Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.
It was one thing to establish an independent peace group in Poland or Hungary during the last decade of the Communist era. Freedom and Peacechallenged military service in Poland, where there was a long tradition of independent organizing. In Hungary, perhaps the most liberal country in the region outside of Yugoslavia, Dialogus opposed nuclear weapons on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Both groups experienced their share of surveillance and harassment.
But organizing in East Germany was something else. Dissidents were put on trial, thrown in jail, and often kicked out of the country against their will. The Stasi kept a tight watch on everything.
That’s why the story of the Pankow Peace Group is so remarkable. Organized in the Pankow neighborhood of East Berlin in 1981, the group not only took bold positions on nuclear issues but interpreted peace more broadly to include pedagogy, economic development, and environmentalism.
Ruth Misselwitz had just begun to work as a pastor at a church in Pankow in 1981. She, her family, and her friends were very concerned at that time about the growing risk of war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
“Friends of ours wanted to start to do some work here in this church together with others worried about war,” she told me in an interview at her home in May 2013. “We wanted this work to be public and open. We did not want to continue to meet at home and discuss these things. We wanted to go public, and in the GDR it was only possible to go public within the churches. I started to work on September 1. Then on October 24, 1981 we held the first big event called: ‘In favor of peace, against a deadly security.’ We were against those security strategies in which people always wanted to convince us that we will be more secure. We critically questioned those strategies.”
The Pankow Peace Group emerged from this meeting. “We circulated a list for people to sign up who had an interest in working in a peace group,” Misselwitz continued. “There were hundreds of people in the church. The event was the whole day: we started in the afternoon and it went on until late at night. Many people signed up on the list and included their names and addresses. It was very courageous for so many people to state openly that they were interested in such kind of work. In December we invited all those who registered on this list to meet for the first time in December 1981. Approximately 30 people came to the first meeting. That’s how the work of the Peace Group started.”
They knew they were under surveillance. “We would have conversations on the street when we didn’t want the Stasi to hear — not in the flat and of course not on the phone,” she remembered. “We had this conviction not to work in the underground. We would work publicly, and we would tell this to every Stasi officer. That was the strategy to fight the fear of thinking all the time of who was the informer. This mistrust was so terrible that it destroyed some groups — because the mistrust was so strong that nobody trusted anyone anymore. This was also a strategy of the state security to sow mistrust to destroy the groups.”
When the changes came in 1989, most independent peace groups disbanded. But not the Pankow Peace Group. “In the beginning there was of course the consideration: Do we continue working together or is it now superfluous? Have we reached the goals we were following?” Misselwitz related. “Many members went into politics. Many groups who had needed the roof of the church did not need that roof anymore. They were able to work somewhere else. But we stayed together. And for me it was clear that I should not be active in a political party. I had to have a neutral attitude. Otherwise it would have been fallen apart.”
There was plenty of work to do. “We took in some refugees from Bosnia into our community center,” she said. “So we directly heard their stories and reports. And one woman in particularly in the peace group was taking care of the refugees. That was the first time I met Muslims. We didn’t have Muslims in the GDR. For me it was a really exciting issue. One woman, Marina Grasse, together with a friend founded an East-West-European network of women that is still working in the Caucasus. So we also heard the news from the Caucasus. My younger daughter also was a student at the university in Belgrade. So the conflicts were always present to us.”
We talked about the work with the Muslim community, her experience on the evening the Berlin Wall fell, and the social attitudes of Germans east and west (a topic we covered as well in South Korea when Misselwitz joined a delegation I put together on conflict resolution and reunification). Near the end of the conversation we were joined by her husband, Hans Misselwitz, whom I interviewed in 1990 and who continues to work with the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Do you remember what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Ruth Misselwitz: It was November, and every November we had our “peace decade.” There were events for 10 days. We came home late and turned on the TV where we heard strange news that we did not understand. Helmut Kohl wanted to stop his journey to Poland and return to Germany. We didn’t know what happened.
Then a friend called and said: “You have to go to the Wall immediately. I’ve just returned from Kuhdamm with my car.” And we were very astonished. We couldn’t believe it.
And then another friend called and said: “The Wall is open.” Just imagine!
