Most people who worked with the Stasi tried to hide their collaboration. There were some even in the East German opposition movement who, it was later revealed, worked with the intelligence services. Wolfgang Schnur, for example, was a lawyer who defended dissidents and Church members in the East German courts. In October 1989, he cofounded the opposition group Demokratische Aufbruch, which would eventually join the Christian Democrats and vault Angela Merkel to the chancellor position. Shortly before the March 1990 elections in East Germany, however, Schnur was revealed to have informed on his clients under the codename Torsten. It was the effective end of his political career.
After the Berlin Wall fell, sociologist Irene Runge talked openly about her collaboration with the Stasi even as she participated in the new political structures, like the Round Table. “I was sitting for one of these independent groups, and I told them I had had Stasi contacts,” she told me in a conversation in her apartment in Berlin in January. “Someone said, ‘It’s great you are talking about it. It’s the past. That’s how we see it: we talk about it to solve it.’ Well, this attitude changed very soon into hate and self-administered justice.”
She lost her job at the university. Whenever she was about to publish an essay in a book or participate in a conference, letters of denunciation would arrive with the publisher or the conference organizer.
What has been so frustrating to Irene Runge is that no one was particularly interested in the details of her relationship with the Stasi, only the fact of the relationship. But history, as she points out, is more colorful than black and white.
She was always a kind of an outsider in East Germany. She spent her early years in New York City and accompanied her parents to East Germany as political returnees. She’d been raised on stories of anti-fascist resistance, and she was a believer in the GDR. But she didn’t have an easy time at school in this new land, and the suicide of her mother was an additional sorrow. As a teenager she became pregnant and dropped out of school.
“I was a dropout,” Irene Runge told me. “I found a job at the East German news agency. The head was a friend. She had also returned from exile and helped lost kids like me. I wanted to be a Party member. I was considered a radical leftist and anarchist, so the Party didn’t take me. Today I know they didn’t take me because I was seen as somebody for other uses. What happened then is that a man approached me and talked about what a good political figure I was and how bright I was and how much I could support the system by fighting the Nazis. I had no problem with that, and I wanted to be active. So I joined.”
It was not an easy relationship. In some ways, her meetings with her Stasi contacts were more like therapy. “Mostly I talked about my own doubts and my own conflicts and my own problems with understanding the system and these weird things that were going on in everyday life and what others said,” she related. “This was the only place where I could talk openly. I got answers that today I would say were sometimes simple and stupid. But I was impressed because these were very simple people.”
Ultimately, however, she fell out with the Stasi, first over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and then over the treatment of dissidents like Wolf Biermann. “Then I found out that they spread rumors that ‘she is with the Stasi,’” she continued. “I was upset. I hadn’t talked because I had signed an agreement to keep the secret, and they tried to hit me this way. About all these weird tactics we learned afterwards what they meant to do.”
This conflictual relationship, which has boiled down over the years to “collaboration,” represents only a small part of Irene Runge’s life. As a sociologist and journalist, she has written about aging and immigration and her life as a Jew in Germany. And that was what we spent most of the time in her apartment talking about, just as we did 23 years ago when I first met her in East Berlin. But her openness in talking about her episode with the Stasi has overshadowed what has been a very full and eventful life.
Do you remember where you where and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
We were at home. I called two friends. One said, “I am so tired, and I am not interested.” And the other one was crying and saying, “This is the end.” Both answers I remember exactly.
It didn’t shock me, but I didn’t expect it to happen at all and not this way.
We took our little car, our Trabbi, and we drove to the crossing at Heinrich-Heine Street. There were a lot of people there. After a while the border was opened, and people started to push in. In the middle somebody yelled, “Whoever goes over now will never be allowed to come back.” About half the people, including us, started to turn back, but it turned out it was a joke. So we walked over to Moritzplatz, which was unexpectedly as bad as a grey place in East Germany because it was a run-down area in the middle of nowhere. Then we called somebody we knew, because we had a few coins in western money. They hadn’t heard the news yet, but it did not make them pick us up for a talk, a drink, or a walk. Then we were standing there not knowing what to do. So we walked back. And it wasn’t clear what that event really meant. That woman who was crying maybe felt more deeply about it than I did in those days.
So your reaction was…
Enjoyment and shock. You know, this was not my first time in the West, so for us it wasn’t such a big thing. I had already been there and I never really cared for West Germany or West Berlin. This wasn’t the goal of my life. I liked New York, and I would have loved to see Paris again. So it was more curiosity to go over like others and come back.
Two days later we had this big Jewish conference in East Berlin, so I was quite busy in preparing that. That went ahead, and many more people came than we expected. While the Germans were rushing over to the West, unless they were too unhappy with the fall of the Wall, our people came from the West to the East, which by the way was still complicated at that time because the legal situation wasn’t clear. Many Jews from the East came to the conference because they were so confused, especially the Holocaust survivors. A year before they wouldn’t even have thought of coming, but all of the sudden they were sitting in the first row. These were the Jews who I never thought would join a Jewish get-together, which I thought was interesting only for myself and my age group.
When we prepared that conference about Jews in Germany over the last 40 years, I believe that none of us thought then that the Wall would ever collapse. Maybe I was much too DDR-like to understand that a country can just be blown away. This was really hard to believe, even though I remember that months later George Mosse said that we should stop talking about Gorbachev. Because Gorbachev and the whole Soviet Union would be gone soon, and I thought, “Well, that can’t be after 70 years.” I was not able to think of the end. It’s like you can’t say, “I am dead.” It’s impossible: we can only believe that we are alive. It’s the same with a country: you think it will continue, with better terms and with other people, new times, new politics. You think there might be a federation of the two Germanies. But not one Germany: that was not possible for me to imagine. But that was the reality.
