Workers Hammer No. 192
1989-90: Political revolution unfolds in East Germany
Fighting against capitalist reunification of Germany
Spartacist League Dayschool
The Spartacist League/Britain held a dayschool in London on 21 May to celebrate the International Communist Leagues fight against capitalist counterrevolution in East Germany and the former Soviet Union during the period 1989-92. We publish below an edited version of the presentation given by comrade Kurt Weiss of the Spartakist-Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands, German section of the International Communist League, based on his experiences as a cadre during the political revolution in East Germany. In our last issue (Workers Hammer no 191, Summer 2005) we published presentations by comrade Jane Clancy on the programmatic framework for the ICLs intervention and by comrade Jan Jedrzejewski on the origins of the Spartacist Group Poland, and on page 6 of this issue the presentation by comrade Mick Connor.
I dont know if anybody had a chance to see the television coverage of this years celebrations of the end of World War II on 8 May in Moscow, but I considered it obscene. Soldiers from the Russian army marched with the original Soviet flag that was raised over the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945 by that heroic Red Army unit. The Russian army of today is a capitalist army that has nothing to do with the Red Army —the army of the Soviet workers state. Yet this Soviet flag was paraded in Moscow in front of a collection of imperialist leaders who are the major source of the massacres, wars and oppression on this planet. This was the first time ever that a German chancellor was allowed to participate in this celebration; Gerhard Schröder sat next to presidents Vladimir Putin, George Bush and Jacques Chirac.
May 8 should be a day of celebration for the working class and the oppressed. But it has been hypocritically seized upon by the imperialists and in Germany it is now called Democracy Day. In Berlins Alexanderplatz, which used to be the centre of East Berlin, German Nazis demonstrated this year, protected by the police. We participated in a left-wing demonstration in Berlin with placards pointing out that Putin is conducting a dirty war in Chechnya, Bush is leading the brutal occupation of Iraq, Schröder has troops in the Balkans and in Afghanistan, and all of them are busy attacking their own working class. The German state is currently trying to deport 50,000 Sinti and Roma [Gypsies] back to Kosovo where they can expect a very dangerous fate in the conflict between Serbs and Albanians. When Germanys Social Democratic/Green government first mobilised troops to send to the Balkans, foreign minister Joschka Fischer and [then-defence minister] Rudolf Scharping ran a campaign to justify this, saying the purpose was to prevent another Auschwitz. This push by the German imperialists to be in the forefront of the redivision of the world is a threat to all the oppressed of this planet. And the reason it is taking place is the victory of counterrevolution 15 years ago.
DDR was founded through smashing Nazi rule
Our intervention into the DDR [East Germany] and the Soviet Union at that time was a key test for the International Communist League as a revolutionary organisation and it put to shame all these pseudo-Trotskyist organisations who supported counterrevolution and the destruction of the Soviet Union and the deformed workers states in Eastern Europe. The Russian Question really is the question of revolution and we have to draw the lessons from it in order to go forward to fight for a revolutionary liberation of the working class. The creation of the DDR was directly linked to tremendous sacrifices by the Soviet people. To overthrow the barbaric Nazi regime that was responsible for the holocaust — which killed six million Jews, as well as many Sinti and Roma, homosexuals and other people — the Soviet Union lost around 28 million citizens. The imperialist Allies only intervened on the Western front in order to race to Berlin and stop the Red Army from taking hold of Europe. That victory of the Red Army took place despite Stalin and, confronted with the Cold War, the Kremlin Stalinists abolished private property and established a deformed workers state in East Germany — the DDR — in their own bureaucratic way.
But it was a real social revolution and it brought about an extension of the Soviet Union into East Germany and thus it was very polarising. Basically, in 1945 all the Nazis fled to the West, including not only the industrialists, but also the reactionary Junker class that were the base for the Freikorps [fascistic paramilitary units used for counterrevolutionary violence in 1919, later incorporated into the army]. Meanwhile, immigrants, Jews and communists came back to the liberated part of the country. These included prominent Jewish figures like Markus Wolf, who became head of East Germanys foreign spy network; the leftist philosopher Walter Benjamin; the dramatist Bertolt Brecht; the writer Stefan Heym, and Ruth Werner, who was a member of the Red Orchestra [Soviet spy network], among others. Eric Honecker, who later became head of state, was in a Gestapo jail at the end of the war. In other words some elements of the bureaucracy, and even a large part of the population, made a political choice to live there, if they could.
