Photo. Refugees waiting to be admitted to the Marienfelde Refugee Center, August 14, 1961
© DHM-Schirner

February 2017

Like in 1772

Like in 1772
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The farmer Charlotte Behncke had been running the family farm in Zernin, a village near Güstrow in Mecklenburg, since 1933. The 68-hectare property had been in the family since the 18th century and was operating successfully. As part of the SED’s campaign to collectivize agriculture, high tax demands and judicial abuse were used to pressure farm owners sell their land and give up their private farms.

Charlotte Behncke faced economic hardship due to constantly rising levies and confiscations. Moreover, she was a member of the LDP, a liberal-leaning party that opposed the SED’s claim to leadership. Damage caused by hail and the subsequent crop shortfall left her unable to pay the state taxes. She was consequently charged with committing economic crimes by the East German public prosecutor and arrested at her farm in October 1950.

She recalls: “I was admitted to the remand prison in the town hall and held with petty thieves and similar sorts, who were all familiar with how things were done. We weren’t allowed to lie on the cots during the day, which is why I always fell asleep on a wooden stool, that’s how exhausted I was from the strain of recent events. […">. I was allowed to return home after four days or so, but my trial still lay ahead.”

This document shows the summons to the trial for “failure to deliver.” During her trial, Charlotte Behncke cited the East German president Wilhelm Pieck, who had argued that the state tax ratio should leave farmers enough to continue operations and maintain a livelihood. She was, in the end, acquitted with the explanation that she had not hidden any grain and should not be held accountable for a failed harvest caused by bad weather. But the following year, she was required to pay not only the tax share for 1951, but also the taxes demanded in the trial. This is what led her to decide, with a heavy heart, to give up the family farm and flee to the West.

The trial reminded Charlotte Behncke of an entry from the chronicle of her farm’s history. In 1772, ducal officials had accused her ancestors, the leaseholders of the land, of having sold grain secretly and thus being guilty of fraud.