I want to come back to that, but remind me: your parents came from New York in 1949 and you were quite young. What was your reaction to coming here, if you can remember to back then?
I was seven, and it was definitely different. But immediately when we came we were integrated in a circle of people who also came back, but before us, so I think the difference in people wasn’t so big for me. But life itself was different. Later on, when in school I wasn’t allowed to wear my American clothes and blue jeans anymore, it became even more complicated. But in the beginning I didn’t understand the differences and the language. I learned it in the streets, and I loved the ruins. I was digging around in Leipzig trying to find corpses. Maybe I was more alone. Kids like me were kept away from “normal” Germans. The parents gathered with people of their kind. We were among ourselves, among left-wing Jews and non-Jews who came back from all sorts of exiles. It was hard to meet with neighbors who had an unclear past. Most of our people came from Western exile, which often followed the Spanish war and the camps in France. I think they were probably easier to deal with compared with those who came directly from the camps and prisons or from exile in the Soviet Union.
Also they came from the better professions. My father was a self-made man in America. He had a business, a book and arts store in the 42nd street subway, which was a place where many left-wing immigrants would meet. When the newly established East German leaders, mostly survivors and returnees themselves, offered him to come back to the Soviet Zone and take over intellectual responsibility for the new Germany, he of course did it. Later he actually added professor to his name, or others added it to his name, which fitted him well. He wasn’t a professor, and he didn’t go to any university. But he was much brighter than many people that went to university, because people like him in those days read day and night.. He was an intellectual with enormous wisdom and strategic abilities. And he wrote books. He was lacking what we call formal education, which made him aggressive towards some of those with formal education and no wisdom. Also, in the beginning everybody not considered to be on our side was understood to be probably a Nazi. But it wasn’t talked about like this. It was what I felt as a child: who you were allowed to play with and who not. When I brought somebody home with known anti-Nazi parents I heard: “Oh, it’s so nice that you brought so and so,” but with others it was different. I did not bring them. So, I think it took a while to adjust. In the first weeks or month I didn’t even know that we were in Germany! Today children my age know the world already. But in those days they put you in a boat, you get off somewhere, you arrive, that’s it and you can’t go home. It was a different way of bringing children up, which is definitely – looking back – not too good a way.
Was there a point when it became clear to you that you were living in Germany and you had once lived in a different place?
Yes, I grew into the new life without realizing it. I always wanted to go home, which I considered to be Manhattan, with family and friends who stayed behind. But this feeling got less and less. I mean, it was always there: I longed to be in Manhattan. But nobody ever asked me about it or why. When I was older, people asked me, “Why did you come back? But not: what does it mean to you? Why were born in New York?” But people were not asking questions like that. They were repressing the past, which included our coming back. They were not talking about people like us, otherwise they would have learned what exile meant or what it was like in the concentration camp. So I think it was easier to deeply repress the past.
Have you read the diaries of Victor Klemperer? He repressed everything, except in his diary.
Yes, that was the problem: for a long time nobody talked about it. There were the people you knew who were sent to the camps. But since they were also resistance fighters and Communists, they wouldn’t talk about the suffering. They would talk about how they fought back even there against the Fascists, or helped other persons, or how they escaped, or how – before – they distributed leaflets against the Nazis. So, everything was always heroic. Also, the books I read as a child dealt often with Soviet resistance, with the war heroes against the Germans, with the Soviet Kundschafter [scouts], the espionage, and how to build up the new society there. Given this foundation, of course I had no problems with the GDR as a child of the Soviet Union.
At what point did you decide you wanted to become a sociologist?
After my mother died — she committed suicide in 1951 — I became more complicated. I didn’t like to go to school all the time. When I didn’t feel like it, I would stay home or go to museums. After my mother passed away, my father brought me to old friends in Leipzig first and later in Berlin. This was for maybe two to three months. When I got back to a more normal life and school. I was put in another school, a German-Russian class, but I couldn’t follow what was going on. I didn’t pick up Russian easily; the others had spoken it for a longer time. I completely failed in math. I was good in history and German, but even in English I later had a problem because I didn’t speak the Queen’s English but the English of the American imperialists.
I dropped out of school when I was 18, and I became pregnant. I remember exactly deciding that when I turn 25 I am going to take evening classes and I will finish my Abitur and I will go to university, which I did and which nobody but me believed I would. But it seems that even then, when my life was so chaotic, I was stubborn enough to follow my goals and paths. I was interested in philosophy and in Kulturwissenschaften [cultural studies], a field that was newly invented. Economics seemed too complicated. The sociology education had started a year before, and it was connected to either philosophy or economics. So when somebody told me about it, I went to the sociology department at the faculty of economics and applied, and they accepted me. I thought, “That’s good, because I’ll always be interested in philosophy and culture, but I‘ll be forced to learn and understand economics. And I’ll be the best in economics among all these philosophers.” Which in the end didn’t exactly happen in that way, but in some ways it was true, and I enjoyed learning the material and the financial basics of our past and coming societies. It helps me today.
Did you have to write a dissertation?
I didn’t have to: it was an honor to do it. First I did a diploma on leisure time. Then I did my Ph.D. on aging. In 1976, before I started the dissertation, I went to France. This was the time when everybody who was born abroad in exile knew that if you wrote a letter to Erich Honecker or the Bezirksleitung der SED [the Party’s district leadership] and explained that your parents had been in such-and-such place as German emigrants, you got permission to go and stay for a week or 10 days. You got 15 Marks in Western currency. So I applied to go visit my family in France: my uncle had survived several camps, my aunt and my cousins had been hidden in the south of France. It worked out and I got a visa to go there for less then two weeks.
