From hope to despair- why the Soviet Union collapsed
by John Green
Wed 25th Jun 2014
Many books and articles have been written about perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union together with actually existing socialism in Eastern Europe, but we have heard little from those who were actually involved in the process and are critical of how the process was handled. Hans Modrow was the last prime minister of the German Democratic Republic before free elections were held in 1990, leading to German unification. He was intimately involved in discussions with Gorbachev and other leading Soviet politicians, as well as with West German leaders in the run up to German unification.
His reminiscences offer a unique insight into the processes that brought about perestroika and the demise of Eastern Europe’s experiment with socialism. As soon as I had read only a few pages, I was fascinated and hooked. His book is an essential read for all those wishing to better understand those processes from the viewpoint of an intelligent insider and perceptive observer. It was written in 1998 but now, at last, translated into English.
Hans Modrow, the author of this book, was drafted as a 17-year-old into Hitler’s army and became a Soviet prisoner of war. After his release he, like many others traumatised by the Nazi experience, decided to help build a better, democratic post-war Germany. He became active in the FDJ socialist youth movement, and soon thereafter rose through the party ranks of the Socialist Unity Party in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to become its regional secretary in Dresden. By the eighties, he had already become disillusioned with the undemocratic practices of the SED and its leadership and began advocating the need for transformation to a proper democratic form of socialism.
Unlike many others who once called themselves ‘communist’ or ‘socialist’, Modrow refused to cross to the other side and join the victors, nor has he succumbed to cynicism as many also did. He became an MP for the PDS (the party that emerged out of the SED, later to become Die Linke - the Left Party of Germany) in the Bundestag, and then an MEP. Today, he is honorary Chair of Die Linke and is still an active participant in the political life of Germany and maintains his international contacts.
Like Modrow and many others, I was initially full of admiration for Gorbachev when he took over the helm of the Soviet Communist Party. I knew that socialism in Eastern Europe and particularly in the Soviet Union had become ossified and that its progress was being held back by an inflexible bureaucracy. His original demands of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (transparency) appeared to offer a way out of the quicksands. He was also unlike his stone-faced and apparatchik-like predecessors; he went out and mixed with the people, he was spontaneous, a great communicator and he was passionate about world peace. From that initial period, when he was seen as a man promising to usher in genuine socialist renewal,he became transformed into a darling of the west and, once he’d served his political purpose, ends up as an advertising ikon for a pizza chain.
Modrow reveals how Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership had no real concept about what they wanted or hoped for from perestroika and glasnost; they broke over the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc like a thunderstorm, but the crops they were supposed to nurture were left flattened in the fields.
Michail Gorbachev brought about not only the transformation of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, but the constellation of world relationships. At the centre of those profound changes that shook Europe was a divided Germany. Western leaders like Reagan, then
Bush, Thatcher and Kohl couldn’t believe their luck when fairy godmother Gorbachev appeared to grant all their wishes without asking for a single quid pro quo.
The Pentagon generals must have polished their missiles with renewed vigour when they heard that Gorbachev wasn’t even demanding a written agreement that no NATO expansion eastwards would take place. He also ignored East German pleas to ensure that the post-war settlement, including the transfer of land from the big landowners to the people was sacrosanct, nor did he demand immunity of prosecution for GDR party leaders who had committed no crimes according to GDR law.
During his period as Dresden regional party secretary, Modrow had numerous contacts with the Soviet Union and other East European countries, and during his short time as prime minister he met frequently with Soviet leaders. He has an intimate knowledge of the processes that led to perestroika and the detailed discussion that took place between world leaders at that time. He was particularly involved in the discussions concerning the process that concluded with German unification. He explains how he fought for a unification on the basis of two internationally recognised German states coming together as equals. But what happened was the virtual annexation of the GDR by the Federal Republic. All the achievements of the GDR, such as- an exemplary social welfare system, the promotion of women in the workplace, universal childcare and a simplified, easily accessible justice system were all swept aside and a West German system imposed. But he is not someone who holds on to illusions: as he makes clear in his book, he believes that the centralised ‘command economies’ of Eastern Europe were doomed virtually from the outset because democratic principles were ignored. That’s why, today, he is an adamant supporter and campaigner for a genuinely democratic socialism.
The book is sometimes heavy with detail on the protracted negotiations, and many of the names of Soviet and East European leaders will be unfamiliar to British readers, but this shouldn’t put you off, as the unique analysis he provides is profoundly informative, fascinating and fact-based.
What is particularly interesting in Modrow’s account is that it is written by a man who still believes in socialism and refuses to call it a day. Unlike many others who once called themselves ‘communist’ or ‘socialist’, Modrow refused to cross to the other side and join the victors, nor has he succumbed to cynicism.
Perestroika and Germany - the Truth behind the Myths by Hans Modrow, assisted by Bruno Mahlow.
Available from Marx memorial Library