Coming to Terms with the Past

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    Democracy Is a Prerequisite for Coming to Terms with the Past
    Coming to Terms with the Past Is a Prerequisite for Democracy

    As acting director of the agency overseeing the Stasi (state security) files of the former East German regime, Herbert Ziehm is very knowledgeable about coming to terms with a past under a dictatorship. In this interview he emphasises how closely democracy is linked to the careful re-examination of the past.

    Albrecht Metzger: Mr Ziehm, what is more important when an authoritarian regime is toppled: hunting down and prosecuting the perpetrators in order to purge the system of the poison of dictatorship, or building up democratic institutions? 

    Herbert Ziehm: I don’t think one is possible without the other. Attempts to come to terms with the past won’t work without democratic institutions. They alone can guarantee that this process is an objective one, that people don’t take revenge for acts that were themselves bad enough. Unfortunately there is often a danger of history swinging like a pendulum from one extreme to the other, and I believe that this would ill become a democracy.

    To put it another way: is democratisation possible without coming to terms with the past?

    Ultimately, I think not. In many countries people will say we have to leave the past behind us now and establish new structures, we have to look to the future, great challenges lie ahead. All this is true: it is important to establish political parties, as we are seeing in Egypt at the moment. But if you don’t work through the past, sooner or later the old poison will return.

    Culture of suspicion

    People will sow suspicion; they will tarnish their political opponents with accusations that they co-operated with the former regime or were even secretly working for it, and so on. I think it’s so important what Joachim Gauck said: it’s only in the files that we can check whether what the former rulers say is true, or whether it’s just information that’s been disseminated for a particular purpose. And that’s why I think it’s very important to preserve the files. With the GDR we had, thank God, a second state that, with its democratic institutions, was able to take over these files. That was a unique situation.

    What was it like trying to come to terms with the past in the GDR in 1989? What were the first steps to be taken?

    It was a very particular situation in the GDR, because people knew about the institution of the Stasi, but ultimately they didn’t know what it actually did. The only ones who knew that were the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), which controlled the Stasi. That was why the main thing at the demonstrations was always that we wanted to know what they did; and secondly, we also wanted to see the files, so that we could see what was in there. And over the past twenty years we have seen that many things have been portrayed differently to the way they were written down in the files.

    Human rights abuses in the GDR

    For example, Markus Wolf, a high-profile Stasi official, always maintained that his department, General Intelligence Administration, only conducted spying activities in the same way as other secret services and that he had not been involved any human rights abuses. We now know that he most certainly was. He had people forcibly returned to the GDR from abroad, he spied on people living abroad and put them under pressure – his people most certainly were involved in the abuse of human rights.

    Is it also part of the purpose of reassessing history to bring former perpetrators to justice?

    It’s also about rehabilitating the victims. The Stasi always said that the persecution of certain people was not politically motivated, that these people were criminals. Thousands of people were criminalised by the Stasi in this way. Where there are victims there are of course also perpetrators who have to be brought to justice. It’s certainly the case that in Germany I often hear from the organisations representing the victims that they are unsatisfied with the way the legal system has dealt with it. They feel that the perpetrators have often got off far too lightly, that not enough have been sentenced. That may be true, but I think it’s very important that the perpetrators have been brought before an open court and made to answer for what they did. For me, the sentence they get as a result is usually only of secondary importance.

    Do you believe that there are still too many perpetrators at large who have never been made to answer for what they did?

    Here in Germany we see that penal law is tailored to crimes committed by individuals, not those organised by a state. So it’s always difficult to prove that an individual was responsible for what happened and not say: well, he was under pressure himself, he couldn’t have done anything else. It’s a dilemma, and from time to time someone may have got off very lightly as a result. If we’re looking purely at actual sentences, very little has happened. But, okay – this is a democracy. Otherwise what we’d have here would be dictatorship by another name.

    It’s not about revenge, because that would be a new kind of poison.

    Yes, that would divide society in another way. Revenge engenders revenge; the biblical principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth doesn’t get us any further.

    The situation in Egypt

    You went to Egypt twice in 2011 and talked to a lot of people there. Did you have the feeling that people wanted revenge for the injustices they had suffered?

    There was a strong desire to put the regime on trial, with Mubarak as the main focus. But I don’t know whether I can already speak of democracy in Egypt; in my eyes it is (or was, before the presidential elections, at least) still a kind of military dictatorship. They’ve sacrificed the figurehead, but in my view this was just a token sacrifice. It’s what Egon Krenz, the man who briefly succeeded Erich Honecker [as leader of the GDR], tried to do here in 1989, along the lines of: we’ll swap a few of the people and that will enable us to save the regime. I don’t think it’ll be that easy in Egypt. The power struggle between the current president and the military council is far from over, and we’ll have to wait and see who comes to power.

    Is it at all possible to attempt to come to terms with the past when the old regime is still so present, in the form of the military?

    I don’t think it’s possible at all. Only a freely elected parliament can do this. We will now have to wait and see whether the Muslim Brotherhood has any interest at all in re-evaluating the past. At the moment I have the feeling they’re worried that they could be accused of taking revenge, and perhaps they don’t want that at all. They want to say: ‘We’re far more tolerant that you’ve always said we were.’ But at some point there will be a need to re-evaluate the past. 

