Beyond the World news headlines
Was Communist East Germany unjust or just corrupt?
A debate about whether Communist East Germany was an “Unrechtsstaat” (“unjust state”) or merely not a “Rechtsstaat” (“state based on the rule of law”) has been dividing the German political class for months — and it now has spilled onto the front pages this week as the reunited country celebrates its 60th anniversary.
What might seem like a nuance of history has turned into a full-fledged battle that is splitting many eastern and western Germans once again along the fault lines of the long since dismantled Wall that separated them during the Cold War.
Many easterners are annoyed that some of their western brethren are labelling the Communist East German state an “Unrechtsstaat” – a term they see as denigrating not only the state, but also its people, as somehow morally inferior.
Few in the east, a region that is also far poorer than most of the prosperous west, would disagree that East Germany was not a “Rechtstaat”. The German Democratic Republic (GDR), as East Germany was officially known, had no independent judiciary, no free elections and a surveillance system run by the Stasi that used brutal methods to quash dissent for four decades.
But many easterners are rallying behind Gesine Schwan, a westerner who is running for president. Schwan has fuelled the debate by saying she would not label East Germany an “unjust state”, saying that was too “diffuse” a term.
“It implies that everything that happened in this state was unjust,” said Schwan, who is trying to defeat President Horst Koehler in a vote in the Reichstag by a special 1,224-seat Federal Assembly on Saturday. “I would not go this far in the case of the GDR.”
Schwan’s comments became a lightning rod in the run-up to the election against Koehler, who is backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and heavily favoured to win Saturday’s vote for a second five-year term. Her unwillingness to call the GDR an “Unrechtsstaat” may even cost her support from the Social Democrats who nominated her. Along with many westerners, some former dissidents in the east who were persecuted by the state say Schwan has it all wrong: the GDR was an unjust state through and through.
The debate was sparked in March by the state premier of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Erwin Sellering. The leader of the sparsely populated and poor eastern state on the Baltic Sea said that East Germany was not a “totally unjust state” as many westerners believe even though he agreed it was “certainly not a state based on the rule of law.”
Sellering said: “I reject the condemnation of the GDR as a totally unjust state in which there was nothing good at all about it.” He took a jab at westerners by repeating a popular eastern mantra whenever they felt attacked by west Germans: “The former West Germany also had its weaknesses just as East Germany had its strengths.”
Even Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, has entered into the debate — although with her typical caution avoided saying it was an unjust state: “It’s quite clear that East Germany was based on injustice. It was created by free and secret balloting. In order to survive, the system forced people to lie. It was a system based on fear and lies.”