The Largest Human Rights Movement in the East

03/03/2014 03:26 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2014
  • John Feffer Director, Foreign Policy In Focus and Editor, LobeLog

We think of human rights movements in terms of voice: the voices of protest, the voices of the marginalized, the voices of the silenced. In East-Central Europe prior to 1989, the faces of the human rights movement were the signatories of Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, the dissident writers in Hungary, the Solidarity trade union leaders in Poland, the renegade Party members in Romania.

Roland Jahn doesn't disagree that these were important human rights movements. He was, after all, a part of them. In the 1970s, he protested censorship and compulsory military service in East Germany. In 1982, he received a sentence of 22 months in prison for displaying the flag of Poland's Solidarity. He was, in other words, a major voice of protest.

But in 1983 the East German government forcibly extradited him to West Germany. Against his will, he'd moved to the other side of Albert O. Hirschman's famous formulation. He became "exit." He worked as a journalist in West Germany and continued to support his former colleagues in the East. He was the first East German to look at his own Stasi file. In 2011, he became the federal commissioner for the Stasi Archive. We talked in his office in the Archive last February.

He was quick to point out that in terms of sheer numbers, the East Germans who wanted to exit their country -- and who began to do so in rather large numbers in 1989 -- constituted the region's largest human rights movement. In other words, we often focus so much on the voices of those who stay that we neglect to see exit as a movement as well. As someone who has been on both sides of the voice-exit continuum, Jahn is well positioned to understand this dynamic.

"I was very critical of the distance between the opposition groups and the many people who chose to leave East Germany," he told me. "I always felt that the movement to leave East Germany was the largest human rights movement in the East. And many of the civic groups that existed at that time distanced themselves from this movement and put their main emphasis on reforming East Germany from within."

He had begun his critique of the civic groups inside East Germany, before the Berlin Wall fell. "After having lived in the West for five years at that point of time I could not imagine that it could be possible to reform the GDR," he continued. "Crucial to me was that there would be a civic movement that united the movement to leave East Germany with those people who wanted to stay - based on the minimal consensus of human rights. I also thought that the civic movements were too isolated in their activities. They did not approach society but rather remained in their own circles. They were a little bit elitist. My ideal of what should have happened would have been Solidarność in Poland. Nevertheless I have great respect and admiration for what those in the opposition civic groups did, especially for their courage, because they were always under the threat of being arrested by the Stasi."

We talked about the accomplishments and the mistakes of the approach to the Stasi after German reunification, how he feels about the West German secret service, and the challenge of reconciliation as part of the truth-and-reconciliation process.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall fell?

When the Wall fell I was a journalist for the radio and TV station Sender Freies Berlin in West Berlin. I was actually working on a broadcast about the fall of the Wall. When the broadcast was finally done, I went to the crossing point at Invalidenstraße. I went against the flow of people that poured in from the East into the West. I sort of swam against the flow of people to go into the East.

And what were your feelings about that?

It was a feeling of triumph. You could call it that. A feeling of accomplishment about something many people worked on together. We poked holes in the Wall, and in the end the Wall fell. It was simply a feeling of happiness. Triumph is maybe not the right word. It was a feeling of happiness that I was able to see this day. Although I was living in the West, I could only perceive this freedom of the West as a semi-freedom because I was living behind the Wall also in the West. I was in front of the Wall and also behind the Wall. This is why this day was so precious to me. Especially because I was thrown over the Wall into the West, it was so important for me that the Wall fell.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I remember reading something you wrote in summer 1989 -- before the Wall fell -- in which you were critical of the civic movements in East Germany for being somewhat to the side and not entirely relevant.

I said that the opposition groups are not in touch with the thoughts and feelings of the people in the GDR and that it is important that they empathize more with the people. This was confirmed when several members of the opposition also admitted this. I produced a TV show where one of them said that the opposition groups were as far away from the people as the Politburo of the SED was. I wanted the civic movements not to be so isolated from the majority of the East Germans. I was very critical of the distance between the opposition groups and the many people who chose to leave East Germany. I always felt that the movement to leave East Germany was the largest human rights movement in the East. And many of the civic groups that existed at that time distanced themselves from this movement and put their main emphasis on reforming East Germany from within.

After having lived in the West for five years at that point of time I could not imagine that it could be possible to reform the GDR. Crucial to me was that there would be a civic movement that united the movement to leave East Germany with those people who wanted to stay - based on the minimal consensus of human rights. I also thought that the civic movements were too isolated in their activities. They did not approach society but rather remained in their own circles. They were a little bit elitist. My ideal of what should have happened would have been Solidarność in Poland. Nevertheless I have great respect and admiration for what those in the opposition civic groups did, especially for their courage, because they were always under the threat of being arrested by the Stasi.

I talked to Renate Hürtgen whose idea was to create something like KOR from Poland. But she had great difficulties convincing the opposition that this was something important, and there was not a huge interest from the workplace either.

I can confirm that. In addition, the opposition groups were not sufficiently connected. It was just beginning. There was some networking within the Protestant Church. But networking outside of the Church did not happen yet, for instance in the workplaces.

There was no networking between the opposition groups themselves either, only within the structure of the Church. But a real network of opposition groups from Rostock to Suhl didn't happen. It was different in Poland. KOR and Solidarność had a totally different network. So who would have known of Renate's activities? I did not know about it.

Many people in the Bürgerbewegung were surprised at the elections in March 1990. But it doesn't sound like you were surprised by the results of the March 1990 elections.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.