Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.
When the Berlin Wall fell, a tremendous number of people headed for the West, permanently. Between 1989 and 1990, nearly 4 percent of the population of East Germany moved to West Germany. The outmigration rate dropped considerably once the new common German currency was introduced and reunification became an irrevocable fact. But it rose again between 1995 and 2002 when the unemployment rate in the east spiked from nearly 15 percent to 18 percent (twice that of the west). Overall, between 1989 and 2010, over four million people from the east moved to the west.
But not everyone moved from east to west. In fact, over the same period from 1989 to 2010, more than two million people from the west moved to the east. For a brief period, Johannes M. Becker was one of those people. A political scientist, he taught for two years at Humboldt University in East Berlin beginning in 1990. He wrote a book about his time in the east and continues to give public presentations about the experience.
In the 1980s, in addition to his work in academia, Becker was advising a member of the German parliament, Karsten Voigt. It was Voigt who encouraged him in the first place to go east, even before the Berlin Wall fell. In 1988, he told Becker: “We have 570 members of parliament with 2,000 scientific workers in the Bundestag, and there is no scientific knowledge about the GDR and the future of our two countries.”
Becker’s first approach to Humboldt University was rejected. But after the Wall fell, the West German government set up a program to send professors from the west to the east. Becker signed up. He arrived just as East Germany was about to disappear from the map and watched the impact of reunification on the former country.
“I wrote a small study for Karsten Voigt,” he told me in an interview in January in Bonn. “My advice for him and the SPD was: no unification in 1989 or 1990. Instead, there should be a moratorium to give the GDR five more years as a capitalist country. After the spring elections of 1990, it was clear that a big majority of the East German population refused socialism. They wanted to have capitalist structures, and that’s what the political class had to accept. We should have given the GDR five years of existence and after those five years to let them decide, and to let us in the West decide also, what should happen between East and West Germany.”
That, of course, didn’t happen. Johannes Becker continues to focus, in his presentations, on the persistent disparities between east and west – in terms of wages, leadership positions, percentage of soldiers in the army. “I am astonished about the quantity and the quality of the mistakes that have been made by the government of the GDR before 1989,” he concluded, “and by the government of the FRG after 1989.”
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Yes, I was in Leipzig. I was the chairman of a group of young scientists in the World Federation of Scientific Workers. I was the head of this organization of 200,000 young scientists. We occasionally had meetings, and we had this conference in Leipzig.
And what was your feeling when you heard about the fall of the Wall?
We expected it. I was not surprised because I had lived in Germany. That October I spent one week with the leading group of the World Federation of Scientific Workers in Athens, Greece, and there we discussed a lot with East Germans, with Poles, with people from the Soviet Union, with people from the whole earth. Each and every evening we watched television and, though our East German colleagues refused to accept what they saw, we as foreigners had another perspective. For me, it was absolutely clear that within some days or weeks the government would fall and the structures would break down.
Prior to the fall of the Wall, how often had you visited East Germany?
I worked as a young scientist at the University of Marburg, and there I had a professor who invited me to go about 10 times to Jena in Thuringia, where I participated in conferences. I was also in East Berlin a couple times to participate in scientific conferences. I do political science and peace and conflict studies, but in the 1980s I was political scientist. The GDR didn’t have a department of political science. I was a researcher about France. My dissertation and my habilitation were about France and the French-German relationship, and that was of interest to the GDR.
And what was your impression of East Germany? Many people from the outside thought that East Germany was the leading economic performer in the Eastern Bloc.
It was, in the Eastern bloc. But compared to our richness in the West, seen with the perspective of a consumer, it was a poor country. But my perspective was a little bit different. I consume too, but I have other perspectives and ideas. I read more and more about the history of the GDR. I discussed a lot with my colleagues. In Jena, on my third or fourth visit I saw two different kinds of colleagues. Those who invited me — the heads of the department in charge of the conference — led the discussion. Then, after 10 o’clock at night I sat together with the rest of the staff, the young doctors and the young professors, those who waited for years and years and didn’t become professors because, for example, their daughters had participated in the peace movement in the GDR. That gave me the idea that some things didn’t work well in the GDR.
