revolutionary reflections | Class struggles in the 1989 revolution

Thirty years ago, on 9 November 1989, a mass movement brought about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now that insurgent pro-democracy movements are on the rise once again around the world, the anniversary of 1989 reminds us of the potential power of working class people to bring down apparently unshakeable regimes. 

Here we publish a translation of an article by Volkhard Mosler, originally published in 1994, which analyses the class composition of the East German regime and the opposition movement to it. He dismantles the notion that the East German regime had anything to do with what we would mean by ‘socialism from below’, and simultaneously challenges some of the myths about the role played by the self-styled leaders of the opposition.

Translation by Joe Sabatini. Original published in the journal Socialismus von unten, 2 (December- January 1994): 12-18, and republished in: Jürgen Ehlers and Yaak Pabst (eds.), Was war die DDR? [What was the GDR?] (Berlin: Edition Aurora, 2018), pp. 95-110. Our thanks to the comrades from marx21 for the permission to publish our translation.

Photo: Gavin Stewart (via flickr)

For decades, the uprising of 17 June 1953 in East Germany, was characterised in West Germany as a ‘people’s uprising’. This is despite the fact that it was purely a workers’ uprising consisting of a general strike against the ruling bureaucracy, in which neither the old bourgeoisie nor the newer middle classes took part.

The autumn revolution of 1989 took place above all on the street. While large numbers of workers took part in the demonstrations, in contrast to 1953, there was no general strike. The upheaval took on the appearance of a ‘people’s uprising’ which, more or less, encompassed all oppressed classes and sections of society, but in which the workers appeared solely as citizens on the streets.

Yet we cannot understand the course or the outcome of the upheaval unless we apply Marx’s laws of history, especially:

All historical struggles, whether they be political, religious, philosophical or otherwise belonging to the ideological sphere, are specific expressions of the struggles between social classes. [1]

As in the rest of the Eastern Bloc [the USSR and its satellite states], the GDR [East Germany was officially called the German Democratic Republic (GDR)] consisted of two classes: the ruling class made up of the party and the state bureaucracy on the one hand, and the working class on the other.

To this day, the bureaucracy has been characterised as a ‘political class’.[2] Yet the power of this class, as with all ruling classes, rested not only on their monopoly over politics, but on their control over the means of production. The notion of ‘collective property’ was merely a pretext by which the bureaucracy masked the real property relations. The people, that is the majority of the oppressed classes, cannot possess the means of production owned by the state if they do not possess the state.

In the industrial conurbations of the south of the GDR every second child suffered from respiratory disease due to pollution.

The average working week stood at 43.7 hours – higher than Hungary and Russia, while annual leave averaged at two weeks. At the same time, 2.8 million pensioners lived on the verge of poverty (with single pensioners receiving the lower pension of 330 East German Marks).

The middle classes

Between the bureaucracy and the working class stood the middle classes, whose conditions of work and life can be differentiated from the other two classes. These middle classes – consisting of clergy, doctors, lawyers, academics, artists, sports people, technicians, engineers and scientists and employees in senior but non-executive positions – enjoyed greater privileges than the workers in the GDR. They did not suffer in the same way from the shortages, the lower wages and lower pensions, the miserable housing conditions or the unhealthy working conditions. There was, for instance, a special ‘old age insurance for intelligence’ that was awarded to technicians, doctors and engineers, as well as ‘State citizens who had given specific service’. Special and additional benefits accrued to those who had worked in the state bureaucracy.

Yet the middle classes also suffered due to the material conditions of the country, and more so within the cultural restrictions.

One should not think that doctors, technicians and tenured lower level bureaucrats acted solely out of egotistical social interests. As with other classes, the middle classes have their political representatives, speakers and organisations who are miles apart from the condition of those they speak for.

Those who concern themselves professionally with the production and distribution of ideas, theories, illusions and fantasies, act as representatives of the middle classes.

To them belong clerics, artists, writers and lawyers, but also a large number of ‘climbers’ who had found a niche in the 1980s, and could exist as middle class.

The 4,000 pastors in the GDR were disproportionately more involved in civil rights groups than the 40,000 doctors, artists and writers, and were more likely to initiate demonstrations and meetings.

In all class societies, the so-called ‘professions’ are the servants of the ruling power. Over 40 years they had played a similar role in the GDR.

