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Post Opposition to German Reunification, 1989-1990
Created by John Eipper on 03/26/13 5:02 AM

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Opposition to German Reunification, 1989-1990 (Luciano Dondero, Italy, 03/26/13 5:02 am)

David Gress (19 March) asked me about my opposition to German reunification in 1989-'90. Let me start by saying that in order to make this clear and understandable, it is written in a subjectively positive way, but this is a recollection of political views that I basically no longer hold.

In 1989 Germany was living under a thoroughly anachronistic framework: 45 years after the end of WWII the country was still divided in two separate states, and it was under foreign military occupation (by France, Great Britain, the US and the USSR). The situation in West Berlin was particularly bizarre, surrounded as it was since 1961 by a wall of minefields and machine-gun nests, with the peculiar thing that no German airline was allowed to fly there, while travel by train meant you would spend a few hours crossing East Germany from the West German border to West Berlin in something akin to the sealed train that had carried Lenin from Switzerland to Russia in 1917.

My first such trip to West Berlin had taken place in 1983, and at the time it was quite a feast for me, possibly triggered by the fact that I was traveling with my new girlfriend, a gorgeous German woman who would later become my wife. But it was also because in the Communist tradition I was brought up, East Germany was “our” Germany, the “good” Germany, not the continuity to Hitler's Nazi-Fascist Third Reich which was how we viewed the Federal Republic. (This was helped a bit by the FRG having maps showing Germany in the borders of 1937 in its offices around the world...)

I need to make a detour now to provide a short description of Trotkyism. Being a Trotskyist is a peculiar thing, and putting a Trotskyist world outlook on top of an official Communist one (like in my own experience) perhaps even more so. A few things remain the same--which side you are on in the world divide between West and East, for instance--but many are dramatically divergent. For a Trotskyist is “in this world, but not of this world.”  S/he aims to overthrow every government on Earth, East and West, to replace them with a worldwide Council (Soviet) Republic. And while the imperialists in London or Washington are of course “the enemy,” but an enemy somewhat distant in practice, a lot more concrete and tragic, at times, is the conflict with Socialist and Communist parties and trade unions in the West. In fact the Trotskyists are often at pains to try and hide their views to prevent the dreaded “bureaucrats” (of the Labor, SP and CP kinds) from stopping their “revolutionary work.”  Most of the time this consists in printing and distributing leaflets and papers with bombastic “analysis” of the situation at hand: a strike, a union election, a guerrilla movement, a revolution in a distant country.

This at least was true for most Western Trotskyists in the 1960s through the 1990s. In earlier times, not only in Stalin's USSR where they were killed by the thousands, but also in the East (Vietnam) and in the West (Italy, Greece and France), our comrades fell at the hands of “Communist” henchmen.

Back to Germany. Gorbachev's government in Moscow opened a can of worms in the mid-1980s by proclaiming the need for “glasnost” (political openness) and “perestroika” (economic reforms). This prompted people in the “buffer states” of Eastern Europe to want more freedom. East Germany was possibly the more powerful of those countries in economic terms, but it was still lagging severely behind West Germany--and this was nowhere clearer than in Berlin, where you could compare the gray, smokey and drab Eastern half with the flamboyant and beautiful Western half (I thought that only New York was a more beautiful city).

Anyway, people wanted freedom to travel to the West, perhaps to see the shops on the other side of the wall, perhaps to visit old friends and relatives. The breaking down of the wall in November 1989 changed everything.

Now, why would Trotskyists oppose this? What were we doing? And what were we trying to achieve in concrete? In a nutshell, the idea was to find out those who would oppose the reunification from West Germany not so much from the standpoint of a stale bureaucracy defending their positions of power, but from the standpoint of “the revolutionary working class.” This is a key, defining position for Trotskyists--Trotsky wrote about this in The Revolution Betrayed (1936) in reference to the USSR--and we thought it applied to East Germany: the overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy (my brand of Trotskyism used this terminology for all countries similar to the USSR, from Czechoslovakia to China, from Cuba to Vietnam and East Germany) should not mean a return to capitalism, if the proletariat could come out for its own interests and defend the basically sound economic structure, while deeply overhauling the political system--i.e., perform a “political revolution” (not a social one).

