- Interview by
- Alex Brown
The joyous scenes of November 9, 1989 are often remembered as the end of the Cold War, as Berliners were finally reunited after decades of division. The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 had cast the division of Germany in stone, with those attempting to cross to the West without authorization risking arrest or death at the hands of the East German authorities. This threat now abruptly disappeared, as cheering crowds passed through the newly opened border crossings.
Protests in previous months had expressed popular dissatisfaction with the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED); the opening of the border itself reflected a bid to tame a mounting revolt. Yet the Wall did not immediately “fall” on the night of November 9, and nor was it immediately clear what future lay in store for the German Democratic Republic (GDR) created in the Soviet zone after 1945. Rather than necessarily seek incorporation by the West, dissidents in the East had often expressed the will for a democratized socialism, while other Western leaders remained reticent about a reunited Germany.
Change was, nonetheless, clearly coming. The opening of the border destroyed the political credibility of recently installed GDR leader Egon Krenz, and by December 3 he had been replaced as head of government by Hans Modrow. Himself a career SED man, Modrow was nonetheless seen as a reformer, and over subsequent months led a national government that gradually integrated the opposition groups gathered in the Round Table. Elections in March 1990 brought defeat for his party (now purged of some top officials and rebranded as the Party of Democratic Socialism, PDS), ending Modrow’s spell as premier.
Modrow was leader of the GDR during a decisive phase, in which not only the two Germanies but also the victorious Allies of World War II negotiated the country’s future — and the ultimate demise of East Germany. Today an “elder” in left-wing party Die Linke, Modrow spoke to Jacobin about the fall of the Wall, his bid to reform the GDR, and his interaction with figures from George H. W. Bush to Mikhail Gorbachev.
On November 9, 1989, the border to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was suddenly opened, after an accidental declaration by SED official Günter Schabowski. How did you come to learn of this event — and how did it make you feel?
It looked like an accident, but it wasn’t. This process had begun in summer 1989 with the opening of the Hungarian border with Austria — a move paid for, as we now know, by the West German government, to the tune of two billion Deutschmarks. This was also in the context of the “occupation” of West German embassies by GDR citizens in Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw.
This pressure forced the GDR and FRG into joint efforts to work out specific regulations to allow these people to travel. Then — as agreed — the FRG’s foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher stood on the balcony of the embassy in Prague [faced with the GDR citizens gathered there] and proclaimed the historic words, “You may travel to freedom.”
Three trains were then allowed to travel through GDR territory, on the condition that these people renounced their GDR citizenship. Senior West German civil servants such as Wolfgang Ischinger were on the trains to ensure that this took place. Our responsibility was to try to avoid complete chaos. That was why the SED Central Committee (CC) met on November 9. Egon Krenz arrived at 4 PM and informed us that the first secretary of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, Miloš Jakeš, had requested that we come up with a solution whereby those wishing to leave the GDR or visit the FRG would be able to do so directly. Schabowski arrived only at 6 PM. Krenz told him that this was the announcement he wanted made at the press conference because it would be a global sensation.
But they were completely irresponsible — neither of them had actually engaged with or really got to grips with the details of this subject. So, Schabowski then made his announcement, answered the famous questions, and shortly after 7 PM went home to Wandlitz without a care in the world, having no idea what he had just done. The CC continued its meeting until 9 PM — all the leading cadres, from the defense minister to the interior minister and even Erich Mielke (minister for State Security) had no idea what was going on outside.
So, I’d absolutely disagree with some of the details in Egon Krenz and Günter Schabowski’s portrayals. Krenz — now more than previously — acts like the chains of command were fully functioning, which is simply not true. Rather, the border was opened by the border troops and passport officers themselves, under the command of the Ministry for State Security.
These people on the ground were placed under immense pressure from thousands of people and Trabants [East German cars]. The orders they had were to not let anyone through without strict checks, documents had to be verified, and no one was allowed through without the legitimate paperwork. These were young guys, around twenty years old, who took on the responsibility that failed politicians didn’t. Neither the Western side nor the Eastern side can claim this event for themselves. These young men later saw punitive court cases for their roles as border guards, but on this evening they played the fateful role and under their own responsibility took the decision to open the border.
