NEAR Weimar, a long road cuts through the woods and up a steep mountain. It is patterned by small cobblestones laid in perfect arches, row upon endless row. It would be a lovely scene, except for the fact that the road leads to the former Buchenwald concentration camp and was built through the forced labor of the camp's starved prisoners during Adolf Hitler's dictatorship.
Hundreds of thousands of East German school children have visited Buchenwald over the years. It's required. There they learn about Nazi atrocities and stand at the spot behind the crematorium where Nazis executed the leader of the German Communist Party.
What they were never told is this: After the war, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin used Buchenwald until 1950 for his own purposes. It was one of 15 camps in the Soviet zone of postwar Germany, four in present-day Poland, 11 in East Germany. In all, about 200,000 Germans were interned, including those sentenced by Soviet military tribunals. In five years, about half of them died, mostly of starvation, says Gerhard Finn, a leading authority on East Germany's Stalinist camps.
This chapter of history, known to the West but sealed to the East Germans for so many years, is now opening to them. Two mass graves near Stalin-era camps have been discovered recently - one last week north of East Berlin. It is suspected that similar graves are at Buchenwald and Bautzen.
Mr. Finn, himself a Buchenwald prisoner after the war, now works for the West German government in the Ministry for Intra-German Affairs. He has written a book on the subject, researched mostly through interviews with former prisoners.
The Soviets set up the camps directly after the war, said Finn in an interview. Interned were Nazi functionaries, Nazi party members (``small Nazis,'' as Finn called this latter group), many youths, successful farmers and business owners (i.e. capitalists), Social and Christian Democrats, and German prisoners of war sent back home. ``The Russians suspected the Germans sent from England were spies,'' said Finn.
Only the Soviets administered the camps, though Germans helped with arrests. People were arrested on the street, to show that ``this is what will happen to you, if you do something wrong,'' said Finn. No death notices were ever sent to families, and Finn is aware of no documentation of the deaths, though he suspects there are records in the Soviet Union. ``Every day at roll call, the leader of each barrack simply reported how many people had died.''
In December 1945, when he was 15 years old, Finn was arrested in the southern German town of Thuringia. He and his Berlin schoolmates had been evacuated there during the war. A farm family had taken him in and when the war was over, he decided to stay. His father was a prisoner of war in Russia; Berlin lay in ruins. Why go back?
``There were large woods where we lived, and weapons were found there - probably left by fleeing German soldiers. The Russians thought these were weapons someone had hid,'' to use against them, said Finn. When neighborhood children were arrested for playing with them, the children laid the blame on ``the Berliners,'' most of whom had since returned home.
Finn, three classmates, and three teachers were arrested ``and mishandled until we signed statements that we were an anti-Soviet group.'' In May 1946, they were all sent to Buchenwald.
Conditions at the camp were frightful, he recalls. Tuberculosis, dysentery, and starvation were the main killers. ``We recorded the dead by writing on boards with the aluminum wiring from the electricity cable.''
The winters directly after the war were particularly hard. When the prisoners ran out of wood for the stoves, they began dismantling the bunks. ``We slept three to a bed for warmth,'' says Finn.
There was little solidarity among the prisoners. ``We had lost the war. We were mixed in with Nazi ideologues.'' In any case, the Soviets did their best to cut communication off.
In 1950, the Soviets released all the prisoners. Many were handed over to East German authorities, some were deported to the Soviet Union, and others were set free.
The discovery of the graves, says Finn, ``proves that you can't run away from the fact that [East German] socialism was built on terror, violence, and inhumanity.''