Germany: Closing Doors, Opening Doors

08/23/2013 04:01 pm ET | Updated Oct 23, 2013

It's difficult to close down an organization that's about to be absorbed by a bigger entity. You have to deal with staffing, with the old office space, with all the stuff inside the office. There's all the paperwork. You have to change the letterhead, the business cards, the signs on the doors. There are banking details, legal questions, accounting nightmares.

Now imagine what it must be like to close down a country. The to-do list is monumental.
Helmut Domke was part of the grand closing down of East Germany. An astrophysicist and activist in Church circles, Domke didn't get involved in East German politics in 1989-90 with the intention of presiding over the country's disappearance. When we talked in March 1990, he was very enthusiastic about the model of the Round Tables and hoped they would continue to be places for citizens to address vital social issues. He was also looking forward to the task of demilitarization and conversion of military enterprises in the country.

But as the winter turned to spring in 1990, the prospects for an independent GDR grew dimmer. In May, a couple months after we first talked, Domke had an opportunity to join the GDR's Foreign Ministry and work on the issues he cared so much about. But it wasn't going to be easy. "In 1990, we were under quite a lot of pressure," he told me in our interview this February. "We hoped to have more time. When I came to the office of the ministry of foreign affairs in the beginning of May, we thought we would have about two years to go calmly into the new conditions. But then there was a shortening of all these time scales. The political processes developed their own dynamic."

As a deputy minister of foreign affairs, Domke was responsible for dealing with the Soviet troops stationed in East Germany and for disarmament negotiations, among other things. He was involved in the final negotiations of the 2 + 4 talks that paved the way for reunification. And he was present in New York on October 1, 1990, for the meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe just prior to German reunification when the allied powers had to renounce their rights to Germany. He stayed on in government, at the Brandenburg level, and facilitated the four-year process by which Soviet troops withdrew from the country.

Domke speaks proudly of some of the door-closing tasks of that era, such as the decision in August 1990 to end all military production in the GDR. Many of the arms production facilities were then converted to arms destruction facilities. But, Domke points out, "We were disappointed that, in the name of 'conversion,' some of this ammunition and material was exported after unification. The argument was: we can get money this way to help pay for conversion. That is a terrible logic, which went against the quite clear, anti-militaristic intention of Neues Forum during our process of gaining freedom in 1989."

More generally, "The hopes we had for demilitarization were not realized politically after reunification," he continued. "For example, in 1990 we prepared a law on conversion to create some institutions to further develop the concept. But we did not succeed up to unification to make this law in the GDR. After unification these impulses were lost. The government of the united Federal Republic of Germany permanently refused all attempts to start a state program of conversion."

It wasn't all door-closing. As the old saying goes, when one door closes, another opens. Domke emphasizes that the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Germany has led to a new kind of relationship with Russia. He himself is the chairman of the Foundation of West-East Encounters, which was created with the capital left over from the former friendship organization between the GDR and the Soviet Union. "After German unification there was about 15 million Euro left in the organization's accounts when the structures were dissolved," Domke explains. "We used that money to build a foundation that supports contacts with independent civil society organizations in the New Independent States."

We also talked about his thoughts on the Stasi, what activists had accomplished in Church circles in the GDR, and what might have been done differently during the reunification process.

The Interview

In 1990, you spoke about your disappointment that the Round Table experience didn't have more impact. When we talked in March, I think the Round Table process was still going on...

Yes, after the elections in March 1990, most of the Round Tables, the characteristic achievements of the "Peaceful Revolution" in the GDR on the local and national levels, were ending, with only some special Round Tables about questions like the Third World still going on. The feeling was that now we have a democratic legalized administration, so there is no need to sit down at Round Tables. This was also a lost opportunity. At the Round Tables, people sat down to address urgent problems, common problems. The discussions were not overwhelmed by questions of political power. Some of the atmosphere of the Round Table continued for a time after 1990 among the people going into the different political parties. But as time went on, the character and bureaucracy of the administration in East Germany became quite similar to that in the old Federal Republic of the West.

You participated in the Round Table on demilitarization?

In 1989, I came into contact with the question of demilitarization at the regional level, with Neues Forum. We organized some discussions with officers of the National People's Army of the GDR on disarmament and military reforms, and we also tried to contact the Military Missions of the Allied Forces in Potsdam. But that was very short period. Then, beginning in May 1990, I became the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in the foreign office of the new GDR administration. That was due to the new East German Foreign Minister Markus Meckel, whom I knew from our common work on disarmament in the framework of the churches. He knew about my international church experience on those issues, and he invited me to take responsibility for them at the state level.

And that lasted until October 1990?

Yes. As the deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs I was, for example, responsible for the international organizations: UN, Warsaw Pact, and CSCE. I was also the co-chairman for the Bilateral Commission on the stationing of Soviet troops. I also had responsibility for disarmament negotiations.

After unification, I was responsible for Soviet troops and conversion on behalf of the Prime Minister of the Federal State of Brandenburg, where many Soviet troops as well as those from the National People's Army were stationed. From my short period in the Foreign Office, I personally knew some of the main commanders of the Soviet troops. This was important for creating some kind of relationship of trust with the Soviet military, which after German unification where confronted with the unprecedented situation of leaving the German territory. There were, for example, many humanitarian problems in Brandenburg related to the military personnel and their families or problems with cleaning up military sites. So it made sense to have someone acting as a kind of ombudsman. Of course, the main military and technical issues related to the withdrawing of the Soviet troops during 1991-94 were administered by the Federal Government in Bonn.

Did you have certain assumptions when you were working at the civic level, in Neues Forum and so on, that you realized were incorrect when you went to the foreign office and later when you were working at the Brandenburg level on conversion and demilitarization?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.