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Property and Justice (February 19, 2004)

Richard Schröder had been elected to the GDR Volkskammer in 1990 as a member of the SPD. In the face of yet another flare-up in the debate on how to deal with expropriations carried out during the Soviet occupation (1945-49), Schröder reminded readers of the Volkskammer’s role in solving restitution issues. He rejected the interpretation that back in 1990 the Federal Republic had treated the GDR like the Hereros, a tribe of African herdsmen colonized by Germany in the late nineteenth century. By mentioning the Hereros, Schröder alluded to the argument advanced by some that East Germany had been colonized by the West.

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“We, then, were your Hereros”

The second expropriation of the victims of land reform was unjust but unavoidable. Otherwise there would have been a revolt.

A suspicion haunts Germany: “At the beginning of German unification was a lie.” An immense breach of the constitution was supposedly staged with single-minded determination. The guilty parties were Helmut Kohl, Lothar de Maizière, and, coming ever closer to the fore, Wolfgang Schäuble. We are talking about the expropriations in the Soviet Occupation Zone between 1945 and 1949, which were not reversed in the Unification Treaty of 1990. Previously, these sorts of arguments were put forth by those fighting for their lost property. By now, the suspicion has turned into a statement of fact.

Two questions are at issue: Did the Federal Government do everything possible in 1990 to reverse those expropriations? And did the Soviet Union actually demand that those expropriations not be reversed? The original owners say no to both.

German unity came about through the “Two plus Four” negotiations. “Four” refers to the victorious powers of the Second World War, and “Two” to the two German states. The new discourse over unity now revolves around another pair: the Federal Government and the government of the Soviet Union. German unification is being introduced as a kind of annexation of a passive East by the West. The legal counsel representing the original owners and their heirs before the European Court for Human Rights has complained that there were first-class and second-class victims. According to his argument, the first-class victims are not, as one might think, those Germans who had to endure a second dictatorship and, on top of that, an economy of scarcity, the effects of which they are still suffering from today, as opposed to the West Germans who, during that same time, were able to live in freedom and with considerable opportunities for self-fulfillment and prosperity. Rather, we are talking about two groups of victims, most of whom were citizens of the Federal Republic in 1990. Which of them profited more from German unification? Those who were dispossessed after 1949 – that is, by the GDR – benefited from the principle of “restitution before compensation;” the others, who were dispossessed under the Soviet occupying power, are supposed to make do with compensation payments. And that, of course, is unjust.

In this case, as so often, the question of justice is in fact complicated and impossible to resolve to everyone’s satisfaction. But in the new unification discourse, the GDR appears merely as a kind of Hong Kong that was swallowed up by the mighty neighbor state. In reality, however, the people of East Germany brought down the SED dictatorship in a peaceful revolution and gave themselves, in free elections, legitimate popular representation and a democratic government. But their opinion and will do not count in this new reunification discourse. For as the writer Constanze Paffrath (Macht und Eigentum [Power and Property]), for example, wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “At no time did the GDR have the political power to push through its own demands in the German-German negotiations.”

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