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Issue #1436      18 November 2009

The important role of the GDR

In 1939, as the world headed towards the outbreak of the hostilities that would become known as the Second World War, the role allotted to German imperialism by its rivals and erstwhile allies, British and French imperialism, was to spearhead the invasion and defeat of the world’s first socialist state, the USSR.

However, German imperialism had its own ambitions, and they included the invasion and defeat of both its French and British rivals. Germany quickly achieved the former and soon came close to achieving the latter. Only then did it feel strong enough to invade the USSR.

American imperialism at the time had strong links with its German counterpart, but was induced (albeit reluctantly until the assault on Pearl Harbour) to side with Britain against the Fascist powers, Germany, Italy and Japan. Under public pressure, and for their own salvation, the Anglo-US powers had to join with the Soviet Union in a grand alliance against Fascism.

The Soviet Union’s participation crystallised the War’s anti-fascist nature. In every occupied country, Communists strove mightily to forge united Resistance movements with social democrats and other political forces. In only a few countries were they unsuccessful.

In Germany itself, the Communist Resistance even reached into the High Command of the Army. On the all-important Eastern Front, German anti-fascists worked amongst German POWs trying to win them to the anti-fascist cause, in readiness for after the War.

The Potsdam Agreement at the end of the War divided Germany into four zones of occupation – Soviet, US, British and French. The country was to be de-nazified, democratised and eventually reunited.

The US, Britain and France, however, used their occupying status to prevent denazification, to organise espionage and subversion in the Eastern (Soviet) part of the country, and to sabotage any efforts at reunification except on their terms.

They changed the currency in the western zones, isolating them from the East, and planted a bomb on the Berlin Metro (operated for the whole city from the Eastern Zone) forcing it to cease operations at the edge of the Soviet area.

Then, although the country was supposedly still under four-power occupation, they helped revive German imperialism, establishing the three Western zones as the staunchly capitalist “Federal Republic of Germany” under revanchist minded Konrad Adenauer in 1948.

The following year, recognising that the division of Germany had become a fait accompli, the anti-fascists running the Eastern (mainly agricultural) part of the country established the German Democratic Republic (GDR) on October 7, 1949 and adopted a socialist constitution.

Following the “re-unification” or more accurately, the occupation of the GDR by West Germany in October 1990, the federal authorities embarked on a political witch hunt of former GDR government leaders and office-holders.

The main targets were those who had fought the Nazis during the war, who had prosecuted fascists after the war and helped build and defend the socialist state. Their persecution was in sharp contrast to West Germany’s failure to carry out its legal and moral obligations to prosecute Nazis and its rehabilitation of many war criminals and other fascists.

The former Defence Minister of the German Democratic Republic, Heinz Kessler, was one of a number of anti-fascist fighters who was jailed by the Federal Republic. In 1993, at the age of 73, he was imprisoned for almost five years.

Heinz Kessler was born in 1920, and grew up in a working class family. Both his parents were active members of the working class movement and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). He was a metal worker, a courageous fighter against fascism and a committed communist who played a leading role in the military, ideological and political defence of the socialist state.

The following interview with Anna Pha of The Guardian was conducted in 2000. We print it now in response to the brouhaha in the bourgeois media “commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall”.

Heinz Kessler

Anti-fascist fighter

I grew up during the great economic crisis between 1929 and 1933. This crisis and my upbringing in a proletarian communist family influenced heavily all my thinking. I belonged to the Pioneer organisation for children of the Communist Party and I later joined the Communist Youth League. After the fascists took over I worked underground.

My father and my mother went underground in 1933. Both of them were jailed under fascism and later incarcerated in concentration camps. My mother was in the worst camp known, the Ravensbrueck concentration camp for women. From 1933 on I lived more or less alone with my sister. In 1940, the fascist army drafted me. I decided that it was a matter of principle that I would not fight against the Soviet Union. On July 15, 1941, I went over to the other side, to the Red Army, under very complicated conditions. From that moment on I participated in anti-fascist education work among the German prisoners of war in the Soviet Union. And at the beginning of the winter of 1942, I went to the front on the Soviet side.

