The Largest Human Rights Movement in the East

We think of human rights movements in terms of voice: the voices of protest, the voices of the marginalized, the voices of the silenced. In East-Central Europe prior to 1989, the faces of the human rights movement were the signatories of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, the dissident writers in Hungary, the Solidarity trade union leaders in Poland, the renegade Party members in Romania.

Roland Jahn doesn’t disagree that these were important human rights movements. He was, after all, a part of them. In the 1970s, he protested censorship and compulsory military service in East Germany. In 1982, he received a sentence of 22 months in prison for displaying the flag of Poland’s Solidarity. He was, in other words, a major voice of protest.

But in 1983 the East German government forcibly extradited him to West Germany. Against his will, he’d moved to the other side of Albert O. Hirschman’s famous formulation. He became “exit.” He worked as a journalist in West Germany and continued to support his former colleagues in the East. He was the first East German to look at his own Stasi file. In 2011, he became the federal commissioner for the Stasi Archive. We talked in his office in the Archive last February.

He was quick to point out that in terms of sheer numbers, the East Germans who wanted to exit their country – and who began to do so in rather large numbers in 1989 – constituted the region’s largest human rights movement. In other words, we often focus so much on the voices of those who stay that we neglect to see exit as a movement as well. As someone who has been on both sides of the voice-exit continuum, Jahn is well positioned to understand this dynamic.

“I was very critical of the distance between the opposition groups and the many people who chose to leave East Germany,” he told me. “I always felt that the movement to leave East Germany was the largest human rights movement in the East. And many of the civic groups that existed at that time distanced themselves from this movement and put their main emphasis on reforming East Germany from within.”

He had begun his critique of the civic groups inside East Germany, before the Berlin Wall fell. “After having lived in the West for five years at that point of time I could not imagine that it could be possible to reform the GDR,” he continued. “Crucial to me was that there would be a civic movement that united the movement to leave East Germany with those people who wanted to stay – based on the minimal consensus of human rights. I also thought that the civic movements were too isolated in their activities. They did not approach society but rather remained in their own circles. They were a little bit elitist. My ideal of what should have happened would have been Solidarność in Poland. Nevertheless I have great respect and admiration for what those in the opposition civic groups did, especially for their courage, because they were always under the threat of being arrested by the Stasi.”

We talked about the accomplishments and the mistakes of the approach to the Stasi after German reunification, how he feels about the West German secret service, and the challenge of reconciliation as part of the truth-and-reconciliation process.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall fell?

 

When the Wall fell I was a journalist for the radio and TV station Sender Freies Berlin in West Berlin. I was actually working on a broadcast about the fall of the Wall. When the broadcast was finally done, I went to the crossing point at Invalidenstraße. I went against the flow of people that poured in from the East into the West. I sort of swam against the flow of people to go into the East.

 

And what were your feelings about that?

 

It was a feeling of triumph. You could call it that. A feeling of accomplishment about something many people worked on together. We poked holes in the Wall, and in the end the Wall fell. It was simply a feeling of happiness. Triumph is maybe not the right word. It was a feeling of happiness that I was able to see this day. Although I was living in the West, I could only perceive this freedom of the West as a semi-freedom because I was living behind the Wall also in the West. I was in front of the Wall and also behind the Wall. This is why this day was so precious to me. Especially because I was thrown over the Wall into the West, it was so important for me that the Wall fell.

 

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I remember reading something you wrote in summer 1989 — before the Wall fell — in which you were critical of the civic movements in East Germany for being somewhat to the side and not entirely relevant.

 

I said that the opposition groups are not in touch with the thoughts and feelings of the people in the GDR and that it is important that they empathize more with the people. This was confirmed when several members of the opposition also admitted this. I produced a TV show where one of them said that the opposition groups were as far away from the people as the Politburo of the SED was. I wanted the civic movements not to be so isolated from the majority of the East Germans. I was very critical of the distance between the opposition groups and the many people who chose to leave East Germany. I always felt that the movement to leave East Germany was the largest human rights movement in the East. And many of the civic groups that existed at that time distanced themselves from this movement and put their main emphasis on reforming East Germany from within.

