What Happened to East Germany's Workers?

09/30/2013 09:54 am ET | Updated Nov 30, 2013

The first major challenge to the new Communist authorities in East-Central Europe came from the workers in East Germany. It was 1953. Stalin had died a few months earlier, and the heavy fog of paranoia seemed to be lifting ever so slightly. What started out as a strike of 300 East Berlin construction workers upset at higher work quotas quickly became an insurrection involving a million people throughout East Germany. The East German authorities ultimately had to rely on Soviet troops to suppress this effort by workers in a workers' state to de-Stalinize the Communist state from below.

Renate Hurtgen was six years old in 1953 and remembers when Soviet tanks put an end to the uprising. "1953 was officially not an issue in the GDR," she told me in an interview in Berlin in February. "And if it was, then only as a fascist coup: that was the official version. But the generation of my parents didn't talk about it. Because I was critical of the GDR -- like most people within the GDR -- I myself always thought: 1953 was the beginning of the end. Actually the GDR would have collapsed in 1953 if the Russian tanks had not come."

Since 1995, Hurtgen has worked as a historian looking at workers issues, including the 1953 uprising in East Germany. "It was a workers' uprising directed at the same time against the regime of Walter Ulbricht," she continued. "According to my analyses of the files, the aim of 1953 was a social democratic state. When you look at the pictures and listen to the slogans: the milieu is similar to a workers' fight from the 1920s and 1930s."

Hurtgen is not just a historian. In the 1980s in East Germany, she actively participated in the church opposition. In 1989, on the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall, she was helping put together an independent workers' organization that aspired to replace the official trade union.

"It is not well known but the Wende or the revolution in the GDR would not have happened in the way it did without what happened in the enterprises and without this communication from the street to the enterprise," she told me. "It was a very important process to overturn these structures within the enterprises. It is also interesting that the group of workers that was most active at first were not workers in production but engineers and laboratory technicians -- the skilled employees, so to speak. This was typical for the period from 1989 until January 1990. Later it changed. In 1990-92, there was a very strong enterprise movement in the East. There was a workers council initiative and several other initiatives. It was the time when enterprises were supposed to be closed or privatized to be closed afterwards. Workers were fighting not to be dismissed. They wanted to privatize the enterprise 'properly' so that it wouldn't be closed. It was a big movement here in the East from 1990 until 1994/1995."

We talked about the rise and fall of the effort to create an independent trade union in East Germany and the subsequent struggles to prevent the wholesale closure of manufacturing in the eastern region.

"I don't want to deliver a judgment that the workers are the 'losers of the Wende,' because that is not how I would like to formulate it," she concluded. "You shouldn't forget: the workplaces, the factories, and the work itself were partly medieval. It would not have been a benefit for the workers to continue to operate them in that way. You cannot simply say: 'Oh, the nice factories, now they are all gone.' It is more complicated. Of course, the way it was done was a tragedy. But something like that also happened in the Ruhr area: everything was shut down in the West. Can you now say they were the losers?"

The Interview

Where did the idea of an independent trade union come from?

I was never a trade union functionary. But like everybody, or about 90% of the workforce, I was a member of the FDGB, the Freier Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (Free German Federation of Trade Union). In 1987, I joined the church opposition. I am not religious, but there was only this one place. It was in Friedrichsfelde. In 1989, there were a lot of formations during summer and fall: Neues Forum, the Social Democratic Party. I knew of all these formations, because I was a member of the opposition circles. I thought: "Will I join Neues Forum, what am I going to do?"

I chose the trade union movement. My political thinking and also my criticism of "real socialism" and of the GDR were very strongly connected with a positive view of Solidarność and the Polish workers. This had a big influence on me.

It shaped me more than what happened in Prague in 1968. And when the revolution - I call the 1989 movement a revolution - started here in the GDR I thought: something has to happen in the enterprises. There was another organization in Poland that existed shortly before the formation of Solidarność: KOR (the Committee for the Defense of Workers). They were members of the intelligentsia, but not exclusively so. They came together to help the workers with their strikes and when they were in prison. They collected money, they wrote calls for action. Later they worked with Solidarność. I thought something like that should happen here in 1989.

Our call was not for a new trade union. But we called for the formation of grassroots groups to initiate a trade union movement.

This is not well known because we were not at the Round Table, and we did not get a lot of media coverage. But I have written some books about it since, and I know that hundreds of people in the country founded such grassroots groups and did several things in their enterprises. They dissolved the official trade union and founded a new group, or they dismissed the director of the enterprise. In the end this movement was also part of the whole movement. It was a great experience for me. A very important one.

We opened an office, and people would come and tell their stories. They would tell us that nothing had changed in their enterprises so far, that the same structures were in place, that they needed their own representation of their interests. It was a very interesting and important process. Ten years later we had another meeting, and I wrote a book about it. The title of the book is: The Awakening in the Enterprises in Fall 1989: The Unknown Side of the GDR Revolution.

This was also the beginning for my further work. Since that time, I've concentrated a lot on trade unions and on the transformation of trade unions. It started there. Before, during GDR times, I did not deal with this issue.

And before that you were working in the university?

Not at the university. I only went to school up to grade 10. Afterwards I was a teacher for small children. Then I succeed to get into university where I studied cultural studies and aesthetics at Humboldt University. Then I couldn't stay at the university because I was not a member of the Party. To teach social science at the university you had to be in the Party. There was a second reason why I could not stay at the university. Rudolf Bahro distributed his book as a manuscript prior to publishing it. My former husband and I obtained it anonymously. It only had the initials R.B. on it. We read it and found it great, interesting and very important. We passed it onto a university lecturer who we thought to be critical. He went to the Party with it, the Party went to the state security with it, and thus my career at the university was over and my husband was prohibited from working.

We were not sent to prison. It was in 1976/77, and at that time the singer and songwriter Wolf Biermann was expatriated. At that time they did not send many people to prison. I don't know if it is true, but that's what has been said.

My life changed abruptly. Nothing really bad happened to me, but it was obvious that I had to leave university. I got a good job, first at the college for economics, later at the academy. But it was clear: now I am an outsider, and I won't have a career. I never published anything after that during the GDR period.

I still remember the night when the Stasi was here to take my husband for interrogation. When he came back, I knew: now my life is going to change. We would always be wondering: what will happen next, what will they do?

How did you find out about KOR in Poland?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.