So we took our bikes and went to Bornholmer Straße. But it was not yet really open. There were people everywhere and they were talking with the soldiers and saying: “Just let us cross, we will come back. We won’t stay there we just want to go and see.”
It was a very peaceful atmosphere. It was not at all aggressive. Then there was the order that the Bornholmer Straße should be opened and all were crossing the border and going to West Berlin. Our children were 12 and 14 years old at the time. And there we were with our bikes in West Berlin! And we said: “We have to go back, we have to get our children. Who knows if they are going to close the Wall again and our kids are at home, sleeping.”
So we went back and got our children out of their beds and told them: “You have to get up, the Wall is open.”
And the children said: “No, we want to sleep. It’s cold and wet outside.”
So I said: “This is a historical moment, you have to get up now!”
Then all four of us took the bikes and we went back to Bornholmer Straße. Of course there were now thousands of people. So we crossed the border with our bikes. There was this incredible, happy atmosphere. You really could not believe what was happening right there. Then we went back with the children and I asked them whether they wanted to go to school the next day – because it was late at night. And they said that they want to go to school early because they had to tell everybody what they had just experienced. So this is how November 9 was for us. During the next days and weeks we tried to understand what had happened. Very many friends from Western Germany and from West Berlin came to Berlin. Those days were really an exceptional time.
What do your children say today? Do they remember that day? Obviously they wanted to continue sleeping. But what do they say today about this historical moment?
Ruth Misselwitz: Yes, yes they were very thankful and today they are still thankful that we pulled them out of their beds! They will never forget this night for their whole life.
I want to go back a little bit earlier: to 1981 when the Pankow Peace Community began. Can you tell me how that began?
Ruth Misselwitz: At the end of the 1970s, the society in the GDR became very strongly militarized. In the schools a subject called military expertise was introduced into the curriculum. It was compulsory for all the pupils — and in the universities for all the students and for all the workers in the companies — to participate in a military camp for a certain period of time. Students, for example, had to go for three months. So there was this militarization in all segments of society.
We had the impression that we were preparing for another war — mentally and also in terms of behavior. There were exercises on how to behave when a bomb hits Berlin and so on. It frightened us. On the night of New Year’s Eve 1979, we were at a friend’s place in Mecklenburg – Markus Meckel – who was a pastor there in a village. He shared with us a scenario from an American general who was retired. It included what would happen in Europe in the case of a nuclear war — where there will be Soviet troops and American troops and which towns will be bombed and how the troops will move. On this map I saw that Berlin and also the village where I come from were specific targets. I was very frightened. We had two little children. We were afraid that our children would have to experience a war. And we were particularly frightened because this war would be a nuclear war.
It was not only us who were frightened. Many, many people were afraid of a war, too. In 1981, I started to work as a pastor here in Pankow. Friends of ours wanted to start to do some work here in this church together with others worried about war. We wanted this work to be public and open. We did not want to continue to meet at home and discuss these things. We wanted to go public, and in the GDR it was only possible to go public within the churches. I started to work on September 1. Then on October 24, 1981 we held the first big event called: “In favor of peace, against a deadly security.” We were against those security strategies in which people always wanted to convince us that we will be more secure. We critically questioned those strategies.
After this event, the Peace Group formed. We circulated a list for people to sign up who had an interest in working in a peace group. There were hundreds of people in the church. The event was the whole day: we started in the afternoon and it went on until late at night. Many people signed up on the list and included their names and addresses. It was very courageous for so many people to state openly that they were interested in such kind of work. In December we invited all those who registered on this list to meet for the first time in December 1981. Approximately 30 people came to the first meeting. That’s how the work of the Peace Group started.
We had the three pillars, which were also important for the conciliar process. There was the issue of environment, because the protection of environment was practically non-existent in the GDR. There was the issue of peace, which involved the heightening tensions between the hostile blocs, East and West, the increasing danger of war, and what what we could do against this deterioration.