Of course the odd writer, musician, artist and cleric rebelled against their ‘employer’. Yet it was only during the 1980s, in the Gorbachev era, that an oppositional movement among the intellectuals began to emerge.

As Marx pointed out regarding the intermediary status of the petty-bourgeoisie in his day, the intermediary role of the middle classes serves as a form of political mediator, a force of reconciliation between the poles of the ruling class and the working class, who are mollified and brought into harmony.

Marx wrote that the political representatives of the petty-bourgeois democrats ‘consider themselves above class opposition’, because they are the representatives of a ‘transitionary class in which the interests of the two classes are blunted.’[3]

Marx had already shown how an essential feature of the petty-bourgeoisie lies in presenting themselves as being able to transcend class interests and present a kind of politics dressed as people’s rights.

Likewise in the GDR, the civil rights groups appeared more as advocates for the whole people, than in terms of representatives of their particular class and social interests. The main slogan of October 1989 – Wir sind das Volk (We are the people) – masked the fact that among an oppressed people there exist different classes and interests. In November in Leipzig, when the workers first began to emerge with their own slogans, demands and methods of struggle, the self-designated representatives of the people were aggrieved.

The most important political expression of this intermediary group was the New Forum, founded in September 1989. Their main aspiration was to act as a movement for all citizens, yet a questionnaire from their Berlin membership at the end of 1989, showed that: ‘the picture is one in which intellectuals and graduates make up half, while only an eighth can be characterised as workers.’[4]

The New Forum and similar civil rights groups rise and sank like a comet, and show how little the workers were to be fobbed off with their meagre democratic slogans.

The Chinese solution?

As with any revolution, the preconditions for the outbreak of the revolution of 1989 were that the ruling class can no longer go on as before, and are at their wit’s end, while the oppressed classes no longer want to go on as before.[5]

Across Poland, Russia, Czechoslovakia and China the spring and summer of 1989 was marked by mass strikes and student protests. Only in China did the bureaucratic class rely on their strength and use put down the movements in the old Stalinist style with tanks and machine guns. The price was high with 2,000 deaths and 10,000 people injured.

The opposition in the GDR should have been silenced when [Erich] Honecker’s colleague and successor [as General Secretary of the governing Socialist Unity Party (SED), and hence leader of the GDR] Egon Krenz commended the Chinese government on its ‘success’.

This reflects the fact that in the GDR, in contrast to much of Eastern Europe, the government was less willing to follow Gorbachev and perestroika. They sought under all circumstances to hinder any reconfiguration or opening up of the regime.

In Hungary and Poland, this process was already underway by 1989. Solidarność in Poland was already part of the government. Of course the bureaucratic class had not sacrificed its social privileges in these cases.

However, the nomenklatura in the GDR realised that this process would result in the downfall of the GDR, and with it, the end of their domination, and that the GDR could only survive as a ‘socialist state.’

The political representatives of the middle classes continue to this day to hold the opinion that they and their smart tactic of peaceful protest brought down the Stasi-state. [The East German State Security Service, Staatssicherheitsdienst, was known as the Stasi.] They also claim that they achieved an historic victory in the service of freedom. In the words of the founding member of the New Forum, Jens Reich:

The strict commitment to peaceful protest was the lever that broke the whole system, it made that possible, elegantly outmanoeuvred any countermeasures by the nomenklatura. [6]

This is a pious delusion, which we should not allow to pass unexposed.

Why had Krenz and [head of the Stasi, Erich] Mielke refrained from using weapons as in 1953?

The answer comes from a tape-recording of a crisis meeting held by the district leaders of the Stasi on 31 August 1989. Mielke firstly did not consider the civil rights groups capable of overthrowing the state. His sole preoccupation was with the professions as evidences when he asked one of the district leaders: ‘And what is the mood among the professions?’ One of them interjected with the question: ‘Is it like it was on the morning of the uprising on 17 June?’[7]

Both for the workers and for the bureaucracy the events of the 17 June 1953 had been traumatic. The workers had experienced a bitter defeat. Yet their general strike could only be put down with the assistance of Russian troops.

Gorbachev’s renunciation of the Brezhnev doctrine[8] had created a new situation, and the leadership of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) was clear about this. Krenz’s commendation of the Chinese was merely a bluff.