After having lived in the West for five years at that point of time I could not imagine that it could be possible to reform the GDR. Crucial to me was that there would be a civic movement that united the movement to leave East Germany with those people who wanted to stay – based on the minimal consensus of human rights. I also thought that the civic movements were too isolated in their activities. They did not approach society but rather remained in their own circles. They were a little bit elitist. My ideal of what should have happened would have been Solidarność in Poland. Nevertheless I have great respect and admiration for what those in the opposition civic groups did, especially for their courage, because they were always under the threat of being arrested by the Stasi.

 

I talked to Renate Hürtgen whose idea was to create something like KOR from Poland. But she had great difficulties convincing the opposition that this was something important, and there was not a huge interest from the workplace either.

 

I can confirm that. In addition, the opposition groups were not sufficiently connected. It was just beginning. There was some networking within the Protestant Church. But networking outside of the Church did not happen yet, for instance in the workplaces.

There was no networking between the opposition groups themselves either, only within the structure of the Church. But a real network of opposition groups from Rostock to Suhl didn’t happen. It was different in Poland. KOR and Solidarność had a totally different network. So who would have known of Renate’s activities? I did not know about it.

 

Many people in the Bürgerbewegung were surprised at the elections in March 1990. But it doesn’t sound like you were surprised by the results of the March 1990 elections.

 

No. I wasn’t really surprised. But I had the advantage of having lived in the West, so I had a certain distance that allowed me a better overview of the development. Also, in the summer and fall of 1989, as a journalist, I made special broadcasts about the wave of people leaving the East. I talked to a lot of people, and they described the situation in the East very well. I had a lot of information from a lot of sources.

That’s why I knew that if there was a free election people would vote for German reunification. At the end of June, shortly before the Sozial-, Wirtschafts-, und Währungsunion – the monetary, social, and currency unification that came with the D-Mark arrival — people clearly stated that they didn’t want experiments. They wanted to be part of the economic success of the Federal Republic of Germany. By then it was clear where the journey was going.

But the development had already started in 1989. I can say this because I was a journalist, and I always stress that I had a multitude of sources at hand to really get a more complete picture. In 1989 I broadcast a story that included a comment from a Central Committee member named Otto Reinhold. During an interview, he admitted to the fact that if East Germany was being reformed with democratic rights similar to those in the Federal Republic, the GDR would lose its reason for existence. There would be no reason for the GDR to continue to exist because then you would have the same circumstances in both German states: democratic basic rights. This admission of a SED functionary was a clear sign to me that the path ahead was German reunification.

I also understood the opposition groups who in the fall of 1989 wanted to go a separate way. For a long time they had fought to be able to shape their country in a self-determined way. They were afraid that once again others would determine their fate, so they tried to fight unification. From a personal point of view that was a very understandable reaction, but politically that was the wrong reaction. It was also the result of their isolation from the majority of the people.

 

Do you think that anything could have been done in the reunification process that would have taken into consideration this desire of the opposition to have greater self-determination? One example the opposition talks about even today is the constitution and the fact that they spent a lot of time coming up with an East German constitution and it was basically ignored in the Volkskammer.

 

There could have been more respect in the process. But you cannot undermine the basic rules of democracy. The basic rule of democracy and freedom is that people have the right to choose what they want. And you have to accept the outcome. The majority of people did not choose to prolong the life of East Germany. They chose unification.

But it is important, in the wake of all this, to express respect for those who started the development, those who were courageous enough to stick their heads out first and fight against a superior state power. It’s very important to acknowledge the peaceful revolution also today and to respect those who actively set it in motion and who were victims of the Stasi and suffered injustices in East Germany because they wanted human rights. This is very important for this society today.

 

I’d like to bring up the Stasi now. The first question is: did you have any anxieties about taking a position of this nature? I was surprised when I came back after 23 years that the Stasi is still such a big issue in Germany today. I thought naively that this question had been dealt with in the past.

 

I wasn’t worried taking up this position because I think that addressing and revealing the activities of the secret police is a very important part of addressing and coming to terms with the SED dictatorship. The society in East Germany was permeated by activities of the secret police, and that is why it is important to shed light on it. Also it was something really unique to make available for the first time anywhere in the world the files of a secret police. These records are an important tool to make known in detail what really happened in East Germany. In that sense this institution is a unique and significant model for the whole world. This may sound somehow pompous, but that is also why I felt I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me by.

