19 March 2010

The democratic GDR

The democratic GDR that followed the Volkskammer election on 18 March lasted just six months, following the mass demonstrations in autumn 1989, the loss of power of the SED. To mark the anniversary the Federal Centre for Political Education has published a special edition of "Politics and Contemporary History". The issue (in German) can be downloaded here. The individual essays are listed below:

Editorial (Hans-Georg Golz)
The unhappy demise of the GDR - Essay (Wolfgang Templin)
The forgotten "third way" (Martin Sabrow)
A democratic East Germany? The project "Modern Socialism" (Rainer Land)
Double democratization and German Unity (Michael Richter)
The democratic GDR in the international arena (Jennifer A. Yoder)
The failure of economic reform in the GDR 1989/1990 (Wolfgang Seibel)
Farewell to West Berlin (Wilfried Rott)
Photo: Bundesarchiv

18 March 2010

Election 1990 - Strangers in a foreign country

Today (18 march) marks the 20th anniversary of the first free elections in East Germany, less than six months after the mass demonstrations that undermined the communist state, and less than five months after the opening of the Berlin Wall. It was a curious mixture of old and new (the picture shows one of the ballot papers used in the election). The alliance of newly-founded citizens' movements and parties that had originally pledged to fight free elections on a common platform has fractured under the pressure of events: the Social Democratic Party of the GDR (founded by opposition activists) has joined forces with its opposite number in the Federal Republic. Helmut Kohl's (West German) Christian Democratic Union, looking for a partner of its own, has signed up with the East German CDU, for four decades a satellite of the communist SED. with revolutionary legitimacy provided through an "Alliance for Germany" with the Demokratischer Aufbruch, and the small German Social Union. Neues Forum, once the rallying cry of the peaceful revolution has become part of the Bundnis 90 grouping, along with Demokratie jetzt, and the Initiative for Peace and Human Rights. The election has become a battle between the proponents of a rapid and a less-rapid union with the Federal Republic.

It is election day, and Jane is preaching in Greppin, the small parish hall is packed on this Sunday:
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Greppin

As I prepared for my year in the GDR I never thought that I would experience free and open elections here. Maybe I should say that I grew up with politics, my father has been for many years either the mayor or the opposition leader in our town. When the elections took place, the children of course wanted to help, it was just something we took for granted. I can still remember that last year I thought that this at least was something I would not be doing in the GDR. But now there are free elections, a wonderful thing to be happening. Yet in many of the discussions I have had, I have noticed that the closer that election day comes, the greater the uncertainty about "what comes after". It's difficult to live with uncertainty, but it was also much more difficult when we knew exactly what would happen next. Our text today (Hebrews 11:8-10) is about Abraham and how he was ready to live with uncertainty:

8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

... I don't know about you, but I would not like to spend my life in a tent. Living in tents is a dangerous business. But how can we learn to live in tents in this time of anxiety before the election. How do we learn to live with uncertainty. There's no easy answer, no promise that things will get better. But one thing is sure, God does not want us to build walls to cut ourselves off. A tent is sensitive to wind and to rain. We must be sensitive, sensitive to other people, talk about our fears.
After the service, Stephen and I go for a walk in the nearby countryside, the Dübner Heide. The GDR seems to have got used to this election, everywhere there are posters put up, torn down, posted over other posters. Then we drive to Leipzig to watch the election results with friends. the results come in. General astonishment when the results are declared: the CDU (which a year earlier had been part of the so-called "Democratic Bloc" with the SED) gets more than 40 percent, the SPD just over half that. 16 per cent for the Party of Democratic Socialism, which used to be the SED. Just 2.9 percent for the civic rights activists in Bündnis 90. Before the election, many commentators had treated an SPD victory as a foregone conclusion. I'm disappointed too, but I hadn't expected it to be different.

17 March 2010

Selling Stasi documents in East Berlin

17 March 1990 - Tomorrow is election day in the GDR. Today, Stephen arrived back in Berlin from Seoul where he had been working at the World Convocation on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. I go to meet him at the airport. Hiring a car (and getting his first ever GDR parking ticket for stopping to ask where he could park), we stopped off at the Gendarmenmarkt in East Berlin. Here the synods of the previously-divided Berlin-Brandenburg Protestant church were having their first joint session. Less than 100 metres away from the Französische Friedrichstadtkirche where the synod is taking place there is a queue outside an unprepossessing building, now called the House of Democracy, and home to the various civic and human rights groups. They are selling a printed volume of Stasi documents, showing how the state security ministry has systematically tried to undermine and subvert opposition activity in the GDR (second hand copies are still available on Amazon). People around the church where the synods are meeting are flicking through the slim volume - some of them to see whether they were the targets of the Stasi. Later on we head back down to Greppin, in the middle of the Bitterfeld chemical works. I'm preaching tomorrow - election day.