When I got back from France, I immediately decided I would never work on issues in capitalist states anymore because I couldn’t understand what was going on there. My cousin’s husband was unemployed. When I visited them, they had an apartment that would have been a dream in East Germany. They had hot and cold water with central heating and an elevator. It was in the suburbs of Lyon. Today I know it was a terrible area — le banlieu [the suburbs] I think that’s what it’s called – but I didn’t see that back then. It looked like they had everything needed. They kept a Kosher house, which was also new to me. I remember that the husband, an immigrant from the Maghreb who moved to Israel later on, was unemployed. I didn’t know what his profession was, but it turned out that he’d been offered a job while I visited. I thought this was good, that he wanted to work. But he said, “It’s not good. I need 45 minutes to get there, and the law says I only have to accept it when it’s not more than 35 minutes.” Or something like that. They had three children, no jobs, but it looked as if they were able to buy everything they wanted, and this was really confusing.
So I decided to forget about more leisure-time research and do something different. That’s when I decided to take aging as challenge. Because less was written about aging. This was a subject that I could work on without having to read so much academic literature from around the world, which was hard to get even in the big libraries. Also I was driven to understand what the old Germans knew and did before they became the people they were now. This was not really my topic, because I wanted to write about aging and urbanity, but I was interested in a lot of things related to aging, and today I think it was a good choice. I can still talk about it now that I’m in it, and life in older age seems more or less the same as before. But the circumstances in society changed.
What was it like in the university system here? Was that something that posed any challenges? Were you in a minority as a woman professor?
It depended upon the field. Engineering was probably more male-oriented and clearer. But I never even thought about any of that. The women’s question came up much later, and it never really interested me. I personally never felt discriminated against being female or compared to men. I had no difficulties, and the feminist debate was not a topic until the mid-1980s, I think. I felt equal. I know that others had different experiences. I always realized I was different, but this had more to do with my character, my past, my biography, my upbringing. If you grew up in an intellectual immigrant household and a very political environment, if you spoke a different language, you were automatically different from many others at university.- Most students and professors came from working class or peasant families or from petit bourgeois households. Where I grew up you always were told to learn. That was the sense of life. That’s why, in the end, I like the Chabad movement, because many arguments concerning life are the same I picked up in my childhood. My co-students had their own lifestyles. They would not study on weekends and preferred to read only the few pages we were told to. Not like me: I loved to get into Marx’s books or texts in length.
I liked the atmosphere at university. There where even some people who came from all over the world. But my fellow students attacked me several times because I read too much and because I was too involved and too political. There was a double mindset of pretending to be pro-GDR and political but in real life having completely different attitudes that were hidden. I never had two attitudes. Today I believe that there were not too many people like me. But I still meet some kids from my childhood with a similar biography.
When did you first become interested in Jewish issues?
I think quite early. The writer Yuri Suhl, a polish Ghetto survivor, visited from time to time from New York. He got me into this. “You are Jewish,” he told me. “You should learn Yiddish, because this is the language of the Jews.” This is how I started. My father, of course, didn’t want me to because he believed that the less we knew about Jews the better. Although my father grew up speaking also some Yiddish, he never spoke about it with me.
I remember a day in 1967 when there was a call to action in the newspaper that began “We GDR citizens of Jewish background” and then there were lots of names of people I knew. It was surprising to me that they were all Jewish. Up to that day this was never a topic. But shortly after more and more Jews from abroad would visit East Berlin and us, and there were sometimes even Jewish events like the Yiddish theatre from Romania or Poland. You‘d go there and all of a sudden you’d see all these old people – comrade Jews understanding Yiddish. Then, in the university, I was befriended by Hermann Simon, who grew up in the East Berlin Jewish community. Both his parents were resistance fighters and Party members and professors at the university. We were together in the FDJ, Freie Deutsche Jugend, the socialist youth organization. He somehow dragged me and two other Jews to the Jewish community to let us feel what that meant. One became a pious Jew and left East Germany later with his family, the other one I forget. I stayed and tried to make the only Jewish institution in East Berlin more lively and attractive for myself and people like me.
You see, I grew up in a lively Jewish neighborhood without knowing it. Suddenly, when I went to this Jewish community in Berlin, I found a very narrow-minded German-Polish population who said, “We are the Jews, we know what’s going on, but we won’t tell you.” Later I would ask, “Can you tell me?” And others would say, “Go to the library, there are books there to learn.” The atmosphere really turned me off. On Sundays, there were social meetings for the members, and other people would also come. I went there to meet other Jews, but often someone would lecture on something I wasn’t interested in, like “names in the Jewish tradition.” I wanted to chat and sit together, but there was no extended sitting together. Whoever spoke got in the end flowers or a bottle of kosher wine and a thank-you for coming. We all left and that was it. Coffeehouses were rare in East Berlin. Later on, when I was on the board, I insisted we should at least offer tea and cookies. This was so confusing for the others! I wanted the community to open up, but this wasn’t the lifestyle of the in-born members. What I didn’t understand then is that I had such a different lifestyle and also my expectations weren’t shared by others. So the community wasn’t what I expected. The Jewish intellectuals I dreamed of did not go there.
The Jewish community was somehow a closed society. This was understandable given German history, but it was not good for me. You had to apply to be a member, prove your Jewish heritage. But when you finally joined the club, you weren’t made welcome. But I think this is a very German behavior.
