One of the key contributions of the Polish opposition movement was its concept of living “as if.” At a certain point in the 1970s, dissidents like Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron proposed to create a parallel society in which people acted as if they were already living in a democratic society. They would act openly, not covertly, and try to gradually expand the sphere of democratic action. If enough people acted their parts, one day they would wake up and discover that their parallel society had become the society.
This “as if” approach greatly influenced opposition movements elsewhere in the Soviet bloc. In East Germany, for instance, Gerd Poppe was deeply involved in the transition from the conspiratorial work of the 1970s to the more open organizing of the 1980s. In an interview at his apartment in Berlin in February, he described the discussion meetings that he and his former wife held in the early 1980s that packed as many as 100 people into a very small space. “Our goal was to become people that act in public,” he told me. “We did not want to remain anonymous any longer.”
The same principle applied to other social activities. “My former wife and I, together with some friends, founded an independent kindergarten here in Husemannstraße,” he related. “For three years, we raised our small children with the children of our friends. In this way we avoided handing them over to the state-supported educational system. This was seen as an anti-government activity by the authorities. The place on Husemannstraße was a former store apartment of friends that moved to the countryside. We simply took over the facility. We started with five or six children; later there were a maximum of eight children.”
He continued, “After a while they threatened to evict us. They said that we occupied the facility illicitly and that we organized the kindergarten, which they did not approve of, as an anti-government activity. So they gave us notice that they will evict us. We invited all the friends we knew to come on that date. They were all standing on the street in front of the building. So, the authorities finally took off without evicting us. After the kindergarten had existed for three years they finally stopped it with violence.”
By the mid-1980s, the efforts at creating a parallel society coalesced around small independent organizations like the Initiative for Peace and Human Rights, which Poppe helped create. After the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, East Germans faced a major question. Did they want to preserve any part of this parallel society, or did they simply want to merge with West Germany and adopt the laws and lifestyles of the latter? The elections in March 1990 pitted the long-time dissidents against West German-affiliated parties. The West German parties – the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats — won by a wide margin.
Then there was the issue of the constitution, which turned out to be the last effort to translate the dreams of the “as if” years into a specific legal form. Poppe and others worked hard during 1990 to write a new East German constitution. They expected their draft to stimulate a wide debate. “Shortly after the parliament was set up in April 1990 we produced 500 copies of this draft so that every member of parliament would get one copy,” he told me. “We wanted to have a debate about it in parliament. But these copies were never been distributed in parliament: not among the members of CDU nor among the Liberals nor among the members of the SPD.”
With a new East German constitution essentially tabled, the constitutional question boiled down to a debate over which article in the West Germany constitution should be used to determine the process of reunification: Article 23 or Article 146. According to Article 23, German states simply applied for inclusion in the federal republic, as Saarland had done in 1957 after exiting French control. Article 146, however, declared that the West German constitution was only temporary and would be replaced by a new constitution when all Germans had an opportunity to weigh in democratically.
Poppe favored either a new GDR constitution or a vote on a resolution about article 146, which would have also mandated the creation of a constitutional commission to change the provisional Grundgesetz into a constitution. In the end, the leadership in both East and West Germany opted for Article 23.
“I am convinced today, and also back then I believed this, that the degree of identification with this new system would be higher the more the population in East Germany felt that it was included,” Poppe told me. “In my view this point was neglected, so that the things that separate us are still seen by many people as stronger then the things that connect us. It’s not just the younger generation but also still the older generation. Maybe we could have avoided it. In any case it could have been done better.”
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
It is like the question of Kennedy’s murder. Everybody knows exactly what he or she did on that day. I had a meeting with friends and a French politician of the former French Communist Party. It was on Torstraße, the former Wilhelm-Pieck-Straße, at the apartment of our friend Ehrhart Neubert.
At one moment we looked out the window, and there were caravans of Trabants. Thousands of them. I said, “Turn on the TV. Something is happening.”
