Friday, April 14, 2006

Books by Former GDR Secret Police Officers Spark Outrage

The public launch of two new books on the infamous East German Stasi secret police sparked angry outbursts here on Wednesday, showing that tensions still run high 17 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It took just 20 minutes before one audience member present at the books' release event in Berlin could no longer contain himself.

"You're lying!" the man yelled, "That's the biggest load of crap I've ever heard."

His outburst was sparked by author Peter Pfütze's assertion that all of the 550 West Germans who were imprisoned by the Stasi from the mid-1970s on had confessed to crimes the secret police accused them of. "I spent nine years and eight months in prison and I never confessed," the man continued.

The two books, both written by former employees of the GDR secret police, aim to present the notorious organization as just another intelligence service, along the lines of the CIA or West Germany's BND, but which has been unfairly demonized in the wake of East Germany's collapse.

Questionable history

One of the books, "Der Botschaftsflüchtling" ("The Refugee from the Embassy"), by Gotthold Schramm, contains accounts from former Stasi spies operating across the border in then West Germany. Markus Wolf, the East Germans' chief spy, contributed a foreword to Schramm's book.

The book contains accounts of the experiences of 35 former Stasi agents, which the publisher describes as "exciting," "funny" and "enlightening."

The other, entitled "Besuchszeit" ("Visiting Hours") and written by former Stasi officer Pfütze, insists that prisoners were treated well. In the book, he describes visits West German diplomats were allowed to make to West Germans imprisoned by the East German state.

"The prisoners were treated correctly," Pfütze told the audience, some of whom then erupted into sarcastic laughter.

The two authors presented the GDR as a country which respected the rule of law, which operated very normally within the framework of its own constitutional framework.

"The GDR was recognized by 180 nations," said Schramm. "Tell me, were they all idiots?"

Tense atmosphere

But the atmosphere in the room was tense, and the two authors' talks were often interrupted by catcalls, mostly from former prisoners or family members of those persecuted by the East German regime. A man claiming to be a psychologist in the former East Germany interrupted comments from Schramm and claimed the Stasi used "psychological methods of torture."

Schramm rejected the man's accusations that the Stasi were "fascists," saying: "We were not Nazis."

The books' release comes in the wake of another high-profile instance of former Stasi member publicly defending their actions under the former communist regime. In March, some 200 former officers disrupted a meeting at the Hohenschönhausen site, a former Stasi prison in Berlin and now a museum and memorial.

The officers called many of the former victims of the secret service "liars" when they described the terror, abuse and suffering they experienced at the prison.

Marianne Birthler, head of the authority which researches Stasi records, called this new public resurfacing of former Stasi officers alarming.

"They are spreading aggressive propaganda, organized themselves and disturbing gatherings," she warned.

The Stasi compiled surveillance files on approximately 6,000,000 East German citizens -- more than one-third of the population.

Deutsche Welle 04/2006

Opinion: A Murder Becomes Political

The brother of Hatun Sürücü has been sentenced to jail for murdering his sister because he disapproved of her lifestyle. The sentence comes amid a needed debate on integration comments Deutsche Welle's Verica Spasovska.

By German standards, the sentence handed down by the judge in Berlin was harsh: almost 10 years in jail for the young Turkish man who killed his sister Hatun execution style simply because she lived as she saw fit. To condemn such a life and then extinguish it is an absurd understanding of the idea of honor and the judge was correct to punish such an act with an appropriately serious sentence.

But even during the trial it was unclear what the real motive behind the killing was. Did the crime have something to do with a false understanding of Islam or did the reasons revolve around something else in the family's history? What is clear is that this honor killing is not a unique case.

According to estimates by the United Nations, some 5,000 such killings take place every year around the world, a few of those in Germany. The number of unreported cases is likely high. These murders in the name of honor have little to do with Islam, much more with patriarchal models in families which are often disadvantaged.

Many young immigrants misuse the concept of honor to conceal their own feelings of inferiority in a complex, competition-oriented society. But one shouldn't conclude that the majority of Turks living in Germany approve of what Hatun Sürücü's brother did. This incident should not be used to stamp all immigrants in Germany, especially Muslim ones, as backwards. Still, Germany should not just file the case away. Even though the incident is the exception rather than the rule, the subject has taken on political overtones.