Like the others, I learned of the news at around 10 PM. On the way home after the CC Plenary, a young man on the street came up to me and asked whether I knew that the border was now open. I didn’t know yet! So I entered into a conversation with him. I asked, “Why do you want to go there? Have you spoken to your parents?” He responded, “No, my father is a functionary in the trade union. He won’t be able to cope with it.” I advised him, “speak to your parents, use the opportunity to visit, if the border is open as you say, but don’t make any wrong moves.” But I first became properly aware from watching the images on TV. It was clear to me that I would have to take on a new office under totally different — and not yet foreseeable — conditions. And this kind of attitude would also now have to make its way into the GDR’s government itself.
Shortly afterward, on November 17 you were elected to be Willi Stoph’s successor as chairman of the Council of Ministers, in other words, the head of government. Could you describe how this came about, why you specifically were chosen, and what you hoped to do with this?
On November 1, 1989, Egon Krenz visited Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow, and during this discussion it was assumed that Stoph would remain in office. Gorbachev asked Krenz whether it would be possible to bring me into the government. Krenz assumed it would be, but as no concrete discussions had taken place it was unclear in which role. Krenz wanted me to join the Politbüro, but he had other candidates for the minister president — I was actually the fourth choice. The background to my selection was two things. Firstly, I was portrayed as some sort of great white hope and successor to Erich Honecker in the propaganda coming from the FRG. I was better-known thanks to West German media than from within the GDR. Equally, I’d been a youth functionary, and some of the older generation knew me from those days. Secondly, something which today I know more about, there were thoughts in the Soviet Union, from Gorbachev, that I should take on such a responsibility.
I thought, if I was offered such a role, I couldn’t turn it down. Shirking from this was not an option — you either had to take on greater responsibility or declare your resignation from politics, which I considered irresponsible amid those circumstances.
November 13 has entered history as the first day when demonstrators called for a unified Germany rather than a reformed socialism within the GDR. Was this already its death knell? You and your government are often portrayed by historians as a sort of leaf caught on the wind of events — but did you feel that your situation was simply hopeless? I am especially interested in your approach to the “2+4” talks [the two Germanies, plus the four Allied victors of World War II], whether you expected support from Moscow, and whether you hoped to exploit the negativity of certain Western powers toward German unification?
We were no leaf blowing in the wind or to put it another way, the four victorious powers were just as much that as my government was. There was palpable uncertainty as to how the question of relations between the two German states would develop in view of the growing political pressure in the GDR, and indeed how the four victorious powers would react.
[Under the continued Allied control of Germany] the FRG’s sovereignty was no less impaired than the GDR’s, and this remained the case until the signing of the 2+4 Treaty. Egon Bahr told me once how shocked Willy Brandt was when, on being elected the FRG’s chancellor, he was presented with a secret document from the Americans which he had to sign, confirming that he would respect their sovereignty and legal rights in Germany. The same applied to the GDR — we also had certain obligations to the Soviets.
My concern was to change the practice from Erich Honecker’s time when he, as head of the party, conducted discussions with diplomats alone. So on November 22, Krenz and I met with the Soviet diplomat Valentin Falin. There was a debate in which my conception of a Treaty Community between the two states found approval from the Soviet side. Falin suggested that a confederation could be a possible further step in this process.
Shortly thereafter, I met with James Baker in Potsdam — the first time a serving US secretary of state visited the GDR. The topic of German reunification was not discussed at all, instead our talks focused on how bilateral relations between the United States and the GDR could develop to our mutual benefit. On December 21–22, the French president François Mitterrand visited. His view was that the unification of Germany would be possible only within the framework of a “common European home.”
The European question stood above the framework for German unification, and any process in this sense had to make particular reference to French interests. The British foreign secretary came in mid-January, and again our discussions were focused on bilateral relations. German unification was not the subject of any of these discussions.