Instinctively the founders of the New Forum looked upon the workers as partners. Recent mass strikes in Poland and Russia had shown that the repressive apparatus of the state had shown restraint.

Bärbel Bohley, one of the founding members of New Forum, referred to the example of Poland in an interview with [the West German news magazine] Der Spiegel a few weeks before the revolution: ‘the working class are a strong lobby’, adding that this is of interest to the opposition in the GDR. At the same time, she was cautious about ‘simply following the Polish example in the GDR’, because it would threaten the very existence of the GDR.[9]

In this statement we see exposed the half-heartedness of the New Forum and the civil rights movement in the GDR.

They see the power of the working class, are instinctively drawn to it, knowing that they cannot shift the existing regime without the power of the workers. Yet they fear that the workers would not rest content to be the foot-soldiers of a movement for democratic reform. They would also struggle for social rights.

On the question of the right to strike, both the civil rights groups and the ruling SED were of one mind, separating the right to strike for economic reasons from political ones. Both groups realised that political strikes were a threat to the stability of the GDR.

The civil rights groups wanted to support the ruling power by applying pressure for reform. Jens Reich formulated this position in a speech given to half a million people in Berlin on 4 November:

We must apply pressure, and so make progress. Our civic movement must exercise restraint. None of us should react, but must rather accept that nothing should take place underhand.

And Rolf Henrich from the New Forum said: ‘We mustn’t turn the government into paupers – they must sup their own soup.’[10]

The fear of a general strike similar to 1953 did not only strike fear into the leadership of the Socialist Unity Party. It also dominated the workings of the civil rights movement, including even groups like the United Left, who theoretically appealed to Marxism and the working class.

Further developments would show that with the radicalisation of the working class in the south of the GDR, the representatives of the intellectuals would side with the ruling bureaucracy, sinking from being half-hearted revolutionaries to a half-hearted counter-revolutionary power (insofar as we can speak of power in their case).

The breakdown

When we look at the waves of people seeking to escape and get to West Germany via Prague and Hungary in terms of its social composition, it becomes possible to talk about a proletarian movement. That is the majority consisted of young workers and professionals who no longer wanted to put up with working for low pay and to sell their labour to work in conditions not fit for a machine.

If we see the mass migration movement as the birthplace of the revolution, we can also pinpoint the emerging split between the intellectuals and the workers. The New Forum in its founding statement criticised those seeking to emigrate in the bitterest of terms: ‘Migration… is driven by need, hunger and coercion. Therefore this something we cannot support.’ At the same time in Plauen, Dresden and other cities along the routes that migrants took, there was an upwelling of solidarity for those seeking to escape. A worker from Plauen spoke of the ‘uncanny sense of meeting with people who are free.’ ‘We waved at them and clapped, but why? Well, that was the feeling they had created.’

The waves of emigration acted as a signal for further breakdown inside the GDR. The images of people escaping from Warsaw and Prague send a shock through the GDR, which for the overwhelming majority acted as a qualitative shift in their perception of the situation. The threads had been severed and people’s patience was at an end.

The representatives of the intellectuals continue to spread the idea that it was they who fought for the freedom of others. According to one, there was an ‘altered social composition of the demonstrations’. It is claimed that in October and the beginning of November, ‘an alternative scene made up of students and young intellectuals made a striking image’, while it was only in December that, ‘the young workers who took charge of events on the streets. They brought other interests into play.’[11] But reality speaks otherwise.

On 2 October, 20,000 marched in Leipzig, and on 7 October 20,000 marched in Plauen and a further 80,000 marched in Leipzig on 9 October. The vast majority of demonstrators were neither writers nor artists, and did not belong to an ‘alternative scene’, but where mainly workers. Neither in Plauen nor in Leipzig did the students play a decisive role in the emerging phase of the revolution.

The personal risks that young workers exposed themselves to on the night of the 3 of October in Dresden, when they confronted the full-force of the state, played no less a part than the manifestos and appeals from Berlin.

It has to be admitted that the political leadership lay with the civil rights movement until the beginning of November. Above all the New Forum had within a few weeks the support of 200,000 people from all parts of the GDR. This meant that they could set the tone.

