12/18/2013 01:08 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2014

Creating a Parallel Society in the GDR

One of the key contributions of the Polish opposition movement was its concept of living "as if." At a certain point in the 1970s, dissidents like Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron proposed to create a parallel society in which people acted as if they were already living in a democratic society. They would act openly, not covertly, and try to gradually expand the sphere of democratic action. If enough people acted their parts, one day they would wake up and discover that their parallel society had become the society.

This "as if" approach greatly influenced opposition movements elsewhere in the Soviet bloc. In East Germany, for instance, Gerd Poppe was deeply involved in the transition from the conspiratorial work of the 1970s to the more open organizing of the 1980s. In an interview at his apartment in Berlin in February, he described the discussion meetings that he and his former wife held in the early 1980s that packed as many as 100 people into a very small space. "Our goal was to become people that act in public," he told me. "We did not want to remain anonymous any longer."

The same principle applied to other social activities. "My former wife and I, together with some friends, founded an independent kindergarten here in Husemannstraße," he related. "For three years, we raised our small children with the children of our friends. In this way we avoided handing them over to the state-supported educational system. This was seen as an anti-government activity by the authorities. The place on Husemannstraße was a former store apartment of friends that moved to the countryside. We simply took over the facility. We started with five or six children; later there were a maximum of eight children."

He continued, "After a while they threatened to evict us. They said that we occupied the facility illicitly and that we organized the kindergarten, which they did not approve of, as an anti-government activity. So they gave us notice that they will evict us. We invited all the friends we knew to come on that date. They were all standing on the street in front of the building. So, the authorities finally took off without evicting us. After the kindergarten had existed for three years they finally stopped it with violence."

By the mid-1980s, the efforts at creating a parallel society coalesced around small independent organizations like the Initiative for Peace and Human Rights, which Poppe helped create. After the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, East Germans faced a major question. Did they want to preserve any part of this parallel society, or did they simply want to merge with West Germany and adopt the laws and lifestyles of the latter? The elections in March 1990 pitted the long-time dissidents against West German-affiliated parties. The West German parties -- the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats -- won by a wide margin.

Then there was the issue of the constitution, which turned out to be the last effort to translate the dreams of the "as if" years into a specific legal form. Poppe and others worked hard during 1990 to write a new East German constitution. They expected their draft to stimulate a wide debate. "Shortly after the parliament was set up in April 1990 we produced 500 copies of this draft so that every member of parliament would get one copy," he told me. "We wanted to have a debate about it in parliament. But these copies were never been distributed in parliament: not among the members of CDU nor among the Liberals nor among the members of the SPD."

With a new East German constitution essentially tabled, the constitutional question boiled down to a debate over which article in the West Germany constitution should be used to determine the process of reunification: Article 23 or Article 146. According to Article 23, German states simply applied for inclusion in the federal republic, as Saarland had done in 1957 after exiting French control. Article 146, however, declared that the West German constitution was only temporary and would be replaced by a new constitution when all Germans had an opportunity to weigh in democratically.

Poppe favored either a new GDR constitution or a vote on a resolution about Article 146, which would have also mandated the creation of a constitutional commission to change the provisional Grundgesetz into a constitution. In the end, the leadership in both East and West Germany opted for Article 23.

"I am convinced today, and also back then I believed this, that the degree of identification with this new system would be higher the more the population in East Germany felt that it was included," Poppe told me. "In my view this point was neglected, so that the things that separate us are still seen by many people as stronger then the things that connect us. It's not just the younger generation but also still the older generation. Maybe we could have avoided it. In any case it could have been done better."

The Interview

What did you think when you realized the Berlin Wall had fallen? What did you think would happen here?

Everybody at least somehow knew that this event had to lead to the reunification of Germany. We just didn't know the time frame. There were different movements within the opposition that reacted very differently concerning this question. At first I was very positive because such a long separation had been very hard, especially for friends and relatives. However I wanted to continue to be involved in political affairs.

Most of the people I was working with politically had a clear priority of order: first democracy and then reunification. That's why we wanted to create the conditions for free elections first. It was also the main issue at the Round Table. It was only later that the issue of German unity became important. It doesn't mean that we were against reunification. But with our specific experiences and knowledge, while being in a learning process ourselves, we wanted to establish a democratic community first through the Round Table, second through a freely elected parliament. Of course we wanted to influence the way and the construction of the reunification. Thus our position was to establish reunification according to article 146 of the constitution which involves a national referendum, and we opposed reunification according to article 23.

