I am not going to discuss the reason for this exception. However, it is a fact that two groups of political actors in the last years of the GDR favoured the further development and not the abolishment of socialism. In short, they preferred a third way between western capitalism and soviet socialism. These groups consisted of the ‘opposition’ and the reform-oriented intelligentsia within the GDR’s governing party, the Socialist Unity Party or SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands). (see Segert 2009)
Picture 1: Four groups of actors engaged for change in the GDR at the end of the eighties*
|Spontaneous (not organised)||Organised Activity|
|Action determined mainly by private, individual interests||1) Ausreiser (emigrants)|
|Action determined mainly by political aims||3) Demonstrators||2) Members of opposition groups
4) Reform-oriented intelligentsia within SED
(part of the ‘service class’)
*Figures show the succession of the public emergence of the respective actor in autumn 1989 in GDR. To differentiate these groups also see Rink 1997, Land 1997 pp. 129-130.
I am going to explain, firstly, when the programmatic debates of these two groups emerged and became public. Secondly, I will examine the groups’ particular programs. And, thirdly, I will discuss why, in 1989, their proposed alternative development could not be achieved.
1. History of both organized groups of actors
The final crisis of the GDR started in 1988. We can identify four phases : 1) The first period lasted from autumn 1988 until May 1989 when local elections took place in the GDR. At the same time started the removal of the border fence between Hungary and Austria. This time was marked by the failed attempt of the old SED leadership to start a conservative counterattack to the Soviet perestroika. 2) The second phase lasted from May until mid-September 1989. Impressed by the mass escape of GDR citizens, more and more people came to believe that a crisis would soon break out in the GDR. 3) The emergence of the Neues Forum at the beginning of September started a third phase of political development that lasted until the resignation of the GDR’s head of state, Erich Honecker, in the middle of October 1989.. In that period, a new type of political participation emerged: the illegal mass demonstration. 4) After Honecker’s resignation, the more flexible elements of the SED party leadership tried to regain the initiative and to stabilise the state power. This attempt failed because the loyalty of parts of the “service class” (Dienstklasse) towards the elite had already been disrupted. The chaotic opening of the border on 9 November became the central event of this phase. At the end of November 1989, new and powerful actors had entered onto the political stage of East Germany: the political class of West Germany reoriented itself again towards German unification.
Now to the history of the two organised GDR actors: When viewed historically, the reform-oriented intelligentsia had older roots. Critical Marxists in Germany referred to the criticism of Rosa Luxemburg towards the Russian revolution in 1917; they sympathized with Leo Trotsky in his protest against Stalin’s politics in the 1930s, they learned from Georg Lukacs and Adam Schaff. They were mainly driven by the contradictions between the original program of socialist revolution and the actual party politics. They were further motivated by the crises and conflicts in their own country and in their close neighbourhood. This group included people from different generations, among them Ernst Bloch, Robert Havemann and Wolfgang Harich and, later, Rudolf Bahro and Rolf Henrich Upon their shoulders arose a third generation of reform-oriented SED members, among them a group connected with the project of a ‘modern socialism’.
At the end of the seventies, the GDR opposition emerged under the roof of the Protestant churches.  Critical Marxists and Christian-inspired intellectuals cooperated in these groups on the margins of the GDR society. They were engaged with such issues as the struggle against the militarisation of everyday life, the danger of an atomic war, the search for a new relationship to nature, the defence of human rights in their own country. These associations published journals and organised meetings on public themes, founded regular discussion groups for peace (Friedenskreise), such as in 1981 in the Berlin district of Pankow. In Berlin, an opposition group founded in 1986 an environmental library (Umweltbibliothek). In 1987, opposition groups took part in the Olof Palme Peace March. In January 1988, some of the opposition groups participated in the official Luxemburg-Liebknecht Demonstration but with their own slogans about the freedom of those with different opinions. During the local elections in May 1989, members of the opposition observed the vote counting process and protested against election fraud. In the summer of 1989, some opposition leaders initiated a discussion process aimed at leaving the shelter of the churches. As a result, new political groups or parties were founded.
Based on their public activities and conflicts with the state in the years leading up to the start of the Wende (change of the political system), the members of the opposition were more known and more appreciated than reformers within the SED party. Among the new political groups, the Neues Forum (New Forum) had the highest public approval. In the second half of November 1989, an opinion poll asked the public which party it would vote for in case of elections: 26.3 percent favoured the SED, 16.9 percent supported LDPD, and the Neues Forum came in third with 13.2 percent.