11 March 2010

A day of anniversaries

11 March 2010 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the GDR dissident Robert Havemann and the 25th anniversary of the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev to power as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. According to the German Resistance Memorial Centre, Havemann, born in Munich in 1910, became involved during the Nazi period in the socialist resistance group Neu Beginnen. Together with Georg Groscurth, Robert Havemann, Paul Rentsch, and Herbert Richter, Havemann tried abortive attempts to make contacts with the Allies, and in the summer of 1943, Havemann, Groscurth, Richter and Rentsch wrote a number of programmatic texts, naming their group Europäische Union (European Union). Havemann was sentenced to death in Nazi Germany, but the sentence was not carried out because as a scientist he was judged to be undertaking important work for the war effort. One of his fellow prisoners in Brandenburg prison was Erich Honecker, who would take a leading role in the GDR after the Second World War and head the SED from 1971 to 1989.
Havemann was arrested on September 5, 1943 for his involvement in aiding victims of persecution and as the leading mind of the Europäische Union. He was sentenced to death on December 16, 1943. As his research work appeared indispensable for the Nazi arms industry, he received a stay of execution. Havemann was liberated from Brandenburg-Görden penitentiary by the Red Army in 1945. After the war, he joined the East German Socialist Unity Party (SED), but became critical of the regime in the wake of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956. Expelled from the SED in 1964, Havemann lost his post in 1965. He was placed under house arrest from 1976 to 1978. Havemann was one of the most vocal critics of the German Democratic Republic up to his death in 1982.
Havemann had been sentenced to death in Nazi Germany, but the sentence was not carried out because as a scientist he was judged to be undertaking important work for the war effort. In 1982 he and Rainer Eppelmann were influential in launching the "Berlin Appeal". The text, which helped mobilise a peace movement transcending the East West divide, called for the Allies to withdraw from the two German states, to guarantee non interference in the affairs of the two states, and for the creation of a nuclear weapon free zone. Rundfunk Berlin Brandenburg has a tribute here.

On 11 March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected general secretary of the CPSU. Within5 years, the Soviet Union ended its involvement in Afghanistan, and East Germany stood on the brink of free elections. Back in 2009, I posted on the "Gorbachev factor" (Archie Brown), noting how according to Brown (no relation), reform was not forced upon Gorbachev by pressure from outside or the dire economic situation inside the Soviet Union - ascribing a voluntarism to Gorbachev and a small circle of top policy makers:
As a result, decisions in Moscow not only played the decisive role in the spread of communism in Eastern Europe in the 1940s, they were just as crucial in facilitating the end of communist rule in Europe 40 years later.

Living next to the chemical works at Bitterfeld ....

From Jane's diary: 11 March 1990, 2am

It's two o'clock in the morning. I am supposed to preach in the morning, and I can't sleep.

The time at Wittenberg came to an end in February. Stephen finally managed to be given a visa and has visited a couple of times. The prayers for renewal are continuing but with far fewer people as in the autumn. The atmosphere is very different now. The election campaign has started, posters are being put up everywhere, even in the shops. I make a speech on behalf of the SPD, the social democrats. It was quite fun, though I have to say even I am not quite convinced that they would get my vote in this situation.

One by one the other students left Wittenberg and went back to their parishes and congregations. It was strange to say goodbye and to know that this part of my life here had come to an end.

I am doing an internship with Axel and Gisela Noack in Wolfen (known for its photographic film factory ORWO, for Original Wolfen. It used to be Agfa until the Second World War). I've moved into the empty manse in Greppin, a small industrial village half way between Wolfen and Bitterfeld. On three sides the village is surrounded by the Bitterfeld Chemical Works. The people of Wolfen and Bitterfeld argue as to who has the most polluted town, but the people of Greppin don't have to argue, they just know that it very rarely doesn't stink here.

