WSJ Editorial: Shoot to Kill (Re: East Germany)

Roundup: Talking About History

Estimates vary, but up to 780 people were killed by East German border guards for trying to flee to the West during the Cold War. Yet Saturday's revelation of an official 1973 order that Stasi secret-police agents "stop or liquidate" anyone trying to escape the socialist paradise has stunned Germany. The story preoccupies the media and politicians alike.

Granted, the order is unique in its explicit inhumanity. "Do not hesitate to use your firearm, not even when the border is breached in the company of women and children, which the traitors have often used to their advantage," the document reads. Like other totalitarian regimes, East Germany's apparatchiks usually referred to state-sanctioned murder in more ambiguous terms.

The document, published days before the 46th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961, may help silence former East German officials and their apologists who deny that an order to shoot ever existed. Technically they are right: A public law authorizing it never passed. But a plethora of documents, the testimonies of former soldiers and, not least, the killings along the former German-German border all prove that such a policy was in effect.

So why did the current document -- which actually appeared 10 years ago in an obscure publication without gaining much attention -- so shock the country this week? In part it reflects a romanticized view of the past. It is still popular in Germany -- and some other Western countries -- to see communism as basically a good idea, just an imperfectly executed one. In a survey two years ago, a clear majority of Germans polled agreed with this view....

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