It’s difficult to close down an organization that’s about to be absorbed by a bigger entity. You have to deal with staffing, with the old office space, with all the stuff inside the office. There’s all the paperwork. You have to change the letterhead, the business cards, the signs on the doors. There are banking details, legal questions, accounting nightmares.
Now imagine what it must be like to close down a country. The to-do list is monumental.
Helmut Domke was part of the grand closing down of East Germany. An astrophysicist and activist in Church circles, Domke didn’t get involved in East German politics in 1989-90 with the intention of presiding over the country’s disappearance. When we talked in March 1990, he was very enthusiastic about the model of the Round Tables and hoped they would continue to be places for citizens to address vital social issues. He was also looking forward to the task of demilitarization and conversion of military enterprises in the country.
But as the winter turned to spring in 1990, the prospects for an independent GDR grew dimmer. In May, a couple months after we first talked, Domke had an opportunity to join the GDR’s Foreign Ministry and work on the issues he cared so much about. But it wasn’t going to be easy. “In 1990, we were under quite a lot of pressure,” he told me in our interview this February. “We hoped to have more time. When I came to the office of the ministry of foreign affairs in the beginning of May, we thought we would have about two years to go calmly into the new conditions. But then there was a shortening of all these time scales. The political processes developed their own dynamic.”
As a deputy minister of foreign affairs, Domke was responsible for dealing with the Soviet troops stationed in East Germany and for disarmament negotiations, among other things. He was involved in the final negotiations of the 2 + 4 talks that paved the way for reunification. And he was present in New York on October 1, 1990, for the meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe just prior to German reunification when the allied powers had to renounce their rights to Germany. He stayed on in government, at the Brandenburg level, and facilitated the four-year process by which Soviet troops withdrew from the country.
Domke speaks proudly of some of the door-closing tasks of that era, such as the decision in August 1990 to end all military production in the GDR. Many of the arms production facilities were then converted to arms destruction facilities. But, Domke points out, “we were disappointed that, in the name of ‘conversion,’ some of this ammunition and material was exported after unification. The argument was: we can get money this way to help pay for conversion. That is a terrible logic, which went against the quite clear, anti-militaristic intention of Neues Forum during our process of gaining freedom in 1989.”
More generally, “the hopes we had for demilitarization were not realized politically after reunification,” he continued. “For example, in 1990 we prepared a law on conversion to create some institutions to further develop the concept. But we did not succeed up to unification to make this law in the GDR. After unification these impulses were lost. The government of the united Federal Republic of Germany permanently refused all attempts to start a state program of conversion.”
It wasn’t all door-closing. As the old saying goes, when one door closes, another opens. Domke emphasizes that the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Germany has led to a new kind of relationship with Russia. He himself is the chairman of the Foundation of West-East Encounters, which was created with the capital left over from the former friendship organization between the GDR and the Soviet Union. “After German unification there was about 15 million Euro left in the organization’s accounts when the structures were dissolved,” Domke explains. “We used that money to build a foundation that supports contacts with independent civil society organizations in the New Independent States.”
We also talked about his thoughts on the Stasi, what activists had accomplished in Church circles in the GDR, and what might have been done differently during the reunification process.
Do you remember where you were, what you were doing, and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin wall?
On that evening of the 9th of November, I was sitting at home in Potsdam and heard about a press conference. I saw it on TV and thought, “Well, we now have the right to make an application and get some kind of a visa. I will do that during the next days.” But then I did not worry any further about that. Then at midnight I got a phone call from the West German city of Freiburg im Breisgau, and a friend told me – he was in tears – about what was happening at the Berlin Wall. Then I looked at the TV.
Of course during those days we expected this right for travelling. So, at that point, it was not a surprise. But that the fall of the Wall would happen so quickly: that was unexpected. On the other hand we were much involved at that time in questions about what to do in the future, after the removal of Honecker. The coming down of the Wall so suddenly was not so positive from the point of view of working out these developments. And then the process of change accelerated.
For us the most important day was not November 9. It was October 9 in Leipzig. That’s where the development started. But for the public, the most visible date was November 9. Now we regret a little bit that all the attention is focused on November 9. It was indeed an important day, a decisive day. But the GDR did not end on November 9, 1989. We had a very interesting and important process – a democratic process — going on up to German reunification. The GDR as a democracy, as a civil political entity, existed from March 1990 to October 2,1990. This was of course a very interesting process to enter the federal republic. The GDR was incorporated into the FRG, but it was not occupied and it did not disappear.
