Discussion on “Left Opposition in the GDR”

As part of the first event in the series of events "The long shadow of the SED: The GDR and the turning point in the critical left-wing reappraisal" Titus Hopp (Berlin) and Gesine Oltmanns (Leipzig) came on September 04.09.2020th, XNUMX on the topic "Left-wing opposition in the GDR". into the conversation. In consultation with the participants, we are publishing excerpts from this discussion below. The focus is on Gesine Oltmann's perspective on her personal experiences in the GDR and the period of reunification, as well as on the process of coming to terms with it within the DIE LINKE party.

Gesine, as part of a pastor's family, you were placed in a special position in the GDR by the SED and the Stasi, which also involved repression. How did you perceive this situation in your childhood and youth?

Gesine Oltmanns: "Being the daughter of a pastor's household was a special situation in the GDR. I was born into a stigma that shaped the GDR as a state. The GDR was an atheist state and fought this particularly in the 50s. At that time, the church with all its youth formats, the student communities and other organizations was extremely opposed. My father was a young pastor here in Böhlen at the time and he helped get through the whole situation. And that was also a trauma for our family, I have to say. I always found it amazing that my father was still extremely open to what the state meant and always sought out dialogue. For me as a child it was always a special position. It was clear to us that none of us children would join the pioneers and that none would join the FDJ. That wasn't even worth discussing in our parents' house. That's why I've always had a special role since childhood, which was often questioned by others. My classmates asked me, for example: "Why aren't you there?" or "Why don't you join us?". And I had to develop my own attitude during this time. As a teenager I actually enjoyed it very much. So I pushed it to the limit of not being the only one in a blue shirt at the class assembly or at the school assembly, but also to experience and contribute other things. At home, I was able to experience different conversations than were taught in citizenship classes. That was of course very formative for me as a child. I became really politicized when my eldest brother was arrested in Berlin in 1978 for political reasons, which put our family in a state of shock. He had five issues of the magazine spiegel passed it on to friends, for which he sat in Hohenschönhausen and was sentenced to 2,5 years in prison. For the distribution of few magazines! For me, that was the first really repressive experience with the GDR state. Later I couldn't study because I had resisted this pre-military training at school. I didn't want to take part because I found it pointless and absurd in an age of nuclear armament. And that was a huge handicap, which meant that I couldn't really develop my biography at all."

"Of course there was left-wing opposition in the GDR –

particularly visible in Leipzig"

How did you perceive a left-wing opposition in the GDR?

"So, of course, there was a left-wing opposition. And there always was. This left-wing opposition was also visible in Leipzig. I came across it, for example, when I was working on it at the Stasi. I took care of political processes and the rehabilitation of people and looked at files for that. At some point a gentleman stood in front of my office door and wanted to see his judgment. The accused didn't even get their verdicts at the time. The case was from the late 70s. There was a left-wing group here in Leipzig around a former lecturer. And they did something very typical for these left-wing circles: they met and discussed literature, and also passed on things that were forbidden that weren't sold in bookstores. They were lively intellectual circles. Of course, those of the Stasi were always a thorn in their side, because that also meant that society had to come up with different ideas and different approaches. This group addressed the arrest of Rudolf Bahro. Rudolf Bahro was a communist in East Germany who wrote what was actually his dissertation, The Alternative. The book was not allowed to appear in the GDR, although it was actually a book for the GDR. It was officially banned, and yet it was widely discussed and widely read in underground circles. And after the arrest of Rudolf Bahro in 1978, this group made a big move at the Monument to the Battle of the Nations. They wrote on it in big red letters: “Free Bahro”. And with that, the whole group was busted by the Stasi and everyone was arrested and sentenced to several years in prison. There was also a young, heavily pregnant woman in the group. The investigation was initially conducted without imprisonment, after the birth the baby was placed in a state children's home, and the woman had to go to jail. So it was really a deep tragedy how it was dealt with. The people were sentenced to up to seven and a half years in prison for this action. An irrational sentence! But the campaign for Bahro's freedom, in turn, stimulated others here in Leipzig. Then, for example, a flyer campaign was made for those arrested. Two people from a group printed leaflets, as I found out in the Stasi files. It's interesting to get an idea that there was a strong, intellectual scene here that dealt with left-wing ideas. But she was also on the Stasi search engine. The people involved were exposed to appropriate repression and were persecuted as enemies of the state. Many people then went to the West. Another group was “New Thinking”. There was a person named Jürgen Tallig. He wanted after the ban of the magazine Sputnik in the fall of 1988 that this is becoming widely known and that Gorbachev and his reforms are also being noticed more strongly here. So he and three people wrote the Gorbachev quote in the pedestrian underpass at Wilhelm-Leuschner-Platz in huge letters: “We need openness and democracy like the air we breathe”. And that was a great action, also very important for us. She drew circles because she was relatively public. The Stasi was there really quickly and wiped it away. But word got around and at the time it connected the group from the Kulturband, which was really far away from the church, with the opposition groups in the church. There was then cooperation in solidarity with Jürgen Talliig and his comrades-in-arms, who were sentenced to horrendous fines. We collected money for them during the prayer for peace in the Nikolaikirche. In general, too, everything was very closely linked in 1988 and 1989. That is a development that also shaped the strength of the opposition here in Leipzig.”