Almost immediately, agriculture was collectivised. Huge collective farms were supplied with tractors and other equipment for communal use. By contrast, in capitalist West Germany, big money was poured in by the American bourgeoisie. The CIA rebuilt the German Social Democracy [SPD], to contain the militancy and socialist aspirations of the West German working class. Other organisations had been banned by the Allied forces; unions were only permitted later, and only under CIA control. By the early 1950s, many of the Nazis — the people who financed and brought Hitler to power —were back in office, such as the steel barons Krupp and Thyssen, or former Nazi SS officer Hanns-Martin Schleyer (who later got his when the guerrillas that called themselves the Red Army Faction executed him in 1977). He was then chairman of the association of German industrialists (Bundesverband Deutsche Industrie) and head of Daimler-Benz. Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, who had direct responsibility for organising mass murder of Jews, was working as an electrician at their Argentina outlet.
The Nazis secret service was completely taken over and former army generals were used to rebuild the West German army for the Cold War against the Soviet Union, because obviously they had experience in that area. This is what we mean when we speak of the continuity between todays German ruling class and the bourgeoisie of Auschwitz — its concrete, it exists in the form of capital and private property — its real. Just to give you another little glimpse: after counterrevolution in the DDR, the very unpopular head of the DDR secret service Erich Mielke was put on trial by the victorious German state for the killing of two cops in 1931 in the Weimar Republic. This arose from what is known as bloody May Day in Berlin in 1929, when cops killed a number of workers in the working-class district of Wedding. It was alleged that Mielke was involved in retaliation against these cops. By putting Mielke on trial after counterrevolution the German bourgeoisie really wanted to make a point: we have continuity here, and were going to get you if you challenge our order. We defended Mielke, noting he was being tried by the wrong class for the wrong crimes.
We defended the DDR as a workers state, without any conditions, against imperialism and internal counterrevolution. While the DDR existed, the German nation was divided between two states, the distinction between them being their class character. The planned economy was in the service not of profits but of producing more goods for society. A very simple fact for example is that the DDR had a very large fleet of fishing trawlers on the Baltic coast that supplied the whole society with fish, but made no profit. After the counterrevolution the fishing industry collapsed overnight and the whole fleet was sold.
The question of defending the DDR was an extremely controversial one, and we had a high profile on it. This was a very important precondition for our later intervention into the political revolution in the DDR. Berlin was a frontier during the Cold War. The Maoists there were chanting Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! on the one hand, while on the other they were chanting Down with the wall!. We defended the wall as a defensive measure by the DDR against the collapse of its economy, preventing all the skilled people from leaving the country. The Cliffites said neither Washington nor Moscow; in Berlin that meant that they tried to walk on the top of the wall. Not surprisingly, their branch in Berlin was not exactly huge!
The DDR had probably the most advanced social system in the world: 90 per cent of women had jobs; there was a broad system of kindergartens, a so-called baby year during which you could stay home to raise a baby and get your salary. There was food in the schools and kindergartens and a system of canteens and laundries at a nominal price. At the same time — and this was a typical contradiction — the Stalinist bureaucracy there insisted that the family was the unit of socialism, which meant for women that after the shift at work there was another shift at home. The population of the DDR was 95 per cent atheistic, because the material basis for religion was undermined. Even today, leading bourgeois papers in Germany complain that the church is not making enough progress in the former DDR. Students at university had their expenses paid by the state; if you became pregnant while at university, there was childcare and you could continue with your studies. The question of having kids or not having kids, having one or two, was not mainly a question of economic means.
An independent income, a secure job and state-organised childcare proved to be a powerful engine of womens emancipation: female engineers, chemical workers or crane drivers in steel plants used to be a common thing. The same was true for jobs — there was no unemployment. I remember once being in a pub in Halle. You could not freely choose who to sit with and we were seated next to a group of people who spent the whole time discussing whether or not to take this or that job. I thought, my God, they really do have different troubles than we do! It gave a glimpse of the potential that would exist when the planned economy becomes a world system. Looked at from the western side of the Wall, there was a saying among Western trade unionists — that every time there were negotiations between unions and management in the West, there was an invisible person sitting at the negotiating table, meaning the DDR. The West German bourgeoisie had to make certain concessions because people could see what benefits existed in the East.
