BERLIN -- History took an ironic twist in a courtroom here yesterday.
The defendant was once the second most powerful man in the brutal East German Communist regime that died three years ago. His accusers have been dead even longer. They were Adolf Hitler's henchmen.
Brought to the courtroom yesterday was Erich Mielke, the now-frail old man who directed East Germany's dreaded secret police -- the Stasi -- from 1957 to the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989.
But the crime he is accused of has nothing to do with the 40 years he ran the Stasi. Instead, the 84-year-old Mr. Mielke faces a charge of murdering two German policemen 61 years ago when he was a young Communist agitator in the waning, chaotic days of the Weimar Republic.
The evidence presented against him was gathered not by his present prosecutors but by the Nazi SS. Ironically, the dossier was found by people searching through Mr. Mielke's own office in 1990. He had found the dossier years ago and kept it there as a souvenir of his youthful past.
With all witnesses dead, the case is entirely based on confessions that Nazi storm troopers extracted from arrested Communists in 1933and 1934. Berlin justice officials are using these documents word for word in charging Mr. Mielke with the murders.
Although Mr. Mielke is also under investigation for charges relating to his role as secret police boss -- such as embezzlement, shootings along the Berlin Wall and telephone wiretappings -- the murder charges had the ready-made documentation and so were filed first, justice officials said.
Berlin justice officials have been under pressure to bring a top East German official to trial after having been criticized for only charging a few border guards.
With Mr. Mielke in poor health and former East German leader Erich Honecker, 79, hiding in the Chilean Embassy in Moscow, this case may be the only chance to bring a top leader to trial.
Mr. Mielke was a young Communist cadre 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 in the tumult of Communist and Nazi violence that eventually destroyed Germany's first democracy, no one was charged.
When Hitler took power in 1933, he decided to make good on law-and-order campaign promises by clearing up certain notorious crimes, among them the 1931 police killings.
Dissidents were rounded up and imprisoned. Confessions
routinely were tortured out of them. Mr. Mielke and party comrade Erich Ziemer were charged and convicted in 1934 -- in (( absentia because the two had fled to Moscow shortly after the murder.
The case was largely forgotten for years. Mr. Ziemer and the others who organized the murders fell victim to Josef V. Stalin's purges in the Soviet Union.
But Mr. Mielke started a meteoric rise to the top of the East Germanregime under Soviet occupation after World War II. Sometime after becoming Stasi chief in 1957, he obtained the old murder case file.
But East Germany's rapid demise caught Mr. Mielke off guard. He was arrested in 1989. His office was searched in 1990, and the old Nazi file was found. Due to West Germany's experience with sentencing Nazi criminals, there is no statute of limitation on murder charges, so the souvenir file became part of the case against Mr. Mielke.
Defense attorneys filed a motion yesterday saying that the charges were too old. A ruling is due when the trial resumes next Monday.
Mr. Mielke cut a pathetic figure in court yesterday: mumbling incoherently, with his leather hat pulled forward so that his face was barely visible behind the bullet-proof glass protecting him in the courtroom.
When asked if he was Erich Mielke, he hardly looked up before saying, "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.
More controversial than Mr. 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 to comment while the trial was under way, but one official said the documentation would stand up as authentic and conclusive.
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 would never have been possible without the "extremely useful help" of SA storm troopers, indicating that the confessions were coerced.
The reputation of the state prosecutor, Helmut Jaeger, who helped the police with their documentation in 1933 also casts doubt on the charges.
German commentators have been almost unanimous in saying that the 6-decade-old murder charges are the wrong place to start.
"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.