BERLIN (Reuters) - Former West Germany’s decision to buy the freedom of political prisoners in the communist East during the early years of the Cold War may have encouraged fake ransoms demands and more arrests, according to new research.
Between 1963 and 1989, West Germany paid to free more than 33,000 political prisoners from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in exchange for around 3 billion deutsche marks’ worth of goods that the East badly needed such as food and petroleum.
But the ransom payments did not have the humanitarian effect the West had hoped, especially in the early years, author Jan Philipp Woelbern told Reuters in a telephone interview on Thursday.
“On the one hand, of course the West Germans helped those prisoners,” said Woelbern, who has just published a book on “Human trafficking or humanitarian actions? The ransoming of political prisoners from the GDR, 1962/63 to 1989”.
“On the other hand, it might have also contributed to forcing the Stasi (secret police) to imprison even more people to get money out of the West.”
Data Woelbern collected from German archives and interviews showed that because West Germany only had the names of political prisoners - not the dates of prison terms - the West sometimes ransomed individuals who had already been set free.
“The West made deals with the East German government without having enough information,” he said, adding that West Germany saw the exchange as an instrument for then-chancellor Willy Brandt’s “Ostpolitik” engagement policy in the 1970s.
Notes from Stasi files show that these fake ransoms in the 1960s generated a net profit of several million deutsche marks.
“They thought: ‘Maybe these Germans can betray us, but we have to accept the collateral damage,’” Woelbern said.
When Woelbern contacted former GDR prisoners who were ransomed by the West to ask why they chose to stay on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain, many had no idea about the circumstances of their release.
“They were never told that they were ransomed by the federal government,” Woelbern said, adding that more than 40 percent of all prisoners ransomed from the 1960s to 1972 were not, as previously thought, released to West Germany.
“They didn’t know anything about the option of going to the West,” he said.
When Stasi agents known for crushing dissidents in East Germany asked prisoners what they would do if released, many felt under pressure to show allegiance to the GDR to avoid earning a longer prison sentence, Woelbern said.
Although East Germans were allowed to submit applications for permanent emigration from the GDR beginning in the late 1970s, the number of citizens imprisoned for these requests grew steadily, ballooning to more than 1,500 in 1984, he said.
“This aroused fear in the West German government that the East was producing prisoners only to make money out of them,” Woelbern said.
Contrary to the belief that they fuelled economic improvement, more than 77 percent of total ransom payments were transformed into foreign currency and used to pay the GDR’s debts at West German banks.
“You cannot say that this money for prisoners was used for the East German people,” Woelbern said.
Reporting By Monica Raymunt; Editing by Andrew Heavens