Contradictions of a deformed workers state
But the state was run by a Stalinist bureaucracy and there were real contradictions too. To give you an example of how the different generations of leaders were seen, there was a joke. The Trans-Siberian railroad comes to a stop because the railway tracks ended. How would the various socialist leaders deal with that? Stalin would have the engineer shot. Brezhnev would tear up the tracks behind the train and have them re-laid in front of the train. Honecker would call for comrades to get out and shake the train, so that everyone would imagine it was going forward! The DDR lacked natural resources. But they became massively involved in machine building and they developed their own computer industry. In 1988 Honecker proudly handed over to Gorbachev the first micro computer chip made in the DDR. However, the product run on the assembly lines was always small and productivity was low. DDR scientists and engineers were forced to develop everything and produce every part for themselves — a socialist economy in one country that exhausted the resources. The political isolation of the DDR from the hi-tech world market and the lack of a real division of labour in the bureaucratic Comecon [Council for Mutual Economic Assistance] made it worse.
Under these circumstances, Gorbachevs perestroika reforms had a tremendous impact. Oil that had been supplied to the DDR at a very low price — through the so-called pipeline of friendship from the Soviet Union — would suddenly have to be bought at world market prices. To pay for that, the DDR had to export more to the West, which meant fewer goods were available in the DDR. This led to more discontent, and more government borrowing from the West German bankers. In the autumn of 89 these debts amounted to $26.5 billion. At a meeting of Comecon in November 1986 in Sofia, Gorbachev made it clear that the Soviet Union would no longer subsidise countries like Hungary, Poland, the DDR, all of which would have to sell their goods at world market prices. In 1989 Gennady Gerasimov, spokesman of the Soviet ministry of foreign affairs, referred to this as the change from the Brezhnev doctrine [that the socialist countries had to unite against any capitalist threat] to the Sinatra doctrine, according to the song, I did it my way. Everybody had to do it his way, which meant the various national bureaucracies struggling to maintain their national economy while becoming more and more dependent on institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the Western banks.
Gorbachev introduced major changes in the political arena as well. In 1989 he moved Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, a betrayal that had a particular impact on the DDR. In the summer of 1989 Gorbachev had met with then-West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Bonn. At the same time, in June 1989 one of Gorbachevs advisers on Germany, W I Daschitschew, gave a speech in Cologne in which he explained that any improvement in the relations between the Soviet Union and NATO would have grave consequences for the sovereignty of the DDR. So when Eric Honecker met Gorbachev at a Warsaw Pact summit later that summer, Honecker asked him when are you firing Daschitschew? Gorbachev claimed he didnt know who he was, and said he was sticking to the Warsaw Pact obligations. However, there was increasing worry among sections of the bureaucracy in the DDR — and in the Soviet Union — that the DDR would be used as a bargaining chip. Many people remembered that in 1952 Stalin had written to then-West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer offering German unification in exchange for West Germany not joining NATO.
The year 1989 was decisive for the Warsaw Pact. It also saw a complete breakdown of international planning, leading to disruptions of production in the DDR and other workers states. The national rivalries between the various Stalinist bureaucracies increased and there was nationalist unrest inside the Soviet Union. Situations akin to civil war existed in the Baltic States, and in Armenia over the question of Nagorny Karabakh. In China, there was an incipient political revolution, which was put down by the Chinese army. And in the DDR there was an overall sense among workers and students that there was no way forward for socialism in half a country. Honecker had said that by 1990 the housing question would be solved in the GDR. The plan was to build millions of new apartments and they used pre-fabricated, high-rise buildings, and they actually made it. However, maintenance on existing buildings was badly neglected. Theres a joke about Honecker opening the three-millionth apartment in 1988 in Berlin. The officials arrive and open champagne but when the cork goes pop, it causes an old building in the background to crumble!
The developing political revolution led to the opening of the Berlin Wall. We intervened immediately and we put out our daily paper called Arprekorr [Arbeiterpressekorrespondenz — Workers Press Correspondence]. We were now able to go into the East and distribute our propaganda — not without having discussions with the border guards about this propaganda! One of our main headlines was: No sell-out of the DDR! Workers and soldiers councils now!. We saw our paper as our collective organiser and the main tool to build Spartacist Groups. Our programme expressed the historical needs of the workers, and it had tremendous impact. To give an example, there was a demo in Rostock against any sell-out of the DDR. Many people there were members of the SED [ruling East German Communist Party] but they had absolutely no propaganda in their hands expressing their opposition to the sell-out. Neues Deutschland, the SED newspaper, was filled with news of negotiations with the German chancellor, and promises of money, credit from banks, etc. So when the Western TV teams turned up with cameras, everybody held up our leaflet, because it showed a way to fight against the sell-out. We called for workers councils and said that the people who worked in the plants should have a say in deciding what they produce. We tried to apply lessons from 1905 in Russia where Lenin turned the Bolshevik Party outwards to extend the political influence of the programme in a revolutionary situation.
