The Memory of Dictatorship and the Future of Democracy

The East German Past Today

Friday, October 3, 2014, 2:00 to 4:00pm
German Unification Symposium 2014 Lecture at the GHI
Speaker: Richard Schröder

  • Event Report

    The 2014 German Unification Symposium Lecture was presented by Richard Schröder, one of Germany's leading public intellectuals - made possible only through the peaceful revolution in Germany. Schröder was born in 1943 in the small village of Frohburg in Saxony. He grew up in a Christian family as the son of a pharmacist and chemist - and became a confessed Lutheran from his early youth on. When he attempted to enroll in college - the Oberschule in the GDR - he was rejected because of his "lack of social engagement." For Richard Schröder, this was the starting point for a career inside the Lutheran educational system. He studied theology and philosophy, worked as a pastor in the Harz region, and became a lecturer of philosophy in Naumburg and Berlin after he has finished his Ph.D. in 1977. He was among those church representatives who opened up spaces for civil rights activists - even when they were not activists themselves. In the late 1980s, Richard Schröder contributed to several internal study groups, leading to official documents of the Protestant Church: Likely the most important is "More Justice in the GDR" ("Mehr Gerechtigkeit in der DDR"), one of the most controversial papers of the ecumenical assembly in 1988/89. Many members became leading activists in Eastern Germany beginning in 1989, for instance Markus Meckel, Rudi-Karl Pahnke, Friedrich Schorlemmer, Sebastian Pflugbeil - and Richard Schröder.

    The year 1989 not only changed the GDR, Germany, and Europe, but also led to extreme changes in the professional life of Richard Schröder. He joined the newly founded East German Social Democratic party before Christmas and became a member of the Volkskammer, the GDR parliament. Gesine Schwan was correct when she once mentioned that since the Paulskirchen-Assembly in 1848, no German representative could occupy so many positions in such a short time as Richard Schröder did in the early 1990s. He contributed to the program of the Social Democrats and to the proposal of a new constitution of the round table and was a central figure in coordinating the Great Coalition and East Germany's contributions to the German Unification. He remained a member of the new unified German Bundestag until December 1990 - and started a new academic career. He was habilitated in 1991 in Leipzig, left his service in the Protestant church, and became a professor of philosophy and systematic theology at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Parallel, he started a quite unique career as a public intellectual - and I cannot cover all of his important work as a voice of the GDR in a unified Germany. His work is closely linked to the Agency of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Record, he was a member of the National Ethic Commission, and judge at the Brandenburg State Supreme Court for 16 years. He is still the President of the German National Foundation Weimar, an institution dedicated to the process of unifying Germany.

    His 2014 lecture on "The Memory of Dictatorship and the Future of Democracy: The East German Past Today" focused on a quite challenging topic: the difference between commemoration in democracies and in post-dictatorships, like Chile, Argentina, Greece, Portugal, Spain-and the GDR and former communists states in Eastern Europe. In contrast to many other dictatorships, there was no general amnesty in 1989/90, as it was common in European peace settlements until the end of World War I. The peaceful revolution was bloodless, the communist leadership lost its former position completely, and the commemoration of the Nazi past served as a model for remembering the past. In addition, injustice in a dictatorship was a one-sided affair, and civil society or "the people" wanted to know the details of the suppression system in the GDR.

    This commemoration was often linked to non-convincing arguments in defense of such memory. It was surely no redemption, as it was often noted. There was no danger of repeating the past. It is not true that learning from a communist dictatorship is necessary for a democratic Germany: The peaceful revolution in East Germany was not a blueprint for a successful transfer from dictatorship to democracy but was a result of a lucky economic and political constellation. Finally, it is not necessary to learn about a dictatorship to deal the challenges of a modern democracy. The communist dictatorships always proclaimed to be legitimized by history and the majority of the people; not the principle of the government of a majority but the protection of the rights of minorities by law. Consequently, the heroes of the peaceful revolution often failed in the political practice of democracy: They were brave fighters against dictatorship but unwilling to agree to compromises necessary for any democratic society.

    Instead of repeating the invalid arguments, Richard Schröder argued in favor of better and convincing foundations of remembering the GDR dictatorship. In his understanding, this pertained first, to deal with governmental criminality - including rehabilitation and restoration of illegally seized property. Second, such a debate is a functional equivalent for the absence of the public in the GDR: East German citizens should be informed about what was going on in their country. Third, it is necessary to correct the official history written by the Socialist Unity Party and biased academics and journalists. Finally, it should become clear who was representing the communist regime-including not only the party officials, army, and police forces but also the unofficial collaborators, namely in the Stasi. This was a necessity after 1989/90, although the Stasi role was, and is, exaggerated and it allowed the SED to hide behind the Stasi.

    For Richard Schröder, there are still three tasks for commemoration of the East German past in united Germany: First, future generations must be taught about German and East German history. Second, the debate on the SED government must be continued because it is a debate on the standards of governance and public life. Third, new research can lead to changes in our understanding of the GDR-in details, not in principle. Having said this, Schröder finally discussed some shortcomings of the reappraisal of the SED dictatorship: First, the place of active opposition and resistance is greatly overshadowed by the (western) perspective on Germany's division and the repression system. Second, the public has never had a stronger interest in the decisive period between autumn 1989 and October 3, 1990. Third, the importance of the economic conditions for the collapse of the communist reign is still not adequately recognized. This biased understanding of the East German past presents the danger of trivializing the SED dictatorship and too much room for the exaggeration of the GDR's evils, of poisonous pedagogy and of a misguiding understanding of the victims of the GDR regime. Schröder argued in favor of honoring those who made a sacrifice-but warned against an inclusion of all "victims," who were only affected by or suffered from misfortune.

    Richard Schröder ended his lecture with an encouraging plea to not only focus on the losses and the suffering caused by the East German dictatorship. The establishment of a new democratic political order is something encouraging and inspiring-and October 3rd a day for joy and happiness.

    Uwe Spiekermann 

  • Invitation

    Now considered one of Germany's leading public intellectuals, Richard Schröder was a Protestant minister from the Harz region in East Germany. He joined the SPD in 1989 and was elected in the first free elections to the East German Volkskammer. He was a member of the SPD's core values commission until 2001 and a member of the National Ethics Council from 2001 until 2007. He is Professor Emeritus of Theology at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

    This lecture has been generously funded by a bequest from Michael Olshausen to the Friends of the German Historical Institute.

    Please RSVP (acceptance only) by Sept. 26. Tel: 202.387.3355 - Fax: 202.387.6437

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