And finally there was the issue of justice. Right from the beginning we had a global view. We saw the North-South divide. For many years we had a partnership with a hospital in the African country of Benin. A doctor from West Berlin, who was a friend of ours, had worked in Benin, so this is how we got the connection. There was nothing in this hospital. It was really, really poor. We were not allowed to export medicine from here. But what was possible was sending bandages and supplies like that. We went to pharmacies here and asked if they had some leftovers. Then we put together big packages to send to the hospital in Africa. We received a lot of support. And because we could not export medicine, we arranged for a peace group in the Netherlands — with which we had a very close relationship through the inter-confessional peace movement — to send medicine to the hospital. So actually it was a partnership of three parties: East-West-South.
We reflected a lot about our schools and what our children were learning there. In the schoolbooks we searched for enemy images taught to our children. For instance, there was the friendly and helpful Soviet soldier and the bad and terrible American soldier. There were many more stereotypes. We had a real group within the Peace Group that was only dealing with school and pedagogy. We were looking for new forms of pedagogy different from the authoritarian pedagogy we had in the GDR. We were dealing with new alternative concepts of pedagogy, like for example Paulo Freire and The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. We also tried to practice this with our children since we could not do this at school. We created exhibitions about these schoolbooks: Where are the enemy images, where are the stereotypes? What can we do against those stereotypes? We made role-playing games with the children and also with the adults so that they could put themselves into the position of the teacher.
How old were your children?
Ruth Misselwitz: Our daughters were born in 1975 and 1977. During the 1980s, the younger daughter was 12 years old in 1989 and the older daughter was 14.
There was also a group called “living differently.” They criticized consumer society in general. Because we in the GDR were a consumer society, too. We did not have as much as the people in West Germany but we had the same thinking, the same patterns. The members of this group – during the time of the peace decade, when we were having the gatherings and events – they slept and fasted in the church for 10 days. During that time a lot of ideas came up about how we should treat the environment and ourselves.
There was also a group thinking about the security system. What are the mechanisms of this military vicious circle? And how can we escape from these mechanisms? There was Olaf Palme with his concept of mutual security. I found that very convincing back then. When Palme was shot it was a big shock for us. Until today I believe that it was a political murder.
The group did a lot! I mean, you were working on pedagogy and the school system, environmental issues, helping the Benin hospital. How did things change as you came closer to 1989?
Ruth Misselwitz: In the work of the group? In 1989 there was a very big, radical change. For many peace groups it was the end of their work. They did not continue working. Many people who have been actively engaged went into policy and joined the newly founded parties, like my husband Hans, who later worked with Markus Meckel in the Foreign Ministry. Many from our peace group went into the active politics. They joined parties like Bündnis 90/the Greens and SPD. There is nobody from our group in the CDU. During those first days, there was a big chaos in our group. Everything was turned upside down. Many lost their jobs because the whole society had to be restructured. Everybody had to learn to find new direction.
Doctors had to learn all over again by heart what kind of drugs were out there. Everything that had been in the GDR was rejected. The lawyers had to learn totally new laws. Me, I am a pastor. We have our bible and it is older than 2,000 years and it was not being changed, but people in most of the professions had to change and had to learn things anew. And for many it was very, very hard, because they were experienced teacher, doctors, lawyers, and everything they had known was not valid anymore. Their whole work was worthless at once. On the contrary, the whole GDR population was under suspicion of collaboration with the Stasi. All of those who worked in public service had to have themselves checked and it was a very big humiliation. Normally if there is a suspicion you have to prove that the person is guilty. But in our case the whole population was under suspicion, and we had to prove that we were not guilty. The case was reversed. And that hurt many people.
As for the work of the peace group, we did not stop. We were the only peace group here in Berlin, in the whole former GDR I believe, that continued to exist. I don’t know another group in the East that has continued to work continuously until today as we do.
But in the beginning there was of course the consideration: Do we continue working together or is it now superfluous? Have we reached the goals we were following? Many members went into politics. Many groups who had needed the roof of the church did not need that roof anymore. They were able to work somewhere else. But we stayed together. And for me it was clear that I should not be active in a political party. I had to have a neutral attitude. Otherwise it would have been fallen apart.
Then during the 1990s, we worked on the new system a lot. We were very alarmed about the war in the Balkans that broke out in our backyard, so to speak. For me it was actually a terrible experience because we had thought that the danger of war was over. And then this conflict broke out there. And we had different opinions about this war. People in our peace group like Werner Schulz, who is now a member of the Green party and a member of the European Parliament, was very strongly against this war. And we had a lot of events in our church and there were very hot discussions on how to understand this war.