I am a founding member of an organisation called the National Committee for Free Germany (National Komitee Freies Deutschland – NKFD). It was an anti-fascist organisation working from the Soviet Union among prisoners of war, officers and others. It was formed in 1943, I had responsibilities for the NKFD in the front and then behind the front lines of the enemy.

In the second half of May 1945, immediately after the victory, I returned to Germany and began working with young people in Berlin. I was one of the founders of the Free German Youth League. I was chairman of the Free German Youth in Berlin. Later on I was the deputy chairman of the Free German Youth Central Committee. Comrade Erich Honecker was the chairman. At the beginning I was responsible for workers and rural youth.

At the end of 1952 the comrades convinced me to help build up the armed forces of the GDR. I went to the Soviet Union to study courses for upper level military personnel. Later I became the Chief of General Staff of the National People’s Army, then head of the political division of the People’s Army. In 1986, I became Minister of National Defence of the German Democratic Republic.

In the immediate period after the war, we had two [main working class] parties: the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party. They came together in 1946 to found the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Before unification I belonged to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. With the foundation of the SED I became a member of the leadership and from 1986 onwards a member of the Polit Bureau.

In January 1990 the government of Hans Modrow, of the German Democratic Republic, imprisoned me. Unfortunately it is an historical truth. After three months they set me free. In June 1991, under the Federal Republic’s government, I was together with other comrades imprisoned again. A massive campaign against the GDR began. We were in jail in Moabit, an old prison in Berlin, and for the first time the authorities of the Federal Republic of Germany had prepared a big show trial against leading comrades of the GDR.

Show trial

Under indictment were comrade Erich Honecker [former Secretary of the SED and Chair of the Council of State]; comrade Erich Mielke, the Minister of State Security; Comrade Willi Stoph, the former Prime Minister; General Streletz, the last Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Army; and others. Comrade Stoph and comrade Mielke were excused with the explanation that because of their state of health they could not stand trial.

At the very beginning of our imprisonment comrade Honecker was still in Moscow at the Chilean embassy. The traitors in Moscow, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and others extradited Honecker. The indictment was a very big book. They declared that we were responsible for any thing that had happened in the so-called frontier region – the boundary with the West German state.

Comrade Honecker was very sick and weak, and could not continue the trial. They excluded him at the end of 1991 and with the support of comrades he emigrated to Chile. The three survivors had to stand trial: myself, the Head of the General Staff of the People’s Army and a former first district secretary of the Party who played a minor role. The trial lasted 68 days. We were in isolated cells and had no contact with each other and so we could only prepare our defence with the assistance of our lawyers and with a sheet of paper and a pencil. We had no other possibilities.

We immediately understood perfectly that the trial was not directed against this or that person, but against the German Democratic Republic and against the Communists as a whole, against socialism. From this point of view we organised our defence. We defended ourselves as Communists, we defended the socialist cause and with the socialist course in Germany as an example. My speeches in the court room were published.

The public prosecutor demanded in my case 13 years’ imprisonment and he wanted me to lose my rights as a citizen, for the Chief of the General Staff 10½ years, and for the district secretary the same. I received 7 ½ years. The other two received 5 ½ each. I was in jail five years then I got parole. [The parole was still valid at the time of interview.]

The political persecution of GDR citizens began in 1990 and continues uninterrupted. Persecution and punishment are directed against the top ranking political functionaries of the German Democratic Republic and of the Socialist Unity Party, responsible officers and generals and officers of the National People’s Army and frontier troops, persons who were employed to combat espionage, public prosecutors, and judges of the GDR.

After the War there were some thousand trials of top ranking fascists. The Soviet Army gave their prisoners to our soldiers – Gestapo, SS, top ranking Nazi Party leaders. All the judges and prosecutors who participated in trials against the Nazi murderers have come under indictment by Federal [Republic of Germany] authorities.

Many comrades went to jail, some received parole. To give you an example, there is a woman called Irmgard Jendretzky, 82 years old, very fragile. She is a very good person and a very good comrade. She was a judge in the so-called Waldheim trials [of former Nazis] (Waldheim is a small town in Saxony). She was sentenced by the Federal Republic court to 4 ½ years. She is very sick. She had several very complicated psychiatric investigations to test if she could be imprisoned or not. I could tell you a lot of stories about political persecution, but maybe that is sufficient for the beginning.


