BERLIN -- Somebody has taken a shot at solving the contentious property ownership problem in eastern Germany: They set fire to the land records.
Police reported that arsonists burned up about 1,300 feet of property files stored by the old Communist government of the German Democratic Republic in a castle near Barby, a small town 70 miles southwest of Berlin.
Called the most important property files in East Germany, the records are crucial in determining who owns what in most of the old Communist part of Germany. There are from 1.5 million to 2 million claims outstanding for restitution of property.
West Germans, expatriates and refugees from communism and Nazism in many countries, including the United States, seek to have property they once owned restored to them.
Easterners fear that the homes and apartments they have lived in for years will be claimed by some former owner from the West. Some towns and villages have virtually closed themselves off; clashes between former owners and occupants of the property have been reported.
In some towns in the former East Germany, two-thirds or more of the homes have been claimed by former owners.
Unclear property titles have been a barrier to development in eastern Germany. Virtually every title has to be searched back to before the rise of Nazism in the early 1930s.
A single claim by a Jewish owner whose property was seized by the Nazis held up a multimillion-dollar commercial development at the old Checkpoint Charlie portal between East and West Berlin.
Property records were sloppily kept or even ignored in East Germany. Ownership was rarely a question. It was assumed the state owned everything.
After reunification in 1990, everything changed.
Now laws dealing with restitution of property in East Germany are extremely complicated. Separate regulations deal with property seized by the Nazis from 1933 to 1945, property expropriated during the period of the Soviet Union's occupation of East Germany, and property taken or abandoned by people fleeing during the East German era.
Security guards at the Central Property Register Archives of East Germany discovered the fire just after 5 a.m. Sunday. Volunteer fire fighters swiftly brought the fire under control, but 1,300 feet of files (out of 42,000) were destroyed by the blaze and water.
Manfred Kottke, head of the archives, called the records "immensely" important. About 75 percent of the land records of the eastern German states are stored in the archives.
Investigators said they had no clues as to the perpetrators. But uninhibited by lack of facts, the Bild newspaper, Germany's largest, speculated the fire was set by agents of West German real estate brokers or of the former East German secret police, the Stasi.