BERLIN — Since early last September, four young men--former East German border guards--have faced their accusers across the gloom of Courtroom No. 700 in the capital's main criminal justice building.
Lost and visibly defeated amid the array of lawyers, judges, journalists and curiosity-seekers that crowd the court each day, the four are charged with manslaughter: shooting 20-year-old East German Chris Gueffroy as he tried to flee across the Berlin Wall on a cold February night in 1989.
In a very real way, however, it is Germany's legal system that is on trial in what has become the country's most controversial and most important legal proceedings since unification 15 months ago.
As prosecutors and defense attorneys last week began their summing-up arguments, those involved realized that far more turns on the eventual judgment than the fates of four young lives.
The trial's outcome will help answer the fundamental question of whether a democratic legal system can dispense justice in connection with events that occurred in a dictatorship outside its own jurisdiction.
This answer will shed light on the larger issue of whether the courts--or some other forum--offer the best way for Germans to deal with the excesses of the era of Communist rule in the eastern region.
"The need in both parts of the country to come to grips with this history is very urgent," acknowledged the Christian Democrats' parliamentary leader, Wolfgang Schaeuble.
The trial's result also is certain to set a precedent that will influence the 350 other criminal cases launched since unification against other former East German frontier guards in connection with violent deaths along the Cold War's most infamous frontier.
Between August, 1961, when the Berlin Wall sealed off the last East German exit to the West, and November, 1989, when the wall was breached, more than 200 people died trying to flee to the West. Gueffroy was the last known victim.
Legal experts say that a guilty verdict would also instantly become a powerful weapon in the hands of those pushing to prosecute senior members of the former Communist dictatorship. They are the ones who actually shaped the shoot-to-kill policy along the inner German border and presided over a regime that condoned summary arrest and arbitrary punishment and turned husband against wife in one of the most comprehensive, cynical internal security systems ever developed.
So far, efforts by Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government to try members of the former East German leadership for repression have resulted only in a series of acutely embarrassing failures.
As a state prosecutor pleaded in court here for guilty verdicts against the border guards, former East German leader Erich Honecker, the man who built the Berlin Wall, was busy applying for back pension payments from the safety of the Chilean Embassy in Moscow, where he has sought refuge.
Egon Krenz, Honecker's successor and for years the Politburo member responsible for internal security, now sells real estate in western Berlin, while Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski, a senior member of the dreaded state security arm, the Stasi, and the man who supplied the regime with hard currency through a series of highly dubious business dealings, lives comfortably in a lakeside villa outside Munich and demands $13,000 for his television talk show appearances.
Others, such as former Stasi chief Erich Mielke, Defense Minister Heinz Kessler and Defense Council chairman Fritz Streletz, are in judicial custody on various charges, but evidence has proved hard to find, and so far no trial dates have been set.
The only two members of the East German hierarchy who have faced trial, trade union boss Harry Tisch and a secondary political figure named Gerald Goetting, were found guilty of minor fraud and immediately set free in judgments that seemed to trivialize the entire effort to bring members of the Communist regime before the courts.
Some, such as Bonn University historian Karl Dietrich Bracher, agree that it is morally wrong to place simple soldiers on trial before pursuing the political leaders who shaped the soldiers' values and issued their shoot-to-kill orders.
"It's terrible; I don't like it, but the problem is, we have to first establish a legal procedure, and for that, it is much easier to punish those who fired the shots," he said.
"If we're going to get the big people, we have to build up from the bottom first," echoed Heiner Sauer, director of the Collection Center for Documentary Evidence, an organization based in the western city of Salzgitter that for years assembled material on East German repression.
Reflecting a widespread public sense of unfairness over the flow of events, the chief prosecutor last week asked for a guilty verdict, but he also asked that the four soldiers be given only suspended jail sentences.