Hans Modrow: Gorbachev and his associates knew what they wanted to remove, but not what to build

An interview with Hans Modrow, Prime Minister of the GDR (1989-1990), on relations between East Germany and the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, the economic, political and ideological consequences of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, and the prospects for socialism in the 21st century.

Hans Modrow is known as the last “communist” prime minister of the German Democratic Republic. He was born in 1928 in the province of Pomerania, located in present-day Poland. At the end of World War II, he briefly served in the national Volkssturm militia, as a result of which he became a prisoner of war of the Soviet army. After the war, he worked briefly as a machinist, after which he turned to a political career in the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). From 1957 to 1990 he was a member of the People’s Chamber of the GDR, and from 1967 to 1989 he was part of the Central Committee of the SED. From 1973 he was the first secretary of the SED district committee in Dresden. On November 13, 1989, just four days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he took over as Prime Minister following the resignation of Willy Stoff. In early December 1989, GESP Secretary General Egon Krenz also resigned, and Modrow became the de facto head of state. After the unification of Germany, Modrow served as a member of the Bundestag (1990-1994) and the European Parliament (1999-2004) in the Democratic Socialist Party, which succeeded the SED. He has been a member of the “Council of Elders” of the Left (Die Linke) since 2007. After leaving active politics, Modrov wrote a number of books about his political experience, his Marxist political views, and his frustration with the collapse of the Eastern bloc.

The conversation was conducted by Boris Popivanov on April 8, 2021. The interview was published at the Barricade Bulgaria and was translated into English by Vladimir Mitev. 

You are well known in Bulgaria. Ten years ago the book you wrote, Perestroika. How I see it (published in Germany in 1998) was presented to the Bulgarian audience. Was there any interest in the GDR towards Bulgaria and [the leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party] Todor Zhivkov, at the end of the 1980s?

Relations between the GDR and Bulgaria were shaped by the person of Georgi Dimitrov (an important figure in the Communist International, who led Bulgaria in the late 1940s). The Bulgarian communist was the “hero of Leipzig”: in the spectacular Reichstag fire trial in 1933 he thwarted the German fascists’ intention to condemn the international communist movement as arsonists and conspirators. (By the way: In the same courtroom – the Federal Administrative Court is now officiating there – I went to trial against the Federal Intelligence Service [BND] in 2018. The judges supported me and ordered the BND to surrender the files they had created about me.) In a courageous speech, Dimitrov convincingly exposed Hermann Goering and Josef Goebbels – the two most important men in the Nazi empire after Hitler – and showed they were lying. The Bulgarian anti-fascist and communist Georgi Dimitrov had to be acquitted. As general secretary of the Communist International in Moscow, he soon started working closely with the German communists who were to play an important role in the GDR, such as President Wilhelm Pieck and the state and party leader Walter Ulbricht. Their successor Erich Honecker, who belonged to a different generation (although he was as old as Todor Zhivkov), did not, according to my observation, have anywhere near as warm a relationship with Dimitrov’s successor, Zhivkov, as that between Pieck or Ulbricht and Dimitrov, but also between them and Zhivkov, who had held office in Sofia since 1954. This was consequently also noticeable in the relationship between the two parties and states. At the end of the 1980s, relations were factual and pragmatic and – in view of the economic weight of Bulgaria in the socialist union of states – not necessarily of prime importance.

Perhaps this also explains why Bulgaria and Todor Zhivkov did not take up much space in the aforementioned book on perestroika.

However, there was still considerable interest in Bulgaria among the GDR population: because they liked to fly to Burgas and because of peppers, melons, Shipka cheese and wine, agricultural products that were always in great demand in the GDR’s department stores. The holiday trips to the Black Sea beaches often served as German family get-togethers. And because the People’s Republic of Bulgaria consistently adhered to the treaties for securing the borders concluded in the Warsaw Treaty, there was also no danger of illegal border crossing into the NATO states of Greece and Turkey.
I myself came to Bulgaria for the first time in 1950 and 1952 as a youth functionary and made my first contacts. In 1976 I had already worked for three years as the first secretary of the SED [Socialist Unity Party of Germany] district leadership in Dresden. We were visited by Todor Zhivkov, who had previously been at the 9th SED party congress in Berlin and he dropped by in our district. Together we visited an agricultural production cooperative. After this visit of Zhivkov, Honecker suggested that partnership relations should be established between the districts of Dresden and Silistra in northeastern Bulgaria. This happened.
My partner there was Georgi Kardashev, a pleasant, creative and self-confident contemporary and we quickly became friends. So he asked me repeatedly for advice. The leadership in Sofia had given him the task of transforming the entire district into a huge agro-industrial complex. We both agreed – outside of Berlin and Sofia – that our “Progress Collective” in Neustadt in Sachsen would support him in this. We set up a machine base with agricultural technology – and in return were given the opportunity to test and further develop combine harvesters and other agricultural technology on around five thousand hectares of maize land in order to open up new markets for the collective with these machines. Both sides benefited from this constructive partnership, which was not necessarily the rule between the socialist countries.

