When former chancellor Helmut Kohl marked his 70th birthday this week, there was none of the fuss that you might expect for an elder statesman whose 16-year rule oversaw the reunification of a divided Germany. Instead, Mr. Kohl slipped across the French border for a clandestine dinner with his wife at an Alsatian restaurant.
At home, a most unseemly birthday present lay unopened: transcripts of potentially damaging conversations Kohl and other top West German politicians held decades ago, courtesy of the dreaded former East German secret police, the Stasi.
The past never really rests in Germany, consistently revisiting the present on inconvenient occasions.
Kohl has admitted accepting more than $1 million in illegal contributions and operating a secret campaign slush fund for his Christian Democratic Union (CDU), but he has steadfastly refused to name donors. There is speculation that the transcripts, if examined, might provide such information, among other things.
The disgraced Kohl had been keeping a low profile as his battered party, now in opposition, attempts to regain strength. Yet when the existence of as many as 50,000 transcripts became known last week, Kohl thundered that he would go as far as the Constitutional Court to prevent their publication.
Many prominent Social Democrats - whose party is the senior member of the ruling coalition - echoed Kohl's outrage, saying that the illegally gathered and possibly falsified data should not be used in an investigation of the CDU's financial finagling.
Something to hide?
The unison with which western German politicians of all political stripes opposed publication of the files not only fostered speculation that they might have something to hide. Eastern Germans - whose reputations have been subject for the past decade to Stasi-file revelations - interpreted it as yet another instance of them being on the wrong end of a double standard.
"West and east Germans are equal before the files," commented the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel, telling Kohl to keep his "hands off the Gauck Authority" - the government office entrusted with managing the mountain of Stasi files.
Last week the authority, nicknamed for its head, Joachim Gauck, presented documentation that the Stasi had tapped the phones of leading West German politicians since the 1970s, including former CDU treasurers.
In one passage from a transcript released to the press last week, one former CDU treasurer, Walther Leisler Kiep, says Kohl asked him, "Do we still have something that we put aside somewhere?"
Presumably, East Germany's efficient spies knew about the CDU's secret Swiss bank accounts 20 years before the German public.
During the cold war, the East German state spied on some half a million West Germans, and hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in November 1989, the secret police headquarters was one of the first targets of angry demonstrators. Stasi agents shredded and erased data as best they could.
In the chaotic months before German unification in October 1990, the CIA succeeded in procuring highly sensitive files from the Stasi's foreign-espionage department, including the names of hundreds of thousands of agents. After years of discussion, the CIA finally turned over the first batch of data to Chancellor Gerhard Schrder's office last weekend.
While it was in power, the Kohl government was just as keen to get its hands on secret-police files. But the Cabinet decided to destroy any Stasi information gathered on West German politicians in the summer before unification, when a special law went into effect. Until last week, nobody suspected that tens of thousands of transcripts and tapes were gathering dust in the Gauck Authority's archives.
Letter of the law
Joachim Jacob, the federal government's commissioner for privacy protection, says that politicians must focus on the letter of the law, which foresees the use of Stasi files for the rehabilitation of victims, prosecution of Stasi crimes, and research into the East German security apparatus. "Of course the files can also be put before an investigative committee, when its task is to deal with such questions," says Mr. Jacob.
Since the parliamentary inquiry now under way is looking into CDU financial wrongdoing "the present committee has a completely different task. I believe [the files] cannot be used. In my opinion the legal situation is clear." Jacob adds that the information in the files was gathered illegally and that Stasi officials often falsified files as a method of spreading misinformation.
Yet for many eastern Germans, as well as much of the media, a double-standard is being applied. Since 1990, many eastern German politicians have had to defend their reputations from information originating in the murky Stasi files. Privacy protection and basic rights were seldom an adequate defense.
"It would be catastrophic for the democratic consciousness of the people if there were exceptional treatment for Helmut Kohl or other prominent westerners," said Reinhard Hppner, premier of the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, in a recent interview.
Despite Kohl's objections, Mr. Gauck has indicated that the files in his charge could help clear up the CDU financial scandal. So far, the chairman of parliament's investigating committee, a Social Democrat, has indicated that he is not inclined to request them.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society