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Basel theatre director with Stasi past defended

Michael Schindhelm has been dogged by allegations over his East German past

(Keystone Archive)

A prominent opposition figure in the former East Germany has backed claims made by Michael Schindhelm, the director of the Basel theatre, that his controversial past as an informer of the East German "Stasi" secret service in the mid-1980's harmed no one.

Lutz Rathenow, a writer and civil rights campaigner in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), made his remarks in support of Schindhelm at a public meeting in Basel on Wednesday, two weeks after the affair became public.

Rathenow, an acquaintance of Schindhelm's who was spied on by the Stasi, said that his 15,000-page file contained only a few sheets written by "Manfred Weih", Schindhelm's code name as an informer. "That was just useless information", Rathenow said.

The meeting was the first at which Schindhelm appeared in person since he revealed earlier this month that he had been an informer in the former GDR, creating Switzerland's first ever "Stasi case". The exposure of public figures as former collaborators of the East German secret service is common in united Germany.

But Schindhelm added nothing of substance to what he had already published in an elaborate declaration, dubbed a "literary text", and during subsequent media interviews.

Some in the audience of several hundred who had gathered in Basel cathedral expected conflict, after the severe criticism of Schindhelm in the local and national media for the way he was seen to manipulate his "outing". In the event, the meeting took place in a remarkably conciliatory atmosphere.

Schindhelm, who is 40, repeated that he had "come clean" on the affair, that he had harmed no one during his "forced" spell as an informer when a student in Russia, that he had always told those he spied on about his role (a ploy known as "de-conspiring" in the former East Germany), and that he had given up his career as a scientist "to remove myself from the attention of the Stasi".

His claims were confirmed by Rathenow and by Joachim Walther, another writer and civil rights campaigner in the GDR who is now one of the leading experts on the vast Stasi archives.

"Schindhelm's account of how he quit the Stasi is credible", Rathenow said. And Walther confirmed Schindhelm's repeated affirmation that he had repeatedly tried to confirm the existence of and gain access to his Stasi file since the early 1990's, but was only told recently by the office of the German commissioner for the Stasi archives that there was indeed such a file. "Many documents are still being unearthed", Walther said, "the delay in Schindhelm's case is not exceptional."

Earlier this week, the German newspaper "Die Welt", which has seen Schindhelm's file, also exonerated him. Schindhelm has been rumoured on several occasions to be set to move to a prominent post in the Berlin arts scene.

The board of directors of the Basel theatre, which had refused to sack its director at the height of the affair, has ordered an independent inquiry of Schindhelm's file.

That investigation will go ahead unimpeded, but it seems that the matter will be of little consequence now - except that it acquainted the Swiss with some of the scandal that has surrounded the many Stasi revelations in Germany. Such scandal has destroyed careers and opened the eyes of millions to the practices of the most systematic of all the socialist secret services during the Cold War.

by Markus Haefliger

German Commissioner for the Stasi archives


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