The events of 1989 are largely remembered for the people on the streets. Thousands came out in Berlin to tear down the Wall. Huge throngs appeared in Wenceslas Square in Prague. Protesters massed in the central squares of the cities in Romania and Bulgaria. Solidarity brought out huge numbers of its supporters for election events in the late spring of that year.
Before 1989 – and before 1980 in Poland – dissent in the region was not a mass movement. It consisted of small groups of people who had great difficulty reaching out to other people for fear of discovery and arrest. Some groups eventually decided to go public, such as Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. The peace movement in the East German churches in the 1980s maintained a semi-public status.
But in the early days of dissent in East Germany, the state and the Stasi were dedicated to eradicating all signs of opposition. As Thomas Klein, a leading oppositionist from those days explained to me, they didn’t even know the size of their dissident circles until after 1989 when the Stasi files became available.
There were two levels to underground work. “One was the level of just finding people you could talk to in private groups wherever you were working,” he told me in an interview in Berlin in January. “The other level was that of real conspiratorial work, which involved the development of alternative concepts for Eastern Europe. For that of course you had to get a hold of critical papers and information from the West and get them disseminated in Eastern Europe, and that was very difficult. In the 1970s, we had to rely on the West. But in the 1980s, we put out our own papers under the auspices of the Protestant church.”
“If you wanted to be active in the political underground of the GDR, you had to conspire,” he continued. “If you worked with conspiratorial newspapers that existed in the 1980s in the GDR and in the 1970s with foreign newspapers, it was only a question of how long it would take until they caught you. They caught me in 1979. And if you not only worked underground, but also publicly contradicted the Party line, it was certain that you would be imprisoned.”
Klein was imprisoned for 15 months. The state offered to send him to West Germany. But he refused. That was a major principle for the dissidents: they wanted to stay in East Germany and change the country from within. Klein stayed and continued to work as a dissident. He was under a travel ban, but the political situation became somewhat more tolerant in the 1980s. The underground movements had been largely destroyed, and a new dissident movement emerged that would eventually become the basis of New Forum and other groups that emerged in 1989.
When I met Thomas Klein in 1990, he was active in the United Left. He went on to serve in the East German parliament and then briefly in the Bundestag, an experience he found rather disappointing. He was not happy to see the decline in influence of the anti-Stalinist left in East Germany. “We were the most brutally oppressed of all the dissidents and were never in the position to inject oppositional discourse into society,” he concluded. “But you are always responsible for your own action, so this isn’t any excuse for our incapacity to be politically effective.”
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing and what you were thinking when the Berlin Wall fell?
I remember very well what I was doing. But I thought it was a disruption of what we were doing at the time. We were occupied with the making of a newspaper, which we thought was important. We were looking to change the situation in the GDR. We were not interested in being able to go to West Germany. So we completely underestimated and misjudged the extent to which everything would change for us. Of course, we knew that this was a significant event and would have an impact on us, but we were negligent in dealing with this question. But again, we were concerned with building a new GDR, and we belonged to organizations that did not support the idea of reunification. We wanted a different, independent East Germany.
How long did you spend in the Parliament?
I was a member of the last parliament of the GDR. The legislative period started in March 1990 after the elections, and the parliament was dissolved on October 3, 1990. A certain portion of the elected members was taken into the Bundestag, and I was one of them. So I was in the Bundestag for two months until they had a regularly scheduled election in December. I was on the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) list for Saxony, but I didn’t get in.
I’m curious about your experiences between March and October during the GDR parliament. Were you able to achieve anything?
Nothing at all. I could speak, but I couldn’t change anything. One reason for this was that I was a non-faction member. I had very limited speaking time, and I had no voting rights on the Economic Committee I belonged to. So it was my task to make some of the grotesque actions in parliament public. I was only allowed to make three speeches.
And what were the speeches about?
Different things, but generally about economic policy and its social consequences, which was my most important field of expertise.
Were you able to work with any of the other representatives of other parties?
Even earlier than the March elections, since January 1990, the political actors in the GDR that represented the left position were isolated, and so were our allies in the new political unions and dissident groups, like what became later become Alliance 90. The new political formations blocked any efforts for collaboration. In this situation, we tried to work with individuals in these political formations with whom we shared ideas. This was the only way to get political attention.
When we talked in 1990, you said that one of the purposes of the United Left was to find a political alternative to both Communism and Capitalism. I am curious if you think that the PDS emerged as such an alternative, and if it represents this alternative today?
