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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.

March 02, 1995|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — 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.

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