'I Feared that German Reunification Would Pose a Threat to Europe'
Der Spiegel Online
Amid the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of German reunification in October 2010, many former citizens of East Germany were likely asking themselves exactly what they had gained in the two decades since the two countries became one. Today, the states of eastern Germany still lag behind former West Germany in just about any social or economic indicator you can name, and many former East Germans still wonder if the reunification process could have gone differently.
At the time, after the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, many East Germans wanted to reform their country rather than simply abolish it. But reunification was pushed through at a record pace by then-West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and the two countries officially became one on Oct. 3, 1990. Although a pro-unification grouping of parties received the most votes in East Germany's first and only free parliamentary election in March 1990, there was a perception among some East Germans that they had been steamrollered by powerful West Germany.
Even today, some still hold that view. "I don't know what there is to celebrate," Matthias Platzeck, the former head of the center-left Social Democrats, told SPIEGEL in a controversial interview in the runup to the reunification anniversary earlier this year. "We didn't want an accession; we wanted a cooperation of equals with a new constitution and a new anthem."
Some of the staunchest critics of the process of reunification have come from the ranks of the far-left Left Party, the successor to the Party of Democratic Socialism, which itself succeeded the official East German governing party, the Socialist Unity Party (SED). The Left Party enjoys strong support in eastern Germany today, where its members hold positions in many local and state-level administrations. It currently enjoys support of around 10 percent on the national level, according to polls.
Back in late 1989, Lothar Bisky, who had worked as a university professor in East Germany, was among those who called for democratic reforms to socialism within an East Germany that continued to be independent. He would later go on to become leader of the PDS and co-leader of the Left Party.
In an interview with SPIEGEL, Bisky talked about how his attitude to reunification has changed and the fears that he and his comrades had at the time about the possible rise of right-wing extremism in a reunited Germany.
SPIEGEL: In 2010, Germany celebrated the 20th anniversary of reunification. When will your party finally accept German reunification?
Bisky: We have long been part of a united Germany, even those of us who never wanted it and those who wanted the process (of reunification) to go differently. We wanted a softer landing. But the people of East Germany decided otherwise in 1990 in a democratic decision, in a free election. We had to accept that decision.
SPIEGEL: You don't exactly sound very enthusiastic.
Bisky: I want to say it clearly, once and for all: Yes, I expressly support German unity. Yes, this country is also our country. German reunification has guaranteed freedom and civil rights and brought us an excellent constitution. And -- to talk in personal terms for a moment -- my students and my sons were able to develop themselves in this country in a way that was previously not imaginable.
SPIEGEL: Do you think a majority of people in your party would make such a statement?
Bisky: The nostalgic members in our ranks are dying off, you know. A few of them want to sing the old songs, nothing more. The Left Party's mayors want to help shape this country, not dissolve it. We are a pluralistic party, not separatists. I have not heard of any calls to re-establish East Germany. Nevertheless, the commitment to the idea of Germany among members of the German left is not something that is taken for granted in the way French communists believe in France, say.
SPIEGEL: Germany's current interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, has said he regrets the way he dealt so rigorously with East Germany back in 1990, when he played a key role in the reunification negotiations between the two Germanys. Why is it so hard for the Left Party to express regret for its opposition to reunification?
Bisky: In 1990, I was wrong. I feared that German reunification would pose a threat to Europe. I thought that a reunited Germany would automatically be far-right politically. Our opposition to reunification arose from our knee-jerk support for anti-fascism. That was understandable and well-intentioned -- but it was wrong.
SPIEGEL: "No Fourth Reich" was the slogan of many left-wingers at the time.
Bisky: There were a series of far-right attacks at the time, including against PDS politicians. I myself was affected. But the new Federal Republic of Germany itself did not become far-right, contrary to what some people predicted. The conservative Christian Democratic Union, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel has fortunately developed in a different way than what many leftists had feared.
SPIEGEL: What were they afraid of?
Bisky: The CDU did not turn into an advocate of a "Greater Germany," not did it shift to the far right of the political spectrum. Angela Merkel is, I believe, completely free of such tendencies. And that is something that you cannot take for granted. There is currently a tendency in Europe for far-right parties to become stronger -- in Italy or the Netherlands, for example. But that's not the case here in Germany. It's not just left-wingers who oppose xenophobia and right-wing extremism. I welcome that. But I stand by my critical attitude to the nature of reunification and the way the East Germans were absorbed.
SPIEGEL: For the second time since 2007, you have stepped down from the leadership of your party. Just like after the first time, things have been chaotic within the party since you gave up your position. Are you planning your next comeback?
Bisky: No, I have no more official position in the party, and I am not seeking a new post. At most, I might become the treasurer of my local chapter. But even that I would have to consider carefully.