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After the Euphoria: An Investigation into the East German Experience of Democratic Transition

On June 17, 1953 Soviet tanks rumbled through East Berlin to suppress a widespread protest against the German Democratic Republic’s capricious labor policies.  A workers’ strike had erupted in response to a mandate published in the labor union’s newspaper which demanded a 10% increase in industrial production without a commensurate wage hike.  In response to this bold display of opposition, approximately 1 million people in 700 East German cities and towns joined the workers in voicing their displeasure with the government.  Within 24 hours, East German police and Russian troops had successfully crushed the protest.  Dozens lay murdered in the street and over 25,000 people had been incarcerated.

50 years later, a unified Germany is still trying to reach a consensus on the significance of this event. Long overshadowed by the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968, the GDR´s June 17th protest was the first major public movement against Soviet control in a Warsaw Pact country.  Soon after the event, West Berliners seized upon the protest as propaganda against East Germany’s ruling officials. West Berlin’s main boulevard leading toward the Brandenburg Gate was renamed Straße des 17. Juni.  In the Soviet occupied sector, East German officials decried the event as the work of western capitalist provocateurs.  Communist party officials redoubled their internal security efforts and remained frightened by the prospect of providing a greater degree of freedom for their citizens.     

13 years after the Berlin Wall’s fall, a recent posting on the Germany’s U.S. embassy’s website claims the uprising symbolized the East’s yearning for democracy, freedom, and unification.  Indeed, many former West Germans view the event through this black and white lens.  For them, the crushed June 17th protest represented the East’s desire to enjoy the West’s constitutional liberties and revealed the brutality of communist repression.  East Germans, however, view the day in a variety of different ways. A series of interviews we conducted reflected East Germans’ markedly divided interpretations of this event.   Hanno Harnisch, a writer for Neues Deutschland newspaper, argued that the event was merely an attempt to throw off Soviet control of the GDR’s independent socialist experiment.  On the other hand, Carlo Jordan, a former East German human rights activist, said that June 17, 1953 deserves at least as much historical significance as November 9, 1989. June 17 demonstrated a fierce solidarity among the GDR citizens, while the November 9 was met by mixed emotions among many East Germans.  Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, an East German historian, contends that June 17 was important insofar as it represented a major public mobilization for democracy, the goals of which were realized in 1989. A distinct linear path cannot, however, connect the two events.   These differing opinions reveal both the varied experiences of democratic transition for East Germans and the complex emotions they harbor about the former GDR socialist regime.   

When we first began this investigation into the East German experience of democratic transition, we wanted to know if unification was “worth it.”  In other words, are the civil liberties East Germans now enjoy under unified Germany qualitatively better than the expansive social rights they had under socialist rule?  As we soon discovered, however, we were asking the wrong questions.  First of all, it proved difficult to talk about “rights” in the GDR since, as Prof. Dr. Michael Brie, secretary of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation, pointed out, the citizens had no court or infrastructure against which to claim or contest the social benefits given by the state. Furthermore, many East Germans whom we interviewed expressed the desire to reform the GDR´s government before the Wall fell.  They did not, however, wish to be absorbed into West Germany and adopt its free-market capitalist economy without reform.  In the wake of these insights, we began instead to ask East Germans to describe their experiences during reunification and to evaluate the direction in which they hope Germany will go in the future.  This approach kept us from making blanket judgments about which system was “better” and instead permitted us to probe the nuances of people’s different understandings of human rights and the role of government.       

Becoming a Minority

“Unification” is a loaded term for many East Germans.  The fusion of East and West Germany in 1990 did not amount to a true integration of both systems.   As a result of more than forty years of socialism and their smaller population, East Germans faced a new economic and political infrastructure in which they were a minority.  Antje Scheidler, who was 15 years old at the time of unification, remembers the odd feeling of receiving a new passport without having left her home.  “It was like being part of a game and no one had told you the rules,” she said. Prof. Dr. Rosemarie Will, a professor at Humboldt University beginning in the early 1980’s, recalled the speed with which the entire education system had to change. By October 3, 1990 the university had to operate by the Western system, which meant larger classes, new departments, and new courses without socialist ideology.  No one explained the rules, she remembered, but by that date everyone expected her to know them.