Officially, the politicians and the media speak of the reunification of Germany. From my personal point of view it has nothing to do with the reunification of Germany. It was an annexation. It was an occupation of the German Democratic Republic with the only objective to eliminate the industrial and agricultural capacity shown by the GDR.

A few examples: it is worldwide known that the GDR had an internationally competitive engineering industry. [There was] one century of engineering in the region of Karl Marx Stadt. Now the name has disappeared, it is Chemnitz. In Karl Marx Stadt we had some very big engineering combines. Now if you would visit this city, you would not find any trace of those combines. They have been completely eliminated, entirely eliminated.

The German Democratic Republic had one of the most developed agriculture sectors in Europe. The GDR was a self-sufficient country as far as agricultural production was concerned. We produced not only enough for our own use, but also for export as well. Some big units still exist, but the level of production is very low. If you take the social problems as a whole, I’ll give you the main statistics. Officially, the Federal Republic recognises the existence of four million unemployed. The trade unions say six million.

If you compare both parts of Germany, unemployment in the East is increasing much faster and is absolutely much higher than in the West. Here in the East we have 18.6 percent unemployed and nine percent in the West. [In 2009, unemployment in the East is still double that in the West – Ed.] Another example: let’s take apprentices. In the GDR we never had a lack of apprenticeship places. Only in the first five or six years we did not have enough but later on, every young person in the GDR had a guaranteed apprenticeship. Young people in both parts of Germany, but especially in the East, now don’t get anything after [they finish] school – they are unemployed, they have no perspective, they have no apprenticeship, they have nothing.

Social consequences

In the GDR we had no problems with drugs. Today it’s normal that young people in the East take drugs.

Take studies, universities and other academic institutions: in the GDR, it was guaranteed by law that everybody could study. There were no fees, and scholarships for everybody. This game is over. More and more students are the children of richer people whose parents have the money to finance their studies.

We witness the GDR now in the belly of the Federal Republic. We witness a development that is the crudest capitalism that you can imagine. I believe that you are well aware of the fact that in this country now there are very dangerous symptoms of the reappearance of fascism and racism.

The official media, the journalists of the bourgeoisie explain the fact that in GDR times we had no fascism or racism in this part of the country, in this way: they declare the GDR had officially dictated anti-fascism.

As a matter of fact it was officially dictated. We would be very happy if officially in the Federal Republic they had dictated anti-fascism. In the GDR everything was anti-fascist, from the kindergarten to elementary school, high school, university, apprenticeship – in everything – we did our utmost to educate people in the sense of anti-fascism. For instance, we reproduced anti-fascist literature from any country in the world.

We called the GDR a country of readers, literature was extremely cheap and available everywhere.

Very important additional information: all citizens of the GDR who now receive pensions, who receive salaries – you can take any field of payment – payments in the GDR are always lower than in Western Germany. Nobody in the East gets the same salary, the same pension as somebody [in the West], after 10 years of so-called reunification. There are tens of thousands of persons in the East who get a so-called punishment pension. That means they get only part of their legal pension because they were functionaries of the Party, they were officers of the security forces, they get less than others.

The salary of a worker in the East is between 80 and 90 percent of the western salary but everything is as expensive as in the West – the rent, public transport, electricity, everything. [In 2009, average incomes in the East are 70 percent of those in the West – Ed.] There are no differences in prices but there is a difference in salaries and pensions in the mainland and the colony. As the slogan says: the rich people become always richer and the poor people always become poorer. If you are poor you must die earlier than the others.

Many times people, friends and enemies, ask me when I participate in a meeting: did you arrive in the Federal Republic of Germany? My answer is very simple. I live here, I will live here until the end, and I am fighting here, but I am not interested in any arrival in this Federal Republic.

Reasons for defeat

I have given you the general picture, but the question is justified: why are the left forces not able to have a stronger influence in this society? There are many reasons, many aspects. From my point of view, I will tell you. I feel the shock that many people suffered, the result of the tremendous defeat of the destruction of the socialist society in 1989 and the following period.

