Images - Opposition in the GDR
After the repression of the initial anti-Communist resistance, criticism of the SED dictatorship could only develop within the confines of Marxist ideology. The building of the Wall initially drove all forms of public dissent underground and made the GDR seem like a grey, politically uniform country in the eyes of Western journalists. Critiques had to come from disappointed Communists, like the scientist Robert Havemann, who barely survived Nazi imprisonment and then collaborated in the Stalinization of Humboldt University, only to eventually realize that the practice of “real existing socialism” was far removed from the egalitarian utopia in which he believed. SED strictures led the ethical socialist, poet, and songwriter Wolf Biermann to satirize the party leadership so bitingly in his songs that he was expelled from the country in 1976, an act that led in turn to a surprising protest of prominent writers on his behalf. While authors generally supported the emancipatory goals of socialism, some intellectuals like Christa Wolf and Stefan Heym began to act as loyal critics, pointing to abuses in order to improve the system. The next prominent dissident to appear was the ecologist Rudolf Bahro, who penned a searing indictment of bureaucratic repression, for which he was imprisoned and eventually forced to leave the GDR for the West. By their example, these voices from within the Socialist camp created the nucleus of a dissident movement in the GDR during the 1970s.
Under the shelter of the Protestant Church, a more fundamental critique developed in the form of an independent peace movement that broadened into a political opposition during the 1980s (Chapter 12). Resentment against the forced militarization of GDR society provoked intellectuals and young people to launch an appeal to establish a “social peace service” under the motto “Swords into Plowshares.” Protests inspired by fears of nuclear annihilation were particularly aggravating to the SED, because they took its own peace propaganda at its word but directed it inward towards Eastern shortcomings rather than outward towards the West. The massive repression with which the regime reacted ultimately demonstrated to peace circles the importance of human rights, leading the newly founded Initiative for Peace and Human Rights to demand the realization of those freedoms guaranteed in the constitution, but not actually practiced. The proliferating dissident groups tried to form a political opposition by seizing upon hallowed Communist rituals, one example being the January 1988 annual march in memory of the 1919 murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. They also publicly criticized the government’s fraud during the local elections of May 1989.
Though holding an overwhelming preponderance of power, the SED leadership became increasingly confused about to how to deal with this challenge within its own system. In contrast to the Western interpretation of the Helsinki Declaration of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Communist ideologues defined human rights differently, focusing on social entitlements rather than political freedom. They sought to overcome the passive resistance of the majority of the population (which expressed itself through a disinterest in hard work) with a combination of compulsion and incentives. To Western visitors like Theo Sommer it looked as though the political system was becoming ever more stable and the population had no choice but to come to terms with it. But even minor challenges to public order, such as disturbances after rock concerts, were met by massive repression from the SED, prompting more and more young people to turn against the regime. Some advisors to the regime, including the Leipzig Youth Research Institute, noticed a growing process of disaffection but were largely at a loss as to how to stop it. Although the infamous secret police, the Stasi, registered the establishment of a Republic-wide network of dissidents, by the summer of 1989 it believed that it still had things firmly under control.
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