Then we saw big turmoil at the crossing points, so I immediately went to the crossing point at Invalidenstraße. That same night I went to West Berlin for the first time in 28 years. I tried to meet my friends there. They were not there because they were in East Berlin at the same time! I met one friend: Lilo Fuchs was at home. She was the only one there out of three or four addresses.
Maybe this is the difference between me and some of my friends. I am older than them, and therefore I still knew the Western part of Berlin from before the building of the Wall. At that time, I was a student in Rostock and during university vacations I was in West Berlin to go to the cinema, jazz concerts and so on. That’s why I knew this town between 1958 and 1961. So it was not totally new to me.
What did you think when you realized the Wall had fallen? What did you think would happen here?
Everybody at least somehow knew that this event had to lead to the reunification of Germany. We just didn’t know the time frame. There were different movements within the opposition that reacted very differently concerning this question. At first I was very positive because such a long separation had been very hard, especially for friends and relatives. However I wanted to continue to be involved in political affairs.
Most of the people I was working with politically had a clear priority of order: first democracy and then reunification. That’s why we wanted to create the conditions for free elections first. It was also the main issue at the Round Table. It was only later that the issue of German unity became important. It doesn’t mean that we were against reunification. But with our specific experiences and knowledge, while being in a learning process ourselves, we wanted to establish a democratic community first through the Round Table, second through a freely elected parliament. Of course we wanted to influence the way and the construction of the reunification. Thus our position was to establish reunification according to article 146 of the constitution which involves a national referendum, and we opposed reunification according to article 23.
Also, the East German Länder did not exist at that point of time. They used the day of the accession to reestablish the Länder again. Of course this was artificial. We had hoped that the whole process — the people’s understanding of democracy as well as the federal system – would be gradually established. But all this has just been imposed on us.
The counter-argument used against us was that another debate about the constitution would be too cumbersome and difficult and take too much time. But the people who said things like that – for example, Lothar de Maizière and his government – did not expect that reunification would come within half a year of the free elections. De Maizière, for example, liked to say that he would be happy if after two years there would be a joint German Olympic team. They had no idea that reunification would come half a year later. Still, they told us all the time that “we don’t have the time.” It was illogical. They just didn’t want it. They were dependent on Kohl and his West CDU, and so they wanted to follow his ideas and enable a smooth handover.
You mentioned you were a student from 1958 to 1961. Was there a point at the time before the Wall went up when you thought of going to the West?
I was a physics student at the university of Rostock when the Wall was built. So I was at university from 1959 until 1964. I wanted to finish my studies, so I did not think about it at that time.
Of course everybody thought about leaving at some point in time. But we thought: there is a gradually strengthening of our possibilities to attract a little public attention. As long as it is developing in that way we will continue to try to push and we won’t leave the country. The only thing my wife and I were thinking was: if they start to harass our children because of our actions, we will rethink this question. That’s what they did in the 1950s and 1960s. They harassed the children of insubordinate parents. In our case they didn’t do it. In fact, they thought that they should promote our children in a special way so that they would see the disgrace of their parents’ actions. This was part of the so-called measures of Zersetzung (subversion): to alienate children from their parents.
For example my eldest daughter is a writer and lives in Potsdam. She did her education in the Institute for Literature in Leipzig, so she was absolutely promoted. The Stasi files say that they wanted to promote her so that she would recognize the disgrace of her father’s actions and separate from him. They did the same thing with my little son at the age of six when he started to go to school. The Stasi went to the school and talked with the director and the teacher to make sure the child is promoted in a special way so that he would be alienated from his bad parents.
I should add that of course nobody is born a member of the opposition. At that point of time I easily could have become a normal scientist. My time in the opposition started most of all in 1968 with the Prague Spring and the time afterwards when we all believed that maybe there were still possibilities for reforms. It was around 1970. Even after the failure of the Prague Spring we did not lose this hope. Also at that time I met people that became very important for me like Robert Havemann and also Wolf Biermann.
