East's ex-spies open shop as private eyes

October 03, 1990|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Sun Staff Correspondent

BERLIN -- As a former officer in East Germany's State Security Ministry, known as the Stasi, Roland Ernst knew doors would not swing open to welcome him on the job market when the ministry was dissolved last winter.

The Stasi's 84,000 former employees, most of whom are now unemployed, were probably the most widely reviled group of people in East Germany.

But Mr. Ernst, a former counterespionage agent, is banking on the hatred's thinning out under the demands of capitalist society. Like a number of other former Stasi agents, he has become a private eye.

"Many clients come from the West because they know the rates are better, and we're better at it," Mr. Ernst said wryly.

He operates the DIS Detective Service out of a small double office a block from the Alexanderplatz, where demonstrators first gathered last year to challenge and finally bring down the Communist regime.

For the new pariahs, the choice was self-employment or unemployment. "If you go to the labor exchange, they ask you where you worked before," Mr. Ernst said. "The minute you say Stasi, your application disappears. They stop working on it entirely. At the moment, nobody wants to have anything to do with these people."

Many of his colleagues just shut themselves off from the country they intimidated so thoroughly for so many years. Some took to drinking heavily; most are unemployed.

"I didn't think that was a possibility," he said. "This is the job I was trained for. I can do it. I have the knowledge and the skills."

Around the time the two Germanys joined in a monetary union this summer, 60 or so private eyes opened agencies in East tTC Berlin alone. In all of what was West Berlin, there are only 30 private detectives.

Now, only about 10 private eyes are still operating in the eastern sector, charging from 40 to 50 deutsche marks ($26 to $32) an hour. West Berlin rates start at 60 marks.

Most of the approximately 30 cases Mr. Ernst has received have involved employers requesting background checks of prospective workers or businesses, West Germans seeking reports on property they owned before the country's division and East Germans seeking information about West Germans who may be claiming property here.

In his brochure, Mr. Ernst offers "general checking of employees concerning loyalty, reliability, attitude towards the company, etc." It is a throwback to the precise practice that repressed East Germans for so many years.

Mr. Ernst thinks attitudes will change. "It will take some time for people to realize what the job of private detective is and where it fits into the system," he said.

Joerg Behm, who operates the Behm Detective Agency, said most of his cases involved East Germans who were searching for relatives in West Germany. Many orders come from wives searching for husbands who fled to the West last year and stopped paying child support.

His most interesting case is also the most hopeless: a request from an 80-year-old East Berlin man to find a woman he fell in love with 58 years ago, when she worked in the food department of a West Berlin department store. He saw her only a few times and knows only the last name he glimpsed on her employee badge.

"I warned him that the chances of finding her are very slim," said Mr. Behm. "He's just desperate to know what happened to her."

Mr. Behm said he used to work in the forensics division of the East Berlin police. He said most East German clients did not ask if he worked for the Stasi before.

Mr. Ernst said he did not notice an overwhelming hostility from clients when he explained his past. The general hatred of the Stasi here was always directed toward its internal security division, which kept files on some 6 million East Germans -- 37 percent of the population.

He said West Germany had ruled out a general amnesty upon unification and asked, "Why should I assist them in catching maybe 20 of my former colleagues and putting them in prison, just because they worked for the wrong office?"

Personnel checks are not as interesting as Cold War spy detecting, and Mr. Ernst admits to missing the old camaraderie. But he said he got a new kind of satisfaction in completing a report, enclosing a bill and finding people happy with his work.

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