What Happened to East Germany’s Workers?

The first major challenge to the new Communist authorities in East-Central Europe came from the workers in East Germany. It was 1953. Stalin had died a few months earlier, and the heavy fog of paranoia seemed to be lifting ever so slightly. What started out as a strike of 300 East Berlin construction workers upset at higher work quotas quickly became an insurrection involving a million people throughout East Germany. The East German authorities ultimately had to rely on Soviet troops to suppress this effort by workers in a workers’ state to de-Stalinize the Communist state from below.

Renate Hurtgen was 6 years old in 1953 and remembers when Soviet tanks put an end to the uprising. “1953 was officially not an issue in the GDR,” she told me in an interview in Berlin in February. “And if it was, then only as a fascist coup: that was the official version. But the generation of my parents didn’t talk about it. Because I was critical of the GDR – like most people within the GDR – I myself always thought: 1953 was the beginning of the end. Actually the GDR would have collapsed in 1953 if the Russian tanks had not come.”

Since 1995, Hurtgen has worked as a historian looking at workers issues, including the 1953 uprising in East Germany. “It was a workers’ uprising directed at the same time against the regime of Walter Ulbricht,” she continued. “According to my analyses of the files, the aim of 1953 was a social democratic state. When you look at the pictures and listen to the slogans: the milieu is similar to a workers’ fight from the 1920s and 1930s.”

Hurtgen is not just a historian. In the 1980s in East Germany, she actively participated in the church opposition. In 1989, on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, she was helping put together an independent workers’ organization that aspired to replace the official trade union.

“It is not well known but the Wende or the revolution in the GDR would not have happened in the way it did without what happened in the enterprises and without this communication from the street to the enterprise,” she told me. “It was a very important process to overturn these structures within the enterprises. It is also interesting that the group of workers that was most active at first were not workers in production but engineers and laboratory technicians – the skilled employees, so to speak. This was typical for the period from 1989 until January 1990. Later it changed. In 1990-92, there was a very strong enterprise movement in the East. There was a workers council initiative and several other initiatives. It was the time when enterprises were supposed to be closed or privatized to be closed afterwards. Workers were fighting not to be dismissed. They wanted to privatize the enterprise “properly” so that it wouldn’t be closed. It was a big movement here in the East from 1990 until 1994/1995.”

We talked about the rise and fall of the effort to create an independent trade union in East Germany and the subsequent struggles to prevent the wholesale closure of manufacturing in the eastern region.

“I don’t want to deliver a judgment that the workers are the ‘losers of the Wende,’ because that is not how I would like to formulate it,” she concluded. “You shouldn’t forget: the workplaces, the factories, and the work itself were partly medieval. It would not have been a benefit for the workers to continue to operate them in that way. You cannot simply say: ‘Oh, the nice factories, now they are all gone.’ It is more complicated.  Of course, the way it was done was a tragedy. But something like that also happened in the Ruhr area: everything was shut down in the West. Can you now say they were the losers?”

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

I was together with 10 people from the opposition. I don’t know anymore if I called it that back then, but now I would say: from the church opposition. Some weeks before, in October 1990, we had met and had founded an initiative for an independent trade union movement. On November 4, Heiner Müller read out our call in public – about our initiative – and on November 9 we were together for our first meeting to discuss how we were we going to organize the first meetings.

This first small meeting was over around 11 at night. We were not listening to the radio. We went out together onto the street to go home. We were on Sredzkistraße in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg. Further in the Western direction there was Oderberger Straße and the border. People were walking up and down the street, and a friend approached us and said: “I have just been to the West, I have just been to the West, the Wall is open!”

 

What was your feeling?

 

I was so engaged with the initiative and with making politics. Of course we immediately listened to the news and I recognized the importance of it. But at that moment it was not my very first priority. I only crossed the border three days later. At that time I still experienced an incredible tension and tightness. I started crying: not because of sadness or joy, but because this great tension was suddenly gone.

 

How would you describe that tension? Where did this tension come from?

 

It was this feeling that now something really crucial in life has happened and everything will change. It was also joy of course, it was also happiness. I belong to the group of people who really wanted this change. But most especially it was a feeling that now something very important would happen in your life. Now everything would change.

