In Thuringia the GDR is never far away. A few months ago, the eastern German federal state elected a Minister-President of Die Linke, a party that has its origins in the SED directly. Some party members have even been Stasi members. On the day he took office, new president Bodo Ramelow apologized to GDR victims on behalf of his party.
“Being the brand new president, Ramelow apologized to me. I wish I could have got up and walked away, it was that awkward,” says Andreas Möller (71). Möller is the former editor-in-chief of newspaper Bild Thüringen. But ever since the inaugural speech of his friend Bodo Ramelow, Möller has become a symbol –both in Germany and abroad – of the injustice many GDR people suffered.
Bodo Romelow was appointed the new Minister-President in December of 2014, the year of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. The controversial choice became world news. Die Linke is rooted in communism: the party has its origins in the SED, the GDR communist party. At least two members of Die Linke in Thuringia once worked for the Stasi. And of the 28 members of the Thuringia branch, two-thirds have an SED history. Several media judged the victory ‘a nightmare for Stasi victims’. By addressing Möller, Ramelow wanted to show the world his party is willing to face GDR history, and accept responsibility for the process of coming to terms with that past.
APOLOGIES FROM THE MINISTER-PRESIDENT
Möller and Ramelow have known each other for years, says Möller. He’s seated in his living room in Arnstadt, a Thuringia village. His wife is sitting next to him. When Ramelow suddenly turned to him last December, in front of the entire Landtag and in the presence of some 350 journalists, he had been unpleasantly surprised. To avoid the barrage of questions from journalists he had even hidden in the bathrooms afterwards. Today, he can see what Ramelow tried to do, even though he’s still a little upset that googling his name results in dozens of news items popping up. Yet he admits: “By apologizing, Ramelow has shown he’s a good politician most of all. And he’s brave: many of his followers don’t agree with him at all. I commend him for trying to reconcile with the past. All Germans should do the same thing, to be honest.”
In the East German federal state of Thuringia, the past looms between the hills like smog. History is never far away: Buchenwald, one of the largest concentration camps of Nazi Germany is a mere thirty minutes’ drive from Möller’s house. The nearby town of Gera still has a former Stasi prison. Years ago, there was talk of a department store taking its place, but upon hearing the plans, ex-prisoners occupied the prison and demanded it become a monument. They have reached a compromise since: the front is a monument, the back is for shopping. Events that help work through the GDR past – die Aufarbeitung – are organized monthly in Thuringia. Möller attends them whenever he can: “The theme must be discussed. Younger generations must face our history, too. They should know what their parents and grandparents have done. And then, in thirty or maybe forty years, ‘the GDR’ might be processed once and for all.”
THE YOUNG GENERATION
On the fifth Floor of the Landtag in Thuringia’s capital Erfurt, we find the workplace of Die Linke delegates. Posters with slogans against far-right extremism are everywhere: ‘Stop Nazis’ and ‘No place for neo-Nazis’. The average member is sixty years old, but 23-year old Christian Schaft is the exception to the rule. He joined Die Linke when he was only sixteen. Why does a young boy join a party with a history like Die Linke? There are more people who wonder the same thing, says Schaft. During their campaign in the fall of 2014, he was called ‘wall protector’ and ‘Stasi spy’ more than once. When he joined in 2007, he shamefully admits he had no clue about the history of his party. “I just wanted be involved with left-wing politics.” His gymnasium had to close its doors due to a lack of pupils. Schaft opposed the closure, and set out to find a way to make a change. Enter politics.
Prior to the latest elections, he decided to read up on the history of his party. He asked his parents about their lives in GDR times: He asked them what it was like to live in a state that suddenly ceases to exist. His parents did relatively well in the GDR, Schaft says. They had conformed to the system and were both members of the SED. His father was in the National People’s Army (NVA); his mother worked with the Free German Youth (FDJ). “They never resisted the system. But after the fall of the Wall, they did study the theme thoroughly.”
His parents, like hundreds of thousands of other Germans, wanted to know whether they had been spied on or not. Both turned out to have a file. His father didn’t ask to see his file, but his mother did. Schaft had a quick look at her documents, which showed blacked out lines mostly: “Much has been obscured, so many questions remain. For example, my mother doesn’t know who spied on her.” Yes, it may well have been a friend or family member, Schaft realizes. Schaft is getting uncomfortable with the conversation. He has not brought up the topic with his parents anymore: “They’re still struggling with what happened, obviously. They knew what the Stasi was in GDR days, and they knew people were employed at the service. But the notion they have been spied on still has to dawn on them, I believe.”
THE ROTTEN GDR SYSTEM
Andreas Möller has much more to process. Tears are rolling down his cheeks as he recounts the time he helped a pregnant woman flee to the west in 1963 –he was only nineteen. The plan failed and they were caught. Möller ended up in the Potsdam Stasi prison. Every two weeks they took him to the infamous Stasi prison Hohenschönhausen in Berlin. “That’s where they would interrogate me and confront me with other people.” His prison cell had no daylight. “Stasi officers wanted to drive you insane. They were known to manipulate the light: sometimes they left the lights on for twenty hours on end, followed by a long period of utter darkness. Without a clock or wristwatch the night seemed never-ending.” One remark a Stasi offer made has stuck with him all this time. In a deep voice, Möller says: “’If I want to, you’ll get out of here. But aggravate me, and this will be the end of the road for you. You will evaporate like water in the sun.’ Such words are terrifying to any nineteen-year-old.”