Why was the ban on the Sputnik magazine such a political issue, even though the magazine itself was less popular in the GDR?

"Yes, the magazine was already very popular. Since Gorbachev there have been interesting articles to read, especially the articles on Stalinism that were simply not read in the GDR press. And that's also why Sputnik was then banned. The important and good thing about Sputnik was that it was an official magazine. So you could always refer to what was in it. You couldn't do that with the other magazines that were kept underground. And when it was then banned, that was a point where we saw that we are now being even more incapacitated.”

You were organized in human rights groups in Leipzig during the GDR era. At the same time, some say that there were hardly any opportunities to get involved in left-wing critical or opposition groups, or at least that they hardly noticed anything about it. How would you rate that?

"So in Leipzig there were definitely groups within the SED, but also within the university. I know it specifically from the so-called Kulturbund of the GDR, there was the group “New Thinking” with a series of “Dialogue” events, mainly students and SED members. They met in the Club of Intelligence on Elsterstrasse. That was definitely a partner of our base groups, as we called the groups from the church side or from the human rights groups. You could get involved. And in Berlin, too, there were strong intellectual circles who wrote really great visionary writings for the GDR. There was Edelbert Richter, a philosopher at the church college in Naumburg. I think he's still a member of the left in Thuringia. They wrote papers that were a super good basis for opposition work. Much moved in intellectual circles. There were also people who became active relatively quickly and founded parties and citizens' movements. So if you say the GDR opposition had no plan, then that's complete nonsense. This is evidenced, for example, by the many underground magazines that were published and passed on and which were also important papers in an underground scene.”

"There were many misunderstandings about the goals of our demonstrations at the Nikolaikirchhof.”

The years before the Peaceful Revolution were marked by a growing opposition. How did you perceive time in the late 80s?

"Since today's event is taking place on September 04.09th, it is easy to look back on September 04.09.1989th, 04.09. This is a very special day for me. It was the day we stood in the Nikolaikirchhof with the big banners. For us, that was a public campaign that was really important. For me personally, too, it was a huge step into society with what we wanted. That also shows a bit that I was always a publicly active woman who was therefore also very endangered. We were here in Leipzig as groups less of discussion clubs than doers. That was different from Berlin. But it also got us moving a lot. With all the setbacks. The 30. resulted in XNUMX people being arrested from the Nikolaikirchhof on the following Monday. This in turn had the consequence that there was solidarity throughout the GDR and that an awful lot got moving. But for every step forward there was one or two steps back, it wasn't a one-way street. But there were more and more.”

What did you demonstrate for at the Nikolaikirchhof?