Using our press as a collective organiser and a crystallising point for the vanguard party, we gave bundles of it to every worker or every student that agreed with the line and was willing to distribute it. Our second statement was titled: What the Spartacists want. People who agreed with that could join our groups. It reads:
Defend the historic gains of the working class, which were achieved by the overthrow of capitalism — defend the Soviet Union against imperialism and internal counterrevolution! The enormous economic and political pressure of Western capitalism, with the help of the Social Democrats — the murderers of Liebknecht and Luxemburg — is aiming for a bloody counterrevolution in Eastern Europe. We Trotskyists oppose capitalist unification of Germany. No to a republic of the Deutsche Bank! Soviet Power in the DDR would be a great example and a lightning rod for workers in West Germany. For a Red Soviet Germany in the context of the United Socialist States of Europe!
— Arprekorr, 7 December 1989
Our work consisted of travelling around, meeting groups, distributing bundles of our press and giving political guidelines. Discussions revolved around what was going on; why are plants being sold, why are capitalists showing up in the plants; how should workers organise? We were not willing to bloc with any bureaucratic forces inside the SED, but anyone who was willing to distribute our literature could do so, even while remaining a member of the SED — essentially, we allowed a kind of dual membership. We told people about the traditions of the Left Opposition to give them an idea of what we are and where we come from. Our pamphlet Trotskyism: What it isnt and what it is was extremely helpful. Sometimes people would queue up to get it, so you needed one comrade to hand it out and another to collect the money. It was really incredible — and a classic example of a revolutionary situation. Recently in Magdeburg someone came up to me and said he used to distribute our literature and that he had participated in our meetings. Even when the revolutionary wave has gone, the memory remains.
Leninist tribune of the people
We ran candidates in the Volkskammer [East German parliament] elections in March 1990. There was one small newly founded organisation called the Communist Party of Germany that claimed to oppose capitalist unification of Germany. But at their conference in Frankfurt-on-Oder they voted a programme that welcomed SED leader Modrows proposal for a confederation with West Germany and argued for the introduction of market reforms à la perestroika. We had a big fight with them and there was a group of people listening, including an old guy who bought the paper. He was commander of a Betriebskampfgruppe [workers militia] at the big Leuna chemical plant between Leipzig and Halle that employed something like 25,000 workers.
We went there with him and had a real discussion with him and his co-workers inside the plant. At the meeting we explained what a takeover by West German chemical giants like Bayer and Hoechst would mean for workers at this plant. We discussed the fact that this very plant used to be owned by IG Farben, the company that produced Zyklon-B, which was used by the Nazis for mass murder in the concentration camps. The company had been expropriated in 1945, but under reunification would be given back to its original owners. He broke with the KPD and supported our campaign in the Volkskammer elections and distributed our material, including inside the Leuna plant. The KPD in the Halle area also supported us because of our outspoken opposition to capitalist renunification of Germany.
To run in these elections you needed three people to support your candidate. In Halle we had one worker from the Leuna plant who was a leader of the SED and a leader of a Betriebskampfgruppe; a woman who worked on an assembly line in a chemical factory, but who was not accepted into membership of the SED because she criticised the bureaucrats and we had a machinist from a collective farm. Our candidate in the area was a black man with Rastafarian hair who was a leader of the local SED youth organisation. For a short period of time that part of Saxony had been occupied by US forces and he was the grandson of a black soldier. When the local paper showed the various candidates of all the parties and what they stood for, we looked really different. We attracted different people, we had a different programme and it was clear that we were a tribune of the people.