However, following George H. W. Bush and Gorbachev’s discussions at the beginning of December, I gathered the impression at the Warsaw Pact’s Malta Conference that Gorbachev was no longer capable of controlling the political situation within the alliance or of constructively keeping it together. I had the feeling that it could not function anymore. And for the GDR this counted twice — both as an alliance member and as a partially sovereign state with obligations to the victorious power.
Then on January 8–9, 1990 came a meeting of the Eastern Bloc’s economic development organization, the Comecon [Council for Mutual Economic Assistance]. The Soviets raised the question of altering the previous arrangement of internal trade — which was based on the transferable ruble and the division of specialist industries — instead introducing payments in US dollars or West German marks.
It was clear to me that under these conditions, the GDR could no longer exist economically. We were not as dilapidated as is often reported — we fulfilled all contractual obligations, and we were solvent and creditworthy, otherwise [Bavarian president] Franz Josef Strauß would not have green-lighted two billion West marks in loans. But we wanted to maintain our creditworthiness, and so together with our close advisors we began to formulate a three-step plan for German unification, within the framework discussed with [Soviet foreign minister] Falin in November.
We wanted to go down the path of a Treaty Community, which Helmut Kohl agreed to, then perhaps a confederation in two or three years and then in the future a united federal state. I took this conception to Moscow on January 30 to negotiate with Gorbachev. He wasn’t, however, sufficiently prepared to be able to discuss it. Later on, I discovered that only through my pressure for a meeting on this subject would Gorbachev’s very first discussion with his ministers and advisors on the German question take place, on January 26!
During our meeting, we agreed that any unified Germany must be militarily neutral. This proved to be the central question for the United States. On February 8, Baker was back in Moscow and negotiating a unified Germany under the proviso that it would belong to NATO. Gorbachev agreed in principle. On February 10, Kohl was in Moscow, and with that the question of unification under NATO was fundamentally decided. This was the “blank canvas” that the 2+4 negotiations were then confronted with.
The initial talks in Ottawa had been titled 4+2, which corresponded to our interpretation of proceedings. Rather than negotiate a peace treaty, the victorious powers were dictating an agreement to the two postwar states that emerged from the surrendered fascist Germany. That’s how we saw things. But then the BRD [West Germany] managed to introduce the 2+4 formulation [implying the Germanies were themselves the center of the discussion] with strong support from the United States and USSR. The victorious powers did not want to conduct a peace conference because it would have had to deal with reparations for German war crimes and include countries like Greece who are still trying to make claims today.
Ultimately, this was another episode of global politics which played out as it did. My thoughts were focused on ensuring that if there was a unification process, the rights of GDR citizens would be guaranteed as far as I could possibly ensure.
In winter 1989 prominent intellectuals and artists such as Christa Wolf and Stefan Heym published an appeal “For our Country,” which sought to protect the achievements of the GDR and support its independence as a reformed socialist nation. It garnered nearly 1.2 million signatures by January 1990, including yours. How did you perceive this project at the time?
The appeal assumed great changes were coming and that national unification would not be pursued. It demanded that the government pursue a politics of peace, ensure the GDR’s continued place within international frameworks, and at the same time conduct fundamental internal reforms. I discussed it with Christa Wolf, who I knew personally, and we agreed that I should sign it. In retrospect, I believe it would have been better if Krenz and I and others hadn’t done so, as this would have left it more space. But this was another twist of fate in the course of events and mistakes which contributed to certain questions not being discussed as widely or in as much detail as we would have wanted.
That appeal says that Stalinism was responsible for all the problems in the GDR. It appears to me that this word was used as something of a catchall for all manner of sins. How did you see it at that time? Were you also an “anti-Stalinist,” or is this not a bit of an oversimplification?
As fate would have it, in 1953 I was studying in Moscow, and so I had the opportunity to walk past Stalin’s open coffin. It was an event that is impossible to sum up and describe in words. Millions of people came to Moscow to process past his coffin which had been laid out in the Trade Union House. I belonged to the generation which believed in Stalin. Then came the Soviet Communist Party’s Twentieth Conference in 1956 [where Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin], and Walter Ulbricht wrote an article in which he accused younger comrades of learning Stalin’s biography by heart.
