Iron Curtain’s 100,000 Dead

Adrian Bridge,
The Independent, UK,
October 27, 1991

Up to 100,000 people are now believed to have died at the hands of East Germany’s former communist rulers and the Soviet occupiers that preceded them. A report by the German government, excerpts of which were published yesterday in Berliner Zeitung, says that 65,000 died in or en route to Soviet internment camps for political prisoners set up in the occupation zone soon after the Second World War. The Soviet authorities have always maintained that only 43,000 died in the camps, many of which were located in what had previously been Nazi concentration camps. The inquiry, carried out over 18 months by the Ministry for Families and Senior Citizens, found that East Germany’s communist rulers continued to execute people for political reasons until 1981.

The report said that 756 men, women and children were sentenced to death by Soviet military occupation courts in the first few years after the war for dissident acts such as distributing opposition leaflets.

Many of those who died in the internment camps starved to death or collapsed through fatigue. Between 1950, when the camps were closed, and 1981, hundreds of people died after torture in East German prisons and 170 were executed by guillotine or firing squad.

At least 33 per cent were condemned for political activity or “treason” - such as defecting from the Stasi secret police. The other two-thirds were judged to have been war criminals or murderers. The victims were not given proper funerals or buried in graves.

In its efforts to disguise the nature of the regime, East Germany’s leaders falsified documents relating to victims’ deaths. The death records concerning one person guillotined in the early 1950s claimed only that the scalp had been “broken,” the report said. Another victim - a woman guillotined for spying in 1955 - was described as having died as a result of “collapse of the heart and circulatory system.”

Most of the 65,000 deaths in the internment camps were kept secret long after the Soviet occupiers that had run them had handed over power to East Germany. The first conclusive evidence of mass killings in the camps emerged shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when several mass graves were discovered close to the sites of internment camps.

Two camps - at Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald - were formerly Nazi concentration camps that had simply been taken over by new masters. Others included former penal institutions, prisoner-of-war camps and army barracks. Under an agreement between the four allied powers in 1946, the camps were intended for people deemed to be a security risk - Nazis, former SS officers and fascist collaborators. In the Soviet sector, however, they housed thousands of East Germans whose links with the Nazis were tenuous but whose political leanings ran foul of the Soviet occupiers.

The investigators also found Stalin’s NKVD security service abducted about 600 East German refugees in western Europe and spirited them back to East Germany from 1945 to 1954. About 300 were kidnapped and returned to East Germany by the Stasi between 1950 and 1962.

The inquiry was part of a drive to collect evidence needed to pay restitution to victims of Stalinism in East Germany. Findings may also help justice organisation pursuing hundreds of investigations into human rights abuses.