In practice we went around all sorts of places in East Germany--from factories to working collectives, from political events to Soviet military installations--distributing almost for free publications in German and Russian, arguing that Kohl's annexation program should be stopped. We found many people willing to listen. Significantly, the police apparatus had clear directives from on high to leave us alone (we were stopped once or twice, but were never held or mistreated), and I came to know quite a few East Berlin factories as well as a couple of Soviet barracks. But nobody really wanted to do anything about it. The real purpose of our activities was not clear to me at the time, and I suspect that nobody in the leadership of my Trotskyist “International” knew either. At a later time, I came up with the following speculation--a lot easier to do in retrospect, obviously-- that what we should have been trying to aim for (but we did not, and it was in the end one of the reasons I felt alienated from my “cowardly” group), would have some kind of Berlin Commune in 1990: some heroic (and doomed) last stand of a few fighters against Western occupation. How this could be done I don't have the faintest idea, and never did...

But if this was not in the cards, why oppose this reunification? Well, a glimpse at our views can be given by the fact that a friend of mine, a nice Jewish redhead boy from New York, shot himself in early 1990, when it became clear that reunification was going ahead. He (and I) thought that the Fourth Reich was coming and it would soon engulf all of us in a new fascistic world! How wrong we were! To think of Helmut Kohl as some kind of proto-new-Hitler (or Hindenburg?). How absurd it was!

Dixi and salvavi animam meam. Well, probably not...

JE comments:  I'm grateful to Luciano Dondero for his honest account of this watershed moment in history.  It's particularly interesting that the feared Stasi would not have interfered with Trotskyist propaganda in the waning days of that country.  Were they desperate?  Worried about bigger threats to their livelihood?  Or perhaps they saw the usefulness of any movement that sought to preserve the DDR.

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  • Memories of Berlin (Nigel Jones, -UK 03/26/13 7:05 AM)
    Luciano Dondero's memories of Germany in the 1980s (26 March) brought back many memories for me too, some painful, but mostly--like all nostalgia for one's lost youth--sweet.

    Like Luciano, I too was living in Berlin during its surreal incarnation as a small capitalist island in the grey surrounding sea of state socialism known as the DDR. I was there approximately a decade before Luciano, but I doubt that Berlin had changed much in the interim.

    Like Luciano, in those dim and distant days, I was motivated and drawn magnet like to Berlin mainly by two passions: politics and the erotic appeal of German womanhood. My politics, strange to relate, were then also on the Far Left--though of the Maoist rather than the Trotskyist variety. (Who was it who said that anyone who wasn't a socialist when they were 21 had no heart; and anyone who stayed a socialist thereafter had no head? It's a truism I have certainly found to be true.)

    The extraordinary thing about Berlin was that so many young Berliners still called themselves socialists or Communists of one of the creed's 57 varieties or other, despite the abundant evidence of socialism's failure that they literally saw all around them every day.

    I say "young Berliners," but in fact many if not most of the young people I lived among were not "echt" Berliners at all--but young, pampered West Germans, disillusioned with their parents' generation; who had come to the city either to escape the Draft (Berlin was exempt from the West German conscription); or because of the old place's reputation as a radical hotbed. I myself lived in a "Wohngemeinschaft" (communal flat) in the Friedenau quarter, festooned with posters of Lenin.

    I was there only a few years after the Baader-Meinhof band had been running amok, shooting and bombing their way across Germany. These insufferably bourgeois "revolutionaries" (their favoured transport mode were BMW cars--which became derisively known as "Baader Meinhof Wagen") had originated in Berlin after a student had been shot dead by police in a riot against the visiting Shah of Iran; and a Leftist student leader, Rudi Dutschke, had been severely but not fatally wounded in an assassination attempt. (He died some years later as a result of his injuries.) Shortly thereafter Ulrike Meinhof led the raid which freed Andreas Baader from a prison library where he was allowed to study, and the game was on. But I digress...

    Berlin, in short, was a treasured part of my youth. I shed it as I shed my "infantile Leftism" when I discovered that real life isn't really like that. But it remains a vivid memory of an extraordinary place and time--a dream city in much the same way that Christopher Isherwood's pre-Nazi Berlin was transformed in his memory into a fictional dream city.

    JE comments: I was aware that Nigel Jones had once lived in Berlin, but youthful Maoist sympathies? Wow--this is turning into a fascinating round of Berlin stories!

    Is there something about that city that sharpens one's Quixotic senses?