 

Looking back at the early days of the work of this organization and I suppose its predecessor: is there anything that could have been done better at the very beginning? I talked with Vera Lengsfeld and one of her criticisms was that there was no information revealed about Stasi agents in the West. She named a couple of people but they were in rather high positions and one was even working on anti-corruption in the West, which she thought was just a terrible thing. Is that something that falls within the purview of this office?

 

Of course some things could have been done better. It was the first time ever that a secret police was liquidated, so mistakes happened. They always do. The first mistake was that the Stasi department that worked in the West called Hauptverwaltung A was allowed to self-dissolve and given opportunities to destroy its files. This was a huge mistake that still has impact today. Another mistake was that former Stasi officers were hired by this agency – as employees. We’ve carried this burden now for 20 years. It’s a slap in the face of the victims that former Stasi officers have worked in an agency that’s actually working for the victims.

There were other minor mistakes. One example is that many of the regional archives were relocated to different buildings instead of using the authentic places where the Stasi worked. With the help of these authentic places, we could have been better able to explain, especially for the next generation, how the Stasi worked.

 

Another critique is that there isn’t a reciprocal transparency on the West German side so that people have access or can find out information from the West German secret services.

 

The question of access to the files of the Western secret services has to be answered by society. They are active secret services within a democratic system. If you think a secret service important to your society then you have to make sure that it can work. That means you cannot guarantee access to its files. A secret service is a secret service and if you accept them as a secret service within a democracy you also have to accept their work. But of course you have to control them, by a parliamentary commission, for example. One can certainly improve the control systems of secret services in a democracy.

The second point is that of course the historic files of secret services should be accessible for historians. The BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst) has made a first step in this direction. It established a historic commission that accesses the files from the initial phase of the BND to address that time and its work. Something is happening in this regard, which does not mean that you could not do even better. But I have to repeat again: one is a secret police in a dictatorship, the other a secret service in a democracy. This is a distinct difference.

 

There is another criticism that there has been a great emphasis on truth — a lot has been done on the revelation of information — but not as much has been done on the reconciliation side.

 

I don’t share this view, because the attempt at reconciliation was there from the beginning. Right from the start a lot of people tried to talk with the perpetrators. It was their goal to examine in detail the injustice that happened and through these talks to find a way that perpetrators and victims could come together. But the problem was that the perpetrators were often not willing to join these talks. They were often not willing to admit that injustice had happened. But this is the necessary prerequisite for reconciliation,  to admit injustice has happened. You cannot order victims to forgive. You can only ask victims for forgiveness. But this has not happened enough.

 

It seems to me a terrible irony that the people who were ordinary informers suffered more than the people who actually worked for the Stasi, many of who have gone on to become quite successful economically.

 

There was only to a very small degree the question of legal punishment of those that acted in their capacity as Stasi officers because penal law did not cover the actions of the Stasi. But I don’t think they got away without moral punishment, because there was a public condemnation of the activities of the Stasi. That the focus of public discussion turned mostly to the unofficial collaborators has to do with the way society perceives the problem. In general no official Stasi staffer was able to make a public career because their previous position could not be hidden. But there were people who became public figures who kept their unofficial collaboration with the Stasi a secret in the process of German unification.

And that became a very outrageous proposition, that people in a new position pretended that nothing happened when they actually had a past with the Stasi. The public outrage was about this, the continuation of a lie. This is why there was so much publicity about it. The public outrage was mostly about the fact that they continued to lie and that they had to be pulled out of their hiding places and have their past exposed. Often the public outrage then wasn’t even so much about what they did for the Stasi back then.

 

When you think back to your own Weltanschauung in 1989/1990, have you had any second thoughts about your political positions from that period of time?

 

Thoughts and awareness are always changing with the development of society It would be bad if my thoughts had not developed further. The most important thought in 1989, which had also been there before, was that it all comes down to one crucial point: at the basis of everything is human rights – about the rest you can argue. That’s why I think the peaceful revolution was really a successful peaceful revolution because finally people could exercise their basic rights and finally they were able to participate in a struggle for the best possible society.

 

Berlin, February 7, 2013

 

Interpretor: Dagmar Hovestaedt

Translator: Sarah Bohm


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