After reading this, I went to see the Berlin party secretary, Alfred Neumann and told him, “Comrade, this is unacceptable — you are accusing us of having learned Stalin off by heart, but I never had the inclination to do this myself, you asked us to!” Neumann, who was a member of the Politbüro, actually passed on my criticism to Ulbricht, then said, “You surely don’t believe that I went and fought in the Spanish Civil War just so that I wouldn’t get sent to Siberia?”
For me, however, this was the moment at which I came to the conviction that there are no Gods among people. Whoever believes in Gods becomes dependent on some sort of leader. So this freed me, even without making me distrustful of others.
There are broadly two poles of opinion about the economic situation in the late GDR. One holds that the centrally planned socialist economy itself caused all manner of shortages and problems. The other maintains that the market-oriented economic reforms introduced by Gorbachev (and also present in Hungary and Poland) exacerbated the existing global economic difficulties of the 1980s. How do you see this question?
This way of looking at it presumes a sort of linear development in history which overlooks, like many analyses of today, the ups and downs of these things. At the core of the difficulties the GDR’s economy faced was the fact that we did not receive any kind of Marshall Plan — we had to pay war reparations and, therefore, had heavy burdens in building up our economy. On top of this came the building of the wall in 1961.
We were denied access to research and technology — we were supposed to remain behind. However, in 1961, with the border closed, Ulbricht introduced reforms which we called the New Economic System of Planning and Management.
This process was tolerated as long as Khrushchev was in office, but when Leonid Brezhnev took over in Moscow, Honecker became his new partner. Ulbricht was still officially in charge but the work on replacing him was already underway. Then came Honecker’s new economic policy, which did away with reforms and simply emulated the Soviet example.
I have come to the conclusion that the economic difficulties in the GDR, as in the Soviet Union, were exacerbated by Perestroika, which was not an economic reform program, but stemmed from Gorbachev’s maxim that more democracy equals more socialism. He never really had an economic conception — he tinkered with democratic developments, the role of the Duma, or democracy within the economy, but did not focus much on the economy itself. It centered around what productive capability was needed to achieve certain social outcomes.
My view is that the developments of the 1980s led to an implosion. That is, there was no revolution in the GDR or in any other Eastern European state. We collapsed in on ourselves, as the relationship between the party and the population was no longer stable. The party leadership did not understand that popular mistrust of the party’s leading role was growing because the economy was being led in an increasingly scattered manner. This context, along with the downturn caused by Gorbachev’s Perestroika, was the final step in a collapse that began not in the GDR but in the Soviet Union.
It is seldom disputed that Gorbachev was an economic dilettante, and clearly Perestroika was not a primarily economic reform program. But did the economic tinkering as you describe it — particularly in introducing market-oriented elements in production processes — not cause problems?
I had close relations to the Leningrad area of the Soviet Union, and I would participate in official visits at least once a year. They had a huge shipbuilding industry, tanks, tractors, and so on. From 1985–87, I also supported Gorbachev and the idea that reforms were needed. However, from 1987 I saw very clearly that the supply of goods had worsened, that the city’s infrastructure was being neglected, that there was a sense of dissatisfaction.
As a trained economist, I was able to observe certain things in the economic sphere, but the political angle was something I gathered from the dissatisfaction at domestic developments, which at the time was not discernible from abroad. This experience made me more critical, but in a different way to Honecker who said, “when it is going as well in the USSR with full shelves in the shops and a good life like in the GDR, then we will think about restructuring.” I felt that we had to restructure and reform precisely in order to maintain stability.
How did you and your government perceive the currency union, offered by Helmut Kohl on February 6, 1990, with its one-to-one exchange rate? The vice president of the GDR’s State Bank, Edgar Most, described this in retrospect as “economic suicide,” and it could have been seen in advance that this would cause significant damage to the GDR’s economy and consequently to the general public. Why was it not resisted more sharply?
We hadn’t foreseen a swift currency union. Edgar Most was not involved in negotiations at this point, though he was later involved in the [Christian-Democratic] De Maizière government. His boss Kaminsky was the one leading discussions with his FRG counterpart Pöhl. The pair agreed that a banking union should be part of a Treaty Community and that we should not dismiss the idea of a currency union as part of that, but this was not meant to happen anytime soon.
