SED injustice: Trauma still has an impact today

Former border fence

View over the border strip at the Eichsfeld Borderland Museum. © Nico Schneider/ Uniklinikum Jena

Even almost 35 years after the end of the GDR, the physical and mental wounds have not healed, as a large-scale research project shows. According to the project, many of those politically persecuted by the SED regime still suffer from the psychological consequences of their experiences. Others have to deal with the health consequences of vitamin D injections contaminated with hepatitis or forced doping in competitive sports. Another problem is that many of those affected still experience exclusion and discrimination today.

Even if some people romanticize the GDR in retrospect, for many citizens of the former GDR, the time of the SED regime was anything but idyllic or easy – on the contrary. People who were critical of the GDR system or who did not follow the SED and party rules for religious reasons were discriminated against, excluded and stigmatized. In extreme cases, undesirable activity or direct resistance to state regulations and measures landed those affected in prison.

But people in the GDR also had traumatic experiences in other areas. In 1978/79, for example, thousands of pregnant women received an injection as part of the state health care program to prevent vitamin D deficiency. It later emerged, however, that these injections were laced with the hepatitis C virus. As a result, many women contracted this liver-damaging infection. The experiences of many female competitive athletes in the GDR, some of whom were minors, were also traumatic. Many were given doping drugs without knowing it or were pressured into doping by their coaches.

“Even today there is still great suffering”

A large-scale interdisciplinary research program has been investigating the consequences of these and other experiences for those affected to this day over the last three years. Scientists from the four university hospitals in Jena, Leipzig, Magdeburg and Rostock interviewed and examined various groups of those affected in twelve sub-projects, including victims of political persecution and exclusion, women who had received hepatitis C-contaminated syringes and competitive athletes who were forced to take doping drugs. Various psychological and physical consequences were recorded.

The result: “Our research shows that the long-term health consequences of SED injustice are still causing severe suffering today,” reports Jörg Frommer from the Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg. “This does not only affect former political prisoners who are fighting for reparations, often in vain and in proceedings that drag on for years. Victims of damage in the health care system, for example through syringes contaminated with the hepatitis virus, are also still suffering today.”

Long-term effects on political victims of repression

Almost 35 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, many victims of political persecution and stigmatization still have a high rate of mental disorders and react more physically and emotionally in stressful situations than their contemporaries. This in turn makes them more susceptible to mental and physical illnesses that are exacerbated by chronic stress. Many victims of such repression have a high rate of specific mental disorders such as anxiety, affective and dissociative disorders. In addition, many victims of the SED regime continue to experience disadvantages to this day: “The stories of the victims of SED injustice are disturbing. Many still experience exclusion today, often due to the bureaucratic structures to which they are exposed,” says Georg Schomerus from the University of Leipzig.

This often also applies when those affected seek medical help: “People with experience of SED injustice are often viewed more negatively by employees in the health system than people without such experiences. There must be a sensitization to the needs of this group,” stresses Schomerus. In keeping with this, former victims of imprisonment reported that they were retraumatized by questioning methods when applying for SED injustice compensation without receiving adequate psychological help. Those affected also often have a particularly hard time accessing other social and health services, as the studies have shown.

Hepatitis C and forced doping

Similar reports were made by those affected by the hepatitis C-contaminated anti-D prophylaxis. In many women, the hepatitis infection caused by this not only led to gradual damage to the liver because the disease was detected too late. Emotional and psychological suffering also contributed to many of those affected withdrawing from social life and suffering from ongoing frustration, despair and mistrust of state institutions to this day. Most women have since been treated with medication that has eliminated the hepatitis C virus. However, many suffer from the long-term effects – not least financial ones due to long periods of absence and work stoppages. For this reason, compensation payments for those affected were introduced in 2000.

Many people who were involved in competitive sports in the GDR as young people also suffered lasting trauma and health problems. The system of state-controlled sports, which was geared towards maximum success, used doping in addition to high performance pressure and even abuse of power – often without the knowledge of the underage athletes. In some cases, the use of doping drugs was also forced. Among those affected in this group, the researchers found a number of depressive, anxiety and chronic pain disorders that were many times higher than the rates in the general population. Only a very small minority of around two percent were not diagnosed with any mental disorder at all during their lifetime.

“There is still a lot of ignorance about the GDR and the practices of the SED”

“The joint project’s investigations show that the consequences of the SED’s injustice are still felt today
are still visible and certain groups of victims still show abnormalities in terms of stress reactions. These in turn are considered risk factors for the development of mental and physical disorders,” says project coordinator Bernhard Strauß from the University Hospital in Jena. The team also sees a significant need to catch up in how today’s health system deals with those affected. “In connection with offers of help in counseling and rehabilitation procedures, it is clear that despite a good structure of offers that exist in the new federal states, there is still a lot of ignorance about the GDR and the practices of the SED, which needs to be specifically addressed in future training and continuing education events.”

Source: University of Leipzig, University Hospital Jena; Publication: Long-term health consequences of SED injustice

Recent Articles

Related Stories