Interview with the GDR’s Margot Honecker — ‘The past was brought back’

Margo HoneckerConcerning the counterrevolution in 1989 in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the return of capitalist disorder after its demise, holding a scientific world outlook, and the struggle of the Greek people against the dictatorship of the monopolies. An interview with Margot Honecker.

Interview: Antonis Polychronakis

Margot Honecker, born in 1927, former minister of education of the German Democratic Republic and widow of longtime Socialist Unity Party (SED) Secretary General and GDR State Chairperson Erich Honecker (1912-1994), had not commented publicly for a long time from her self-chosen place of exile near Santiago de Chile. In October, however, the Athenian and Macedonian News Agency (ANA-MPA) published the following interview in highly abbreviated form (the long version, published here, was reserved for subscribers). The German daily newspaper Junge Welt published the complete interview exclusively in the German language, and thanks the Greek colleagues for their kind permission to print.

Workers World thanks both Junge Welt and the Greek journalists for permission to publish this interview, which contains much information about the history of the German Democratic Republic and its position on the front line of the class war between two social systems from 1945 to 1989. Translation from German by Greg Butterfield and John Catalinotto.

Antonis Polychronakis: How did the events of 1989 come about? How did you and your spouse personally experience them?

Margot Honecker: If you mean by “the events of 1989,” those of the fall of that year, and particularly the events in the GDR, which I describe as a counterrevolution, one would have to write books about it. And many indeed have already been written. That cannot be described adequately with a brief answer. Perhaps only this: There was an objective link between foreign and internal political factors. The arms race the United States in the Reagan era forced upon the Soviet Union reached its desired objective: that the Soviet Union armed itself to death. The consequent economic burden for the USSR led to serious social dislocations in the country, which meant that the leading power of the socialist camp could hardly do justice to its domestic and foreign policy responsibilities. The Soviet Union tried to regain mastery of its situation through reforms, and these were initially well intended. But soon the so-called reformers grabbed hold of the central foundations of politics and economics and steered a course toward economic disaster and the destabilization of society. The end result was the surrender of all Soviet achievements. It was not only that these changes were applauded in the West. Also, in some socialist countries neighboring the GDR, “reformers” were active and were supported by the West.

The GDR was involved in this global conflict. In the end, it was part of the socialist community. And in the 1980s, the GDR was also faced with the need to develop or correct its economic policies. There were shortcomings in supply, deficits in social life, which led to dissatisfaction. We have not always done our homework properly — partly from our own inability, partly we were blocked.

Obviously, we were unable to convince people and make them conscious of the actual social progress we made compared with a capitalist society dependent on exploitation, oppression and war. So many in the GDR believed they could join together the glittering world of commodities under capitalism and the social security of socialism. But, as Erich Honecker said in various speeches, capitalism and socialism are as hard to unite as fire and water.

How did we personally experience this? With concern for the future of all those people who had built with their labor this peaceful democratic republic, which had taken the difficult path, starting from the ruins of the fascist war and Nazi ideology. And personally, after his resignation in October, my husband was relieved of all his political functions. I resigned as national education minister even before the GDR Council of Ministers resigned in early November.

Margot Honecker, GDR minister of education, visiting a children’s facility in Berlin, September 1989.Photo: Gabriele Senft

Margot Honecker, GDR minister of education, visiting a children’s facility in Berlin, September 1989.
Photo: Gabriele Senft

AP: How do you explain the “uprising” of the East Germans, as it is called in the West?

MH: It was not an “uprising.” There were demonstrations, but the workers were working on their jobs, the children went to school, social life continued. Most people who went into the streets in the fall of 1989 were expressing their dissatisfaction. They wanted to make changes and improvements. They wanted a better GDR. They were not demonstrating for its abolition. Not even the opposition wanted that. That there were also hostile forces among the opposition, which mainly gathered under the roof of the Church, cannot be denied. It is clear that the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany–Junge Welt) was able to manipulate those who were discontented and finally to steer the movement for a better GDR. From the cry of “We are the people!” it became “We are one people!” In this way they found the lever they had been looking for since the beginning of the existence of the GDR, that of their declared intention to “liberate” the citizens in the East. Regarding this, we should remember: The Western powers have — working in conjunction with German capital and its pliant politicians — first split Germany and then baptized the German Federal Republic. That contradicted the sense of the provisions of international law making up the Potsdam Agreement of the four victorious powers in 1945, which required a unified democratic Germany.

We, that is, all the progressive forces of Germany, wanted the entire Germany to be a democratic, anti-fascist state. We never surrendered this goal, but were unable to reach it. The founding of the GDR was the result. Resurgent German imperialism fought by all means against it, and in 1989 it saw its opportunity to eliminate the GDR, the other Germany. For forty years it had failed to do this. It was only when the Soviet Union, which had allied with us, then dropped the GDR, that the Federal Republic was successful.

