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The Man Who Couldn’t Save East Germany

Egon Krenz

Egon Krenz told Jacobin about his time as East Germany’s last Communist leader.

Egon Krenz, the last leader of the former, communist East Germany, speaks to the Association of Foreign Journalists on September 24, 2009 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup / Getty

Interview by
Ines Schwerdtner
Loren Balhorn
David Broder

It was the beginning of the end. On November 9, 1989 footage spread around the world of crowds celebrating in the German capital, as the border-crossing between East and West opened for the first time. The most iconic symbol of the Cold War division of Europe, the “fall” of the Berlin Wall soon led to the demise of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) — the state created in East Germany after the defeat of Nazism.

On the thirtieth anniversary of these events, the GDR’s history remains controversial. For its harshest critics, this state was nothing but a “second German dictatorship” dominated by its secret police and the border walling its citizens in. Other accounts highlight more normal elements of everyday life — or even look back positively on the GDR’s social system, from its strong welfare guarantees to its full employment and solidaristic culture.

The GDR’s political leader during its final weeks of crisis was Egon Krenz, who had long been heir apparent to Erich Honecker. Taking over his mentor’s posts on October 18, 1989, Krenz was immediately pitched into crisis, faced with rising street protests, pressure on the GDR’s foreign debt, and wavering support from the Soviet Union. Though Krenz promised internal reforms, the GDR had reached its nadir, and he was unable to avert its collapse.

Forced out of active politics in 1990, Krenz remains proud of his role in averting bloodshed during the GDR’s final crisis. But more than that, he is still today a stout defender of the society built on the ruins of Nazism, in which he himself grew up.

Thirty years after his premiership, he spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder, Ines Schwerdtner, and Loren Balhorn from Jacobin. In a discussion lasting several hours at Krenz’s modest home by the Baltic coast, they talked about Krenz’s role in the East German state, the GDR’s place in Cold War Europe, and why he defends its record still today.

Becoming a Socialist

LB

You were born in Nazi Germany, but your childhood was largely spent in the GDR. Do you remember any formative moments or personalities in your childhood that made you say, “Yes, I am a socialist and I stand with this state”?

EK

I was eight years old when the war ended. My mother’s first husband fell in World War I, and her second husband, my father, in World War II. Of course, that influenced her greatly. She was an apolitical woman, neither for socialism nor against it. But the fact that war had so greatly interfered in the family’s life made peace the decisive issue for her.

My political memory goes back to a large poster put up by the Soviet occupation forces when I was a child. There was a big picture of Stalin, and below it the words, “The Hitlers come and go, but the German people, the German state, remain.” As a boy I found these words somehow compelling. In Germany, everything was down — no one knew exactly how things could go on. Of course, when you quote Stalin you are easily insulted as a Stalinist. But what he said wasn’t wrong — and he was, after all, the supreme representative of the Soviet Union.

It helped that there was a Soviet interpreter staying nearby at the military command center at Britnitz-Dammgarten, who sometimes brought me food after work in the evening. One time we sat on the steps of his house and he sang a melody. And suddenly he said, sing along! I knew neither the melody nor the lyrics — he was quite indignant and said, “That’s Goethe’s Heidenröslein!” That was a decisive moment for me. I did not meet Goethe and Heidenröslein in German classes taught by a German, but thanks to a Russian in a Soviet uniform.

These things impressed me and gradually introduced me to activity, even though I was only ten years old. The Free German Youth (FDJ) founded in 1946 was only open to over-fourteens, but with my mother’s blessing I went to the meetings and participated in the events of the FDJ, where we learned different songs and talked about politics. Then, as a school student, I became the class wall newspaper editor.

So, I was growing into political functions. But in 1947 my mother took me to Westerland on the island of Sylt, in the West. The war had brought my sister there, because her husband had served in the Navy. My sister wanted my mother and me to stay there, but one day — I don’t know what caused it — my mother said, “We’re leaving — the Nazis are still in charge here.” In a sense, she decided to move me from the West back to the East. For that I have long been grateful, because otherwise my life would have played out differently.

In the GDR, I went through all the levels that one could have, from wall newspaper editor to president of the State Council. That’s why I usually feel a bit hurt when Western politicians or whoever talk about “the GDR big wigs.” I was neither born into such a role, nor did I ever feel like one.

IS

What did you read, or what books impressed you, for example, during your time as a student or in the FDJ?

