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Outrage as Stasi agents have jobs in civil service

About 10,000 to 15,000 former members of East Germany's feared secret police, the Stasi, still work in civil service jobs.

Berlin // About 10,000 to 15,000 former members of East Germany's feared secret police, the Stasi, still work in civil service jobs as police officers, teachers and administration staff, according to new research that has outraged the victims of the 41-year communist regime. Many ex-Stasi officers were only superficially vetted after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and managed to remain in public employment, said a senior academic who has compiled figures on their presence in the civil service.

Some members of the Stasi, short for Ministry for State Security, have risen to high ranks in the police force, and one is even assigned to Chancellor Angela Merkel's personal protection team. The figure of up to 15,000, collected from data provided by the five eastern regional states, is far higher than thought, and has reinforced doubts about whether Germany has been rigorous enough in confronting its communist past.

The Stasi, which called itself the "sword and shield of the party", had 91,000 employees and a network of around 189,000 civilian informants to spy on neighbours, co-workers and even relatives. Its members psychologically tortured dissidents in secret jails using methods that included sleep deprivation and humiliation. Interrogators would threaten to make prisoners "disappear" or to imprison their relatives. Some former prisoners allege they were exposed to radiation to make them develop cancer.

The researcher who compiled the figures, Professor Klaus Schroeder of Berlin's Free University, said Germany is repeating the mistake it made after the Second World War, when thousands of Nazi officials were allowed to remain in the civil service. They obstructed attempts to bring war criminals to justice and delayed the country's struggle to come to terms with its history. "What I find disappointing is that the authorities pretended that they were making proper checks and that they had learnt from 1945. But in fact the checks were very lax and people weren't properly vetted at all," Prof Schroeder told The National.

"They were just waved through. People were just asked what department they worked in and from when until when, nothing more. Whole departments were declared clean," he said. "It's just like after 1945 - the people who were at the top before are still there today. "It's saddening for the couple of hundred thousand victims who sat in prison, who were forbidden to work in their professions, who were deported or driven to escape."

The number of Stasi officers allowed to transfer to the regional civil services in the 1990s totalled 20,000 to 30,000. They have since been whittled down by retirement and death. Many who weren't allowed to stay in the civil service found work as private detectives. Groups representing Stasi victims said the findings were scandalous and demanded that staff be re-evaluated. The Union of Victims of Communist Rule said it was shocked to learn that there are so many of them, and that they had no place in senior positions.

Mario Röllig, who was harassed and locked up by the Stasi for three months in 1987 after he tried to flee to the West, said he didn't find the figures surprising and said all former Stasi officials should be dismissed from civil service jobs. "For many years we've been seeing the same old faces who tormented us in East German times, they're still working in public offices and the police force in Berlin," Mr Röllig, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his time in jail, told The National.

"They've simply swapped the signs on their offices, have a different haircut, a modern suit or a new uniform. What we're seeing in these figures now is the result of a failure to digest this second German dictatorship." Public employees in Germany are entitled to generous welfare benefits and pensions, a fact that makes the large number of former Stasi staff enjoying those perks additionally galling to many at this time of economic crisis.

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the legacy of the Stasi still haunts Germany because the organisation was such a huge, powerful and repressive force. Today, a government agency manages the millions of files the Stasi kept on its staff, informants and victims. Ironically, that agency also employs former Stasi officials, said Prof Koehler. Its files continue to reveal uncomfortable insights into the influence of the organisation.

Only in May, it emerged that the West Berlin policeman who shot dead Benno Ohnesorg, a Berlin student, in 1967 and thereby inadvertently helped trigger the 1968 student riots, was a Stasi officer. The Stasi played a similarly strong role in its foreign intelligence operations. It managed to plant a "mole" in the office of the West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who had to resign in 1974 when the agent, Günter Guillaume, was exposed.

Under a law passed in 1991, Stasi members applying to stay in the civil service had to be vetted but they were free to be recruited if deemed suitable. The eastern state of Brandenburg revealed this month that 58 of its 700-strong regional criminal police force - a senior unit that investigates major crimes - are former Stasi officers. Eastern regional governments have rejected calls for fresh background checks of their staff and say it's too late anyway because since 2006, authorities can only inspect a civil servant's Stasi file if he or she has a very senior position.

Vera Lengsfeld, a politician and civil rights activist who was jailed by the Stasi, said: "One has to ask how could this happen? It's unacceptable. Evidently there was a lack of political will to investigate people thoroughly. "The Stasi was never an intelligence service like any other," said Ms Lengsfeld. "The public debate hasn't focused on its monstrous criminal dimension. It's high time that was done."

Prof Koehler said he hasn't collated figures on how many Stasi members are still working in national government departments, and that his proposal to check the number in employment offices, where many were transferred in the early 1990s, was refused. "These people aren't indispensable," said Prof Koehler. "We have enough of others who could do their jobs. No one's stopping them from working in the private sector. But they shouldn't be teachers or police officers, that's just insensitive."

dcrossland@thenational.ae