Before 1989, you trained as an astrophysicist and you were involved in peace activities.
Before 1989, I was working as a physicist in an astrophysical research institute in Potsdam. Beyond that, I was involved since 1978 in the Federation of Protestant Churches in the GDR as a member of the Synod, the Church parliament, and became an elected member of the ruling board of the Federation of Churches. At that time, especially in the period from 1979 until 1990, the questions of nuclear arms and disarmament became quite important also for us in the churches. As a delegate of the board, I took part on behalf of our churches in international interchurch dialogues on disarmament with churches in the UK and the United States. This was in part a training course for us in political education and expertise, which we could not get within the GDR system. Although access to the ministry of foreign affairs in the GDR was more or less closed to us as church people, we nevertheless had various international contacts with the Russians, the National Council of Churches in the United States, the Quakers, and so on.
During this period of time when you were working within the church community and later in the mid-1980s with the emergence of the peace movement, did you ever have any problems with the authorities?
No, because I was a member of the highest Church board in the GDR. This was a shield against interventions from the state in my personal affairs. Of course, as I know now, I was also in the focus of the Stasi. That was not a surprise for me. But I did not experience an immediate danger. Only in my professional career was there some kind of resistance from the state. I clearly understood that after I got a PhD, this would be the end of my career as a scientist. But of course, I knew that this was the system.
Did you immediately take advantage of the opportunity to look at your file in the Stasi archives?
No, I did not look at my files. In December 1989 I became a member of the civil committee for dissolving the Stasi at the regional level in Potsdam. Then I got some insight into the structures and the documentation of the Stasi. I found some documents concerning myself, my relatives, my son. Also other people who looked at their files more intensely gave me copies of some documents. When I saw all of this, I realized that one should not overestimate the importance of these materials. The information was collected by methods of which I cannot approve, so why should I trust these documents? I myself know my own biography much better. It’s also true that the Stasi documents are quite biased, due to the system. They are by no means complete and not as complete as many people think. For instance, it is surprising to me how scared some people were about some events I was taking part in, and I saw from the Stasi documents that there were many things they did not understand.
That’s not very different from the FBI and the FBI files in the United States.
Of course, when we dissolved the Stasi, we also hoped that the problem of the secret services would also be on the reunification agenda or the disarmament agenda. But I regret that nothing happened. I have the right to see the files of the Stasi, but not the right to see the files of the BND (West German intelligences services) or the Verfassungsschutz (service for the protection of the Constitution), which also, I am convinced, had a look at me, even after reunification, because I was involved in disarmament and the withdrawal of the Soviet troops.
Since you were involved in the committee that oversaw the dissolution of the Stasi, do you think now that were ways that the process could have been improved?
Yes. I think that the chance to pay more attention to reconciliation was lost. And the overestimation of the importance of Stasi has clearly did some damage to the whole process of reunification and afterwards. There are people who were discredited simply due to some Stasi documents. This information was taken as pure truth, and it was difficult for those people to defend themselves against the accusations. So, this was a lost opportunity. Obviously, South Africa in some sense was more creative and more successful with reconciliation.
There were some meetings, weren’t there, that brought together victims and perpetrators?
Some small groups, often under the auspices of certain representatives of churches, had the opportunity to bring together the Stasi and their counterparts, but very few cases were successful.
Do you think the release of information should have been different?
Yes, especially the release of information to third persons, to journalists, even to scientists or to people who think they are scientists. Much damage was also made, for example, by the historian Gerhard Besier. He was a Church historian, but before 1990 I never heard about him in the church context. He got access to Stasi documents and wrote three books about the Church, publically accusing it of involvement with the Stasi. This damaged the image of the Church and of Christian life in the GDR and also the chance for the creative analysis of Christian experience under conditions of ideological dictatorship. I regret, for example, the loss of all the learning concentrated in the ecumenical process known as the Conciliary Process for Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation. That was a unique process within the Churches, nationally as well as internationally. In the GDR, we had three ecumenical conferences and a very broad preparation within a network in the church community R. Today, most of the insights and results from that remarkable und inspiring movement seem to be mostly lost, unfortunately.
