Tracking down secret police informers creates bitter division in Germany

May 20, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

WORBIS, Germany -- The most feared man in this town of 4,400 people is a stocky 52-year-old engineer with a bundle of papers locked in a safe.

He is Franz-Georg Pfitzenreuter, head of a unique office with a strange name -- the Office for Overcoming the Past. Its task is to purge the community of Stasi secret police informers and others who worked for the former Communist regime in East Germany.

"Anger" is how Mr. Pfitzenreuter describes his motivation for the thankless and sometimes dangerous job. "I don't want to see them get away with it. They must be brought to justice."

For many, however, Mr. Pfitzenreuter is a fanatic bent on ruining every other person's life in this close-knit town near the former border with West Germany. While he thinks that he is creating a necessary purgatory for the new democracy, his critics think he is dredging up the past and creating bitterness and feuds.

The debate in Worbis over how to deal with the past is a familiar one in Germany. Even the term "overcoming the past" stems from West Germany's experience after World War II, when the country did not know whether to confront or bury the past.

Now in former East Germany people are being forced to decide how they should address the accommodations and compromises they made with an authoritarian regime. Because most communities have decided basically to forget the past, Worbis' decision to support Mr. Pfitzenreuter's work has gained national attention as perhaps a better way.

For Mr. Pfitzenreuter, the problem isn't dry or theoretical -- it often means harassment on the street and late-night threatening phone calls.

Many people in this small town would like to silence the past and the man who refuses to leave it alone.

"It makes life hard, but I won't let the Communists' fellow travelers escape unpunished," he said.

So far, he has several big scalps to mount. The manager of the state-owned grocery store chain, the director of street construction and even the local chairman of the strongest democratic party in the region, the Christian Democratic Union, have had to resign after he exposed them as having worked for the Stasi.

Mr. Pfitzenreuter started his crusade a year ago on his own. Later, out of fear or respect, the city government created the Office for Overcoming the Past for him so that he could continue his work officially. The post comes with a small office and two part-time assistants to help him sort through the tip-offs and Stasi files that sometimes are dropped off anonymously.

When Mr. Pfitzenreuter thinks he has a criminal case, such as in shooting deaths along the former border, he turns the informationover to the state attorney for appropriate legal action.

In many cases, however, the person hasn't violated a law but has, in Mr. Pfitzenreuter's opinion, shown enough bad judgment to be disqualified from holding important public office. In those cases, he alerts the local newspaper and lets public opinion force a resignation.

"The main thing is that these people not be community leaders. We don't want our young people thinking that the revolution just means a new slogan and that the old bosses continue on with new titles," he said.

Many people, however, think that he goes too far. The deposed Christian Democratic leader, Karl Alder, says Mr. Pfitzenreuter does not take into account that people may regret earlier actions or that the Stasi compromised people's lives and sometimes forced compliance.

"This is turned into a good or evil fight. It was never so simple," Mr. Alder said.

Mr. Pfitzenreuter, who used to work for a local factory, is a man with seemingly boundless energy.

Besides heading the Office for Overcoming the Past, Mr. Pfitzenreuter leads a City Council subcommittee that investigates possible Stasi contacts by council members, heads a local citizens' movement that is asking for rehabilitation of former political prisoners and is chairman of a committee pressing the government to compensate people who had to surrender their homes to Communist cadres.

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