Despised Stasi making its presence felt again

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The long shadow of East Germany's feared secret service, the Stasi, has once again fallen over Berlin, 16 years after its reign of terror ended.

A discussion in a former Stasi prison last week was disrupted by 200 former Stasi officers who dubbed their one-time victims "liars" and described the former prison, now a museum, as a phony "chamber of horrors".

"I was shaking all over with fury," said Matthias Melster (39), who spent five months in Hohenschönhausen prison in East Berlin for attempting to flee over the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. Now he works in the former prison as a guide.

"These men think they were right and all others are lying. And they feel secure saying that in the current political situation in Berlin."

The city-state of Berlin is governed by a coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Left Party-PDS, the successor to East Germany's Socialist Unity Party (SED).

The SED established the Stasi in 1950 to protect the socialist German state and soon established a network of 250,000 full-time and part-time informers to spy on fellow East Germans.

With one Stasi informer for every 68 people, the Stasi gathered 17 million files filling 178km of shelves by its end in 1990.

Last week's commotion is part of an increasingly organised campaign by former Stasi officials that could have serious political consequences for Berlin's cultural senator, Thomas Flierl of the Left Party.

Mr Flierl failed to intervene as ex-Stasi officials disrupted the discussion and instead told the appalled audience they were "historical eye-witnesses".

"When you're dealing with history, allowing perpetrators to speak as eye-witnesses is a mockery and derision of the victims of the Stasi," said Astrid Jantz, a local Christian Democrat (CDU) politician who also participated in the discussion.

Opposition politicians and Stasi victims have dismissed as half- hearted an apology Mr Flierl made in the Berlin state assembly on Thursday.

"He's an intelligent person and he knows that these people are his voters," said Mr Melster. "Before the discussion even began, the Stasi men made clear that the local people here in this area vote for the Left Party."

The implied threat, says Mr Melster, was that if Mr Flierl criticised them, they would make sure his party loses votes in the state election later this year.

The row coincides with the release of Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others), a chilling new film about a Stasi official whose spying operation on a dissident East German playwright brings him to question his loyalty to the Stasi, the so-called "sword and shield of the party".

As Germany's first serious Stasi film, it is a timely contribution to the current debate and a welcome relief from the threadbare retellings of the Third Reich and the feel-good East German "ostalgia" films such as Goodbye, Lenin!

"The film shows the harshness in a way that is unsparing but also sober," says actor Ulrich Mühe, who gives a mesmerising performance as the doubting apparatchik.

"It gives Stasi victims the opportunity to confront once again the system so that they can be done with it once and for all. This is a film to finally say farewell to the GDR."

But the new-found confidence of ex-Stasi officers has German historians concerned that mistakes made in the post-war period that allowed Nazi officials live quiet lives are being repeated with Stasi officials.

"A group of high-ranking officers are organising a systematic historical revisionism that we only know from the neo-Nazis," Hubertus Knabe, head of the Stasi prison memorial centre, said to a Berlin newspaper.

"This is revenge for Germany dealing so mildly with the Stasi."

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