Although Germany and its judiciary have made a name for themselves in recent months as the prosecutor of many crimes committed in Syria, authorities and politicians should also debate on their historical responsibility in the establishment of the terror regime in Syria: German security forces were key partners of the Syrian dictators.
A saying among Syrians can prove a lot about Germany’s historical relationship with those in power in the repressive system in Syria: “Hua almani”. Literally translated it must mean “He is German”. However – as is often the case with idioms – the expression should be understood quite differently: “He’s one of the secret service!”. And another word brings Germany in direct connection with the Syrian dictatorship. At the recent trials in Europe of people working with the Syrian security apparatus, several witnesses reported an instrument of torture used to torturously bend the spine of victims held in the Assad regime’s prisons. In front of the judges, they called this tool the “German Chair”, in Arabic “kursi al-almani”, a term also used in Syria.
In recent years, Germany has taken in more than 800,000 refugees from the Assad dictatorship. The German judiciary looked into the abysses of the Syrian torture prisons and conducted very extensive investigations, although they were not obliged to do so. In the German city of Koblenz, for example, the world’s first trial against perpetrators of the Syrian secret service apparatus for crimes against humanity was held. Judges sentenced to life imprisonment a Syrian colonel who shared responsibility for the torture of more than 4,000 people and the deaths of at least 27 prisoners.
But where do the linguistic connections in the Syrian colloquial language come from, which take Germany as a synonym for secret service or a tool of torture?
From 1948 to 1954, the Syrian secret service apparatus was built up by Germans. At the top acted a former high-ranking SS man, a Holocaust organizer in the Reich Security Office. At the time, the federal government in Bonn spoke of a “German military mission in Syria,” which sounded almost official. The first head of the Federal Intelligence Service, Reinhard Gehlen, even said: The Syrians appreciate that the old Nazis have “active war experience” but at the same time are no longer obliged to any foreign state. Unlike, for example, French ex-military figures, who are always suspected of serving France’s current agenda.
On March 19, 1951, Gehlen wrote to the head of the Federal Chancellery, Hans Globke: “In the longer term, it would be desirable if this currently private group received a certain amount of non-material support from the German government.” It didn’t come to that. After a series of unrests in Syria, almost all of the old Nazis moved on to Argentina by 1956. Their one-year contracts with the Syrian general staff were not renewed because Syria now wanted to orient itself more towards the Eastern bloc.
But one who stayed was Alois Brunner, once the right hand of Adolf Eichmann, the organizer of the Shoah. He lived as a Dr. Georg Fischer in the diplomatic quarter of Damascus. This was also cleared up in 2022, after the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution finally published the file. Brunner, according to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in 1959, “plays a significant role in the Syrian intelligence service.”
While West Germany was active with the Nazis in Syria, the GDR also wanted to assert its influence in the Levant, especially after the Syrian rulers turned to the Eastern Bloc. As early as 1966, Syria’s “Political Police” was a frequent visitor in East Berlin for training. According to Stasi files, the Syrians also received equipment and materials from the GDR, from breeding dogs to night vision devices. One of their many wish lists includes microscopes, flashlights, fingerprint film, formaldehyde, sulfuric acid and acetic acid. Stasi files document such deliveries up until the 1980s.
Documents from files in Berlin show that the Stasi employees noticed how brutal their Syrian apprentices were. Criticism was also expressed that Syria afforded so many secret services at the same time. That’s how it is to this day: even if citizens want their passports to be extended, they have to go to several services, people drink tea there, and money is shoved under the table. There is a method to this in Syria. The idea is that no single service should become too powerful on its own. What the Stasi only shook their heads about, however, was that it was a waste of work and inefficient.
From the 1980s onwards, the Syrian regime began to orient itself more towards the West. It cleverly began to play off West and East Germany against each other and to be supplied by both. In the 1990s, the cooperation with the reunified Germany could therefore be continued well. And the German secret services were particularly interested in this after 9/11.
In July 2002, just a few hours before it began, criminal proceedings against two Syrian spies who had been harassing Syrian opposition figures in Germany were dropped. The German government had put itself in front of them to protect them, they wanted to make the Syrian services friendly. For the same reason, the entire Bundestag committee that controls the secret services traveled to Damascus for a visit in 2002. Then in November five officials from the BND, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the Federal Criminal Police Office followed, they questioned a German-Syrian who was imprisoned there for three days.
For German security authorities, the good Syrian connection suddenly had high priority. Even the then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder appeared with the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad to flatter him as a potential partner in the “war on terror”. What happened in the meantime in the shadows, until the German embassy in Damascus was closed in 2012 after the brutal suppression of demonstrations, has not been able to be properly clarified by investigative committees in the Bundestag. The problem remains. The files of the Stasi are open today. The files of the BND are not.
Germany is now playing a completely different role in relation to the Syrian torture apparatus. As an enlightener, as an accuser. At the Koblenz Higher Regional Court, the German prosecutors were successful with “J’accuse”, now they are already conducting the next trial against Syrian torturers. This time it’s about a military hospital in the city of Homs. But Germany must also become aware of its historical role, and there is still a lot of work to be done!
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