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The West German Left & the East

In response to:

How the East Was Won from the December 16, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

In his (properly) appreciative review of Timothy Garton Ash’s In Europe’s Name: Germany and the Divided Continent [NYR, December 16, 1993] Tony Judt makes very much his own Ash’s view that the German elites and public, and especially the Social Democrats, favored order and stability over change and liberty in their policies toward central and eastern Europe. Judt, echoing Ash, put it this way: “Obsessed with peace, stability, and order, they ended up sharing the point of view of the Eastern politicians with whom they were doing business.” In particular, the German Social Democrats are charged with neglecting the demands of the citizens of the German Communist state for more freedom. Worse, some Social Democrats are charged with seeking to limit the influence of the dissidents in what was the German Democratic Republic. As Judt acknowledges, evidence for this in the German Communist archives may not be entirely authentic. On the main point, however, we can now say that the Social Democrats might have done more by way of insisting that the Democratic Republic enlarge the liberties of its citizens.

We have to admit that we make the judgment with the considerable advantage of historical hindsight. What Judt terms the Social Democrats’ obsession did rest on a fear of nuclear war which was, at the time, exceedingly justified. Reading Judt, I was reminded of the inadvertent disclosure during the controversy over the Euro-Missiles of a US army memorandum calling for the removal of the Headquarters of the Seventh US Army, in time of European tension, from Stuttgart to the United Kingdom, in view (as the memorandum continued) of the inconvenience of directing military operations in an environment in which biological, chemical and nuclear weapons might well be used. A German parliamentarian promptly rose to ask what measures were being considered to provide for the evacuation, in those circumstances, of the German population to healthier surroundings. A nuclear war in Europe would certainly have made the question of democratization in central and eastern Europe moot.

That much said, there was one respect in which the Social Democrats did quite a lot for the cause of liberty in the other German state. From 1986 onward, a commission of Social Democrats and representatives of the Democratic Republic’s Communists, the Socialist Unity Party, held a series of well-publicized meetings to discuss the ideological aspects of coexistence between the two German states. A declaration signed by both parties called upon each state to cultivate a “culture of political conflict” which would allow antithetical views to be placed before their publics. The Churches in the Democratic Republic, the dissidents (and occasionally their lawyers) and the reformist elements within the ruling party used the Communists’ signature on the document to legitimate demands for more free speech under a very rigid regime. The Social Democrats on the commission were led by Erhard Eppler, who had been a minister under both Brandt and Schmidt, and who was also President of the National Assembly of the Protestant Church. I attended the last meeting of the commission in west Germany in 1988 and was struck by the visible embarrassment of the senior Communist spokesman, Otto Reinhold, Director of his party’s Institute of Social Sciences. Eppler had insisted that the commission deepen its work on the legitimacy of political conflict within each state—and was backed, vocally, by Reinhold’s counterpart in what was then the Soviet Union, Yuri Krassin, Director of the Soviet Communist Party’s Institute of Social Sciences. No doubt, the German Communists intended their assent to the document to be understood as a token of good intentions—but, once on paper, it took on a life of its own, as the Social Democrats thought it might.

It was, at the time, exceedingly perplexing to know what could aid the east German dissidents. They also had to struggle against much passivity (and no little authoritarianism and servility) among their fellow citizens. The reformist elements in the Communist party itself, including the formidable espionage chief Markus Wolf, did not risk a challenge until after the public had stirred. I had the good fortune in the early Eighties to make the acquaintance of the group who were later to constitute themselves as The New Forum, whose call for critical dialogue with the regime in the fall of 1989 was a major element in precipitating the final crisis. During a year I spent in West Berlin in 1986, I alternately visited official institutes to argue with their staffs, and the dissidents to give what help I could—mostly, in the form of contacts with and information about the west. In short order, I was barred from the territory of the Democratic Republic and remained excluded until after the fall of Hoenecker.

To the best of my knowledge, none of the western embassies in east Berlin extended encouragement or support to this group. The US had a series of excellent ambassadors in the Democratic Republic, who were fully aware of the dissidents’ activities. They were not, however, afforded open support or even, as far as I know, invited to our Embassy. Perhaps it was felt that they were too “neutralist.” (One of their demonstrations involved a human chain between the embassies of the US and the USSR to protest the superpowers’ emplacement of missiles in the two German states.) One American Ambassador suggested to me that it was irresponsible to give so small a group the impression that anything would be, or could be, done to help them. In any event, official American policy and that of the German Social Democrats was not visibly different. Ash and Judt accuse the Social Democrats (who from late 1982 onward were in opposition) of dereliction of a moral duty the western superpower did not assume.

There is a certain ahistorical cast to their criticism. I recall a discussion between Eppler and Richard Pipes, then an official of the Reagan Administration. Eppler was also a prominent Social Democratic and Protestant critic of the emplacement of the Euro-Missiles. Pipes assured him that fears of a war being fought to the last German were ungrounded. American weapons, he said, would stop the Soviet forces deep in eastern Europe. What, asked Eppler, would become of the Poles? Pipes pleaded another engagement and departed. The Germans had good reason to think that many who where so prodigal with verbal attacks on the prevailing order in the Soviet bloc were less than rational or sovereign in their policies.

Norman Birnbaum
Georgetown University Law Center
Washington, DC

Tony Judt replies:

Norman Birnbaum is quite right. I do indeed endorse Timothy Garton Ash’s view that the problems of the opposition in East Germany were a low priority for most West German Social Democrats. I do not need to read Garton Ash’s book, however, in order to form this opinion, nor do I think we need depend upon East German archives (though these are probably not as suspect as Birnbaum suggests—at least not on this topic, as I argued in my review). In many encounters during the course of the Seventies and Eighties with SPD professors, students, activists, and journalists I recall scarcely one instance of direct, unambiguous criticism of the GDR and its policies. Such negative remarks as were made were almost invariably accompanied by a saving clause; either there was some residual Marxist virtue to be found lurking, however inconspicuously, in the economic, social, or cultural policies of the GDR, which entitled the regime to a suspension of critical judgment; or else things “over there” were indeed as gloomy as everyone said but “we” (the Federal Republic, the Americans, the West) were as bad or worse in our own way and thus in no position to judge. This moral ambivalence actually became more marked with the Euro-Missiles crisis, as Professor Birnbaum well knows. To single out the West German Social Democrats for criticism is not to imply that other West Germans did so much better on this score; nor is it to suggest that the collapse of the USSR and its satellites bespeaks rationality, moral clarity, or even simple foresight on the part of the Reagan administration or any other critics of communism. Few people can take credit for a clearsighted view of the GDR before the fall—it was the CIA, after all, who put out a report in 1986 which suggested that the East Germans were on their way to outproducing their Western brethren. But the left in Germany was egregious in its willful myopia about the Communist states to its east. Today it is reluctant to recognize that mistake—and the speed of developments and the traumas of unification have helped facilitate a degree of easy forgetting. It is not hindsight to record the uncomfortable inanities of the recent past, merely history. Professor Birnbaum may remember and sympathize with the unease of many Germans at finding themselves on the front line of a prospective nuclear war (but how many people by the mid to late-Eighties actually thought that such a prospect was imminent?), but that is no reason to lay a veil over the “pacifist realism” which disfigured much Social Democratic political calculation during the years in question.

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