John Feffer talks to prominent East German dissident and politician Vera Lengsfeld…
During the Vietnam War, the United States dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, which was, per capita, the most bombed country in history. Nearly one-third of those bombs didn’t explode on contact. It’s been 40 years since the bombing campaign stopped and yet more than 100 people have died over the last couple years when they encountered these exploded bombs.
It’s been 24 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the effective end of the East German state security service known as the Stasi. After German reunification, the Stasi files were open to the public. There was plenty of explosive information in those files. Friendships were ruined, marriages broke up. There were even several suicides. But there was no violent revenge. It seemed as though Germany managed its Communist-era secrecy problem in one very difficult, rip-the-Bandaid-off maneuver. It hurt. But it was over relatively quickly.
But, no, the Stasi issue continues to haunt Germany. For one thing, there is still a huge amount of paper – 45 million pages – that the Stasi tried to destroy by hand when the motors burned out in the office shredders and that computers and restoration experts are patiently trying to reassemble. New revelations continue to appear, like the Swedish pastor who admitted last year that he spied for the Stasi. Thousands of people each year are looking at their files for the first time and learning painful truths. Then there are the files that haven’t been released because they implicate the agents the Stasi was running in the West. Talk about unexploded ordnance.
“Until today it is impossible to identify the Stasi collaborators in the West,” Vera Lengsfeld told me over coffee in Berlin last February. “So, former Stasi people sit in Brussels today. One is leading the negotiations on treaties with Iceland. Another is the head of the anti-corruption department in Brussels.”
Vera Lengsfeld was a prominent East German dissident who was eventually arrested, tried, and kicked out of the country in 1988. She returned after the Wall fell to become a leading East German politician and then a representative in the all-German parliament. She is very proud of the work that she and her colleagues accomplished during their short tenure as representatives in democratic East German parliament in 1990.
“For example, we made the decision that the Stasi files would be opened after reunification,” she remembered. “We also proposed that Stasi collaborators and Stasi officers should not get pensions any higher than the average East German. This was even written into the unification treaty, and it was carried out for 10 years. They only got the average pension for East Germans. But then they went to the constitutional court in Germany, and this court decided that they should get pensions according to their salaries.”
The Stasi continues to cast a long shadow over German reunification. But the shadow could have been much longer. “We never wanted to use the methods that the Stasi used against us,” Vera Lengsfeld told me. “We rejected the idea of pursuing them or killing them or something like that. So, we have to endure that they are among us. I think this was the right decision. You cannot come out of this spiral of violence if you use the same methods as your adversary, yes?
If she’d had a choice, Vera Lengsfeld never would have looked at her own Stasi file. But she didn’t have a choice. Even before the files became public, a journalist called her up with horrifying information about the identity of her Stasi informant, someone much closer to her than she ever imagined.
We talked about her successes as a beekeeper-dissident, the differences between her parliamentary experience in East Germany and in reunified Germany, her efforts to convert military areas into environmental preserves, and her eventual disenchantment with the Green Party.
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was with friends visiting a very well known author named Christa Wolf, who lived nearby in Amalienpark. We tried to persuade her to become the president of the GDR. She refused because she said she’d had a heart attack two days before and she couldn’t do any more than what she’d done already. Then we left her flat, which was on Breite Straße. It was at night. And we saw two young men dancing along the perfectly empty street. When they saw us, they rushed towards us and cried, “The Wall came down at Bornholmer Straße, and we are going to get our wives!”
So we immediately got in our Trabant and drove 800 meters or so to Bornholmer Straße. A huge crowd had already assembled there. Then came the moment that the crowd poured across the bridge toward West Berlin. And it was amazing! I saw a barracks at the beginning of the bridge, a barracks for the soldiers who did their duty at the border. It wasn’t the police but rather the border army. They stood with their backs to the wall of the barracks, and every single one of them had flowers in their buttonholes and their caps and they had bottles in their hands of either wine or champagne or beer or something like that. They stood like puppets, motionless! I went over to them. I looked for the highest officer, and I asked him, “How do you feel now?” But he didn’t move a muscle in his face.