Pöhl even warned Kohl, but the politicians did not take any notice of the financial and currency experts. On February 10 we were in Bonn for talks and my deputy, Christa Luft, met with Waigel and clarified our position that there must not be a swift currency union. Our view was that we were a transitional government preparing for a transition that should ensure stability. But after the Volkskammer elections on March 18, a phase begins which had nothing to do with transition but exclusively about the takeover of the GDR by the Federal Republic of Germany.
During my tenure there was never a single adviser from the West — no one was sitting in an anteroom waiting to give me counsel, nor did they send us Western technology. But overnight after the election, won by the CDU-led Alliance for Germany, preparations began for this swift takeover. De Maizière has written a book about this period after the election, and in a section titled “The Bomb,” he writes that from the very beginning his government was susceptible to blackmail from the West.
And it was in this context of blackmail that these processes took place, as de Maizière illustrates ably in his book.
The elections were actually supposed to take place in May 1990 — why were they brought forward?
There was an intention to move from a large coalition to a government of national unity. On January 28, I held discussions with all the parties of the Round Table and the five parties who were already part of my government but now act as if the Round Table was some sort of opposition to this government. This was absolutely not the case. If it had been, then as head of government I’d have been paying my own opposition.
The Round Table had professional experts to help them draft laws and a new constitution. They were not all alone — the government supported them and this helped to create trust between us. And so that evening we met with all these representatives in the Governmental Guest House, and there was a certain urgency from the Social Democrats (SPD), who wrongly believed that the sooner the election was held, the sooner and the larger their victory would be. We soon said to them that their calculations were wrong, that they weren’t active enough. Kohl had come to the GDR and promised all sorts, whereas the SPD didn’t know exactly how it planned to redesign German politics or unify the two states.
But on that evening of January 28, Lothar de Maizière and Gregor Gysi, both legal experts, worked out the earliest point at which an election could take place with enough time to pass the necessary legislation. As the government, we then had to arrange everything, right down to organizing the voting booths.
Do you think that the SED-PDS could have gained a better result if the election had indeed taken place in May?
I would not rule it out. However, the PDS would have had to have run a very different campaign to the one they did. In any case, the oppositional citizen’s movement, which got 2 percent only managed to enter parliament because we didn’t have a 5 percent threshold [as in the Federal Republic]. This means that the election legislation was thoroughly democratic, but the vote itself was not at all democratic. There were election offices in West Berlin financed by the CDU and the SPD splashing the cash. If we had campaigned more confidently against this mountain of money and promised there would have been a chance to win a few percents more of the vote. But it wouldn’t have been enough for us to continue governing.
You grew up during fascism, were conscripted into the paramilitary Volkssturm at just seventeen, and spent four years in a Soviet POW camp where you attended an Antifascist Front school. How did these experiences affect your later biography? How do you see the delegitimatization of GDR antifascism since 1990, which appears to only be increasing — indeed, with support from the German state?
Firstly, I was, as was typical for young people during fascism, a sort of Hitler Youth leader in my village, which now belongs to Poland. However, this was not like the stereotypical Nazi organization with the ideology and so on — for us, the war had already arrived in our village by 1940, as it was located between Stettin in the north of modern Poland and a large hydrogenation plant where petroleum was manufactured. My apprenticeship began in 1942 when I was 14. The grown-ups in our village had all been conscripted into the war effort, and so our group was essentially left alone.
Bombs were falling on our village, corpses in the ruins, incendiary bombs. We put out fires in Stettin. I did an apprenticeship for over two years there, and for over six months I was a member of the fire brigade. There was always somehow a connection to the war. It was never the Soviets but the air forces of the Western Allies who came and rained bombs down on us as the young fire brigadiers cleared the dead in our village.
This gave me the feeling that I had already experienced the war before I was conscripted into the Volkssturm. I completed my apprentice exams in December 1944, and from January 1945 I was a member of the Volkssturm, but I never had to experience direct combat. Then I became a prisoner of war in May 1945.