Compared with other countries in the region, the GDR was a relatively rich country. The universities worked well, as far as I could judge it. The scientific workers have been productive. The historians I was in contact with worked on fascism. They worked on the European relationship. I even knew one — Jochen Dankert, a professor at the Diplomatic University in Babelsberg — who was well informed and worked on France, which was my main topic in the 1980s: France and French politics.
But there were two different worlds: the official world, which presented the GDR as a country where everything was more or less working well, and then the unofficial world when, after 10 o’clock at night, you talked about, for example, the lack of opportunity to read West German newspapers. Why the hell did they need permission to read the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), which I read each and every day? Even though I am left wing, I need the FAZ every morning. I have to know what the leading class is reflecting on our lives and politics. Why did they have to ask for permission? Second, why couldn’t they go to West Germany to have a look at how we have been living? We have a growing unemployment problem in West Germany. We have problems with neo-fascism.
Did you have any family over on the other side?
No, absolutely not. My mother was born in Düsseldorf. My father was born in the Sauerland, which is between Marburg and Cologne.
So you found yourself in Leipzig at a very important time? Were you able to participate in any of the big demonstrations?
No, the demonstrations at that time were in Berlin. On November 9, in Leipzig it was absolutely quiet. I think all the people went to Berlin. The problem for me, as the person responsible for a conference with participants from 35 countries from around the world, was that no one from the whole Leipzig University was interested in our conference.
Were the people participating in the conference interested?
Yes, they stayed. We were sitting in front of the television, yes, and we saw what was happening in Berlin. But the people coming from Togo, for example, they had other problems. The conference continued for two more days with us, 35-50 people, with a few East German colleagues, but no representation from Leipzig University.
The topic was…?
I am just reflecting upon it. I think we were addressing the development of scientific politics on the different continents of the earth. I am not absolutely sure.
So, you didn’t actually go to Humboldt until the following September?
I went back the Marburg, where my wife was staying. I was just finishing my habilitation work. In the 1980s, I worked for a German Social Democrat member of parliament: Karsten Voigt. I still think he was the most intelligent member of German parliament. I wrote for him studies about French politics, about German-French relations, about the relationship even between the Soviet Union and France. I was a specialist in French military politics. In my first life, I was a major in the German Bundeswehr, and I wrote my dissertation about the remilitarization process in Germany as well as Franco-German relations within the German and French general staff and army. In my habilitation, I wrote about the security and military politics of Mitterrand within his socialist-communist coalition.
In 1988, Karsten Voigt told me, “Dr. Becker, no doubt we have a problem with the relationship between East and West Germany. We have 570 members of parliament with 2,000 scientific workers in the Bundestag, and there is no scientific knowledge about the GDR and the future of our two countries.” He asked me to go to East Germany to write for him some studies about what was happening there. So, at the end of 1988, I decided to ask for a guest professorship at Humboldt University. I was nearly ready with my habilitation work, and I didn’t want to work for the Social Democratic Party. I preferred to teach at Humboldt University and write some essays for Karsten Voigt, or whomever, for pay.
I wrote a letter to the department of history at Humboldt, because in the GDR they didn’t have a department of political science. The dean of the department of history refused me. At the beginning of 1989 he wasn’t interested in a Marxist coming from the University of Marburg – even though my department in Marburg was not hostile to the GDR. We were in a position of critical solidarity. We believed that the beginning of the GDR in the 1940s and 1950s was a necessary step for German politics because they broke with fascism. We in the West didn’t do that. What happened after that, in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s: that was the critical part, and that’s why I like to call it critical solidarity. In any case, he was not interested in my coming as a guest professor.
Then the Wall fell. In the government in Bonn, a few hundred meters from where we are here, was the ministry of Jürgen Mölleman, the minister of science and technology. He made a big announcement in the newspapers. We will send several dozen professors from West Germany to East Germany. The government will pay travel costs, for books, for all that. Whoever is willing is open to go to East Germany as a guest professor. I wrote to Bonn that I am ready to go. So, I was invited, and then I taught for two years at Humboldt University.
Were there a lot of people interested in going to East Germany?