Actually I was continuously involved in the opposition until 1989. During that time there was a certain distinction between the different people and groups that were active in the opposition. During the 1970s, I believed less and less that reforms were still possible. That is maybe the difference between me and Thomas Klein, who always believed that reform socialism would be possible. In particular during the second half of the 1970s, the reprisals increased again, including the expatriation of Biermann and the wave of authors, actors, producers who left the country. By then I realized that we couldn’t reform the existing system. We had to act differently.
The path I saw was more like what the opposition was doing in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and partly in Hungary. During the 1970s, we already had contacts with Czech dissidents, people who had played a role in the Prague Spring and those who founded Charter 77. We also had contacts with people like Miklos Haraszti and Janos Kis, the representatives of the Hungarian democratic opposition. Those contacts had a significant influence on that part of the opposition where I was active.
In these countries it was also about the question of publicity: the publication of secret news, the announcement of solidarity with political prisoners, and so on. One issue discussed back then was the idea of parallel societies, which derived from an article in the 1960s by Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski in Poland and later the activities of KOR in Poland and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. You create your own publicity. You organize yourself. Either you try to reform the system from within – something I did not believe in anymore. Or you become an actor in a parallel society, preferably acting in public, with all dangers and problems that come with it.
During the early 1970s you would sit together in small circles and remain strictly conspiratorial. You would write articles on your typewriters and then distribute seven copies to friends that shared your opinion. You remained in your own surroundings, and you didn’t have any public effect. We were very well informed. By building the Wall, they did not at all take away from us all the possibilities to inform ourselves. We knew some of the samizdat articles from the early Soviet dissidents as well as from Charter 77. We also had things like “underground universities” in private apartments. This was something they did in Prague because certain things could not be taught at universities. Certain well-known professors would give small lectures in private apartments. These were ways that would give you more independence and maybe also more influence.
This happened in the neighboring countries already during the 1970s. With the GDR it happened later. We had a time lag. We started the samizdat network in the mid-1980s with publications like Grenzfall, Umweltblätter, and things like that. Compared to neighboring countries, we were about seven or eight years behind.
You had something like the underground university here as well?
Beginning in 1980 we held readings in our apartment with authors whose texts were not or only partly published. I did this from 1980 until 1983. The apartment was small, only 70 square meters, but we often had more than 100 people in the audience. The state security was always there with non-official persons. Stepping out of the anonymity of conspiratorial circles meant that you yourself had to open up to the outside. If I have an open apartment for events like this I cannot control the people who are coming. I also have to let in unknown people who are strangers to me. Our goal was to become people that act in public. We did not want to remain anonymous any longer. When we wanted to write something that appears under our own name.
A second similar activity was that my former wife and I, together with some friends, founded an independent kindergarten here in Husemannstraße. For three years, we raised our small children with the children of our friends. In this way we avoided handing them over to the state-supported educational system. This was seen as an anti-government activity by the authorities. The place on Husemannstraße was a former store apartment of friends that moved to the countryside. We simply took over the facility. We started with five or six children; later there were a maximum of eight children.
It was considered an anti-government activity?
Something like that did not exist in the East because everybody was supposed to go to the state kindergarten. In both of these cases they tried to put pressure on us and threatened to apply repression. When we organized the readings, the state security would be in front of the door. They inspected the identification papers of people who wanted to enter the building. They told the people that they could not go in because this was not an authorized event and if they entered they would have to expect consequences. Twice I had to pay a fine because of this. It was not that high, maybe 200 or 500 East Mark. Okay, it was a lot money for us. It was almost a monthly salary.
There were also attempts to repress the kindergarten. After a while they threatened to evict us. They said that we occupied the facility illicitly and that we organized the kindergarten, which they did not approve of, as an anti-government activity. So they gave us notice that they will evict us. We invited all the friends we knew to come on that date. They were all standing on the street in front of the building. So, the authorities finally took off without evicting us.
