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The post-Wall, Cold War world of Hans Modrow, East Germany’s last leader

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As Germany marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hans Modrow, the last prime minister of East Germany, explains his vision and justifies his actions in an interview with FRANCE 24.

He had a front row seat at the historic events of 1989, but Hans Modrow will not be in the German capital for the 30th anniversary commemorations of the fall of the Berlin Wall. His schedule is too packed for that. Seated in his cluttered, colourless office, East Germany’s last prime minister runs through his early November agenda: a trip to China “to reflect on the future of socialism”, and from there, straight to a book fair in Italy to present his latest book, “Lesson from History: Hans Modrow on Cuba, the GDR and Perestroika”.

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The former apparatchik of the German Democratic Republic (GDR as East Germany was officially known) appears to be deliberately avoiding the anniversary.

After all, it’s not his vision of history that Germans are celebrating on November 8 and 9. East Germany’s head of government from November 1989 to March 1990 never wanted reunification, believing the Berlin Wall was a necessary evil. Three decades after the fall of the Wall, Modrow believes there’s still a de facto separation between East and West Germans.

Three decades to refine his arguments

The man who watched his world collapse now receives visitors in his tiny office on the fifth floor of the headquarters of the extreme-left Die Linke (The Left) party in Berlin. Since 2007, he has been the president of the party’s “council of elders” after serving in the Bundestag and the European Parliament as a member of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which later became the Die Linke party.

Modrow has therefore led a busy public life after the fall of the Wall. But what interests him, above all today, is to focus on the “i” of history. In his office packed with books, including the complete works of German philosopher and communist theorist Friedrich Engels – whom he admits he has not read in full – Modrow spouts the rhetoric of a veteran politician who’s had 30 years to refine his speech and arguments.

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His discourse is dotted with defensive asides – “I know I’m going to be severely criticized for saying this” and “it’s important not to distort the facts” – all of which makes it seem like Modrow’s response to every question about the East German regime or the Wall is being addressed to a people’s court.

At 91, he’s still razor sharp, recalling dates and details easily, and he punctuates his sentences by firmly pressing his index finger on the table. Only his raspy voice betrays his advanced age and even this, he’s at pains to note at the start of the interview, is a recent development.

It’s clear that Modrow wants to distance himself from East Germany’s last president, Erich Honecker, and Egon Krenz, the last general secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). He presents himself as a reformer, someone who criticized the party from the inside and wanted to “democratize” it.

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“By the way, I was known in the West as the ‘bearer of hope’,” says the man who negotiated reunification terms with then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl after the fall of the Wall.

Modrow also refers to the corruption among some party elites and argues that his greatest regret was that he was unable to emancipate himself “more firmly from the Soviet economic development model” in order to give the regime a new lease of life.

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The Wall to ‘save the peace’

But the former leader mutes his criticism of the old regime when the subject of the Wall comes up. In Modrow’s world, the structure that disfigured the German capital for nearly 40 years “saved the peace”.

“We must not disguise history. In June 1961, Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev and young American President John Fitzgerald Kennedy failed to agree on a way to avoid a war for West Berlin. That was the problem,” he insists. For Modrow, the Wall, instead of being a problem, was a solution.

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He does not deny that he caused immense suffering to innocent people “who had nothing to do with it”. But he presents that as a necessary evil decided by a peace-loving regime.

“We had experienced World War I and World War II. I had to bury people in my village. I never wanted that again,” he explains.

When asked about the 140 mostly East Germans who died or were killed while attempting to cross over to the West, Modrow is quick to blame the Cold War.

“Both sides must ask themselves how such a situation could have occurred, only in this way can justice be served for all victims,” he maintains, evading the fact that it was East German border guards who pulled the trigger.

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But this does not match the “man of peace” image the former East German leader has cultivated. To his credit, Modrow has made many anti-militarist statements since the fall of the Wall. On October 7, he sang the praises of “pacifism and antifascism” in a speech at the “alternative feast of reunification” organized by GDR nostalgists.

The spectre of tanks at the Russian border

Modrow has a way of playing the pacifist card to justify all his political actions. It’s the reason for his opposition to reunification in 1990, which “posed a threat to world peace”, he still argues today. His fear: the specter of a “Greater Germany” with all its militarist and warrior connotations.

“When I finally accepted the idea of reunification, I made only one condition: I did not want a [reunited] Germany in NATO. I had imagined a neutral country based on the Austrian or Swedish model,” he says. But then Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, with whom he negotiated, decided otherwise when he agreed in 1991 that a reunited Germany should join the North Atlantic Alliance.

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For him, it’s the original sin of post-Wall history. Modrow sees the last 30 years as a slow remilitarization of Western Europe and Germany. German politician “Ursula von der Leyden will be the next president of the European Commission, and she has called for a Europe that is above all strong militarily,” he declares. “In 1991, I didn’t want tanks to end up on the Russian border again, and today that’s what’s happening,” he says.

Thirty years may have passed, the world may have become multipolar with the end of the USSR, but Modrow has maintained his old Cold War reflexes. He still wants to see Germany as a buffer zone between the imperialist temptations of two large former blocs.

Photo Sam Ball / Studio Graphique France Media Monde


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