For young Antje Scheidler, the transition signified a challenge to her personal adaptability – a challenge that she was more than happy to face when also being offered exciting opportunities like the chance to study abroad.  For older generations who had built their family lives, careers, and personal identity in the GDR, adaptation represented a more arduous task.  Prof. Dr. Kurt Scheidler, the chief of a hospital in Friedrichshain, who moved to East Berlin in 1951, expressed his frustration and disappointment with unification: “The GDR was my state,” he elaborated, “even with all its mistakes, I hoped it would be the better German state.”  Having turned to communism during World War II, Prof. Dr. Kurt Scheidler had striven for most of his adult life to help Germans realize the ideology that reunification destroyed. “Believing in the GDR system was like having a dying patient,” he illustrated. “You still try to save him.”

Reunification also meant that for the first time in almost half a century the socialist platform that had been the status quo in East Germany became the politics of the minority opposition.  Hanno Harnisch, who served as Public Relations Director for the Party of Democratic Socialism, or PDS, recalled how the experience of becoming a political minority forced him to reconsider the needs of the public: “When you live your whole life building up a model, it’s hard to give it up,” he explained, “but even the best system cannot survive without public support.”  The PDS currently holds 4.0% of the vote in the Federal Government, but Harnisch believes the party serves an important political function as a counterweight to the growing power of the free-market and neo-liberally oriented Social and Christian Democrats.  As in GDR times, Harnisch remains a proponent for the values of “justice, education, and limitations on the rich,” but today he works for them with the belief that a truly democratic system derives its legitimacy from the people.  

Facing Unemployment

Jochen and Hannelore Scheidler illustrated the state of the GDR’s economic infrastructure in the mid-1980s by speaking of their house.  “We paid low rent and lived securely with a roof over our heads,” Jochen Scheidler explained, “but each day we would watch the house deteriorate little by little.  We had sustenance, but there was little possibility of renewal.”  Hannelore Scheidler added the image of an old bridge on the route to her parents’ house.  Every year the speed limit over the bridge was reduced in response to its deterioration.  It could not be rebuilt, but it also never fell down.  

Jochen and Hannelore Scheidler personally benefited from the economic transition after 1989, but theirs was not the case for many East Germans. While in the GDR employment had been guaranteed by the state, the unemployment rate in “unified” East Germany rose to 10.3% in 1991, compared with 6.3% in the West.  Women from the former GDR were often the first to lose their jobs.  The GDR expected and encouraged women to work as part of their responsibility to the state, and more than 90% of them did. After reunification, however, women in East Germany faced a 12.3% unemployment rate, as compared with an 8.5% rate for men.  Furthermore, the Western system did not recognize the qualifications of some East German professionals, especially the female-dominated professions such as teaching and nursing.  Hannelore Scheidler, an elementary school teacher in the former GDR, had to return to school to attain the necessary qualifications. Although she enjoyed attending university with her daughter, Antje, she expressed frustration over the lower quality of training in the Western system, particularly its lack of pedagogical courses.  Ultimately, Hannelore Scheidler was able to continue her work as a teacher after completing her western recertification courses, but she continues to argue that she was better trained in the GDR.

In contrast to those who had already settled into careers in the GDR, younger generations were presented with a host of new job and educational opportunities after unification.  Prof. Dr. Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk had been trained as a brick layer but chose to become a doorman in order not to become part of the system in the GDR.  He deeply wanted to study history at the university, and only after unification could he accomplish that goal.  Antje Scheidler had considered becoming a doctor in the GDR, but suspected that such a choice might require participation in the Socialist Party.  Only after unification did she realize how many personal choices the GDR had simply made for its citizens, and she appreciated the chance to study abroad or consider a plethora of career options for herself.  At the same time, Carlo Jordan spoke of his daughter, who, along with her boyfriend, is currently studying law.  Jordan pointed out that his daughter faces a higher difficulty of finding a job because she is in her mid-20s and therefore of possible childbearing age, which would not have been a concern during the GDR period.  In times of high unemployment, firms are less likely to hire a candidate who may need to take 3 years off further down the line. This difficulty, of course, faces not only East German women, but young German women across the board.