2. On the importance of a utopia in historically open situations
It is definitely not a surprise that, within the SED membership, the reform-oriented intelligentsia sought an alternative socialism. However, more difficulties emerge when reconstructing the oppositions’ aims in that period: did this orientation towards alternative socialism truly exist? Could it simply be a tactic to avoid a further political marginalisation?
One can find this latter position in academic literature. The historian Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk has identified only a tiny minority within the opposition that was oriented towards an alternative socialist conception, the group Vereinigte Linke. (2009, pp. 360–361.) In regards to other groups that also were using the term ‘socialist’ in their program, he presumes nothing but a loss of sense for reality. He characterises their aims with such adjectives as ‘nebulous’, ‘half-baked’, and ‘illusory’. (see p. 357, 365)
Ehrhard Neubert (2008, p. 195 ff.), another historian, does not deny the original socialist orientations of the groups, but he is not willing to accept them as a realistic alternative to ‘German reunification’.
Christof Geisel (2005) has conceded that most opposition activists had truly critical views towards the West German order and he emphasized their position in favour of the preservation of a properly renovated GDR. However, in the same publication, he questioned the consistency of the oppositions’ program. He argues that the opposition allegedly was not able to radically leave the ideology of the power-holders and develop its own world of meaning (Sinnwelt). (Geisel 2005, p. 238)
My interpretation of these facts is different. The concept of socialism, which was held both by the opposition and the reform-oriented intelligentsia, is not important because of the consistency of its theses. Similar concepts are influential in historical changes because they are guiding principles of the actions of key actors. Values matter, not the logic of arguments. Utopian visions relate to actions. Such concepts are first important only within the values orientations of a few persons and tiny groups. In historically open situations, where objectively different developments compete with one another, the choice of political action by small groups of actors can achieve social hegemony. Only in this situation can the individual political choices of small groups play a historically important role. In a certain sense, this kind of strong utopian vision within resolute groups of actors belongs to the necessary requisites for developing social alternatives.
The respective political programs of the political groups should not be evaluated from the point of its scholarly consistency. The value of these goals should be measured by the seriousness or the passion of its supporters. One has to ask whether the programs are based on personal values or on the community of values shared by these political groups. Only people who believe strongly in the changeability of a certain society are able to act decisively in a historically open situation.
Nevertheless, that kind of utopia clearly should be more than only a pipe dream.
3. On the way to which kind of socialism? Programs of the GDR opposition
Did the most important actors of the GDR opposition in autumn 1989 believe in the necessity of a third-way model of change in the country and in Europe? There is some evidence: within his study, Christof Geisel has an opinion poll that I quote. He asked, retrospectively, about the shared convictions. Firstly, he poses the question: :In the summer of 1989, what did you connect with the term ‘socialism’?” Of the respondents, 62 percent agreed fully or at least partially with the statement: the term describes a ‘task for humanity that is as important today as it was 100 years ago.’ The declaration that the term in the light of its inherent ideals ‘is for me personally connected with a very good feeling’ (‘hat für mich immer noch einen guten Klang’) was backed by about 60 percent of the polled. (Geisel 2005, p. 294) The greatest consensus was on the statement that their main aim had been ‘to democratise the GDR’ (90 percent agreed). Nearly the same amount of people agreed with the proposition that there was a strong desire to realise ‘better and more just living conditions’ not only ‘in their own country’.
This follows an explicit ‘third-way-concept’: we have strived for a model of an alternative in politics and economics that is able ‘to overcome both the shortcomings of real socialism and of Western capitalism’. In this particular poll, nearly half of the polled (47 percent) fully agreed, another 37 percent agreed ‘more or less’, that is all together 85 percent of all respondents were favourable to the concept. (Geisel 2005: 286)
This poll was asking for retrospective assessments and, accordingly, we should be cautious with its results. Most important though is the following fact: its results are confirmed by the new political groups’ programs published in autumn 1989 in the GDR.
Strictly speaking, only the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of the GDR avoided referring to a new socialism or a third way between real socialism and capitalism. However, the new party’s manifesto (12 September 1989) includes the term ‘ecologically oriented social democracy’, which is near to the previously stated aims of a third way program. Nevertheless, compared to other parties, the SDP was the most distanced against a radically reformed socialism in the autumn 1989.