What ignited the fuse on the powder keg in 1989 was the increasing exodus of citizens of the German Democratic Republic to the Federal Republic of Germany. The West used all means available to fuel this. We had not managed to put plans to ease travel restrictions into place early enough. Even before 1989, GDR citizens had gone to the West, which reached out and recruited highly educated people. The motives for going to the West were different. Of course, the appeal of consumerism and free travel played a major role. West German propaganda never tired of claiming that those who left the GDR were voting with their feet against socialism. From 1990 until today, however, there are three million people who moved there from Eastern Germany, although now the same political conditions exist in the West as in the East. Why?

In the GDR there was no bloodshed, no civil war, no poverty or misery, all these reasons why today hundreds of thousands of people are leaving their homes in the Middle East (West Asia–WW) or in Africa to flee to Europe.

AP: In the West it was referred to as a “peaceful revolution,” but how could a “revolution” have been possible at all in a socialist state?

MH: A revolution, as I understand it, is a profound social upheaval aimed at the radical transformation of social relations and the liberation of the masses from exploitation and oppression. In this respect, overcoming the reactionary imperialist relations in Russia in 1917, or the creation of an anti-fascist democratic order in 1945 in the Soviet occupation zone in Germany, were revolutions. Capital was deprived of its power to continue to rule over the people. If a reversal is carried out of the social and production relations that had been overcome earlier, and that’s what happened, that cannot be considered a revolution. It is, on the contrary, a counterrevolution.

Let me remind you that the socialist GDR was a guarantee of peace in Europe. It never sent its sons and daughters to war. The Federal Republic of Germany, however, participates in bloody wars that the U.S. and NATO instigate throughout the world. French Socialist Jean Jaurès (1859-1914–JW) underlined this connection: “Capitalism carries war within itself like the clouds carry rain.” And not only that. Capitalism also carries the seeds of fascism in itself. We had eradicated the economic roots of war and fascism in the GDR. The west of the country remained capitalist. In 1990, the GDR was absorbed into this society, which has caused so much harm in German history. The past was brought back. No one can name that “revolution.”

AP: In your view, what role did [former general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union–WW] Mikhail Gorbachev play in this development?

MH: A few years ago, Gorbachev said during a lecture in Ankara that he had begun in 1985 to overcome communism. You can believe that or not. It is clear that, with his policy, he gambled away recklessly what the peoples of the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries had created at great sacrifice. The world was not changed for the better by the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Bloody wars, violence and terrorism are on the agenda. The judgment of history about the work of Gorbachev will not be positive.

AP: On November 9, 1989, the “anti-fascist protective wall,” the Berlin Wall, as the border was called in the West, fell. This year the 25th anniversary of “German Unity” was celebrated. Was the wall’s construction in 1961 necessary or was it a mistake?

MH: The construction of the “wall” was necessary; otherwise, there would have been war. The situation in the world was tense. The U.S. acted aggressively. With the pretext that there was a threat from the East, they further upgraded their military. In the attack against Cuba in the Bay of Pigs [April 1961–WW], the United States had just suffered a defeat. Since the end of World War II, Berlin smouldered, an unresolved issue. There were constant provocations. In June 1961, Khrushchev and Kennedy met in Vienna to negotiate the cessation of nuclear weapons tests and the conclusion of a peace treaty with Germany and the resolution of the West Berlin question. It came to a confrontation. The tone between the great powers intensified. Military maneuvers were held. The threat of war was in the air. And in this situation the border closing had to be taken up.

This was no arbitrary measure by the GDR. This border was a result of World War II, which German imperialism had instigated. The course of the boundaries of the [occupation] zone had been decided in the summer of 1945 by the victorious powers. The formation of a separate West German state, the FRG, (on May 23, 1949–JW), however, completed the division of Germany, and the line of demarcation between the Western zones and the Soviet-occupied zone was a state border.

This was not simply a state border, however, let alone an internal German border, as it always was called in the West. It was the western border of the Warsaw Pact, the Eastern defense alliance, and the eastern border of NATO. Those were the two most powerful military blocs of the world, which were carrying out a Cold War.

The border ran through Berlin — through the city — with its four sectors assigned to the four victorious powers in 1945. But the border in Berlin was open. Therefore, Berlin remained a permanent object of dangerous confrontations among the victorious powers, to the detriment of Berlin and to the detriment of the GDR.

The Political Advisory Committee, which was the governing body of the Warsaw Treaty states, decided in the summer of 1961 to close the border in Berlin and the western state border after they decided a military confrontation could no longer be ruled out. I do not think that one can call the prevention of a possible third world war a mistake.