 

Where did this idea of an independent trade union come from?

 

I was never a trade union functionary. But like everybody, or about 90% of the workforce, I was a member of the FDGB, the Freier Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (Free German Federation of Trade Union). In 1987, I joined the church opposition. I am not religious, but there was only this one place. It was in Friedrichsfelde. In 1989, there were a lot of formations during summer and fall: Neues Forum, the Social Democratic Party. I knew of all these formations, because I was a member of the opposition circles. I thought: “Will I join Neues Forum, what am I going to do?”

I chose the trade union movement. My political thinking and also my criticism of “real socialism” and of the GDR were very strongly connected with a positive view of Solidarność and the Polish workers. This had a big influence on me.

It shaped me more than what happened in Prague in 1968. And when the revolution – I call the 1989 movement a revolution – started here in the GDR I thought: something has to happen in the enterprises. There was another organization in Poland that existed shortly before the formation of Solidarność: KOR (the Committee for the Defense of Workers). They were members of the intelligentsia, but not exclusively so. They came together to help the workers with their strikes and when they were in prison. They collected money, they wrote calls for action. Later they worked with Solidarność. I thought something like that should happen here in 1989.

Our call was not for a new trade union. But we called for the formation of grassroots groups to initiate a trade union movement.

This is not well known because we were not at the Round Table, and we did not get a lot of media coverage. But I have written some books about it since, and I know that hundreds of people in the country founded such grassroots groups and did several things in their enterprises. They dissolved the official trade union and founded a new group, or they dismissed the director of the enterprise. In the end this movement was also part of the whole movement. It was a great experience for me. A very important one.

We opened an office, and people would come and tell their stories. They would tell us that nothing had changed in their enterprises so far, that the same structures were in place, that they needed their own representation of their interests. It was a very interesting and important process. Ten years later we had another meeting, and I wrote a book about it. The title of the book is: The Awakening in the Enterprises in Fall 1989: The Unknown Side of the GDR Revolution.

This was also the beginning for my further work. Since that time, I’ve concentrated a lot on trade unions and on the transformation of trade unions. It started there. Before, during GDR times, I did not deal with this issue.

 

And before that you were working in the university?

 

Not at the university. I only went to school up to grade 10. Afterwards I was a teacher for small children. Then I succeed to get into university where I studied cultural studies and aesthetics at Humboldt University. Then I couldn’t stay at the university because I was not a member of the Party. To teach social science at the university you had to be in the Party. There was a second reason why I could not stay at the university. Rudolf Bahro distributed his book as a manuscript prior to publishing it. My former husband and I obtained it anonymously. It only had the initials R.B. on it. We read it and found it great, interesting and very important. We passed it onto a university lecturer who we thought to be critical. He went to the Party with it, the Party went to the state security with it, and thus my career at the university was over and my husband was prohibited from working.

We were not sent to prison. It was in 1976/77, and at that time the singer and songwriter Wolf Biermann was expatriated. At that time they did not send many people to prison. I don’t know if it is true, but that’s what has been said.

My life changed abruptly. Nothing really bad happened to me, but it was obvious that I had to leave university. I got a good job, first at the college for economics, later at the academy. But it was clear: now I am an outsider, and I won’t have a career. I never published anything after that during the GDR period.

I still remember the night when the Stasi was here to take my husband for interrogation. When he came back, I knew: now my life is going to change. We would always be wondering: what will happen next, what will they do?

 

How did you find out about KOR in Poland?

 

There were two sources. First of course was Western radio, Western TV. But they did not report that much about KOR. There was also the Polish embassy here and for some time they had the papers and journals of Solidarność and KOR. If you got something, you would pass it on among friends. Maybe you interviewed Wolfgang Templin? He had contact with Poland. KOR also published small books in the West with theoretical essays — that’s how I also knew of it.

Being an intellectual and supporting this issue was very appealing to me. In Poland there was this very important and exciting relationship between the intelligentsia and the Polish people. There was always this problem: how do the two go together? For the first time KOR practiced this cooperation. There were strikes in Poland where the workers were shot down and demonstrations by the intelligentsia where they were beaten up. With KOR and Solidarność, the two went together for the first time.

