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East Germany: The Solution

The SPD, by contrast, argued for a somewhat slower and more considered process, in which East Germany would bring more of its own “identity” into the new Germany. Although it did not absolutely preclude unification by Article 23, the SPD inclined more to the path envisaged in the final article of the Basic Law, Article 146, which says:

This Basic Law loses its validity on the day on which a constitution comes into force, which has been resolved upon by the German people in a free decision.

In other words, there would be some sort of constituent assembly that would write a new constitution, perhaps formally incorporating some of the different property or so-called social rights established in the GDR. Altogether, the SPD offered more “ifs” and “buts” about the process of unification.

The renewed Communist party, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), put the “ifs” and “buts” before the “yes” to unification, although the practical difference between the “confederation” or “treaty community” for which it originally argued and de facto unification became increasingly thin. One of its two leading candidates, Hans Modrow, had, after all, as prime minister himself put forward, at the beginning of February, a plan for what he called, echoing a slogan from the streets, which in turn took up a line from East Germany’s national anthem, “Germany, United Fatherland.” The other leading candidate of the PDS, a clever lawyer called Gregor Gysi, said, “We want a new Germany, better than the GDR but also better than the Federal Republic.”

Curiously enough the party grouping closest to the PDS in its reservations about what was described as an Anschluss by the Federal Republic, was the grouping of those whom the (ruling) Communist party had previously considered its worst enemies,7 the Alliance ‘90. When a telephone number is unavailable in Germany you hear a recorded message saying, “No Anschluss (i.e. connection) under this number.” Alliance ‘90 had an election poster saying: “Article 23—No Anschluss under this number!”

Yet the opinion polls soon showed that the Alliance ‘90 had no chance of winning with this slogan. The SPD initially had an overwhelming lead in the opinion polls, but as the campaign progressed the Alliance for Germany, which people increasingly referred to just as CDU—gained on it rapidly. The choice was clearly going to be between the medium and the fast track to unification. As this became apparent, so one had the curious spectacle of the Communists and the dissidents joining together at the Round Table talks, and in the Government of National Responsibility, to try to save what they thought deserved to be saved from the ruins of the GDR. Sitting in his Spartan government office, one of the most determined and longest serving dissidents, Gerd Poppe, now a minister without portfolio, explained to me how the government had hastily put together a Social Charter and laws on different (non-private) forms of property ownership, so that there would be at least some formal, codified starting point for the discussion of what “good” from the GDR could be preserved in a larger Germany. The feelings of the former dissidents during this period were profoundly mixed, for whereas in the rest of East Central Europe the Round Tables and the provisional governments were clearly laying foundations for the (re)-building of democracy, here their work was more like throwing up temporary huts which would be bulldozed away as soon as the real builders moved in.


Sunday, March 18, was a beautiful spring day. Almost a summer’s day, in fact. The sun shone without ceasing. People voted early, then took off into the countryside. There seemed to be universal good humor. An old lady in Pankow asked how many times she should fold her ballot paper. “You can fold it as many times as you like,” said the volunteer official, “it’s a free election!” By the time I got to the polling station in the small village of Seeberg, at midday, more than 80 percent of the electors had voted. When I say polling station, I mean the back room of the local pub. And when I say 80 percent, I mean about fifty people, for there were only sixty-five electors in this village—and eight of them were on the supervisory electoral commission.

These electoral commissions, containing, where possible, representatives of the main parties, took their tasks very seriously indeed, scrupulously checking off names and insisting that people use the polling booths. Previously, to use the polling booth was a sign that you were not toeing the line: good conformists openly folded their paper and put it straight into the box. A friend once described the few paces to the polling booth as “the longest walk of my life.” And another recalled how, at the local government elections only last May, her hand was shaking so much that she could not get her (deliberately spoiled) ballot paper into the slot. Today, these sounded like tales from a distant epoch.

In Buckow, where Brecht probably wrote his poem about the 17 June in his charming lakeside house, there was the same quiet excitement, especially among the younger voters. However, when I asked one old woman how it felt to take part in her first free election she grunted and said, “Well, it was rather complicated” (etwas umständlich). The agonies of choice! Actually, compared with the system in Poland or Hungary, the election procedure was simplicity itself. All you had to do was to put one cross, or other clear mark, against the party or party grouping of your choice. According to the election law, no party propaganda was allowed within “some 100 metres” of the polling station. So instead of the canvassers there were the journalists. Interviewers from West Germany’s second television channel (ZDF) asked thousands of voters to repeat their vote on simulated ballot papers.