It seems to me, when it comes to the Stasi, that the people who were involved in the Stasi, the ones who simply provided information, have suffered a great deal more than the people who worked for the Stasi. Why is this?
Yes, it’s paradoxical in some sense. The people who were professionally working with those methods, of course it was their profession. But the informers are viewed as predators in the personal sphere. When they were uncovered, it was seen as much more of a personal betrayal.
So, one was impersonal, the other personal. You became involved in both Neues Forum and the Round Table because of your experience in demilitarization?
Yes, but mainly at the local level in Potsdam due to my engagement in the Church. As I said already, since 1979, due to my membership in high-level Church bodies, I was involved with international ecumenical affairs and questions of disarmament. I had the opportunity to take part in international dialogues and conferences. That was possible only because of the Church and its international cooperation. On the other hand, as a scientific staff member in a State Research Institute, I was not allowed to participate in conferences in the West. I could only have contacts to scientists in the East. In particular, I closely cooperated with Russian colleagues in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and Moscow.
In 1990, you spoke about your disappointment that the Round Table experience didn’t have more impact. When we talked in March, I think the Round Table process was still going on…
Yes, after the elections in March 1990, most of the Round Tables, the characteristic achievements of the “Peaceful Revolution” in the GDR on the local and national levels, were ending, with only some special Round Tables about questions like the Third World still going on. The feeling was that now we have a democratic legalized administration, so there is no need to sit down at Round Tables. This was also a lost opportunity. At the Round Tables, people sat down to address urgent problems, common problems. The discussions were not overwhelmed by questions of political power. Some of the atmosphere of the Round Table continued for a time after 1990 among the people going into the different political parties. But as time went on, the character and bureaucracy of the administration in East Germany became quite similar to that in the old Federal Republic of the West.
You participated in the Round Table on demilitarization?
In 1989, I came into contact with the question of demilitarization at the regional level, with Neues Forum. We organized some discussions with officers of the National People’s Army of the GDR on disarmament and military reforms, and we also tried to contact the Military Missions of the Allied Forces in Potsdam. But that was very short period. Then, beginning in May 1990, I became the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in the foreign office of the new GDR administration. That was due to the new East German Foreign Minister Markus Meckel, whom I knew from our common work on disarmament in the framework of the churches. He knew about my international church experience on those issues, and he invited me to take responsibility for them at the state level.
And that lasted until October 1990?
Yes. As the deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs I was, for example, responsible for the international organizations: UN, Warsaw Pact, and CSCE. I was also the co-chairman for the Bilateral Commission on the stationing of Soviet troops. I also had responsibility for disarmament negotiations.
After unification, I was responsible for Soviet troops and conversion on behalf of the Prime Minister of the Federal State of Brandenburg, where many Soviet troops as well as those from the National People’s Army were stationed. From my short period in the Foreign Office, I personally knew some of the main commanders of the Soviet troops. This was important for creating some kind of relationship of trust with the Soviet military, which after German unification where confronted with the unprecedented situation of leaving the German territory. There were, for example, many humanitarian problems in Brandenburg related to the military personnel and their families or problems with cleaning up military sites. So it made sense to have someone acting as a kind of ombudsman. Of course, the main military and technical issues related to the withdrawing of the Soviet troops during 1991-94 were administered by the Federal Government in Bonn.
Did you have certain assumptions when you were working at the civic level, in Neues Forum and so on, that you realized were incorrect when you went to the foreign office and later when you were working at the Brandenburg level on conversion and demilitarization?
It was a learning process, of course. And we were quite thankful that the learning did not begin in 1990, that we understood for example the problems of conversion. Conversion is not only to make ploughshares from swords — in the direct sense of the material conversion of military material — but there is also the conversion of people. There is reeducation and finding them new jobs and so on, which we formerly completely underestimated. In Brandenburg, about 5% of the territory was occupied by the military: that’s the territorial size of the Saarland. The cost of converting these territories to civilian use, we came to understand, was in many aspects comparable to the costs of militarization. So, militarization has a double price: to produce the material and then to write it off: to make all the rockets and the ammunition and then to destroy them. In the Federal Republic in 1990, the capacity to destroy ammunition was 3,000 tons of ammunition per year. But the National People’s Army had 300,000 tons of ammunition! Of course, after 1990, methods and installations were quickly developed to handle all of this.