Have you ever discussed the so-called Revival Process in your political talks? That is what the mass campaign for the renaming of the Bulgarian Turks was called.

No. I cannot remember any meeting with Bulgarian politicians in which the efforts that had been ongoing since the mid-1980s to integrate the Turkish minority by giving Bulgarians with Turkish roots Bulgarian names and forbidding certain Islamic rituals were discussed. The GDR as a matter of principle did not interfere in the internal affairs of other states. Regardless of whether they were allies or opponents. The national minority of the Sorbs lived in the Dresden district. It would never have occurred to us to forbid them to use their language and to take their names from them. On the contrary, we supported and strengthened their ethnic aspirations: politically, economically, culturally.

Gorbachev recently turned 90. In an interview held on the occasion, he said that without political reforms, economic changes would not have been possible. Do you agree with that? What do you think was Gorbachev’s greatest mistake?

Of course, economic reform was not and is not possible without political reform. The question, however, is how the superstructure – i.e. the political system – will be changed. Contrary to what they claim, perestroika was not a rebuilding, but a demolition. In other words, the changes in the political system of the Soviet Union, that is, of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which were long overdue, took place without the formulation of concrete strategic goals. Gorbachev and his confidants knew what they wanted to abolish – but not what should take its place in the future. That remained in the linguistic fog. In this, however, they initiated a development that turned out to be irreversible. That was Gorbachev’s greatest mistake. I do not believe that he came into office with the intention – as he is sometimes accused of – of abolishing socialism and the Soviet Union. He simply did not consider the ramifications and consequences of his political decisions. Maybe he was naive in that regard. Also with regard to the underestimation of the political opponent in the West. Gorbachev was gullible and probably also a victim of his vanity.

My colleague Nikolai Ryshkov – he was head of government until the end of the Soviet Union and my colleague for a while – was less lenient. In his memoirs he wrote about his boss Gorbachev: “It is difficult to look inside a person and to recognize his true intentions. But there can be no doubt that Gorbachev had long been thinking of eliminating the communist party that made him great and the socialist society in which he grew up.”

This was a process that became visible in the summer of 1989 at the latest, at the summit of the Warsaw Treaty in Bucharest, and was accelerated at the beginning of 1990. On the question of Germany, Gorbachev set the course behind our backs and those of the allies: On 30 January 1990, I agreed with Gorbachev in Moscow on a three-stage plan that provided for the creation of a militarily neutral Germany in the future. On 8 February 1990, US Secretary of State James Baker rejected a neutral Germany in Moscow; on 10 February 1990, Federal Chancellor Kohl was with Gorbachev and received his approval that a united Germany should become a member of NATO. I call that treason.

Were there areas in which the understanding of communist ideology in the GDR differed from that of the other Eastern Bloc countries and especially that of the Soviet Union?

Even afterwards I would not speak of “communist ideology”. The parties – even if they called themselves communist parties like the Soviet ones – were based on the foundation of Marxism-Leninism or what they understood by it. However, it turned out that the thoroughly scientific worldview was increasingly turned into a dogmatic shell and this worldview lost its character as a dynamically developing epistemology, which should and could actually enable people to flexibly approach change in society as well as on the world stage. The understanding of the party and politics that arose especially during the time of the Stalin leadership proved to be counterproductive in the period that followed. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s party congress in 1956 was half-hearted because at best, symptoms were corrected. Nothing changed in the rigid, bureaucratic nature of the Soviet model. In a number of fraternal parties, especially in the 1960s, the need for social and economic reforms was recognized and national considerations were made. So the 6th SED party congress in 1963 launched a reform concept with the “New Economic System of Planning and Management”. In Czechoslovakia, attempts were made to break new ground with the “Prague Spring”. These and other attempts at reform were more or less repressively ended by Moscow. Even when Gorbachev became General Secretary in Moscow in 1985 and he allegedly released the fraternal parties into independence, the Soviet leadership continued to ensure that no party left the line it had set.

According to some experts, all attempts at economic reforms in the Eastern Bloc countries were aimed at introducing more market orientation and liberalization, i.e. in the direction away from socialism. Does this mean that any real reform of socialism would have led to the return of capitalism?