Within a few minutes of the poll stations closing at 6 PM, ZDF was able to announce the shock result: a triumph for the CDU. As the evening wore on, the simulated results were replaced by real ones, slightly reducing the scale of the triumph so that the Alliance for Germany narrowly missed an absolute majority (see Table).


But the message was plain. In the huge metal and glass Palace of the Republic in the center of East Berlin, where three competing German television channels (two West, one East) had their studios on the belle étage, a desperate scrum of reporters mobbed the winners, and collared anyone who seemed interesting, while yesterday’s men like Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski, former leader of the former Polish Communist party, peered longingly at the limelight. In one corner I spotted Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the hero of ‘68 in Frankfurt and Paris…Danny the Red. As I approached he was saying to an interviewer, “Wissen Sie, ich war nie Kommunist…” (“You know, I was never a Communist…”).

The exiled balladeer Wolf Biermann wandered like a friendly bear through this frantic scene. “Today,” he said, “here in this glass palace, is the funeral of the GDR.” And in another corner the writer Stefan Heym observed: “There will be no more GDR. It will be nothing but a footnote in world history.” The Republic had voted to end the Republic.

I say “the Republic” advisedly, for in East German popular usage “the Republic” is counterposed to Berlin. And Berlin voted differently: nearly 35 percent for the SPD, only 18 percent for the CDU, and nearly 30 percent for the PDS, the renamed Communist party. This last, rather astonishing, figure may partly be explained by the heavy concentration of bureaucracy and nomenklatura of all sorts in the capital. Yet it seems that the PDS also managed to attract both old and young voters by its skillfully propagated warnings against the costs of “capitalist” unification: unemployment, higher rents, and so forth.

But Berlin was outvoted by the rest of the country—“the Republic”—and above all by the lands of the south, Thuringia, Saxony, and Sachsen-Anhalt. Before the war, these were strongholds of social democracy. (It is sometimes claimed—although this is hotly disputed—that Adenauer pressed less hard for reunification than he might otherwise have done, because he feared these constituencies would have swung the electoral balance against him.) But now the electoral regions of Dresden, Erfurt, Gera, Suhl, and Karl-Marx-Stadt—that is, as Chancellor Kohl repeatedly insisted, Chemnitz—all turned in votes for the Alliance for Germany of around 60 percent, with less than 20 percent for the SPD and less than 15 percent for the PDS. According to a survey, some 58 percent of workers throughout the country voted for the Alliance.

To label this a “swing to the right” would be, at best, a half-truth. It is true that, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the more straightforwardly anticommunist the party, the better its chance. Here, as elsewhere, forty years of communism calling itself socialism has made socialism a dirty word. But it would be wrong to suggest that people went from one extreme to the other. The neo-Nazi, far-right groups that made such a terrible impression by their rowdy behavior and chants of “Foreigners Out!” at the later Leipzig demonstrations—and on international television—remained marginal. Even the markedly conservative DSU got no more than 15 percent of the vote in its original southern heartlands, and just 6.3 percent overall. What people chose—in spite of its past as a puppet party—was the moderate, liberal conservative CDU, which alone got almost twice the SPD vote (40.9 percent to 21.8 percent). This was, first and last, a vote for Chancellor Kohl and the fast track to unity. Anschluss? Yes, please!

Bärbel Bohley, the artist who was one of the founders of the New Forum, commented bitterly that “people really have no more trust in their own strength. They are swapping the tutelage of the old SED for that of the CDU and hope that not the red but the black state will do everything for them.” Again, this seems to me at best a half-truth, seen from the rather special and—as the elections demonstrated—atypical viewpoint of East Berlin. An old friend in Dresden drew my attention to an article in the West German weekly Der Spiegel by an East Berlin intellectual, which said, in effect, “We don’t need unification now that the Wall is open.” If I want to get a Western book, observed this writer, I just take the S-Bahn(train) to Bahnhof Zoo (in West Berlin) and pop down to the Heinrich Heine bookshop there. But, said my friend, that’s precisely what you can’t do from distant Dresden. If you want to have easy access to books—or building materials, or clothes, or cars—from the West, then you need unification. And anyway, only the privileged intellectual would have the hard currency to slip over so casually to pick up a book: hard currency earned, for example, by writing an article against unification in the West German weekly Der Spiegel….