In June 1990, after the election campaign, we held a meeting addressed by a black comrade from the SL/US, to which Mozambican workers came and we discussed Malcolm X and the civil rights struggles in America. There were many immigrant workers in the DDR; in addition to Mozambicans the biggest group was from Vietnam. There was a group from Cuba, and of course there were around 400,000 Red Army soldiers. So it was extremely important that, from the very beginning, we distributed material in their languages. We ran a campaign against a racist ban the Modrow government attempted to impose on Polish people in supermarkets in East Berlin. We defended immigrants and stood for full citizenship rights for all who made it there and wanted to stay there, as part of our recognition that it is vitally necessary for German workers to oppose German nationalism.
On 1 January 1990 the East German government introduced a number of changes, which had a real impact on the economy. The Deutschmark became accepted currency inside the DDR, which meant that land, property and goods could be bought with West German currency. This destroyed what was left of the state monopoly of foreign trade. In addition, West Germans acquired the right to live in the DDR. It was at approximately the same time that the fascists desecrated the Treptow Park memorial to Red Army soldiers. News of the fact that fascists had painted a swastika on it, with the slogan Russians out, electrified the society, because the DDR was founded by destroying the Nazi regime, and there were fears that if the Red Army left, it could lead to war and the rise of fascism again.
Mobilising for Treptow
We started mobilising immediately, dividing up the city into areas, covering the Narva electrical plant and all the big plants of Berlin. We wanted to mobilise a working-class base for this rally, which was pro-Soviet and directed against the German bourgeoisie. As we went through the plants, in general the SED bureaucrats tried to stop us, accusing us of interrupting production and things like that. And we said but if we dont interrupt production now then there will be no plant left before very long, so whats your point? Often we manoeuvred around them, knocking at factory windows to get the leaflets in and in one case we got through the goods entrance and spoke to workers on the assembly lines, who were of course pretty happy to see us. Mainly they kept on working, but one worker took the bundle, put it on the assembly line and it went through the whole plant, so everybody could take a copy. Workers understood what was at stake and they came to the demonstration in masses.
At the rally we had two speakers who explained the Trotskyist perspective to a quarter-million people in a workers state — the first time Trotskyists did that since Trotskys Left Opposition was banished from the Soviet Union. The Treptow memorial is in the middle of a huge park and the demonstration was in the evening, when it was dark. I heard that there were some people provocatively yelling Nazi slogans from behind the trees and I shouted to the crowd that we need about 50 people to take care of that. A group of paratroopers came up to me and said at your service! The officer leading them wanted to speak at Treptow, because he was the head of a soldiers council. He said come with me and we went to the back and built a defence line which made sure there would be no disruptions. That tells you something about the character of the state, because these armed bodies of men had been trained to defend collectivised property, and he was at the demonstration because he wanted to do that. He also understood what the return of the Nazis would mean.
The Treptow mobilisation was the turning point in the political revolution. After it, Gorbachev gave the green light for capitalist unification and SED leader Modrow came out with the slogan that the SED was in favour of Deutschland einig Vaterland — Germany one fatherland. The active, advanced layers of the working class who participated in our campaigns fell back into passivity. In addition to that, the consciousness of the workers was undermined because the plants were closed down through lack of raw materials and before unification they were often sent home, sometimes on full pay. The PDS adopted the slogan one to one — we are one people, meaning one DDR mark should be treated as equal to one Deutschmark. That is the price they wanted for the workers state. Following the propaganda blitz of the bourgeois media on a working class that was demoralised and sold out by the Stalinists, the capitalist class of West Germany won the Volkskammer elections. This was the decisive step towards capitalist reunification of Germany.
Whats very important to understand is that the ICL had a chance to intervene in a revolutionary situation and we took it. The experience our organisation accumulated in that struggle will be of great use for us in the future, because these kinds of situations develop very fast and often they dont last very long. Rosa Luxemburg used to say that revolutionary situations are situations where the programme itself becomes a material force. That was exactly our experience: whatever we needed — paper, cars, rooms, communications — we got it by convincing people politically that they should support us. And we will use this perspective to win next time.
14 November 2005
In my speech to your dayschool on “Fighting against capitalist reunification of Germany” published in the Autumn 2005 issue of Workers Hammer, I said Walter Benjamin went to the DDR. He did flee the Nazi regime but he committed suicide in 1940 and thus did not live to see the DDR (where his sister-in-law Hilde Benjamin became Minister of Justice). Also, my English let me down when I said that our candidate in Halle in the Volkskammer elections was a leader of the SED youth organisation; I should have said he had been.
(From WH no. 193, Winter 2005-2006.)