second time the man completely broke down, condemning himself and sounding suicidal. The pastor was so concerned that he found himself backing off, suggesting that the friendship was perhaps not completely lost.

Through other mutual friends, the pastor has put more details together. Ten years ago, the man and his wife had attempted to adopt a baby. Everything was in order until the very day they were to receive the child. Suddenly, their request was denied, without explanation. For weeks, the man met with doctors and officials, trying to determine the problem. He got nowhere. Exasperated by his persistence, one doctor figured it out. Something clicked in the man’s head. He went to the Stasi and offered to work for them if they would allow the adoption. They denied any involvement but agreed to check into the matter. They added that the decision whether or not to work for them was fully his. He signed a statement. A few days later, he and his wife had the child.

The German Bundestag has decided to give every East German the right to examine his files, if they indeed exist. People will be able to learn who informed on them; personal information about third parties will be blacked out. The debate that has erupted in the church is finally a debate for an entire society. Some argue that opening the files will result in acts of hatred and vengeance. It will destroy friendships; it will undermine all efforts at a desperately needed social reconciliation. Others argue that the only way to healing is through an open, however painful, coming to terms with the truth of the past. They add that to date there have been no acts of violence against known Stasi agents and informers; they do not anticipate any in the future. (Moreover, the law forbids publication of one’s files.)

As in all these questions, the church finds itself on both sides. It has no other choice. Without confession, there can be no forgiveness; it may be just as true, however, that without forgiveness, there will never be confession.

Richard von Weizsacker, the West German president, once remarked, in reference to the Nazi past, that there is no such thing as Vergangenheitshewaltigung; we never “master the past,” for the past, for good or bad, always remains with us.

John P. Burgess is Associate for Theological Studies in the Office of Theology and Worship of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Photo by Spielvogel via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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