In the first stage there wasn’t so much interest. But according to the conditions under which we worked, I really got a lot of money. I earned 10,000 D-Marks a month, which for me was a lot of money! For income, I got 6,000. And then each month I had 4,000 Marks to pay for books, for collaborators, for travel, and so on. And that was paradise for me. In the first stage, Mölleman sent 45 professors, including young people and even people who had already retired. In the second and third stages, there was more interest when it became clear what happened with the GDR.
And the purpose of the program was what?
It was to build up structures at the university from the west German perspective. For me it was absolutely clear: I had to build up the political sciences, because they didn’t have this discipline. They had historians. And political science was taught at the Party school of the SED, but it was ideology packed in history and science. They weren’t stupid, but they had to teach Marxism. I am a Marxist — I am sorry, but I still am. But my perspective on science is that I don’t teach Marxist science, I teach political science. If my students accept my personal point of view – all the better. So, I tried to build up political science at Humboldt University for four semesters. I taught about France, because that was my working field. In my first seminar I had four students, and in my second I had 10. Then when I announced an excursion to Paris, I had 50 students! And we went to Paris. I got money from the German-French Youth Organization, so that I could pay 100% for the German students. I even took with me students from Frankfurt/Main, where I also had a seminar.
I wrote a book, Ein Land geht in den Westen. I built up thousands of contacts. I even did interviews with 30 East German soldiers from the lowest soldier to the highest admiral. The interviews concerned their lives during those years, 1989-1991. I still have the manuscripts.
When you went over there to teach, was this book always in your mind?
No, it wasn’t. I’d already written a book for the same publisher in Bonn in 1985 about the Mitterrand government. There I had an editor, a very inspiring and intelligent man, and I stayed in good contact with him. On one occasion, I told him that I was now a guest professor in East Berlin, and I told him what I saw and what I lived with. And he gave me the idea to write a diary. It wouldn’t be a scientific work, because I wasn’t a specialist on the GDR (and I’m still not a specialist on the GDR). But I lived for two years in that country. I would stay one week in East Berlin and one week in Marburg, because we just had our baby, who is now 22 years old.
So you went back and forth?
Yes, I taught for fortnight sessions. I taught four hours — normal seminars in Germany last for two hours — and I gave them another week for preparations and reading time. And they read.
And how were you received as someone coming from Western Germany, as a professor who was well paid? Were there different kinds of reactions?
Absolutely. When I arrived, I will never forget that it was at noon and I went to the assistant of the head of the department to introduce myself. She refused to talk with me because it was her siesta. If a guest from East Germany or from the United States had come to my assistant in Marburg to introduce himself, no one in Marburg would have told him to come back in an hour. So that was my first contact.
But then the whole staff accepted me with an open heart. One of the best and most intelligent was Prof. Dr. Kurt Paetzold. He not only accepted me, but he brought me, as an example, to a big conference with the whole staff. There were 100 people there. He told them, “This is Johannes Becker coming from the West. He is a Marxist, but he knows the system in which we have to live in the next years. He might be able to help you to get a new job. There are opportunities, there is a secondary labor market” And so on. We still had in Germany some opportunities to help people who were in a situation of reorientation, perhaps beginning to get back to paid work and normal jobs. I knew the system very well because I was working in a scientific organization in Marburg called the Bund Demokratischer Wissenschaftler. We worked a lot with those subsidies coming from the state. And Kurt Paetzold not only presented me as someone who knows the capitalist system but made me his friend, and we still are friends.
So you had an initial experience of resistance from the secretary, but then a very open welcome. Did you encounter any other examples of resistance when you were there?
No, I didn’t. But you can see that I love to communicate. I went to East Berlin to get to know East Berlin and to get to know the GDR, even in its process of dying. But that is perhaps why I had good luck. Even when I tried to get into contact with the soldiers from the lowest one to the highest admiral it was like a snowball. I had a lieutenant in one of my seminars who made the first contact with another lieutenant, then that lieutenant knew someone else. One of my students was the daughter of the last ambassador of Albania, and he knew the head of the general staff school in Dresden and so on. It was really two years of extraordinary luck.
Did any of the other professors from West Germany encounter any problems?
Yes, there were some refusals. But I think that depended on their personality. If you came from the Federal Republic of Germany to the ex-GDR with an attitude to tell them what is science, whether it was political science or physics or whatever, your chances were reduced. But those who went there with my idea to learn from their experiences — because they had different experiences during those 40 years when our countries were divided –had a good chance.
