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Legacy of denial

It's time to stop pretending. Freya Klier on the radical right in East Germany.

Germany is shocked by a series of murders targeting Turkish citizens. Over the course of several years Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos from Zwickau randomly murdered flower sellers and grocery store owners as well as a policewoman. And for years they remained in hiding, while the investigations of local and national police came to nothing. The murderers originate from Saxony, a region of the former GDR, and they were part of a extreme radical rightwing scene. There are Neo-nazis in both western and eastern German states. What is less known, however, is that this ideology was surprisingly alive and well in the GDR. Freya Klier, a former East German dissident, describes how racism was actually promoted in the GDR. Today an atmosphere persists in the "new states" that continues to tolerate rightwing extremism.

In 1993 the National Chairman of the Republikaner, Franz Schönhuber, decided to fill the existing holes in his western party staff with former state loyalists from the East. One professor was deemed particularly worthy of promotion, previously a longstanding member of the SED and director of the sociology department within the Faculty for Communism Research at the Karl Marx University of Leipzig. This man became the State Chairman of the radical right-wing Republikaner for Saxony. A party convention was planned for June 1993 in Augsburg and on this occasion also an "act of national reconciliation."

The party chief correspondingly gushed about the German Democratic Republic. In one statement he asserted: "East Germany was much more German than West Germany. It had a sense of family and was not the kind of elbow society we have now." In others he praised the "proper goose-step" in the GDR and their "extensive hostility to foreigners." Schöhuber shares this view with numerous citizens of the dismantled GDR and many socialist comrades.

But Schönhuber did not yet realise what these comrades had already managed to do in the East: a history of over 40 years of cultivated anti-Semitism and an iron grip on the extremely small minority of foreigners who had been allowed to stay temporarily in an encapsulated GDR. After the flight of millions of East German citizens, there was such a permanent lack of workforce, that in the late 1970s the socialist leaders reluctantly decided to let in certain quotas of Vietnamese and Africans from Mozambique - for three year periods, and then they were replaced by others.

However, the so-called "fijis" and "mozis" were placed in special housing units. They were not allowed to frequent official restaurants. They were not allowed to leave the city without a permit, had to perform the most menial tasks in factories, and they were not supposed to learn German at all. Above all, their wives were forced to have abortions - something still celebrated by all the right-wing radicals. Could there conceivably be a more right-wing policy? Today, the people who used to enforce are under now the guises of Die Linke party. And shortly after fall of the Wall they accused the West of their own rotten practices.

After the fall of the Wall the radical right was really able to take off. In September 1990 I published an essay on anti-Semitism and xenophobia in the Allgemeine Jüdische Wochenzeitung, which I had already written at the height of the GDR era. That put me at number eight on the murder list of the East German Neo-nazis, as an ex-Neo-nazi later informed me. I had written about what was going on in our perfectly organised German block-warden system, at a time when West Germany was not yet a factor in the East.

I wrote about the Vietnamese women and about my old Jewish friend Johanna, who had to look at the Nazi who had raped her and thrown her in the Elbe in 1935 now sitting in front of her as the Party Secretary of the SED. I wrote about our little anti-racism theatre piece that I rehearsed with two young people in Berlin, who were the offspring of a German-Sudanese student romance. The two boys grew up as "nigger" as "coal-face", and ultimately had to be placed in a special army unit in order to survive their required period of service in the National People's Army. We rehearsed this theatre piece at a time when the so-called "anti-fascist protection wall" was protecting us from western Nazis.

I still have vivid memories of the fascist hoard that attacked the neighbouring church with "Sieg Heil!" and "Jews out of German churches!" while stabbing fleeing punks with broken-off bottles. A year before I had gathered signatures with a few friends to prevent the Jewish cemetery in Berlin Weissensee from being levelled.

"We are standing on the ruins," I wrote in 1990, "and we have to settle the record and face the facts of a discredited society. In the year 1990 a climate of open violence predominates in the cities of the run down GDR. Shortly before I had been forced to flee out of an empty commuter rail wagon, because a band of Nazis in combat boots and bomber jackets had decided that I was a "Jewish cunt" because of my dark hair. I only felt I was safe once I reached West Berlin territory. I could never have expected an East German police officer to protect me.

The politics of the reigning socialists fed resentment against everything that departed from the norm. The homeless therefore never blemished the grey picture of the East German streets - those who did not make an effort to work found themselves labelled as "antisocial" and were put behind bars, where they were forced to work for slave wages. There were no ramps for the disabled; integration schools were a foreign concept.

Already immediately after the fall of the Wall, I watched how the socialist comrades responsible for all of this began to pass the whole issue off on the "West", the "Federal Republic of Germany" and "capitalism". Over the years their propaganda machine has been kept so perfectly oiled, that phrases such as "the displaced youth of the post-Wall era" have become standard throughout Germany as well as the notion of the great childcare centres in East Germany. It's hard to unlearn what you've learned. At the same time, the comrades themselves mutated from the SED to the PDS and then to the honey-sweet party of Die Linke.

