Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.
In the early days of the changes in 1989, a new kind of politics emerged within the opposition movements poised to enter parliaments and governments. Many dissidents had a deep distrust of political parties and of political compromise. After all, under Communism, all the official political parties merely followed the script provided by the ruling elite. And political compromise was nothing less than collaboration with the authorities – providing information to the secret police, for instance, or becoming the worst kind of careerist.
It was this experience of politics that produced its antithesis: anti-politics. In a famous essay on the subject, Hungarian novelist George Konrad favored a healthy skepticism toward power rather than an obsession with seizing power. Vaclav Havel, too, focused more on the morality of everyday gestures – living in truth – rather than engaging in the degraded arena of real, existing politics. Civic movements, not professional politicians, became the vehicle of choice for transforming society.
Reinhard Weisshuhn, a longtime dissident in East Germany, also wanted to see the spirit of civic movements continue in the parliamentary sphere. He’d been part of the opposition group Initiative for Peace and Human Rights (IFM) since its founding in 1985. In the first democratic elections in the GDR in March 1990, he was leery of the sudden rush to create political parties. “Before we had a single party dictatorship,” he told me in 1990. “Now there is a multi-party dictatorship.”
I re-interviewed Weisshuhn in Berlin in February in a parliamentary building on Unter den Linden. “I was one of those in the IFM – and the IFM remained a rather small group in contrast to Neues Forum and so on – who really wanted to be part of politics,” he told me. “Without hesitating we legalized the IFM as a political association. As a result of the Round Table, in which we participated, it was formally possible to do this without becoming a political party. And we participated in this parliamentary process right from the beginning. This is important: at the Round Tables we specifically worked to make it possible for groups like ourselves to legally participate in the political process in the same way as political parties do.”
Alliance 90, which brought together IFM, Neues Forum, and Democratie Jetzt, received 2.9 percent of the vote and 12 seats in parliament after the March 1990 elections. Later, Alliance 90 merged with the Green Party.
But Weisshuhn has avoided becoming a politician. “I am a political consultant,” he told me. “I am not a member of parliament. To be a member of parliament I would have to have a career. But to do this, I would have had to act differently. What I do is attempt to influence political content and aims with the means I have.”
That means working to inject a human rights perspective into current German politics. “In politics, and not only in Germany, there is always the very important issue of stability,” he explained. “Stability is a positive goal and interest for all countries. Usually in established politics in the West stability means what I would call – at least in authoritarian states – graveyard silence. But this is the opposite of stability. It is an illusion of stability. For years I have been trying – nowadays with some success – to transform in people’s minds this wrong definition of stability into a right definition of stability that revolves around peace and human rights. Without human rights, there can be no peace and no stability.”
Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall fell?
I was at the home of a theologian who worked at the department for Church research. He had a visitor – a leading member of the French Communist Party Politburo, a Eurocommunist. I was there together with my friend Gerd Poppe. We did not hear anything at first. Only on the way home — I have lived and am still living only a few meters away from the crossing point at Bornholmer Straße where it started – did I realize that something was going on. So I went there. I was there right from the beginning. Accidentally.
What did you think? What was your reaction?
I have to think about it very carefully because of course I’ve worked over this issue ever since. So the memory is somehow mixed up.
It was totally emotional. I was standing there and people started crossing to the other side. It was open or it was about to be opened. But I couldn’t cross. I kept standing there for some time and then I went home. I didn’t go to the West. I could not do it. I then followed it via TV, but I could not react.
And did you go to West Berlin the next day?
No. One week later.
I’m curious what you did in that one week between the time the Wall fell and the time you went to West Berlin. Were you thinking about the political possibilities at that moment?
Of course. We’d been discussing it. Even before. I and some others realized that this would change the political process in the GDR massively and that in fact it would change it to our disadvantage. We had this polemic phrase at the time: the ruling party would rather hand over the GDR to Helmut Kohl than to us.