The main thrust of their activities, however, was to maintain the stability of the GDR. A flyer put out by the New Forum on 1 October states: ‘We take part in the New Forum, because we are concerned for the GDR’. What they were seeking to protect was the integrity of the state, rather than ‘socialism’. Admittedly, this is not formally expressed in the programmes and speeches of the civil rights groups during the autumn. It was rather that the struggle for a reformed socialism, had a certain ring about it, of a moral defence of the state.

It should be acknowledged that the majority of the ‘socialist’ civil rights campaigners did not so much depart from socialism, as accept the perspective of a new form of power. A portion of the movement, most especially among the pastors and lawyers called for ‘Democracy now!’ So the democratic outburst among these groups, which included a portion of those in New Forum, went over to Helmut Kohl’s[12] conservative camp.

In this way they were able to secure their position in society as servants of the ruling power.

Others today, seem unwilling to recall the socialist slogans they used in autumn 1989. Jens Reich writes retrospectively: ‘We would have achieved nothing (ending up like those in Tiananmen Square) if we had pushed for the end of socialism and the GDR.’[13] As if their position on socialism and the GDR was merely a tactic from the start!

Yet in fact they had sought to protect the GDR, and rather than seeking to overthrow the SED and the state-apparatus of the Stasi, the civil rights movement sought to compromise.

Noticing this, the SED decided to enter into a dialogue with the civil rights groups. In October they went over the heads of the Stasi, seeking to find constructive ways in which they could work together with the movement.

Therefore, a new bloc emerged in which the bureaucracy and the middle classes, the SED and the civil rights movement could work together. By December this had given rise to round table political discussions and by January the civil rights groups had entered the government.

The mass rally of the 4 November demonstrated the success of this new course that the SED had taken. Markus Wolf, the highest espionage official, as well as leading figures of the SED appeared alongside the opposition to give speeches.

The slogan of the opposition in Berlin was: ‘SED alone – that does not have to be.’[14]

Two days later in Leipzig, the district chief of the SED tried to speak before a crowd of a 100,000 who chanted: ‘Adieu SED’ and ‘Too late, too late.’

The next battle centred around the question of freedom of movement.

Again, the civil rights movement had adopted an awkward posture. At the ‘officially approved’ demonstration on 4 November in Berlin, they did not make a single demand to open up the Berlin Wall. Yet within five days the masses had stormed the Wall.

The SED and the New Forum were co-operating on revising the laws on movement, though admittedly the New Forum was pushing for more liberal measures than the SED. Bärbel Bohley demanded that West Germany instead of allowing for controlled freedom of movement, should recognise the East German citizenship of people fleeing, and that they should be only allowed to settle subject to a treaty between the two countries on asylum.

The opening-up of the Berlin Wall

On the day after the opening of the Berlin Wall Bärbel Bohley criticised the measure because it had ‘lacked preparation.’ Jens Reich made it plain: ‘It was sincerely done, but with devastating political consequences. It will be the breaking point for our rising popularity.[15]

On 12 November, the New Forum’s supporters produced a leaflet about the fall of the Berlin Wall, which complained that the people ‘were given a say neither about the building nor the dismantling of the Wall’. That is of course false, as the building of the Wall was a consequence of the oppression suffered by the people, while its opening a result of their pressure.

One consequence of the opening, however was that millions travelled west, but the fall in the standard of living continued.

Bärbel Bohley spoke of the ‘mania for consumption’, and the writer Stefan Heym described the situation as the ‘Ash Wednesday of the GDR’, in which the masses were drawn to consuming all kinds of trash.

Similar arguments were widespread in the opposition movements in the GDR. They were often linked to an ecological critique of West German consumerism.

Democracy Now proclaimed: ‘Socialism does not need to perish, because people will require alternative forms of society to West German consumerism, if humanity is to survive.’ In a leaflet concerning the opening of the Wall, the New Forum talk about the Sanctity of Poverty among the workers: ‘We may remain poor for a longer period, yet we will not be in a society where hustlers can skim the cream.’

The workers distrusted this talk of Socialism and the Sanctity of Poverty, especially when uttered out of the mouths of writers and pastors. They distrusted them, because when they talked about poverty, they were not referring to their own.

This can be seen in the case of the currency reform of June 1990, when the GDR adopted the West German Deutschmark. Among those with savings to exchange, 20 % had savings of 120 billion (about 30,000 DM per person), while 12 million savers (around 80 %) possessed collectively 50 billion (given them an average of 4,166 DM per person).