    Creating democratic structures

    You were first there in March 2011, then again in July 2011. Were you more optimistic then than you are today?

    I was actually already far more sceptical on my second visit. I didn’t sense over there the euphoria you found in German newspapers that the revolution had prevailed. During the revolution what people noticed were the young people who were orientated towards the West. But I think Egyptian society is structured rather differently, and that’s what then became apparent in the elections. The conservative forces were victorious, and they aren’t anything like as orientated towards the West. People overestimated the strength of the younger lobby. These are not the forces that are going to determine the fate of Egypt in the long term. We’re still very far from overcoming the dictatorship. First of all democratic structures have to be created. They still have the same old institutions. No one talks any more about dismantling the state security system; it’s absolutely not something people are saying, that we have to restructure the security forces and subject them to democratic controls. In March 2011 everyone was still saying they wanted to break up the (Egyptian) Stasi. Nowadays no one knows what it’s really doing.

    What’s your assessment of the fact that the Egyptian Stasi was renamed, but not abolished?

    There are many things that are reminiscent of the end of the GDR. Then too the Stasi was given a new name. I don’t think anyone in Egypt is questioning the activities of the police any more. The Stasi will carry on doing its work, I think; it will be firmly under the control of the military council, and will work for it.

    You sound very sceptical.

    I think anything is still possible. The course they’re taking is one that makes you think there’s going to be another dictatorship within the next ten years, so in that sense I am optimistic that they will be able to build up democratic structures there. But I don’t share the euphoria of the German press, which believed that removing Mubarak meant democracy was already a given.

    Why have intelligence agencies at all?

    The German Stasi was dissolved, but Germany still has intelligence agencies. There are Egyptians who want to abolish their secret service entirely. Is that wise?

    We had this discussion in Cairo in March with one Islamic cleric who came from Germany. He said that we as Germans had no reason to act superior, that we had intelligence services too. Of course there are still intelligence services, and we need to have them, because more and more political extremists are working conspiratorially. They don’t put their political opinions out there and justify them, they work underground, so in that respect the state sometimes has to work in the same way. But I think it’s essential that these things be subject to democratic controls. And in this respect mistakes are sometimes made. We’re seeing that at the moment in Germany, where the intelligence service is experiencing one disaster after another. But that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong way. Some things didn’t work as they should have done, but then there are other democratic institutions - and I would also include the press in this - that expose things like this and raise these painful subjects. And politicians who are prepared to take the consequences. 

    Given that the conditions there are quite different, is there actually anything Egypt can learn from Germany about coming to terms with its past?

    I think it’s possible to learn that it’s a matter of absolute necessity to re-evaluate what has happened under a dictatorship, rehabilitate the political victims of this dictatorship and compensate them. It is possible to give the victims back their dignity. And it’s necessary to show that crimes committed in the name of the state will not be tolerated. The International Criminal Court shows that we can’t act arbitrarily, we can’t write our own laws to suit ourselves. I think that the process of re-evaluating the past is also a signal directed at the future.

    So can Germany be of assistance in Egypt? Can it serve as a model?

    I think we can offer them legal assistance. We can show that you can also do things democratically. The Eastern European states, for example, were afraid that if the Stasi were abolished it would mobilise underground. All this can be democratically controlled: you don’t want to exclude them. But whether that will actually happen in Egypt is something the society there has to decide for itself. Pressure from abroad is not good; it results in a corral mentality, where people get the impression that the know-it-alls want to show us how things should be done. I don’t think we’ll get very far with that. The desire has to come from the heart of the nation. I always think it’s interesting to compare the situation in Germany in 1945 and in 1989. After 1945 there was denazification, which was organised by the Americans. That didn’t really work in Germany; that was imposed on us from outside. In 1989 it was different: it came from the heart of society.

    Have there been enquiries from Egypt as to whether you can help it re-evaluate its history?

    People often get in touch, but at the moment it’s very quiet. But I think Egyptian society itself must itself first decide to do this, then contacts like this will come about of their own accord. 

    If the Egyptians were to ask you whether you could help them again, would you do it?

    I would do it insofar as I am able to – yes, I think so. The optimism people exuded at the time – ‘We can do this’ – I was infected by that. I hope that optimism is still there.

    You give the impression of having no prejudices against the Egyptians. You never talk about them as ‘Muslims’ or ‘Arabs’, whose culture might make it impossible for them to establish a democracy. You talk to them on a level.

    I believe that the preconditions in Egypt are good, because it has already existed as a state for so long. The state of Egypt has a certain stability on account of its long history, and the people identify with the country, too. In Iraq, for example, ethnicity plays an important role, but you don’t have that in Egypt. People there stand by their country and their state, and ultimately that makes me optimistic.
    Herbert Ziehm
    was for many years Deputy Head of the Information/Disclosure Division of the Stasi Archives in Berlin. He has now retired.

    Albrecht Metzger
    is a Hamburg-based freelance journalist who specialises in Middle East affairs.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2012

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