EK

Because I was politically active, I ventured very early on into the Communist Manifesto. I think I was twelve. Of course, I barely understood it, using a Liebknecht dictionary of foreign words — I was reading the dictionary more than the manifesto. I don’t know how many times I read it. I look at it again today sometimes. Every time you discover something new, or at least think you recognize something new. Read Marx and, for those who dare, Das Kapital. I didn’t read that until I studied in Moscow, but Das Kapital gives the logic of why socialism must come.

DB

You belonged to the first generation that grew up in the GDR, in contrast to the resistance fighters, the Communist Party (KPD) members and Social Democrats (SPD) who had experienced both Weimar and Nazi Germany. Did you note any difference in perspective between this generation and yours?

EK

Well first of all, I belong to the generation that has a purely GDR biography. There was also another generation in between, younger than those who fought fascism but ten years older than mine, who in 1945 decided for the SPD or KPD or then for the SED [the GDR’s dominant party]. But I belong to the first complete GDR generation.

Certainly, there were differences. Those who came back from exile in the West or Moscow, or from Hitler’s jails, had been active fighters against fascism. Of course, our esteem for them was so great that sometimes we thought they could do no wrong. They had fought against Hitler, they spent twelve years— or like Erich Honecker, ten years — in prison and of course we looked up to them. At least, many of my generation did.

That certainly had a negative effect at the end of the GDR. We were too slow to say, “enough now, you’ve devoted your life to the cause, now we’re here and want more than you can still give.” This meant that some things didn’t go as well as they could.

Germany, One Country

DB

At least at the beginning of the GDR in 1949, there was talk of seeking German unification. But the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the GDR’s self-description as the “socialist state on German soil” seemed to say goodbye to this notion. Was there a turning point when you thought a reunification on equal terms, or indeed a socialist Germany, was no longer going to be possible?

EK

When the GDR was founded, there was an idea in both Moscow and Berlin that, “There must be a unified Germany,” and the GDR was, so to speak, to be the catalyst for this. Stalin sent a telegram to the GDR government, saying that its founding was a turning point in European history. But this telegram also had a conclusion, saying, “Long live and prosper a unified, peaceful democratic Germany.” This idea goes back to the founding appeal of the German Communist Party on June 11, 1945. It said Germany should be a free democratic republic and that it would be wrong to impose the Soviet system on it. This was also the official policy of the GDR, in accordance with the Soviet Union.

But after the founding of the Federal Republic [West Germany] and then the GDR, suddenly the question was asked, “What kind of Germany should there be?” And then in 1952 there was a note from the Soviet government [to the United States, the United Kingdom, and France], which proposed to hold free elections throughout Germany, with the aim of a unified Germany outside of any military pact.

This was rejected by the Western powers and Konrad Adenauer, the then head of the Federal government. They had no real arguments to reject such a goal, so said, “This is all propaganda, of no consequence.” Then Wilhelm Pieck became president of the GDR and Otto Grotewohl its prime minister. Walter Ulbricht, the general secretary of the party, was ordered by Stalin to come to Moscow. It was said, “If they don’t want this, then we must punish them so that they come to see how things are.” That was then connected with the difficult tasks — which brought a lot of economic negatives for us — of establishing the GDR’s armed forces, first the Volkspolizei and then the army.

At that time, as a young man, I collected signatures in support of the Soviet note, together with the Pioneers in my school. We sent these signatures to Berlin, and then I got a letter from Grotewohl. Its conclusion read: “Always remember what you do for the strengthening of the German Democratic Republic, serves the attitude of peace and the establishment of German unity.” That was the official policy of the GDR for many years.

There was a slogan on the GDR side, “all Germans around the same table.” Adenauer responded saying that “the point isn’t reunification, but the liberation of the East.” Adenauer praised himself to the French High Commissioner, saying “I am the only head of government who prefers European unity to the unity of his own fatherland.”

Our [GDR] national anthem had a wonderful stanza: “Let us serve you for good, Germany, a united fatherland.” It would have been good if that had been the first stanza.

IS

Didn’t you eventually skip this part of the anthem, when the politics changed?