There were a lot of arguments in the United States too about the war.
Ruth Misselwitz: We took in some refugees from Bosnia into our community center. So we directly heard their stories and reports. And one woman in particularly in the peace group was taking care of the refugees. That was the first time I met Muslims. We didn’t have Muslims in the GDR. For me it was a really exciting issue. One woman, Marina Grasse, together with a friend founded an East-West-European network of women that is still working in the Caucasus. So we also heard the news from the Caucasus. My younger daughter also was a student at the university in Belgrade. So the conflicts were always present to us.
Then there was this Muslim community here in Pankow, an Ahmadiyyan Muslim community. Very liberal Muslims.
Yes, in fact they are so liberal that many Muslims don’t think they are Muslims.
Ruth Misselwitz: Five or six years ago they wanted to build a mosque here in Pankow. And there was a huge movement against this mosque. And the right-wing groups were heading up this anti-mosque movement. And they were demonstrating here in Pankow. Real Neo-Nazis.
When was that?
Ruth Misselwitz: I think in 2006. There was a terrible pogrom-like atmosphere against the Muslims. There was supposed to be a public discussion at a school gymnasium with representatives of the Ahmadiyya community, the district authorities, and so on. And the whole right-wing movement from all over Berlin, even from outside of Berlin, mobilized their forces to show up. The assembly could not even start the discussion because they were shouting all the time so nobody was able to talk. The police had to shut down the gathering and the Muslims had to leave the school under police protection so that the Nazis would not attack them and beat them up. It was a real pogrom-like atmosphere. It was a real terrible experience for me, and I thought: here in Pankow something like that must not happen. So we made an event in the church. We invited the imam and a representative from the Jewish community. Step by step a friendship developed between the imam and me. And the mosque has been built finally.
And a wonderful friendship has developed between the two communities, also between the Ahmadiyya community and our community. It really enriches our community. The Ahmadiyya community is very interesting. It is a reformed, Muslim community, very liberal, very open. They also have their separation between men and women and so on. So, this is a different culture, but it is totally fascinating. I like going there when the women invite me. And we also invited the women to our church, without the men. There are always events in the mosque and also at our church, where the imam invites me so that I talk from the Christian point of view and then I invite him so that he talks from the Muslim point of view.
That’s a great story. It is particularly important here in Germany, because there is a big Muslim population. And there was the book by Sarrazin, who was kicked out of the SPD. His book was a bestseller.
Ruth Misselwitz: Yes. Terrible!
You mentioned when you had the list with people’s names and addresses. And you said that you found out that the Stasi made a copy of it?
Ruth Misselwitz: We did not find the list in the Stasi files, but it is known that they had the list.
What else did you find out or discover about the Stasi after 1989 — about what they knew about the peace group or the church?
Ruth Misselwitz: If you did such work in the GDR, you already knew that you were being observed by the Stasi. We knew we were being observed because even before I started working as a pastor we had a small group at our home that we called the “Adorno Circle.” We were thinking about left-wing movements like the avant-garde in the Soviet Union and then the Frankfurt School after the war. The Stasi had already monitored this, and we knew that at least one Stasi informer was in this group. Our neighbor in the house where we lived before came to us one day — she herself was a member of the SED — and said: “The state security was at my place and they wanted to install a surveillance system in my flat to monitor you. I did not allow it. This is just what I wanted to tell you.” I thought it was very courageous for her to say, “Not with me, not in my flat,” even though she was a member of the Party. But of course we knew they had other possibilities to monitor us.
Our flat was right under the roof, so right in the attic they built a surveillance system. After the Wende we learned that the flat right opposite us was a conspirator flat and they’d been listening to us with microphones.
So, we had to live with that. We would have conversations on the street when we didn’t want the Stasi to hear — not in the flat and of course not on the phone. We had this conviction not to work in the underground. We would work publicly, and we would tell this to every Stasi officer. That was the strategy to fight the fear of thinking all the time of who was the informer. This mistrust was so terrible that it destroyed some groups — because the mistrust was so strong that nobody trusted anyone anymore. This was also a strategy of the state security to sow mistrust to destroy the groups.