No, I do not believe that it means that. Societies, including the socialist ones, are not static. That is why it sometimes happens that developments roll over the respective government if it does not recognize the signs of the times, if it does not react constructively to the changes. In extreme cases, this can lead to a system change, as happened with real socialism in Europe. The Soviet model of socialism has not proven to be viable. There were internal and external causes for this.
On the other hand, socialism with Chinese characteristics is different. There the leading party was able to successfully combine the millennia-old ethical and moral experiences with new socialist ideas, to learn from its own mistakes as well as from the mistakes of others, and to draw conclusions for its own actions. To put it bluntly: Lenin correctly recognized that labour productivity “is ultimately the most important thing, the decisive factor for the victory of the new social order”. We painted this statement on banners – and watched how the labour productivity based on exploitation grew steadily under capitalism and took off. The Chinese didn’t just paint slogans, they acted. Today the People’s Republic is the second largest economic power in the world, and it will soon overtake the United States as well. In my perception, China is still socialist; the comprehensive reforms have not pushed the most populous country back into capitalism because the political leadership has not been surrendered. The CPC turns 100 in the summer. Both the event and the existence of this successful party are of international importance.

Was there a common position at the time of your government on what ideological transformation the SED-PDS should undergo?

No, there never was. Different currents quickly developed in the party, which were dominated by different considerations. What they all had in common, however, was the fact that they followed developments in society. Along with social hegemony, the party had also lost political leadership. And as Prime Minister representing the SED, later the PDS, I led a coalition government with a variety of parties and citizens’ movements, and I could only reflect the intentions of society, not represent politically just one party. The focus of my political endeavours was peaceful development and the protection of the interests of the citizens of the GDR in the process of unification. I was aiming for a treaty community with the Federal Republic from which a confederation should grow. And with the consent of the victorious powers, a neutral, sovereign Germany was to be established. But this strategy was overturned by developments that were primarily determined by the US. In the end there was the unification treaty of the two German states and the 2 + 4 treaty, or as many say: the colonization of East Germany by the FRG.

Which achievements of the GDR remained important beyond the unification?

In fact, overnight, a new system was imposed on the East Germans with great thoroughness, at best the language remained – although Anglicisms were increasingly adopted. Seen in this way, not much was left of the GDR. In the long term, however, it has been shown that its forty years have left more lasting traces in the thinking and feeling of East Germans than the leadership in politics, administration, justice, the military, science and business that is still dominated by West Germans would like. (And that is propagated in the following generations.) These are, for example, the deeply rooted anti-fascism, solidarity with the oppressed and discriminated against, the love of peace, the rejection of racism and hatred of people, the sense of justice and a sense of responsibility that stems from the German past. For example, the Second World War, started by Nazi Germany, annihilated 27 million Soviet citizens. In the German prisoner-of-war camps alone, over three million Red Army soldiers were barbarically killed. Soviet prisoners of war formed the largest group of victims of the German extermination terror, next to the Jews. Most East Germans know that; they have internalized it – and that is why they are incapable of the arrogance and pride with which the West meets the Russians today. On the other hand, they are outraged when, for example, German NATO tanks are deployed again to the Russian border. For example, the Council of Elders of the Left Party, of which I am chairman, assured the Russian Foreign Minister in a message that we are aware of our responsibility. This was recognized in a declaration in Moscow and publicly acknowledged.

Social Democrats have been involved in the government of Germany for 19 of the last 23 years. In your opinion, have they managed to leave a mark on the left in the development of the country?

Of course. I mean that ironically, of course. A social democratic-green government led the first German war mission since the Second World War in 1999, the air force of the Bundeswehr flew around 500 missions in Kosovo. Several thousand Bundeswehr soldiers are currently involved in a dozen missions abroad. A government led by the SPD is responsible for the largest social cuts in the history of the FRG – I’ll just mention Agenda 2010, the bundle of measures whose consequences we will still be feeling in decades, when those obliged to short-time work and low wages receive their old age pensions. And as a coalition partner of the Conservatives, the Social Democrats have helped to ensure that society drifts further and further apart. This can be seen in the distribution of wealth – right down to the social origins of the students. Fewer and fewer young people from so-called educationally disadvantaged backgrounds make it to colleges and universities. The elites reproduce themselves. But so do the so-called lower classes … And: German unity is in truth a duality. The East Germans are left behind, they feel like second class Germans. Since the end of the GDR, over three million have moved to the West to find work. And those who stayed behind earn considerably less than their compatriots in the West – but pay the same prices, rents, taxes and social security contributions.

Many think that the end of the Cold War resolved the century’s conflict on the left between the communists and the social democrats with the victory of the social democrats. Do you agree with this view?