So I left him alone and went with the others over the bridge. On the west side of the bridge, I went into a telephone box to call my son. I told him that the Wall was down. After that we went to a bus stop. The regular bus was pulling in, and the bus driver was very surprised. He asked, “Well, where are you guys coming from?” It usually was a very quiet bus stop right at the border. We told him we are coming from East Berlin. And he was so surprised that he dropped his usual route and he gave us a sightseeing tour through West Berlin. This was late at night, close to midnight.
Was Christa Wolf the first person you had approached to be the president?
Yes, and the only person. It was earlier that same evening when I was with my friends watching the famous appearance of Central Committee spokesman Gunter Schabowski on TV. We heard what he said, but we didn’t realize that this would lead to the immediate fall of the Wall. The only thing we thought was that we have to take the next step, and the next step would be to install a president of our own. She didn’t think it was a strange request. At that time, everything sounded possible.
And why didn’t you go visit anybody else after the Wall fell to make the same request?
Oh because then everything was moving so fast. Very soon we formed the so-called round table, and I was a member of the committee at the round table that was told to write a new constitution for East Germany. Everything was going so fast that we simply had to run to catch up with the development.
Let me go back in time a little bit. I am interested when you became involved in what was called here the civic moments.
The beginning was here in Pankow when Ruth Misselwitz became the new pastor of the old Pankow community. She started her career with a veranstaltung, a big assembly in the church, and there were some young authors invited who read their books against the deployment of atomic weapons in East Germany. I went to this event, and after the discussion was over a sheet of paper was passed around the church. On the paper was written: whoever is interested in founding a peace circle, put your address on this paper. And whoever was bold enough to do so was invited back two weeks later. We met at the community house of old Pankow. Ruth was there. It was a Friday when we founded the so-called Pankow Peace Circle. This was in autumn 1981. I was a co-founder of this Peace Circle, so I was there from the beginning.
And before that?
Before that I was working with Thomas Klein. This was a circle of friends of well-known East German authors, like Klaus Schlesinger and so on. When they were thrown out of the East German Authors Association, Thomas Klein and others wrote a letter of protest to Erich Honecker, and I signed this letter. This was the start of my open opposition against the East German regime. I knew the moment I signed an open letter to Erich Honecker I would become a focus of the Stasi, and it would have consequences for my work and so on.
How long did it take you to make that decision to sign that letter?
A second or so.
You knew it would have consequences but you made the decision very quickly.
You formed the Peace Circle of autumn 1981 in Pankow. And for eight years it operated and
Yes, through the 1980s. The Pankow Peace Circle became the biggest opposition group in East Germany— not the most known, but the biggest. At our height we had 100 members, and about 300 persons supported us but not so openly.
You expected you would become the focus of government interest. How did that make itself clear between 1981 and 1989?
At the beginning, nothing happened. But in 1983, I was ordered to a party functionary meeting of the SED (Socialist Unity Party). It was not an open meeting. They told me that they knew all about my activities with the Pankow Peace Circle and that those activities could not be in accordance with my profession as a lecturer at a publishing house. The result of this meeting was that I was thrown out of the Party. I was a member then. The next day I was thrown out of my job. This was in 1983. In 1984, I was forbidden to leave East Germany in any direction. At that time it was possible to go the Socialist countries. But I was forbidden to leave East Germany altogether. My flat was frequently searched by the Stasi and so on.
So it was a very difficult period for you?
Yes, but I was prepared for that when I started my work and when I became a co-founder of the Pankow Peace Circle. I was very well aware that sooner or later they would throw me out of my job, so I started to prepare myself for this moment. I became a beekeeper. When they threw me out of my job, I was able with my former husband to switch to beekeeping. We had 120 beehives.
Really? Did you have one of those little garden plots?
Yes, similar to that. But in East Germany, they had wagons with beehives on every side. You can go into this wagon and work with the bees from inside. We had two of these wagons, and we made more money than we ever earned as scientists. Really! For a half year’s work, because beekeeping is only between March and September, we got double the income than we made as scientists.
That’s wonderful! So, why did you choose beekeeping?
My former husband kept bees as a hobby. When I was thinking about what we could do, when I was thrown out of my job, I asked him, “Couldn’t we do this as a profession?” And he said, “Well, that would be possible, but we need 100 beehives minimum.” So we started to buy the necessary beehives. This was not very difficult to do. Beekeepers in East Germany were mostly elderly men, with an average age like the Politburo. Every now and then an elderly man had to give up beekeeping. He was lucky if he could get rid of his beehives.
