COTTBUS Germany (Reuters) - Sunday marks 25 years since the collapse of the regime that imprisoned and persecuted them, but many victims of former communist East Germany are still so traumatized that celebrating the unification of their country may forever be a challenge.
Thousands who were locked up for their political views, or had their children seized because the State did not consider them to be fit parents, are still deeply distressed - their condition aggravated by the fact that justice and recognition is yet to be granted, says a group lobbying for change.
“Of course anniversaries are a chance to examine the past and commemorate the change from dictatorship to democracy,” said Rainer Wagner, head of the UOKG Umbrella Group for the Victims of Communist Tyranny.
“But it is chilling to see all these speeches on the one hand, and on the other a state and society which is hesitant to pay compensation or bring former aggressors to justice.”
Some 250,000 people were held and interrogated on political grounds from 1945-1989, often simply for expressing the desire to leave. Millions fled before the border was sealed; thousands of those who could not were prevented from ever achieving their potential because of their backgrounds or political beliefs.
When Germany reunited, the new government took on the mammoth task of investigating the crimes of the former East, vowing to compensate and rehabilitate those who had been wronged, and explain their suffering to future generations.
But even with work well under way, the German government noted early last year: “..two worrying tendencies with regard to the former East Germany - a belittlement and romanticization of the dictatorship, or total ignorance.”
Wagner has a clear benchmark for seeing justice done: when victims are at least receiving the same pension or income as those loyal to the former communist state.
Many of those who suffered physically or psychologically as a result of imprisonment or oppression have been unable to work, leaving them struggling on meager state handouts while former East German civil servants receive fat pensions, he said.
“The most recent figures from 2008 show victims are on average a third worse off than those who were close to the regime.”
At a discussion evening on the effects of persecution - close to the Brandenburg Gate where thousands are expected to attend a glitzy anniversary show on Sunday - some former victims simply found it too hard to talk.
Those who could, described how hard it was to convince their children that political opposition had been the right path when former party members still enjoyed high status.
In a particularly stinging injustice, some of those party members who studied for doctorates in how to silence political opponents - at a university sponsored by the dreaded Stasi secret police - still have their academic titles recognized and thus receive higher salaries and pensions, Wagner noted.
Since reunification, some of those Stasi headquarters have been turned into museums and memorials, along with former East German prisons. Victims of the regime often address school classes, and there are counseling services and support groups to try to help people overcome their trauma.
But financial compensation is proving to be tricky.
A series of rehabilitation laws have cleared the criminal records of political prisoners and granted them 306 euros ($380) per month of imprisonment - along with a “victims pension” of 250 euros a month if they were in prison longer than 180 days and deemed to be in hardship today. Many see that as a pitiful amount, given their hours of forced labor in prison.
Other laws have tried to compensate those wronged in other ways by the regime - such as legal decisions against them, or damage to their careers - but these cases are tough to prove, the UOKG says. Acceptance rates for victims’ claims vary between 50 percent to 67 percent in different former East German states.
Between 1993 and 2011 Germany spent 1.2 billion euros on rehabilitation payments, according to a 2013 government report examining the progress made in redressing East Germany’s wrongs.
Payouts have also been made to athletes given steroids without their consent as East Germany sought to dominate Olympic medals tables.
Some 351 people received compensation payouts of 9,250 euros from the German Olympic Committee - successor to the East German committee - and from Jenapharm, the firm that made the drugs which wrecked the athletes’ bodies and left some with muscles so oversized that their bones could not support their limbs.
Later Germany set up a fund of 2 million euros, paying 10,500 euros each to 194 of the 308 former athletes who applied. An attempt by the Green party to have them receive a pension was thrown out of parliament in 2013.
Ninety minutes from Berlin is the provincial city of Cottbus, whose forbidding, 19th century-built penitentiary served as a prison for both the Nazis and the East Germans.
Outside it 47-year-old Katrin Behr, who was taken from her mother when she was 4 and a half, has hung hundreds of ‘missing’ notices from children and parents who are still trying to find each other after being separated by the state.
Some of the children were born in 1988, just a year before the wall fell.
Many of those still looking for a family member say they feel forgotten because their fates have not been publicly recognized or compensated.
They are not the only group to suffer in this way: Germany is still investigating, for example, medical tests carried out on East German hospital patients on behalf of Western pharmaceutical firms. The first findings are due late next year.
Cottbus is now a museum owned and run by former inmates of whom most were incarcerated on political grounds. Amid the displays is a tiny white knitted hat worn by the newborn baby that Margot Rothert was forced to give up for adoption after being imprisoned for “asocial behavior” - wanting to leave for the West.
Thirty four years later parent and child were reunited.
Behr, who was forcibly adopted by a loyal Socialist family, only found her mother when the wall fell and she could ask youth social services for her address. After 20 years apart, her mother answered her letter immediately and explained she was imprisoned for saying that she wanted to leave the country.
Behr wrote a memoir about what happened to her and her mother. Today she runs a counseling service and manages 1,700 cases of missing children or families.
“I needed to find some way of proving to myself, that this didn’t all happen to me for nothing,” she said.
(1 US dollar = 0.8053 euro)
Editing by Sophie Walker