After the kindergarten had existed for three years they finally stopped it with violence. It was in December 1983. There were witnesses who observed it. They came early in the morning and blocked the street from both sides: the part of the Husemannstraße from Kollwitzplatz to Sredzkistraße. Then so-called construction workers came and smashed the windows with their boots. They went in and fetched the children’s beds and everything and threw them on a truck and drove away. Then the so-called construction workers boarded up the windows and the door. When the first parents came with their children they found only a boarded-up apartment.
How long did it last before they boarded it up?
About three years.
And when they boarded it up, did you move somewhere else?
No, it was not possible. They children were still little. So we made a deal with the church and managed to get some of the children into a church kindergarten here in Winsstraße.
Those were two simple examples that show that private initiatives within the dictatorship would very soon be under suspicion of being anti-governmental and that they need to be suppressed. Another example is also at Kollwitzplatz when 20 young men came with shovels and rakes to tidy up the square because it looked awful. The Stasi then arrived and cleared them away because an initiative like this was not supposed to happen. Three days or one week later they sent a group of FDJ members — Freie Deutsche Jugend, the state youth organization — dressed in blue shirts who were supposed to tidy up.
We would not let ourselves be discouraged by these examples. They also showed that you could challenge this system with comparatively small actions and comparatively few people. It was also interesting that in the neighboring countries, apart from Solidarność, all the opposition movements were comparatively small. Nevertheless they had an enormous impact in all these countries. Here in the GDR, an independent peace movement started initially in church circles in those years at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s. Until today I am not religious. But of course we made contact with those groups in the churches. The prevailing issue until 1983 was rearmament and the medium-range missiles placed in the East (SS-20) and the West (Pershing, Cruise). By 1983, this large peace movement in the West broke down. Only small parts remained, not those hundreds of thousands that demonstrated before.
This movement was important because of all the contacts we made. For instance, there was the European Nuclear Disarmament convention in West Berlin. One evening around 20 or 30 participants from the convention appeared in our living room. We were sitting in our apartment with some friends whom we invited, including some friends from Jena. During summer 1983, we met many people from the international peace movement: from Japan, Australia, USA, England, France, the Netherlands, from Europe and overseas. Some of those contacts lasted for many years.
That same year we had our first meetings with representatives of the Greens. One delegation of Greens met with Honecker at the end of 1983. In that delegation were Petra Kelly, Otto Schily, Antje Vollmer, Lukas Beckmann, and so on. Directly after their appointment with Honecker, we had a meeting with different groups from the opposition in the Samaritan church in Friedrichshain. The next day, Petra Kelly, Gert Bastian, and Lukas Beckmann also came to our apartment and to other apartments. These contacts lasted until the end of the GDR. They were also friendly encounters. Petra was here at least 20 times. We had three apartments where we held the meetings: our apartment, the apartment of Bärbel Bohley, and the apartment of Martin and Antje Böttger, which was near the train station at Friedrichstraße. These meetings helped us a lot. It was important to have meeting with those representatives from the international peace movement as well as that part of the Greens who were not looking one-eyed in one direction but wanted to be active in both blocs, in East and West. This was very much true for Petra Kelly who was working very actively for human rights in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world. This cooperation was particularly helpful because we were not allowed to travel. Those people came to us and also helped us with different books and journals. Members of parliament with diplomatic passports – Petra Kelly, Heinz Suhr, Ulrich Fischer — were in general not controlled at the border. Petra Kelly brought me our first copy machine in her trunk. Also the printing machines for the samizdat journals came in a similar way. Petra Kelly was very important for us, but there were others from the Greens as well, some of them prohibited from entering the GDR.
An important point was also their solidarity in the case of arrests and other repressions. For example, in December 1983 my former wife was arrested together with Bärbel Bohley. Immediately there was a massive wave of support in Western Europe and in the Federal Republic. It was very strongly pushed by Petra Kelly as well as the French foreign minister, the Canadian foreign minister, the Swedish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Alva Myrdal, and other people. It went right up to Willy Brandt – at least that is how it has been told. And of course we in the East also tried some things. For instance I asked the writers Christa Wolf and Stephan Hermlin to support the imprisoned women. At the end of January 1984, after six weeks, the two women were released because of these big protests. Before, during the 1970s, if somebody were arrested, he would stay in prison for some time. Maybe they would deport him after a while. But that they were forced to let people go after such a short time because of this big pressure was a new thing. And of course this strengthened our possibilities. So we said: when people know us, when we have a certain prominence, then we are better protected against infringements.