 

1976 was not only the year of Bahro and his manuscript, but it was also the year that KOR was founded. It was also one year after the Helsinki Accords and there was the Trust Group in Moscow and different Helsinki groups throughout the region. So did you think something big was going to happen in the 1970s?

 

No, definitely not. I belonged to the group of people who did not even think about any major changes in the mid-1980s. Even in 1987 I did not believe in such a fast change. I think that the vast majority shared my view. Nowadays some say they knew it would happen. But I conducted a lot of interviews with people about the 1980s. The spirit and the thinking in the 1980s – and it wasn’t only me – was that there is stagnation here and nothing would change. This was the actual mood.

 

What influence did 1953 have on your thinking? Were there people who had participated in 1953 who still had a memory of what that meant for a workers movement here?

 

I was 6 years old. But I remember when the tanks were coming. My judgment and my knowledge about 1953 developed only during the last 20 years. Now I have a clear point of view. But actually I only worked it out recently. 1953 was officially not an issue in the GDR. And if it was, then only as a fascist coup: that was the official version. But the generation of my parents didn’t talk about it. Because I was critical of the GDR – like most people within the GDR – I myself always thought: 1953 was the beginning of the end. Actually the GDR would have collapsed in 1953 if the Russian tanks had not come.

Since 1995 I have been able to work as a historian, and I was able to work very intensively with the files from 1953. From my present point of view, it was not a popular uprising, like it is always said. It was a classic workers’ uprising, with classic trade union demands and calls for strikes. The demands went further: it was not only about wages but also about politics. I don’t support the view that it had a fascist character. Of course there were some individuals. But it was a workers’ uprising directed at the same time against the regime of Walter Ulbricht. According to my analyses of the files, the aim of 1953 was a social democratic state. When you look at the pictures and listen to the slogans: the milieu is similar to a workers’ fight from the 1920s and 1930s.

 

There isn’t much information in English about the role that workers played in the changes here in 1989/90. What role did workers play before November 1989 in the changes that took place in the GDR? And what role did workers play in the resistance?

 

In the opposition there were no workers. I don’t like to say it, but this is the reality. During the 1950s and 1960s, there was very strong opposition from the intelligentsia. During the 1960s and 1970s, there was an additional rebellion of the youth. This is all put very simply, and of course it is much more complicated. During the 1980s, the opposition consisted very much of youth and also something like a young semi-intelligentsia: high school pupils or young people that were not allowed to join the high school who organized within the church. But there were no workers. There were some apprentices. But the apprentices were not in the opposition as workers.

One reason for this “non-relationship” was that within the labor forces in the enterprises of the GDR there was a total decline of collective resistance since 1953. I’ve also written a book about it. There were basically no strikes since 1953. Since 1968, there was no right of strike in the constitution any longer. Strikes were virtually prohibited. There were strikes in the 1950s and in the beginning of the 1960s, and then they became fewer and fewer until there were only occasional small collective acts of resistance during the 1970s. These collective acts of resistance became individual acts of resistance in the 1970s. The individual worker would protest, would write petitions, would fight for his rights. But collective acts were missing.

 

When the larger demonstrations began in 1989 in Leipzig – was that accompanied by any activities in the workplace?

 

Not at the time of the big demonstration in Leipzig and not in Berlin until after November 4. Until then there was not much. Actually everything was still calm. But it did not take long. In November people became active and joined Neues Forum, also as members of the workforces at the enterprises. They would bring these ideas back to the enterprise where they would found a small group – a grassroots group or a Neues Forum group. They started discussing the issues concerning the enterprise, and they would put things on the board like: “We demand: dismissal of the director!”

The first thing was disclosure: “We want transparency! We want to know what happens with our enterprise, what is going on. The director must disclose everything!” Then of course they demanded: “Stasi, get out of the enterprises! The Party, get out of the enterprises!” After these first demands, they called for meetings, for new elections at the trade union, for their own candidates.