Our hope that the anti-Stalinist movement would emancipate itself was misplaced. The PDS verbally distanced itself very forcefully from Stalinism. But in actual fact its break from Stalinism was insufficient. For that reason, our hope that the anti-Stalinist Left within the PDS would ally with the independent anti-Stalinist left was misplaced. This project failed. And the United Left – the real name was the Initiative for the United Left – was a failure in the sense of realizing that hope. The radical left in the West was finished in 1990, and the left in the East was just at its beginning. But this beginning was just as much a failure as any hopes associated with it.
And how would you evaluate the PDS today? It is perhaps the one party from the GDR that has still survived with some size at the federal level. How would you evaluate their program?
The Left Party (Die Linke), as they are called today, is a social-democratic party, with all attributes that social-democratic parties develop. It maneuvers between verbal radicalism and political opportunism. One can count on the Die Linke to verbalize certain social faults, but the party is also known, when in government, to participate in measures that worsen social circumstances. It’s just like with the Greens, as we will see in the coming election campaign. There is no political force in Germany today that can sustainably solve the problems that will develop in the next 20 years.
You were in the East German parliament until October 3, and you were then one of several members who went to the West German parliament. Was your experience in the all-German parliament any different from your experiences in the GDR parliament?
Yes. My experiences in the GDR parliament were very exciting. It was unclear how the situation would develop in certain areas, so one had the hope that one could influence one thing or another. My experience in the Bundestag was something else. I had a very short time to get to know the role parliaments play in a democracy like that of the FRG. Also there I had the pleasure to sit in committees and to observe the habits of the representatives. Like in the GDR, I was an independent and didn’t have to bow to any party discipline. It became very quickly clear who was determining the course of politics, and it wasn’t the representatives. I knew this before, but it was made very clear to me there. You could really see up close how the politics of special interests are imposed.
You were on the list for Saxony, but you said the PDS didn’t get enough votes in Saxony…
I was on the list for Dresden. I am not sure any more, but they must have gotten about four or five seats in Saxony, and I was somewhere like number eight or nine.
Where you disappointed?
No, after my experiences in the Bundestag I was more relieved that I didn’t get in.
You were happy to be through with your life as a politician?
Yes, my life as a politician but not my political life. The precondition for the continuation of my political life was the ending of my life as a politician.
Tell me what you did after you left?
From 1992 to 2010, I worked as a contemporary historian at an institute in Potsdam and wrote books. I have also written books since then, but that was the end of my employment there. My Ph.D. is in mathematics, but that was due to my having been under the professional ban in the GDR.
Can you describe the circumstances of your arrest and imprisonment in the 1970s?
If you wanted to be active in the political underground of the GDR, you had to conspire. If you worked with conspiratorial newspapers that existed in the 1980s in the GDR and in the 1970s with foreign newspapers, it was only a question of how long it would take until they caught you. They caught me in 1979. And if you not only worked underground, but also publicly contradicted the Party line, it was certain that you would be imprisoned.
You were reasonably young, in your 20s or 30s, when you did this underground work?
I was 20 when the Russians invaded Prague, and that was the key event for our generation. After that, you had to decide whether you were with the system or not. If you decided you weren’t, then that was that. You became a dissident, and there wasn’t any going back.
You were the same age as the 1968 generation in West Germany.
As much as we followed what was going on in Western Europe, our most important focus and allies were of course the leftists in other Eastern European countries.
So you were aware what Adam Michnik was doing in Poland in 1968 or the brief protest of the Moscow Trust Group against the invasion?
Of course, the information about what was happening in Eastern Europe came to us from West Germany and our friends and comrades there. A lot of us had a travel ban and couldn’t go to Prague or Warsaw. But others could. These people would meet with West Germans who could go to Warsaw or Prague. Or in one case, we wanted to meet some Poles who were not allowed into East Germany but who were allowed to go to West Germany, and we met them on their transit route at the train station.
So it was very difficult to have a solidarity network within East Berlin?
Yes, sometimes it was very, very hard. During the 1980s there was kind of a loosening up of things, and some people were allowed to go to Hungary. But still, people like me couldn’t travel at all. The trick was to send people the Stasi didn’t know about yet.
Tell me a little about this underground network?
There were two levels. One was the level of just finding people you could talk to in private groups wherever you were working. The other level was that of real conspiratorial work, which involved the development of alternative concepts for Eastern Europe. For that of course you had to get a hold of critical papers and information from the West and get them disseminated in Eastern Europe, and that was very difficult. In the 1970s, we had to rely on the West. But in the 1980s, we put out our own papers under the auspices of the Protestant church.
How large would you estimate your network was in the 1970s in the GDR?