After Potsdam and Hohenschönhausen, Möller was transferred to a prison in Thuringia, where he was picked up by a group of officials one day. Without the slightest explanation, Möller was ordered into a minivan, only to get out at Hohenschönhausen once again. He turned out to be part of a secret operation: the West had ransomed him and a group of other prisoners. The operation was top secret. Möller: “We were located at a special location. Our food wasn’t brought to us by guards, but by high-ranked officers. I also saw the man who wanted to see me evaporate like water. When he brought me my meal, it was like justice being served.”
He became a journalist, and after the fall of the Wall he interviewed many people about their experiences. He remembers a woman whose husband had spied on her for years. She even had his baby. “Spied on by her own husband!” His voice cracks. Years after the fall, he talked to a Therapist who specializes in the trauma processing of Stasi victims. He told him: ‘Mr. Möller, you were barely twenty years old when you were thrown in jail. You have to accept that you may never really get out.’ “And he was right. It never ends. Ever.”
A REMARKABLE FRIENDSHIP
The doorbell rings. “It could be Bodo, Möller says mindlessly. Möllers wife rushes to the door. Moments later, Bodo Ramelow (58, dark grey suit) walks in: “My excellent secret service informed me you’d have journalists visiting today.” Möller guffaws. He and Ramelow have known each other for years. After the fall of the iron curtain they both moved to Thuringia. Möller lived in the West for quite some time after he had been ransomed, but he returned to his home state Thuringia. He founded the newspaper Bild Thüringen and moved into the house that was once his grandfather’s. Ramelow is from West Germany originally, but he came to Thuringia to reform the union. Until then, unions were dominated by the state entirely. Ramelow became involved in politics rather fast: in 1999, he joined the legal successor to the SED: PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism), which would later merge to become Die Linke. That’s how he ended up in the federal-state department of Thuringia. Between 2005 and 2009, he was a member of the German Bundestag. After that, he returned to Thuringia politics once again.
“We met when he was a journalist at Bild – there was nothing worse.” Möller: “Yes, there was: being a Bolshevik like you.”
The two men proceed to talk about their friendship. Ramelow: “We met when he was a journalist at Bild – there was nothing worse.” Möller: “Yes, there was: being a Bolshevik like you.” Ramelow retorts: “In the nineties, there wasn’t a week that went by without his newspaper publishing two articles saying I was a bastard. Möller: “A left-wing communist, yes. Because of your party, I’ve had several very unpleasant experiences.” But eventually they clicked and a real friendship was the result, they boast. Ramelow: “Our friendship started when Möller took me to see the Stasi prison in Potsdam. He showed me where he was abused, where he had lain on the floor in his own blood.”
Now, what was the deal apologizing to Andreas? Why hadn’t he informed him beforehand? Ramelow: “The night before I was appointed Minister-President I had a dream about Andreas. I startled awake at 2 a.m. That’s when I knew I had to address Andreas. Otherwise it would all be too abstract,” Ramelow concludes. “So you dream about me, huh? Who would have thought?” Möller winks.
A CONFLICTED PARTY
Can Möller even accept Ramelow’s apologies? Möller: “I accept his apologies, but not those of Herr Kuschel (member of Die Link in Thuringia, former SED member, and Stasi informant, ed.), for example.” It’s why he would never vote Die Linke: “There are too many party members I don’t want to be friendly with, including former Stasi members, informants, and SED supporters.”
So why does Ramelow want to be part of a party like that? Ramelow: “I understand where Andreas is coming from. Having said that, I’m from West Germany and it’s not my history. I’ve never spent time in Stasi prisons. I moved here 25 years ago. When I joined this party, I knew who I’d be dealing with.” Asked about Frank Kuschel, he says: “I may come the same conclusion as Andreas, but I judge things differently. Right now, Kuschel is among the party members that are most actively involved in the DDR theme. He’s pondering his responsibility – it’s tough.”
It’s extremely important to Ramelow that the outside world realizes he’s working very hard for Thuringia to reconcile with the past. And it’s not easy with a party that’s divided, the Minister-President acknowledges. During coalition negotiations, SPD and Die Grünen demanded the coalition treaty to include the GDR was an ‘Unrechtsstaat’ (state of injustice). Their demand led to months of heated debate within Die Linke. Ramelow: “One half agreed for practical reasons, but the other half resisted and felt judged by the term ‘Unrechtsstaat’. Many members felt the expression would insult and alienate a significant part of their followers, including many former DDR officials.” The eventual coalition states the DDR was a state of injustice ‘in consequence’: Die Linke managed to nuance the verdict after all.
“Many people still don’t want to talk about their GDR history, because they would have to admit they were part of the system, too.”
It makes sense, then, that his party wasn’t exactly thrilled when Ramelow suddenly diverted from his official inaugural speech to apologize to Möller. Ramelow: “Many people still don’t want to talk about their GDR history, because they would have to admit they were part of the system, too.”
‘WELL, IT’S NOT EASY IN THURINGIA’
By now, Die Linke member Christian Schaft knows the history of his party will not be forgotten lightly. “That’s why I intend to come to terms with said history.” He admits it’s challenging for someone born in 1991: “As a politician, you want to improve things and look to the future, yet you can’t lose sight of history.” He noticed the impact the ‘Unrechtsstaat’ discussion had on his party. “In the end, we’ve established that the term only marks the beginning of our reconciliation. The fact it was an unjust system shouldn’t and doesn’t affect the biographies of people from the GDR. The latter proved very important to many members.”
Schaft understands why Stasi victims would object to the new government. Still, as far as he’s concerned Die Linke stands for something different altogether: “I’ve joined the party because I’m left-wing. To me, Die Linke is everything the SED wasn’t. The two parties may be linked historically, but I don’t believe the SED ideology has lingered.” He pauses, then smiles: “Obviously, I can say this because I have the advantage of being born after the fall of the Wall.”