Coming to Grips with the Past

The director of Germany's vast archive on East Germany's secret police has met with Iraqi groups in Washington to counsel them on how to proceed with a similarly difficult attempt to deal with the past.

The director of Germany's vast archive on East Germany's secret police has met with Iraqi groups in Washington to counsel them on how to proceed with a similarly difficult attempt to deal with the past.

photo: AP
The work of Germany's Stasi archive could serve as a model for Iraqi leaders.

​​Germany’s opposition to the U.S.-led war against Iraq may be keeping its companies out of the bidding process for lucrative reconstruction projects, but many Germans are contributing to rebuilding efforts on the grassroots level. Among them is Marianne Birthler, who heads the German government agency that serves as custodian of the secret police archives of East Germany's former communist regime.

Last week, Birthler met with exile Iraqi groups in Washington as part of a private initiative aimed at sharing Germany's own experiences with a totalitarian system and helping Iraqis come to grips with a painful past.

At least a million people are believed to have died as victims of torture, poison gas and murder during the reign of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Parallels between East Germany and Saddam?

At the invitation of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Washington, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Green Party, Birthler sought to share her own experiences in piecing together millions of files kept by the East German Secret Police, or Stasi.

Like the East German regime, Saddam’s Baath Party maintained a vast archive of an estimated 300 million to 400 million documents, which many believe hold the key to the regime’s undocumented crimes. And though the mass killings in Iraq far outshadow the crimes of the East German communists, both regimes share a common thread in the way they used secret agents, torture and killings to gather intelligence information.

Böll Foundation Director Helga Flores-Trejo said her organization believed Germany’s 13-year experience in investigating the Stasi could provide valuable insights as Iraqis begin their own process of truth finding. "There are so many concrete questions on the issue, right from providing help, drawing up laws providing privacy and protection for victims to the issue of credibility and research -- the Germans have already dealt with it," she said.

"A messier system in Iraq"

Hassan Mneimneh, director of the Washington-based Iraq Memory Foundation that has collected over six million Iraqi government documents, told DW-WORLD Iraqis could benefit from learning more about Germany's experience.

"Germans may be more methodic and German law more stringent on questions of privacy, but what the Saddam regime lacked in meticulousness and the Stasi’s resources, it made up for in its multiplicity of secret service agencies," he said. "We just had a much messier system in Iraq."Mneimneh suggested Iraq should create its own authority to manage the study and caretaking of Saddam's secret service archives.

With trials expected for many former Iraqi leaders and documents laying in different hands, it could be some time before reconciliation work can begin in earnest.

According to Birthler, the largest bulk of the papers are currently in the hands of the provisional Iraqi government. But others have either disappeared or are controlled by diverse religious and political groups. "There’s a big fear that these files could be misused," Birthler told German daily Tagesspiegel.

U.S. officials present another sticking point. According to Mneimneh, the Iraq Survey Group, the U.S. intelligence unit hunting for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, controls many of the documents and has been reluctant to share them.

"We're trying to convince them to release the documents in the interest of the millions of Iraqi people who have the right to know what exactly the regime did," Mneimneh said. "They are important to change the culture of secrecy that dominates Iraqi society and prevent self-interest groups from presenting a black-and-white picture of history."

Sonia Phalnikar

© Deutsche Welle / DW-WORLD.DE 2003