On the other hand, we were disappointed that, in the name of “conversion,” some of this ammunition and material was exported after unification. The argument was: we can get money this way to help pay for conversion. That is a terrible logic, which went against the quite clear, anti-militaristic intention of Neues Forum during our process of gaining freedom in 1989.
During the first weeks of the Peaceful Revolution in 1989, the symbolic destruction of weapons took place. But the hopes we had for demilitarization were not realized politically after reunification. For example, in 1990 we prepared a law on conversion to create some institutions to further develop the concept. But we did not succeed up to unification to make this law in the GDR. After unification these impulses were lost. The government of the united Federal Republic of Germany permanently refused all attempts to start a state program of conversion.
Were any of the old arms-making facilities in eastern Germany converted into new arms-making facilities?
No. We were successful on the territory of the GDR in converting arms production. Military production was prohibited, beginning August 1, 1990. Rainer Eppelmann, who became, after the free elections in the GDR, the Minister of Disarmament and Defense, prohibited any military production in the GDR. And this has held up to now. In some of these facilities were installed facilities for destroying ammunition, rockets, and so on. We also hoped in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to achieve after unification a nuclear-weapons-free zone in Germany. That meant also the withdrawal of U.S. weapons from the territory. But unfortunately, this did not happen. Our partners in Bonn did not agree with this perspective. However, on the territory of the former GDR, including Berlin, it is prohibited to deploy nuclear weapons, just as it is also prohibited to deploy there foreign troops and also NATO troops. So as a collateral positive result of German unification and the related international agreements around that we have a nuclear-free zone, at least in part of Germany, which is fixed by international law. .
Along with Markus Meckel and Hans Misselwitz, I was also involved in the 2+4 negotiations on the international aspects of German unification. After they both left the administration in August 1990, it was my duty to bring to an end the negotiations at the level of the deputy minister for foreign affairs. The agreement was signed at September 12, 1990, in Moscow by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the two German States and the former Allies of the so-called Anti-Hitler Coalition. At that time, Lothar de Maiziere was chief of the government and at the same time acting minister of foreign affairs. It was also my duty to be present at the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting in New York on October 1, 1990, just before the reunification of the two sovereign German states, where the allied powers had to renounce their rights to Germany even before the ratification of the 2+4 agreement.
This brought to an end the World War Two structures and, of course, the end of the Cold War structure in some sense as well. A number of people proposed that one price of German reunification would be, if not complete demilitarization, at least a reduced military profile for the country. If Germany got a bigger territory, it should get a smaller military. But we’ve seen the opposite. In many ways the German military has expanded it missions, its exports, its roles and capacities, even though the size of the military has gone down.
Yes, of course this was a very important moment. It was our intention, and it indeed happened, that the number of German military personnel decreased. On the other hand, you are right that the principle of restricting the military to responding only to threats against the territory of Germany was abandoned. The missions were extended. And this was disappointing to us. The Cold War conflict, however, had very clear boundaries. In the year of German unification, we did not expect such conflicts like in Yugoslavia or in other places in the world. However, people who were near to the problem in Yugoslavia warned us for many years that if you destroy the balance of power that emerged under the dictatorship of Tito, it would thaw these conflicts that had been frozen there. I was in Yugoslavia for two days in 1990 for a conference of non-aligned states. We were told there about these frozen conflicts.
Later on some people told us, that the quick action of Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher to recognize new states like Croatia without thinking would lead to grave consequences. We should have earlier looked more closely at these dangers.
However, not everything depends on Germany. There are other interests and states that played their role. Still, why did we bombard Belgrade in order to bring Serbia over to our side? We are very thankful that Gerhard Schröder resisted taking part in Iraq although it was very hard for him to withstand the political pressure. At the time of German unification, we could not foresee the nature of the conflicts that we are seeing now. We had hopes. But it is quite regrettable that the hopes of the Paris Charter of November 1990 are today only on paper.
It strikes me when I hear about what you did after when we met in 1990 that a lot of your responsibilities were to end things, like to end the allied agreement and the Soviet involvement. You were closing a lot of doors. Was that the last door that you closed when the last Soviet troops left Germany?