In the face of this, warnings about skimmers among the West German capitalists were unlikely to shock. Every day at this time new revelations about hustlers within their own state, who according to the socialist slogan ‘were skimming the cream’.

General strike?

At the beginning of December, the storm turned to the Stasi. Mass occupations of Stasi headquarters took place in several cities in regions of Schmalkald and Suhl. On 5 December in Suhl the Stasi offices was stormed by crowds with chants of ‘lock them all up’. When tear gas could not stop then, and an anxious Stasi officer fired a pistol at them, it was clear that the days for this hated dictatorship were numbered.

In response, the civil rights groups spoke out against lawlessness and hatred, then formed human chains around the Stasi HQs to protect the documents inside from being destroyed by the anger of the crowds. They therefore gave the Stasi cover against any pulverisation by the masses.

In the industrial conurbations of the south of the GDR, a part of the civil rights movement sought reconciliation under pressure from the workers.

A representative of the New Forum in Leipzig reported at a congress of the United Left (Berlin, 26 November) that around thirty factory groups had affiliated to the New Forum.

Eventually on 1 December, the spokesperson for New Forum in the southern city of Karl Marx-Stadt called for a general strike to take place on 6 December. The initiative had come from the workers who were putting pressure on New Forum. The most important demands coming from the workers included – dismantling of the Stasi, departure of the SED from the factories, and a referendum on Reunification with West Germany.

Bärbel Bohley on behalf of the Berlin New Forum fended off the call for a strike. She immediately initiated a media campaign against the declaration. The Berliner Zeitung described the declaration as ‘monstrous’ and spoke of ‘adventurism’. In addition a leading figure in the SPD, Markus Meckel opposed the general strike: ‘We are against a general strike because it would break apart our economy.’[16]

Nonetheless, on 6 December a two-hour general strike took place demanding a referendum on reunification. Strikes also spread to Suhl, Rostock and other cities, in protest at the machinations of the Stasi. Der Spiegel reported on the 11 December how, ‘the mood in factories is becoming explosive.’

Throughout the country, civic committees were being formed to oversee the dismantling of the Stasi. To some degree the factories were ready to release workers to carry out specific tasked to enable the activities of these civic committees. However, in many of the central districts this process resulted in a closer union of the state apparatus and the civic committees.

Round Table

The Stasi apparatus had been weakened but not smashed. As the situation appeared to be coming to a head the SED made a tactical retreat, by seeking political cover through closer co-operation with the civil rights groups.

On 7 December, a ‘Round Table’ took place between the civic rights groups and an already weakened bureaucracy. The Round Table was supposed to function as an organ of government. In reality it was a talking shop to lend legitimacy to an embattled ruling power.

Certainly this was how the ‘reformer’ Modrow[17] viewed the Round Table in a report concerning the dismantling of the Stasi six weeks later. The only concrete resolution to come out of the Round Table was the setting of a date in May 1990 for elections to the Volkskammer, or People’s Parliament.[18]

The Round Table placed itself as a buffer between the old power and radicalising workers. It was used as a way to dampen the heightened mood in the streets and the workplaces. On 4 December the Leipzig representative of the New Forum, Jürgen Tallig, was greeted by loud catcalls from a crowd of150,000 people to push for immediate reunification. On 13 December, representatives of the church and the civil rights groups in Leipzig proposed that the last Monday demonstration before Christmas should be a silent march, ‘without placards or megaphones’, and to pause protesting over the period from Christmas to New Year. Not only this, but that any resumption of demonstrations in the new year should be dependent on ‘the political situation.’

The situation did seem to quiet down as a result of this pause. A situation that the ruling powers immediately exploited to go on a counter-revolutionary offensive. This was conducted under the ideological mantle of anti-fascism.

Early in January 1990, there were ‘anti-fascist’ demonstrations, including one in Berlin that attracted 250,000 people. The whole manoeuvre served the embattled apparatus of the Stasi to rescue itself from being dismantled. Essentially it was claimed that a security apparatus was essential to fight the Nazis.

This attempt on the part of the SED, to recruit the unification movement among the workers to anti-fascism had the unintended consequence of discrediting anti-fascism in the eyes of younger workers, and creating a space for neo-nazi groups, that in fact grew during the end-days of the GDR.