What happened to the other people in the Peace Circle? Did they have a similar experience of losing their jobs and having to find alternative employment?
Fortunately only a few lost their jobs. Because this was the tactic of the Stasi: to treat people who had done the same thing differently. This made people suspicious of each other, asking themselves, “Why did I lose my job for doing exactly the same thing as another person who didn’t lose their job?”
So you continued to do beekeeping from 1983 until 1989?
No: until 1988. In 1988, I was arrested. After a month, I was thrown out of the country. So I couldn’t look after the bees any longer. When I returned to East Germany on the morning of the 9th of November, I was simply no longer able to look after the bees because the political changes came so rapidly that I was completely occupied with politics.
I was arrested along with Bärbel Bohley and Stefan Krawczyk in January 1988. We later found out, after the opening of the Stasi files, that this was a Stasi plan, a so-called beheading of the civic movement. The Stasi thought if they arrested the leading persons of the movement, the civic movement would collapse. They were wrong. There was such a big protest movement against our imprisonment that they couldn’t carry out the trials. After a few weeks they decided to throw us out of the country to the West. This was totally absurd, because hundreds of thousands of East Germans wanted to leave East Germany for the West, and we were thrown out of the country as a penalty.
So what happened when you were thrown out and you went to West Germany?
I went to West Germany and later I went to England, to Cambridge, and I became a student at Cambridge. I read philosophy of religion for one and a half years. My study was interrupted by the fall of the Wall. I was right in the middle of my Masters dissertation when the Wall came down.
Did you ever finish your Masters?
I finished my dissertation, but what I couldn’t do was the final exams. The final exams where in June 1990, and I was already in parliament. I was in parliament for 16 years and had no time to return to Cambridge
And why did you return to East Berlin on November 9?
My return to East Germany on the morning of November 9 had to do with my son Philipp. He was nearly 16 years old when I had to leave the country. My condition was that Philipp could decide whether he would like to come with me or stay behind. In case he should choose to stay behind, he was to get a passport so that he could visit me in the West. He was in the middle of his final exams and wanted to go to high school in September, so he decided to stay behind.
The Stasi realized that as long as Philipp stayed in East Germany, I would return. They didn´t want me to return. So they decided to throw Philipp out of his school. Not only Philipp, but his friends as well. They were expelled from the Carl-von-Ossietzky-Gymnasium for being pacifists. (Ossietzky was Germany’s most well known pacifist, and he died in Sachsenhausen concentration camp).
I then decided that Philipp had to come to England. He did. But he experienced a bad conscience because he could go to school in Cambridge whereas his friends in Berlin were denied such possibilities. When the Monday demonstrations started, the question was raised in Berlin whether it wouldn’t be time to re-admit the pupils to their school. Eventually an article in the Berliner Zeitung even appeared that raised the same question. Philipp could hardly stand the situation. So I accepted an invitation to the Freie Universität in West Berlin, where I was asked to give a presentation about the new developments in East Germany
I’d promised my son to go to East Berlin the next morning to find out whether the pupils would be allowed back to their school. That’s why I appeared in the morning of November 9 at Checkpoint Friedrichstraße. I gave the border guard my passport and said that I wanted to come back. At first they tried to refuse. But when the dozen or more pensioners who stood in line behind me became impatient because they had to wait too long, I introduced myself to them and told them that the authorities didn’t want to let me in. Then one started to shout: “Let her in!” Soon the others followed. After some shouting, the border guard threw my passport back to me and shouted himself: “Go, go!”
The next day I went to the office of Margot Honecker, who was the Volksbildungsminister. Her staff assured me that Margot Honecker had nothing to do with the Ossietzky case. They send me to the Rotes Rathaus, to the Berlin authorities. But I said that I would leave the office only if they gave me their word that the pupils would be re-admitted the next day by the schoolmaster, who had fired them, in front of all pupils of the school. This should be the last task of the schoolmaster.
The next day all pupils were readmitted, and the schoolmaster disappeared. It was then that I realized that we had won.
If I remember correctly, you were affiliated with the Greens. What made you decide to work with the Greens?
