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A Participant Looks Back at the Unrest in East Germany in 1968 (Retrospective Account, 2003)

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My friend Thomas Brasch had a long conversation with Erich Honecker shortly after Biermann was expatriated. They talked about whether Brasch could and should leave the GDR as well. After the two had spoken for a while and Brasch had described his experiences in the GDR, Honecker made a significant statement: he said that he felt the same way as Brasch, and that he, too, had imagined socialism in a totally different way – so the understanding was there. But: there was no opportunity to discuss this question openly in the GDR; there couldn’t be any in this kind of state.

Anyone who is somewhat familiar with Russian literature and has read Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, for example, might be able to imagine the small provincial world, with all its sublime ridiculousness, in which the drama of the 68ers of the East unfolded. This social class had a name in Russia: it was called the higher spheres and included both the representatives and the critics of power. In the GDR, we spoke of Bonzen, bigwigs, and when we speak now of the 68ers of the East, we are speaking of the bigwig children, of the sons and daughters of top-ranking GDR officials, and thus we are speaking of this peculiar GDR aristocracy, this socialist nobility that existed. It was our existence that seemed to have no meaning. What we lacked was a task that would have satisfied the ambition inspired by the deeds, by the heroic example, of our parents. As surprising as it may sound, there was no place for us in this GDR society, at least not as the children of our parents. And in this respect, one must ask if the comparison with an aristocracy is fitting. It could be viewed as something positive, that these people who ruled in the GDR did not work towards passing the whole business – that is, the power – down to their children, their direct descendants. Still, I would say that their inability to integrate this group – to which I belonged – into the system marked the beginning of the end of socialism.

The year 1968 was a time of new departures. The “socialism question” was posed anew, and we sought fresh ways to be politically active in the GDR as socialists, without having our actions controlled by the party. But 1968 also meant the speedy end to all these experiments and hopes. The end was marked by a date familiar to all of us: August 21, the day troops entered Czechoslovakia. No matter how the details of the Prague Spring were viewed – and this was strongly dependent on the information available at hand – it was clear the moment the invasion occurred that something decisive was happening, that a chance for socialism had been destroyed. Later, it would become apparent that this had been its final chance. But that was not clear at the time.

Source: Florian Havemann, “68er Ost” [“68er from the East”], lecture given on August 29, 2003 at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation on Franz Mehring Platz, Berlin; reprinted in UTOPIE kreativ, no. 164 (June 2004), pp. 544-56.

Translation: Allison Brown

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