Only years later when the community was shrinking did this change. In 1986,when I got back from my first two-week trip to New York, I came up with the idea of founding a little club, a little get-together for the not-belonging Jews in the rooms of the community. Of course the Jewish board was against this. But finally the president supported me, the others kept out of it, and I had to promise to clean up after the meetings. I didn’t charge the organization for the stamps which were needed to send out the invitation letters. At our first meeting we invited about 60 people, and maybe 80 came. We invited who we knew to be Jewish and not connected to the Gemeinde — old schoolmates and students and others we knew — and we wrote: bring whoever is Jewish. We accepted Jewish mothers and fathers. It was the right time.
The community usually catered. But this time we bought everything in the supermarket. We did what I and others like me knew from home: you fill the table with everything you have. No meat, only cheese and wine and fruits. Everybody dropped a coin in the end. It was enough. That was the beginning of my taking responsibility for something Jewish. Now I was in charge of something I really enjoyed. It worked at this for four years and then the Wall collapsed. And the people that stayed with us started another organization, the Jüdische Kulturverein.
In a way I think my Jewish consciousness developed more and more by doing all that instead of talking about anti-Semitism. In 1988, the Lubawitscher Rebbe sent two people from Brooklyn over, and that’s when I understood that I had no idea at all about Judaism. What I had heard and experienced within the East Berlin Jewish community was probably a German-Polish way of keeping up with the traditions and the holidays. I started now to understand that much more is possible. I thought then that two old men were coming, but they were these young Chabad guys with black coats and hats, and the girls started to flirt with them. We had no idea who they were: they seemed like from another planet! But they answered every question. I was so impressed. That’s when I realized that there’s a lot I had to learn. What I did know until that day came from the movies or from books. They talked to everybody and to me, they were Orthodox, charming, and friendly. When I went the next time to New York, I was taken to meet the Rebbe. He told me, “Things will change in Berlin very soon and you have to be prepared. It is good what you are doing, and you have to continue everything.” Nobody had ever said to me that I was doing good for Jews. And it soon made sense what he said about West Berlin and East Berlin changing when the Wall collapsed a few months later.
Other than the Rebbe in New York telling you things, were you aware prior to the fall of the Wall of the demonstrations taking place in Leipzig and elsewhere?
No, and not the way it happened. I was in Israel that summer to do a book. In Israel, journalists asked me what was going on in East Germany, but I had no idea. Before I had left I argued against what was going on in China – the shooting of students at the big square there. The atmosphere was much more open but I did not think about an end. It was more the hope that better times were coming. I also remember that I’d already organized forums at the university for gays and lesbians, which others didn’t want to accept. It was now possible to do things like that. I was also running political talks about foreign affairs. I brought in people who I knew would speak out. This went on until the audiences disappeared and new things were started.
When I got back from Israel, my husband told me about a demonstration on November 4. So we went there, and I was surprised at what was going on. It was meant to change East Germany from the inside not to erase the country completely. Another big shock was the demonstration on October 7, but I was still in Israel when I heard about it and it was somehow not clear to me what really happened. In Leipzig later the slogan was turned from “we are the people” into “we are one people,” which is the difference between “we are the people” and “we and the West Germans belong together.” And this happened very fast. But again I was not really involved. I didn’t keep out entirely. I wanted East Germany changed into a progressive GDR. For instance I participated in the Round Table. I had just published a book on xenophobia in East Germany, which made me the expert on this. So I was asked to join the Round Table on behalf of one of the small opposition groups that did not have enough competent members. But even then, until the elections on March 18, I believed that there could be a new and freely elected East German government, new politics, and more democracy in which all the political groups would have a say. An illusion. German unity was the stronger need for most people.
We had a visiting rabbi in February 1990 from Israel who made us do a petition on behalf of Soviet Jews. We wrote that we wanted the gates immediately opened for their immigration. Since everybody – the Soviet embassy and the East German foreign ministry – said no, I took the letter to the Round Table. There everybody supported it, which meant that the transitional government was supposed to respond. But the last East German government didn’t do anything. When DeMaziere became prime minister after the elections, one of the first things he did was open the borders for the Soviet Jews, which we made public through the Reuters correspondent I took to the shelter where the first immigrants stayed and through our Jewish cultural organization. But the Jewish community wanted to keep it a secret. They wanted to stop it. It wasn’t in Israeli or West German interest to have uncontrolled Jewish immigration. In the end the community leader supported it after unification, but when the whole thing started everybody was against us. There was no love for immigrants in both Germanys.
After a while some new young Orthodox rabbis came. The official Jewish community was not interested in those orthodox Jews from the Chabad movement, which at that time were only seen as fundamentalist Jews. But people like me were thrilled because all of a sudden there were these Jews that looked like Jews and behaved like Jews and were not interested in anything else but Jewish themes, not in cars or money. And they talked to us. So we learned Jewish life the Orthodox way. When the first Reform rabbis came over, the first thing they asked was, “Which hotel am I going to stay in?” The Orthodox would sleep on the floor if they had to.
I am curious about your experience with the Round Table structure. It was quite an interesting structure and it hadn’t existed before. When you participated in it, did you think the Round Table structure would become institutionalized?
No, I thought the Round Table would lay the ground for the coming events, for the coming government, and that all the different groups would somehow be of importance for the future. But it was so fast. The central Round Table started, I think, at the end of December or early in January 1990. I began participating in mid-January. The meetings always took place Monday afternoon. I had to bring to the university a letter proving that I was participating. It was so new and unexpected, and many colleagues seemed negative about it. I mean, who had ever lived in a country where the government had to listen to a group of organized outsiders, and the leading party had given up after some demonstrations? The Round Table consisted of many little round tables. Each one used a room and had to structure itself. We voted someone to lead the process. This was Almuth Berger, who was a protestant minister. The SED people sitting there didn’t understand what was going on. That was typical for the situation.