Actually I have a good understanding of human nature. I know whom I can trust and whom I shouldn’t trust. After the Wende we learned who worked for the Stasi and who didn’t, and I was not surprised about the people who were discovered and worked for the Stasi. There was nobody from our closest friends amongst them. The persons who were discovered were ones I already thought were unstable.
The only one who surprised me was Knut Wollenberger, who was married toVera Wollenberger. If I had a suspicion it would have been Vera, not Knut. But Knut Wollenberger had his whole own story. He had a very special biography, so that I can at least explain why he did this. He is from a Jewish family and his parents, both of them, were Communists. They emigrated to the United States and then during the McCarthy era they had to leave the United States again because they were Communists. They did not go to West Germany but to the GDR because the GDR called itself an anti-fascist state. And many, many Communist Jews deliberately went to the GDR. They built up the GDR, and they assumed political functions. Knut’s father was a geologist or a physicist. He had a very high position in science with international connections. Knut himself had Norwegian citizenship because he was born in Norway. He was not a mean Stasi spy who wanted to harm people. He did not want to harm us. He wanted to protect us, just as he wanted to protect Vera.
I actually interviewed Vera. We talked a little but about this, about her husband. She said that she learned about his Stasi connection from other people. And she was upset about that. I don’t know if that’s something she said to you, too.
Ruth Misselwitz: No. We don’t have so much contact anymore. We went down different paths after the Wende. Vera joined the CDU. During the mosque fight, Vera joined the enemies of the mosque. Very aggressive. Very radical. I was very shocked. It was terrible.When we were in Korea, we talked about perceptions or theories or attitudes between Eastern and Western. And you remember the woman in the delegation from West Germany? She was very arrogant. She embodied the worst kind of attitudes of West Germans toward East Germans. It’s now 13 years later. Have social attitudes of people in West changed at all?
Hans Misselwitz: Why should they?
Well, that’s a good question.
Ruth Misselwitz: We live in a district that is very mixed, East and West. A lot of young families, young couples are now mixed east and west. The arrogance from before was really hideous. But this is not that obvious anymore.
Hans Misselwitz: The people who move here already have in mind that they should live together with the people who have always lived here. And they have an interest in what happened here. But those who live in the far west of West Germany still are not interested in understanding. But there are also Easterners who don’t have much experience of living together with other types of people and also have a certain bias. So it’s not only typical of West Germans. But West Germans form a certain majority. And we are the newcomers somehow.
I was told that many people from the Stuttgart area have come to this part of town as well. The Swabians. They have their own particular culture, shall we say. They’ve come to Prenzlauer Berg, but have they also settled in Pankow?
Ruth Misselwitz: They are arriving gradually. The Prenzlauer community comes to Pankow step by step.
Hans Misselwitz: The West Germans who came to this area, many wanted to flee the small town mentality where they came from. Also, many from the radical and cultural Left scene came to live in West Berlin before 1989 because they didn’t want to serve in the West German army [residents of West Berlin didn’t have to serve]. It was a special mix of left-wingers and petit bourgeois. Nowadays, people with this background are buying apartments in this area, because it’s not as expensive as living in Stuttgart or Munich. Especially after financial crisis, because they were worried about the security of their bank savings, they bought houses here and it pushed up the rents in this area. This is the background to the social tensions. It’s not east-west tensions, but tensions between different social groups.
It’s a very interesting dynamic. I’ve talked to a number of people who live in Prenzlauer Berg who were former squatters. They squatted the apartments and they were from east and west. They’ve been living in Prenzlauer Berg for 25 years, a long time, so they think of themselves as the original inhabitants. But then I have a good friend who just moved from New York to Prenzlauer Berg and considers it a good place to raise a child.
Hans Misselwitz: Yes, there’s a very international mixture, especially from the United States and also from the UK.
Ruth Misselwitz: There are also a lot of young Israelis.
What do you think remains from the GDR other than two things, of course, the little green man and the sparkling wine, Rotkäppchen?
Hans Misselwitz: It took over the Federal Republic, this Amplemännchen[little traffic light man]. So the West Germans feel very occupied. The Easterners are still coming!
