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.
The Spezialkommission 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.
Roger Engelmann, an historian and expert on the GDR justice system, says the story of the Spezialkommission was typical of organizations “that enjoy virtually unlimited resources and no democratic control. They tend to gradually broaden the realm of their activity.”
Despite friendly relations with members of the Spezialkommission, police mistrusted the organization and its boss, Mr. Erich Mielke. So much so, that after arresting a suspect for the police officer’s murder – thanks to an identikit image based on several witness statements – Mr. Sindermann and his colleagues secretly took him to the fifth floor of the East Berlin precinct using the backdoor of the building.
Mistrust wasn’t unjustified. In the middle of the interrogation, Spezialkommission detectives burst into the room and seized the suspect, informing the police they were no longer in charge of the investigation. They never saw the suspect again. Mr. Sindermann thinks the special unit had informants within his circle of acquaintances. Mr. Engelmann says the “Stasi used to keep the police under extensive surveillance.”
So was the Special Committee the secret weapon which the GDR deployed to keep crime rates so low? Not quite. According to Mr. Sindermann, it was “unprofessional and counterproductive.” It never managed to solve Mr. Lawrenz’s murder, was never able to retrieve his gun, and was even eventually forced to release the suspect. Mr. Sindermann has never been convinced of the man’s innocence.
Further cases of the Stasi unit’s conspiratorial and inefficient handling of violent crime piled up over the following years. In July 1983, a nine-year-old boy was murdered in Neubrandenburg. Five more people, four of them children, would die before the murderer was finally caught in 1984. The Spezialkommission didn’t intervene until shortly before the case was closed. It then took the investigation out of police hands, imprisoned the murderer in a Stasi jail, and refused to make any details public.
In 1986 the Spezialkommission completely circumvented the police inquiry into a series of mysterious infections and deaths among infants at the obstetric hospital in Leipzig. A 20-year-old paediatric nurse was taken in custody, tried behind closed doors and jailed while the families of the victims were kept in dark about the case.
According to Mr. Engelmann, the Leipzig case shows a clear shift in the GDR authorities’ approach to crime. In the 1950s the nurse would have been publicly put on trial in front of her colleagues to set an example. In the 1980s the state was no longer interested in such publicity and prefered to handle crimes of sexual nature or involving children with discretion, in order to avoid social unrest.
The Spezialkommission’s interference in the Lawrenz’s case still bothers Mr. Sindermann. Authorities acknowledged privately that the case highlighted the need for more effective cooperation between the police and the Stasi unit. But the latter continued to exert its power. In 1988 alone, not long before the fall of the wall, it carried out as many as 12 million security checks. Everything and everybody had clearly become a matter of state security.
After the dissolution of the GDR, Mr. Weinhold was offered a post as a lower-ranking policeman. He refused and started a transport business instead. Mr. Sindermann used his investigative skills to carve out a career as a private detective. His biggest coup? An environmental case which he says involved hiding in a tree to catch those responsible for illegal waste dumping. “An exciting job,” he says, but admits nostalgically, “the motivation to catch a murderer was much greater.”
This article first appeared in Berlin daily, Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: email@example.com