Maintaining a Moral Politics

11/04/2013 07:08 am 07:08:08 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

In the early days of the changes in 1989, a new kind of politics emerged within the opposition movements poised to enter parliaments and governments. Many dissidents had a deep distrust of political parties and of political compromise. After all, under Communism, all the official political parties merely followed the script provided by the ruling elite. And political compromise was nothing less than collaboration with the authorities -- providing information to the secret police, for instance, or becoming the worst kind of careerist.

It was this experience of politics that produced its antithesis: anti-politics. In a famous essay on the subject, Hungarian novelist George Konrad favored a healthy skepticism toward power rather than an obsession with seizing power. Vaclav Havel, too, focused more on the morality of everyday gestures -- living in truth -- rather than engaging in the degraded arena of real, existing politics. Civic movements, not professional politicians, became the vehicle of choice for transforming society.

Reinhard Weisshuhn, a longtime dissident in East Germany, also wanted to see the spirit of civic movements continue in the parliamentary sphere. He'd been part of the opposition group Initiative for Peace and Human Rights (IFM) since its founding in 1985. In the first democratic elections in the GDR in March 1990, he was leery of the sudden rush to create political parties. "Before we had a single party dictatorship," he told me in 1990. "Now there is a multi-party dictatorship."

I re-interviewed Weisshuhn in Berlin in February in a parliamentary building on Unter den Linden. "I was one of those in the IFM -- and the IFM remained a rather small group in contrast to Neues Forum and so on -- who really wanted to be part of politics," he told me. "Without hesitating we legalized the IFM as a political association. As a result of the Round Table, in which we participated, it was formally possible to do this without becoming a political party. And we participated in this parliamentary process right from the beginning. This is important: at the Round Tables we specifically worked to make it possible for groups like ourselves to legally participate in the political process in the same way as political parties do."

Alliance 90, which brought together IFM, Neues Forum, and Democratie Jetzt, received 2.9 percent of the vote and 12 seats in parliament after the March 1990 elections. Later, Alliance 90 merged with the Green Party.

But Weisshuhn has avoided becoming a politician. "I am a political consultant," he told me. "I am not a member of parliament. To be a member of parliament I would have to have a career. But to do this, I would have had to act differently. What I do is attempt to influence political content and aims with the means I have."

That means working to inject a human rights perspective into current German politics. "In politics, and not only in Germany, there is always the very important issue of stability," he explained. "Stability is a positive goal and interest for all countries. Usually in established politics in the West stability means what I would call -- at least in authoritarian states -- graveyard silence. But this is the opposite of stability. It is an illusion of stability. For years I have been trying -- nowadays with some success -- to transform in people's minds this wrong definition of stability into a right definition of stability that revolves around peace and human rights. Without human rights, there can be no peace and no stability."

The Interview

Was there a point in your own life, personally, when you felt that you crossed the line in terms of becoming part of the very small opposition in the GDR?

There was such a point. Most of us made some kind of decision from which there was no turning back and that, so to say, damaged our status in the GDR beyond repair. For me, it was the summer of 1976. That's when I signed an open letter addressed to the daily newspaper Neues Deutschland. It was a comment on the self-immolation of Oskar Brüsewitz. I don't know if you know the story of Oskar Brüsewitz. He was a pastor in the countryside who immolated himself with a political message about freedom and so on. Neues Deutschland declared that he was crazy. Maybe he was crazy, but this was not the point. Anyway it was an open letter with a list of signatures that was only published in the West. This was the point for me, and it was clear.

Were there immediate consequences for you?

Yes. Arrest, house searching, interrogation, and so on. Some signatories were also convicted, but I wasn't. Later they were expelled from the country after serving time in prison.

At the time you signed the letter, you were a student?

I was already working here in Berlin as a town planner.

After signing the letter, you were not able to do that work any longer?

I was not dismissed, but these developments continued and then I quit the job myself one or two years later. I had no chance of a career within the state structures anyway. Somehow I managed to muddle through until the mid-1980s when I was then able to work for the Diakonisches Werk, the social service institution of the Protestant Church.

There was a decision to be made by organizations in the GDR in 1989/90 about whether to remain an informal movement or to become a formal political organization. What was your thinking at that time about that choice?

I was one of those in the IFM -- and the IFM remained a rather small group in contrast to Neues Forum and so on -- who really wanted to be part of politics. Without hesitating we legalized the IFM as a political association. As a result of the Round Table, in which we participated, it was formally possible to do this without becoming a political party. And we participated in this parliamentary process right from the beginning. This is important: at the Round Tables we specifically worked to make it possible for groups like ourselves to legally participate in the political process in the same way as political parties do.

Was there any disagreement about that within the movement?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.