Moreover, for the people of Dresden, this is not a loss but a gain in identity. For what they identify with is not the GDR but the old Land and former kingdom of Saxony. (The grand-duke, I understand, proposes to move back to Schloss Moritzburg.) Here, on the dusty house fronts and outside the neglected, antiquated factories, you see everywhere two flags: black, red, and gold for Germany, green and white for Saxony. And it is as the reconstituted Land of Saxony, not as the former GDR, that they wish to join the Federal Republic.

In the country at large, it seems to me, the real motto of the campaign—though no one, to my knowledge, actually used it—was Adenauer’s slogan from the 1950s: “Keine Experimente!” “No experiments.” They had experienced enough experiments to last several lifetimes: Hitler’s experiments, Stalin’s experiments, Ulbricht’s and Honecker’s. They had quite enough of being guinea pigs. There were certainly aspects of West German life and attitudes about which they had reservations. But so far as the economic, political, and legal system was concerned, West Germany’s was the best one going. Arguably, it was the best Germany had ever had. Now they wanted to have it as fast as possible: first the DM of course, but not just the DM, also the free press, the rule of law, local self-government, and federal democracy. In many ways, their priorities also recalled those of the Fifties in West Germany: first and foremost, the passionate drive to rebuild for private happiness from the ruins. Understandably, the enthusiasm was greatest among the young, while the middleaged were more worried about their ability to adapt, and the old about the conversion rate and value of their pensions. Indeed, the old might wearily remark, like the grandmother in Edgar Reitz’s film Heimat, “Yet another new era!”

There are plainly immense problems of learning democracy for people who have lived even longer than Czechs or Poles under successive dictatorships, although the Czechs and Poles, unlike most East Germans, were not able to watch democracy in practice every night on their television screens. But it is deeply condescending to suggest that this vote was simply a sellout or a copout, and little short of revolting for intellectuals in the West to suggest that the East Germans should try—as it were, on our behalf—yet another experiment. (Why the hell should they? If you want to make another experiment, kindly perform it on yourself.)

To be sure, by comparison with Poland, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia, there is a certain special melancholy about East Germany’s transition to democracy. For it is only of the first phase of the revolution, from October 9 to November 9, that people can say, with justified pride and unqualified truth, “We stood up for ourselves! We did it our way!” The first peaceful revolution, the first self-liberation in German history, did not remain a self-liberation. East Germany did not first build its own democracy and then join hands with West Germany. From November 9, the liberation, though still the work of Germans, was led as much by West as by East Germans. But it remains a liberation. And with all due caveats, the prospects for a swift, successful transition to a flourishing market economy, a stable parliamentary democracy, and the rule of law are now brighter in this central patch of old Europe than east of the Oder or southeast of the Erzgebirge.

The reunification of Germany began on November 9, 1989. It happened from below. Wherever I went in East Germany, I found evidence of new ties: from person to person, family to family, enterprise to enterprise, town to town, Land to Land. I talked to a floor tiler in Buckow. His cooperative had established ties with a West German firm. They just came knocking on the door. I gave a cheerful agricultural worker a lift home from the pub–polling station in Seeberg. Yes, he said, a baron from West Germany was going to invest in their poultry farm. The Reclam publishing house (East) has come to an arrangement with the Reclam publishing house (West). And so on.

Yet the election was a turning point. It closed the second phase of the revolution, and opened the period of formal negotiation about the terms of unification between the democratically elected governments and parliaments of the two postwar German states.

The process of unification is of such complexity, with so many interacting unknowns, that merely to indicate the main issues would require another article. Whereas the Bundesbank president initially observed that the currency union should come at the end of the transformation to a market economy, it will now come at the beginning: probably by early July, according to the Bonn government. “Engagement in spring, marriage in the summer, and then off on holiday,” said the West German economics minister, blithely. But who knows what will come after the honeymoon? Inflation for the West? Mass unemployment for the East? And how will a swift currency union be reconciled with East Germany’s Soviet and East European trade? And how will they resolve the ghastly tangle of claims on expropriated, nationalized, collectivized, or socialized property in the GDR? (This was a major issue in the campaign.)