EK

Yes. This came after demarcation was, so to speak, on the agenda, the Federal Republic of Germany had joined NATO, and — I should insist, only after that — the Warsaw Pact [of central-eastern European socialist countries] was created. There was no decision either from the government, the Central Committee, or anyone else, that you could not sing the lyrics anymore, but not doing so became more commonplace. It was not sung at major festivals, the text was not taught in school anymore, and that’s how it came about. In the mid-1970s I spoke to my friend Hartmut König, a political singer in the Oktober Club. I asked him to go ahead and change the text of our anthem. He was meant to find a way to take out this exaggerated claim about “Germany, a United Fatherland” and he did this, pretty well even. So, I went to Honecker with this, but he told me, “Why do you want to change this? That’s our goal!”

DB

So at least the abstract goal remained in the leadership circles?

EK

Yes, of course, the idea that we would have liked to have had a socialist Germany. Which of course was unrealistic.

In 1968 there was the youth revolt in the West, but also a constitutional referendum in the GDR. Unlike other elections, there was a “yes” or “no” alternative, and it really was taken for a real decision in the polling booths. About 94 percent voted for it. This constitution characterized the GDR as a socialist state of the German nation. That is, as long as Walter Ulbricht was general secretary, we always assumed that the GDR was a socialist state, but for a German nation. The states were separate, but the nation continued to exist.

Then in 1970 there was a hint from our Soviet friends that the German nation had broken up and that one could no longer speak of a unified nation. There were many reasons for this argument, which I do not want to detail. But of course, politically it was not good to bring about change, here.

The GDR was then induced by its Soviet friends to prepare a resolution on the national question, for the centenary of Otto von Bismarck’s unification of Germany. The idea of “Germany, a United Fatherland” was still there — it spoke of the “socialist state of the German nation.” But the Soviet friends then put on pressure to change that, and after waiting until Walter Ulbricht was dead, this was deleted from the constitution.

Maybe this was a mistake, because this contributed to the demarcation, whose emotional import — every East German had relatives in the West and vice versa — was perhaps not understood.

Comrades and Friends

DB

If the GDR was part not only of the Eastern Bloc but also of an “anti-imperialist front” involving liberation movements in the Global South, we could say that for a while the West was shaken. But was there a moment when you felt that you’d lost the initiative — that socialism would not spread around the world, and that you were limited to holding on to what you had?

EK

Of course, what I am saying is very subjective and maybe some people might see it differently. But I see a real break in 1961. By that, I do not even mean the erection of the wall, although of course that was the most visible turning point. This is always chalked up as a special negative for the GDR. Yet in early June 1961, a meeting between Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy took place in Vienna where basically the spheres of influence were again at stake. This was a pretty sharp encounter. Khrushchev is said to have said to Kennedy — and we heard this at the time — “Mr President, we do not want a war, but if you want one, you can have one.” That is why when the wall was built, there was no decisive reaction from the Americans. When Kennedy was informed, he is said to have said, “Yes, it’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”

This is the political break, but there was another one, on April 12, 1961, when the first human flew into space — Yuri Gagarin. That was the sign that the Soviet Union was on the right track. At that time, there was a complacency on our part, and a serious analysis on the American side. The Americans caught up and we kept falling back because we had become complacent.

The Soviet Union was drawn into the Cold War, then made the fatal mistake of alienating its own allies by invading Afghanistan. There was the stagnation in the Soviet Union, especially at the time when Brezhnev became ill. As long as Brezhnev was well, that was fine, but for nearly ten years the Soviet Union was managed rather poorly. This of course had an impact on the socialist countries. The Comecon was not working properly, and disputes even within the Warsaw Pact increased: the selfish interests of the Romanians, but also the Poles, of course had an impact on the GDR, so 1989 basically brought out what had built up over years.

LB

How did you talk about countries such as Romania or North Korea in the leadership circles of the GDR back then? Did they really look like “brothers in arms” or were they considered strange?

EK

I do not want to comment on the way in which Romania was run, but I was Honecker’s special envoy in 1985, before Gorbachev became general secretary, for talks with Nicolae Ceausescu about extending the duration of the Warsaw Pact. I debated with him in Bucharest for almost four hours because he was for an extension of only five years, while the Soviet Union and thus we were for twenty years. As I discussed with him, I realized the man did at least have some skill. He even said quite personally to me, “Comrade Krenz, you are the youngest in your Politburo, why do you want to commit yourself to twenty years? There are only five years to go, then can see what happens next.” There were very strong differences of opinion between Romania and the Soviet Union over the role of the Warsaw Pact, as well as the way in which the socialist countries worked together.

DB

And what was your impression of how Western European communist parties thought about the GDR, when they often defined themselves in terms of their differences with Eastern Bloc socialism?