I was sitting for one of these independent groups, and I told them I had had Stasi contacts. Someone said, “It’s great you are talking about it. It’s the past. That’s how we see it: we talk about it to solve it.” Well, this attitude changed very soon into hate and self-administered justice.
After the Wall collapsed, racism was emerging. We talked about this at “my” Round Table. We looked for ways to integrate foreign workers and give them rights to stay. There were no concepts and no regulations left. It made sense to open the gates for the Soviet Jews and also to start finding solutions for the Vietnamese and other people living here so that a lot of them could stay in the end. But this only happened after the elections when the Round Tables where already gone. They were later seen as a transition instrument. In those days I was also one of the organizers of a big get-together at the university for immigrants and all people with ethnic backgrounds. From East and West, the groups could come, speak out, and bring their art. It was a big dancing and singing festival and also a forum. It was a really big event, which was not seen before. All the doors were open. The time sped by, and my enthusiasm kept me so busy that I obviously overlooked a lot and also what would happen in the future.
The Round Table in January was the continuation of the new ideological diversity. We had to find out what was going on; we wanted to change the leadership. This was all possible, but the people in power didn’t understand what we were talking about. The old leaders had already given up, left, were imprisoned or died soon after. Some of them were Holocaust survivors, others had fought against the Nazis. They had not experienced their youth and became stiff hardliners.
In 2010, we had the 20th anniversary of the Round Table, and I expected that this would be remembered. But no. It did not fit into the Zeitgeist. I don’t even know what happened with the idea we had. Some people said that we should write a book about what happened. I submitted my text, but in the end only a few people did write, and Almuth Berger who suggested the book should know were the material is.
You ran for office with Bündnis 90?
This wasn’t really running. They put me on the poster. I didn’t understand it then, but they needed I think 20 names so that the three people could get in. And I wasn’t even with Bündnis 90. I only came there because the guy that took me to the Round Table belonged to Initiative fur Frieden und Menschenrechte. We knew each other from university. He told me “We have two seats and we need a second person to come to the Round Table,” so I went. The dissident groups were very shaky, and today it’s said that half of them belonged to the Stasi. But I was the only one who ever talked about my own connections. The situation was funny: to see that a government goes home because a handful of people says that they are fed up with the situation. That I still have yet to digest.
When we talked in 1990, you said you liked the emergence of the PDS. I think you said,“my heart belongs to the PDS…”
I think it wasn’t called PDS yet. It was still SED/PDS. But yes, I think I felt closer to them then than to any other party or than I do today.
I remember how I felt to be invited to sit with the Initiative für Frieden und Menschenrechte at the sessions. They checked me, and I had to say who I am and then I said, “I’ve never been a dissident, I always stood with the GDR, and I still do, but I would like to do this because I am interested in the topic.” They were happy that somebody would do it, because they needed the second person and they didn’t find one in Berlin with any expertise in racism and immigration. And the Stasi was not in the way.
Did you ever become involved with the PDS after those elections?
No, not really. Two days ago I went to the reception for Die Linke. Somehow it gave me a safe feeling to see so many people I know. But that is more psychological or emotional. I don’t always understand their politics, their big politics. I understand the people, and I like many of them. But of course what I didn’t realize in 1990 was that the PDS would turn out to be a party like any other party, with all those inner fights and even some corrupting situations. Later, they gave me small chances for part-time work. I’ve been unemployed for the last 20 years because of my Stasi confession. But the foundation of the PDS offered me jobs from time to time, not steady ones but limited according to what the unemployment office would support.
So you lost your position at the university?
Immediately. By the way, the people who kicked me out were kicked out later for the same reasons. But until then they thought it was enough to get rid of me, the person who speaks about it. I wouldn’t have been upset if it had been the West Germans who had done it. But it was the East Germans, my colleagues. Before the changes, I had been very critical and had spoken out, and here were these professors who always sat back and were quiet and pretended, and all of a sudden they are the big winners and the former victims and all that. But I am not really an academic person when it comes to decent academic work and going to the archives. I always preferred my journalism and wrote books instead. So, to lose that job wasn’t a real problem in the beginning.
But the problem was that I never got a new chance. Even when I wrote an article for a paper or magazine, the editor would often receive a letter from people who called themselves victims. There were, of course, victims of the system, and some searched for revenge and outed me again and again. It took place on a very personal level. If I was invited somewhere to lecture or write for a book, it could happen that the organizers or the editor would get a call or letter that said, “If Irene Runge is going to write, we will see that you don’t get the financial support.”And I would get a call saying that I couldn’t lecture or “We can’t print your article.” This still happens today by the way. Only a few weeks ago, I did a book on Jewish Manhattan. And the organization where I was invited to read from my book received an email: “How can she read there with her past?” And then they got completely hysterical and said to me, “Wouldn’t it be better if you don’t read?” The event took place because I did not resign, but the event wasn’t published widely.
The ones who attack me don’t want to know anything; they just want to get rid of me. This is the best way to keep people like me from talking in public. At the beginning I was willing to talk about my Stasi-past. I was saying, “Come on, let’s talk about it.” But nobody wanted to talk about it. More or less that’s the way it is even today.
I think that it’s part of the German character not to talk about it. Some people I know left Germany because of that, because they couldn’t work. They got depressed, nobody listened to them. Others became independent and rich. It didn’t even help me when I said that I already had my fights with the Stasi at the end of the 1960s and the 1970s and that I broke with the organization around 1979. I was told it was not true. For 10 years the Stasi didn’t consider me reliable anymore. That’s not even taken into consideration, Strange, isn’t it? Today it’s all on the Internet. Whoever looks up my name will find it. But again, I am not trying to get rid of it. I think the real phenomenon is that nobody over here wants to know what happened. I did what came out of my history. History is more colorful than just black and white. They have their stereotypes, and that’s it.