During the 1970s there were mostly small groups. Of course, it’s always a minority in a dictatorship. There were small circles of Trotskyists and Marxists and a very few Maoists. They were not able to network among themselves very well, because if one was discovered then everybody else would also be discovered. But we did have connections to the East and the West. We didn’t really know how many groups there were inside the GDR until after 1990. Only because of the Stasi archives did we find out. But by the end of the 1970s, this whole network had been smashed, and then new and different forms of resistance emerged during the 1980s.
And what were the circumstances of your arrest?
One element that was important during that time was the fight against professional bans in East Germany. In particular, there was the expulsion of singer and song-writer Wolf Biermann in 1976, which resulted in the wholesale clearing out of the cultural scene in East Germany. They all left, and then many of their supporters were subject to professional bans. The activity I was involved in in 1978 was protesting professional bans on writers. We sent protest letters to the press and to authors, not with the expectation that they would be published. But once they were, we could use them, and in that sense we were acting legally.
But we were doing things that were very much unwanted, this public protest against the wave of artists leaving the country. The result was extremely embarrassing for the authorities. We were also in touch with people on the left in West Germany, particularly two organizations: the Bahro Committee and the Socialist Eastern Europe Committee (SOK). These were formed after the arrest of Rudolf Bahro, who was the most prominent of the people who came up with alternative socialist visions at the time.
The government was very upset by such connections, which were illegal because they were foreign connections and could be called agent activity. So we were accused of treason. They decided to arrest three of the people involved in that protest movement, including myself. So I was imprisoned for 15 months.
And was there a trial?
Yes, of course.
What kind of trial was this? Later there was the famous trial in the 1980s when the defendants had Gregor Gysi and Lothar de Maizière and Wolfgang Schnur as their lawyers.
Gregor Gysi was my lawyer too. There were only two kinds of political trials in East Germany. Either they were secret and the public was barred, or else they were show trials. The show trials were over by the end of the 1950s.
How was Gregor Gysi as a lawyer? Did it make any difference to have a lawyer, or were the arguments largely pro-forma?
Lawyers had very little effect on the course of a trial, because of the way it was run. I had no reason to complain about Gysi. He succeeded in doing the one thing we wanted him to do, which was getting our statement, which we filed in appeal of our conviction, into the court record.
They gave you a sentence of 15 months. Did you have to serve all 15 months?
What they wanted to get me for was a charge of so-called treasonable agent activity. They had the information on that. But that information came from a Stasi informer who was in West Berlin. So they couldn’t call him to court, and they had no confession. So, the best they could do in terms of proving something was a lesser charge, which was illegal association. This only got you two years, whereas a treasonable agent activity got you 10 years. So I got 15 months, which I served in full.
Was the experience in prison as difficult as you had expected it to be?
No, there was a difference between pre-trial detention and the actual sentence. The problem was that I had already done 10 months in pre-trial detention, so I only had five months after I was convicted. I served them in Bautzen II, which was a notorious political prison. But I knew what it was like, because I had known people that had been in there. In pre-trial detention I had the fortunate situation of being placed for a short time in a cell with the son of the Nigerian minister of education, since I could speak English.
And did they allow you books?
Yes, the pre-trial detention in Hohenschönhausen had an excellent library.
Did you at any point consider leaving East Germany? You said that you could apply for permission to go to West Berlin and attend a funeral, and that the government wanted critics to leave the country. Did you ever consider it?
After I got out of prison, there was a complete ban on any travel to Eastern European countries, and I didn’t go to the West at all. The only time the question came up for me was in that trial when the charges were being prepared, and it wasn’t clear whether I was going to be charged with agent activity or illegal association. Even if they didn’t have all of the evidence, they could still convict you if they wanted to. During that time they offered to drop all charges if I requested to leave for West Germany. But I refused. We had agreed that we would not accept such a thing, because it would have delegitimized everything we had done. We never considered it during the 1980s either.
When you got out of prison, was it possible to immediately resume your political activities or did you lie low for a while?
It was impossible not to get involved in political activity again. It was not a time when you could lay low. There was Poland. There was the beginning of the struggle against the Pershing missiles. There was the emergence of the dissident groups in the Protestant church.
But the government had already identified you as a dissident. So you must have felt that their eyes were constantly on you whatever you did.
Of course I was aware that I was in this class of people known as dissidents. But things had changed from this conspiratorial realm to something that was semi-public. A sphere of dissident groups was formed in the shadow of the Protestant church. By the end of the 1980s, we started publishing things semi-openly in these church bulletins, which we were able to use as political forums. By the end of the 1980s, there were around 70 of these in East Berlin. The Friedrichfelder Feuermelder, where I published articles, was one of the most radical of them. That was the main difference. The situation had changed.