So you arrived when the GDR was only going to exist for another…
Four weeks. I arrived on the first or second September 1990.
When the GDR disappeared, how did you feel and how did your students fell about that?
I knew what would happen just after the elections of spring 1990. But my students felt lost. Most of them didn’t go to West Berlin for months and years. They refused to go to the West, even though their most beloved professor came from West Berlin. They told me in interviews I did with them and they told their French colleagues when we went to Paris and Nantes a year later that they felt lost. They talked about their parents and the situation of their grandparents. The French, for example, just didn’t understand. They couldn’t understand how France could disappear as a state. Perhaps people living in Strasbourg could have some sense of it since Strasbourg is on the border between Germany and France. But the people in Nantes, which is near the Atlantic coast, they didn’t have deeper interest. It has been a very, very deep black space for my east German students.
How did you feel about the disappearance? You said you anticipated what would happen…
Yes, I did. And I even had an idea of an alternative way. I wrote a small study for Karsten Voigt. My advice for him and the SPD was: no unification in 1989 or 1990. Instead, there should be a moratorium to give the GDR five more years as a capitalist country. After the spring elections of 1990, it was clear that a big majority of the East German population refused socialism. They wanted to have capitalist structures, and that’s what the political class had to accept. We should have given the GDR five years of existence and after those five years to let them decide, and to let us in the West decide also, what should happen between East and West Germany. Already at the beginning of 1990, or perhaps in the middle of that year, there was a study by a group of economists from the University of Bremen evaluating the GDR economy. The result was not that bad: 20% of the East German economy could survive under capitalism; another 50% would need investments coming from West Germany, from Japan, from the United States, from Japan, from UK; and only 30% wouldn’t survive under capitalist structures. That is why I tried to advise Karsten Voigt and the SPD not to reunify the GDR and FRG. But you know the history. They refused my advice.
Did that proposal have support elsewhere?
No. Some years later I asked Karsten Voigt. “I wrote some studies for you and you paid me not that bad,” I said. “Why did you never do what I advised you to do?”
“Yes, you are right,” he said. “We never did that. But we discussed it. And it was necessary for us in Bonn to hear what left-wing scientific workers thought about that issue. But you are right. I never decided.”
I want to make a slight detour. I am so curious about what has happened here in Bonn after the movement of the capital, because I remember the discussions about what Bonn could be.
After the move of the majority of the ministries, Bonn attracted lots of international institutions. It even won some buildings for the university. So, no, there has been no structural problem for Bonn. We are lucky with the new situation. There are still some ministries that have one leg in Bonn, for example the Ministry of Defense. But Bonn has also gained some international institutions, the United Nations, the OECD.
Okay, back to East Germany. So that was your proposal: a five-year moratorium and after that a vote, east and west.
I was never asked if I wanted reunification, if I wanted the Euro, and so on. And I don’t know if one had asked the West German population in 1990 or 1991, what they would have said. We had been the richest country in the European Union. Yes, we had some problems, such as unemployment. But we were the most productive country, and we had a growing national product, the highest one outside of Luxembourg. And now we are in the 6th or 7th position, with structural problems arising from the reunification process.
Once the path was taken without the vote of the people, do you think that reunification could have been done better after October 3?
Yes, I think so. The creation of the common currency on July 1, 1990 was a big, big mistake, and the terms of trade was a big mistake. The terms of trade of two East German Marks for one West German Mark had nothing to do with the real economic relationship. It should have been four to one or even five to one or six to one. There was suddenly immense purchase power. And one of the consequences was that, first, the East German population no longer consumed any East German products. I will never forget when I went in October 1990 to Mecklenburg Vorpommern, with a car that I rented. Mecklenburg Vorpommern is a rural land near the Baltic Sea. I drove over there to see what was happening. I saw a farmer with his tractor on a big, big field, which they had in the east. He was plowing under a field of cauliflowers.
I asked him to stop his tractor. “What are you doing there, farmer?” I asked. “You are destroying those cauliflowers!” You know I originally come from a small village in Germany where my father worked in industry. But when he came back from this industrial enterprise, he went directly to the garden to work with his hands in the soil. So, I asked this farmer what he was doing.