In contrast, both Demokratie Jetzt (DJ) and Demokratischer Aufbruch (DA), two other important new groups, were aligning their program towards an alternative socialism. The founding declaration of the ‘DJ’ notes: State socialism ‘needs a peaceful and democratic renovation. […] All that for which the workers movement was striving, for social justice and solidarity, is in danger. If the socialism shall not get lost, it should realize now its proper, democratic form. It must not get lost because our endangered humanity searches for survivable forms of social life and therefore needs alternatives to the Western consumer society.’
The group DA on 2 October 1989 stated similar concerns about the crisis and the country’s need for a democratic transformation. After explaining this process, the statement added: ‘We will learn anew what socialism could mean for us.’ Among the appeals for a renewed democratic republic, the fifth demand is the ‘socialisation of property’; which would mean recover from the overwhelming nationalisation by building a mixed economy accompanied by forms of democratic employee participation. The DA also favoured the interplay of a planned economy and the market; they sought a society based on the principle of mutual solidarity and the ecologic conversion of industrial society.
In the founding declaration of the group Neues Forum (NF), the term ‘socialism’ is not used. However, if read carefully, the text also contains a ‘third-way concept’: ‘On the one side, we are striving for a broader offer of consumer goods; on the other side, we know the social and ecologic costs and favour the end of the growth without restraint. We want to open the door for economic initiatives but, at the same time, we are against a dog-eat-dog society. We would like to give space for the new; but sustain the proven, in order to live less wastefully and less in confrontation with nature. We strive for a well-regulated society, but we are against paternalism. We are in favour of free and self-confident people able to act with consideration of community interests.’ In contrast to other groups, the founders of ‘NF’ hoped to build a very broad social movement and thus gather very differently engaged people and groups. Therefore, they needed to avoid narrow terms. However, the direction of their intended political change should not culminate in joining the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) but in radically solving GDR problems in order to create a new society with higher standards than their Western neighbour. The message was clear: we strive to renovate our own state in order to find a better solution of the visible problems of Western industrial society. That could be seen from the negative use of certain terms like ‘growth without restraint’, ‘dog-eat-dog-society’, ‘confrontation with the nature’. Thus: What else was the aim of the NF other than the search for a ‘third way’?!
4. ‘Modern Socialism’ – the concept of the reform-oriented SED members
How can we describe the alternative goal of this group? I will analyse as an example the position of the so-called ‘socialism project at the Humboldt-University’.
Dieter Rink clearly points out the restrictions of those concepts: The main aim was not true democratisation but the partial opening of the system in order to make it more efficient. In his opinion, the reformers from within the SED avoided contacts with the opposition groups in the church because the latter were regarded as rivals and not as potential allies. More than this, taking up the demands of the opposition groups was an attempt to take ‘the wind out of their sails’. (1997, p. 66). Kowalczuk put it in his own way; the ‘SED reformers’ (in his book, he always uses quotation marks to distinguish them from real reformers) should be understood as nothing but a late attempt of the SED to save its own power. Between the radical socialist aims of the SED reformers and the politics of the SED leadership, he does not see a relevant difference. (Kowalczuk 2009, pp. 311–312) In my mind, both interpretations are one-sided and overlook the reactions of the public to the concepts in autumn 1989. Let us look now at the papers of the reformers themselves.
The fundamental thesis of the socialism project at the Humboldt-University consists of an assessment of the existing socialism as being stuck in its initial status. More than this, this ‘crude communism’ was regarded as a partial reversal of the achievements of modern capitalism. Socialism was strongly challenged by recent worldwide progress. (Brie 1989, p. 19) Capitalism was apparently better adapted to these global trends. It had developed step by step many features of a ‘modern society’. (See the paper of Hans-Peter Krüger in: Brie 1989, p. 94 ff.) In the current modern socialism, the elements of a modern society should also be more strongely developed. (Brie 1989, pp. 25–27.)
From Michael Brie’s perspective, the first development stage of socialism is shaped by the paradigm of ‘socialism as a mono-subject’. Development of individuals has been subordinated to the reproduction of the whole of society. (pp. 33–35) The Russian Revolution in 1917 resulted in an understanding of communism based on the withdrawal of the ‘achievements of capitalism’. (p. 38) Crude communist concepts and the Russian tradition of a strong state were closely combined. (p. 39)
In the same publication, Rainer Land pointed out that the previous way of economic development should urgently change. Therefore, it would be necessary to learn from the development of modern capitalism but at the same time to avoid its unrestrained competition and enormous existential pressure. (pp. 65–66) Planning would be needed but in a changed manner, not exclusively by administrative means from above. This kind of change would require the reorganisation of the complete political system. (p. 72)
The political change is described in my paper.. The main thesis consists of: Without political progress, there can be no successful reorganisation of society. (p. 80) The main direction of socialism would consist in the completion of the state by ‘political society’. (p. 81) And, the relation to the ‘modern capitalism’ is newly defined as: ‘Socialist democracy is not something completely different from the bourgeois democracy. Bourgeois democracy contains elements of the political progress that could be continued in socialist societies.’ (pp. 81-82) This perspective refutes the fundamental thesis of Lenin (and other Communists afterwards) on Communist politics; Lenin had postulated: Socialist democracy is a million times more democratic than any bourgeois democracy. (Lenin 1918) In my paper the independent public, the securing of the political rights of every citizen and the bigger stability of democratic political systems will be regarded as necessary. In the entire paper, the term ‘leading role of the party’ is missing.