Facing A New Choice

Being a woman from the former GDR entailed its own set of challenges.  Besides the fact that many women were among the first East Germans to lose their jobs in reunification, the social infrastructure that had supported working mothers began to weaken.  Women in the GDR received fully paid maternity leave 6 weeks before birth and 3 months after.  Childcare was readily available for children as young as 3 months old and cost little money.  “Basically you paid for lunch, which amounted to maybe one-twentieth of your income,” Jochen Scheidler explained.  In 1978, state policy changed slightly so that a parent could also take an additional year off work at 3/4 of her regular salary.  Today, a mother or father can take up to 3 years of leave, but without pay.  Most childcare centers are private institutions, offering few open spots and presenting high costs for young parents. Antje Scheidler, an expectant mother, has been told to enroll in childcare several months before the baby’s birth, even though, as a technically single parent – and therefore a necessarily working mother – she will receive preference. 

Prof. Dr. Rosemarie Will, who was 40 in 1989, explained that her generation of women could easily have both a career and a family – a fact for which she is grateful.  Today, young women cannot expect to combine both without difficult sacrifices.  Speaking of the law faculty at Humboldt University, she pointed out that before reunification, 5 of the 28 professors were women, while now the number has dwindled to 3.  She explained that attaining professorship in law requires between 12 and 15 years of constant focus.  For this reason, such a discipline proves difficult to combine with raising a family.  Jochen and Hannelore Scheidler also spoke of the frustration that many East German women faced with the rise in unemployment: “Unlike many Western women, they were used to working; they didn’t want to stay home all day.”  They further argued that in a society with high unemployment, women are encouraged to stay out of the job market.  “The current rhetoric argues that it is better for the child to stay at home for the first five years,” Jochen Scheidler elaborated.  Reflecting on their experiences and those of their siblings in childcare, however, Michaela Massino and Karl Lemberg did not agree with this statement.  On the contrary, Michaela Massino spoke positively of her experience, “We developed good friends and social skills at an early age.” 

At the same time, however, Prof. Dr. Rosemarie Will pointed out that women in the GDR mostly worked in jobs with fewer responsibilities and lower wages than men received.  Furthermore, as Prof. Dr. Michael Brie explained, in some intellectual circles spouses might equally share the burden of household chores, but among the majority of the population, the responsibility fell primarily on the woman. Hannelore Scheidler stated that in theory women were equal with men, but not in practice.  Carlo Jordan, however, remembers that more so than today many GDR women worked as highly qualified engineers and architects – necessary professions in the GDR, but less emphasized today. Indeed, as Prof. Dr. Rosemarie Will argued, the GDR provided certain career opportunities and childcare for women not because of any moral reasons, but instead because it was necessary to have the female portion of the populations in the labor force. Given the GDR´s concern over emigration, it was also necessary for female citizens to have at least two children, if not more. Reunification has offered new possibilities and career options for young East Germans – both men and women.  Thus a new argument for state support of working mothers must be based not on necessity, but rather on the importance of allowing women as well as men to realize the multitude of choices offered by the new Germany.

Gaining Civil Rights

In the GDR, human rights did not consist of free choice, but of basic necessities provided by and individual duties to the State. The first constitution of the GDR in 1949 included the same civil rights that had been protected in the Weimar Republic, but did not create a separation of powers such that individuals would have an apparatus through which to claim those rights.  The second constitution in 1968 stipulated that every social right also be understood as a duty and did not include individual, inalienable rights. 

Working for a radio station on the border between East and West Berlin, Hanno Harnisch frequently dealt with GDR censorship in his professional life.  For him, a certain level of restriction was necessary to maintain the socialist system in which he strongly believed.  In his experience, journalists could always get around censorship with a little bit of humor and cunning.  For instance, the GDR put a ban on quoting Gorbachev’s words “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” in any radio programs, so Harnisch and his colleagues used the equivalent Bulgarian words that sounded remarkably similar.  For Harnisch, reunification meant not the beginning of critical expression, but the ability to make that criticism explicit. 

