Spineless Conformity — Now With a Generous Pension.

Thousands of people were spied upon, imprisoned, and otherwise harassed by the East German dictatorship.

Yet, as Evelyn Finger (G) recently reported in Die Zeit, their demands for compensation in the unified Germany earn grudging and miserly responses.  Dissidents who were locked up in East Germany’s notorious prisons (such as Bautzen I and II or Hohenschoenhausen) got only 50% of the compensation payments that the innocently imprisoned in West Germany got.*  The dissidents had to jump through bureaucratic hurdles to get even these meager payments, and sometimes faced West German officials who told them, face to face, things like, "well, people didn’t exactly get sent to prison for nothing in East Germany."  In many cases, people whose lives were transformed or broken by long terms of imprisonment under brutal conditions saw their claims for compensation reduced or denied outright.

Meanwhile, the loyal apparatchiks who ran the East German state are doing well. As Anna Funder reported in her book Stasiland, many of the loathsome secret service agents were able to transform their connections and security expertise into lucrative post-unification jobs. Loyal servants of the East German state earned pension rights, of course, and have filed countless lawsuits in German courts to make sure they receive every penny they’re entitled to under the complex laws designed to integrate the former East into Unified Germany.  In everyday life, they strive to keep their former official position a secret.  However, when it comes to official state-employee pension claims (which are objects of quasi-religious veneration in Germany), they will hire damn good attorneys and fight all the way to the Federal Constitutional Court.  Margot Honecker, the "People’s Education Minister" under the dictatorship of her husband, Erich Honecker, recently won a 45,000 Euro back payment after prevailing on a pension claim.

Finger’s explanation for the West’s relative indifference to those who defied the system is damning:

Since East German prisoners were sentenced according to valid laws — the injustice that was then considered justice — they had certainly broken some law.  That is the logic of the West German official bureacracy.  The legal order that was in effect then (even if it was a dictatorship) cannot be described as a perversion of the legal order.  Otherwise, it might occur to someone to question the current legal order.

This may sound corny, but I will own the sincerity: this article made my blood boil.  It made me want to put on an armband and join a protest march.  Think of it: simpering conformist apparatchicks –sniveling worms, spineless desk-criminals — live on comfortable pensions because they displayed enough cold, inhuman good sense to blindly obey.  Meanwhile, the misfits, the dissidents, the outsiders, those everyday heroes who took a chance, spoke their mind, obeyed their conscience — they must cope with the damage left behind by imprisonment, harassment, and exclusion on their own.  This fact, if true, irritates my sense of justice like a malfunctioning belt-sander.

Now, I know my way around the German media to some extent, but I might be missing something here. Can I rely on Evelyn Finger? Does he/she** have some hidden ideological axe to grind that might cause him/her to distort the facts? Is the situation really this bad?  Please let me know in comments, before I start designing armbands and writing indignant letters to politicians.

* Wonkish note: One problem with many European criminal-justice systems is the relatively long stretches people spend in jail awaiting trial.  However, they are compensated for this time, assuming they’re later provent innocent.

** For the Anglophiles: Evelyn is an English name that can be given to women or (much more rarely) men. It’s pronounced "EEV-len" in British English, and "Ev-A-len" in American.

14 thoughts on “Spineless Conformity — Now With a Generous Pension.

  1. I might be missing something hereHerr Professor is really being cute here. He’s desperately hoping some misunderstanding took place between him and a Zeit author than facing the reality of a people committed to rewarding those that suck up to authority.

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  2. It’s probably similiar to the informal agreement Germany had with the old Nazis after WW II: You’ll intergrate into the new republic quietly and we won’t persecute you.

    Of course it is unjust to let the old communistic guard get away lightly, but imagine what harm the old cadres could do, especially if they’d collaborate (even more than they already do) with the Russian intelligence services.

    It will be up to the next two generations to come to terms with this deal.

    BTW, these things were dealt (or not dealt) with in the Einigungsvertrag (unification treaty) of 1990. The people responsible were Wolfgang Schäuble and Günther Krause.

    IMHO You should, however, not judge this solely with the American idea of justice, which is more individualistic than it’s German version, but see it as one of the final chapters of the aftermath of WW II.

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  3. Be assured it is really so bad. Essentially it’s the same situation as after WWII, when many high-ranking officials (especially judges, prosecutors, etc.) could keep their good posts and widows of SS-members (even high-ranking, e.g. Heydrich’s widow) that have been killed got good pensions, while the victims of the NS regime had to fight for a compensation.
    Nothing much has changed since then.

    I said it before on this blog, if there is the one character strain that is typical German, it’s “Obrigkeitshörigkeit”. Not sticking to rules set by superiors is almost always seen as condemnable, regardless how evil these superiors may be.

    Lately I had a discussion about desertion in WWII with some of my fellow countrymen and could hardly believe how many expressed the opinion that tying not to take part in this unjust war was somehow bad and the many deth penalties that have been imposed by German army judges were somehow justified.

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  4. Twice in the recent decades has Germany experienced the situation that a state is virtually dissolved, and the area, infrastructure, population, and so on, are overtaken by a new state. If anyone has a good recipe how to handle this task gracefully, effectively, and with justice done to all, I’m sure we’d all like to hear it.

    The way the Germans handled this seems to be, generally, to assume that the responsibility for the crimes of the former state lays at the head, and to disempower and punish (if mildly) the heads of the regime. I don’t know if this is “just,” but look at it from the point of view of the West German democracy: It has survived and has kept the old from influencing the new. Many old Nazis got off easily, that’s true. But not much survived of the Nazi ideology. Only the very power elite of the SED got so much as a slap on the wrist, that’s true also. But nothing at all is left of the societal order that they ruled over. In the long run, vindictiveness will get you nowhere, but surviving and doing your own thing is vital.

