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Germany's Left party still struggles to shrug off its past

Bernd Grässler / dbDecember 5, 2014

The Left party reorganized itself, changed its name and asked the public for forgiveness. But as the successor to East Germany's communist party, it can't seem to shake its past.

Workers dismantling a Lenin monument
Image: picture alliance/dpa

A planned state coalition in Thuringia to be led by the Left party, the Social Democrats and the Greens only has a one-seat majority in the newly elected parliament. That put the focus on lawmaker Frank Kuschel.

The issue: Kuschel was an informer (IM) for the former East Germany's Stasi secret police. The 53-year-old, whose code name was "Fritz Kaiser," spied on East Germans who wanted to emigrate to the West. He is alleged to have reported citizens to the Stasi as late as October 1989, when many other in the former East Germany were distancing themselves from ruling regime.

In 2006, an ethics committee classified him as morally "unworthy" for parliament. In September, the Left party, with Kuschel listed eighth on its ticket, won 28 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections in the state of Thuringia.

As the Left party's national prominence increases with its leadership of a state government for the first time, the shadow of the Stasi looms ever larger over the entire party - including state leader Bodo Ramelow, who actually hails from western Germany. Kuschel's position among top Left party politicians in Thuringia has also sparked a debate about the presence of former Stasi informers among the party's members.

Opposition has also come from Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), which will be a junior member in the Thuringia governing coalition. Stephan Hilsberg, a founding member of the Social Democratic Party in the DDR, a party that would later merge with the West German SPD, said coalitions with the Left would always be subject to major debate. "With its responsibility for Stalinism, the Wall, barbed wire, political criminal laws, dictatorship and millions of refugees, the Left will never become a normal party in Germany," he wrote in a statement.

Bundespräsident Joachim Gauck
A former pastor, President Gauck fought for civil rights in East GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Gambarini

German President Joachim Gauck, a former preacher who worked to support civil rights in the former East Germany, questioned whether the Left had left behind its roots in the Socialist Unity Party, the party that ruled East Germany.

"Is the Left party really far enough away from then beliefs that the SED [Socialist Unity Party,] once had regarding the oppression of the people for us to fully trust them?" he asked.

Facing up to the past

Left national party leader Katja Kipping said she is convinced that her party deserves trust - even former IM "Fritz Kaiser" in Thuringia.

He never made a secret of his Stasi past, she said, but instead "made transparent" how he ended up doing clandestine work for the secret police. Kipping also pointed out that the Left party's predecessor, the PDS which in turn evolved from the East German SED communist party, decided early in the 1990s that party members striving for a seat in parliament or a party position would eventually have to own up to possible involvement in Stasi activities.

"I'd say my party has faced up to the past time and again," Kipping told DW, adding that it did so in a manner she would expect from all former bloc parties. The remark was directed mainly at Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The CDU united with its East German sister party after the fall of the Berlin Wall even though the party had been close to the SED. But ahead of the vote in Thuringia, the CDU in particular has been rubbing the Left's nose in the past.

Katja Kipping
Katja Kipping; The Left disn't take the easy way outImage: picture-alliance/dpa/L. Schulze

"Just because they aren't leftist any longer, does that free them of any doubt about what they did in the past?" Kipping asked. "I'd say that politically, it's important not to choose the easy way out."

Heritage in hindsight

Kipping said her party didn't choose the easy way out concerning how it evolved from a state party - a weight that even the younger, untroubled generation still bears.

"A quarter of a century later, it's easy to come up with intelligent answers, but back then, I believe the party wanted to take responsibility and not shirk it's legacy," she said, when asked if it would not have been better to dissolve the SED in 1989 and create a new leftist party instead.

Kipping added she has great respect for the politicians who stayed in the party - real leftists, she said, who didn't succumb to the "Zeitgeist with a bent toward capitalism."

Kipping was born in Dresden and 11 years old when the Wall fell and the SED lost power. When mentioning Stasi spies, she uses terminology coined later in the West: "informal collaborator" rather than "unofficial collaborator."

Many members from the West

At a party conference in December 1989, the SED announced its break with Stalinism, dismissed the old leadership and apologized to East Germans for injustices done to them. Membership in the former state party dropped from 2.3 million to 220,000. Today, no one at the Left party's headquarters in Berlin's Karl-Liebknecht House keeps tabs on whose membership dates back to those days. About one third of the party's 64,000 members are from Western German states. Many joined the party in 2007 after former SPD leader Oskar Lafontaine along with Social Democrats and unionists were disappointed by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's course and turned to the East German party. With the passage of time, there are fewer members today whose entire lives were closely linked to East Germany. Some of the older members from the former East, including Kuschel, managed to secure a seat in parliament by dogged diligence.

Bodo Ramelow
No former Stasi members in the government, Bodo Ramelow saysImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Schutt

No nostalgia

People can change, said 36-year-old Kipping. She leaves no room for nostalgia when she agrees with her party's assessment of East Germany as an "unjust state." In Thuringia, the Left signed a document to that effect, in accordance with a demand by the Social Democrats and Greens in return for the election of the Left party candidate as head of the state. Until then, the Left party had called East Germany a state where "grave injustices" occurred.

Thuringia's soon-to-be premier Bodo Ramelow has promised not to place former members of the Stasi in government positions. But that won't keep Frank Kuschel, a.k.a. IM "Fritz Kaiser," from a seat like all others in the state parliament.