Historian at WWU researches kidnappings by East German secret police
A faked telegram from a sick relative, knockout drops in a glass of beer or simply brute force - the methods used by the East German secret police, the "Stasi", were varied and imaginative when it came to kidnapping opponents and critics of the East German regime in West Germany and putting them on trial in the GDR. Historian Susanne Muhle (29) has found over 400 cases in the files of the Birthler Agency (named after Marianne Birthler, who heads the agency that oversees the archives holding millions of files collected by Stasi) as well as in those held by other authorities. For her PhD in the Department of Modern History at the University of Münster Muhle has been looking especially at the kidnappers. Financial support for her project has been provided in the form of a grant from the "Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur", a government-funded organisation
devoted to the examination and reappraisal of the Communist dictatorship
in East Germany.
"The Stasi went to incredible lengths in their kidnapping activities," Muhle reports. Target persons were observed minutely in order to find out more about their habits and lifestyles. Every little detail was noted down by the state informants. Drinking habits, for example, were of interest. In the Stasi files these informants' reports often provide decisive evidence that a kidnapping took place, because only in a few cases do there exist actual detailed kidnap plans authorised by the leaders of the Ministry of State Security. On the other hand there are indications that files have been destroyed or "cleaned up".
"That's why with some kidnappings various clues have to be put together like a jigsaw puzzle," Muhle explains. "For example, the Stasi used the phrase 'bringing them back' when they were talking about former Stasi employees who had fled to the West." The West Berlin police used to keep a list of people who had disappeared without trace. Suspects are also included, and this list forms the basis of Muhle's work. A comparison with the Stasi documents in the Birthler Agency shows that many of these people were put on trial in the GDR, which means they must have been kidnapped.
"The arrest reports often simply state 'Berlin' as the place of arrest, which means it's impossible to say whether East or West Berlin is meant. Sometimes the reports were even completely faked," comments Muhle, explaining how difficult working with the files is. In addition to the informants' reports there is other evidence that the victims were kidnapped by force - notes in the files to the effect that a flat had not been searched, because the East German police could hardly search West German flats, or warnings to the kidnappers because their victims had been released from prison.
The victims were mostly dissidents and regime critics who had escaped from the GDR, but they also included western secret service employees. The kidnappers were run-of-the-mill criminals from the West, as Muhle has discovered. "The treachery committed by these informants has a special quality of its own," says Muhle, "because they supplied not only information about people to the Stasi - they also supplied the people themselves, knowing full well that there was a threat of long prison sentences or even death." While it was possible for other informants to play down their activities by saying that they didn't actually harm anyone directly, those who were involved in kidnappings couldn't.
"As far as the Ministry of State Security was concerned, using criminals had a number of advantages. They had no scruples and would do anything for money, no questions asked," Muhle explains. The Stasi candidly assessed these criminal activities as an 'interesting attribute for operational purposes'. These informants could also become a problem because what they knew was, of course, highly sensitive material. But it was not only criminals who were involved in the kidnappings, but also GDR citizens who had escaped but wanted to return. They wanted to acquire permission to do so by carrying out a kidnapping. Susanne Muhle has examined the biographies of 50 informants, which is, as she herself comments, "not representative by statistiscal standards", especially as it is not clear how many informants were actually involved in kidnappings.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall charges were brought against a total of 13 informants who had been involved in kidnappings. Seven of these were given suspended prison sentences. Muhle's explanation for this small figure is that "a lot of the victims and perpetrators have already died or are unable to appear in court for reasons of old age or illness". After all, these kidnappings ordered by the state were a phenomenon of the 1950s. After 1962 only a handful of people were abducted.
Why were such incredible efforts made to bring alleged criminals back to the GDR in order to sentence them there? "The GDR felt permanently threatened by the West, and they were really paranoid about spies. All critics of the regime were assumed to be agents and saboteurs controlled by the West." This also explains the paradoxical behaviour of the State Security: on the one hand, everything was done to hush up the kidnappings, but on the other hand they served to demonstrate the state's omnipotence. The long arm of the GDR reached beyond the country's borders.