BERLIN -- A near-breakdown of the former East German legal system is resulting in cynicism about the law and increased crime.
Almost all the 1,493 judges and 1,237 state attorneys are suspected of having cooperated in some way with the much-hated Stasi secret police, but there is almost no way of checking their background.
While legal officials try to sort out the mess and import judges from western Germany, crime has been soaring.
"It's a big job to reinstill respect for the law. For decades there was no real justice here, and people lost respect," said Hans-Joachim Jentsch, justice minister of the eastern German state of Thuringia.
This disrespect for the legal system inherited by the new united Germany is one side of the problem. Another is the confusion over how to deal with the old judges. Almost no criminals have been brought to trial. The recent crime rate, although partly a result of more opportunities to commit crime, also stems from this perceived legal vacuum, Mr. Jentsch said.
In one recent week, for example, about $3 million was stolen in armed bank robberies across the territory that made up East Germany -- but this is just the more spectacular side of rocketing street crime and soccer hooliganism.
Although no recent crime statistics for the eastern part of the country are available, individual communities are reporting significant crime increases. For example, in Potsdam, near Berlin, police cited a 125 percent increase in reported crime.
"We don't like this situation but have to check the judges carefully. We feel that it's better to suffer a little now and to have reputable judges than to continue with the old ones," Mr. Jentsch said.
A lawyer and conservative politician from western Germany who was asked to bring his experience to the new state government, Mr. Jentsch said that virtually all the 400 judges and state attorneys in Thuringia should be dismissed.
Judges were usually approved by the Stasi and always had to submit to Stasi opinion in a sensitive case, he said.
In recent years the situation had become better, and accused people, for the most part, were no longer told the outcome of the trial a few hours after being arrested, he said. But any political case was handled by the Stasi, with the judge often rubber-stamping the verdict, Mr. Jentsch said.
Although few judges handled political cases, Mr. Jentsch said that just getting into law school often meant some form of Stasi cooperation, meaning that even traffic court judges and prosecutors of ordinary criminal cases may have had Stasi links.
Proving that a judge is clean is almost impossible, because the judges were allowed to look into their Stasi files and clean out any incriminating evidence, according to Borkhard Hirsch, domestic affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democratic Party, the junior party in the national government's coalition.
"There's usually nothing more in their files than a curriculum vitae that ends with their primary school education. Everything else has been cleaned out," he said.
Judges in eastern Germany resent being labeled en masse. They have found a champion in Karl-Heinz Beyer, 64, a former judge and chairman of the East Berlin Municipal Court Panel of Judges, who at seminars, in newspaper articles and on talk shows pleads for sympathy.
"In hundreds of thousands of cases, justice was served. We followed the law when we heard cases," Mr. Beyer said
But pleading that judges who supported the East German authoritarian state were just following the law doesn't seem to be winning any converts.
Political journalist Ralph Giordano, for example, who has published several books on West Germany's Nazi past, said that Mr. Beyer's argument was exactly that of the Nazi accomplices who sought to escape justice after World War II.