COLUMN ONE : Tempered Justice in Germany : Public desire to punish minor Communist collaborators has softened. Some still seek retribution. Others, fearing many lives have been ruined unnecessarily, say it is time to forgive and forget.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Germany, where the past is never really past, the art of political forgetting is mastered by fewer than the outside world supposes. But things may be changing.

In the first heady months after the collapse of East Germany, public opinion was virtually unanimous: Never forget, never forgive. Find the criminals of the defunct Communist state, punish them and see to it that they never enjoy influence again.

There were even a few excited calls for reviving the death penalty.

"In 1990, everything was painted in black and white, and there were only two kinds of people: the guilty ones and the victims," says Thomas Schwirtzek, a Berlin lawyer. "No one realized that there could be anything in between. This is what has changed."

Today, indeed, Germans--particularly eastern Germans--are showing a remarkable, and growing, willingness to forget the unpleasantness of their past and to forgive the perpetrators. This conciliatory mood is driven by the growing awareness that many East Germans were both victims of their state and collaborators with it, and that finding justice in such tangled cases can be the devil's work.

The case of Andree Lohwasser is typical and instructive. Lohwasser, a muscular, clean-shaven young teacher, started working at Public School 11 in central Berlin in the fall of 1993, and bowled over his fifth-grade pupils and their parents with his energy and commitment. Lohwasser buoyed classroom morale and managed to get his jaded 11-year-olds excited about learning. Then, suddenly, he disappeared.

What happened? No satisfactory explanation was offered the baffled parents. But word leaked out that Lohwasser had been given the heave-ho because he was discovered to have had connections with the notorious East German secret police, known as the Stasi. By law, no former Stasi collaborators are allowed to hold jobs in reunified Germany's public sector.

Over lunch near his home in the relentlessly gray, concrete reaches of far-eastern Berlin, Lohwasser makes a powerful, and sometimes teary, argument that what happened to him has little to do with righting the wrongs of the East German regime.

What happened, he says, was that he grew up an athlete, and the sport he excelled in was handball. The only sports club in East Berlin where one could play serious handball was a place called Dynamo--a club affiliated with the Stasi and favored by members of the state-cultivated athletic elite.

In East German times, says Lohwasser, he was far more impressed by Dynamo's competitive achievements--"50 Olympic gold medals between 1956 and 1988!" he exclaims--than scared off by its police ties. And besides, given the East German leadership's obsession with international athletic prowess and prestige, no one could get very far in a competitive sport without at least brushing elbows in a locker room with the Stasi.

But Lohwasser gravely misjudged the long-term significance of his Dynamo membership. Although he swears he had nothing to do with the Stasi's spying activities, the agency managed to compile a 100-page file on him, he says, as a member of its athletic crowd.

Those 100 pages and the fact that he was a policeman's son were enough to taint him irreparably in the eyes of reunified Berlin's school authorities. "The school superintendent told me that they didn't need any proof of spying to dismiss me," he says. "A mere suspicion was enough."

Cases such as Lohwasser's are convincing a growing number of eastern Germans that it is time to stop ferreting out and punishing Stasi collaborators. For, as it turns out, there are many Lohwassers. Nearly everyone in eastern Germany seems to know someone--a friend, perhaps, or a co-worker--who was turned out of a job on a Stasi-related offense, and one that didn't seem so bad compared with the much farther-reaching offenses of the Communist leadership.

"It's important to keep in mind that everyone makes mistakes in his or her life," says Richard von Weizsaecker, Germany's immediate past president and a kind of moral conscience for this country, a man widely respected for his frankness on sensitive issues. "And it's important to find out what these errors were, and to overcome them. The more one is punished by ostracism, the less one will be able to learn from his or her mistakes. I find this pedagogically, humanistically and politically unwise."

Such even-handedness is, however, deeply wounding to those who struggled against the East German state and who paid for their daring with harassment, pinched careers and even jail.

"It's not that I'm filled with rage and vengeance and want to tear these people apart," says Ulrike Poppe, a onetime East German disarmament activist who was jailed as a suspected spy for the West in 1983. "You have to understand that for us (victims), it's also very tiresome and troubling to have these Stasi revelations go on and on.

"But I still believe that, whenever there is reason to suspect somebody, his Stasi file should be checked. I keep hoping that this whole painful process can help us to learn: how we should handle the truth, what betrayal means, what the misuse of power means."

Poppe admits that hers is increasingly a minority view. Weakening the resolve for punishment is the powerful sense that the quest for justice has led to the ugliness of economic discrimination. All eastern Germans who want to work in the cushy public sector--government jobs are prized for their generous benefits and all-but-lifetime tenure--must swear in affidavits whether they had any association with the Stasi. The requirement is imposed on everyone from streetcar drivers to neurosurgeons in state-run hospitals.

But it is imposed only on easterners. "No western German has to do this," says lawyer Schwirtzek, a former West Berliner who has built a successful practice defending easterners charged with Stasi collaboration.

Then, once the affidavit is on file, it is cross-checked against the original Stasi files, many of which were preserved when the Stasi headquarters was stormed in January, 1990. Fleeing personnel shredded much of the sensitive material before the enraged mobs entered the building, but they left behind, in disarray, enough files to fill more than 100 miles of shelves.

In theory, only those job-seekers and civil servants who are clearly identified as Stasi spies are to remain in moral and vocational quarantine, excluded forever from government work. Anyone else who admits to a Stasi connection is then given the chance to show that the link was harmless--that they were mere janitors in a Stasi building, say--and then they are allowed to get on with their lives and take their coveted public jobs.

