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History

Stasi archive head Jahn: 'Clarification not justification'

The Polish Round Table Talks 25 years ago gave momentum to the fall of communism in the Eastern bloc. Now many of these nations are still trying to understand their communist past. Some look to Germany for an example.

DW: It all began on February 6, 1989, with the Round Table Talks in Poland. Ten months later, the Berlin Wall fell. Are talks a way to bring about change?

Roland Jahn: The round table is a useful instrument to solve conflicts peacefully in situations in which a power vacuum exists when old and new political forces collide. Sitting down together at a table in a round of people is a symbol for wanting to solve a problem together. The success of the Round Table Talks in Poland was also a model for the opposition groups and parties in the German Democratic Republic when they replaced the old order.

Twenty-five years later, Germany is now recognized internationally as a model for coming to terms with the communist dictatorship in its eastern half. What is your view as a victim of the regime?

You can come to terms with the history but it will never be enough, especially as long as there are people who have experienced repression in this dictatorship. I'm doing well personally. I've been fortunate. I've been able to handle the detention and repression. Today, I'm living in a democratic society and can participate in it and bring about change. What I'd like to achieve in dealing with the past is to have the offenders acknowledge what they did. Unfortunately, there are far too few of them willing to do so. That's why many victims still don't feel recognized as such. A confession would create a climate of reconciliation.

The division in society is still present in many former Eastern bloc countries. But it seems less so in Germany. Why?

Germany quickly set an example for coming to terms with this period. The aim was to state the injustice, compensate the victims and understand the mechanisms of the dictatorship.

Is the problem that some countries like Poland needed 10 years or more after the collapse of communism to open the records of the regime?

The records remained unopened in Poland for a long time. But opening them helped us understand much faster why people behaved the way they did. Only in this way can you get away from the issue of mutual accusations and jointly shape the future. Poland had its "Solidarity" mass movement but many in the state apparatus participated in it, too. Today, they act as if nothing ever happened. If you aren't willing to come to terms, something will happen.

The office responsible for the documents of the communist regime in Poland manages not only the archives but also has its own state prosecutors pursuing the crimes of the communist regime. Why hasn't Germany done the same?

People here wanted clarification - not judgment - to be the focus. How should I benefit from someone being punished who did something wrong to me back then? What's important is that we have the rule of law and an environment in which offenders can admit to what they've done. Society is little served by punishing them and locking them up in prison.

It looks like quite a twist of fate that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden has found protection in the capital of the former Soviet Union after informing the public of the intelligence agency's extensive surveillance operations. What do you have to say about that?

A set of rules needs to be developed among countries so that fundamental rights aren't violated. We currently find ourselves in an exciting discussion: How much freedom can be restricted to protect freedom? How far should intelligence forces be allowed to go to protect democracy? How to organize the protection of democracy?

That's a lot of questions. What are the answers?

By coming to terms with the communist dictatorship, we can sharpen people's senses. We can show them what it looks like when the secret police protects the power of a party. But we need to stress that the NSA and the Stasi [the secret police in the former GDR] are not the same. In a democracy, we can discuss what happens in America and here and how the controls can be improved. We can argue in the media and parliament whenever we want. We can even decide to do away with intelligence agencies. That is the freedom of democracy.

What do you think is the best way to deal with intelligence forces?

There has always been an awareness in Germany about controlling intelligence agencies. This awareness has grown even more intense not only because of Snowden but also by coming to terms with the communist dictatorship. Of course, everyone is thankful that this information is now on the table. Still, we need to assess whether democratic rules have been violated. Rules are violated in many situations to help people and then the end justifies the means. But not everyone can decide that for themselves - only society can.

Roland Jahn, a journalist and civil activist from Jena, was appointed Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service (Stasi) of the former German Democratic Republic by the German lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, on January 28, 2011, and took office on March 14, 2011.

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