You had been involved with the IFM (Initiative for Peace and Human Rights), which had been founded five years before.
At the end of 1985.
Can you tell me a little bit about the formation of IFM and the initial response that you got from the government and the public?
From the public practically none. It was a very tiny group and of course illegal. There was no actual public attention, which means that only people that were already involved in the opposition noticed it.
The government, and the government was only visible in the form of the Stasi, did not react immediately. We did not found the initiative with any fanfare. Actually it was a totally informal meeting. It was not like the formation of an organization in the usual way. The immediate reason was a conflict with the Church about an event planned under the umbrella of the Church. It was a so-called peace workshop that the Church prohibited after the Stasi put pressure on it. We had this conflict with the Church over the way it was handling this. This was the immediate reason. But in the background there was also a latent conflict with the Church and also a developing differentiation within the opposition.
What was this latent conflict with the Church?
The majority of the activists back then were active in Church circles, and they wanted the Church also to represent their interests and their ideas. But the Church only did this to a very limited extent. So, there was a lot of pressure on the Church – by us and, of course, by the state. The Church had to operate between these two pressures. I am talking here about the Protestant Church, which was at least open-minded enough to allow for such conflict. It was not an issue for the Catholic Church, which didn’t do anything like that. In the Protestant Church there were theological problems, such as the doctrine of the two kingdoms and so on. In addition there was a lot of appeasement behavior. And then, of course, there were Stasi spies amongst the theologians as well as among the Church functionaries.
And did you have a relationship, for instance, with the peace group in Pankow?
I knew quite a number of members back then, and I still know some today. The peace group in Pankow still exists, by the way.
Was there a point in your own life, personally, when you felt that you crossed the line in terms of becoming part of the very small opposition in the GDR?
There was such a point. Most of us made some kind of decision from which there was no turning back and that, so to say, damaged our status in the GDR beyond repair. For me, it was the summer of 1976. That’s when I signed an open letter addressed to the daily newspaper Neues Deutschland. It was a comment on the self-immolation of Oskar Brüsewitz. I don’t know if you know the story of Oskar Brüsewitz. He was a pastor in the countryside who immolated himself with a political message about freedom and so on. Neues Deutschland declared that he was crazy. Maybe he was crazy, but this was not the point. Anyway it was an open letter with a list of signatures that was only published in the West. This was the point for me, and it was clear.
Were there immediate consequences for you?
Yes. Arrest, house searching, interrogation, and so on. Some signatories were also convicted, but I wasn’t. Later they were expelled from the country after serving time in prison.
At the time you signed the letter, you were a student?
I was already working here in Berlin as a town planner.
After signing the letter, you were not able to do that work any longer?
I was not dismissed, but these developments continued and then I quit the job myself one or two years later. I had no chance of a career within the state structures anyway. Somehow I managed to muddle through until the mid-1980s when I was then able to work for the Diakonisches Werk, the social service institution of the Protestant Church.
There was a decision to be made by organizations in the GDR in 1989/90 about whether to remain an informal movement or to become a formal political organization. What was your thinking at that time about that choice?
I was one of those in the IFM – and the IFM remained a rather small group in contrast to Neues Forum and so on – who really wanted to be part of politics. Without hesitating we legalized the IFM as a political association. As a result of the Round Table, in which we participated, it was formally possible to do this without becoming a political party. And we participated in this parliamentary process right from the beginning. This is important: at the Round Tables we specifically worked to make it possible for groups like ourselves to legally participate in the political process in the same way as political parties do.
Was there any disagreement about that within the movement?
There was massive disagreement within Neues Forum but not among ourselves in IFM.
At that time what were you thinking was going to happen in East Germany as you were preparing for the March 1990 elections? What did you think would be the future of East Germany?
In the time between November 9 and March 18 it became very clear, very fast that the road led to the dissolution of the GDR and accession to the Federal Republic. There was no other serious and realistic option. The people wanted to be annexed.
So there was no real political alternative to change people’s opinion?
