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Germany: A never-ending look at the past

October 15, 2018

Germany is a country known for having thoroughly come to terms with its history. As the foundation dedicated to studying East Germany's communist past turns 20, however, it's clear that task remains vital to this day.

A woman's eye behind a concrete wall
Image: Fotolia/lassedesignen

The Federal Foundation for the Study of Communist Dictatorship in East Germany — that is the unwieldy name for the institution established in 1998 by Germany's parliament, the Bundestag. The issues that foundation grapples with can be quite unwieldy as well. It focuses on East Germany's communist dictatorship, which lasted more than four decades starting almost immediately after the end of Germany's Nazi dictatorship in 1945 and ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The foundation owes its name to East Germany's governing party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), founded in 1946 in what was then the Soviet occupation zone. It was created out of a forced merger between the Social Democrats and Communists, and went on to govern East Germany, known formally as the German Democratic Republic (GDR), for its entire four decades years of existence. It was portrayed as a German-created political movement, but in reality SED-ruled East Germany was a dictatorship modeled on the Soviet Union from day one.

Remembering the past

The foundation sees remembrance as its duty. The aim, it says on its website in German and English, is to promote the "comprehensive investigation and reappraisal of the causes, history and impact of the dictatorship in the Soviet occupation zone in Germany and the GDR." It also aims to support "the process of German reunification," and "international cooperation in the study and reappraisal of dictatorships."

Read more: Picking up the pieces: The story of East Germany's central bank

The foundation's broad scope is evident from the amount of research and information it publishes. That includes Totally East — Life in East Germany, an exhibition that went on show in Berlin at the beginning of the year featuring photos of everyday life from a country that vanished. Schools and other educators can order poster sets in English, Spanish, French and Russian.

A sudden demise

The rather unspectacular look at Germany's communist East can easily reveal more about the nature of a dictatorship than most academic debates — though the foundation regularly offers those, too. Its events include panel discussions with those who lived in and experienced East Germany firsthand, and it also promotes projects by the younger generation focusing on the history of the Berlin Wall, or "anti-fascist protection wall," as it was called by the SED leadership.

Read more: Why East German movie posters were more art than advertising

The SED claimed to be all powerful in East Germany, but it had its limits. In the end, a peaceful revolution in 1989 revealed that system of government's fragility. Almost immediately after the country celebrated its 40th anniversary in 1989, it began to disappear. In less than year, East and West Germany had reunified.

One of the driving forces behind the foundation today is the man who served as East Germany's last and only freely elected foreign minister, Markus Meckel.

Markus Meckel
Meckel was East Germany's last foreign ministerImage: Bundestiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur

Coming to terms with the country's Nazi past, which Germans had long avoided, had many "problematic consequences," Meckel said.

That is why people were aware of how important it was to begin addressing East Germany's past quickly and comprehensively after reunification, he explained. And it was important for the entire country, Meckel added, pointing to a widely held belief in West Germany that the East German dictatorship is a purely East German issue, including anything concerning that country's secret police.

Stasi in the East, Stasi in the West

The Ministry of State Security, better known as the Stasi, may have mainly focused on surveilling East Germany's own population, but it also had a watchful eye on its declared class enemy neighbor to the West. Discrediting West Germany as an exploitative and warmongering state was part of the East's standard repertoire.

Read more: The gap between Germany's east and west is narrowing, but not fast enough

The 1974 scandal involving Günter Guillaume was indicative of the long arm of the Stasi. Guillaume, an East German intelligence agent, was Chancellor Willy Brandt's personal assistant. The unmasking of a high-ranking Stasi officer within the West German government triggered a crisis in the capital, Bonn, and led to Brandt's resignation. The SED leadership brought down the very man whose policy of detente had made East-West rapprochement possible in Germany and Europe.

Willy Brandt in front of Günter Guillaume
The Guillaume scandal spelled the end of Brandt's time as chancellorImage: picture alliance/F. Rust

Erich … who?

Meckel deplores the fact that young people today often have no idea who Brandt — a Nobel Peace Prize laureate — was, and are often similarly poorly informed about the SED and East German leader Erich Honecker. It is important to know about Germany's "exciting past" to better "understand ourselves," said Meckel. He believes that remembering those things may be able to help Germany "master current issues and challenges."

Read more: North Korea cables reveal East Germany's deep-rooted suspicion of Kim regime

The rise of populist political movements across Europe today, just 30 years after the end of the Cold War, shows just how fragile democratic societies still are, or are again. That is why reappraising the East German dictatorship is a task that "always arises anew" — a mission the foundation is dedicated to with the help of numerous partners in Germany and abroad.

Erich Mielke and Erich Honecker
Honecker (left) ruled East Germany for nearly 20 years, with the help of Stasi chief Erich MielkeImage: BStU

History of communism

Fifty years after Moscow crushed the Prague Spring, that movement has become one of the foundation's focal points, including the publication of Museums and Memorials to Remember the Victims of Communist Dictatorships. The unique illustrated book documents 119 memorials in 35 countries worldwide. A website on the history of communism was launched in 2017 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Russian October Revolution.

Read more: 'Unforgettable' Prague Spring recalled, 50 years later

And those are just two of the many projects the foundation stages to help raise public awareness about despotism.

On Wednesday in Berlin, the foundation is celebrating its 20th anniversary with dignitaries including German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The event will feature speeches honoring Europe's peaceful revolutions of 1989 as outstanding events in the history of German and European democracy.

Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.