    By the way, the victims asking for recompensation should keep in mind that they are asking the Federal Republic of Germany to pay up for the misdeeds of the German Democratic Republic, its enemy of 40 years. It seems they are asking, in the end, that the state agree wholeheartedly with them that tremendous injustice was done to them and at the same time feel such a bad conscience to indemnify them lavishly. That may theoretically be an ideal solution, but in reality it’s absurd to think it’ll happen that way.

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  5. ‘This may sound corny, but I will own the sincerity: this article made my blood boil. It made me want to put on an armband and join a protest march.’

    Instead you put on the collar of your blood pressure meter before slumping back in your armchair, didn’t you? 😉

    Ah, the travails of middle age… I know them well, too.

    ‘Meanwhile, the misfits, the dissidents, the outsiders, those everyday heroes who took a chance, spoke their mind, obeyed their conscience — they must cope with the damage left behind by imprisonment, harassment, and exclusion on their own. This fact, if true, irritates my sense of justice like a malfunctioning belt-sander.’

    Frankly, most of the former apparatschiks of the GDR I came to know personally are somehow damaged too – in a creepy and unsavory way. One can’t lead an open and well-meaning discussion with them, either they start a monologue or they they want to know where the wind blows with you before talking openly.

    I’d rather be a misfit with self-respect than a psychologically damaged IM in hiding.

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  6. If you want to take your comprehensible anger somewhere meaningful (taking to the streets is not a very fruitful endeavour in this country) you should address this to the party “Die Linke.PDS” where numerous Stasi officers and IM have found their political haven. The fact that their incessant call for “social justice” is echoed by millions of voters across the land is something which only Germans can understand and appease. The schizophreny of this makes an outsider shiver, in consensus-oriented Germany it is rather hushed up or explained with an abstract “complexity” of history. It is true BTW that most Stasi officers are miserable people today (that is the least we can expect as a punishment for them) who still believe their deeds and their obedience were honorable. Hardly one who will accept they have personally done injustice to others.

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  7. @Sebastian:
    > By the way, the victims asking for recompensation should keep in mind that they are asking the Federal Republic of Germany to pay up for the misdeeds of the German Democratic Republic, its enemy of 40 years.

    Isn’t this a bit of a mix-up? The GDR and the FRG were enemies, not the dissidents within the GDR and the FRG. And whom else should somebody ask for compensation who has been wronged by the GDR than its legal successor, the FRG?

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  8. Isn’t this a bit of a mix-up?Shhhh, don’t push this guy too much. He was frantically trying to present a line of reasoning convoluted enough that you can’t immediately pin down the error and therefore pin the injustice on him and his fellow countrymen. Deconstructing his argument is like trapping a caveman in a corner, they do get really icky so be easy on the fella, ok?

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  9. @martin
    What happened after the break-down of the 3rd Reich and the GDR is IMHO not different from what happens if a system breaks down anywhere in the world: The highest-ranking officials will be punished, but the ranks in the middle will be left pretty much alone because they are too many and often still needed to run the country. Nobody really cares for the victims because they are of no importance whatsoever (sounds cynical, but it’s just reality). Some “newcomers” will make a fortune and rise to importance in the new country, some of the old ranks will go down the ladder because they cannot adjust to the new ways, but the new order will have nothing to do with justice in the sense that the people with the right beliefs and attitudes will rise and the scoundrels fall. I’m sure that it’s not really different, e.g., in South Africa.

    I think that it is wrong and petty not to give the victims at least a decent financial compensation, but it’s pretty much hopeless to punish all the middle ranks and “Mitläufer” appropriately … they are simply too many.

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  10. Alex,

    Isn’t this a bit of a mix-up? The GDR and the FRG were enemies, not the dissidents within the GDR and the FRG.

    That’s what I wrote. I don’t see any mix-up.

    And whom else should somebody ask for compensation who has been wronged by the GDR than its legal successor, the FRG?

    Nobody else. (Well, in theory the people who actually, you know, committed the crimes, but don’t hope to extract a lot of money from them.) I didn’t say they’re addressing their claims to the wrong person, only it’ll be difficult to build up any moral pressure.

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  11. Alex,

    I don’t see how it’s so hard to NOT give Stasis and their ilk a pension. No one required the new FRG to be a successor of any kind to the old regime and there where no obligations to pay a pension to no one. I also don’t see how it’s so hard to show some enthusiasm about the hero dissidents in the prisons and rush with some money to them. The East Germans still being Germans probably kept a meticulous record of everything so it’d be possible to check in hindsight who was in prision because of real crimes (theft etc. of which there was very little in East Germany) and who for political reasons.The government created a humunguous bureaucracy called Birthler Behoerde to enalbe East German corporations some sort of transition to a market economy which shows you how much energy they can show as soon as earning money is involved. Another, smaller department dealt and still is dealing with the Stasi files which can be consulted should there be any question for what reason anyone was in prison. There is no reason why there couldn’t be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which while not regarded as completely successful still is more than the Germans can show for.But all that’s besides the point. No one doubts that the picketing pensioners had been illegitimately imprisoned. It’s just that they spoke up against authority and a proper German will rather poke a stick in their own eye than rush to reward them.

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  12. The government created a humunguous bureaucracy called Birthler Behoerde to enalbe East German corporations some sort of transition to a market economy which shows you how much energy they can show as soon as earning money is involved.

    And to show you how anal we can be: This was the Treuhandanstalt. The Birthler-Behörde is a different entity.

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  13. martin:
    I didn’t say it is hard. It’s just not exactly a German speciality. You have a point with the last sentence, though. It’s just that this is not the only reason why victims of an unjust system get so seldom adequately compensated.

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