You can see this very well by looking into the Stasi files. Fortunately my own file, which was quite comprehensive, was not destroyed. It had about 10,000 pages. I read there, for example, that I was also supposed to be arrested in 1983. One Stasi officer proposed this. But it did not happen. Some years later you could read there that they should prevent all our actions but should avoid arresting us. This means that in those years between 1983 and 1988 – although there were a few arrests – something changed. They didn’t change their minds. But they did not want to appear as violators of human rights to the outside world. They wanted to be looked on as a normal state accepted by everyone. This was why they changed the ways of repression and adopted the so-called measures of Zersetzung. They tried to disrupt private life, at the workplace or at school. They tried to break people without arresting them. Thus the actions we did became more open and extensive. In 1985, we were distributing as many as 700-1000 copies of samizdat throughout the GDR and strengthening our contacts to Eastern Europe and so on. Those actions became possible during the 1980s.
During this time also contacts to East and Middle Europe were strengthened. The more the issue of human rights played a role the stronger these contacts to the East became. A problem was the prohibition to travel. I myself could not leave the GDR in any direction between 1980 and 1989. Every time they prevented me from going. We nevertheless maintained those contacts. We published common declarations with Charter 77 and Polish and Hungarian dissidents on the occasion of the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, the tenth anniversary of Charta 77, and so on.
Additionally the opposition was always diverse. It was never a monolithic bloc but rather a broad spectrum. Of course I always talk about the people I worked with. In 1985, we founded the Initiative for Peace and Human Rights, which focused on issues like democracy and human rights but also contact with East and Middle Europe. During the second half of the 1980s, the so-called “debate about Middle Europa” became very important in the neighboring countries in the East. There was an article by Milan Kundera, who lived in France, responses in independent samizdat journals, and articles in journals published in Western countries and edited by émigrés. The aim was to clarify that we have a democratic tradition, we belong to Middle Europe and not the Soviet bloc, and we want to go back to Europe. The term Middle Europe was very important. This was also our link to groups in Poland and Hungary. This was how we engaged in a discussion with them.
Many of us were not allowed to travel there. Also they were not allowed to travel. The authorities took away the passports of Czech dissidents. We knew Hungarian dissidents that had been able to travel to the GDR before, but then during the 1980s the GDR authorities prevented them from entering. Only the Poles were allowed to travel. But most of the time the Poles did not come to us but went straight to West Berlin, because they were able to go there and to Paris and elsewhere. They had more privileges than we had. Also the Slovenes. Slovenia was always a little bit different but also oriented towards Middle Europe. Once or twice Slovenian groups tried to travel from country to country also to make those contacts. Some of those Slovenes later became more nationalist like Janez Janša. But back then they were quite normal and not so much focused on separation from Yugoslavia.
I would like to tell two more examples. One example is the Yalta Conference, which was in Berlin in 1985. There we connected personally with members of Solidarność and Charter 77. The regular members of Charter 77 from Prague were not able to come: only the émigrés. Some of them would also come to East Berlin where we had a meeting. Jan Minkievic was a foreign representative of Solidarność based in Amsterdam. Also there was Jan Kavan who was in London editing the journal East European Reporter, which we used to read, and he was the contact man of Charter 77 in the West. Our ways of establishing contact were very complicated. When we wanted to send a text to Prague that the Stasi was not supposed to read we would first send it to somebody – Petra Kelly or one of the accredited journalists we knew, such as Ulrich Schwarz from Der Spiegel. They put it into the mailbox in West Berlin and sent it to London addressed to Kavan who had a secret way of getting it to Prague. The whole thing took some time but it worked. We were about to develop a common journal of the opposition that was supposed to be published in six East European languages and German. It did not happen because the Wall came down. But otherwise we would have done it.
