Coming In From The Cold

What do German kids learn about the communist dictatorship that oppressed half their country for 44 years, chiefly through the instrument of the notorious Stasi, the ubiquitous secret police whose 265,000 agents and informants spied on citizens and relentlessly crushed all opposition to the regime?

If high-school textbooks are any guide --nothing, or next to it. At least, that's what an astonishing study recently revealed. Of 81 current social-studies and history texts examined by Braunschweig University's Institute of Schoolbook Research, half don't even include East Germany at all. In all but a tiny handful of books, there's no mention of the Stasi's brutal methods, or its tens of thousands of victims. Instead, says study author Heike Mätzing, many books take pains to demonstrate that everyday life under communism wasn't all that different from life in the West. One such textbook, used since 2003 in the state of Brandenburg, describes the East German system as "democratic centralism" that ensured "broad participation" of the people in the Communist Party's decisions. "It's alarming," says Mätzing. "We're not teaching students the essential difference between East and West--that one had the rule of law and the other was a totalitarian system."

Seventeen years after communist East Germany disappeared from the map, Germans are still at pains over just how to deal with their most recent dictatorship. They're not alone: these days, much of Eastern Europe is embroiled in fresh controversy over its communist past. In Poland, Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski has begun a campaign to rid his civil service of remaining communist influence, sacking 300 Soviet-trained officers in the nation's intelligence agency. And just last week, the newly named archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, was swept up in charges that he had colluded with the former secret police. In Romania, where many in the bloodstained Securitate stayed on to prosper under a succession of new democratically elected governments, President Traian Basescu last June fired his intelligence chief amid a sordid scandal involving a network of arms deals and kidnappings allegedly with roots in the communist past. In Bulgaria, the director of the secret-police archives was found dead at his desk in November just as the files were scheduled to be opened for research.

Germany has been spared such crimes. But the old regime has gotten off amazingly scot-free, and not just in those rose-tinted textbooks. Only a handful of East German officials were tried (let alone jailed) for communist-era crimes. Emboldened, old Stasi operatives are now coming out of the woodwork to try to exonerate themselves and their regime. Former Stasi generals and other GDR officials have recently published a slew of books defending themselves as just "doing their job." In the Hohenschönhausen section of Berlin, where the Stasi's infamous jail and interrogation complex has been turned into a public memorial-cum-museum, former Stasi officers have lately begun showing up to disrupt tour groups and threaten the former inmates leading them, sometimes shouting them down as "liars."

The ironies of the situation are resounding. Part of this fight is about money: old Stasi agents, because they were never convicted by Western courts, have successfully sued for lavish pensions--roughly equivalent to what they'd have earned in the Western civil service. Yet at the same time, their victims (whose careers and families the secret police often destroyed) have often ended up penniless, says Siegfried Reiprich, a former dissident in charge of education projects at the Stasi memorial. Nor is it only former communists who find it hard to face up to the past. Even before the Berlin wall fell, West German elites seemed more interested in human-rights abuses in Managua than Magdeburg. That might be because looking closer to home would be too painful. Delving deeper into German communism would require an uncomfortable rewriting of West German history as well. To this day, says Mätzing, the least-examined part of Germany's Stasi past remains the agency's huge apparatus of spies, informants and fellow travelers in the West, who infiltrated and manipulated political parties, media and labor unions--virtually every section of public life. In fact, it was the Western-dominated Parliament that tried to close the Stasi archives forever in 1990, reluctantly keeping them open only after shrill protests by East German activists. Last month, with the Bundestag about to let the statute of limitations on Stasi background investigations expire, it was once again former activists who pressured lawmakers to extend it.

There are signs that the current controversy could help rekindle debate. The number of visitors to the Stasi museum has grown from 10,000 in 1996 to 173,000 in 2006, according to Reiprich--many of them schoolchildren, he adds, who have no idea that communism had a dark side. And last summer's film "Das Leben der Anderen" became Germany's first-ever box-office hit to depict the everyday oppression under the Stasi in chilling detail. Raking in most of the country's cinema awards, it ended a long streak of feel-good movies and TV comedies trivializing the communist era.

As if sensing the change in mood, prominent public figures have begun calling for the nation's textbooks to be rewritten. It took 20 years after World War II for a new generation of Germans to start facing up to Nazism, after all. Perhaps it's time, now, for an honest reckoning with communism.