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    • Memories of Berlin (Angel Vinas, Belgium 03/26/13 10:57 AM)
      Well, I´m very glad to be in company of WAISers who were in Berlin. I went for the first time there when I was doing a Summer course at Freiburg University. It was in Freiburg that I bought Manfred Merkes's first book on Germany and the Spanish Civil War. It led me to wish to do something similar and to try to become the Spanish Ambassador to Germany. Please don´t laugh at me. I was 20 years old at the time.

      I lived in a residence hall in Freiburg, and one evening I heard on the radio or on TV, I don´t remember which any longer, that the DDR had cut off access to East Berlin. I do remember the speaker saying great words to the effect that that action required the West "für die Freiheit einzustehen." This expression became engraved in my memory.

      The following day I took the train to Berlin. I remember very vividly that the coach I was traveling in was very empty when we crossed the DDR. I arrived at the Zoologischer Garten station, went to a rather dilapidated hotel and stayed in Berlin for a few days. With my Spanish passport I had no trouble crossing into East Berlin. I promised myself to return.

      Two years later, thanks to a grant by the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, I went back and registered at the School for Economic and Social Sciences at the Free University in Dahlem. I lived in a Studentendorf in Schlachtensee for over a year. I used to go to East Berlin every week and saw all the Brecht repertoire, plus I don´t know how many classical German plays.

      I made friends. I still remember a family one of whose brothers lived in my Studentendorf. They were relatively young, and once they realised that I was no Mitarbeiter of the Stasi they opened up and introduced me to others. I think I got a very good insight into the realities of life in the DDR where I also traveled widely. I never had any problem with the authorities. I was however stupid enough to smuggle Eastern marks, which I got at a very advantageous exchange rate in the West. I still shudder at what might have happened to me if the border police had caught me. I had a great time because at the 4 to 1 rate prices of books, records, theatre and restaurants were dirt-cheap.

      Politically my experiences in Berlin never led me into the temptation of becoming a Communist. I was a moderate leftie at that time. I have remained that way.

      At the Humboldt University in East Berlin I saw that Western economic and social literature was under lock and key. You needed special permission to consult it. It was the same at Madrid University, where you were not allowed to read Das Kapital.

      My 1961 dreams became partially true. When I joined the Spanish foreign service in 1968 I managed to get sent to Bonn where I started doing research on the Third Reich and the Civil War. I also went on business to Berlin and kept on going to the East, still by metro but with my diplomatic passport. The border police saluted. In Bonn I went through the years of lead. Altogether I spent 7 years in Germany and came to speak German like a native. Not any longer, I´m afraid.

      For reasons I never understood, but in the best tradition of many diplomatic services, I was never put on the German desk. My experiences in East and West Germany left me with a rather healthy skepticism about the grandiloquent rhetoric of the Cold War. Professional experience only added to that. One can´t judge foreign realities in black and white terms.

      By the way, one of the best books ever written on the Third Reich and the Spanish civil war is Robert Whealey´s, our WAIS colleague.

      JE comments: I regret never visiting the DDR when it was that, although I've been fortunate in the last five years to travel twice to the former East Germany, including last year in Dresden. I'm looking forward to my next trip.

      I'm surprised that the DDR authorities would welcome travelers with Spanish passports into E Berlin during the Franco period.  Never a day goes by that I don't learn something fascinating on WAIS!

      Luciano Dondero, Nigel Jones, Ángel Viñas and our esteemed Chair, Cameron Sawyer, are four WAISers who mastered German. I need to follow their example--especially given my German surname.

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      • Memories of Berlin (Robert Whealey, USA 03/27/13 2:34 AM)

        My visits to Germany to do research on Spain kind of overlap those of Angel Viñas (26 March). I arrived in West Germany at age 25 in September 1955 as part of the US Army. During that year stay, I learned a bit of Strasse Deutsch and returned to Freiburg in the summer of 1967 to work in the Bundeswehr's Military Institute's archives at Freiburg. I only got to East Berlin in the summer of 1983 for a one-day stay. At that time one DM bought 10 DDR inflated marks. The DDR opened "Checkpoint Charlie" to make money from rich western tourists.  An American Colonel in the US Army informed me on that trip that the "Cold War was over." Since the Nixon administration, I ceased believing in the metaphor for anti-communism invented by Bernard Baruch in 1947. Walter Lipmann expanded that slogan to the American mass media. There must be at least 1000 books published in the US with "Cold War" in the title.