In the 1970s you could write an article, smuggle it into West Germany, and then smuggle the magazine back into GDR, and then you’d get arrested. In the 1980s, you had your own little publications where you could publish and they wouldn’t arrest you for it. They would just hassle you with administrative measures or fire you from your job, that kind of thing. The political fallout in the West from the political trials was too high for the government.
I’d like to hear your opinion about the rise of these small political groups and their eventual convergence into Alliance 90. On the one hand, the opposition was getting larger gradually, especially after 1988. On the other hand it wasn’t exactly left. In some cases, these groups wanted to distance themselves from left ideas. How did you feel about this?
It’s true: during the 1970s, the people in the underground were ideologically firm leftists. And the new wave that came during the ‘80s was indeed not necessarily leftist. But they were equally critical of capitalism and of Stalinism. In none of the groups, and that includes Democratic Awakening, the group Angela Merkel belonged to, were there statements referring to reunification. That changed after January 1990, and the division was still obvious at the Round Table.
When you look at Germany today, is there any hope that you have that any of the alternatives that were discussed in the 1980s in East Germany or any of the left alternatives that were also discussed in West Germany at that time will come back in any form here in Germany?
To some extent, a lot of the demands have not been met yet. But the chances of meeting them are even less likely than they were then. Certainly some political changes have taken place. We didn’t have the idea, for instance, that freedom of the press was an abstract value in and of itself, but treated it rather as a vehicle for fundamental change. Those fundamental changes have not been carried out and can’t be under this system. There was a song by Biermann called from Rain to the Piss, and so from bad to worse, or from the frying pan into the fire.
When you look back to your philosophy in 1989 and 1990, have you had any second thoughts? Have you had any rethinking of your positions since then?
That is a difficult question. One aspect is that the left was defeated badly in 1990 because it was not able to adequately respond to the political situation, and also because of the long period of time that Stalinism dominated the left and discredited the aim of democratic socialism. By 1989 what had been something new in 1968, for instance, in Czechoslovakia, wasn’t possible anymore.
Also, in most of the countries, the old Communist Party became the new social-democratic party. We can take comfort in the fact that everything that we saw as foreboding in 1990 has actually come to pass. Those parties still can’t formulate any kind of program that is politically effective in society. Despite their critique, they still have no vehicle for implementing what they want to do.
But I didn’t answer your question. Any anti-Stalinist left has to accept its defeat, but that begs the question: what did they fail to do during their period of opposition that they should have done? You could make a number of points here. But you have to take into account the situation we were living under during those 40 years. We were the most brutally oppressed of all the dissidents and were never in the position to inject oppositional discourse into society. But you are always responsible for your own action, so this isn’t any excuse for our incapacity to be politically effective.
Berlin, January 30, 2013
Interpreter: Phil Hill
The Interview (1990)
Thomas Klein represents the United Left (VL), a group that attracts mainly young people. As a political party, it picked up only 20,000 votes (.18 percent), enough for one delegate to parliament.
“We are not the whole left,” he told me. “But we have assembled here different wings–left Christians, Marxists, democratic socialists. A number were involved in groups long before the changes. Most were extremely oppressed. Left opposition to Stalinism was considered the most dangerous. A lot of us were in prison, a lot weren’t allowed to work. In October, a project began to start a dialog between all left people in order to make a consensus and prepare a clear program for change.”
On the elections, Klein said: “One can say that not only the left forces lost but also the GDR citizens. They don’t know this yet but we hope that they will soon.” What did VL offer? “In general, we want to construct an alternative to Stalinism and capitalism. But there was not enough political clarity and foundation for such an alternative.”
I asked about the Bundnis 90 slogan “neither left nor right.” He dismissed it as rather naive: the left in the GDR, even when it goes under different names, is affected by opportunism and that opportunism generates unfortunate compromises. What did he think of the new PDS? “There are some very serious left factions in the PDS and they are our compatriots on certain political questions. But the PDS does not construct a clear political program.” But the VL saw its main work as outside of parliament, a strategic decision as much dictated by preference as by the reality of only one parliamentary representative.
On other issues:
* newspaper coverage of VL during elections: they were ignored by major FRG newspapers but contacts were made with other left newspapers
* SDP: the SDP in the GDR is more right than the SDP in the FRG. People in the ranks are sympathetic to the left; but leadership is not
* Stalinism: “The real crime of 40 years of Stalinism is that it has driven the idea of socialism out of the minds of people here.”
* economic program of the VL: factory councils; monetary union without social turbulence; tempering of capitalist structures introduced (“We do not have the power to stop them.”)
* a true united left: “on the bottom it works, but not at the top because there they are thinking politically.”