“They don’t want buy any products coming from our country any more,” he told me. “They prefer cauliflower coming from the greenhouses of Netherlands or the UK because they are absolutely white and they don’t have any blemishes. So, I can’t sell them!”
In February or March, I went with guests from Paris to a famous café on Unter den Linden, and I asked for Rotkäppchen Sekt. Rotkäppchen Sekt is a champagne coming from the East, from Saale-Unstrut, where they produced a very drinkable sparkling wine. And the waiter told me, “We don’t have any East German products any more.
“You don’t sell Rotkäppchen Sekt anymore?!” I said. “I would like to speak with the chief of the café.”
The chief came and told me, “No one except you has asked for any East German products since November 9.”
Okay, the situation changed after some months and years. Today you will find in East Germany and East Berlin some special stores where they sell GDR products. But only a few of the original GDR products survived the first 10 years after 1989.
But to come back to your question, the currency union destroyed the whole system. The East German industry didn’t have any time to prepare for capitalism. During the Socialist period, the GDR population didn’t look to Poland, didn’t look to the Soviet Union to compare their living standard. They looked to West Germany. They could watch West German television. And then the border was no more. And they even had a lot of money. So, they refused the products of East Germany. It was the kind of collapse that has never happened in the whole existence of humanity, except during times of war.
You were also there during the period of the sale of the East German companies.
The Treuhandgesellschaft was a catastrophe. They sold out all the riches of the GDR, even the 20% that I talked about earlier, which could have survived. I think only one or two big enterprises survived. Rotkäppchen is in Freyburg, and Rotkäppchen bought a West German Champagne enterprise “Mumm.” I think this is the only example of an East German enterprise buying a West German one.
I received money from the government to pay for a scientific assistant for one year. He worked on the Treuhandgesellschaft — the agency that privatized the East German enterprises. He was able to speak French, and he worked on the role of France and the Treuhandgesellschaft. He went to Paris and interviewed several people. He even talked with the heads of Treuhandgesellschaft in Berlin and later wrote a study about it. The French economists dreamed about a special role for France in the reunification process. But they only got 10% of 10% of the enterprises sold to foreign countries. That means they only had the opportunity to buy 1% of the East German economy.
When you arrived in East Germany, did you come with any preconceptions about East German life that were completely overturned when you talked to people?
Some experiences astonished me. One person I already knew from my visits in Berlin worked at the Brecht Bookstore. She invited me to have a room in her apartment. She told me about the discussions within the Brecht Bookstore and the organizations close to the Brecht Bookstore. She said that people not only felt fear about what happened, but they even began to lose trust in their colleagues. I was astonished. These were Socialist colleagues. The Brecht Bookstore, the Brecht Ensemble, the Brecht Theatre were all of highest interest in East German culture. They were until 1989 well financed. They really made good theatre, which was accepted throughout the whole world. And the Brecht Bookstore was perhaps the best in the whole GDR. And yet, within the staff, very quickly there grew a lack of confidence.
The second experience came that after some months. I was on my bicycle. I love to go by bike, because on my bike I see what is happening. My bicycle was destroyed in the basement of the house where I lived. The bicycle wasn’t taken. It was destroyed. In the elevator I was telling some elderly people who lived in the same building about the bad condition of my bicycle. And their reaction was fear. They didn’t want to talk with me. They didn’t say, “Oh, I’m sorry, what a pity, what will you do now with your West German bike?” No, they felt fear because they weren’t used to people breaking through doors and destroying a bicycle. For me that was very sad.
What changed dramatically between the time that you arrived and the time that you left? Obviously the country disappeared and the economy collapsed. But I’m interested in your own personal relationships with your students and your colleagues.
Within the population the answer is very clear: the solidarity was lost. And part of the reason was the release of the Stasi files. People no longer had confidence in each other. For my students, half of them have been lucky. I interviewed them for my book. They could get stipends, go to Paris, London, Frankfurt, Venice, Rome, Vienna. They could choose the professors they wanted. They experienced liberty.
The other half felt, as I told you, that they had lost their home, their country. They recognized very quickly what happened with their parents. For example, the daughter of the ambassador to Albania: her father lost his job on October 2, 1990. He was able to speak eight languages. He got a job as a translator and was paid 30 or 40 Marks an hour. He died in 1995 at the age of 55 from cancer of the stomach.