Our intention around the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Germany was not to close doors but to take the chance to keep doors open and even to open new doors. We had the chance during those four years of withdrawal between 1991 and 1994 to build connections and contacts on a new foundation. Something of that endures. We have good relations with Russia. But it could have been broader. We had little support from the government in Bonn, which did not understand that the withdrawal was also a great opportunity. Even the good personal relations between Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Boris Yeltsin were not sufficient to develop sustainable good relations with Russia.
As for myself, I am now still involved in this relationship-building with Russia and to people of the New Independent States on the former Soviet territory as the chairman of the Foundation of West-East Encounters. This foundation is built on the financial capital of the former friendship organization between the GDR and the Soviet Union. This was a so-called mass organization. After German unification there was about 15 million Euro left in the organization’s accounts when the structures were dissolved. We used that money to build a foundation that supports contacts with independent civil society organizations in the New Independent States. We not only finance people in Germany who are going to their friends and partners in the former Soviet Union, but also when these partners are coming to visit their friends in Germany. We not only support organizations in the former GDR but also in West Germany. As a result, this may be considered as a gift of solidarity from the people in former East Germany to civil organizations in West Germany.
That is great and it is a positive story of taking a structure from the past and converting it. So you have also been involved in the conversion for this entire period of time. When you finished working on the conversion issue in Brandenburg, was that the end of your time in government?
No, however it is difficult after five years in government to return to serious scientific research. In 1995 I was involved for one year on an international scientific satellite project with Russia and Italy, but then this project was not continued. So I returned to the administration of the Federal State of Brandenburg. There I was responsible for the relations of Brandenburg to regional partners in Eastern Europe. Brandenburg has some official partnership relations with the Moscow region, with the Kaliningrad region, with Dnepropetrovsk in Ukraine and with Belarus.
And these were facilitating cultural and economic exchange?
Mainly economic exchange, but it is not so easy. Nevertheless we tried to create some political frameworks, which give support to the activities of entrepreneurs. Something has developed, but not all that was attempted was successful.
There has been a tremendous de-industrialization in eastern Germany, and there still is a gap in economic indicators between east and west. Could anything have been done differently, even after reunification, to avoid these problems?
Nobody in the world has had any experience of how to go from a socialist to a capitalist market economy. I remember after the D-Mark was introduced 1990 to the GDR, we hoped that there would be investment in the industry. We were quite disappointed. But we did not understand the rules and underestimated the disastrous effects of confronting a state economy quite suddenly with the rules of a capitalist economy. The people in East Germany were longing for products from the West and ignored their own products. It is understandable, but in this way they damaged their own economy.
In 1990, we were under quite a lot of pressure. We hoped to have more time. When I came to the office of the ministry of foreign affairs in the beginning of May, we thought we would have about two years to go calmly into the new conditions. But then there was a shortening of all these time scales. The political processes developed their own dynamic. People were leaving the GDR and going to the West. Also, at the level of foreign policy, there were the disturbing developments in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev came under pressure. I remember when Genscher visited us in Berlin in June 1990. I was with him on the trip from the Schönefeld-Airport to the center of Berlin. He was very sorry about the developments in the Soviet Union. We can’t accuse people for the failures of German unification. But next time, we should make the transition more calmly.
When you look back to what you were thinking in 1989, especially between the fall of the Wall and the elections in March 1990, have you had any major shift about politics or economic over the last 23 years?
Yes. We had to learn to recognize the realities. I understand now much more the conditions under which politicians have to make their decisions and do their work. It was important that we had visions, even if many of the visions did not turn into reality. Nevertheless, without visions, it would have been much worse. Some people say one cannot make politics with a Bible in your hands. But I learned that to make politics without the Bible would be much worse — even if much of the hopes and the visions were not fulfilled.
We were free in the 1980s — before 1989 and 1990 — to develop conceptions and discuss visions. It was a very exciting time and a very important time for us of learning and preparation. I am very thankful for the people, including the Quakers and other church partners in the United States, who were with us in that time before the peaceful revolution.
Berlin, February 1, 2013
The Interview (1990)
Potsdam is located immediately outside of West Berlin but because of unique visa problems I could not go through the West and had to travel the long way around: a two hour trip where 20 minutes is normal. After much asking of directions, I located the Domke residence, on a quiet street not far from the castle where the Potsdam agreement was signed and only several blocks away from the famous bridge to West Berlin across which several spy exchanges have taken place.