One important deficit of the group should be pointed out. The objectivity of the political progress in socialism is strongly emphasized. It seems as if the authors would like to see that society is already moving in the right direction; nevertheless, further struggle is needed to reach the goal. Thinking in categories of an objectively moving progress could have eventually blocked insight into the urgent necessity of practical action.
I should confess – this important shortcoming in the model of the group’s thinking came to my mind only later. There was the danger that the precondition for objective progress, the assumed emergence of reform-oriented leaders at the very top of the party, could turn out to be an illusion. In the beginning, the group had a self-definition as advisers of politicians.
However, the top politicians in GDR had no interest in such advice.
Only in a second phase, starting in September 1989, did the group radically change its behaviour. It was not by accident that this change was caused by the mass exodus of citizens, which questioned the very existence of GDR and demonstrated the inability of the old leadership to act properly and in time.
The general aim did not change but the favoured political means did change. First, there was still a mix between old and new approaches – but a learning process had started. The group more actively sought reforms. The new role model was that of advisers for politicians who want to eventually overthrow the party leader Honecker: To bring down a government from below meant, in those circumstances, to carry out a putsch. But that phase continued with the assumption that the necessary coup d’état should be done by the rulers (or more precisely, its second level). As a matter of fact, the SED reformers still strongly overestimated the stability of power. However, the group was not alone in this respect.
In an attempt to attract potential plotters, the majority of group members wrote theses about the crisis of GDR. The paper sought to encourage actors who would be able to ‘do the right thing’. The whole paper was shaped by the following thesis: only those who take action can survive politically. In that time of crisis, one tried to somehow find a substitute for the authorities’ lack of interest in reform.
The text on the deep crisis of GDR as a state had been distributed to people at the second level of the power (members of the central committee of SED, mainly out of the intelligentsia). We chose people that some of us knew personally.
However, Rainer Land went his own way at that time. He tried to contact people from opposition groups and found a way to the media. During a rock concert at Berlin’s Church of the Redeemer (Erlöserkirche) church on 15 October, somebody read a paper prepared by Rainer in which our group announced the preparation of programs to solve urgent political problems such as the right of free travel to the West. Because a West German television station broadcast the concert, the message reached a broader public in GDR. Rainer Land as a member of the group opened a way out of the isolation, which was used then by the others as well but some days later, after 18 October, when Honecker and his closest allies resigned.
This change then started a third phase in autumn 1989 in which the GDR intelligentsia and SED reformers found their way to independent political acting. Why this endeavour was unable to leave its mark in politics, I will discuss in the final section.
5. Why was there no third way in the GDR?
In comparison to the situation in other East Central European countries, the majority of actors in GDR in 1989 fighting for a change were still in favour of an alternative socialism. It is a fact that the two main alternative political groups, opposition and reform-oriented intelligentsia within the membership of SED, had similar concepts for the change. Why then were there no real alternatives to the politics of ‘German reunification’? In my opinion, there are three reasons:
Firstly, the two opposition groups did not have any form of cooperation during the respective window of opportunity from the middle of October until the middle of November. Possible reasons for that have already been discussed (see Land/Possekel 1998).
Secondly, both groups acquired important political influence only after the chaotic opening of the border when the majority of population was already on a particular way to a national solution, hoping that unification with the richer German country would quickly solve all economic and political problems of their own society.
The change in the mood of the majority of the GDR population came not by accident. It was influenced and pushed by the politics of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) government led by Helmut Kohl. Leading West German politicians had a strong influence in the electoral battle of GDR parties since the beginning of February 1990. A second condition was maintaining the highly preferable conditions to integrate GDR citizens moving to the West. However, the decisive act was the declaration of the West German government in favour of a quick currency union on 7 February 1990. Furthermore, West German Chancellor Kohl no longer supported the second GDR government led by Modrow, which was built by including representatives of the new political groups.
