In what may be the biggest and most controversial trial to come out of the collapse of communist East Germany, former secret police boss Erich Mielke went on trial Monday, accused of killing two police officers in 1931.
But with no living witnesses, the case is based entirely on confessions that Nazi storm troopers extracted from arrested communists in 1933 and 1934. Berlin justice officials are using these documents in charging Mielke with the murders.
Mielke, 84, was a young Communist in 1931 when two Berlin police officers were gunned down in front of the Communist Party headquarters. Police in the crumbling Weimar republic investigated, but, overwhelmed by the communist and Nazi violence that eventually destroyed Germany's first democracy, they never found the culprits.
Enter the Nazis: When Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, he decided to make good on law-and-order campaign promises by clearing up well-known crimes, among them the 1931 police killings. Opponents were rounded up and imprisoned, and confessions routinely tortured out of them. Mielke and party comrade Erich Ziemer were charged and convicted in 1934 _ in abstentia because the two had fled to Moscow shortly after the killings.
Over the years, the case was largely forgotten. Ziemer and the cadres who probably organized the killings fell victim to Stalin's purges in the Soviet Union.
Mielke, however, started a meteoric rise to the top of the East German regime after World War II. Sometime after becoming chief of the secret police, or Stasi, in 1957, Mielke obtained the old murder case file as a souvenir.
But East Germany's rapid demise caught Mielke off guard. He was arrested in 1989, his office searched in 1990 and the file found. Due to West Germany's experience with sentencing Nazi criminals, murder charges do not expire after a certain number of years, so the file became part of the case against Mielke.
Defense attorneys, however, filed a motion Monday saying that the charges were too old. A ruling is due when the trial resumes Feb. 17.
Although Mielke also is under investigation for charges relating to his role as Stasi boss _ such as embezzlement, shootings along the Berlin Wall and telephone tappings _ the murder charges were filed first because the documentation existed, justice officials said.
However, the trial on Monday was hardly an exciting clash of Stasi and Nazi ghosts. Mumbling incoherently, his leather hat pulled forward so his face was barely visible behind the bullet-proof glass, Mielke cut a pathetic figure.
When asked if he were Erich Mielke, the former shipping clerk hardly looked up before answering "yes."
"I feel lousy," he later said and "I can't stand it any longer." Doctors attended to him twice but have said that despite his weak heart and mental confusion he is able to stand short sessions once or twice a week.
But more controversial than Mielke's health is the fact that the Berlin Justice Office is basing its case on the Nazi documentation.
Experts in analyzing Nazi documents say the results of the investigation could be legitimate.
"Nevertheless, I would hesitate to convict someone solely on the basis of such documents. Signatures were often forged and confessions forced," said Brigitte Oleschinsky, an expert with Nazi-era documents at the German Resistance Memorial research office.
Justice officials refused comment while the trial was under way, but one official said the documentation would stand up in court.
Even if the documents are correct, the manner in which the information was obtained may not be admissible in a modern court. The 1934 court, for example, said the conviction never would have been possible without the "extremely useful help" of Nazi storm troopers, indicating that the confessions had been coerced.
The reputation of then-state prosecutor Helmut Jaeger, who helped police with their documentation in 1933, also casts doubt on the current charges. Jaeger's zeal won him a promotion later that year to the Volksgerichtshof, or People's Court, a Nazi kangaroo court that gave the appearance of legality to witch hunts against dissidents. He served the Nazis in that capacity until 1945.
Berlin Justice officials have been under pressure to bring a top former East German official to trial after having been criticized for only charging small-fry border guards. But German commentators have been almost unanimous in saying that the six-decade-old murder charges are the wrong place to start.
With former East German leader Erich Honecker, 79, hiding in the Chilean embassy in Moscow, this trial may be the only chance to bring a top leader to trial.
"If this is the best that can be done in dealing with East Germany's past _ old murder charges based on Nazi documentation _ then the justice system will hardly have fulfilled the high expectations that many have," the Berlin newspaper die tageszeitung said.