The mendacity of this manoeuvre was unsurpassed. In 1988 Nazi attacks on the left had been tolerated by the police and the Stasi. The Krenz government had pointedly targeted hatred towards Polish people. He issued a law that placed restrictions on ‘foreigners’ accessing specific goods that were in short supply, unless they had approved travel papers. With this he was suggesting that it the ‘greedy Poles’ who were responsible for the shortages people were suffering.

Overall the masses saw through the SED’s manoeuvre and their rage only increased. On 15 January, a crowd stormed the central HQ of the Stasi in Normannerstasse in Berlin.

Demonstrators in front of the headquarters of the Ministry for State Security in East Berlin on 15 January 1990.. Source: Robert-Havemann-Gesellschaft/Rolf Walter.

Responding to pressure from below, the New Forum proclaimed nation-wide anti-Stasi demonstrations.

Calls for a general strike were once again in the air, and throughout the country strikes had begun to proliferate. In Zwickau at the end of January bus and Strassenbahn workers struck for higher wages and the dismantling of the SED.

By the end of January the Modrow government was on the edge of a precipice. For the leadership of the SED, ‘the recollection of the events of 17 June [1953], made them feel they were precariously balanced.’ These words by Katja Havemann were reported in the Der Spiegel on 9 October 1989, and by January seemed especially relevant.

The situation presented a choice to the bureaucratic class – whether to continue with their balancing act or to throw themselves into the arms of Helmut Kohl. One consequence of the January offensive was that it drove Modrow on 31 January to declare that Germany was a single Fatherland.

Neither Kohl nor the West German employers had any interest in propping up Modrow in the election due to take place on 13 March. Their task was rather to ensure that they could take over a bankrupt GDR with the minimum fuss.

The conservative political bloc led by the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) sought to legitimate themselves in the face of the oncoming elections. Meanwhile the SED (now renamed the PDS) sought to create the impression of having become democratic.

The upshot was that in February the civil rights groups entered into a ‘Government of National Responsibility’. The sole purpose of this entity was to give Modrow and the PDS as well as the political bloc around the CDU an opportunity to appear before the people arm in arm in support of democracy. A section of the civil rights groups aligned themselves with the CDU, although shamefacedly, forming the Alliance for Germany.

Those people who had served the previous regime, looking to create an improved socialism in the GDR, now flocked in droves to the new power that emerging in East Germany.

The civil rights groups defended their participation in the government as a way to prevent chaos in the up and coming elections of the 18 March.

The workers

The working class in the GDR viewed reunification as the only way to improve their conditions. Their concerns and needs, their class interests, were not reflected in the programmes of the civil rights groups, except abstractly in the Böhlen Platform of the United Left.

As far as writers and intellectuals were concerned, socialism was a dream or a utopia, as the writer Christa Wolf put it on 4 November: ‘You can imagine socialism, but not in any practical sense.’[19]

The workers discovered that they were merely ascribed the status of objects in this socialism of the pastors and writers.

The toolmaker Hans Teschnau proclaimed in front of quarter of a million people in Leipzig that he had endued socialism for forty years and had no desire for a new variation. ‘No more experiments, we are not lab-rats.’[20]

Given the stark economic situation and the bankruptcy of ‘real socialism’ a direct transition to socialism from below was not possible. While this was the case across the whole of Eastern Europe and Russia, it especially applied in the GDR.

For forty years (and sixty in Russia) the workers had endured the most extreme exploitation and oppression in the name of socialism.

Instead of seeking to preserve the integrity of the GDR at any price, the task for socialists was to support the actual struggles workers were engaging in. Early in December, a general strike and a vote on reunification were tangible possibilities.

A revolutionary government born out of a general strike could have taken on the task of dismantling the Stasi and the old state apparatus, while setting the terms for reunification with the Kohl and the West German government.

Yet instead of seizing power, the civil rights groups wasted the opportunity to lay down the terms for a vote at the Round Table.

Meanwhile the vote set for 18 March was dominated by the old forces of the bureaucracy and the new bourgeois forces from the West with their well-oiled electoral machine and media connections.