The creation of clear conditions on the front lines of NATO and the Warsaw Pact facilitated the then incipient détente. It led to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose final accord was signed in 1975 in Helsinki, also by the GDR. It was an attempt to create a system of collective security on the continent. However, as we see today, with the fall of the Soviet Union and stepping up of the eastward expansion of NATO by the United States, this security structure has been destroyed.

AP: Where did you and your spouse witness the opening of the border?

MH: From our apartment.

AP: In your opinion, was (the recently deceased former secretary of the SED Central Committee for Information Science and Media Politics–JW) Günter Schabowski’s announcement of the opening of the border an accident, or was it, as (former West Berlin mayor–JW) Walter Momper claimed during an interview with Berlin Mayor Erhard Krack, known about or planned in advance?

MH: That is beyond my knowledge.

AP: What do you say about those who died at the Berlin Wall?

Yes, people died at the Berlin Wall — refugees and GDR border guards. For every person who has a violent death, it is regrettable. Everyone who died while trying to cross the border illegally was one too many. It brought suffering to the families. The political leaders grieved the death of the young people not less than their relatives, because these youth were not conscious of their responsibility for their own lives or, seduced by Western agents, accepted the risk to cross the border illegally.

After 1990, border guards were put on trial, although they had acted according to the law of the GDR. Even the leaders were tried and imprisoned, including party and state officials who had suffered years in Nazi penitentiaries and concentration camps because they had fought fascism. They were sentenced by FRG justice, which had never removed the fascists from its ranks.

AP: What was good in the GDR, and what should the socialist government have done better in order to save the “first socialist state on German soil”?

MH: In this state, each person had a place. All children could attend school free of charge, they received vocational training or studied, and were guaranteed a job after training. Work was more than just a means to earn money. Men and women received equal pay for equal work and performance. Equality for women was not just on paper. Care for children and the elderly was the law. Medical care was free, cultural and leisure activities affordable. Social security was a matter of course. We knew no beggars or homelessness. There was a sense of solidarity. People felt responsible not only for themselves, but worked in various democratic bodies on the basis of common interests.

The GDR was not a paradise. There were defects that complicated daily life, shortcomings in supply, and deficiencies in everyday political life. There were decisions made at various levels in which the people concerned were not always included. However, compared with the conditions now prevailing in most capitalist countries, it was close to heaven. More and more people who experienced life in the GDR understand that. After 25 years, a generation has now grown up which has no living memory of the GDR, because they’re too young. This suits the FRG propaganda: Forget about it. The longer the GDR is history, the thicker the lies that are spread about it.

To return to your question. We would have done much better had we talked openly with the people about the serious issues, about the worsening situation. You need to include them in solving problems. But whether we could have saved the GDR under the circumstances prevailing at that time — that’s doubtful.

AP: Much is said about the Stasi. How do you explain its existence in a workers’ and peasants’ state?

MH: First of all: It was necessary. The first workers’ and peasants’ state on German soil was a thorn in the capitalists’ side. They fought it by every means. From the outset, the GDR was under attack. Sabotage, infiltration by agents who did not shy away from acts of terrorism, was the order of the day. All the intelligence services in the world were sitting in West Berlin. On Teufelsberg [A hill in West Berlin, site of a major National Security Agency surveillance station during the Cold War–WW], the Americans listened hundreds of kilometers into the East.

The GDR maintained foreign intelligence and defense under the umbrella of the Ministry of State Security. That was a legitimate and legal institution, which exists in all other countries on earth. The “Stasi” was blown up into a monster after 1990, its employees denounced, lies spread about them and their institution, books printed, films produced and museums set up to spread horror stories about the terrors that the “Stasi” allegedly committed.

Slowly citizens are recognizing that monitoring and spying by secret services today is far more intense and total than anything the small GDR could afford or want. As long as the GDR had to resist the attacks of hostile forces, state security was a necessity. There’s no longer a GDR, so you do not need a “Stasi” any more. I think intelligence services are currently not only more dangerous than they were then, but also unnecessary. They ought to be abolished worldwide.

AP: You are personally accused of militarizing schools in the GDR as minister of education by introducing civil defense lessons. Is that true?

MH: It’s not surprising, however, that I’m not accused of having participated in an education system where all children between three and six years attended preschool and then primary school, where they were taught by well-trained educators in the spirit of humanism, peace and respect for other peoples. Yet because there were a few hours of civil defense classes, does that mean I militarized the whole education system?

The introduction of these classes sprang from a common opinion of the responsible ministers, myself included, that it would be useful to provide some basic knowledge before military service, in accordance with our legal obligation for 18 months of mandatory service for young men in high school. Maybe it was not our best idea, but hindsight is always easier.

AP: Do you remain loyal to Marxism-Leninism and still call yourself a communist, and, if so, why?