It is not well known but the Wende or the revolution in the GDR would not have happened in the way it did without what happened in the enterprises and without this communication from the street to the enterprise. It was a very important process to overturn these structures within the enterprises. It is also interesting that the group of workers that was most active at first were not workers in production but engineers and laboratory technicians – the skilled employees, so to speak. This was typical for the period from 1989 until January 1990. Later it changed. In 1990-92, there was a very strong enterprise movement in the East. There was a workers council initiative and several other initiatives. It was the time when enterprises were supposed to be closed or privatized to be closed afterwards. Workers were fighting not to be dismissed. They wanted to privatize the enterprise “properly” so that it wouldn’t be closed. It was a big movement here in the East from 1990 until 1994/1995.

 

Tell me a little bit more about what happened after you and others came up with this idea of a KOR here in Germany. You said that you set up an office and had staff and representatives of companies came to visit the office. How was this institution received in the workplaces?

 

Those who came to us liked the idea, of course. I told you which type of workers was particularly active at this time. It was the same in our office. There were a lot more people from the administrative area – engineers, laboratory technicians, workers from media companies — and only a few from real production companies. There were a few: for example, the Neues Forum group came to us and there were real production workers. We suggested that we should not build up a big team of functionaries. Those workers who came to us approved of this idea of an independent union working largely without an apparatus. Other workers, however, would have preferred to have an organization that represented them.

I think this is why this special group came to us. They were the ones who could organize themselves. There was also a whole working group from the cable factory Oberspree here in Berlin that came to us. But as you know: soon “the West” was here. And “the West” came to us in the form of trade union functionaries, already in January 1990 and definitely by March. And they were recruiting members here. They also approached this one group of metalworkers that belonged to us. They told them: “Come, join IG Metall, the West German trade union.” One member of the group called me and said: “What should I do?” I told him: “You have to join. Because we have reached the end.” This was clear. It didn’t work. What a shame. From the moment when the Western trade union came here we were not attractive anymore.

 

Was there a particular date when the West German unions coming in became a reality?

 

IG Metall was already here in January: not the organization but individual functionaries. They were good people, not the bad guys. They were interested in the situation here and brought informative material.

It really started after the congress of FDGB, which was the end of January, beginning of February or maybe the end of February, beginning of March. FDGB was the trade union in the East. They organized a congress, which clearly failed. The organization practically collapsed. Then the Western unions came, and they partially merged. Every union did it differently. Some merged. For some the members had to leave the East union and then join the West union. This intensive process lasted from March/April until summer.

 

Did you participate in the last trade union congress?

 

I was there, yes.

 

Why did it collapse?

 

It was supposed to be a congress for renewal. In the meantime there was also a new leadership. The old leadership – Harry Tisch – had been dismissed in November 1989 including the federal group of directors. There was a new board, and it organized the congress with the intention to renew the FDGB.

But it was a congress full of functionaries, not members. It was supposed to be different, but anyway it wasn’t. FDGB was a so-called united trade union. That means there was the federation and all the various trade unions. The federation managed all the money; the single trade unions were only parts with no actual financial sovereignty, without independence. At this congress the single unions fought for a change of structure.

They wanted to obtain money and rights. They wanted to become independent and didn’t want the federation to determine everything.

It went back and forth like this. The federation would not agree. Then the delegates left the congress, and chaos broke out. But another group was founded – I forget the name – that then organized the dissolution of the FDGB. The FDGB had a lot of money. It still existed for one or two years. The buildings and the money, all this had to be dissolved.

 

Ideally the former trade union should have transferred its assets to a new independent union.

 

It was very complicated with the FDGB. It was a lot of money. Some of it went missing. It was very complicated. I did not deal with this further, but colleagues of mine tried to get information from the public prosecutor for more than a year.

 

What happened to your office?

 

It was terminated. The call for an independent grassroots movement had no lobby. There was none in the East and none in the West. There was no political group with interest in it, especially not the Western trade unions. They have a big apparatus, and they’re always suspicious about grassroots movements.

The atmosphere changed a lot since fall 1989. The fall and winter was characterized by incredible freedom. You could do whatever you wanted to do. You could have an office, if you wanted to. You could be in television if you wanted. You could go to the television studio and say, “Today I want to announce something.” They would ask what you wanted to announce and then you were standing in front of the camera. It was an incredible anarchy. It was really nice.