Because I had a private environmental group since 1982. We met regularly at my flat and had exhibitions at the church. So I was very interested in environmental problems because East Germany was the most polluted country in Europe. I was the mother of three, and I was very concerned about all the environmental problems in East Germany.
At that time there was a lot of small political parties associated with Bürgerbewegung all in Haus für Demokratie – the civic movements in the House for Democracy. And then also the West German parties or the counterparts of West German parties emerged. What was your feeling in those days about the different kind of programs of the Bürgerbewegung and of the larger parties?
It was very sad. It changed the whole election. At the beginning we had a coalition of all the small civic parties. At the round table, the decision was made to hold the first free elections in March. Then everything changed because the Western polls at the end of January 1990 showed that the Social Democrats would be the winner of the elections in March. Suddenly the West German Social Democratic Party decided to change its attitude towards the East German Social Democrats. It said, “You have to leave the coalition of the small opposition parties and fight on your own. We will support you. We will give you the money for your election campaign. But you have to leave this coalition.” Oscar Lafontaine, the Social Democratic Party leader, thought that this would be the first step towards his victory in the Bundestag elections in West Germany in December 1990.
So the coalition broke up. After that, the other West German parties became nervous. They came to East Germany. They sent messengers to the first of the opposition parties. The CDU, for example sent Rita Süssmuth, who was the president of the Bundestag in those days, to Demokratischer Aufbruch, Neues Forum, and Demokratie Jetzt. She said, “If you don’t form a coalition, we will support you. We will pay for your election campaign. But you have to declare that CDU/CSU is your partner.”
The majority of the members refused such an idea to accept CDU/CSU as a partner. Only a small part of Demokratischer Aufbruch accepted this, including Rainer Eppelmann and Angela Merkel who was the press spokesperson of Demokratischer Aufbruch in those days. They said they’d accept CDU/CSU as a partner. But then the CDU had to find another partner after the opposition group had refused such an idea. So they went to East CDU and the East Peasants Party. Along with the very tiny fraction of Demokratischer Aufbruch, I think no more than 20 persons or so, they formed the coalition, the Allianz für Deutschland, the Coalition for Germany. Then this was no longer an election of the new parties against the old parties. It was an election of the West German parties against each other, with the small parties hanging in the air.
And the outcome was, as you know, that all the small opposition parties together got only 5%, and we came only into the parliament because there was no 5% barrier. But they did try to introduce a 5% barrier. This was already proposed at the big round table. As you might know, among the opposition parties we had Stasi informers, Ibrahim Böhme and Wolfgang Schnur, who sat as delegates of the small parties at the round table. They introduced the proposal at the round table that in the March elections there should be a 5% barrier because this was like Western democracies.
At the last moment one of the members of the new parties said, “We have to consult the commission that’s writing the new constitution.” And that was me. I said, “Are you fools?! We are seven opposition parties. If we have this 5% barrier, no opposition party will become a member of the free elected peoples chamber.” Fortunately, we won this fight.
At the time a lot of people were surprised by the results of that first and only democratic election in East Germany in March 1990. Even though the polls said that SDP and CDU would do well, people still were surprised that the new parties did so poorly.
Yes. As far as I know only the English polls said the outcome might be totally different than what the German polls predicted. I remember this because we’d spoken to one of the people at an English polling institute, and he explained to us that only in their last survey did they find out that the results would likely change dramatically. And they were right.
I remember exactly the moment when we were in the former Palast der Republik. I was the leading candidate of the Greens, and we stood in a huge hall, Ibrahim Böhme of the SDP on the left side, Lothar de Maiziere who was the chief of the Allianz für Deutschland on the right side. I was opposite Ibrahim. There was a huge crowd of journalists around Ibrahim Böhme. Lothar de Maiziere stood totally alone in his corner. And of course I stood totally alone in my corner. So I had a very good view of Ibrahim Böhme. Then the moment came. It was 6 o’clock, and there was total silence at that moment when the elections results were announced. There was more than a moment of totally shocked silence. And then the whole huge crowd of journalists rushed to the other corner towards the totally surprised Lothar de Maiziere. They trampled over one another! Journalists fell. It was chaos.
So what was your feeling inside, other than surprise, when you heard these results?