But as Lohwasser's example suggests, the screening mechanism can be fairer in theory than in practice. The government has tended to suspend employees with any Stasi records, then leave it up to the dismissed staffers to prove that they did nothing wrong.

German government bureaucracies are bloated at all levels, and a purported Stasi connection is one of the few legal grounds for dismissing a civil servant. Thus many easterners, watching their compatriots fired for debatable offenses, conclude that those hard-won Stasi files are being abused as a handy way of trimming public payrolls.

"I know that, in the Berlin district where I was teaching, there were 70 teachers too many," says Lohwasser. "They were looking for people to fire." The once-popular teacher drives a taxi to support his family.

Adding to the public bitterness, the really big fish of the Communist era--the East German Politburo members, the secret police chiefs and such--for the most part have managed to elude justice.

At the end of the Communist period, the nation set about putting East Germany's fallen grandees on trial, often in connection with the deaths of would-be escapees at the heavily guarded East German border. But the criminal justice system of a parliamentary democracy such as Germany has proven an ineffective weapon against the accused criminals of a defunct autocracy. After five years, not one former top Communist is behind bars for crimes against the people of East Germany.

On the contrary, Erich Honecker, East Germany's paramount leader for 18 years and before that the overseer of the construction of the Berlin Wall, was deemed unfit to stand trial because he had cancer. He was allowed to fly to Chile, where he died last year.

Former Stasi chief Erich Mielke, while convicted of the 1931 murders of two Berlin police officers and sentenced to six years in prison, was deemed mentally unsound and excused from trial for his postwar East German crimes.

Seven members of the East German Politburo are still being prosecuted in connection with the border deaths of nearly 600 would-be escapees, but the case against them is sketchy, with only one document suggesting any of them had anything remotely to do with border shootings.

"I think we are all dissatisfied" with the results of the trials, says Von Weizsaecker. "And of course, the more one clings to the illusion that the penal code can resolve issues of this nature--which it cannot and was never meant to be able to do--the more disappointed one will be."

Instead, the aristocratic Von Weizsaecker recently joined the ranks of German public figures who have begun calling for some sort of amnesty for East German wrongdoers. Many citizens were pleased to see him speak out on the touchy matter. One recent poll suggested that 57% of eastern Germans thought the Stasi files should be sealed. But many are reluctant to say so publicly, for fear of attracting Stasi suspicions to themselves.

And not only are respected public figures calling for an amnesty; some politicians have even made hay of their Stasi ties.

The governor of the eastern state of Brandenburg, Manfred Stolpe, was found to have had extensive contact with the Stasi when he was a senior official of the Lutheran Church. Stolpe told his constituents that he had merely corrected the Stasi's records--not added anything new to them--and that he had done so in the hope that he could somehow make the Stasi more honest. The public seemed to believe him: Last year, Stolpe was reelected in a landslide.

Another eastern German politician, Rolf Kutzmutz, used his Stasi taint as a campaign slogan when he ran for mayor of Potsdam last year.

"My life story didn't start on Nov. 9, 1989," he would thunder in his speeches, citing the day the Berlin Wall was breached. And again, his eastern listeners seemed impressed by the argument that their kind shouldn't be judged by post-Communist standards for Communist-era behavior. Kutzmutz narrowly lost his mayoral race, but he has a seat in the Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament.

The most compelling Stasi case so far this year has been that of Lutz Bertram, a former East Berlin disc jockey who in 1979 was diagnosed with glaucoma and warned that he would go blind unless he got special laser treatments that were available only in the West. Bertram hastened to the visa office, only to discover that an important East German spy had just defected, and that the government was reflexively turning away all visa applicants. Thus trapped on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, Bertram went blind.

Over the next few years, Bertram managed to conquer his depression and despair on the strength of a hope that he would one day find himself in the operating room of a surgeon--in the West, of course--who would restore his sight. For this to happen, however, he still needed a visa. East Germans who desperately needed something tended to be sitting ducks for Stasi recruiters.

Sure enough, the Stasi came to call in 1983, offering Bertram travel privileges if he would take calls from East German spies stationed in the West and relay the information to headquarters. Bertram accepted.

He remained blind--it turned out that blindness caused by glaucoma is easier to prevent than to reverse--but he served the Stasi for six years. When East Germany disappeared, he went into public-affairs broadcasting and became the most prominent political interviewer on eastern German radio.

Earlier this year, Bertram's secret was revealed. His state-affiliated station, which by law must make all staffers declare any Stasi connections in affidavits, fired him for having lied in his.

Word that eastern Germany's most popular broadcast journalist had worked for the Stasi electrified this part of the country, redoubling the soul-searching about who is to blame for all that went wrong and how to achieve justice. Sympathy for Bertram--a collaborator, but one who was, after all, essentially blinded by his government--heightened the public's sense that it is just too difficult to separate East Germany's victims from its wrongdoers.

A few days after firing Bertram, his station aired a long, tempestuous call-in show, letting listeners debate his case. The majority of callers from the former West still thought Bertram was a disgrace: He had, they pointed out, been merciless in his interviews with other accused Stasi informants, never once letting on that he had behaved much the same way.

But callers from the old East were ready to forgive Bertram. Some even argued that putting him back on the air would be healthy for their quarter of Germany, a place that had barely come to terms with its guilt over the Nazi era before it had to start grappling with collective guilt over making accommodations with the new East German masters.

After all, the eastern callers argued, they would rather have such issues thrashed out by guilty fellow easterners than by pious westerners who had never had their integrity tested the way Bertram had.

"You could make a great contribution, and help make sure this topic doesn't just become one of those things no one will ever discuss," said one caller, pleading for Bertram's return to the air.

"I believe you could do something for all of us eastern Germans, who have to carry around so much strange personal baggage."

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