Can you talk a little more about what happened?
I was a dropout. I found a job at the East German news agency. The head was a friend. She had also returned from exile and helped lost kids like me. I wanted to be a Party member. I was considered a radical leftist and anarchist, so the Party didn’t take me. Today I know they didn’t take me because I was seen as somebody for other uses. What happened then is that a man approached me and talked about what a good political figure I was and how bright I was and how much I could support the system by fighting the Nazis. I had no problem with that, and I wanted to be active. So I joined. But it was much looser and different than what is seen today. That was 1961!
I never dealt with the institution. There was that one guy, and later another guy was introduced to me and took me over. Basically they would call, so we would get together and they asked questions about political events, my opinions, about people’s attitudes, and so on. I would answer if I could or I would argue. Either I had to write it down, or they wrote it down. And I always thought that it is important that the leadership knows what’s going on. Mostly I talked about my own doubts and my own conflicts and my own problems with understanding the system and these weird things that were going on in everyday life. And what others said. This was the only place where I could talk openly. I got answers that today I would say were sometimes simple and stupid. But I was impressed because these were very simple people. This guy I had to deal with came from a village. He was a poor farmer’s son who had educated himself. And he loved going to the opera. Culturally he was not exactly my cup of tea, but I honored what he’d made of himself, and I didn’t even think about the ministry or the whole system. Never ever. You signed up and you got a different name, and this was also part of the adventure. Later serious conflicts developed between us, conflicting ideas established themselves, and so I grew out of it, but that’s another story.
You said you’d read Soviet espionage books back then.
Yes, exactly, that’s what I thought what I was doing. It was like having a cup of tea with the guy. You gossip, and you don’t think about what comes out of it. And then of course I had real arguments. The first time I contradicted the given line was already in 1968 with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, but somehow I got back in during the 1970s, I don’t know how. And in 1978, we had big controversial arguments over Wolf Biermann [the musician/dissident who was kicked out of the GDR]. I think my beliefs were dissolving at that time. Basically I thought, “I am right, and they are wrong.” Which means people like me know better but they are stubborn. This led to the day when that was it. I couldn’t talk to him anymore, and he couldn’t talk to me, and I left. Then I found out that they spread rumors that “she is with the Stasi.” I was upset. I hadn’t talked because I had signed an agreement to keep the secret, and they tried to hit me this way. About all these weird tactics we learned afterwards what they meant to do. Even before, people thought that I was with the Stasi because I was such a convinced person. But I can’t remember that we ever even talked about it. And then the Wall collapsed.
Did you give much thought to talking about it?
I wanted to after 1989, but nobody wanted to hear it. There were some interviews with West German academics, but this is not publicly known. Also I went to meetings where people were supposed to talk to each other about their different pasts. But I learned very fast not to talk too much because I would always be attacked even before I spoke, mostly of course from people that didn’t know what I wanted to say. It’s interesting that they used the same vocabulary that we used in GDR-times when I was young to prove you were against the Nazis. I always argued back. I tried to say that this wasn’t the same. But my stereotypes about “you Germans,” which I had given up long ago, had been the same as theirs, and I felt in those years that it served the Germans right to be separated by the Wall. Nobody wanted to hear about those mistakes either.
After long-term unemployment I was forced into early retirement. In the end I would say today that everything that happens is also for the good. I think it was good that I didn’t continue at the university. When I look at some people who stayed at the university, who didn’t have a Stasi but a Party background, they often felt bad for 20 years because people did not trust them. They never talked about it. They cut relations to people from the old days and tried to integrate into the new times. I don’t know how that felt. Some people I knew became lawyers or managed to be successful in business and created their own businesses, , sometimes succeeding in real estate. And there where the artists too who went an creating art and either lost their audiences or gained new ones, became poor or made it. One friend of mine who was a historian at the Stasi, no way, he became unemployed and many other professionals too: nearly everybody with strong Party or government ties. The West Germans were silly. They should have opened their parties instead of closing them to people with an East German left-wing past. That’s why the left overs had to organize themself as a party, that’s why so many NGOs developed and included people like myself. It seems to be a principle. Berlin would be so much livelier if it weren’t for this idea of keeping people out of society. The margins are stuffed with great people.
Is there anything from the GDR that has survived in any way in your estimation?
It’s perhaps how people treated each other. It seems to be more open among the Easterners compared with people of the same intellectual status in the West. We don’t talk about money all the time. Yesterday somebody was here, someone with a great education. He worked for the Bundestag, he did international law, he worked outside Germany for interesting NGOs. But he is scared about his future. He has this fear that when he’s 65, he won’t have a proper retirement. He’s around 40 now. When I was 40, I didn’t think about retirement money. I didn’t care because life at that time was too exciting to think about old age, People who are my age in the West, people who must have a decent pension, they often say that they can’t afford certain things. They invested, they own houses. That is something we in the East learned: how to make gold out of everything. If you can’t go to a restaurant, you throw a party instead. If you can’t travel, you enjoy Berlin. West Germans are socialized in a different way. When you grow up in a society where you didn’t get everything, you had to be inventive. It is a different way of life. That’s what I feel when meeting people from here and there. But, of course, this is also a one-sided view. Many people here and there are also alike.