MH: I not only consider myself one — I am a communist. Loyalty is probably not the appropriate term.  Marxism-Leninism is an ideology, a method of investigation to understand the world, the laws according to which it moves, so you can orient yourself in the world. Some believe in a divine will, others in a predetermined fate. We communists are materialists. We follow a scientific outlook, which assumes that the society and everything that arises in it are the work of human beings. Exploitation and oppression are neither divinely ordained, nor are these evils acceptable. We have to fight for a humane, fair, peaceful world, and today that is more urgent than ever. We must refuse to allow that people perish from war, hunger and disease, and that natural resources and the livelihood of the people be depleted or destroyed by ruthless capitalist exploitation, solely for profit. If humanity is to have a future, the power of the banks and corporations must be broken. They will not give up their power voluntarily.

AP: Do you still maintain contact with your former comrades, such as the German Communist Party (DKP) or the Greek Communist Party (KKE), or with others?

MH: I am most closely associated with the German Communist Party and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), as well as comrades from the Left Party. I have many contacts with citizens in Germany — people I have never met in person — who write to me today. Some visit me here in Santiago de Chile. Thanks to the Internet, I have connections in all directions and they inform me about everything that happens in the world. To live in the Andes in South America doesn’t mean to sit on the moon.

AP: How do you evaluate the current developments in Europe, especially in Greece, both the economic — keyword: tough austerity – and political — keyword: Syriza in power — situation?

MH: Objection: Syriza indeed took over the government, and won again, but it has no power. The power in Greece still belongs to domestic and increasingly to foreign capital.

This Europe is divided between those above and those below, between rich and poor, between wealthy and impoverished countries. The rivalries of the great powers for dominance and profits are increasing. From the beginning, this Europe has been a project of monopoly capital, an imperialist structure to consolidate its power. The policy of democratic and social degradation is enshrined in the EU treaties, dictated by the interests of multinational corporations. The strong states push the weak to the edge, into the abyss.

Among the left there was an idea that this Europe could be reformed. But the extortionate attitude of the European authorities towards Greece has demonstrated that this is an illusion. Those who dictate to the Greeks demand privatization according to the model of the GDR economy, by means of a trust agency and privatization. In the GDR, this instrument has done great evil. Factories were shut down and powerful enterprises returned to the corporations from which they had once been taken by referendum after the war and transferred to public ownership. The result was a massive deindustrialization of the GDR. Hundreds of thousands lost their jobs overnight. Pure capitalism was imposed on the GDR, the East. Also in West Germany, the rights won by the workers began to be dismantled, because the socialist state next door had disappeared.

With concern, I watch the dictatorship of the monopolies growing steadily and aiming to raise German imperialism to the hegemonial power of the continent. Twice between 1914 and 1945 they tried to achieve this goal at gunpoint and failed. They have never given up their quest for world domination, and have always been and are ready to plunge into military adventures.

I’ve followed the development of Syriza with sympathy, as I join in sympathy with every protest against the dictatorship of the monopolies, any movement that tries to halt this capitalism using democratic rules.

But we must be realistic. The “International of the Powerful” still faces no strong power on the side of the downtrodden and oppressed. Consistent and effective activity by the anti-monopoly left is lacking in European countries, nor is there adequate international solidarity and common alliances.

In Greece, the Empire struck hard and smashed the illusion that this Europe could be reformed. Through these methods no other Europe can arise.

AP: Is socialism still an alternative in general and for Europe in particular?

MH: What else! If humanity does not want to sink into barbarism, it is the only alternative.

AP: How are you living now? You lost the lawsuit against the Federal Republic of Germany for your confiscated assets.

MH: “Confiscated assets” sounds like a big deal. It concerned our savings. We — like all citizens of the GDR — had savings in the bank. You may know that citizens of the GDR had their pensions reduced arbitrarily, and this injustice continues to this day. I receive a normal retirement pension, because even for me, the legal rules for all German citizens apply.

AP: Do you have a message for the Greek people suffering from the harsh measures of the so-called institutions?

MH: I think with feelings of solidarity, sympathy and respect for the people living there. I share some warm memories with Greece, even though I was never there. When I hear Greece, I think of Manolis Glezos, who took down the swastika flag from the Acropolis, as I fought in Germany against the same fascist enemy. I think of the Greeks who were given asylum in the GDR, especially the Greek children who found a home with us, when the fascist colonels staged a coup in 1967. I think of Mikis Theodorakis, whom hundreds of thousands of children from the GDR sent solidarity cards to in jail. His music, the music for the “Canto General” of the Chilean, Pablo Neruda, which rang in the GDR, also moved me.

Greece has survived many difficult trials in its history. I think it will survive this too. We say: those who fight may lose — but those who do not fight have already lost. And the Greeks know how to fight for their rights and for their home, as they have proven repeatedly in their history. The solidarity of many friends around the world is with them.