Not at all. Firstly, I do not see a “victory for the Social Democrats”; secondly, I am assuming that the two currents of the labour movement were not engaged in a cold or hot conflict with one another. (When the GDR still existed, SPD politicians were regulars with the SED leadership, in 1987 both parties adopted a joint strategy paper: “The dispute between ideologies and common security.” And we SED politicians were also regularly “over there” – in September 1989, for example, I was a guest of the SPD in Baden-Württemberg.)

If the socialist states of Europe represented the state-organized labour movement, then the line of conflict ran between them and the capitalist International, which had organized itself as a nation-state. This was anti-communist and persecuted the left in their states as well as the state-organized left, i.e. the socialist states. Besides, this Cold War is not over. Anti-communism is still the dominant ideology in the bourgeois-capitalist states. And anti-Sovietism lives on in Russophobia, keeping a distance from all Slavic peoples.

You know the Cold War era well. Is there a new cold war today? Are the threats to world peace greater or lesser than they were before 1990?

It is a mistake to think that the Cold War ended in 1990. Not only has it continued, there have been about a hundred hot wars around the world since 1990. When you see the severity of the conflict – just take the sanctions which the US or the EU inflict on other states, the propaganda and agitation against peoples and states that do not submit to the dictates of the US, etc. – there is no other conclusion possible than this: the Cold War has entered a new phase and is seriously endangering peace in the world. Within a few years, the Trump administration was able to tear apart with unprecedented arrogance the global network of agreements and treaties that had been laboriously tied together in decades of intensive negotiations.

As a result, mistrust and suspicion have returned to international politics. Who still believes in the durability of international agreements when a president cancels them the next day? But I would not want to tie this unpredictability to the person of Trump alone – as we can see, his successor is continuing his policy of “America First”, and so far there have been only cosmetic corrections. The return of national selfishness to politics is devastating. Let’s just look at the world climate. That cannot be managed nationally. Either the global community succeeds in acting together – or we perish together in the climate catastrophe. Either we succeed in ending arms production and exports – or we will exterminate ourselves in small and large wars. Either we succeed in concluding sensible economic agreements and act accordingly – or we waste resources in trade disputes. Either the information war with its fake news and lies can be stopped, or the peoples incited by it will attack each other again like in 1914 … The world has become more insecure since 1990, no question about it.

In recent years, the influence of neo-fascist ideas, movements and actions has increased. Why do you think neo-Nazism is attracting so many young people today? How far can that go?

The world has become more complex and complicated, social processes are barely transparent, and in bourgeois democracy the law of the stronger, richer, and more assertive applies increasingly. The supposed sovereign, the people, is called to the ballot box once every four years and is made to believe that this will determine the fate of the country. The elected politicians then feed doubts about the ability of the institutions of the state as well as their own. Added to this is the loss of credibility due to corruption. The pandemic has evidently increased greed, and even members of the Bundestag shamelessly enriched themselves in the health business. And as I know, this problem is not unknown in Bulgaria either.

The leaders of the right suggest that they can solve all of these problems. It’s demagoguery, of course, but it works. It relies on the ignorance caused by the ruling circles themselves. How far can that go? Up to the establishment of pre-fascist, nationalist dictatorships. Do you think it is out of the question that Marine Le Pen will become president of France in 2022? A man like Trump was also voted for by over seventy million Americans in 2020.

Are there sufficient conditions in the current EU for clear socialist policies to be implemented?

Lenin has already given the answer to this in the “Social Democrat” of 23 August 1915: The export of capital and the division of the world by the ‘advanced’ and ‘civilized’ colonial powers, the United States of Europe is either impossible or reactionary under capitalist conditions.”
The EU exists. Lenin does not seem to have been wrong.

In the light of globalization, new technologies and pandemics, how do you see the prospects for socialism in the 21st century?

As a staunch supporter of Marx – whose work “Das Kapital” is now recognized as being a World Heritage document – I see myself obliged to historical optimism, even if all indicators are gloomy. But there have always been times in history in which people believed that tomorrow the world would end, that there would be no way out of the omnipresent crisis. One only needs to think of the sixteenth century when it seemed that the end of the world had come. Friedrich Engels wrote about this time of dispair in the “Dialectic of Nature” that it was also a time “that needed giants and produced giants, giants in terms of power of thought, passion and character, of versatility and learning”. The darkness was followed by the bright Renaissance. Now this is not an invitation to wait for “giants” to save us again. But I am convinced that the giant of reason will prevail – if we take care of it. And in doing so, ally with those who do not regard capitalism as the last word in history.

Photo: Hans Modrow in 2012 (source: Wikipedia Commons)

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