For Prof. Dr. Kurt Scheidler, his position as a high-ranking medical professional allowed him a certain amount of latitude to criticize the state.  Placed in charge of hiring new hospital employees, Prof. Dr. Kurt Scheidler chose to hire qualified applicants regardless of their level of political involvement with the Party and refused to give patient details to the Stasi, the East German secret police, without proper paperwork from the State Attorney.  After June 17, 1953, he chose not to sign a birthday card for President Walter Ulbricht to protest the fact that no one had taken responsibilities for the casualties.  When the Stasi imprisoned his son for having printed leaflets criticizing the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, Prof. Dr. Kurt Scheidler never distanced himself from his son. Although he found ways to criticize the GDR from within the system, he is glad that East Germany has now rid itself of “the old machinery.”  The ideas may have been right, but the inflexibility of the authoritarian system prevented the GDR from “learning from its mistakes.” Prof. Dr. Michael Brie also stressed that if GDR citizens “played by the rules,” they could achieve a certain degree of freedom within the system.  He now speaks quite cynically of the Stasi when he says, “every form of government has its costs.” 

When we asked Karl Lemberg and Michaela Massino, who were 9 years old in 1989, how they felt about the GDR, both described a moment when they sensed that something was not quite right.  Karl’s father worked as a car mechanic and sometimes received printed advertisements for West German trucks.  Karl Lemberg took one of these ads to school one day to show his friends, but the teacher confiscated it until the end of the school year.  Michaela Massino described her family’s flat that stood near the Berlin Wall.  She and her classmates while in kindergarten would take walks in the surrounding community gardens, and Michaela Massino never understood why they always had to turn away when they approached the Wall. She was not aware of the Wall itself, just of the restriction of movement.  Outside of these moments, however, Karl Lemberg and Michaela Massino enjoyed participating in the Young Pioneers, a youth organization that offered after-school activities.  Karl Lemberg remembers being selected to place a red carnation in the barrel of a gun at the 40 year celebration of the GDR on Karl Marx Allee.  He also recalls the sentiments of group strength he felt within the Young Pioneers in addition to the sense of personal responsibility he developed there.  Only after reunification did he come to understand the implications of the youth organizations, in so far as the state designed these programs to incorporate children into the socialist system at a young age. He and Michaela Massino never reached the later stages of youth party involvement and still find themselves asking the question, “Would I have become a full party member or would I have resisted?”

Dr. Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, on the other hand, remembers feeling disgusted

by the “old men” in the government who wanted to restrict his every action.  He could not buy the books in which he was interested or talk to his friends from the West. When he chose to work as a doorman, he tried to attain personal freedom by not working for the state.  In his opinion, by prioritizing equality over freedom, the GDR inhibited the development of civil society in East Germany.  Any type of community activity happened because someone was behind it – forcing it.  He now sees many East German communities suffering the consequences of the lack of freedom in the GDR because very few people demonstrate the initiative to organize. He sends his ten–year-old son to a “Free School” where he is encouraged to make autonomous decisions. “Kids know when to eat, when to sleep, when to play…you don’t have to tell them,” Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk explained.  He also argued that the GDR system never gave children the chance to develop their own personalities.  He hopes that through the “Free School” and frequent traveling his son will develop his intellect and individuality to its highest potential.

Losing an Ideology

Although most of our interviewees did not suffer economically from reunification as other East Germans did, they often spoke of a lack of ideals in today’s German society.  Jochen Hannelore Scheidler regretted that the principle desire of Western society is for more money and nothing else.  “A society cannot live without ideals,” Jochen Scheidler argued, and for him, the Western ideology does not suffice.  Carlo Jordan regretted that the complete turn-over of Eastern schools to the Western system has resulted in a loss of values among young people.  Without money for after-school programs or community-building activities, the state, in his opinion, has left the youth open to right-wing extremism. As Prof. Dr. Michael Brie also stressed, the increased emphasis on individualism sometimes results in a lack of team spirit and personal responsibility for the welfare of the community. Furthermore, Prof. Dr. Kurt Scheidler, having been involved in an exchange program with Angola, misses the solidarity and aid programs that the GDR had with developing countries.