"Our banners had slogans that have turned out to be important crystallization points for us over the months. Those were the basic rights that were also in the GDR constitution: freedom of assembly, freedom of association... They were all in the constitution, but were overridden by laws. And we claimed those constitutional rights by saying, “Freedom of assembly! Freedom of the press! For an open country with free people!” That referred to this will to freedom that we had. We wanted people to be able to make free decisions as individuals and for human rights to be protected in the GDR. Those were our main points. One of the most important was also the rule of law. This being at the mercy, this disenfranchisement as a human being, the disregard for human rights, that was always a trigger and center of commitment for us or for me personally.”

Despite this, your group's leaflets that read "We are one people" were misinterpreted as a call for reunification. What were these actually meant?

"These are absolute misunderstandings. The leaflet on October 9, 1989 was formulated against the background of the previous days with a lot of police violence on the streets of the GDR. It was clear to us that the police who were standing on the other side, who might have had our brothers or our fathers in the combat troops, we all wanted to be on the street with them. That's what was meant. "We are one people!". I stopped running after mid-October because there were already tendencies to call for reunification. What we wanted when we called for open borders was not reunification. And for me personally, success was already there when our political prisoners were released. For me, the fight on the streets was actually over for the time being with the amnesty.”

The anniversary of German unity will soon be upon us. What is your perspective on the united Germany and how did you perceive the reunification?

"We were a generation that was born and grew up in the GDR. For me, German unity was not an issue at all. We didn't even talk about it, it was a strange thought for us. That may have been different in right-wing circles. I think there was also a different generational image. For my parents, for example, it was a different matter. They were born in the 20s, they went through the war, experienced a fragmented democratic system, after the war they had hope again. You internalized this united Germany as a child, it was definitely a vision for you. Of course also combined with the longing to live together with relatives in one country again. But for us as younger people it wasn't an issue at all, we were concerned with a reformed GDR, a reformed system with individual basic rights. And we already took care of Nicaragua a lot, for example, in the 80s. For us that was such a precedent for reformed socialism and it was extremely exciting. There were a few Nicaragua groups in the GDR, but the state didn't like them either. Because they developed ideas that supposedly didn't fit the GDR.

It was only very late, maybe 20 years after the revolution, that I realized that our groups were very heterogeneous and that there were also people in human rights groups who were staunch anti-communists. For myself, I can say that I would have preferred a much slower transformation process, with slower development and self-discovery by the GDR citizens. So that they could become citizens with self-confidence. But this opinion has been completely underrepresented. I think the reunification processes were totally rushed. As early as November 1989, it was noticeable in Leipzig in which direction this was going, which also caused us corresponding frustration.”

You were later personally involved in dealing with the repressions by the GDR...

"In 1990 I got involved in the citizens' committee for the dissolution of the Stasi because I found the task extremely important. I found the opportunity to work out the opening of secret police files and the transparency of a secret police extremely important and good. The first priority was to protect the files and then to rehabilitate those who were politically persecuted. All the files were not in the courts, as befits a constitutional state, but with the Stasi. So they all had to be refurbished for court rehab processes. And I really saw a lot of victim files, I read a lot about repression. That had an incredible impact on me. I also came from a situation where you can say: I was persecuted. But that was very small for me compared to what I read there. I could only endure that for a very specific time before I said: "Now that's good!" Then I started studying law because that was a logical consequence for me. But of course the work also shaped me in dealing with the past.”

At what point in the period of reunification were the politically persecuted right and the harsh and unlawful punishments that you have already reported were lifted?

"It is a success of the Peaceful Revolution that the rule of law was restored. That there was a rehab law that anyone who applied would be rehabilitated from wrongful sentences. That was a process over many years. In the last few months before the GDR joined, we started preparing the files and the first judges from Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg came and conducted the proceedings here. Great care was taken to ensure that experienced people do this. Different forms of rehabilitation were and are necessary: ​​On the one hand, of course, rehabilitation under criminal law. For example, there is also rehabilitation for students who were disadvantaged in their education in the GDR. Or another example: for women who have been traumatized by forced medical treatment. In addition to the various forms of rehabilitation, including administrative ones, there was and still is compensation for victims. This is sorely needed in order to do justice to the dignity of those affected by repression in old age. But there are still groups that, unfortunately, have not yet been taken into account. These are, for example, adopted children and forced adoptions. This is very difficult to prove and clarify, even with the Stasi files. A lot was also destroyed before the MfS could be occupied and the files opened. But these are still processes that I have a good feeling about. Where there is a chance that the people who have experienced something like this will be right. This is also a sign that the rule of law can work.”