In the East German parliament was there an opportunity to support article 146 and come up with a new constitution?
It has already started at the Round Table. There we decided to write a new constitution for the GDR. By chance I was the head of the working group that was organizing it. The draft was not finished because the date for the elections was moved from May to March 18. But this working group of the Round Table finished the draft to present it to the parliament. Shortly after the parliament was set up in April 1990 we produced 500 copies of this draft so that every member of parliament would get one copy. We wanted to have a debate about it in parliament. But these copies were never been distributed in parliament: not among the members of CDU nor among the Liberals nor among the members of the SPD. I gave a speech about it for Bündnis 90 and Wolfgang Ullmann gave a speech during the discussion about the constitution in the parliament. We demanded that the members should talk about this draft. Then the majority of the deputies decided that the draft should not even be an issue in the committees. It is very unusual for parliamentary processes that an important initiative is not even an issue in the committees. The members of the SPD sent mixed signals about this. But the government majority said: “We don’t want to deal with it.”
This draft that was made in the end with the support of important Western constitutional experts did not differ fundamentally from the Grundgesetz. But it included some interesting amendments. It had a greater focus on human rights. There were stronger possibilities for holding referendums to support initiatives coming from the people. There was also one very absurd instance when De Maizière had to be inaugurated as prime minister and the question was which oath he should swear. He did not want to use the old GDR constitution that was still officially in force. So they had to find another oath. They took the passage from our draft. Even though they rejected our draft, he used a section of it for his inauguration.
There was a second attempt. Would it be possible to take the very old constitution of the GDR from the end of the 1940s, which was later changed more and more according to the interests of the SED, and modify it for use during this time of transition? But this attempt also failed.
As the next step then, the majority agreed on so-called constitutional principles. It was one page with about six paragraphs. This replaced the constitution. Everything they didn’t like about the old GDR constitution was deleted. Actually during this period of half a year we lived without any constitution. There was no actual alternative. We wanted a discussion at eye-level with the Grundgesetz. But they did not want it. The East CDU was totally in line with Kohl. It faithfully did everything suggested by Kohl, just as they acted before concerning the SED. In February 1990, still before the elections for the parliament, Kohl spoke the first time about Article 23. We didn’t have a choice of having our own GDR constitution or a bigger modification of the Grundgesetz. Actually the only way left was accession.
Of course it was clear that during the reunification process there had to be some regulations for adjustment. Not everything could be applied one to one to the East. One example were the regulations for abortion. Regulations had to be found to remove those inconsistencies. But this did not happen through a constitutional discussion but simply by adjustment of some regulations in the reunification treaty. Then there was the decision that after reunification the then-elected parliament should deal again with the questions concerning the constitution. In the parliament there was the joint commission on the constitution by the two houses of parliament, the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, during the years of the first legislative period, 1990-1994. It was not a big undertaking. There were only some rather small issues like one paragraph about animal welfare and this and that. It was not at all what we had imagined initially.
Basically there had been three possible ways: a new GDR constitution and we did not know how long that would take; a vote on a resolution about Article 146 including the creation of a constitutional commission to change the provisional Grundgesetz into a constitution; or we could have had a referendum about the process according to Article 23. I am convinced today, and also back then I believed this, that the degree of identification with this new system would be higher the more the population in East Germany felt that it was included. In my view this point was neglected, so that the things that separate us are still seen by many people as stronger then the things that connect us. It’s not just the younger generation but also still the older generation. Maybe we could have avoided it. In any case it could have been done better.
Interestingly enough, large parts of the original draft of the Round Table were put into the constitution of Brandenburg. They took the draft and seriously looked at it and asked: what can we take? The draft was also praised by international constitutionalists. But unfortunately this did not help us. This was the fate of the constitution. I shouldn’t complain. All in all, the way that was taken was the better one for most people, better than waiting and hoping for reforms of the Soviet system. But stronger participation by the population would have been very good.
Berlin, February 6, 2013
Interpreter: Phil Hill