No. On the contrary, the desire to be annexed grew stronger and stronger.
And what did you think the future of your political formation would be in this new Germany?
This also very soon became very clear to us. To survive politically we needed an alliance with the West German Greens until reunification. This is what we did. We negotiated a three-year arrangement. There was no other alternative except political extinction.
You told me 23 years ago that “We’ve gone from a single party dictatorship to a multiparty dictatorship.” Can you describe that?
I have already mentioned it before. We as a political association – not a party – also had to fight against the new parties in the GDR, against those that didn’t accept our participation in the political process. Of course this massively influenced the relationship with the party landscape. They wanted only parties to participate in the political process and not people like us who were not organized as a party.
And then, once you were in parliament, what was your experience like? Let’s talk first of your experience in the GDR’s one and only democratic parliament.
It was very complex. Of course it was a very naive parliament. We were naive too, but not politically. We had already spent more time thinking about parliamentarianism than most of the other representatives, those old representatives from the bloc parties who had been in the old parliament as well as the new representatives who were just then becoming political and who actually were very naïve about their involvement. It was an enormous struggle because the process of reunification was also part of our work and the adoption of West German laws that in theory all should have been reviewed and potentially modified. This was very exhausting. We in the opposition tried to support innovations in this process, but we were not successful.
Do you think that as a party fraction but also as a parliament in general there were significant accomplishments between March and October?
Sure. Apart from the reunification process it was also the time of the establishment of the democratic rule of law. Then, as such a state, the GDR acceded to the Federal Republic. And of course this was a success.
You were part of the group that went from the East German Parliament to the all-German Parliament between October and December. And then have you been in the Bundestag ever since?
No, there were only deputies in that group before December. I started to work there in the staff of the parliamentary group after the first common elections in December 1991.
You have to be the longest serving representative from the original East Germany.
There are still some who are serving. Not in the Green fraction except in the European Parliament, like Werner Schulz. Surely there are still some from the CDU and the SPD, like Wolfgang Thierse. But I think all in all there are only a few.
I talked with Vera Lengsfeld and she said that she didn’t really like moving from the East German Parliament to the Bundestag in general because she felt that it was possible to persuade people politically in the East German Parliament. But in the Bundestag everybody stayed in their party fraction, refusing to consider compromise across fractions. She found that very frustrating. Was that a similar experience for you?
Yes. I think this was not so much due to the difference between the parties in the East and West but more because the party landscape was not yet as established in the East. Especially the SPD but also the CDU tried very much to enforce a coherent party discipline already in the East German Parliament. The SPD was very strong about that.
When you think about your experience now as a politician, would you say that there is anything that marks you as different because of your experience in the GDR?
In a state like Germany, politics differ completely from what we did up to 1989. Already at the end of the GDR, after the elections for the East German parliament, things were different than before. But in the West it was totally different again. They have totally different criteria. It is all about your career as a representative or a politician, about influence, about power, about very superficial things. To us politics was the same as resistance. It was a moral category.
Does that kind of resistance or that kind or moral character continue in any form?
Can you give an example in terms of today’s politics and you relationship to today’s politics?
I don’t have a career. That’s an example.
Can you explain that? Because you have been a politician and you’ve been in the Bundestag now for a long time.
Yes, but I am a political consultant. I am not a member of parliament. To be a member of parliament I would have to have a career. But to do this, I would have had to act differently. What I do is attempt to influence political content and aims with the means I have.
Can you give an example of how the kind of moral politics that was characteristic of the resistance movement in the GDR influences your work as a consultant today?
Because the situation is totally different, the things I do now and how I do them are also totally different. Therefore you can’t really measure it according to the moral criteria of former times. I’ll give you an example of how I view today what I thought back then. I focus here on foreign affairs. In politics, and not only in Germany, there is always the very important issue of stability. Stability is a positive goal and interest for all countries. Usually in established politics in the West stability means what I would call – at least in authoritarian states – graveyard silence. But this is the opposite of stability. It is an illusion of stability. For years I have been trying – nowadays with some success – to transform in people’s minds this wrong definition of stability into a right definition of stability that revolves around peace and human rights. Without human rights, there can be no peace and no stability.