At the end, both of the two political groups seeking to renovate the GDR had little influence on the early elections in March 1990. Only those representatives of new groups that had joined the existing parties of the Federal Republic could exercise further influence. If they tried to stay alone, they failed politically such as the group ‘Bündnis 90’ or the GDR Greens. Together with the reformed SED, now called PDS, in the elections of March 1990, they received only slightly more than 20 percent of the votes. That was not enough to gain any bargaining power in the future constitutional decisions.
So far, we have discussed the inner power balance. A third reason for the failure lay in the international environment. The two respective forces for radical reforming the GDR had no realistic assessment of the international embedding of its state. A successful renovation of the GDR would have needed the interest of both a Soviet leadership and Western leaders. However, in 1989, the Soviet Union was already deeply destabilised and had therefore decided to give up its ‘outposts’ in Central Europe. (Dalos 2009) The USA had strong interests in the strengthening of its dominance in Europe. Therefore, they were mainly interested in a unified Germany within NATO. Counterstrategies directed towards simultaneous dissolution of the two military blocs were without any real chance due to the weakness of the Warsaw Pact and its main power. (Plato 2003, p. 410 ff.)
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1. Unpublished opinion polls in 1988 indicated a sharp decrease in the younger population’s loyalty to the GDR and the SED program. (See Förster/Roski 1990)
2. Beside these two persons that had dared to directly confront the power-holders, other critical Marxists such as Wolfgang Heise, Uwe-Jens Heuer, Gerd Irrlitz, Lothar Kühne and Peter Ruben tried to avoid an open break with the party leaders.
3. For more detailed conditions of its emergence, see Wielgohs 2008.
4. LDPD: Liberal Democratic Party of the GDR, a bloc party that gain some influence in the beginning of the Wende.
5. See ‘Meinungsbarometer DDR im November 1989’, Question 14: http://www.za.uni-koeln.de/data/ddr-nbl/codebuch/6009cb.pdf [accessed on 28 April 2009]
6. That characterisation could be biased by his subjective approach (Kowalczuk 2009, pp. 16–17. He is seemingly convinced that ‘the opposition’ (positively assessed) could believe in such a thing as ‘socialism’ (negatively assessed).
7. He tried by his arguments to explain why, after 1990, several members of the opposition changed from a radical socialist position to a radical anticommunist one. (See, for example, Vera Wollenberger – today Lengsfeld). However, a good counterargument could be: not all former opposition members changed their position. (See, for example, Eberhard Richter)
8. In 2003, Geisel sent the questionnaire to 350 persons from the former GDR opposition. Of those surveyed, 142 answered fully or at least partially to the questions. (Geisel 2005: 240 f.)
10. For the history of the group, see Segert 2008, p. 48 ff; p. 89 ff; p.126 ff.
11. See for example (Brie et al. 1989b, p. 20)
12. In this sense, the very beginning of the text notes: ‘Only in the case that our party takes the lead of the inevitable change are we able to preserve the socialist character of our society and can assure its achievements.’ (Brie et al, 1989c, p. 79)
13. This paper is the most controversial of all our texts. The first version had the title, ‘Theses on the crisis of GDR’. In public, the tenth thesis was most often quoted. It was interpreted as a demand for the prohibition of opposition groups, at least under certain circumstances. Given the fact that this paper was directed towards the (at this moment clearly not visible) reformers in the second level of the party leadership, in my opinion, it is possible to see another context of this respective thesis. That particular thesis notes: one should give the opposition ‘a restrained legal space’, and the borders of this space should be regulated by judicial decisions, not by administrative ones. In this light, the group ‘modern socialism’ has in fact defended the legal existence of the opposition against the potential reformer at the top. Also see Segert (2008, p. 75 ff.) Similar misleading is the interpretation of the paper from 22 October by Neubert (2008, p. 202). The litmus test could certainly be the handling of the ‘leading role’ in the paper that notes prominently: ‘The leading role could only be its function to take part in the public discussion with strategic arguments and by persuasive arguments.’ (Bluhm 1989, p. 68) Furthermore, the paper states that the way of united lists of candidates from the “National front” is outdated, the SED should take part in free elections. (p. 70) See also the paper written by Segert on 17 October on the necessary changes within the praxis of party politics. (p. 77)
14. See the press conferences of the group after late October. (See Segert 2008, p. 89 ff.)
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