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Shooting down the system

Author Reinhard Jirgl on new evidence of the order to shoot in the former East Germany

A pronounced mania to document was common to all dictatorships of the 20th century, as if writing crimes down justified them. Bureaucratic pedantry replaced morals. So it came as a surprise to me that the wilful crimes of murder at the border between East and West Germany, committed by GDR border soldiers against citizens trying to leave the country over this indefensible border, were supposedly undocumented; it was claimed that the precise wording of the order to shoot was nowhere to be found.

It is inconceivable that citizens of a dictatorship would take the law into their own hands, let alone use fire arms in the open. Almost nobody has a better awareness of the injustices of his regulations than the dictator himself; the private interpretation by subordinates of deliberately unambiguous instructions was common practice, as long as it was in the interest of the dictatorship. This practice, along with denunciation, constitutes the role to be played by the "ordinary folk" on which every dictatorship depends.

The border caused me anxiety and incomprehension in childhood. I was terrified of the menacing border installations and of the public demeanor of border guards with their guns and barking dogs. My incomprehension stemmed from the fact that this system, which consisted of prohibitions, imprisonment and life threats, reminded me of the punishment rituals of the Old Testament. But there, punishment was always the response to a serious crime.

On the one hand, I still have no understanding of abstract principles of guilt. On the other, I was aware of neither guilt nor crime which deserved such punishment. Because children cannot talk about these things – at the very least they lack the words to describe them - this resentment bottles up. This once child-like incomprehension and anxiety - and I wasn't the only one - later led to the"'inner withdrawal" – the rejection of the entire system.

By building an armed border that separated East and West Germany and issuing the order to shoot escapees, the leaders of the SED (the socialist party of East Germany -ed) shot down their own system. Unfortunately only in spiritu, not in corpore. Did the party functionaries thank the population of the GDR for not implementing the "Romanian solution" after 1989?

Thus I think that, assuming it is authentic, the document recently uncovered in the federal archive of the GDR Ministry for State Security (the Stasi) in Berlin is important in two respects. For one, the ethical aspect, although this is the less significant; the practice of premeditated murder at the German-German border was never made secret. On the contrary, people in both the East and the West knew about it, and they also knew that the "successful" shooters were rewarded by the state. After the first shot was fired at people at the border, the GDR's leadership along with its henchmen lost all moral credibility.

The second assessment, the legal one, seems to be highly charged at the moment. Such a document would seem to put an end to the legend that the shoot was never issued. And a trial (and that's what it would be) that calls those responsible (many of whom are still alive) to account for having killed more than one hundred people at this border, seems possible, at least in in theory. At the Nuremberg Trials of the Nazi war criminals, some of the measures taken raised concerns among legal pedants. Without them, however, it wouldn't have been possible to accuse the predators: for the duration of the trials, justifications based on the "oath of allegiance", the "oath to the Führer" and the "necessity to obey orders" were dismissed. For whatever reason, this was not the case in the trials of Stalinist criminals. That is why these trials, in the 1990s, turned into an ugly satire of civic jurisdiction.

Not only are the perpetrators at all levels of responsibility comparable to those in the Nuremburg Trials; so are the Nazi and Stalinist systems - as alike as two brothers. Indeed, they must be compared as this contributes significantly to our understanding of the functioning of dictatorships. After all, no political system is innately immune to the return of such manifestations! And what's more, a "murky" form of justice such as that resulting from the Nuremberg Trials is still better than no justice at all. But the Stalinist criminals of the GDR regime have yet to receive the sentences they deserve.


The article originally appeared in th Neue Zürcher Zeitung on August 15, 2007.

Reinhard Jirgl is an award-winning freelance writer who was born in the former East Germany and now lives in Berlin.

translation: Claudia Kotte - let's talk european