I understand that some of the things the Merkel government actually has pushed forward – the kindergartens, for instance – could somehow be connected back to the GDR period. But what else do you think?
Ruth Misselwitz: For women, the experience of working during the GDR period is really important. Women became accustomed to their economic independence. Last week I had a group in church of women who were 70 years and older. There was only one woman from West Germany. All the others were from the East. And the women were all talking about the jobs they had. They were academics, doctors, or scientists. All the women have been working except for the one woman that came from the West who had not been working. She’d done her A-Levels, maybe she also studied at university. But then she had children. She didn’t work. And she was somehow frustrated looking back at her life. The other women could not even imagine this. All of them also have children. And grandchildren now and great grandchildren. It was as if they had lived in different two worlds. For the women from the GDR it was a natural thing to have children and a profession, but this was a different consciousness from the consciousness of the women from the West in this generation. And it is has passed on to the children and grandchildren.
Hans Misselwitz: We saw one effect of this. Already in the 1990s, a large number of young women educated in East Germany moved to West Germany and looked for jobs there. One reason for the so-called demographic problems in East Germany has been that half the young women here went to West Germany. There they have families. Here in this area very few children were born. That was one of the biggest developments after reunification.
Did you have any other thoughts about what lives on from the GDR?
Hans Misselwitz: What happened in the last 20 years is that East Germans discovered themselves as being different. Part of the process of changing their own attitudes and their own lives, part of adapting to the new conditions, has been discovering that they are still different from West Germans because they have different problems, different aims, and different backgrounds. The main model of transformation, from the West German perspective, was: So, you come from the east — how long will it take to make you into a Westerner? Try to do this very quickly. And some East Germans tried to become more than 150 percent Westerner!
But this also brought out a certain kind of resistance, making us want to defend the past, or be proud of the past. People here identified with the music or the culture of their youth. They identified with certain East German rock groups. Also the movies from DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft) became more interesting. They discovered that this was part of their own lives. But this is now fading. The younger generation no longer defends the special culture or attitudes.
Our children were born in the 1970s. They were not very much identified with the GDR. They lived in a family and in a circle of friends who were critical and did not defend the GDR. But they discovered that they were identified from the outside as coming from the GDR. Many of their generation went not only to West Germany but further to England, to the United States. Those who could travelled around the world. They wanted to leave this background.
Now, looking back, they’re thinking: what was the GDR about? Our daughter, Charlotte, is a journalist looking at the issue of Jewish migration to Germany, to Russia, and especially to Israel. She’s looking at what the GDR was for Jews after 1945. It was a haven for lots of emigrants, especially those who were left-wing. They came here to build up the country to be different from former Nazi Germany. This generation has a fresh view on this. They aren’t looking at the GDR as the SED and the political system. They’re looking with a fresh mind at what happened.
Ruth Misselwitz: She also did a radio feature where she compared the GDR and Israel. She compared the founding myths. Because the two states had very similar founding myths.
Hans Misselwitz: And similar socialist movements in Israel and East Germany.
Ruth Misselwitz: And how later the regime became rigid with old men. In the GDR and in Israel.
You talked about some of the challenges here in Eastern Germany after the Wende. A lot of young women left. There was of course a lot of unemployment because of the closure of factories. Do you think that that was inevitable or do you think that there could have been different social policies or economic policies that could have made the transition easier?
Hans Misselwitz: I was occupied professionally with these questions. In terms of the reasons it went the way it did, it was not only the concepts the West had about the takeover, it was also about what to do with the easterners who had certain ideas of how to be involved in this transformation, how to do it. The West German concept for the economic and political transformation – which involved a whole set of West German democratic institutions – was established very early in the first one or two years. These experts were all from West Germany. It was different from Poland or the other countries in the region. Others in Eastern Europe would say that this was a lucky situation for us because this kind of transformation seemed to go without any problems.
But it had lots of consequences. West Germany had developed democratic standards, so the East Germans profited from that, and they knew this. On the other hand, it made them voiceless. Some who had ideas to develop the economy independently didn’t really have a chance to try them out. The transformation didn’t include a learning process. This frustrated many of the actors in the democratic transformation. On the other hand, there was a high price for the German society and state to finance this transformation. And there were stereotypes that East Germans were too stupid or too lazy to “keep up with us.” That was offensive to East Germans.