I said, “How good it is that we don’t have the 5% barrier!” Because I realized very soon that the Greens had only 1.8% of the vote
How many representatives did you have in parliament with 1.8%
Something like 9. But we immediately made a coalition with Neues Forum and Initiative für Demokratie und Menschenrechte. So we became a proper parliamentary fraction with 5% altogether.
I talked to Thomas Klein, who was also in parliament, but he was not very happy with the experience. He felt like he didn’t have many opportunities.
No, he didn’t join our fraction. He was on his own. But it was his decision.
I think he might have been unhappy with this decision. He didn’t have a very positive experience during this period when the East German parliament met until October 1990 when it was dissolved. But what was your experience at that time?
I was very happy with that. I was happy that we were able to form this parliamentary group. I was very much opposed by the Green Party leaders who said, “You have to form your own Green parliamentary group to push through our subjects.” I said, “We are 1.8%. How should we push Green subjects? We need at least a parliamentary fraction of 5% so we that we can be heard more.” Their first reaction was that they wanted to throw me out of the party.
This was the Green Party in East Germany.
Yes, but later they agreed. They didn’t throw me out. Also I formed this parliamentary group anyway, and it was the right decision. It was a very interesting, very exciting time.
What were the major accomplishments of this parliamentary fraction?
For example, we made the decision that the Stasi files would be opened after reunification. We also proposed that Stasi collaborators and Stasi officers should not get pensions any higher than the average East German. This was even written into the unification treaty, and it was carried out for 10 years. They only got the average pension for East Germans. But then they went to the constitutional court in Germany, and this court decided that they should get pensions according to their salaries.
Even though that decision went against the constitution?
Yes, it was against the wishes of the only freely elected people’s chamber in East Germany, and it was a lack of respect for this chamber.
Then, if I remember correctly, 1/3 of the East German representatives after October 1990 went to the Bundestag, so you were part of that also representing the Greens. How was it in Bonn?
Oh, that was very strange, because this was a totally different parliament than what we had experienced in our peoples chamber. In the peoples chamber, you could persuade members of other parties with good arguments during the debate, and very often the members voted not according to what they were told by their leaders of the parliamentary fractions but according to which argument was persuasive. In the West, the advisors were very much disturbed about chaotic voting. They could never predict the outcome of a vote. But for a parliamentarian this was very exciting. You could always try, and sometimes successfully with good arguments, persuade members of the other parties to vote with you. That should be politics!
But it was totally different in Bonn. We realized that in those times they almost never spoke with each other. If you belong to the Social Democrats, you stuck to the Social Democrats; if you belong to the Christian Democrats, you stuck to the Christian Democrats. And then we arrived from the east. And in this short time in Bonn they couldn’t predict the outcome of a vote. Sometimes it was so chaotic that when they tried to count the votes, they couldn’t decide which side had won. All the parliamentarians had to move out in this so-called Hammelsprung. There were 3 doors: one yes, one abstain, and one no. And every single one of us had to move through one of these doors to be counted. One time I stood together with a young parliamentarian of the Christian Democrats. We talked about this one vote, and he wanted to move with me to the “no” door. And suddenly four very polite Christian Democrats appeared. They surrounded him and carried him away to the other door. It was very polite. There was no danger or violence. It was only polite persuasion: “Oh young colleague, you can’t go vote against our fraction. This is not possible in Bonn.”
You also had to interact with the West German Green party?
Yes, for a short time. Between October 1990 and December 1990, we were together in the Green fraction. At that time no computer was allowed within the Green fraction. They’d made a decision that these evil computers shouldn’t come into our offices. Then, after the 1990 election, the west German Greens fell out the parliament because the electoral area was divided. There were only seven of us left in the small parliamentary group of east German Greens that entered Parliament. And of course we allowed computers into our offices. One member of the former Green fraction said to us, “You traitors!”
But the Greens now won’t hear of it because they have computers today. And when they came back to parliament in 1994, of course every single one of them used a computer.
You participated in the round table, and you were working on a new constitution. How would you evaluate that experience, and did it have any enduring impact on German politics?