This is a phase of history that is presented very differently in the West and in the East. If you had been in a POW camp in the old FRG, then it was seen as “well, it wasn’t great, but it was alright.” However, if you were in a Soviet POW camp, then everything must have been awful and absolutely nothing can have been okay.
I had a very different experience. I became a POW near Stralsund, and with around a thousand others we marched to Stettin, and there was always someone who had been awarded the Ritterkreuz (Iron Cross) at the front. The Soviets allowed this because they took the view, as I found out later, that if we were following our war heroes they wouldn’t have to watch out as much. This is perhaps more than these soldiers of the Red Army would have liked to tolerate, but it was a sort of honor with which these defeated soldiers could march into captivity.
I was then in Hinterpommern until December 1945, and things began to change. I was seventeen years old, and the corporals wanted to continue ordering the young lads around. I realized that there was no way of winning honor back with the Ritterkreuz bearer and that these others wanted me to continue to be under his spell. Then a Red Army soldier says to me, “you’re a trained metalworker, come and work for us.” So I was faced with this choice between those who didn’t respect me and just wanted to continue ordering me around, and these others who needed me and would give me an extra piece of bread so that I could do my work properly. And that was how I made it through POW captivity.
In February 1946 I was in a camp near Moscow, not far from Borodino where Napoleon lost the famous battle, where the fascists had again brought fierce fighting, and I attended the Central Antifa School. Our teachers came from the Committee for a Free Germany [set up by émigré German communists, who sought to encourage defections from the Wehrmacht and undo the fascist indoctrination among POWs].
The head of this school was a Professor Naumann, a German antifascist émigré who later returned to the GDR to become an economics professor at Humboldt University and a member of the Central Committee. These were the sort of people who introduced us to Marxism. And so by 1949 I was a young educated Marxist-Leninist. I passed the course and then became assistant to a teacher, who had been a staff doctor in the Wehrmacht and defected at the front in Romania.
And so when I came back and worked as a metalworker for nine months, I was known as “the Red” because I was a defender of the Russians and the western Berliners didn’t have any antifascism in the manner in which it is talked about today. It was only after this that the phase began in which the then–minister president of the GDR Grotewohl said, roughly summarized, the German youth had not yet freed itself from fascism and not yet accepted the new future in which they found themselves. This was the directive from Grotewohl, who was more of a social democrat, to communicate antifascism to the youth, and in the early ’50s as a youth functionary I was able to participate in the upsurge in antifascism.
I had experienced the Soviet Union, and on my travels back to Germany I’d seen the devastation the war had left behind. And you have to say that my generation internalized the message, “no more war, no more fascism!” and it wasn’t just a doctrine. However, we must also say that this side of pedagogy was somewhat neglected in the 1980s in the GDR. A visit to Buchenwald was not enough to communicate antifascism to the youth. The passing down between generations and telling of personal stories was not given as much room as perhaps would have been necessary. It led to some people simply repeating things that they had learned but not internalized and incorporated into their conscious behavior.
This is still the problem today. As an ex-member of the Bundestag, I was at an event recently about relations between Russia and the FRG, and I said quite clearly: you are all talking about Gauland’s relativization of the Nazis as merely a bird-shit in a thousand years of German history, but none of you are talking about what President von Weizsäcker said in 1985: “We were freed from the yoke of fascism through the victory over Hitler fascism” [causing a stir in the West-German right by implying that the 1945 defeat was a “liberation”]. Our culture of remembrance excludes some things that we need today. We are giving space to the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) because we are excluding this aspect of history. I’ve recently been discussing a commemoration in May 2020 for the Battle of Berlin. The D-Day landings in Normandy are widely commemorated, but the Battle of Berlin which actually forced the fascists to surrender is not. We shouldn’t omit anything, we shouldn’t disparage D-Day, but nor should we forget Berlin.