One of the bad developments in East Germany were the xenophobic and neo-Nazi groups that emerged in certain parts of the country, particularly among those left behind, those who thought they didn’t get a chance and also didn’t want to blame themselves. Instead, they blamed the new system with this right-wing aggression. They also directed their anger against people.
Meanwhile, another part of the East German population actively supported the new party that grew out of the former SED. It was the only party that accepted its GDR background, and they got supporters. Even 20 years later, this party is a real force, and a democratic one. The party had a real rethinking process. It is mainly supported by well-educated East Germans, 40-something and older, who did not have a chance to continue in their professional lives at their educational level. The PDS has had a strong well-educated membership that allows it to keep up with the political process and adjust the process to the new conditions in the new lander and be part of the democratic process. So, these two things – the reactions from the Left and the Right — were different.
You say that one of the consequences of the way reunification took place was that many people in the East were voiceless. Could there have been a different institutional arrangement in which people did have a voice?
Hans Misselwitz: The special chance for this process could have been in the lander and through the media like public radio and TV and newspapers. This kind of regional organized public could have offered a better basis for developing public discussions. There are some good examples. In Brandenburg, we had a radio and TV station founded in 1990 by East Germans. But it was soon taken over by West Berlin and West Germans. And there were no longer opportunities for East Germans. They had positions at a lower level in these institutions, but not at a higher level.
The West Germans didn’t understand. These were former left-wing people from West Germany. They were seen as Wessis, and they didn’t understand this. It was not easy for them, but they were in a decision-making position.
If you look back to your Weltanschauung from 1990, how you looked at the world. Has that changed in any major way in 23 years? Have you rethought any of the ideas you had in 1990?
Ruth Misselwitz: No, not that I can think of. We had to learn a lot of new things. Many friends went along different paths. But I did not change my view on war and peace and about non-violence. The things we learned in the 1980s concerning the politics of reconciliation or sitting between the chairs … we did this the whole time. I still view the world with the same eyes.
Hans Misselwitz: I had different opportunities to deal with these issues in a political way, in political institutions. I’m very much afraid of how things developed in the last decade. In the 1990s, I thought it was mainly a positive process. Things were changing for the better, for Germany, for Europe. But now, in the last decade, I’m afraid that we lost the spirit of becoming again one world. The world is divided now between the “Western world” intervening everywhere and trying to promote democracy and the rest of the world. The credibility of the whole democratic process is now in danger.
Berlin, May 31, 2013
Translation assistance: Sarah Bohm
As a newly elected member of the Volkskammer, Hans Misselwitz has been extremely busy, attending parliamentary sessions and long meetings with his party on the future of a grand coalition with the CDU. When I finally caught up with Hans at the SPD headquarters, he was just finishing up a meeting with foreign policy advisors. These were people still working with government institutions but both eager to align with a particular party and worried about the future of their own government jobs. Hans told me later that he thought that this group was quite genuine and he didn’t suspect anyone of wanting to shanghai the SPD operation.
Advice, Hans told me, was what the SPD desperately needed. All of the SPD members of parliament are laypeople and virtually no one has any professional political experience. Of course, what the SPD needed most was not so much consultant work on particular issues as nuts and bolt party advice: how to structure a well-greased political operation. The West German SPD had sent advisors over for the elections but they needed advisors now who were well versed in East German conditions and could modify their advice accordingly.
Will the grand coalition happen and under what conditions? [the interview took place several days before the grand coalition finally came together].
Well, we insist that we the SPD have a different political perspective and this means we are mainly interested in a new Germany which could develop not only a national identity but new positions on social issues, European issues, and especially the question of the coming European peace order. We would emphasize this more than the CDU, especially as it is represented by the Kohl government, a party which is working in the interests of leading economic interests in West German society. So we say that the German unification process should provide us an opportunity not only to come together but to build something new with respect to Europe, to disarmament, and so on. This is our idea: not to prevent German unity but to find a different place for Germany in Europe.