The shock is very deep and people are still shocked by it. They are beaten down by this defeat. Frustrated and desperate. On the other hand, among the left forces there are very different opinions concerning the reasons, the explanations for this defeat. I belong to the group of comrades who believe that the defeat is the result of a counter-revolutionary process.

From my point of view the treason of Gorbachev and the people representing the Soviet Union and those of similar political colour in other socialist countries played a central role in the counter-revolutionary process. That does not exclude [responsibility of] ourselves in the GDR – I have no doubt that there were shortcomings and mistakes made ourselves during this whole period of the existence of the GDR but the treason has the central place.

Among the left forces represented mainly in Germany by the Party of Democratic Socialism [PDS – the left, anti-fascist successor to SED] and the German Communist Party [DKP originally from the West] and other groups, there are discussions about the reasons for the defeat.

There are very different opinions. I feel that somebody who calls himself communist or socialist but has not a correct relationship with the GDR’s past, is not able to really analyse the very important role played by the GDR, from my point of view the biggest achievement in the history of the revolutionary German working class movement. Somebody who is unable to see this, to estimate this, to evaluate it in a correct way, will not be able to show the way forward.

People and parties who have a tendency to play with the capitalist system, who make no strict line of division between our position and the capitalist position will not be able to play any positive role in the future of German politics – in the GDR. I feel that the main role must be played by the struggle outside of parliament, not by struggle in parliament, to contribute to doing everything for the development of consciousness amongst working people. It is a long process, but I believe that step by step, the consciousness is increasing that this system is not offering any prospects. It is a long process but it is beginning.

I can assure you that my place is at the side of all forces who are fighting for a situation where we can get rid of capitalism. I participate in daily actions of the working people. I am deeply convinced that the only perspective is socialism.

A very difficult, a very complicated process. You must consider that even among the left forces in the PDS and in the DKP and in the trade union movement, you have differences concerning this point. The only guidance is given by our classics Marx, Engels and Lenin. It is not so easy but we must try to adapt it to the present situation. It is extremely difficult. It is almost impossible because almost all the media, all the bigger media, as in your country, are completely in the hands of the enemy and they have their own way to explain the run of events.


A certain part of our population harboured the illusion that it would be possible to maintain the achievements of the GDR and combine them with the Western consumer possibilities as seen on Western TV and other areas. It was a wide illusion harboured by many people.

Our ideological work amongst party members (we had more than two million) and other parts of the population was not sufficient, was not deep-going enough to really penetrate the thinking of the population. We should not underestimate the so-called national element that played a very important role in the subconsciousness. “Our brothers and sisters, they are German too, we belong together.” People did not take into consideration the coming results of this process. They believed it would be possible to get the best of both sides.

Laboratory of Buna Chemical Works at the Institute of Machine Tool Engineering at Karl Marx Stadt in the 1950s.

There is another question that many people put, a question I face many times if I come together with groups of people: You had armed forces, a part of the Party was armed, a part of the working class was armed, the better workers, we had the workers’ militia. We had hundreds of thousands of people under arms. “Why didn’t you seek an open clash?” some people ask us.

Blood bath avoided

That’s a question we must think about very deeply, especially comrades who were in that period responsible for the armed forces. To describe the concrete situation: the very moment the former leadership of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev gave up the GDR, officially gave up the GDR also militarily, at that very moment the Soviet army and the Soviet troops on GDR soil (hundreds of thousands of them) received instructions to behave at least neutrally in any clash, it would have been a bloodbath. In this situation any armed resistance, for instance, would have been a blood bath among our comrades.

All the other armed forces in Germany – British, American, French and the army of the Federal Republic would have been our military adversaries in such a case, and we had a much smaller army than the West.

You should realise that we had also traitors in our own ranks, they infiltrated our ranks to a certain extent, especially some people in the party leadership, some people in top government positions – some, not to the extent of the Soviet leadership. Gorbachev also had his people here. It was very difficult. Our defeat was a very heavy defeat for the international working class movement, for the communist movement.

The interview was conducted in German with the kind assistance of Dr Klaus Steiniger.

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