EK

First of all, I have to say that I do not know how the same people judge it today, but both the French (PCF) and Italian (PCI) Communist Parties, and even the Spaniards (PCE), saw the GDR as the most stable factor in the socialist community. I had some meetings with [PCF leader] Georges Marchais, and Erich Honecker had been friends with [PCI leader Enrico] Berlinguer since his youth. At one point, Berlinguer was secretary-general of the World Federation of Democratic Youth at the same time as Erich Honecker was chairman of the FDJ. They knew each other from then and had a very friendly, personal relationship.

In 1976 there was a summit of the communist and workers’ parties in Berlin, with [the USSR’s leader Leonid] Brezhnev, [Yugoslavia’s Josip Broz] Tito, Marchais, Berlinguer was there, [the PCE’s Santiago] Carrillo was there, and that was all in a very good mood. In this spirit, Berlinguer said to Honecker, “You know, it would not be so bad if you made a positive comment on Eurocommunism, too.”

Honecker talked to Brezhnev about it. Brezhnev got straight to the point: “Okay, make your suggestion.” And now you’ll be surprised who blocked that — the Hungarians! Not the GDR.

But we also had good relations with the SPD. In 1985, Willy Brandt visited the GDR, and had a very long and interesting conversation with Honecker. Brandt asked him if 1918–19, the years of division between the SPD and the KPD, had to be the last word. Honecker said clearly, “No, of course not.” Then the SPD and the SED agreed a joint paper, “Ideological Disputes and Common Security.”

In the post-reunification period, it has been said that this paper came about on Gorbachev’s initiative. This is nonsense. The Soviet friends were even of the opinion that we should not have signed this document, because it contains ambiguous phrases about the SED’s role. Others say that the SED was for it, but the leadership against, which is nonsense. We decided within the leadership, and the document was prepared by the GDR side, in the Academy of Social Sciences, whose president sent the document in advance to Erich Honecker with the request for the SED leadership to discuss it. Honecker wrote on it with black ink, “This is a historic document.”

DB

When you had conversations with Mikhail Gorbachev, did he strike you as a sincere communist, someone with a Marxist culture?

EK

If Erich Honecker were sitting here, he would certainly answer the question differently from me. This is certainly related to Honecker’s experience, and frankly I always thought that things could not go on as they were in the Soviet Union. And I thought Gorbachev had a conception of what he was doing, but obviously he did not.

But one could not recognize that immediately — that could only be recognized in the course of the years. On November 1, 1989, I had a four-hour discussion with him in Moscow. I had the impression that he still had a clear vision. I asked him, “Tell me, Michael Sergeyevich, what role does the GDR play in your ‘European home’ [Gorbachev’s call for continental cooperation across the bloc divide]?” He pretended that he did not understand the meaning of my question. Then I said, “You said the GDR is a child of the Soviet Union, it’s a result of World War II, and it’s a result of the Cold War. Now I’m interested to know if you’ll stand by your duties as ‘father.’”

He said, “the people of the GDR are the one dearest to the Soviet Union.” And he said he’d talked to George [H.W.] Bush and many others, saying no one can imagine German unity. Why? Because no wants the questioning of stability in Europe, and as long as there is the Warsaw Pact and NATO, there will be no German unity. Then, he quite pointedly said to me: “Comrade Krenz, tell your comrades in the Politburo: German unity is not on the agenda.”

That was on November 1, 1989. Why he then changed his attitude, above all on the question of the role of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, I don’t know, but of course it is also a scandal for German politics, that without Gorbachev there would have been no German unity.

Opening the Border

IS

Thirty years after the end of the GDR, do you have the impression that the politics of public memory are slowly changing?

EK

Yes, of course. But maybe I would have to go a little deeper. The political elite of the Federal Republic made its first major misjudgment on the GDR during the night of November 9, 1989. They assumed that the people drunk on joy at the border wanted to become citizens of the Federal Republic. But they did not want that at the time. They just wanted to travel. And that they had this wish, and we could not fulfill it, gets me down still today.

Now, certain people are campaigning on and on against the GDR leadership for abuse of office and corruption. Much of what was said at the time was not true and nor has it ever been tested by any rule-of-law state, but it did create the mood that we didn’t practice what we preached.

Of course, in this desire to travel people also saw full shop windows, which did not exist in the GDR. But what people did not see is that you would have to find a job, that you would have to pay rent, that you would have to pay taxes, and that the normal life in the Federal Republic would be quite different from that in the GDR.