Yes, sadly. The very experienced old party functionaries, especially the party functionaries of the SED, were very successful in deceiving us during this period. I have already given you one example: they tried with the 5% barrier to throw us out of the parliament after the free elections. Another example was the decision that no East German spy in the West should be uncovered, and the Stasi should be allowed to destroy their files. Until today it is impossible to identify the Stasi collaborators in the West. So, former Stasi people sit in Brussels today. One is leading the negotiations on treaties with Iceland.
This was someone who was a Stasi collaborator from West Germany?
Yes. The other is the head of the anti-corruption department in Brussels. This head of the anti-corruption department in Brussels was even busy helping the SED, after the fall of the Wall, move its money out of the country. He helped hide the SED money, and now he is the head of the anti-corruption department in Brussels!
How is his name known if the Stasi files on collaborators in the West have not been released?
Because there are some researchers who achieve the near impossible…
You had a very difficult experience with your files, and I don’t know how comfortable you are talking about it.
I’m indeed uncomfortable talking about this.
Can you describe it a little bit?
What is there to describe? I was compelled to find out that my husband was a Stasi spy.
And you found that out when?
I didn’t find out myself. Some of my friends knew it a year before me, and they didn’t warn me. I read it in the newspaper. A very old friend of mine, he was a publisher of a newly established newspaper Die Andere called me one evening and said, “Vera, tomorrow, when Die Andere comes out there will be a report that Knut was a Stasi. When will you resign as a parliamentarian?”
And I told him, “What? Why should I resign when my husband was a spy?”
This was my first reaction. Of course I was shocked. I found this question so unbelievable that it lessened my shock about Knut. The second thing I did was go to Knut and say, “Klaus Wolfram called me and told me you have been a Stasi spy. Is this true?”
And he said, “No.”
I said, “Be it as it may, I will go to Berlin and I will find out immediately if it is true or not. So if it is true, please tell me.”
But he said, “No.”
The next day I went to Berlin, and in the evening I knew he was a spy. And this was the end of our marriage.
It’s very sad. This probably happened to a number of people…
But they were not well known persons. But my question was why? I mean we had three children. And why did my former friends not tell me a year before that they knew that he was a spy? I don’t know. And until today I think this was very wrong.
Some people told me that they felt that the files were sometimes wrong, that they had wrong information and you yourself had to go to Berlin and look at them yourself. Maybe they didn’t know for sure.
No. The files were not yet open. It was published that he was a spy shortly before Christmas. This was my special Christmas present. I found out anyway with the help of a real friend, who was a journalist with Stern who specialized in Stasi research. My former friends knew about it because Knut was betrayed by his Stasi officer. They had some connections with this Stasi officer, who was also the leading officer of Lothar de Maiziere.
Did your husband ever admit the truth?
Yes, but later. As soon as I confronted him with the facts that I knew he was a spy, he said yes.
Did he give a reason?
He did, but this was only 10 years later. He said that he cooperated with the Stasi because he feared very much that I could be arrested for my activities and if he cooperated with the Stasi he would be able to prevent my arrest. I believed him, because he tried all he could to prevent me from going to this demonstration where I was indeed arrested.
You are still involved in activities talking about the Stasi?
Yes. One day, after I’d already left the Bundestag, my colleague who is now the director of the memorial of the former Stasi prison called me and said, “I urgently need a person who is able to give an English tour and please don’t let me down!” I gave this tour, and suddenly I found out that I liked it. In another life, I would have been a good teacher. I decided to stick with it. Every now and then I give tours. I especially like talking with young people.
A sad irony is one of the things that has endured from East Germany has been the Stasi. It continues to be a subject in the newspaper. It continues to affect people’s lives.
Yes, of course. It was a huge apparatus and it affected people’s lives very much during East German times. The people should have the possibility to find out who was playing with their lives in the GDR. For example, if a person lost his job, the Stasi often did it in a way that the person thought he was unable to fulfill the job expectations, that he’d done a bad job. When they finally find out in their files that it was not their fault that they lost their job, but the doing of the Stasi, that can help them heal. The Stasi also tried to destroy family relationships, so when they find out that it was the doing of the Stasi it can also be part of the healing process. So it was very important to open the Stasi files. And some people needed years or even decades to bring themselves to look into the Stasi files.
And some people still have not…
Yes, and I can understand this. If I hadn’t been compelled to look into my Stasi files, I would never have. I would never have done this voluntarily.