        Previously in May 1964, I repudiated Johnson's anti-communist crusade in Indochina, but it took me three or four years to perceive that the major American ideology of anti-communism was flawed. Like Hitler and Mussolini, nobody can win a war based on negative attitudes. Anti-Semitism and Negritude ideas fall to the ground for the same reasons. St John of Patmos, who wrote the Apocalypse, was a Manichaen and spoke of the anti-Christ. The Christian fathers made a mistake c. 300 CE in including that book in the sacred Cannon.

        I cited Manfred Merkes's very conservative book for my dissertation, but only met Merkes in Madrid about 1979-1980 through the good offices of Angel Viñas, who organized a scholarly conference at the CSIS on Calle Serrano and Calle Pinar in Madrid on the international interpretations of the Spanish Civil War. WAISer Stanley Payne was also at that conference.

        JE comments:  When Robert Whealey has the chance, I'd love to hear more of his US Army experiences in W Germany during the 1950s.  How much resentment (if any) towards the occupiers did one perceive from the German citizenry?

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        • German Attitudes Towards Americans in the 1950s (Robert McCabe, -France 03/27/13 7:36 AM)
          I lived in Darmstadt (central Germany) in 1955-'57, working as a civilian for Stars and Stripes, and detected very little anti-American activity, save for the omnipresent signs "Amis Go Home." The "Amis" were GIs, who evidently picked up the "Amis" label in France and then used the word after they arrived in Germany at the end of the war, naively telling Germans they were "friends."

          These were peaceful years, unlike the 1960s. Generally, my friends and I got on well with German civilians--particularly at festivals like the Oktoberfest, where good German beer created a lot of boozy friendships, including lots of drinking songs (which I still sing on demand.) The same went for my colleagues, almost all of whom were civilians spending a couple of years in Germany touring Europe before going back home to the real world.

          Some GIs found themselves in bar scuffles in the sleazier parts of Frankfurt and Munich. Stripes avoided coverage of these incidents, but the well-read Overseas Weekly, an independent newspaper, occasionally mentioned the problem. But there were very few serious incidents as far as I can recall.

          I had come to Germany expecting occasional trouble; I came away feeling much more positive about the Germans than on arrival. (I might add that I had traveled extensively in West Germany in 1953, two years earlier, and had no problems as an American tourist.) And during my two years with Stripes, I came to feel a certain affection for the country and its people. Oddly enough, however, I've not been back there since the 1960s, though I've lived here in France for almost 40 years. What do you make of that?

          JE comments: This impromptu conversation on Germany has become very entertaining (and informative, of course). But I cannot understand why Bob McCabe hasn't returned in so many years. It must be very hard to leave Paris!

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      • Memories of Berlin; Humboldt University (Tor Guimaraes, USA 03/28/13 4:14 AM)
        For some reason that's difficult to explain, since I was a young boy in Brazil I always admired the Japanese and German everything. After becoming a researcher and consultant in the US, I worked with many partners and clients in many countries, but will never forget my first trip to Berlin. It was a divided city, with the ethos for the two sides being dramatically different. Nevertheless, both side were impressive in their own way.

        West Berlin was a deliberate show for the advantages of free markets and capitalism at is best. The human energy was amazing, with food and entertainment abundant everywhere. Even the old buildings like the Egyptian Museum by the river, despite WWII, allowed a glimpse at what Berlin must have been before the war. One could walk down the Unter den Linden to East Berlin which looked like a ghost town in comparison to the West side. Nevertheless, I remember some very impressive government buildings in East Berlin. My partner and I decided to stop at Humboldt University and visited with some members of the faculty and administrators. From that visit, the Dean of the College of Business at my university (Tennessee Technological University) decided to collect from our faculty members and sent to Humboldt University several boxes of books for their depleted library. We even got some unexpected publicity on the Chronicle of Higher Education for this operation.

        Perhaps today Humboldt could return the favor (just kidding).

        JE comments:  Perhaps someone in WAISworld could fill us in on Humboldt U's reorganization after reunification.  Wikipedia is uncharacteristically laconic on the subject, simply stating that the DDR academics had to re-apply for their jobs, and that the faculty was "largely replaced" by West German professors.  Cultural change comes slow in universities, but the Humboldt case is an exception.  This must have disrupted many lives.

