Death of a Communist

Hans Modrow, the last Communist leader of East Germany, died at the weekend at the age of 95.* Neither the BBC nor the New York Times has yet given him an obituary (although the Guardian has, here), but his story is worth remembering.

In the late 1980s the East German Communist party (officially called the “Socialist Unity Party”) was divided between the supporters of hard-line leader Erich Honecker and the more reform-minded members who looked to the example of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Modrow was the most prominent of the latter group.

In October 1989 Honecker was finally forced from office, but he was replaced not by a reformer but by his deputy, Egon Krenz. Krenz tried half-heartedly to meet the popular demand for change, and in November his policies produced the fall of the Berlin Wall. The outcome was somewhat unintentional, but officials on the ground allowed the situation to get out of control and by the time the leadership realised what was happening, it could not be stopped without a massacre.

When the BBC published an interview with Krenz a few years ago, I commented as follows:

He comes across as rather clueless and not a very pleasant person, which is probably right. But let it also be noted that he was the man who had the choice of whether or not to start a bloodbath, and he chose not to.

The fall of the wall made the Communist regime unsustainable. Krenz resigned as party leader in early December and was succeeded by reformer Gregor Gysi. But two days earlier the party had given up its constitutional supremacy, effectively converting East Germany into a parliamentary system; Modrow, who had recently been appointed prime minister, therefore became the country’s leader.

He promised democracy, and although he became increasingly uncomfortable at the speed of change, he delivered. The Communists renamed themselves as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS); Honecker and Krenz were expelled and opposition representatives were brought into the government. Multi-party elections were scheduled for March 1990.

Everyone knew that a free election would mean the defeat of the PDS, but many still assumed that the East Germans would lean to the left and support the social democrats (SPD), who had traditionally been the party of conciliation between the two Germanys and were now taking a cautious approach to reunification. Instead the centre-right Christian democrats scored a convincing win with 40.8% of the vote, followed by the SPD on 21.9% and the PDS 16.4%.

Centre-right and SPD formed a coalition, which quickly negotiated the reunification of Germany: East Germany ceased to exist on 3 October 1990. The PDS went into opposition, with Gysi as leader; Modrow served in the federal parliament and later in the European parliament, from which he retired in 2004. In 2007 the PDS merged with dissidents from the SPD to form the Left party, or Die Linke.

Several of the old Communist parties of eastern Europe converted themselves into mainstream centre-left parties. The PDS failed to do so – perhaps because it never seriously tried, perhaps just because the SPD was already there to occupy that space. Its voter base was among those who were nostalgic for the old East Germany, and its leaders gradually drifted back towards defending Communism: even those, like Modrow, who had helped to dismantle it in the first place.

The world needs reformers, even reluctant ones. If there had been no Modrows in the Socialist Unity Party, the process of dismantling the dictatorship would have been more difficult and probably more violent. Germany owes him gratitude for that. German unity is now so well established that it’s easy to forget what a remote prospect it once seemed, and how many things had to fall the right way for it to be accomplished peacefully.

In the end, however, Modrow was no Gorbachev. Having built a comfortable career within a brutal regime, he broke with it only when it was tottering; later, looking back, he defended some of its worst features and seemed almost to regret the role he had played in its disappearance. But it’s that role that has given him a place in history.


* Thanks to Tonya Stevens for drawing it to my attention.

2 thoughts on “Death of a Communist

    1. Yes, my understanding is that in 2005 the PDS and the dissidents from the SPD (called WASG) were still separate parties, but collaborated to run as a single list in the election; I note in my reporting at the time I just referred to them as “the Left Party”. In 2007 they officially merged into a single organisation.


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