When we talked 23 years ago, you were rather critical of the social market economy because it maintained a rather high level of unemployment. Do you feel the same way about the economy and the level of unemployment?
First, the level of unemployment varies. Back then it was relatively high in the Federal Republic. Due to reunification it declined in general, but it exploded in the East. Nowadays there are a lot of other factors, like globalization for example, on which the unemployment level also depends. It is a complex issue. And realistically it is clear that there is no reasonable alternative to the idea of a social market economy.
You mentioned the unemployment in the East and of course there still is a gap between East and West. Sometimes I think there is, in my discussions with people, a unification fatigue. In other words especially people in the western part of Germany are tired of talking about the unification, tired of talking about what is going on in the east and they just want to pretend that everything is basically equal. Have you encountered this attitude, or are the people in the western part of Germany are still committed to bringing the eastern part up to more or less equality with the rest of the country
It’s not the people in the west that bring up the east. Rather, German domestic politics ought to do it, insofar as politics actually can do this. Of course it has become now relatively equalized mainly because of the massive migration out of the east, which also means a selection, as it did already before 1989. And it means a socio-structural change. This does not simplify matters but rather complicates them. It weakens the east – economically and as a location of investment. Of course you have to add a lot of political mistakes by dilettantes, especially in the east but also in the west. And ignoramuses.
I believe the east will become even weaker. This is a dilemma. The less the east becomes a low-wage country the weaker the east will become economically. Or the other way around: the east could become stronger if it remained a low-wage country, which is not possible, of course. The east Germans want to live like the west Germans, but this is not possible. If they had compared themselves to the Poles they would have had a chance. But they do not compare themselves to the Poles.
I was curious about this issue of consumption. This is a big question in the United States about what level of consumption is sustainable. Of course in the United States we consume a lot. A lot more than Europe does. At the same time we are lecturing people in the developing world not to consume too much or else the world will collapse, even though we haven’t restricted our consumption very much in the United States. The Green Party here in Germany also seems to have a dilemma on the question of consumption. On the one hand you want to bring eastern Germany up to the level of west Germany. On the other hand you are concerned about the consumption pattern as a whole being sustainable. I was wondering how you deal with that dilemma?
Unfortunately this is more a theoretical question and less a practical political question. The Greens themselves have had different phases during this debate on growth. For the last 20 years, it has not been any longer a quantitative debate on limiting growth but more a qualitative debate on the modification of growth. Growth does not mean that instead of 5 apples, I eat 10 oranges, or instead of 100 km I drive 500 km in my car. Now the debate is about growth through modification. The classic example is transforming energy policy, along with traffic and infrastructure. When the infrastructure in the east had to be built up of course we tried to influence this positively. We had no chance. The opposite happened. There was less and less rail traffic and more and more car traffic. Now we come close to the catastrophe of the United States, the catastrophe around the world. It is not just that the people do not want to use the train and want to use the car instead. It is also that state policies force them to use cars, and these state policies are wrong.
I also want to ask you about Ostalgie, the nostalgia for the GDR. Do you think it is a genuine sentiment, or is it simply a kind of commodity?
It is a very normal sentiment that people believe, in general, that everything was better in the old days. Even more so if a whole people – which happens very seldom – has to change totally from one day to another. Actually this is not possible. It is a very traumatic event involving a mass of people. So I find it very normal that such sentiments develop. There is a familiar expression, which some take very seriously and others like myself use ironically: “Not everything was bad back then.” Everybody knows what it means: back then – in the times of the GDR – not everything was bad.
What do you think has survived from that GDR period? There is this sentiment, there are obviously buildings. Also, what are the things that should have survived?