Then this situation was over. Our office was taken away. We found another one, and everything became more complicated. Also, the movement was becoming smaller. Most people joined the Western trade unions. They started dealing with the issues of the West. Our small group met nevertheless. We did something new starting in summer 1990. We stayed together, and many from the West joined us. We dealt with the following issues: what are the Western unions and how should we view them? We founded a group: the Alliance of Critical Unionists East-West. This group existed until 1998. We met in the House of Democracy in Friedrichsstraße once a week.

This group followed this whole process of Abwicklung, the unfolding of the process of reunification, in which the organization devoted to East German enterprises, the Treuhand, was supposed to either sell enterprises or shut them down. This process happened during the 1990s. This was the main process of the deindustrialization of the East. A lot of really criminal things happened during this process. In 1998 our group dissolved because this task was over. We were all fighting with each other. Everybody went back to his or her political group.

 

Can you give me an example of the kind of critical contribution that you made to the process of privatization?

 

There was potash mining in the GDR – potash is a type of salt – in the village of Bischofferode in the region of Thüringia, in the Eichsfeld district. This mine was supposed to be closed. There was no reason to close it except that the West German potash industry wanted to get rid of a competitor. They wanted to keep the monopoly.

The miners started a struggle to keep the mine open. It was simply unbelievable. It was the only region in the GDR where a lot of people stayed Catholic even during the time of the GDR. I was there once and watched the strikes because it was important for the atmosphere. They were not political activists but very normal miners and their wives. They organized a hunger strike that went public in the whole republic. It got a lot of support from all sides – except from the union IG Chemie. The union also wanted to close the mine. They supported the Western companies. The strike lasted for many weeks. Many other enterprises joined the strike at Bischofferode: the shipyard in Rostock, the whole region around Schöneweide, several enterprises. First they did so because of solidarity but then also out of self-interest. It was like a movement of workers’ councils in 1992/93. They also called themselves that. They organized a huge demonstration here in front of Treuhand building. It always had the same message: Don’t shut down the mine.

Here in Berlin we in the Alliance wrote a lot and organized meetings. Now the potash mine is closed. It was closed after two or three years. It took a while. First it was said that half the mine would remain open. Finally it was closed nevertheless.

 

There were a lot of benefits to reunification: freedom of travel, freedom of expression, more consumer goods. But the people who lost the most during reunification seem to have been the workers. Would you agree with that?

 

I would say it differently. I have talked about it many times but now as you were asking the question I realize that I cannot really answer it. I realize this for the first time. It was a situation where the stagnation also affected the workers of the GDR very much. The working conditions were very bad. A change in the living and working conditions had to take place. I don’t believe that the majority of workers had illusions about this and thought they lived in paradise. They all had relatives in the West. They all knew about unemployment.

Of course they thought that they wouldn’t be the ones who would be unemployed and that the situation wouldn’t turn out so bad and that you could live a good life even if you were unemployed. They were not totally wrong. The situation in the West during the 1980s was different from the situation in 1995. You could not live a decent life anymore with your unemployment benefits like it had been before. The unemployment rate rose. And now we actually had a situation that the workers who before were thinking — and I was thinking this too —  “I can easily live in the West, I’ll find a niche, there are unemployment benefits, there is a sufficient social security system.” All this did not happen as expected.

The world changed, and now a majority of the unemployed workers and also people like me in the intelligentsia found out that those niches do not exist anymore. I myself was lucky. But most of my colleagues now have to live on Harz 4 [ed: a colloquial term for the minimal state welfare aid]. 
Thus, I don’t think you can call the workers the losers of the revolution or the Wende in the GDR. We are now in a situation where we have to fight again for our social rights, but this is not the outcome of the revolution or the Wende.

The formulation “losers of the Wende” always implies that it is the result of the Wende, that if the Wende had not happened you would not have had all those losers. That’s why I did not fully agree with the formulation of the question.

I have already conducted 100 interviews during the last 20 years, and almost every time I ask how people they feel about the change. There are a lot of unemployed people in this group. And nobody wants to go back. Nobody would say, “Okay, maybe we should not have done it, because I lost everything.”