Also, Berlin is different from the rest of the country. When I go to a small East German town, I don’t feel that I belong. I hate it. When I am in the same situation in the West I have the same feeling. In this neighborhood here where everybody seems to speak English, Hebrew, or French, I feel like I’m on constant vacation. But the moment I go to Marzahn or Lichtenberg, I understand that those places didn’t change that much. They have such a grim atmosphere. I went to a funeral in Baumschulenweg, and the shops seemed boring and horrible to me, the people in the street were mostly old, it looked greyer and poorer as if the GDR had been over only for just five years. It’s the way they looked at me: somehow hostile and with no curiosity. Here in Mitte, everybody seems friendly and looks around: who is coming, what’s cooking, what are people talking about. It’s a different atmosphere in different parts of town.
So in the parts of Berlin that you like, it’s become more like Manhattan, more international, more dynamic…
Yes. Also it is much younger now. Here where I live I am always the oldest. There is nearly nobody my age. But they are nice. They treat me in a friendly way. But in such a neighborhood, I can’t find a reflection of myself. This was my problem in the GDR too, that I never was able to find a reflection. But I didn’t know for a long time that this was my identity problem. So, this is why today I feel so good in my part of Berlin.
I think you never live in a country. You only live in a neighborhood. And you are shocked when you leave it because it’s cold outside.
Twenty years ago, we talked about economic change. At the time, you said that it was very important for capital to move into eastern Germany, because it would change things and this was the wave of the future and the sooner it happened the better. It seems you have kept pretty much the same attitude, but you said that you were criticized for this…
Democracy is an ideal construct. In real life, well, I’m torn what to say. Berlin is a filthy and poor city. Some people don’t clean up. Other people don’t care that homeless people are all over the place dropping everything that they have. I can’t really understand it. I dislike the dirt and have no answer for what to do. The Left and Greens tell me that it is their right to do what they do. But I say it is not their right to disturb me. It might be their right to sit and beg, but I don’t see why they should be allowed to leave all their junk behind. A system has certain limits, and if you stretch them too much it will just break. It’s like with Manhattan: it had to get worse before politicians decided to change things. Before Rudy Giuliani, nothing happened. Then Giuliani said “zero tolerance.” Here they say we have to have tolerance, to be tolerant, but it’s this sort of “tolerance” that destroys the quality of life for 80-90% of the people. And it does not help the other 10%. That’s a contradiction that needs a solution soon.
Yes, everybody should have good housing. That’s clear. So they have to build more. But who are they? I have a small pension, we don’t pay too much rent. But if I were really poor, I think I wouldn’t like to live here among the richer people, because I would see all these happy young people all the time and could not join them. But again – it’s hard to make decisions. It’s not yet like in Manhattan over here, but I don’t think we can avoid this development without pain. Of course, we could say that every house owner should rent out to people who have no money. But then you’d need more state ownership, and then you’d have the GDR situation when you paid hardly any money for rent, just 3 or 5 percent of your income. So what do you do as an owner with the 3-5% if you want to keep up the houses? They were all run down. Who should have made the investments? That’s what happened, and everybody complained about what the houses looked like from the outside. The inside we changed ourselves because we needed more comfort. People forget that this comes when you forget the basic laws of housing and investments. Look at the houses that are not further funded now because the city cut the subsidies: they are lacking a lot of things and better-off people often leave them. That’s how you create poor neighborhoods, even ghettos. So it’s a double-edged sword.
Before the elections every four or five years the politicians like to say what people want to hear, but in the end it is a question of who is paying for the promises. To say that everybody should get a minimum wage, to get 1,000 euro a month just to be around, that’s nice, and that’s exactly the sum I have now for working 40 years, that’s my pension, which I think is okay. But who will pay a thousand euro to millions of people who did not work 40 years? You can’t do big things with such a sum, but you can live nicely, especially with a husband who has a bit more. Of course I can understand it is difficult to live on social welfare when it’s only 380 euro per month and payment for rent and heating, but to say that everybody should get 1,000, when other people just get 500 for working? I doubt it makes sense. But I have no idea how the gap between poor and rich could be closed.
When I was unemployed, I didn’t even look for a job. I knew I couldn’t get one that would suit me. But with these little jobs I had, it worked out. This was, by the way, the big surprise about capitalism: unemployment assistance and an unemployment office helping out when needed.
When you think about to 1989/1990 to that time, have there been any major shifts in your thinking, any substantial second thoughts?
I don’t know if these were substantial thoughts. I think it was a lot of emotions. It was a shock. I think I was paralyzed for years: I couldn’t read books, I couldn’t go to the movies, I couldn’t concentrate. I didn’t sleep well. It’s like when you have a love affair and you break up: you are completely paralyzed and you only see dark. I didn’t know then that I had to see the good and the bad, but now I understand it. Also I had this concept of capitalism that I studied with Marx: this early capitalism with extensive expropriation of the working classes, with money as the only goal suppressing other needs. I was surprised at the new capitalism in Germany, which they call the “social-market system.” During my student time and later, I thought this was a lie, because the basic capitalist interest must be fulfilled and that can’t be a social one. So, this social aspect was what I didn’t see in the beginning. But I learned to appreciate it.
This came up when we founded our Jewish organization, and somebody said, “You can get money for that! All you have to do is invent a project, develop a financial structure, and some people will finally have a job. We developed projects on behalf of Jewish migrants and old Jews. So it happened, we got support, offered jobs to others, and this was a real surprise. It changed over the years: things became narrower. What we did in the 1990s would not function today.
What happens now is even weirder, because it’s the conservative party that’s doing all these left-wing things that we thought would never happen, like reviving the kindergartens which were rejected after 1989. All of the sudden it’s the Merkel government that decided that every child under three has to find a place in a kindergarten by this coming July or else the parents can sue the city. Or gay marriage, which also took place under this current government. So in a way it shows that even the conservative party is not what it used to be.
