08/12/2013 06:30 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2013

Life Underground in the GDR

The events of 1989 are largely remembered for the people on the streets. Thousands came out in Berlin to tear down the Wall. Huge throngs appeared in Wenceslas Square in Prague. Protesters massed in the central squares of the cities in Romania and Bulgaria. Solidarity brought out huge numbers of its supporters for election events in the late spring of that year.

Before 1989 -- and before 1980 in Poland -- dissent in the region was not a mass movement. It consisted of small groups of people who had great difficulty reaching out to other people for fear of discovery and arrest. Some groups eventually decided to go public, such as Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. The peace movement in the East German churches in the 1980s maintained a semi-public status.

But in the early days of dissent in East Germany, the state and the Stasi were dedicated to eradicating all signs of opposition. As Thomas Klein, a leading oppositionist from those days, explained to me, they didn't even know the size of their dissident circles until after 1989 when the Stasi files became available.

There were two levels to underground work. "One was the level of just finding people you could talk to in private groups wherever you were working," he told me in an interview in Berlin in January. "The other level was that of real conspiratorial work, which involved the development of alternative concepts for Eastern Europe. For that of course you had to get a hold of critical papers and information from the West and get them disseminated in Eastern Europe, and that was very difficult. In the 1970s, we had to rely on the West. But in the 1980s, we put out our own papers under the auspices of the Protestant church."

"If you wanted to be active in the political underground of the GDR, you had to conspire," he continued. "If you worked with conspiratorial newspapers that existed in the 1980s in the GDR and in the 1970s with foreign newspapers, it was only a question of how long it would take until they caught you. They caught me in 1979. And if you not only worked underground, but also publicly contradicted the Party line, it was certain that you would be imprisoned."

Klein was imprisoned for 15 months. The state offered to send him to West Germany. But he refused. That was a major principle for the dissidents: They wanted to stay in East Germany and change the country from within. Klein stayed and continued to work as a dissident. He was under a travel ban, but the political situation became somewhat more tolerant in the 1980s. The underground movements had been largely destroyed, and a new dissident movement emerged that would eventually become the basis of New Forum and other groups that emerged in 1989.

When I met Thomas Klein in 1990, he was active in the United Left. He went on to serve in the East German parliament and then briefly in the Bundestag, an experience he found rather disappointing. He was not happy to see the decline in influence of the anti-Stalinist left in East Germany. "We were the most brutally oppressed of all the dissidents and were never in the position to inject oppositional discourse into society," he concluded. "But you are always responsible for your own action, so this isn't any excuse for our incapacity to be politically effective."

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were doing and what you were thinking when the Berlin Wall fell?

I remember very well what I was doing. But I thought it was a disruption of what we were doing at the time. We were occupied with the making of a newspaper, which we thought was important. We were looking to change the situation in the GDR. We were not interested in being able to go to West Germany. So we completely underestimated and misjudged the extent to which everything would change for us. Of course, we knew that this was a significant event and would have an impact on us, but we were negligent in dealing with this question. But again, we were concerned with building a new GDR, and we belonged to organizations that did not support the idea of reunification. We wanted a different, independent East Germany.

How long did you spend in the Parliament?

I was a member of the last parliament of the GDR. The legislative period started in March 1990 after the elections, and the parliament was dissolved on October 3, 1990. A certain portion of the elected members was taken into the Bundestag, and I was one of them. So I was in the Bundestag for two months until they had a regularly scheduled election in December. I was on the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) list for Saxony, but I didn't get in.

I'm curious about your experiences between March and October during the GDR parliament. Were you able to achieve anything?

Nothing at all. I could speak, but I couldn't change anything. One reason for this was that I was a non-faction member. I had very limited speaking time, and I had no voting rights on the Economic Committee I belonged to. So it was my task to make some of the grotesque actions in parliament public. I was only allowed to make three speeches.

And what were the speeches about?

Different things, but generally about economic policy and its social consequences, which was my most important field of expertise.

Were you able to work with any of the other representatives of other parties?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.