This is a very common question. Normally I would have to give a long lecture about educational structures, childcare, collection of recyclable waste, and so on. It would have to be a longer lecture because it was positive and negative at the same time: education and school and children and employment of women and all these things have to be explained very carefully because those in the West would either think I am a Communist or that I am right wing. Both are wrong. By the way – education or childcare were not really better. Childcare was covering all people, yes, but the quality was bad.
I understand that the current government has revived the older kindergarten policy similar to that of the GDR. Some people have told me that this is evidence that the time has come to reevaluate some of the positive aspects from the past, that the stigma has been removed from the GDR policy. Do you agree with that?
No. Not in that way anyway. Of course, childcare in East Germany was far better than in the West. And of course this is a relic from the GDR. But a removal of the GDR stigma is still not happening. There is no way that this will happen because the West is only thinking about itself. It has its own dynamic. It is exclusively a West German debate. Anyway, there is only a West German debate. Thus this debate about childcare and so on is now developing as an exclusively West German phenomenon according to exclusively West German experiences and prejudices. It has nothing to do with the GDR. The fact that childcare in the East was better is completely ignored in the West for all practical purposes.
I want you to imagine for a moment that you are meeting with a representative from North Korea and from South Korea and that we know that in a week the DMZ will disappear and North Korea and South Korea will come together. What advice do you have for the two Korean representatives, based on your experience?
There is this debate in South Korea. For years they have even invited people from here as consultants. I know about the quantitative and cultural differences between North and South Korea. They are much bigger than they were between Germany East and West.
I would tell a South Korean: Get away as fast as you can and as far as possible from South Korea. There’s no chance. It will be a catastrophe. I cannot even imagine it. They will be overrun by North Koreans who will, of course, be unable to survive in such a society. This can only end in an explosion. I have no advice. I can’t imagine how it could work. So, insofar as I could tell the South Koreans: Do everything to keep the border. At least for 20 more years. North Korea needs a long process of acclimatizing that will last at least for one generation.
Given that that’s your approach to North and South Korea, looking back to the situation here, what kind of period would have been necessary for acclimatization between East and West Germany to make reunification more successful?
I cannot name a number. Now there have been two generations after me, one generation for whose consciousness the GDR does not play a role anymore and another generation for whose consciousness the reunification process also is not important anymore. These are our children. This consciousness or non-consciousness is crucial for the actual reunification. That’s why I talk of generations.
In exchange for reunification and because of the perception of a bigger Germany, Germany was supposed to play a more modest role militarily in the world. That really hasn’t happen. The army has gotten smaller, but Germany’s military role in the world, if anything, has gotten bigger and it has becoming involved in interventions and so on. Also because of the nature of European Union politics, Germany’s economic role in the Union has gotten bigger as well. What is your perspective on this larger role that Germany plays? Do you imagine that Germany will play a more modest role in the future?
This bigger role is a fact, of course. Mainly in economic terms. Militarily I would not even say this. It is bigger than back then yes, but it’s still smaller than others like France and Great Britain. This is right, and I think it will remain so: because the historical experience and especially how it is dealt with, in terms of the military role, is so different in France and Great Britain on the one hand and in Germany on the other hand.
The economic role is a bigger problem. Here, too, the power of facts is hard to deny. In German politics and society both “strengths” are definitely seen as problems, since 1991 already. There has been a debate about it all the time, and there is still a debate even today. This is very good and very important and very mature. A good friend of mine who has been member of the planning staff of the Foreign Office for years has just recently published an article analyzing the current ratio of power within the European Union. Then he goes on to suggest that German politics should have the goal of weakening Germany — on purpose, to keep the balance within the European Union between Germany, France and Great Britain. This would stabilize the European Union and perhaps would even keep the European Union alive.
When you think back to your positions in 1990 when we talked 23 years ago, have you had any major rethinking of positions you held back then? You said for instance that maybe the political movements and parties were a little naive back in 1990. Have you changed any of your major positions since 1990?