"The coming to terms with the SED past by DIE LINKE,

that's still on!

How did you perceive the party formation and structuring of the PDS after the fall of the Wall? In your opinion, what responsibility does this political legacy give to DIE LINKE?

"For me - as for many others - a key question was: Will a new party be founded or will the SED continue? We, who felt connected to the left, didn't understand at the time why there was no radical new beginning in December 1989. This was also shown in the biographies that continued from the SED into the PDS. This led to a new self-confidence among those who were heavily involved in the GDR system at the time. This applies to Volker Külow, for example, where the process is still not over for me. There is still something missing from him, namely the recognition of the dignity of the victims that he himself helped to produce. He too has brought on disadvantaged, degraded people and I still lack a very honest apology. He hasn't gotten it out of his mouth yet, instead he's always said that he stands by what he did back then and thinks it's okay. Until that apology happens, the wounds will still be open. Those affected often only realize too late that they were part of state repression. They don't want to be the victim. Likewise, a distinction must be made between perpetrators. Research at the BSTU provides good guidelines for this. This is important for a society, it is a reconciliation process that is still partially pending. And that's why I'm sitting here now, although many in circles with which I felt very connected for a long time are critical of starting a conversation with leftists at all. This is unthinkable for many because so much is still unsaid. But I can already see that there is now a chance to tackle it again. In my opinion, this is also an important task for the left-wing party: to stop looking at the GDR, the history of transformation and what has developed from it, but to get involved and have an attitude. Getting involved in the Leipzig city council and saying: "We have an opinion on the round corner!". And to support a clarification and no longer hold back just because we had an SED past. I think that's it now! That has to happen within the party and it has to happen externally as well.”

It is an important question how to deal with people who have a Stasi past today, 30 years after the end of the GDR. There is still a corresponding review in the Bundestag. Even if some people are legitimately confronted with their past because they are mentally continuing the legacy and have not distanced themselves, the question arises: How do you deal with such a biography in general - also in the party?

"So I already have hope for a generational change within the left. For example, the questions asked by young people today are very different. On the one hand, interest has grown in what the generation of grandparents did, to what extent they were involved in the system. The questions are also asked from a different educational context, the people have arrived differently in society. For me, this dialogue between the generations also offers the opportunity to clarify matters and to reconcile them. I think these are just processes that we have to go through now. And there I have hope for the left in general, but also for the party DIE LINKE, that the following generations will ask these questions to the old cadres again. And who position themselves again as a result. After all, the political identity of the GDR was different from the cultural one, which now produces so much nostalgia. And I believe that the younger generation should ask once again about their political identity, which the majority of the Ossis quickly shed.

I also think that the law on scrutiny of people elected to parliament should be upheld until the generation of 18-year-olds from back then is no longer sitting in parliament. So that doesn't hurt us - on the contrary! This can stimulate important discussions, arguments and a reappraisal. This social process is not yet complete and should be maintained. That is still one of the most central points that the party has to clarify, dealing with the Stasi past.”

Even in a non-parliamentary context, a Stasi past still means personal cuts for many people, such as exclusion from public service. On the other hand, there is a mood in Saxony in which young members of the state parliament are still accused of belonging to the GDR and the Stasi. All of this is part of an anti-communist mood in society, in which it is difficult to reveal one's own past and to deal with it critically.

"I also think that there could be something like a commission of inquiry that would reassess the situation and revise the criteria again. It is also about the current status of scientific research. We're on a different level now and have a broader perspective on everything. I do not now know to what extent the revision of these criteria is politically possible. So that, for example, something like military service in the guard regiment is reassessed. I think that makes sense.”

Processing of the conversation and text: Djamila Hess

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