Staying with the subject of working through the past of the GDR, how do you see the work of state-funded bodies like the Federal Foundation for the Study of Communist Dictatorship in East Germany or the Stasi Files Authority? Some academics have identified a general anticommunism and a specific campaign against Die Linke within their work. Yet some Die Linke politicians have commented more positively on them, including Thuringia’s Bodo Ramelow. Is it not counterproductive to agree to anticommunist narratives in order to make oneself socially acceptable within the current political climate?
It is a question of conscience. In reality, we live in a democracy where a certain type of bribery is permitted. A member of the Bundestag can receive €10,000 a month in salary, €5,000 for expenses, and €20,000 for staff. When I was a member of the GDR’s Volkskammer I received 500 marks in the early days and 1000 marks later on, and that was it. It’s becoming clear that parties are living off these sums of money. Even the AfD’s existence is enabled by the financial situation, and I am very critical of it.
I see the young people today who are struggling financially, having to take out loans to get by. I still live in a three-room pre-fab flat which I have always paid for myself since GDR times because I’ve always believed that if you make yourself materially dependent then you won’t be able to escape it. That is the aspect of all this which I am quite critical of.
Now to your question about anticommunism, yes that is for me the big issue. It makes me think of Bertolt Brecht’s warning against the return of fascism: “The womb it crawled from is still strong.” When considering this question I also have to say that Thomas Mann’s point of view is quite right: anticommunism is the disaster that creates this suffocating atmosphere which removes people’s ability to reason independently. I’m not disputing crimes during the Stalin era or in the postwar era in the Eastern European states. But whoever is unable to bear the burden of resisting anticommunism is unlikely to be able to do what’s necessary to achieve what they stand for in the here and now.
This is where my distance from the positions of Bodo Ramelow comes from. I can’t criticize many things that he has done as minister president of Thuringia. But I do when he agrees that the GDR is an “unjust state” and even takes up this notion in his budget, funding anything which provides the alleged evidence for this. Yet a few weeks ago he united with the minister president of Mecklenburg, Vorpommern, with both saying the GDR was not an “unjust state.” That is tactics for the election and not a consistent approach to history and to what we stand for. We should, however, show that we are dedicated to the truth and that we are people who are happy to enter into thorough debates and be reductive.
You were spied on by the West German secret police from 1956 until at least 2013 and won the right in court to see some of the files they hold on you. What have you learned from them, and how do you judge the contradictory approach to the GDR’s Ministry for State Security (Stasi) in comparison with those of the Federal Republic of Germany?
When I found out that I had been spied on by the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) since 1956, I wondered to myself what their reasoning was? It can’t have been a coincidence that in 1956 I became a member of the Central Council of the Free German Youth as its first secretary for Greater Berlin, East and West. They were very clearly interested in knowing what sort of youth policies the party was pursuing, what arguments the party was using to gain support in West Berlin, and what role Modrow was playing in all this. The BND were also doubtless interested in my talks with Harry Ristock, the leader of the Jusos and the Falken [SPD youth groups]. This was doubly interesting for the BND. We’re talking about Modrow here but I’d be interested to know what the BND has on Ristock — an erstwhile SPD politician and advisor of Willy Brandt.
As another example, I was amazed to discover that in 1988 Gorbachev and Poland’s Wojciech Jaruzelski discussed me as a potential successor to Honecker. To this day I don’t know if it was someone from Poland or perhaps a KGB agent who reported this. This interrelation between the security agencies is another important point which is largely undiscussed. My problem lies in the fact that there is a tactic of presenting the GDR State Security’s Mischa Wolf as the best spymaster there has ever been. But then who was behind the BND? They have so much which ought to be revealed today, but then this would cause problems because the BND and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution were also active abroad for the FRG.
I pursued [my own case] legally as I wanted an answer to why I was not allowed access to my files and instead merely received summary reports. The intelligence agency decides how to interpret the law and how it may protect its own activities. I was told that if it gave me access to my files, I could work out who the agents and informers in my vicinity were, and they want to prevent this. Secondly, if I could truly study the files, I could work out the methodology of the secret agency, and that is also forbidden. Secret work must remain secret. I get these very narrow reports but no access to the actual wording in the files so that I could work out the processes of how the information was gathered. And so the question remains which you have alluded to. There was an Ostbüro of the SPD, but how did the security agencies use this organization against the GDR? This is again a subject which the [CDU-SPD] grand coalition today would not even consider, if I were to come out with the same old formulas they use about the Stasi.