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      • Memories of Berlin (David Fleischer, Brazil 03/28/13 4:38 AM)
        My first "memories of Berlin" date from February 1984, when Internaciones (the then West German government cultural exchange) organized a "study trip" for nine Brazilian political scientists and law professors. We visited Frankfurt, Bonn, Berlin, Munich and Mainz.

        While in Berlin, our West German hosts took us to Check Point Charlie and bought tickets for us to go on an all-day tour of East Berlin--so we could observe how the "other side" operated. This tour took us to several museums, universities and we had a very nice (and very cheap) lunch. It was obvious to see the advantages of living in East Berlin and working in West Berlin before the Wall was built in 1961.

        During our visit to Mainz we were able to observe a session of the local Landtag--state legislature. Der Alt (the oldest deputy) presided over the session (organized for our benefit) and asked if we had any questions about German politics--this through translation. Our colleague, a political science professor from Rio Grande do Sul, asked about the German closed list proportional election system.  If a deputy "misbehaved" would he be placed way down on the closed list next election as "punishment." After the translation (this took some 30 seconds), Der Alt got very agitated and responded--"You don't understand Germany's political system; that would never happen, we are a democracy!"

        After that "outburst," a younger deputy looked as us and winked. During the coffee/tea break, he chatted with us in very good English and explained that what our professor had asked was true and did happen sometimes--a deputy could be put way down on the list for reelection because of bad behavior. He added, "I did not challenge Der Alt's reply because that alone would have been enough to get me placed way down on the list at the next election!"

        Back to Berlin. In August 1994, my wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary with a trip to [unified] Germany. Our trip ended in Berlin at a Congress of the International Political Science Assn. The Brazilian diplomats invited the Brazilian participants at this congress for an evening reception at one of their homes--in East Berlin.

        Before reunification, Brazil had full diplomatic relations with West Germany (with an Embassy in Bonn) and East Germany (embassy in East Berlin). At that time (1994), the Bonn embassy had closed, but Brazil had not installed a new (larger) embassy building in Berlin and still operated out of its old Embassy building in East Berlin.

        We received a map instructing us how to take the underground to the right stop in East Berlin, and the street trajectory to the diplomat's house. We arrived at the entrance to what looked like a compound.  When we entered, my wife exclaimed--"This is just like the housing pattern in the W-3 South area in Brasilia!" Which it was indeed--clusters of two-story row houses, separated by grassy areas. This was (is) the pattern designed by Oscar Niemeyer for the individual housing in the W-3 south sector in Brasilia. My rationale to her was--"Niemeyer was a Communist and probably visited East Berlin in the early to mid-1950s and observed this housing pattern, and in the late 1950s replicated this in Brasilia." This "compound" in East Berlin was only for foreign diplomats, so they would not be able to "contaminate" East Berliners if they were allowed to live in the city's residential areas.

        We enjoyed our one-week stay in Berlin very much. It is a beautiful city and at that time was undergoing massive [re-]construction. The city has many parks and lakes and much "green." We could imagine what the city must have been like in its cultural heyday in the 1920s and 1930s.

        JE comments: I was also impressed by Berlin's green areas and lakes during my three-day visit in 2009. Another thing that struck me: the city's silence. Unlike any major city I can think of, people in Berlin don't honk their horns.  Is it verboten?  (The Berlin government also sent me a polite traffic violation ticket, which arrived in the mail some six months after I returned home. I must have been caught on camera doing something wrong in my rented Seat Ibiza, but I have no idea what.  Shades of Stasi?)
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      • Memories of Berlin; DDR and Stolen Passports (John Heelan, -UK 03/28/13 8:59 AM)
        When commenting Ángel Viñas's post of 26 March, JE wrote: "I'm surprised that the DDR authorities would welcome travelers with Spanish passports into E Berlin during the Franco period."

        Not so surprising! As I mentioned in my WAIS report a few years ago of a lecture tour behind the Iron Curtain in the early 1970s, "(We) had had to surrender our passports to the local police: of course, it was local police who were escaping the DDR using stolen and forged passports."

        JE comments: If you missed John Heelan's fascinating DDR post of July 2009, here it is again (I must find a way to fix the formatting on our pre-2010 archive!):


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