Ayhan Sürücü's sentencing comes right in the middle of a debate about integration policy, which has been raging in Germany for weeks now. Whether about citizenship tests for immigrants, language teaching or the despondent calls by Berlin teachers who could no longer handle the violence in their schools, all these show clearly that the government has yet to come up with an effective approach to integration.

Policies unclear

It doesn't help that Germany's policies regarding immigrants have been anything but consistent. For far too long, conservative politicians insisted that Germany was not a land of immigration. That, in turn, gave foreigners very few reasons to ever put down solid roots here. On the other hand, the left-of-center fans of a multicultural society never even asked immigrants to try to integrate into the larger society. That led to the development of so-called parallel societies and disadvantaged immigrant families, which after three generations now often find themselves living on welfare.

Clearly, immigration enriches German society. And anyway, demographic developments mean immigrants are necessary for this fast-greying country. But immigration must be guided. The serious problem of young immigrants achieving less than their parents and remaining strangers to society must be solved for the long term. Integration will only have succeeded when the children of those who arrived in Germany to work decades ago have a shot at a job and social advancement and enjoy the same opportunities as German children do.

But for Hatun Sürücü, murdered in the street by a member of her own family, that will have come too late.

Deutsche Welle 04/2006

Monday, April 10, 2006

German Hostages in Iraq Plead for Help in Internet Video

Two German hostages held in Iraq appeared in a video on the Internet on Sunday pleading for their lives while their kidnappers vowed to punish them unless their demands were met.

The kidnappers, a group called Ansar al-Tawheed wal Sunna (Followers of Unity and Prophetic Tradition), demanded the release of all Iraqis held in US-run prisons and told Germany to stop giving help to the US and Iraqi authorities.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government was scrutinizing the video of engineers Thomas Nitzschke, 28, and Rene Bräunlich, 32, which was posted on an Islamic Internet site on Sunday.

"We are closely scrutinizing the video we have received of the hostages," Merkel said, adding: "We will do everything in our power to save the hostages and to bring them back to Germany."

In the 24-second video, dated March 28, Nitzschke pleads with the German government to save him and Bräunlich.

"Breaking point"

"We have been held captive here for more than 60 days. We are close to breaking point. Please help us. Please help us," he said.

The video shows the two hostages looking haggard and wearing beards.

In an accompanying statement the kidnappers threatened: "Know that if our two demands -- the release of all Iraqi men and women held in occupation prisons and a halt to all aid to Americans and their agents, including Shiites -- are not met, punishment will be meted out quickly.

"Those of you who help the occupiers, the infidels and the Shiites, know that you and your citizens will not escape the jihadists (holy warriors)."

The German foreign ministry said it was analyzing the video to confirm that it indeed featured the two Germans who were seized near the Baiji oil refinery in northern Iraq on January 24.

"We still have to analyze the video," a spokeswoman told AFP.

Previous videos

Germans have for weeks feared for the lives of the two men, who both come from Leipzig, in the east of the country. They were working for a German company on short-term contracts when they were seized.

Their captors have previously released three videos of them, the first just three days after they were taken hostage. The second was shown on the Arabic television channel Al-Jazeera on Jan. 31.

In it the kidnappers threatened to kill the hostages within 72 hours unless Berlin closed its embassy in Baghdad and ended cooperation with the Iraq government. They also demanded that all German companies withdraw from Iraq.

The most recent video was aired by Al-Arabiya news channel on Feb. 13 and showed the hostages kneeling in front of men wearing hoods and brandishing automatic weapons.

ARD television in late March said the German government had received indications that the men were still alive but had failed to establish direct contact with the kidnappers. The television channel cited unnamed government sources as saying the captors were demanding a ransom.

Residents of Leipzig have been holding candle-lit vigils for the men at the beginning of every week. They said they would hold the 21st vigil on Monday in the city's Nicholas Church and pray for their safe release.

Deutsche Welle 04/2006