I recently participated in a discussion titled “The GDR in the Stasi’s Perspective.” We discussed the year 1989, and they claimed that the State Security determined the process of events in October that led to Honecker’s resignation. I said very clearly that none of my speeches were ever discussed with or written by the Stasi, and that is what was implied.
I was never of the opinion that Krenz would take over, and we wouldn’t discuss things critically. We also didn’t topple Honecker as he took this particular candy away from Krenz; he was presented with a text, and he added a single line: “I propose Egon Krenz as successor.” This itself made him into someone who was not being “toppled.” He took this show away from Krenz, and this was a burden which he never got over. He was general secretary for fifty days, and he was perceived as the crown prince prepared for the office and suggested by Honecker himself. There was no debate about it.
The question of Korean national unification has been much discussed again recently. How do you see the situation there and what, if anything, can the Koreans learn from the experience of the Germans?
My first answer is quite simple. Attempts to impart experience from the outside are often counterproductive. I realized this before 1990, for example in debates with the French about Eurocommunism. In the Korean case, this is also linked to the specific ideology which the North Koreans have, Juche, which says that we are self-reliant, we are independent, we are sovereign. All attempts to lecture them are met with resistance. My approach is more to talk about what happened, how I experienced it, what the contradictions were, how I perceive things today, and what out of all of these things I think can be helpful.
At the moment I think it is important to recognize that it was South Korea’s Moon Jae-in with his Berlin declaration that set this whole process in motion. He made clear to the United States that it could not go on just talking to the South — it would have to open up communication with the North. Since then there have been three rounds of talks. That is a result, and it creates a feeling that in spite of everything the Koreans are one people. I visited Seoul recently and sat in front of the television and saw the images of these meetings. There was a difference to the manner in which the images of Honecker visiting his former home in West Germany were portrayed with a negative narrative in the West — saying he was allowed to travel while his people could not. These South Korean images were accompanied by a sense of relief. That’s one side of things.
Another thing is that I have sought to tell the Foreign Office and the state secretary that it is not appropriate for German politicians to try and lecture people over there, that the first thing to be discussed is human rights. The South does not do so because they know it would block further progress. It’s obvious that the subject will be discussed at some point. But if you place the impossible front and center, you destroy what is actually possible.
I had the opportunity to speak to the second man in the [North’s ruling Korean Workers’ Party] last year, Choe Ryong-hae, and he said that without balance things will not work: “We do not want nuclear weapons for war but we have them now and they create balance. They have to take us seriously. Otherwise, a Trump or anyone else from the United States would never have spoken to us.”
This is what I have realized, politics can only be conducted when you have the feeling that there is trust and when you are prepared, based on this trust, to tolerate certain balances. The third thing, which I always mention in relation to the GDR and FRG, is that you need official agreements that prohibit scenarios where a change in government can nullify what was achieved before. Sunshine politics has to be taken along with the rain. If these things are in place, then a process of small steps can occur.
The main problem at the moment is that the vacillating on the part of the Americans has meant that in the meantime a certain silence has emerged which is not good for either country.
As a long-experienced socialist, what is your message for the youth of today?
Free yourselves from the indoctrination presented to you as innate knowledge. My generation lived through war and fascism. Through this experience, we reached the conclusion that there should never be war again. My generation experienced fascism, which at first we accepted. We didn’t know about what was going on in the concentration camps — there were no Jews in my Pomeranian village, and we didn’t know what was happening to Jewish people.
These were all realizations that I had to come to later. It was then that I came to the conclusion that this fascism — which was, of course, also an outgrowth from humanity — had an economic base supporting it. Where did the cannons come from, who built the bombers, who desired this? And who is alive today and profiting from war? Where do new developments come from?
Anyone sitting in their car today with their sat nav should be aware that this is a by-product of the production of weapons for war. So, the only advice I can give is to critically question things. That’s how we can understand the realities of this world and redesign it so that humanity can have a future.