One of the founding myths of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was that the tenets of socialism would help to create a society without crime and violence. Over 30 years later, in 1982, East Berlin declared an annual rate of roughly 30 murders, while on the other side of the wall the figure was four times higher. Other crimes – car thefts and bank robberies – were similarly rare, according to official figures.
So was communism an effective recipe against crime? A recent documentary suggests criminal investigations were often shady, disorganized affairs that prioritized avoiding scandal over seeing justice served.
The film, directed by Gabi Schlag and produced by the Franco-German public broadcaster Arte, delves into the murder of a police officer to reveal the conflicting interests that complicated police inquiries. A 30-year old chief constable, Jürgen Lawrenz, was patrolling the streets close to the Berlin Wall one September night in 1982, when he stumbled on a young couple who were unable to produce identity documents. After accompanying them home, he left their building only to run back into the courtyard moments later with blood gushing from several stab wounds. His lifeless body was found soon after in a flowerbed, his service weapon gone.
Detective Thomas Sindermann, a young police lieutenant at the time, was one of the first to arrive at the crime scene. Mr. Sindermann looked for witnesses among residents of the surrounding buildings. But the murder took place while most were absorbed in the American TV series “Dallas,” which generated record audience ratings in East Germany.
Mr. Sindermann was soon joined at the crime scene by Rolf Dieter Weinhold. Mr. Weinhold carried the ID of a criminal police officer. But he was working for another body, too. The Spezialkommission or Special Committee, a secretive unit controlled by the Ministry of State Security (Stasi).
The Spezialkommission was set up in 1958 to investigate sabotage cases. Over the years, the scope of the organization’s activity grew to include murder, terrorism and any crime the Stasi regarded as politically relevant or potentially detrimental to social order.
Having nurtured the myth of a crime-free society for decades, East German authorities regarded the murder of a police officer as a sensitive case that needed to be handled with the highest degree of confidentiality. The Spezialkommission wasn’t just equipped with cutting-edge forensic and investigative tools. It also had the full apparatus of the Stasi to fall back on – with over 90,000 official employees, and over double that number of unofficial agents, in the world’s biggest secret service organization.