I hear stories about people who worked for the Stasi as employees who have done very well in Germany. This seems to be a terrible injustice, that the victims are still dealing with the pain and the people who worked for the Stasi are not only getting their pensions but in many cases are doing very well economically in their new professions.
Yes, but this is one of the consequences of a peaceful revolution. This was our decision, and I am convinced that this was a right one. We never wanted to use the methods that the Stasi used against us. We rejected the idea of pursuing them or killing them or something like that. So, we have to endure that they are among us. I think this was the right decision. You cannot come out of this spiral of violence if you use the same methods as your adversary, yes?
Is there anything legally or legislatively that you would do today that is different from current policy in regards to the Stasi?
No. I think the big mistake was that they didn’t respect the decision of the People’s Chamber that the Stasi should not get pensions higher than the average for east Germans.
Can that be overturned?
No, I don’t think so. And we don’t have the power to carry this through the courts. We don’t have the money, we don’t have the lawyers, and so on.
You were in parliament for 15-16 years and you were representing a constituency or…
No, I was always on the party list.
What for you were the most important accomplishments during that period of time?
Many, but it’s very hard to explain. For example, there’s the decision that two former military exercise areas, very large ones in Thuringia near Eisenach, were not turned over to the Bundeswehr but were given to the state of Thuringia to turn into an environmental protection area. This was due to my persuasion of the then-minister of defense, and this is now a very beautiful environmental protection area. The same thing happened with a military airport located at the very end of a very nice peninsula of the Baltic Sea where Soviet MiGs once flew on practice missions and dropped bombs into the Baltic. The Bundeswehr was very excited about getting this airport for its use. I persuaded this former minister of defense not to turn this military airport over to the Bundeswehr but to give it to Mecklenburg to be an environmental protection area. It is also very nice now. I’ve only been there two times, but I’ve enjoyed the feeling that one of our most beautiful touristic areas was due to my work and my power of persuasion.
The Green Party should be proud of this. But you decided to leave the Green Party?
Yes, at the moment the Green party decided that it could form coalitions with the then so-called PDS, the former Communist Party, I said, “No, not with me.” I didn’t give the best years of my life fighting the SED just so that I would one day be part of a coalition with the SED. I left the party in 1996.
And you continued to represent Thuringia…?
I was a member of the Greens in 1994 when, shortly before the Bundestag election, there was an election in Sachsen-Anhalt. The result of the election was that the Social Democrats and Greens formed a minority government, which was tolerated by the PDS. I didn’t find this acceptable. During my whole election campaign, I said that I would never let this happen in Thuringia or in the rest of Germany. In 1994, the Thuringian Greens said that they sympathized with the Sachsen-Anhalt “model.” I said, “No, I am strictly against it.” And at the Thuringian level, the Greens fell out of parliament while I got the best election results of all the candidates in eastern Germany. This was a very clear decision in favor of my election campaign. That’s why I kept my parliamentary mandate after leaving the Greens and turning to the CDU.
And you have remained with the CDU since then? You are still with them?
And you participated in the last elections? From what I understand it is very difficult in this area to win with the CDU.
This was only just for fun. One day I was sitting at my table writing an article, and I got this call from two gentlemen I didn’t know. They were from Friedrichshain–Kreuzberg, and they asked me if I would consider being the candidate for the CDU for Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. I knew of course that this is the worst area for the CDU in all of Germany: the CDU gets less than 10% there. But I said, “Yes, I’ll do it, but I will do it only according to my conditions. I will not use the official election campaign of the CDU. I have to have my own election campaign. I have to get them by surprise.” And I did. I had a very good place on the party list, and under normal circumstances I would have been a member of the parliament now. But in these special elections, the Social Democrats lost constituencies that they had held since 1949 to the CDU. Because the CDU won too many constituencies directly, I fell off the party list. But it’s okay.
You’re happy not to be participating anymore?
I am very happy. I don’t like the politics that are made by the CDU at the moment.
What do you disagree with?
Oh, all the “Euro-saving” politics…
Euro-saving in what sense?
Saving of the Euro, the currency.
Because it’s very expensive?
It’s not only very expensive. I am very much opposed to a central state in Europe with all the decisions taken in Brussels or Strasbourg. I more or less agree with David Cameron.