Today some say this was the result of the March 1990 Volkskammer elections [in the GDR, won by the Christian Democrats]. But the question “Do you want to become a citizen of the Federal Republic” wasn’t on the ballot paper. Everything that’s said about these decisions today is assumptions, not facts.

This year marked the seventieth anniversary of the [Federal Republic’s] Basic Law. The founding of the Federal Republic was the condition for the GDR’s emergence with the approval of the Soviet Union. In this sense, the Basic Law is also the “Magna Carta” of the division of Germany. This is completely concealed today. This Basic Law has an article 146, which promised all Germans that a unification taking place with free self-determination would mean adopting a new constitution. That has not happened to this day.

Within a short time, a whole economy has been abolished. I don’t have the exact figures now, but if you take the first year after World War I, the first year after World War II, and the first year after reunification, never before was so little produced, compared to the prewar levels, as what was produced on territory of the former GDR in 1991. The first boss of the Treuhand, Karsten Rohwedder, who was shot dead — it’s still not clear why and by whom — estimated the value of the GDR economy without real estate and land at, I believe, 650 billion D-mark. That was relatively realistic — we ourselves assumed that the GDR economy, real estate, etc. included, was worth 1.6 trillion marks.

IS

You say that one of the main reasons for the Turn [Wende — a term used by Krenz in October 1989 which then became synonymous with the end of the GDR] was that people wanted to travel again. But there were also economic reasons, the Stasi and so on. Would you grant this? Because it wasn’t just “we want to travel now,” that was only one aspect.

EK

Well, as far as the Staatssicherheit is concerned, I do not use the term “Stasi.” This term is designed quite well to be compared with the Gestapo and such. I always wonder why even some left-wing politicians use this term so readily. Intelligence agencies have their own laws, that’s the case all over the world. The CIA is not exactly a democratic organization and the BND [Federal German intelligence] is not either. The problem is just us — it’s all out there, while for the others it’s all closed. Often those thus burdened can’t fight back — we’re not fighting on equal terms.

I applied years ago to be allowed to view my BND file. Of course, I can’t see it, that’s not possible — that’s a democratic intelligence service. But then they wrote to me, there’s so much about me that it takes a long time, and now a few weeks ago they sent me a comment about what’s in front of me. They’ve taken all the illnesses that any member of the Politburo may have had at any time, then ascribed them all to me … it is ridiculous, fortunately, I have not had any of the illnesses that have been described there.

I do not think that the GDR population attached as much importance to the Staatssicherheit as is claimed in hindsight. Did people really experience it, or did they read somewhere that they could have done so? It’s all a bit different to what’s said today.

As for the night from November 9–10, my choices were limited. I could decide, “Do we let things run free or do we use the armed force?” — which would have been possible. But using the armed force on this evening could have led to catastrophe. Therefore, I decided to let the matter go, but knowing that on November 3 I had issued an order forbidding the use of firearms against citizens in the border area.

So, it came about that on the evening of November 9 — after the mess Günter Schabowski had triggered [by surprisingly announcing the immediate opening of the border, rather than announcing it for the following day] — the border guards had basically no way, no order to open the border. But they had the order, even if demonstrators came to the border area, not to use firearms. That was prevented — avoiding disaster.

IS

But you agreed to something different — to the opening of the border. And it’s said that was unnecessarily chaotic.

EK

Yes, there was to be an opportunity for GDR citizens to travel from November 10, whenever they wanted, wherever they wanted, and as often as they wanted, and at the press conference [on November 9], Schabowski mistakenly said “from now on,” triggering this mess. Nevertheless, I say that things are not as they were portrayed in hindsight. The wall was not stormed. If you watch films today, people went to the wall with a pickax and spade and hammer, and so on. But this footage is shot either from the Western side or much later. On the evening of November 9, only border crossings were opened. And only from east to west, not even from west to east.

Nor was November 9 the day of the fall of the Berlin Wall, that came later. The American president sent me a personal letter of congratulation, which referred to “opening the border.” I talked to [Federal Chancellor] Helmut Kohl on November 11, who did not use the word “fall of the wall” — on the contrary. We talked about the fact that the borders would not disappear, even if the border crossings were open. Gorbachev sent an open telegram to the US president, the UK prime minister, and the French president, speaking of a decision of the government of the GDR. So, at the time no one talked about the fall of the Berlin Wall, even in the West. Not even the mayor of West Berlin — as he put it “Today is not the day of reunification, but of seeing each other again.”

