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German Reunification

GDR dissidents made history - then disappeared into it

Twenty years after reunification, few of the East German dissidents who first got the ball rolling are left in the Bundestag. Is it because they're difficult characters? East German? Or is it just how history played out?

A black and white photo of East Germans demonstrating in 1989

In 1989, East Germans took to the streets

"Relatively few of us ended up going the distance in politics," says Markus Meckel, a one-time dissident who served as East Germany's foreign minister for five months in 1990. A Social Democrat member of parliament from 1990 until he lost his seat to the Left Party last year, Meckel was one of just a handful of East German activists who went on to carve a niche for himself in pan-German politics.


I meet up with him in a cafe in Schoeneberg, in former West Berlin. He arrives on a bike and tells me that he's only just moved here from the apartment near the Bundestag he used to rent. Coincidentally, the radio starts playing the smash 1990 hit "Winds of Change" by German rock band Scorpions as we sit down - a song that will be forever associated with the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe.


"The thing was, being part of an opposition movement during communism required very different qualities and skills to those required to hold political office in a democracy in which the media plays a major role," he explains.

"What we wanted was to bring about change, and it wasn't as though we'd set out to pursue political careers. The fact that this change happened was enough for many of us. I myself only decided to run as a candidate for the Bundestag after talking to Willy Brandt ( editor's note: Chancellor of West Germany from 1969-1974, and leader of the Social Democratic Party from 1964-1987). He said that a reunified Germany would need people with my background."


But the oppositionists soon found themselves overtaken by events.

Markus Meckel with Hans-Dietrich Genscher

Foreign Minister Meckel (l.) with his West German counterpart Hans-Dietrich Genscher


"When all's said and done, the opposition was a tiny minority of the East German population," Meckel says.

"There were only about three or 5,000 of us. But there were lots of people who were unhappy under communism, who didn't express their dissatisfaction, but who then took the opportunity to grasp change when they were presented with it. They were the real motor of the whole process, and when they voted in the country's first free elections for the Volkskammer (People's Chamber) in March 1990, it was less an exercise in democracy and more of a referendum on reunification. The center-right West German government joined forces with its sister parties in the East, and these were block parties who were under the thumb of the communist Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). They were conformists. They weren't the opposition. But they stood for reunification, and they got the votes."


Misjudging the mood

So despite their key role in toppling communism, few former East German renegades entered the Bundestag after the first parliamentary elections in reunified Germany in late 1990. One of them was Vera Wollenberger, who later reverted to her maiden name of Lengsfeld after finding out that her husband had informed on her to the Stasi secret police.

Initially a member of Alliance 90/The Greens, she switched to the Christian Democrats (CDU) in 1996 when the Greens started getting too cozy with the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) - the successor party to the SED. But she most recently made waves with an election poster last year that featured her and Angela Merkel showing a lot of cleavage. "We have more to offer," was the message.


She's always been good at gauging the zeitgeist - a quality that goes some way to explaining why she was one of the few East German dissidents to secure not just one but three consecutive Bundestag mandates. Like Meckel, she says that if oppositionists were short-changed during the reunification process, it was because they failed to recognize the public mood.


"Most of the civil rights activists had been pursuing the wrong goals," she explains over coffee in her spacious apartment in the Berlin district of Pankow, a cradle of East Germany's opposition movement.

"They were barking up the wrong tree, pushing not for an end to the GDR, but for its democratic reform. None of us realized that the Cold War would be over so fast. We thought the Iron Curtain would become more transparent, but we never expected it to collapse in our entire lifetimes. Lots of dissidents just didn't have their eye on the ball."


Sidelined


The Bundestag elections in 1990 brought a clear victory for Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrat-Free Democrat coalition government, and the immediate post-reunification years saw Christian Democrats from former West Germany stepping into the breach as premiers of one eastern German state after the other. According to Arnold Vaatz, another erstwhile oppositionist who served as Saxony's environment minister until 1998 and is now the vice chairman of the CDU faction in the German parliament, this was symptomatic of a wider trend: former dissidents or otherwise, East Germans have been routinely sidelined from senior positions in the last 20 years, he says. Not just in politics.