Yes, I think so. I was naive too concerning our possibilities back then of political influence in the GDR and concerning the GDR. Very soon this turned out to be wrong. It just happened whether I realized it or not. But this happened a long time ago. Maybe I knew or guessed other things theoretically such as the difficulties and disadvantages of democratic decision-making. Now I experience this daily, which means it is now more vivid, specific, and substantial than I could even imagine back then. This includes the differences in political views and my socialization and daily circumstances. I did not know that those are two different worlds.
Can you give a concrete example of that?
Populism as a natural criterion of decision-making.
So you had no experience in that? And now you’ve encountered it?
The governmental coalition just decided on a policy of providing “money for parents caring for their children themselves.” Everybody knows that it is nonsense, expensive, useless, and leading in the wrong direction. It doesn’t matter – it is popular or it is believed to be popular and therefore it shall be done.
When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed until today – how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most disappointed and 10 being most satisfied?
When you look into the near future, how do you evaluate the prospects for Germany on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being the most pessimistic and 10 being the most optimistic?
I am always a pessimist, so I say 4.
Berlin, February 4, 2013
Interpreter: Sarah Bohm
One of the three groups in Bundnis 90, the Initiative for Peace and Human Rights (IFM) is, according to its press spokesman Reinhard Weisshuhn, the oldest GDR opposition group. It is five years old and has roots in the East German peace movement. It has for this time attempted to unite the issues of peace and human rights: looking at the relationship between social and political rights. Until the fall of 1989, the goal of the organization was to expand political and human rights in the GDR and other EE countries. After the events of the fall, the group has decided to look more carefully at social and economic rights.
The organization has two major lineages: through humanism and through Marxist opposition to Stalinism. Around these two philosophies, an incredible spectrum of opposition grew, from future Pinks to future SPD. I asked why a more united left couldn’t get together for the elections and instead grouped itself into various factions: Bundnis 90, Greens/Women, United Left, PDS, SPD and so on. It seemed as though ideological differences were too great, with the United Left on the one hand still using the term socialism and Democracy Now on the other, equating socialism with the experience of Stalinism. As for IFM and other groups in Bundnis 90, they were trying to get away from theory and deal with empirical facts. “Naturally, we recognize ourselves as leftists but we don’t label ourselves as so.”
He was quite disturbed with the trend toward parliamentarianism. “Before we had a single party dictatorship. Now there is a multi-party dictatorship.” He was a little frustrated with the way the steam had been taken out of the citizens’ movements. “The program that the PDS was struggling to come up with was taken mostly from the citizen’s movements and initiatives. But because they were a party–even though associated with the SED–it was accepted!”
Since he mentioned that the Initiative would concentrate on social and economic rights, I asked him about the problem of unemployment. Initially, he said, they thought that retraining provided by government and business would take care of the problem. Now they realize that unemployment benefits will have to be provided. Personally, however, he is not satisfied with the Initiative’s program: “it is like what they have now in the FRG and they still have 2 million unemployed. We have to go further.” I asked him what that meant. The next step, he answered, would have to be a restructuring of the economy such that unemployment would be impossible. Would that be a social market economy? “Of course not,” he said. The very term social market economy was a misnomer: with mass unemployment, how could such an economy be considered social?
Again, I repeated the much-asked question: how can one preserve the citizens’ movement in the face of unification and D-mark fever. And again, I received the response: mature citizens had to be created. He also mentioned the Helsinki Citizens Assembly that will take place in October in Prague. Representatives from the Initiative and Democracy Now attended the planning meeting in Budapest.
I asked about the Third World and whether the Initiative would do any work in this area. “We have always been theoretically opposed to the export of Stalinism and Stalinism has had a much worse effect in the Third World than in Eastern Europe.” They are also opposed to neo-colonialism, World Bank manipulation and the debt crisis. But there is ambivalence on the latter two concerns because of the recognition that the GDR needs debt as well. He stressed the need for conditions on aid.