DB

But even if Schabowski made a slip which triggered this popular reaction, when such large groups of people headed to the border did you not feel that you’d lost control of the situation?

EK

Well. First of all, you have to say, the GDR population was used to it — if something was officially said, it was also done. After Schabowski said that, it was considered an invitation. There were two factors that evening: one was Schabowski’s mistake, and the other was that the 8 PM news on ARD [West German TV] rekindled things. Up to that point were not even 200 people on the way to the border, but then when the news came, “The border is open,” there was of course already something going on.

The people behaved better than the members of the German Bundestag — they could have messed up almost everything. When this news became known, they got up in the sitting and sang the West German national anthem. That was completely out of place, for it was hardly guaranteed that things would play out peacefully. That’s why there could have been moments when, for example, the Soviet Union said what it had said only a few days before: “You are not allowed to open the border in Berlin, which is the responsibility of the Allies of World War II. Berlin is under four-power control.”

After the End

IS

I would like to know how you see East Germany today. It seems that this identity, this split lives on in the mind, but also in how society works — there are a kind of class differences between East and West.

EK

Yes, that was all foreseeable. For example, in June 1991, I wrote a letter to Helmut Kohl. I told him that if things continued as they were going, then the Germans in the East would feel like second-class Germans. I also told him not to allow East Germans to be discriminated against, otherwise the East or East Germans would be drawn into the embrace to fascism.

[2012–17 German president Joachim Wilhelm] Gauck is known to speak of fifty-six years in which East Germans have lived under dictatorship. By fifty-six he refers to the twelve years of Nazi dictatorship, four years of Soviet occupation, and forty years of the GDR. This is of course a terrible comparison that puts Nazi Germany and GDR on an equal footing. This was never the case and is also offensive to many who fought as anti-fascists against the Nazis at the time. In the letter, I also enclosed a seven-page evaluation by one of the leading social scientists of the GDR, Professor Walter Friedrich from Leipzig. He warned that if things continued as they were going, the situation in Germany could become like the one between northern and southern Italy.

IS

Which has largely come true …

EK

Yes, that has come true. The possibility of the East achieving productivity has been taken from it by the deindustrialization of the whole country. The population in East Germany is as large as it was in 1905 at the time of the [first] Russian Revolution. This is related to living conditions. The bus connections are cut off, the railway connections are cut off, in former times there was a nurse in each village, sometimes even in larger villages a doctor. All that does not exist anymore.

Some degrees from East German schools are not recognized. My wife, for example, was a teacher. She was dismissed in 1991 on the grounds that “anyone like you who in 1985 was secretary of the smallest SED party unit, was against Gorbachev’s reforms and can’t be taken into teaching in the new Federal Republic.” Yet in fact my wife had the closest of connections to the Gorbachev family, because she accompanied Raisa Gorbachev [Mikhail’s wife], whenever she was in the GDR. But that did not matter, people who in 1985 allegedly weren’t with Gorbachev weren’t allowed to teach. So, the entire GDR elite was replaced.

DB

If you wrote a letter to Kohl after reunification, did you also maintain contact with Gorbachev?

EK

Yes, I did. Until 1994. At that time Gorbachev was invited to Berlin to become an honorary citizen of the German capital. But a few weeks before he got that, Soviet army leaders and Soviet soldiers who had been awarded for the liberation of Berlin and had become honorary citizens in the GDR, were taken off the honorary list. In addition, Gorbachev’s friend and comrade Erich Honecker was in prison. Yet they were not really so different that one should become an honorary citizen and the other be sent to prison.

At that time, I wrote, “Dear Michael Sergeyevich, it is a matter of conscience for you that your name does not override names that have earned merit in the fight against fascism in this city.” He did not respond, and basically accepted that the two members of the Soviet Army, Yegorov and Kantaria, who hoisted the Red Banner at the Reichstag on May 30, 1945, have also been removed from the list of honors. That was too much for me.

Then it was said in the media that he spoke in Turkey at any university and said that he had his whole life the goal to defeat communism. I still do not believe he said so, but I sent him a fax and asked him if he really was the author. And I did not get an answer to that. No answer in such questions is also an answer.

No, I think he did not behave well after the Wende. I’ve had faith in him for a long time, maybe that was even my mistake. Today I say too long, but I do not think it was his intention to ruin the Soviet Union. Things slipped out of his hands.

