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Ex-Generals Get Prison in Germany

Europe: Six former military chiefs from Communist east are sentenced for ordering guards to shoot people trying to escape.

September 11, 1996|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — Six former East German generals received substantial sentences Tuesday for ordering guards at the old border between East and West Germany to shoot people trying to escape the now-defunct Communist state.

A Berlin state court sentenced the main defendant, former East German Deputy Defense Minister Klaus-Dieter Baumgarten, to 6 1/2 years in prison for manslaughter. It was one of the longest prison terms given to date in any trial of a former East German official.

Baumgarten was charged with direct responsibility in the deaths of seven would-be escapees from East Germany. Over the course of the Cold War, more than 800 people died as they tried to cross the Berlin Wall or other parts of the East-West border, which was patrolled by armed guards and fortified by mines, automatic shooting devices and other equipment.

The five other defendants--Baumgarten's successor as deputy defense minister, three subordinate generals and the East German chief of border security--all received sentences of more than three years.

Attempts up until now to hold former East German leaders accountable for the wrongs of the Communist era have brought little satisfaction in the six years since German unification. The courts have let off some of the Communist world's most repugnant figures far too lightly for Western tastes--some because of age and ill health, others because of legal technicalities--while relatively insignificant individuals have wound up serving prison terms.

With the country's highest courts upholding many of these seemingly uneven rulings, Germans have been left wondering if their courts are really the right place to address East Germany's moral wrongs--and if the courts aren't the right place, then what is?

Tuesday's verdicts only added to the national discomfiture. Baumgarten's elderly East German supporters in the courtroom disrupted the sentencing, shouting at the judge. The defendants left the courtroom vowing to appeal.

"This is a political verdict," Baumgarten declared gruffly from the midst of a crush of television cameras.

Even western German legal experts philosophically opposed to the former East German system expressed misgivings about the latest attempt to punish those who shaped it.

"One of the problems with these trials is that the judges are always West German and the defendants are always East Germans," said Uwe Wesel, a legal history professor at the Free University of Berlin. He said that no matter how despicable the Berlin Wall was, its creation and fortification were legal under East German law--and that is the code that must be used in deciding these cases.

Wesel doubted that Tuesday's rulings will withstand scrutiny at a higher level.

Over the course of the just-ended trial, the prosecution argued that Baumgarten and the five other defendants had played a key role in writing the East German border guards' orders and in setting up the minefields and other fortifications that made the former East-West border so deadly, trapping East Germans inside their own country.

The defense argued, meanwhile, that East Germany had the same sovereign right to defend its borders as any country.

Baumgarten's closing argument--delivered Aug. 14, the 35th anniversary of the building of the wall--was striking for the way it showed his unreconstructed thinking and total lack of remorse.

"The mines on the border weren't laid to kill people," he told the court. "The blockades corresponded to the principles of [national] defense." He explained that the fortifications were designed to keep out agents provocateurs from the West.

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