Helmut is an astrophysicist involved in numerous capacities in citizen politics: as an elected member of the Lutheran Church synod, in New Forum, in Potsdam peace circles, on the committee to dissolve the Potsdam Stasi.
Our first topic was de-militarization, an issue topmost in Helmut’s mind these days. The GDR is presently in a unique situation in which there is a powerful consensus favoring the dissolution of the East German military. During the elections, all parties called for some form of de-militarization: “the differences in the slogans were not so large because they were quite general.” The New Forum, for instance, clearly articulated de-militarization as a goal and strongly implied that the Soviets should withdraw and that the West German Bundeswehr and NATO should not rush in to take their place. In fact, the Alliance 90 called for the dissolution of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, at least as military blocs. It also called for guaranteed borders. New Forum was the only political party to engage in talks with the East German military directly. On the other end of the spectrum, the DSU called for a balanced and controlled military at a low level. It did not speak specifically of de-militarization. In the middle, the CDU talked about overcoming the two bloc system and making a united Germany a bridge between East and West. The SDP spoke specifically of a new European security system, radical disarmament and the restructuring of military blocs. The Greens argued that a united Germany should not be part of NATO.
The GDR military by and large participates in this consensus. “The process of dissolution,” Helmut says, “will not be as dramatic as with the Stasi. But many military professionals are ready, in a progressive fashion, to say that they have no future in the army. The main problem is social conversion. So far, there are no laws for how to do this in the GDR. This is the main concern of the military personnel. Such a window of opportunity for demilitarization may not be retained for a long time. There may happen in several months a restabilization in which people say that the GDR forces can be stabilized and then joined to the Bundeswehr. To demand demilitarization may also lead to dangerous consequences if turbulence arises.”
Helmut described the events surrounding a strike of soldiers near Potsdam in February. The soldiers in effect said “we don’t want to go on joint maneuvers with the Soviet military.” Pressuring their commanding officers, the soldiers enumerated a series of demands, including a preference to work mainly on ecological programs. The officers agreed. Still, the soldiers refrained from going on the maneuvers, putting the officers in a rather difficult position: after all, the officers could not agree to non-participation in the maneuvers. New Forum was called in to mediate with Helmut as one of the representatives. During the mediation process, some of the soldiers insisted on continuing their service without weapons. In effect, they were opting for conscientious objector status. Helmut told them that such a declaration at this point was risk-free and was simply unfair considering the amount of suffering incurred by previous conscientious objectors. After five hours of negotiations, there was a vote: 50 percent of the soldiers agreed to participate in maneuvers, 50 percent said no. Only after further discussion did the soldiers eventually agree to participate.
Helmut felt that he was in a paradoxical situation. As a longtime supporter of de-militarization, here he was trying to persuade soldiers to go on maneuvers. “I was promoting a military maneuver in order to achieve the goal of disarmament. But we can reach this goal only through a gradual and not turbulent process.”
Part of this gradual process, he argued, was the social dimension–guaranteeing jobs for all those put out of work by de-militarization. “We must understand that conversion is not simply a technical process. The time-scale must be dictated by social conversion. There must for instance be a program of re-education. It would be a shame if the lack of social guarantees would stop the disarmament process.”
I asked Helmut how he became involved in New Forum. It turns out that two of his co-workers at the Institute for Astro-Physics were part of the group of 40 that began New Forum back in September. One of the two was also a member of the Potsdam peace group, formed back in 1984, which in 1988, joined with other folks from Potsdam and their West German sister city Sahrendorf to comprise an AFSC-sponsored delegation to the U.S. Not long after forming, New Forum asked Helmut to help organize a peace and anti-fascism group in Potsdam. Because Potsdam hosts a major military garrison consisting in part of Soviet troops, the group’s message of breaking down barriers between citizens and the military had particular resonance.
Recently, one of the major tasks of the group has been to reform education for the soldiers. “Previously, education consisted entirely of ideology and this has been completely dissolved. They are now beginning again from zero. Traditionally, this education served as a means of convincing soldiers to accept military service. We argued on the contrary: the first point of such education should be to enable soldiers to look at the issues soberly, to treat the soldiers as mature people.” In this way, soldiers may in fact decide that military service is in fact not legitimate. But here arises another paradox: “if we agree that demilitarization is a common goal, then we are re-structuring education for an institution we hope to dissolve.” The military is so far receptive. Previously they argued that they were not militarists but that there was a threat, an adversary. Now the pacifists say, well, there is no longer a threat and since you’re not militarists, then such education is necessary.