Politically speaking, the bureaucracy were driven by the failure of ‘real socialism’, combined with mass pressure from the workers for a referendum. Yet the SED/PDS were no longer the sole means by which the old bureaucracy could gain political influence. Out of 300 directors of industrial combines, all but five left the SED by January 1990. The CDU replaced the SED as the party for the bureaucrats – the clothes had changed, but the bodies remained the same.

The bureaucracy stood a good chance of retaining their privileges within a united Germany, and the political bloc led by the CDU placed themselves at the head of the movement for unity, thus gaining the support of the majority of the works in a single stroke.

The left, including the SPD, only saw in reunification the threat of a future German nationalism, rather than an aspiration on the part of the lower classes for a better life. Most of their programmes and slogans talked of unity being a longer-term goal.

The SPD, who had been in a strong position during the Monday demonstrations in December, lost their support among the workers of Saxony and Thuringia to the CDU.

By slipping up over the question of the vote, the left enabled the bureaucracy to remain in the saddle, but this time as part of the anti-socialist bloc led by the CDU.

It is no accident that one of their candidates was Lothar de Maizière, who was a member of the Stasi.

In November 1989 Jürgen Habermas wrote: ‘The alternatives are not between two-states and unification, but an unremitting focus on radical democratisation, that will come as a consequence and will survive the decision.’[21]

Even if this call for a radical democratisation was achieved, it would only weaken rather than destroy the old apparatus of the bureaucracy. It would remain intact and would be able to steer the process of reunification.

Without the helping hand of the intellectuals in the form of the civic right groups, the bureaucracy would probably not have reached the opposite shores of the 18 March intact, and gained new legitimation for their remaining power.

But it was thanks to the historical service performed by masses of nameless workers that the bureaucratic dictatorship was overthrown. The revolution had not only broken reunification of the ruling class, but achieved the unification of the working class. The struggle goes on!



[1] Friedrich Engels, Preface [1885] to Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1852], available at

[2] Hartmut Kaelble, Jürgen Kocka, Hartmut Zwahr (eds.), Sozialgeschichte der DDR (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1994), p. 346.

[3] Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire [1852], available at

[4] Gerda Haufe and Karl Bruchmeier (eds.), Der Bürgerbewegungen in der DDR und in den ostdeutschen Bundesländen (Opladen: WestdeutscherVerlag, 1993), p. 46.

[5] Ed. – cf. Vladimir Lenin, The collapse of the Second International [1915] at:

[6] Jens Reich, Rückkehr nach Europa: Bericht zur neuen Lage der deutschen Nation (Munich: Hanser, 1991), p. 182.

[7] Hartmut Zwar, ‘Die DDR auf dem Höhepunkt der Staatskrise 1989’, in: Kaelbe (ed.) Sozialgeschichte der DDR.

[8] The Soviet foreign policy that from 1968 was used to justify military interventions (including retrospectively) in other Eastern bloc states to defend the regime – Ed.

[9] Bärbel Bohley, ‘Wir warden immer mehr’, Der Spiegel (2 October 1989), 40: 26. Online here.

[10] Reich, Rückkehr, p.182.

[11] Thomas Küttler and Jean Curt Röder (eds.), Es war das Volk. Die Wende in Plauen. Eine Dokumentation, (Plauen: Vogtländischer Heimatverlag Neupert, 1991), p. 118.

[12] Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of West Germany 1982-90, and of united Germany 1990-8, and Chairman of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party — Ed.

[13] Hannes Barhmann and Christoph Links, Chronik der Wende (Berlin, Ch. Links, 1994), p. 188.

[14] Translator’s note: The original German rhymes to make the slogan – SED allein – das darf nicht sein. The translation is clumsy as a slogan, but gives the English speaking reader a sense of the meaning.

[15] Reich, Rückkehr, p. 201.

[16] Bahrmann and Links, Chronik der Wende, p. 175.

[17] Hans Modrow was the last premier of the GDR, succeeding Egon Krenz when the latter resigned on 3 December – Ed.

[18] Translator’s note – this was a specific institution set up by the GDR.

[19] Translator’s note – this is a free translation of her saying: ‘Stell Dir vor es its Sozialismus, under keener geht weg.’

[20] Translator’s note – he uses the word Versuchskaninchen, which means the rabbits used in laboratories, but the English term lab-rats captures what he meant.

[21] J. Habermas, Die nachholende Revolution, Frankfurt, 1990, p.157.



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