Could you give concrete examples of the differences between the SDP and the CDU as they have emerged after the elections?
The main difference seems to be that the CDU stressed a fast unification process in order to introduce East Germany into West Germany. We believe that this process should not only be introduced very carefully but this process should be organized to offer opportunities for change….we are convinced that people in the GDR have a different experience and will have a different political perspective once they recognize who they are. So far, they have not. We are trying not to be optimistic but realistic.
In the FRG, the SDP is strongly connected to labor unions. Does such a connection exist here with the SDP?
There is none. It has something to do with the fact that all the unions have so far been dominated by the Communist Party. And in the fall period there were different initiatives to organize independent unions–a lot of people had this idea–but the workers did not respond to this. In the first place, they needed more time to come out of their apathy and after November, after the Wall was gone, then the situation that Germany would be united came closer and there was a great lack of initiative among the workers especially to organize new organizations. Also initiatives in the factory did not really work. At the same time, the old trade union tried to reorganize but there is a traditional mistrust between the official trade union and the working class. The working class remained bound to this union but did not really renew it. And the leading union people tried to reorganize and adapted to the new situation. In the end, the old representatives of the trade union remained the same as before and they only changed their political stance. We could not really go in and it also remained that the workers have not so far been interested in the ways they could use the trade union. In that short period, it was not possible to make the party based on the workers.
Are there now attempts now to work with unions?
There is the difficulty that everyone looks at the FRG and everyone tries to adopt the same structures as exist there. Now the trade union officials try to cooperate with West German trade union officials and the workers say, ‘OK, so we shall behave like West German workers do.’ I think it will happen that later the party will get some influence there. There are some workers in the SPD but there is no organizational continuity.
With no trade union support and little electoral support, what power does that leave the SPD? Can it play more than a spoiler role in parliament?
We have to work for a constructive program. We have to take the initiative and demonstrate that our ideas and programs are not only to say no and criticize. But we have no real party apparatus which would always provide us with information and materials and strategies to attack.
What about the original spirit of alternative politics? Why did you choose the SPD instead the Alliance 90? What will be the relationship between the SPD and New Forum, for instance?
In the fall period, I was sympathetic to the movement. I worked in my position as a pastor in a town with a big steel mill–a workers’ town–and worked to organize a movement there. I found in that period–in December–that the citizens’ movement or concept no longer worked. I was very sympathetic to them and it was also my idea–to change society, to attack the totalitarian structures–but once this state broke down, we had to ask ourselves: who could take over responsibility and who could do this at a time when the majority of the people want re-unification? So we could take over a positive political strategy that would work with these people and not exclude them and say that you are betrayer of the time. We had to learn–and all the revolutionaries had to learn–that it was not only their creation. The deeper change came from the breakdown of the society and the breakdown of trust in the system–this was the deeper crisis. The citizens movement multiplied this effect–in a very necessary way, I do not want to diminish that way since I was also active in that period–but they did not develop political ideas and strategies and structures which could take over responsibility in a new situation. You could not have a type of democracy based on an activist stance–this could not work. Because the majority did not want to be activists or be engaged–they wanted a new society but a society that was very close to West Germany. You couldn’t neglect it and say, they all betray our nice revolution–then you will simply become a memorial of that revolution. We have a great political responsibility to–if we are convinced that we should have democratic society–to offer solutions to the people which they and not just we can use. We should not be avant-garde. This is an old type of revolution which leads into totalitarianism–that is the lesson of history. I think that a lot of these people–and they are all my friends–they did not really understand. We should not simply blame people because we are not in power. You cannot just offer something for those who agree with you or who will work with you. You have to offer possibilities also to different people. And we didn’t have the time to develop other models. We only had time to develop compatible structures to the FRG–but filled with our people.
What about the events in Leipzig? Will the antagonistic streak in electorate intensify when CDU promises are not fulfilled?
This is one of our great dangers because the political polarization seems very probable. We should take this very seriously because it will not only have an effect on the psychological situation within this country but also the situation outside this country. There is a responsibility to go through a process now to help people to see that there is some future. To think we could stop it now–and convince people to go back–we cannot do this. We will have political struggles. People need to invent their own interests again and not only adopt Western interests and escape into the West.