We then talked about the problematic transition in East German politics in the late winter, as a mass movement tried to fit into the mold of party politics. It was clear in December that New Forum, for instance, did not enjoy mass electoral support. Certainly, it had an honorable reputation as the leader of the revolution. But New Forum itself was ambivalent about transforming itself into a party. Into the vacuum rushed the West German parties. Now that the elections are over, Helmut hopes that New Forum will return to its non-electoral activities. “If not, we will have a party-run democracy: a particular form of democracy but not the only form.”
As an example of politics outside the party context, Helmut quoted the round table discussions which brought together partisans of many different viewpoints to discuss the broad outlines of reform. “Round tables are a remarkable feature of these transitions and they will end. But the spirit of the round table should not be lost. They can be retained if round tables can be organized for particular issues, where you can get a kind of consensus, or broad acceptance, where such is necessary for a healthy society. In forming government decisions, if the round table approach can be used, it would be an interesting form, a retention of our experience of the democratic process from the past year. This would be in order not to fall into a pure party democracy. Of course, the model of democracy in the FRG is much better than what we had here. But we would like to bring new elements into our new society.”
Helmut pointed to energy policy as an issue perfectly suited to the round table format. “It would be a very unhappy situation if we discussed the long-term energy program only within the context of two parties. Within the round table format, it would be possible to talk about slower economic growth that would be both healthy and safe. Such talk is too serious to fit into party slogans.” The true deficit of the party system is its inability to make long-term decisions. “The time horizon is generally much shorter than is appropriate for the issue. Energy policy must for instance be developed over a longer period than simply one election period.” I asked Helmut if he saw any relationship between the short-term perspective of party democracy and the absence of planning under capitalism. “The level of education on economic questions is very low and therefore we don’t have a very well-informed discussion. At present, no alternatives to the market economy with social elements is visible for most people. There are no convincing models. The social question is disquieting. We have had here many social guarantees (although the reality was not always so good). There is much uncertainty and uncertainty produces fears.” Desire for quick unification overshadowed all other issues, and beyond the common view of a market economy with social guarantees, there wasn’t much talk. During the round table discussions, a social charter was agreed upon but it was not binding. A distinct fear emerged: “if we give too much attention to all these aspects–social, ecological–we may lose the chance to go to a market economy.”
I asked Helmut about rising xenophobia. “Generally,” he replied, “we all lack experience with living with foreigners. The Soviet troops lived in strict isolation. The government did not try to integrate others–Vietnamese, Chileans, Arabs–into society. Such people were also under strict Stasi control. Germans simply are not educated about living with foreigners. We are very homogenous here.” Through the JPIC process, the churches demanded more peace education so that such questions might be raised in the schools. Recently, Almuth Burger who had worked on this issue was appointed minister responsible for the affairs of foreigners living in the GDR and Helmut sees this as a helpful sign.
On the topic of the JPIC process, Helmut reported that “many of the elements of the April 30 declaration have become political and social practice and many more have become politically feasible much quicker than we had imagined.” Half of the delegates who had labored for one and half years to produce the declaration are now actively involved in political affairs. But on the other hand, “we have to take more care to preserve the spiritual dimension. It is not simply a political program. It is not simply delegating responsibility to the government.” There must be action at the level of the Church, the parishes, and the individual. “The spiritual dimension is now in the background, but it will return,” he predicted.
Helmut also talked about the Church’s conciliatory stand on Honeker and the Stasi. “The challenge for the Church is to work for reconciliation in society and not to allow a spirit of revenge.” But Helmut also realizes that there is a tension between reconciliation and the need for a new beginning.
Finally, we talked about what the AFSC might be able to do in the region. Helmut emphasized the need for multilateral contacts, between the GDR and Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Western Europe and the Soviet Union in order to put German integration into the context of Europe as a whole. When Germany is united, he thought that it may be too late to talk to the rest of Eastern Europe as an equal partner. “To have the possibility to understand and share experiences with people in Eastern Europe would be helpful.” Also critical is further discussion of a new security system. “I fear that if we lose this window of opportunity, we will see the reestablishment of former thinking and structures.”