We must not forget the values we fought for in 1989
Interview with Markus Meckel, a German theologian and politician. Interviewer: Kristin Aldag
KRISTIN ALDAG: As an active member of the opposition in East Germany, you were very much involved in the events of the peaceful revolution in 1989. What was the most influential moment or event for you that year?
MARKUS MECKEL: It was a very moving year for me. At the beginning of the year, together with a friend who, like me, was a Protestant pastor, I decided to set up a social democratic party in East Germany. That was, of course, a daring idea, because establishing a political party in the communist GDR was completely illegal. On the other hand, the establishment of the Social Democratic Party was an attack on the ruling Socialist Unity Party’s self-understanding since it had defined itself as a union of the working class of social democrats and communists. But that was the way it was meant to be. It was basically a message that said “we need a different system, we need democracy, and for that we must anticipate both democratic behaviour and democratic structures”.
At that time, we did not know our decision was made only a few days before the establishment of the Round Table Talks in Poland, which started on February 6th. That was only a few weeks after Gorbachev’s speech to the UN General Assembly in December 1988. His speech demonstrated to us that Gorbachev himself was already well on the path to substantial change. He had begun with perestroika, an internal reform process with an external dimension. In 1988, elections were held in the Soviet Union which was unimaginable before. At the same time, this reform process was a signal of what was possible for Poland and Hungary, which were already much more internally in motion. In Poland, we saw the willingness of the Polish communist party to negotiate with Solidarność, naturally under the pressure of political and economic conditions. There was also some movement in Hungary. Our decision to set up a party was part of that larger movement, a dynamic that had great significance.
On October 7th we formally set up our party, still underground, and two days later we already saw the first huge demonstrations in Leipzig where 70,000 people turned up. There was a danger that the protests would be bloodily suppressed. But this did not happen and we became sure we would be successful in establishing democracy. Hence, if I were to name the most important event of the GDR as a whole it would be October 9th, because it was the moment we could say “we can make it with democracy”. Then, of course, the Berlin Wall fell on November 9th. I would call the fall something like the storming of the Bastille in the French Revolution; that is to say, the day became a symbol of the Central European revolutions where everyone witnessed something that can no longer be reversed. In this respect, I see November 9th not only as an important day in Germany, but the day of the victory of the Central European revolutions.
Were you already aware that all eyes were on Germany?
We really did not know what was going to happen then. Since October 9th we had been extremely active in demonstrations, building up the party, in structuring the opposition and in turning the party into a political force. On the other hand, we tried to increase the pressure of the public on the streets. When Erich Honecker (leader of the communist party) was overthrown in October, the state was completely thrown off track. The communist party became anxious and tried to reorganise itself. At the beginning of November, there were the first resignations within the party, the politburo and the entire leadership. From then on, the collapse of power could be observed. And it was certain that there had to be free elections.
At the beginning of November, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, we started preparations for a Round Table in the GDR. But then the wall came down. Public awareness today often pretends that the fall would already represent German unity, but of course this was not the case. With this date it only became clear the process of democratisation could no longer be completely separated from the question of German unity.
To what extent was the idea of a Round Table in the GDR inspired by the events in Poland?
The Round Table in Poland was a major inspiration for us. The Hungarians also imitated it in the summer of 1989. It was, so to speak, the symbol of a negotiated revolution. That, I believe, is the great merit of Poland: a model developed that could be applied throughout Central Europe, thus creating a symbol of non-violence. Some people in Poland are nowadays fiercely opposed to this narrative arguing that it was a toothless revolution. I would daresay that that is precisely what made it special!
Were you aware at that time of the reactions of other countries to the developments in Germany? Were there impulses or influences from the GDR on the other countries?
I think there was a sign in Prague in November which read: “In Poland the revolution took 10 months, in the GDR 10 weeks and in Prague 10 days.” I think there is something about this; it was a process of acceleration. The events in Poland were the first big signs that something would happen, that the communist party would be forced to sit at the table. That was also a sensation for us. And then, of course, the election in Poland (which was very decisive), made it clear where the public stands. That, too, was a huge encouragement for us that something could be done.