"By definition, East Germans cannot meet the requirements of certain positions because they inevitably don't have the qualifications," he told me in his broad Saxon accent. "Suitability for leadership is necessarily judged according to criteria drawn up in West Germany, so people born and bred in the East have been pushed aside. They don't stand a chance of getting into top positions, and these have fallen irrevocably into West German hands. East Germans are out of the loop."


Affirmative action


But Vaatz is quick to praise Helmut Kohl's efforts to support politicians from the former East during his chancellorship in the 1990s. "He's never really been given his due on that front," he says. And the obvious exception to Vaatz's perceived rule is the chancellor, who used to be known as "Kohl's girl."


A young Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel joined the opposition in 1989


Markus Meckel argues that Angela Merkel would never have become chancellor without Kohl's support. Hardly a dissident, she joined the Democratic Awakening ( Demokratischer Aufbruch) some months after it was formed in 1989, entering the opposition "only when it was no longer dangerous," as Lengsfeld dryly puts it. But she was in the right place at the right time.


"She was clearly a product of Kohl's affirmative action approach," says Meckel. The irony, he adds, is that she herself has never made her roots an issue. "Everyone expects her to represent eastern Germany, but the reality is, she doesn't," says Meckel. "The former East has never been a focus of her leadership because it would jeopardize her popularity. Ultimately, she's sacrificed the problems of eastern Germany in the interests of furthering her own career."


Vaatz refuses to be drawn on this issue, but he admits he's irked by the absence of East Germans in Merkel's cabinet. "I do believe there are East Germans with potential within the CDU who have not been promoted," he says.


Taking charge of their own destinies


Vera Lengsfeld, meanwhile, rejects out of hand the idea that eastern Germany and its politicians have ever been disadvantaged.


"Refusing to focus on East Germany is one of the few things Merkel's done right!" she says. "It's only a quarter of the country, and in the last 20 years, it's where all the money has gone. Funds are ploughed into the eastern states while the roads in the Ruhr Valley are going to rack and ruin. East Germany was utterly bankrupt in 1989 and its prosperity has grown steadily over the last 20 years. Its infrastructure is better than it is in the West - these days, you know when you've crossed the former border because the roads suddenly get bad!"


She thinks it's time to put a stop to the government's reconstruction aid. "I appreciate how much it helped, but it resulted in a generation of politicians who can't do anything but put their hands out," she rails. "They need to take charge of their own destinies. There aren't any East Germans in Merkel's cabinet because there aren't any out there right now who are up to the job."

A crowd of people and German flags

The CDU was the main winner of the first pan-German elections in 1990


Personally, she hates the idea of affirmative action. "You should be judged on your performance alone," she insists. She dismisses negative campaigns in Saxony and Thuringia ahead of the elections last year that sought to undermine 'imported' candidates. "People just want good politicians; they don't care where they come from. It's only the Left Party that keeps harping on about East-West differences - young people aren't interested," she says. She herself attributes the longevity of her Bundestag career, which lasted until 2005, to her ability to win over the party basis - perhaps a leftover from her days as a civil rights activist.


Not team players

If there's one thing that these one-time dissidents agree on, it's that they are their own people.


Even if there may have been a time when the dissident label was a badge of honor that could open certain doors, "mainstream parties were never very keen on us," recalls Lengsfeld with a smile. "We were always seen as too edgy, too independent. We don't follow orders. We're not foot soldiers."


But as Meckel points out, their very individuality might have worked against them. "If you look at those of us who held high positions over the years, like Wolfgang Thierse, the current deputy president of the Bundestag, there's always been an inability to bundle eastern German interests. Across the board, there's never been any consensus on how to strategically position the eastern states, and that's largely up to the political players operating there. You can't say they weren't given a chance. To some extent, they themselves never understood their roles."


Author: Jane Paulick

Editor: Nancy Isenson

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