7 December 2009

The round table that was square ...

On 7 December representatives of the new citizens' movements and political parties - and the SED, the former block parties, and societal organizations converged on the Dietrich Bonhoeffer House for the first meeting of the GDR Round Table. An example of the implosion faced by the GDR was the resignation the previous day of Egon Krenz as chairperson of the Council of State of the GDR.

In the meditation room of the Moravian community in Berlin, the representatives of the new and of the old political forces gathered around a set of square tables for a meeting being convened by representatives of the Federation of Protestant Churches, the Roman Catholic Church and the Council of Christian Churches (AGCK) - the impetus for such a round table however had come from the citizens' movements, especially from Demokratie Jetzt, which had maintained strong contacts to Poland and had observed how the Round Rable there had led to the first semi-free elections. The first meeting of the GDR Round Table called for new elections, a new constitution and the disbandment of the Ministry of State Security - the Stasi - renamed "Amt für Nationale Sicherheit" (or "Office for National Security"). Civic Rights activist Konrad Weiss notes:
The idea for a round table came from the citizens' movement Democracy Now some of whose founders had long-standing contact with the Polish Solidarity. Ludwig Mehlhorn and Stefan Bickhardt knew of their concept of the round table and analysed it. Their proposal, to attempt something similar in the GDR, was picked up and accepted by Democracy Now and soon after by the other citizens' movements. The SED, that in the face of mass demonstrations and the increasing self-assurance of the East Germans had to accept that its power was waning, also accepted the proposal and was read to talk. Neues Deutschland tried to suggest to its readers that the "leading" party until then had also proposed the Round Table. But no one believed the "Central Organ" any more.

When the Round Table met for the first time, despite the polite tone, it was basically bitter political rivals that were sitting opposite each other. On the one side, the comrades from the SED and from the allied block parties and organizations, which were increasingly seeking to distance themselves from the "leading" force. On the other side sat the civil rights activists and dissidents, and the newly formed Social Democratic Party. The round table was moderated by representatives of the churches. The motives why people took part may have been very different. But we were all united in wanting to avoid the process of change leading to bloodshed.
Alongside the Central Round Table there were round tables set up at local and district level, often playing an important role in the transfer of power. The Central Round Table played a central role in preparing for the first democratic elections, that took place in March 1990, and in pressing for the dismantling of the Stasi. The idea of drawing up a new constitution for adoption by the GDR got overtaken by the moves after the March election for the rapid incorporation of the GDR into the Federal Republic. Nevertheless, the construction of the Round Table meant that the new political forces were not negotiating directly with the government or the parliament, but only indirectly. Weiss notes:
Our willingness to engage in dialogue - probably the most used and abused slogan of those days - led also to a number of serious mistakes ... Our all-important power, non-violence, was also our weakness. While we were at the round table struggling for reforms and the democratization of the GDR, the cadres with long experience out of site built up their new organizations, channeled money into safe places and formed enterprises with other comrades that now feeds their war chest. Particularly sensitive areas, such as the media were simply infiltrated. While we built up our organizations and our parties at the kitchen table, sometimes without a single phone, the PDS had all the access they needed to lines and computers. Many problems with which we wrestle in the reunified Germany, result from our former timidity.
Nevertheless, the Round Table in Berlin and the many other round tables throughout the GDR achieved much:
They were genuine schools of democracy, as has often been said. People who until then had been told they should not express themselves and who had been punished for any democratic initiative, now took over responsibility and made suggestions for numerous ideas and proposals. For three monnths, the Round Table was both legislature and executive. It prepared many things that were then implemented as laws by the freely-elected Volkskammer. For example, in an amazingly short period of time a media law and an environmental protection law were drawn up. That was only possible because in the previous years opposition groups in the underground had envisioned and discussed many of these things.
The German Broadcasting Archive has an extract from the press conference after the forst meeting of the Round Table. More here from the House of German History.

[Photo from http://www.jugendopposition.de/index.php?id=215]


janetlees said...

I saw Anne at the weekend (Jance met her in Windermere last year) and she told me she had been following this blog and had used some of the stuff with groups in Leeds, including some of Jane's diary stuff, with some churchgroups and also some schools she had been visiting. I thought you'd like to know how much she appreciated it.

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