But Hungary also played a central role. Hungary had begun to dismantle its border structures with Austria in the spring of 1989. By the end of June there was a public presentation of this dismantling process with the Foreign Ministers Gyula Horn (Hungary) and Alois Mock (Austria) celebrating the dismantling of the border installations. This signified hope for many East Germans who did not want to change anything, but simply wished to leave. In the course of the summer, 50,000 people from the GDR arrived to the West via Hungary and then on to other countries. The situation made it possible for the opposition and those who wanted to leave in order to unite. Before that, there were tensions in the GDR between those who wanted to leave and those who wanted to change something, – as the saying went: “Don’t go away – support the fight for change here.” But in the end, both contributed to the change and those who wanted to leave also took to the streets with the others.
However I don’t believe in the domino effect, as it was depicted on a well-known poster about ten years ago. This model said it started with the first domino in Poland, the second in Hungary, then the GDR, and then Czechoslovakia. One tips the others over. One cannot say that the changes in the GDR only began when the domino tumbled in Poland. But it was tremendous encouragement.
Previously, it was assumed that nothing would change without something changing in Moscow. That was the experience of the last number of decades: 1953 in the GDR, 1956 in Poland and Budapest, 1968 in Czechoslovakia. Tanks appeared and crushed the protests by force. But now something changed in Moscow. There were new messages and the release of Central Europe from coercion. That gave us the space for freedom that we had to feel. For us in the GDR, it was already clear at the beginning of the round table that, in the end, there would be totally free elections. It was only a matter of clarifying the details of the election, the electoral law and so on. That did not mean the GDR was any better, but the dynamics that had begun in Poland and Hungary in 1989 accelerated the process. Hence, each country had its own history that led to the revolution, but the transformations in 1989 are ultimately a common event, as if connected by pipes underground. There were also relations between the various opposition forces, but also between the public.
Is there still a common memory or a common European narrative about the year 1989?
Even within one country you don’t necessarily have a common narrative, as the year 1989 is highly controversial. Take a look at Poland. Many would certainly tell a completely different story than the one I have just told. This applies to Hungary as well. Viktor Orbán was a young student leader at the time; he became famous for a speech given in July 1989 at the reburial of the revolutionary Imre Nagy. At the time the common message was “Back to Europe”. Today, Orbán talks with nationalist tones.
Today, the forces of PiS or Fidesz are basically anti-European and they take a very sceptical view of the European values these countries promoted at the time. Freedom and liberal constitutional structures were the essence of the image of Europe back then. Today when Orbán says he wants an illiberal democracy, one wonders where the impetus of 1989 had gone. We wanted to return to this liberal, enlightened Europe – the Europe of integration, the Europe that stands for freedom, the rule of law, and a rule-based foreign policy. It is important to link our memory of that time with that as well. In this respect, memory is always a contentious issue. Memory is something very much contemporary. It is essential not only for remembering past events, but also the values we stood up for back then, together with Poland, Hungary, the Czechs and Slovaks, the Baltic states and so on.
Were these values of freedom, a return to Europe, at least from your memory, shared by everyone?
That’s the key element. When the Americans talk about the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is often with the rhetoric that Bush used at the time: “We won the Cold War”; and the symbol for this is the fall of the Berlin Wall. But it was not a victory of the West against the East, it was a victory of freedom and democracy, the rule of law and liberalism, the enlightened values of the West, which we all shared. It was not the West ultimately defeated the East, but that the people in the East themselves stood up for these values with a great deal of risk and commitment. This was the breakthrough for a liberal, democratic Europe based on justice.
There were also various groupings within the East: the Baltic states belonged directly to the Soviet Union, while Poland, Hungary formed a part of the socialist bloc. Did that also make a difference in terms of the feeling of wanting to break out of the bloc or the Soviet Union?