This doesn’t mean that everybody is satisfied today. But “losers of the Wende” is a wrong formulation.

 

So how would you say it?

 

It depends on the question. Do you want to know how those people, those workers feel today? Then you should ask, “How do you feel today?” Then the person can say: “I feel like a loser.” That may be the case. But actually I don’t think so. I guess he would say: “I don’t feel as well as I thought I would feel.” Or: “I feel well.” Or he might say: “I feel bad, but I still don’t want to go back.”

 

Let’s take the workers at the potash mine. They organized themselves, but they still lost their jobs. And they lost their jobs not because the mine was not functioning well but because the potash mine in the West didn’t want competition. So let’s say you asked these workers: Do you feel that you lost your job because of reunification or because of global economic changes or because the East Germany economic system was stagnant? What would they answer? And do they think that something could have been done differently to keep it operating and the workers working?

 

Of course in this direct sense the mine was a loser. That is right and you have to use this formulation in this case. They wanted to keep their jobs, and they lost their jobs.

But I don’t want to deliver a judgment that the workers are the “losers of the Wende,” because that is not how I would like to formulate it. You shouldn’t forget: the workplaces, the factories, and the work itself were partly medieval. It would not have been a benefit for the workers to continue to operate them in that way. You cannot simply say: “Oh, the nice factories, now they are all gone.” It is more complicated.  Of course, the way it was done was a tragedy. But something like that also happened in the Ruhr area: everything was shut down in the West. Can you now say they were the losers?

 

What do you think remains from the society of the GDR? Or is the GDR simply some memories and some nostalgia and some Stasi files?

 

I can answer this quite well because I have just finished a study of people who applied for exit visas. In this context I talked to people who left the GDR and have been living in the West for years now. I asked them what memories they have of the GDR. Some things came up repeatedly, such as the memory of a certain solidarity between people. There is a very simple reason for that: the social differences were not that big in the GDR. Due to the same standard of living that all the people had – at the workplace and also in the living area – there was no competition. You did not have to outrival one another. At least not on a large scale. There was much more friendly solidarity that was not disturbed by rich-poor differences.

Of course the atmosphere in the GDR had a downside. This uniformity of life and needs also produced a certain rejection of outsiders and deviants. For certain people this was a problem. If you were not a part of this big group of equals – if you were homosexual, if you looked different or had a different political opinion — then life was not nice in the GDR. Outsiders have a difficult life in every society, also now, but in the GDR it was very specific. For example there was the famous application of an article against the “social misfits” by the state security. I have this book here: The Desire to be Different: Political and Cultural Dissidence from 1968 until 1989. The author Sven Korzilius is a lawyer.

 

Have there been any major changes in your thinking in the last 23 years?

 

During this time – 1989/90 – I had experiences that changed some things for me. Of course, in the united Germany, I very quickly found myself in the same position as I had in the East. I am in no party but I am an activist. If there was a non-parliamentary movement, I would be in it. The out-of-parliament movement is something that existed in the West in the 1960s and 1970s. You were not linked to a party but to a social movement that acted outside of parliament.

Maybe one thing is really new as a result of the Wende. My own activities gained a higher importance in my worldview. During the GDR time I only read and had critical thoughts, but I did not do anything. But for 20 years now, starting from the time of the Wende, I have been quite active, I do a lot of things. I do not only write books. I am also active in social movements. I was much more top-heavy before.

Apart from that I believe – back then as well as today – that you really can change the world. This is something that has remained. This is something I am committed to.

 

I also do three quantitative questions. Considering everything that has changed in this country, how would you evaluate those changes on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being least satisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

 

3.

 

And your personal life?

 

8. This contradiction between my personal life and the general situation is interesting. If I think about it, there was a huge crisis all over the world but I am relatively fine.

 

And then looking into the future, evaluating the next two or three years, are you: 1 least optimistic or 10 most optimistic? For Germany?

 

I do not evaluate it like most of my friends and colleagues, who think it will be dramatic. I rather think 5.

 

Berlin, February 4, 2013

 

Interpreter: Sarah Bohm

 

 


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