Also, the East German Länder did not exist at that point of time. They used the day of the accession to reestablish the Länder again. Of course this was artificial. We had hoped that the whole process -- the people's understanding of democracy as well as the federal system - would be gradually established. But all this has just been imposed on us.

The counter-argument used against us was that another debate about the constitution would be too cumbersome and difficult and take too much time. But the people who said things like that - for example, Lothar de Maizière and his government - did not expect that reunification would come within half a year of the free elections. De Maizière, for example, liked to say that he would be happy if after two years there would be a joint German Olympic team. They had no idea that reunification would come half a year later. Still, they told us all the time that "we don't have the time." It was illogical. They just didn't want it. They were dependent on Kohl and his West CDU, and so they wanted to follow his ideas and enable a smooth handover.

You mentioned you were a student from 1958 to 1961. Was there a point at the time before the Wall went up when you thought of going to the West?

I was a physics student at the university of Rostock when the Wall was built. So I was at university from 1959 until 1964. I wanted to finish my studies, so I did not think about it at that time.

Of course everybody thought about leaving at some point in time. But we thought: there is a gradually strengthening of our possibilities to attract a little public attention. As long as it is developing in that way we will continue to try to push and we won't leave the country. The only thing my wife and I were thinking was: if they start to harass our children because of our actions, we will rethink this question. That's what they did in the 1950s and 1960s. They harassed the children of insubordinate parents. In our case they didn't do it. In fact, they thought that they should promote our children in a special way so that they would see the disgrace of their parents' actions. This was part of the so-called measures of Zersetzung (subversion): to alienate children from their parents.

For example my eldest daughter is a writer and lives in Potsdam. She did her education in the Institute for Literature in Leipzig, so she was absolutely promoted. The Stasi files say that they wanted to promote her so that she would recognize the disgrace of her father's actions and separate from him. They did the same thing with my little son at the age of six when he started to go to school. The Stasi went to the school and talked with the director and the teacher to make sure the child is promoted in a special way so that he would be alienated from his bad parents.

I should add that of course nobody is born a member of the opposition. At that point of time I easily could have become a normal scientist. My time in the opposition started most of all in 1968 with the Prague Spring and the time afterwards when we all believed that maybe there were still possibilities for reforms. It was around 1970. Even after the failure of the Prague Spring we did not lose this hope. Also at that time I met people that became very important for me like Robert Havemann and also Wolf Biermann.

Actually I was continuously involved in the opposition until 1989. During that time there was a certain distinction between the different people and groups that were active in the opposition. During the 1970s, I believed less and less that reforms were still possible. That is maybe the difference between me and Thomas Klein, who always believed that reform socialism would be possible. In particular during the second half of the 1970s, the reprisals increased again, including the expatriation of Biermann and the wave of authors, actors, producers who left the country. By then I realized that we couldn't reform the existing system. We had to act differently.

The path I saw was more like what the opposition was doing in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and partly in Hungary. During the 1970s, we already had contacts with Czech dissidents, people who had played a role in the Prague Spring and those who founded Charter 77. We also had contacts with people like Miklos Haraszti and Janos Kis, the representatives of the Hungarian democratic opposition. Those contacts had a significant influence on that part of the opposition where I was active.

In these countries it was also about the question of publicity: the publication of secret news, the announcement of solidarity with political prisoners, and so on. One issue discussed back then was the idea of parallel societies, which derived from an article in the 1960s by Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski in Poland and later the activities of KOR in Poland and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. You create your own publicity. You organize yourself. Either you try to reform the system from within - something I did not believe in anymore. Or you become an actor in a parallel society, preferably acting in public, with all dangers and problems that come with it.

During the early 1970s you would sit together in small circles and remain strictly conspiratorial. You would write articles on your typewriters and then distribute seven copies to friends that shared your opinion. You remained in your own surroundings, and you didn't have any public effect. We were very well informed. By building the Wall, they did not at all take away from us all the possibilities to inform ourselves. We knew some of the samizdat articles from the early Soviet dissidents as well as from Charter 77. We also had things like "underground universities" in private apartments. This was something they did in Prague because certain things could not be taught at universities. Certain well-known professors would give small lectures in private apartments. These were ways that would give you more independence and maybe also more influence.

This happened in the neighboring countries already during the 1970s. With the GDR it happened later. We had a time lag. We started the samizdat network in the mid-1980s with publications like Grenzfall, Umweltblätter, and things like that. Compared to neighboring countries, we were about seven or eight years behind.

You had something like the underground university here as well?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.