It certainly made a difference, because the Soviet Union ultimately collapsed only in 1991. In addition to the internal contradictions and Gorbachev’s hesitation, it was simply not possible to preserve this complex structure and to design it in an emancipatory, democratic way. At that time, the idea of a free, independent nation played a major role: a free Poland, a free Hungary, a free Czechoslovakia. After the First World War, many of these countries emerged as democracies. The developments also had a national dimension for the GDR, but it was not a nationalistic dimension. Instead, we fought for unification. The framework of the nation was one that was related to freedom. After the communists had suppressed much of the national history and tradition, it was now revived and revised. That, of course, was one of the reasons why there were a whole series of problems afterwards, for example in the Balkans.
Of course, it also had this dimension in the Soviet Union. Let us take a look, for example, at the will of a free Ukraine and the fight for independence of the Baltic states. Some photos of the Baltic states, which seem to remind us of 1989, were in fact already taken in 1988 when the Baltic states already had the masses on the streets calling for the independence. In this regard, there are also some underground connections and pipes. The revolutions have the same spirit, but it was always a liberal one. Of course, even then there were also nationalists in these circles, who later organised themselves and caused a lot of trouble. We must not just look at it purely harmoniously. But the impetus was definitely an emancipatory, liberal one, and in Central Europe it was clearly related to Europe.
The slogan “Back to Europe” had something very emphatic and liberal about it. I have always been critical of this catchline. If you look at European history, it is easy to forget that both National Socialism and Communism, the two totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century, are European offspring and creatures of intellectual and political history. This “back to Europe” has somewhat ignored this negative angle. Yet “back to Europe” then referred to a return to the Enlightenment, to Christian values, back to what the Polish May Constitution already expressed at the end of the 18th century: a separation of powers with legislature, government and independent judiciary, and the rule of law.
Was there ever any doubt in the GDR, including you in the opposition, that there would be a unification of Germany, that it was logistically feasible?
I grew up in the East. My parents come from the West. I always understood myself as a German in this collectivity, but until the end of the 1980s, I didn’t think it was possible to live in freedom or German unity. It was not even imaginable. One hoped for that, but didn’t really think it was possible. When it became possible to take concrete steps, we naturally took them with commitment and joy. But until I was 35, I didn’t think I could ever live in a democracy or even have freedom.
That is why I really must say that it is amazing that we Germans were able to achieve both freedom and democracy, and then unification in 1989/90; and all of this only 45 years after the horrors we Germans brought to Europe. This was the hour of happiness for Germans. Of course, we have done something to make it happen, but in the end it is a great gift that we Germans not only live together in peace and friendship with all those whom we have caused terror, but also share these values in the European Union. We can be grateful for that, but it is also a responsibility that we share with the others, to ensure that these values continue to be upheld in the future.
Did the GDR and the other Central European states continue have a common sense of responsibility after 1989, and did they continue to work together to establish freedom and democracy?
Yes, that feeling has been present. The emergence of the Visegrad countries at the beginning of the 1990s is already a result of this common sentiment. They wanted to walk the road back to Europe and towards the European Union. There are not many politicians from the GDR who were later active in European affairs and foreign policy, but for me it was a matter of the legacy of 1989. It was important for me to make it possible for these states and peoples, who achieved freedom and democracy together with us, to share these transatlantic and European institutions. That is what I have worked very hard for during my time in the German Bundestag. It is also a consequence of 1989.
One can draw a connection from 1989 to 2004. It has been a challenge to stand up for this. In 2005, we had the Berlin Declaration on the road to the Lisbon Treaty. On that occasion, I worked intensively and successfully to ensure that not only the Treaty of Rome, which is hailed in the West as the foundation of the EU, is celebrated, but also the new members who, through their struggles and the implementation of justice and freedom, are a new source of the European Union. I find it essential that they are members of the European Union by their own right and not by mercy or charity.
Markus Meckel is a German theologian, politician and public intellectual. He served as the GDR’s foreign minister in the lead up to German unification in 1990.
Kristin Aldag is a student at the Jagiellonian University and an intern with New Eastern Europe.