It’s the same with all the fears about the neo-Nazis. Once in my life I met some: they came to one of my readings. I sat down and talked to them. And when they talked to me, they spoiled their own image because talking to me was against their own basic belief. I’m sure they hated themselves for giving in.
So you corrupted them simply by talking to them.
I don’t know if it was corruption. But I confused them. They couldn’t misbehave because they were polite petit bourgeois boys. I could have gotten up and said “fuck off” or something. But they reminded me of the old days: they hadn’t talked politics with anybody different from themselves. They were already a product of the new times. I would prefer if that would not exist, but I don’t fear them. I can’t see why anybody believes there could be no anti-Semites in Germany when they are all over the world — even in Israel. So why shouldn’t they be here? We have to watch out. And here there’s less of them, maybe because many people are much better educated and know more about German history and there is such resistance against this extreme right-wing behavior, which you don’t have in other parts of Europe. So this is the positive within the negative.
Mr. Kohl had this idea of reunification at a time when nobody really believed in it. And now we see the problems and some say, “Ohh, we shouldn’t have done it!” But I think it’s good that it took place. Divided countries are no solution, and our other, socialist Germany was obviously not what was needed at the time. On the other side I wonder where all the money for unification came from. What and who stood behind this flow of money? Historians in the next decade will find out.
Berlin, January 30, 2013
In Robin Ostow’s book on East German Jews (“Jews in Contemporary East Germany,” New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), Irene Runge discusses her life as a returnee to East Germany. Born in 1942 in New York City, she returned with her family to the GDR after the war. Like many Eastern European leftists exiled by World War II, the Runges went home to the native land to build a new society. Irene Runge grew up in a non-religious family and only later discovered her Jewish roots.
As a sociologist, Runge focuses on urban problems, the family and minorities in society. She has written books on the elderly, on the problems of the East German family structure, on Kristallnacht. Her most recent work, due out shortly, is on xenophobia–a particularly timely subject. It is a collection of interviews, discussions with students, and general information. In her study, she discovered that there are only 190,000 foreigners living in East Germany and this small percentage of the population has nonetheless produced quite disproportionate effects. Why? She replies: because there has been virtually no intermingling in German society and foreigners generally stay within their own groups. Because of the strong fascination with law and order that runs through the population and that comes out particularly strongly in relation to those people who are perceived to be different. She attributes much of these aspects of German society to the German family structure. “Everything is repressed: joy, fun, sex. It is a community of solidarity that functions by excluding others through various rituals.” Why then the people’s desire for integration with FRG and not exclusion? “People here want to be integrated but do not want to be doing the integating themselves.”
Her interests are of course formed by her own personal experience. She considers herself in a minority position for several reasons: for being Jewish, for her politics (“I was too left-wing then and now again I’m too left-wing”), for being an outspoken woman, for being an outspoken intellectual. Is she a feminist? “I never really had to emancipate myself. I was always considered feminist and I don’t think I am.”
The Jewish experience in the GDR provides ample opportunity for feelings of marginality. In 1925, Berlin was a center of Jewish life, with a population of 170,000. By 1945, only 7000 Berlin Jews had survived the war. As in Poland, anti-semitism did not end with VE-day. 1953 witnessed an additional exodus of GDR Jews. By 1956, the situation had stabilized, many Jews rehabilitated and prominent Germans of Jewish background, such as the GDR Minister for Church-State Affairs Klaus Gysi and former Politburo member Albert Norden, returned to the governmental fold. Today, Klaus’ son Gregor is the charismatic leader of the PDS.
Runge has been involved with the Judaishe Gemeinde (Jewish community) since the 1970s. In late March, she participated in the formation of two new groups: an Israeli-German friendship society and a Jewish cultural society. She hopes that the latter will sponsor lectures and discussion on Jewish issues including the World War II experience as well as perhaps establish a bookstore cum cafe cum information center in a building leased by the government.
But the thread that combines these experiences of marginality is her left politics. Unfortunately, we only had a brief chance to discuss this topic. She thought that the most important thing for the left in the GDR was to get power through business. Left leaders should all to into business, raise money and capital and then compete for influence. She was not, I should note, being sarcastic. She honestly seemed enamored of entrepreneurship, in a kind of strange Gorbachevian way. She even talked about the pressing need for fast food in the GDR. The bringing in of culture from abroad–even if it be as vulgar as McDonalds–would have the beneficial effect of “internationalizing Germany rather than Germanizing Europe.” What about exploitation? “It’s not that I like it, but there’s no real way around it.”
In the elections, she ran as a candidate for Bundnis 90 with the group, Initiative for Peace and Human Rights. She was asked because of her work at the round table on the issue of foreigners. But she took a spot on the ballot that she knew that she wouldn’t win–she absolutely did not want to win–because she didn’t really want to run against the PDS (“my heart belongs to Gregor Gysi”). She has always had an unusual relationship with the government and the dissidents, straddling the two realms. The Party considered her “too independent” but the dissidents never wholly accepted her (someone else told me that the dissidents simply thought that she was Stasi). So now she still publishes in the official publishing house but runs for Parliament under the auspices of the oldest and most respected human rights organization in the GDR (see below for more on the IFM). She holds great promise for the PDS. “The PDS has great people now. I think Gregor Gysi will attract good people–left-wing yuppies.” It was these yuppies that I think she had in mind when I asked her about how the GDR might maintain its special status. Subsidize culture on the one hand and on the other, create GDR entrepreneurs that are different from FRG businesspeople.