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Can an Open Wall Lead to a 'Political Miracle?' : East Germany: The core of domestic opposition is ecstatic about the potential for democratic reform. Missing is talk of reunification.

November 20, 1989|DANIEL HAMILTON | Daniel Hamilton is deputy director of the Aspen Institute Berlin, a European-American organization specializing in East-West relations.

WEST BERLIN — The pace of change in Germany today is overwhelming.

East German leaders, their backs to the wall, have gambled that their only chance for survival is a spectacular sign that they are serious about reforms. By opening the Berlin Wall, making a vague call for new elections and transplanting the Mikhail Gorbachev of East Germany, Hans Modrow, from his banishment in Dresden to the center of power in East Berlin, the regime has won a breathing space of four to six weeks, in which time it feels it must regain the political initiative from the opposition and present itself as a credible force for reform.

Modrow's inaugural address as head of the East German cabinet, in which he announced a coalition government and major economic reforms, is the first step in this strategy. The next step will come at a special Communist Party convention called for mid-December, where the party will wipe its slate clean of links to the Stalinist past. The party will then turn to the East German people, asking forgiveness for its sins, presenting itself as a humane socialist alternative to West German capitalism, and announcing free parliamentary elections next fall that, the Communists hope, will legitimize party rule.

They will lose. The likelihood of elections next fall will galvanize the domestic opposition to present a positive political agenda for East Germany's future. At the moment, however, the opening of the wall has split the opposition. The next four to six weeks will thus also be a germination period for the opposition in which a new political landscape emerges.

There has always been an element of the East opposition that dreamed of creating a "third way" between Western capitalism and Stalinist socialism that would lead to an idealist socialist-ecological paradise that could be a new model of society. While espousing democracy at every turn, this group, mainly composed of artists and intellectuals, and centered within the New Forum movement, is actually profoundly anti-democratic. Its exponents are particularly disdainful of their own population, who they fear will be lured away by the materialistic pleasures of the West. This group, in a strange way, would have preferred to replace the regime yet retain the wall as a buffer within which they could conduct their laboratory experiment in "true" socialism. They are despondent about the wall's demise and will quickly become irrelevant to future moves toward reform.

The core of the domestic opposition, galvanized by their own "people power" and now the collapse of the wall, is ecstatic about the potential for democratic reform in East Germany and engaged in developing the political organization and economic competence to present a credible picture to the population. A fledgling Social Democratic Party is positioning itself well to wage an election campaign on the promise of social market economy and a pluralistic,democratic society. Another opposition movement, the Democratic Awakening, is also gearing up as a political party. Its leaders include key figures from the Protestant Church and former members of the Communist Party. They seek a viable, humane socialism that does not need a wall yet offers an alternative to Western capitalism. The bulk of New Forum, more a movement than a party, is also committed to an open reform socialism.

There is a striking lack of discussion about reunification in these groups, despite the intense focus that this eventuality is receiving outside Germany. In the words of one opposition leader, "It simply cannot be that we have lived for 40 years for nothing and that the future holds nothing more than to simply become another state of the Federal Republic." There is a strong sense of pride in East Germans that has not been transferred to allegiance either to the Communist regime or the notion of reunification. Those East Germans who created their own "economic miracle" after World War II--despite their own government and despite the West--now believe that they are on the verge of creating a "political miracle," also despite the regime and despite the West. Should the two Germanys in fact grow together, the East Germans will pose conditions of their own that will have a significant impact on the shape of West German society.

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