How many decades will deeply internalised behaviour patterns persist and continue to replicate themselves? Citizens of the GDR were uncomfortable with any divergence from the norm, whether it was the lurid hair colour of the punks, the "niggers" or the "fijis", the disabled or someone wearing an unusual hat.

In 1993 I was at a district council meeting in the Berlin district of Köpenick where the residents of settlement of privately owned homes around the picturesque Wendenschloss neighbourhood were told that a home for Bosnian war refugees was being established nearby. At the time former East Germans did not yet understand the rules of political correctness, and the city councilman for social affairs was bombarded with the hatred of 300 Köpenick residents. At first they ranted and raved, and then one particularly vocal opinion held sway: the people in the new German states were already having a hard enough time as it was.

People were against the idea of even allowing these "pigs" (the refugees) in. Two years later Brandenburg, half a village came together to encourage a young man to burn down a home that was being constructed for asylum seekers. A comment of one of the villagers: "Better now than when there are people inside." How long does this kind of thing last?

Today many former East German citizens continue to think this way. But today they are not longer stupid enough to publicly express such opinions. This kind of talk has retreated to the private sphere where it reaches the ears of young people at the dinner table. Many children of the reunification period grew up with the phrase, "Foreigners are taking away our jobs." And also with behavioural patterns that do not only apply to foreigners: When a "spastic" gets slapped around or a homeless person is beaten up, you could hardly say that cry of indignation rings out among the neat rows of houses between Frankfurt Oder and Magdeburg, Rostock and Gera. The political upheavals of reunification are now 20 years behind us, and in some towns the right-wing National Democratic Party (NPD) still gets 20 percent of the vote.

Since the 1990s I have been talking to students in East German schools about dictatorship, democracy, tolerance and xenophobia. One such gathering in a vocational school in Neuruppin culminated in a statement that I had heard often: "We are swamped with foreigners here." Everyone nodded in collective complaint. When I asked the some 60 students to raise their hands if they were not born in Germany, not a single hand went up. Maybe none of the young people who I encountered have taken part in racially motivated attacks. However, you do wonder where this skewed perspective comes from, who prepared the ground for this irrational sense of being overwhelmed by foreigners?

A few months ago the Junge Welt newspaper came out with a staggering title page on the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall. There was a photograph showing the empty faces of a GDR brigade from the year 1961. Holding their weapons in front of their chests, the comrades were blocking off the Brandenburg Gate. What followed was a Thank You for the 28 years of the Wall! Junge Welt is the favourite newspaper of Die Linke and its offspring. I do not recall any of their readers protesting against this mockery of the victims of the Wall or cancelling their subscriptions.

This party needs to stop pretending and should finally admit that it played a fundamental role in preparing the ground for the radical right in East Germany. Human lives are only important to members of this party to the extent that they can be politically instrumentalised. This falls in line with a longstanding GDR tradition. In 1987 it was Junge Welt that only reported on a neo-Nazi attack on the Church of the Zion when the issue boiled over into the West.

On this occasion we civil rights activists were thrown into the same pot as the Nazis. However, it would be disastrous to not say that even under the reigning conditions of the GDR there were always people to whom tolerance and moral courage were not just empty words. Also in the East there were citizens who took a stance in front of asylum seekers' residences, ducking fist-sized stones while no responsible policeman was to be seen far and wide.

There are such people. But there are too few of them to counter narrow mindsets and brutality through education and widespread resistance. Pastors, social workers and small citizen initiatives fight almost single-handed against quiet maliciousness and a downward spiral of silence. Their small number points to another reason for the disastrous circumstances in the East - the loss of credible and highly essential authority figures over decades.

This situation continues to have fatal consequences, even now. Namely, almost the entire intelligentsia was among the three million GDR citizens who were forced to leave. Generations of people have been worn down and, given the deadened atmosphere that this has left behind, it is no wonder that the credible thinkers of the next generation are also understandably taking flight.

This is where the individuals of the 1968er generation could make themselves useful, those who did not glorify the socialist dictatorship of the East. In order to credibly convey respect for the lives of other people - in small towns, youth clubs and schools - we need the testimony of eyewitnesses, of the democrats who fled and who can talk on the same wavelength with young adults. I know it can make a difference. Last year I worked with rightwing youth in Greifswald, the hardcore types who had already been in jail. We will never be able to reach them all, but there is still a lot to be done.

The 1968er who now hold positions in many institutions should think about how to involve precisely these "dimwits" in international projects. We like to criticise the 1968ers. But we can never say that they ever let their parents' generation off the hook in terms of their complicity and silence during the Nazi period. For this we owe them much credit, and the East should profit from this more.

Because we didn't have any 1968ers in the East. And beyond that, the German responsibility for the war was categorically placed on the West, where of course all the Nazis had fled, as every schoolchild learned year after year. Now also the history of the GDR itself is being distorted. And the East is suffering once again from not coming to terms with the past.


Freya Klier (homepage) was one of the founding members of the peace movement and was a civil rights activist in the GDR.

The article originally appeared in Die Welt on 21 November 2011.

Translation: ls

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