The critical argument for a hasty currency union was to stem the hemorrhage of emigration from East Germany, and the Bonn government announced that the special treatment for migrants from East Germany (Übersiedler) will be ended simultaneously with the introduction of the DM. But what guarantee is there that this will halt the flood? The Länder of East Germany will still be much poorer than those of West Germany, with lower wages for the same work, and in a condition of profound social and economic dislocation. How will the social and economic strains of unification affect popular attitudes in East and West? Could they boost the Republican vote? East German society has scant experience of living peacefully with either political conflicts or foreigners. One of the more worrying side effects already observable in both East and West is a street-level tendency to see an answer to the problem of accommodating more Germans (including those from elsewhere in Eastern Europe) in the accommodation of fewer foreigners (Turks in the West, Vietnamese in the East, and Poles all over). And then there is the terrible problem of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“overcoming” the past) in East Germany: witness the Schnur case, and, as this article goes to press, the beginning of a verification procedure to check that the people elected on March 18 had not formerly worked for or collaborated with the Stasi. There are no completely reliable figures, but if one takes the estimates made by the commission dissolving the State Security Service then it would appear that at least one in every hundred GDR citizens was an official or unofficial collaborator.

And these are only a few of the internal aspects of unification. We have not begun to list the problems that most exercise the outside world: the so-called external aspects of unification, the stuff of the “2+4” talks, the ending of Allied rights over Berlin and “Germany as a whole,” the Polish frontier treaty, the extremely difficult substantive issues of integration into the European Community, and, most intractable of all, the whole complex of political-military security arrangements, the future of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. (I hope to return to all this in another article, when things are—perhaps—a little clearer.)

For years, German politicians have never tired of repeating that the key to German unity lies in Moscow. Recently, Chancellor Kohl’s main foreign policy adviser, Horst Teltschik, was reported (perhaps inaccurately) as saying that the key to German unity now lies in Bonn. Even if he formulated it a little more cautiously, the basic point is right. Moscow has, of course, still a great deal to say, above all on security issues. But even on security issues, the first question at the moment is what the Germans want. Of course, they disagree among themselves about what they want, as the SPD leader Oskar Lafontaine has recently demonstrated once again in advocating what would amount to German withdrawal from NATO.

One further problem with the entire process is that it will take place in the midst of a permanent election campaign. East Germany still has local government elections to come on May 6, and then probably a further round of elections in the reconstituted Länder. West Germany has two more Land elections, then the all-important Bundestag elections on December 2. And then, of course, there will be the first all-German federal elections, on present plans some time in 1991. This means that vital foreign policy positions—as over the Polish frontier or NATO—will be taken up with more than half an eye on shortterm, domestic electoral considerations. This is the new, mild, and muted form of that historic curse of German (but sometimes also of American) foreign policy: the Primat der Innenpolitik (the primacy of domestic politics).

On the evening of March 18 Chancellor Kohl was so full of himself that I was afraid he might burst. Exuding sentimental assurance, he obviously felt that the CDU had won not only the East German elections but also the West German elections in December, and that he would therefore go down in history as the chancellor of German unity. While the SPD had clearly hoped to sail into the federal elections with the wind from an East German triumph behind them, and were shocked by the defeat, I would not be quite so confident as the chancellor. As the East German elections themselves showed, the firmest predictions can be overthrown. We are in uncharted waters: the chancellor has raised great expectations and there are any numbers of things that can go wrong in the process of unification. Nobody knows exactly what has begun. All that is certain is what has ended. This has a name. It is called the German Democratic Republic.

Late that night, I found myself wondering how Brecht would have reacted. Had he offered himself, like Heym and Biermann, to the television interviewers in the frantic melée of the Palace of the Republic, he would probably have said something clever and dishonest. But in the tranquil privacy of Buckow, I think his lyric spirit—honest in spite of the man—might perhaps have written:


In the election of 18 March

The people

Dissolved the republic and

Chose another.

March 29, 1990

  1. 7

    A Stasi report to the Politburo on June 1, 1989, describes them as a “hard core of…fanatical, many times unteachable enemies of socialism, driven by so-called missionary consciousness, personal desire to count for something [Geltungsdrang] and political longing to profile themselves [Profilierungssucht].” It estimates the number of this hard core at sixty, the “leadership bodies” of the opposition at about six hundred, and the total number of those involved—even peripherally—in opposition activities at just 2,500.

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