Germany has owned up to one of the most disturbing examples of mass child and youth abuse in its post-war history, some 60 years after the first teenagers started being locked away and mistreated by supposedly "caring" foster homes.
The country agreed yesterday to provide a €120m (£101m) compensation fund for the estimated 30,000 victims who were among the 800,000 children in German foster homes in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.
Institutions that for decades meted out inhuman treatment – including ritual beatings, periods of solitary confinement, forced labour and sexual assaults – were not youth remand centres or borstals as might be expected, but homes run by nuns and priests in former West Germany's Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as state-run homes.
Antje Vollmer, a Green Party politician and former German parliamentary president, announced the establishment of the fund yesterday after two years of round-table discussions with victims, politicians and church leaders in an attempt to provide some form of retrospective justice for those who were abused.
Ms Vollmer said that by setting up the fund, Germany was finally "recognising the suffering of the victims", which had been perpetrated by a nation which – at the time – had an "immature justice system" and was still trying to shake off attitudes inherited from a totalitarian Nazi regime.
Der Spiegel magazine, which broke the story of widespread abuse in German foster homes in 2003, concluded that the mistreatment was systematic: "Between 1945 and 1970, the worst educational practices of the Nazi era continued virtually unabated in these barrack like foster homes."
Those Nazi-era practices included beatings for petty offences like using too much soap or "nose picking" and incarceration in solitary confinement cells for "daring to hum" pop songs.
One victim, who refused to be named, recalled in a radio interview this week that a standard foster home punishment for talking at night was being made to stand naked in an unheated corridor until a freshly lit new candle had burned itself out. "It meant standing naked all night," he said.
Forced unpaid labour included ditch digging, turf cutting and being sub-contracted out to construction firms to hump bricks. For adolescent girls, the favourite form of unpaid labour was carried out in laundries, where they had to work for hours washing by hand and ironing.
Eleonore Fleth, now in her sixties, was sent to a church-run foster home as a teenager. Interviewed yesterday, she said she had been so traumatised by the experience that she had mentally blanked out much of her home experience. "I only know from my home records that I was contracted out and used as a part-time labourer for a building firm," she said.
"I still suffer bad attacks of claustrophobia from being locked up in solitary confinement. The worst thing was being so powerless."