Do you think that the files of the Stasi should not have been published?
They should have been published in the first years, yes. But why not the files of the West German security services too? If I were be allowed to ask the BND about what they know about me or the MAD about me as a soldier, I would have accepted the whole process. I accept that security services work on foreign policy, on foreign politics. But I reject their working within a country. So in the first years and in the both parts of our country, yes with out a doubt.
But one should have said that after 10 years, or perhaps after 20 years, they should have been allowed to survive quietly. Today, I see the opposite. Every week, there is a new Stasi story. With Gregor Gysi, for example, or any other people involved in that reunification process on the Left side of politics, our media and our system have tried to destroy him. The Stasi is the serpent that is still there.
It’s as if we’re saying that for 40 years, the East Germans didn’t produce anything of value, that they did next to nothing. In the 1990s what survived from the GDR in the new “Grossdeutschland,” as the big newspapers titled it in Paris and London? The green light at crosswalks — you know, the little green man — this is only thing that survived, and Rotkäppchen Sekt.
As you said, there was not a lot of respect for what the GDR represented. So I am curious, was there much interest in your book or what you had to say when you came back from the GDR?
Each and every time I participated in conferences, I sold the book. At the first event I did in East Berlin, 100 people were sitting there, and I sold 90 books. Even my colleagues and the parents of my students were interested in the perspective of a non-imperialist West German.
Even in the west, people were interested. I gave seminars in Marburg when I returned, and one of my topics was the experience of the unification of two armies. I was an officer of the Bundeswehr; I had those 30 interviews with the East German soldiers. I taught a course on this subject and had 20 students, which is a lot for a subject like that.
Concerning the interviews, my first interest was to determine their understanding of peace and conflict. When I was in the Bundeswehr, I was a young lieutenant in the period of Willy Brandt, when Brandt with Egon Bahr began the new Ostpolitik with the new politics of the Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union. After I interviewed those 30 soldiers, I was convinced that it was really an army built for peace and not for war. The Bundeswehr has been reconstructed after 1966/1969 from an anti-Communist army to an army of defending our country. In our constitution there is written “the federal republic builds up an army for the defense of our country.” No Hindu Kush, no Afghanistan, no Libya or whatever. That understanding of politics was already present before the end of the 1960s in the GDR army. Maybe I am wrong, I am not a psychologist, but I talked about this question with my psychologist colleagues in Marburg and I gave some 100 pages to my best friend to read, and he agreed with me: that the GDR army had not been built up for preparing for war but for preparing for peace. I know that this is a big statement, but that was my impression as an ex-major of the Bundeswehr and as a scientific worker in political science.
You mentioned that there are only two things that are left from East Germany, the little green man and the sparkling wine. There is one other thing, the Left party. You mentioned its leader Gregor Gysi. What do you think about its role in German politics?
Yes, that is of major importance. If you would ask me in 2000 or in 2013 about the results of the reunification process, I would as a left-wing politician and scientific worker point to the legal existence of a left-wing party that is not 0.2 or 0.3%, like the Communist party in western Germany, but a party that is widely accepted in the political sphere. Some days ago, when we had a festival for 50th anniversary of the German-French friendship treaty, Gregor Gysi gave a speech for five minutes in the Bundestag that was the most intelligent and most sympathetic speech that even the CDU politicians applauded him. That means for me that they have arrived now.
This new party Die Linke, which combines left-wing Social Democrats and the PDS of Gysi and others, attracts 7-10% of the vote. It also has a scientific foundation, the Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation, where we have the opportunity to ask for grants for our students. The Rosa-Luxemburg foundation finances between 900-1000 students, doctorate candidates, and normal students, and this a growing brain trust for the Left. Before the 1990s, a Marxist student would have had big problems getting any subsidies for a doctorate.
What about the civil movements from the former East? They exist on paper. Bundnis 90 still exists after they merged with the Greens. Do you think they will have an important impact?
Not anymore. No, that is finished. I am not a specialist on GDR politics, but most of those grassroots Bürgerbewegungen have been eaten by the political parties. Some still exist. Some have been built up in the Protestant churches. But most of them have been kept by the political parties. Our West German parties just came November 10, 1989 with cars, with placards, with copy machines, with information printed in colors to prepare for the elections and fight for hearts and minds.