What frustrates many East Germans is the fact that the collapse of the socialist states has destroyed any competition for Western capitalist systems.  Jochen Scheidler pointed out that before 1989, Western Germany had to work hard and continue reforming in order to keep Western eyes away from the socialist system.  Reunification stopped this process of reform, because the capitalist system appeared to have “won.”  Carlo Jordan also described his frustration when he held a Green Party seat in 1994-1995 the Berlin Parliament.  Although the West German constitution had been designed to be temporary, no new constitution was drafted at reunification, and any legislation he drafted had to be covered by existing West German law.  As Hanno Harnisch argued, the Stasi files and all that they demonstrate about the repressive nature of the GDR state should not serve to delegitimize every beneficial alternative that the socialist system offered.  Any state system can strengthen under the pressure of alternatives and can likewise stagnate without counterarguments.

Looking Ahead

In the mid-1990s, as Carlo Jordan explained, the public consensus was that many of the economic problems were primarily East German ones.  Now in his opinion they are common German problems – particularly in Berlin where the poorest districts (Kreuzberg, Wedding, Neukölln) now lie in the western half of the city. The question, therefore, “Was it worth it?” indicates that East Germans might want to hop back over the wall, and such a query does not prove productive thirteen years after the wall came down.

Dr. Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk looked back at the reforms of Humboldt University in which he was involved from1990 to 1993 and spoke of missed opportunities for innovation.  He explained that he and the other reformers could have instituted new departments (e.g. gender studies, post-colonial studies), but that in the end they basically adopted the existing West German system.  Today, however, these departments have taken root.  On the elementary school level, Karl Lemberg and Antje Scheidler commented that if the PISA study had been conducted 14 years ago, the all-day school system of the GDR (without the socialist ideology) might now be the norm.  “Finland is now the model based on the PISA study,” Karl elaborated, “but if you look closely at its system, there are a lot of similarities to the GDR schools.” 

Of course, no one wishes to go back to a system of restricted civil rights and Stasi surveillance.  As Hanno Harnisch stated, the GDR system addressed the issue of social rights, but “it over-solved the problem” to the extent that one could not even speak about “rights.”  Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk emphasized that trying to force an equal outcome for all people without prioritizing the freedom of individuals cannot result in a system with strong public support or a thriving civil society.  Antje Scheidler further illustrated that the employment guarantees in the GDR also stifled incentive and resulted in wasted potential, while Prof. Dr. Kurt Scheidler noted the inflexibility of the GDR infrastructure. Yet the repressive approach with which the GDR achieved certain goals, e.g. all-day education, support for working mothers, reduced levels of unemployment, should not serve to devalue the goals themselves.  Rather Germans must find ways to argue the importance of those goals within the framework of realizing freedom and democracy.    

As Germans commemorate June 17 50 years after the revolt, they should remember that the GDR workers were not struggling for the Western system per say, nor were they fighting to lose their identities as East Germans and to forget all of their socialist ideals.  When asked what East Germans gained in reunification, Prof. Dr. Michael Brie listed several rights from free political expression to freedom of travel, but when asked what East Germans lost, he spoke of the intellectual dream of a working socialist state.  Quoting the poet Volker Braun, he said, “We have lost something we never had.” The goals of greater freedom and unity must now be common German goals, approached from both East and West perspectives.









Will, Rosemarie; Die Erfahrungen von Ost-Frauen mit dem Rechtssystem der Bundesrepublik und die feministische Rechtstheorie; in Jahrbuch zur Staats- und Verwaltungswissenschaft; Baden-Baden; 


Antje Scheidler, researcher at the Department of Demography, Humboldt-University Berlin, born in 1974

Jochen Scheidler, medical physicist, born 1943

Hannelore Scheidler, elementary school teacher, born 1951

Prof. em. Dr. Dr. med. sc. Kurt Scheidler, born 1914

Michaela Massino, law student at Humboldt-University, born in 1979

Hanno Harnisch, Journalist

Prof. Dr. Michael Brie, secretary of the Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation and member of the general principles committee of the PDS, born in 1954

Carlo Jordan, co-founder of the Green Party and former Green party representative in the Berlin Parliament, born in 1951

Prof. Dr. Rosemarie Will, Professor of Law at Humboldt-University Berlin

Karl Lemberg, political science student at Potsdam University and 2002 HIA fellow, born in 1979

Dr. Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, Historien and Author 


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