From my window I can look over the cemetery to a wonderful view of the factory chimneys. The one that's closest to us has a permanent plume of smoke. It's 2 o'clock in the morning, and I have to hold my first sermon in the morning, and I can't sleep. The air is terrible. The factory seems to pump out even more filth at night than during the days. The noise just carries on. Sometimes in the middle of the night I am a sit up, bolt awake, when the sirens go. I can't get the nightmare out of my mind - what would happen if the chemical works went up in smoke?

(The picture shows the manse in Greppin, from April 2009. The chemical works have gone now. More pictures from this disappeared past can be found here.)

5 March 2010

Looking to transcend capitalism and communism in Seoul

Today - 5 March 2010 - marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of the World Convocation on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC) . Planned as the culmination of the JPIC process - better known in the then two German states as the "Conciliar Process" - delegates from all parts of the world converged for a week's deliberations in the South Korean capital of Seoul. It was intended to express "the urgent call for authoritative witness by the churches" in the face of injustice, hunger and poverty; war and violence; and destruction of the environment, stemming from an initative at the WCC's 1983 assembly in Vancouver, which, in large part due to efforts of the delegates from the German Democratic Republic, called on the WCC "to engage member churches in a conciliar process of mutual commitment to justice, peace and the integrity of creation".

Here, a key role had been played by the GDR theologian Heino Falcke, both in the run-up to the Vancouver assembly and in subsequent elaboration of the Conciliar Process in the GDR and at the global level.

In the GDR, the high point of this conciliar process was an Ecumenical Assembly of Churches and Christians which met in three sessions in 1988 and 1989, and which, not least because of the involvement of peace, environmental and human rights groups, made unprecedented demands for the reform of the GDR and influenced the citizens' movements and political parties formed at the time of the peaceful revolution of autumn 1989. According to Heino Falcke:
The ecumenical assembly raised the floodgates enough to release the log-jam of change. It gave an ecumenical inspiration to the dynamic for change, which also in a way gave it legitimacy; and above all, it gave it a direction that was set by the gospel.
An ecumenical gathering was held in 1988 in the Federal Republic of Germany, and in May 1989, the first European Ecumenical Assembly, "Peace with Justice", took place in the Swiss city of Basel. By the time the Convocation met in Seoul, however, the world had experienced a change of momentous dimensions. The epochal shift can be seen not least in the chronology of the GDR itself. The Basel assembly took place just after the widespread rigging of already undemocratic municipal elections in the GDR that was one of the triggers for the "peaceful revolution" of autumn 1989. The world convocation the following year took place immediately before the elections of March 1990 in the GDR that led to the first freely-elected Volkskammer, the GDR parliament. Many of those - like Falcke - involved in the events that led to the "peaceful revolution" considered that they had taken part in a movement for liberation and a new more just, peaceful and sustainable world order.

Yet, for many of those in Seoul from the Global South, the events in Europe at the end of the 1980s were being regarded with suspicion. Certainly, in his address to the Seoul convocation, Frank Chikane, then general secretary of the South African Council of Churches - from a country where the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the African National Congress was also experiencing an epochal shift - described the changes in Europe as an opportunity to leave behind old models based on capitalism and communism and to replace them with new models "aimed at moving towards the Kingdom of God". However, he warned also that if the "First and Second World come together on the basis of the old system ... the remaining two-thirds of the world will be in trouble".

At the same time, the voices of Christians from the two German states (and especially the GDR), who had in many ways provided the motor for the conciliar process, were muted in Seoul. The specific conditions within the GDR which had given such force to the conciliar process disappeared with the autumn revolution. The conciliar process, whose origins lay in an initiative at a time of heightened East-West tension, was being overshadowed by the process of German unification. By the time the world convocation took place in Seoul, immediately before the GDR's free elections of March 1990, the collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe and the accelerating process towards German unification had fundamentally shifted the terms of the debate.

In a recent paper, Falcke noted how East Germans themselves had little time after the opening of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989 to reflect on the significance of the epoch-changing events. Instead, they were fully consumed by the "breathtaking processes" in their own country that led to the unification of Germany, 11 months later, in October 1990.

Falcke said that travelling to Seoul for the World Convocation had allowed him to gain a different perspective:
While I was there. I was often greeted with the joyful words, "The wall has been broken down!", but was made to feel very clear just how this process was seen from the perspective of other problems in the world and especially about the hopes and fears in Central America and Asia about the revolutions in Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War.
[The photo shows the closing worship at the Seoul convocation. Souce: http://www.wcc-coe.org/wcc/what/jpc/hist-e.html]