It’s been 20 years since your time at the Humboldt University. How does that experience shape your life today?
It shaped my life, no doubt about it. Every year on October 3, I do an event where I read some chapters of my book in Marburg. It’s not only in Marburg. I was invited in Vienna, I was invited to the Ruhr area, I was invited to France. I even sing East German songs because I am a singer and songwriter.
Do you sing your own songs or those of Wolf Biermann or…?
Yes, I sing Wolf Biermann’s “Ermutigung.” I sing Berthold Brecht’s “Kinderhymne,” and I do it at least once a year. I present my book, I present my articles about the real situation between East and West, and I discuss with my guests about the problems we still have. The theme of my event is: 23 years of the German Reunification Process and we have not yet achieved unification. I have lots of information from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to the junge Welt, a very left-wing newspaper in Berlin.
East Germans still earn 20-25% less than we do, the West grows quicker than the East, and 80% of the soldiers of the Bundeswehr who are in Afghanistan come from the five new Bundesländer, even though the population only makes up 22% of the whole of Germany. In the big enterprises, in the important institutions, you rarely find East German people in leading positions. It might be slowly changing, but to have an East German chancellor does not say anything about the composition of the important administration bodies. They still appoint specialists from west Germany, who still administer in a west German way. I could give you 10 or 20 more points.
What is astonishing to me, for example, is the tendency of fast-growing neo-fascism in the five new Bundesländer. Where does this come from? Does it have roots in those 40 years of existence of the GDR, or does it have stronger roots in the social economic situation after 1990? This is still a topic of discussion and disagreement between political sciences and psychologists. We have the first psychological studies with thousands of people who have been interviewed, but it depends on the way you put questions to the people. But it’s really hard for me to accept and understand that there are some places in the five new Bundesländer (national befreite Zonen) where a Black person has to feel fear — this in the middle of Germany, the land of Beethoven, Brecht, Bach, Schiller and Goethe.
Do you think the government should ban the National Democratic Party?
Yes. And it should persecute more precisely all the neo-fascist tendencies and not turn a blind eye to what has happened over the last 20 years. That is why we have a growing hostility against minorities, against colored people, against Jewish people, even against Marxists.
We have an expression in English: donor fatigue. It means that people are tired of giving money to a specific cause because they are tired of continually giving money to solve a problem that persists. Is there reunification fatigue? Especially here in the West, do you encounter people who say, “Look, I am just tired of hearing about all these differences between east and west. Aren’t we one Germany?”
Yes, no doubt about it. Those 20-30 people that come to my events are a special kind of people who are at the same time interested in the war in Afghanistan or the situation of aborigines in Australia or whatever. If you speak or discuss with people in Bonn or in Marburg about German reunification process, you would just get those answers. People haven’t forgotten what Chancellor Kohl told them in the campaign of 1990: Germany will be a land of blooming regions. He told us that no German will live any worse in the future. And he told us that the reunification process would cost us near to nothing. Perhaps you remember the elections of 1990 when the candidate of the SPD was a certain Oscar Lafontaine, who told the Germans that the reunification process would not be free and that it would cost us at least 100 billion D-Mark. Indeed, it cost us 80 billion Euro every year in 1991, in 1992, in 2012 and in 2013. That is the transfer sum. True, 30% of that sum comes back through taxes or whatever, but it was that expensive for the people.
That is one argument. The other is that Germans are tired. They have other problems now: unemployment, insecurity, the future of their children, who will pay for their retirement. We have ecological questions in Germany, and the whole field of reunification process is boring. I’m not talking about me, but you are asking me about the general population.
Have you had any second thoughts since you went to Humboldt in 1990 in terms of your beliefs or your principles…?
I am astonished about the quantity and the quality of the mistakes that have been made by the government of the GDR before 1989 and by the government of the FRG after 1989. How can it be that Karsten Voigt told me in 1988 that we had no one in Bundestag from the scientific collaborators who could give advice to the government? Even if he was not 100% right, what was the relationship between East and West before the fall of the Wall?
So, I think Germany has lost lots of chances. Now we have new chances. But the way is still a long and complicated one.
Bonn, January 26, 2013