IS

Do you think that in order to prevent East Germany being left behind today, it might be necessary to reevaluate GDR history as it’s understood in the Federal Republic?

EK

No, I think you have to work through the whole of German history by analyzing East and West German history together, in their mutual interaction. GDR-Federal Republic relations were always relations of action and reaction. You can’t pretend that the GDR is the culprit for the German division. At least, if blame is to be handed out, you have to give it on both sides.

What are the allegations leveled against us? The wall, barbed wire, the order to shoot (even though it didn’t exist at all), stopping travel, and two or three other things. Yet these are not original socialist values, but conditions ​​that arose from postwar developments and the circumstances of the Cold War. We would never have built the Wall if West Germany had been a socialist country [laughs]. But even these things were alleged to be part of socialism’s values. If we had no enemies in the world, we would not even have needed an army.

LB

In retrospect, though, do you think it was really necessary to censor cultural production so much in the GDR?

EK

I think in the cultural sphere we sinned. But we did not only sin — we did great things. It should not be forgotten that in the postwar period, great minds of literature and culture came to the GDR, not to the Federal Republic. The idea came from Bertolt Brecht, “It’s not that I have my opinions because I am here; rather, I am here because I have an opinion.” Anna Seghers came, I could list many others in music and literature. They decided in favor of an anti-fascist Germany and stayed. You really should not just see Wolf Biermann [the dissident singer stripped of GDR citizenship].

IS

But you were wrong about authors like Christa Wolf?

EK

Christa Wolf was even a candidate member of the SED Central Committee.

LB

Yes, but there was a very contradictory relationship, because aspiration and reality were rather different.

EK

Well, you have to see, the intention was always that art and culture are weapons, and weapons are kept clean. This one-sided view of art and culture as a weapon — that was of course a mistake.

DB

You mentioned Brecht, I wonder if you know his poem Ulm 1592. It speaks of a tailor who builds a flying machine and jumps off a tower, only to crash to his death. The bishop, observing the disaster, says to the people, “you see, man will never fly.” But after centuries of experiments, the dream of human flight was in fact vindicated. In 1991, some invoked Brecht’s parable to defend the Communist project, insisting that it remained viable despite this failed “first attempt.” But as Lucio Magri put it, by way of analogy, we might doubt that the tailor’s experiment really contributed anything to aeronautics, or would have been worth another try. When we look at the GDR’s history, we see it had many well-known bad aspects and some positive ones. But what can actually be rescued from its history?

EK

Well, as far as the experiment is concerned, I have already said what I think. It was not an attempt, it was a project that was supposed to fly. If you ask me what’s left, generally speaking, the GDR proved across forty years that it is possible to do without capitalists. That’s pretty valuable. And it proved that exploitation by humans can be abolished by humans. It proved that it had a job for everyone and the possibility of education for all.

Nowhere in Germany have so many people from the lowest classes had the opportunity to study as in the GDR. In the GDR in 1949 women were allowed to set up a bank account and work without the permission of their husbands. That only became possible in the Federal Republic in the mid-1970s. What’s recognized today is that Eastern women’s self-esteem is still very good. The GDR proved that nurseries and kindergartens are good for promoting the role of women and the family.

So, I could list many things, and the current situation has of course much to do with the Treuhand [post-1989 body for privatizing public assets], but not only that. One of the first allegations from the West was that the East Germans want to live like Kohl and work like Honecker. So, they just assumed that the industrious are in the West, while the stupid and lazy are in the East. One of the leading professors at that time, going on all the talk shows with his book What Now, Germany?, said the GDR spoiled the people for forty years and now they are all too stupid to do anything.

IS

As some put it, the GDR was not all bad, and we wanted to make more of it.

EK

I would instead say that it was not all good. To say it was not all bad means that the bad things were the most obvious.

End Mark

About the Author

Egon Krenz was president of the State Council of the German Democratic Republic

About the Interviewer

Ines Schwerdtner is an author, political analyst, and co-host of the podcast halbzehn.fm. She lives in Berlin.

Loren Balhorn is a contributing editor at Jacobin and co-editor, together with Bhaskar Sunkara, of Jacobin: Die Anthologie (Suhrkamp, 2018).

David Broder is a historian of French and Italian communism. He is currently writing a book on the crisis of Italian democracy in the post-Cold War period.

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