Do you think that position has a lot of support here in Germany?
I don’t know how much support it has, not officially. In official party politics, there is not much support for Cameron, but I think there is more support in civil society.
Do you think you might return to politics?
No, I am done with politics, really.
And what are you doing these days?
I am working as a journalist. I give talks all over the country. I support some civil rights campaigns, for example this very successful campaign against saving the Euro. My latest campaign is against the new regulation for the state-supported fees for radio and television. I don’t know if there is something like that in Britain, but Germans have to pay whether they like it or not.
I think the British still have to do that. Americans don’t.
Since the beginning of this year there is a new regulation. I am a part of a campaign against this regulation, and I have lot of things to do
What do you think has survived of the way of life under DDR that might be positive? Anything or nothing?
Nothing from the official way of life. There was nothing positive in it. But I think much of the spirit of the opposition movement has survived. And the spirit of this German opposition movement has done a lot of good for the united Germany.
Can you give examples of that?
For example, people no longer accept political decisions. If they don’t agree with a political decision, they make their voice heard, and this is new.
So this is kind of a spirit of resistance…
Yes, or a spirit of self-determination.
When you think back to your way of thinking in 1989 and 1990, have there been any major changes in your philosophy or in your approach to politics or society?
Yes, one major change: I was very much opposed to atomic power, but I am no longer opposed to it. I lost my illusions about Green energy. We are destroying our landscape with all these windmills, and we have thousands of solar panels that only exist because they are supported by the taxpayers’ money not because they are efficient. So, I lost my illusions about Green energy, and I have a much more sober or practical approach to environmental protection.
If you look back to 1989, and everything that has changed or not changed until today in Germany, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being the least satisfied and 10 being the most.
It depends. I would give a 10 according to personal freedom, freedom of travel, freedom of expression, and so on. And I would give no more than 4 according to how official politics has treated unification, because many political decisions were rather counter-productive. What we have achieved was not because of the right political decision but because of the initiatives and the activities of the people or the free enterprises or the brave owners of enterprises who moved to the east and built up the collapsed industrial structures in East Germany, and so on. There was a lot of money given from the west to the east, but most of this money was used for consumption and not to re-build the collapsed structures. Of course they built new motorways, new streets, an entirely new communication system. But if you look at the enormous amount of money put into East Germany, the result is not sufficient. And they are now making the same mistake in Europe. They put enormous amounts of money into Greece and don’t support the self-healing powers in Greece.
The second question is the same scale 1 to 10, same period of time but your own personal life.
And when you look into the near future and you evaluate the prospects for Germany in the next few years, how would you rate those prospects on a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being the most pessimistic, the 10 the most optimistic.
Where do you see the most hopeful signs for Germany?
The most optimistic sign is that so many people have become active, have tried to influence politics. On the other hand, I am very skeptical that we have different parties. We have different parties by name, but they no longer have different programs. We have a sort of unification: one party with different names.
So, a consensus among all…
Yes, and I hate this consensus. Democracy is a battle between different ideas, different approaches, and different solutions. In this battle, you find out not always the best solution, but a better solution than what would come out of some initial consensus. We have the same thing in the media: different newspapers but one approach.
For example you might have heard of the sexism discussion in Germany at the moment. The leading figure in the next election for the FDP (Free Democratic Party) is an elderly man. In January last year he was approached by a very young journalist of Der Stern. She went with him to a bar at midnight and said, “Well Mr. Brüderle, you are so old, how do feel about being the leading figure of the Liberal Democrats?” They talked a little bit, and I don’t know what he said exactly but something like: “You would look good in a dirndl.” That’s the typical Bavarian dress.
For one year, nobody knew about it. But the moment he was elected as the leading candidate, she came out with an article that said that this guy made a sexist approach. Suddenly all the newspapers, all the television, all the different television programs talked about this sexist approach. He’s also the head of the liberal parliamentary fraction. Every Wednesday, he does a morning breakfast event for the media and it’s usually attended by half a dozen journalists. Last Wednesday, because of this dirndl comment, there were 80 journalists! This is absurd.
This interview was re-posted with the kind permission of its author, John Feffer. The original version, along with many other insightful interviews, can be found on his website.