Under an unprecedented power-sharing deal between center-left parties and the successor of the SED communist party that ruled Eastern Germany for almost five decades, the German state of Thuringia on Friday became the first to be governed by a premier with communist roots since reunification.
The election of trade unionist Bodo Ramelow of Die Linke (The Left) party breaks 24 years of conservative control of the ex-communist region. More importantly, some say, it marks the acceptance of the one-time communist party into political society, where Die Linke will fill a political left position long regarded as untouchable in Germany's post-cold war era.
But for many Germans, it also stirs memories of the oppressive communist past of East Germany (GDR) – a past that some say Die Linke members have yet to sufficiently condemn or atone for. Many associate Die Linke with its former incarnation, the communist SED. And the SED controlled the Stasi, East Germany's intelligence agency, which infiltrated almost every aspect of people’s lives with the help of hundreds of thousands of staff workers and informers.
On Thursday night, at least 2,000 people gathered in front of the Thuringia parliament to say no to Mr. Ramelow.
“We are saying ‘Never a SED dictatorship again, no Stasi spies in the government,'” said organizer Stefan Sandmann. The rally, a quarter century after the Berlin Wall fell, shows that Germany is still struggling with its communist past and what place, if any, Die Linke should be given today.
Die Linke returns
Ramelow takes over leadership of Thuringia as part of a coalition between Die Linke, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), and Die Grünen ("The Green") party. The new government, often referred to as "red-red-green" for the respective colors of the three parties, now holds a single-seat majority in the central German state's parliament. It replaces a government led by the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party that has controlled Thuringia since reunification.
“The CDU has been in power longer than I’ve lived,” says SPD representative Kevin Gross, who is in his early 20s. “It is time to give Die Linke responsibilities and let people decide if it should be in the government or not.”
Experts say the ascension of Die Linke is an important symbol. The party has participated in government coalitions in Brandenburg and Saxony, other ex-Eastern Germany states, but only as junior partners. Political scientist Werner J. Patzelt of Dresden University says Die Linke’s getting the state premier’s post is the normal continuation of post-cold-war Germany's political evolution.
“It’s a sign that German reunification has come to an end,” Mr. Patzelt says.
But for those who lived in the GDR, Die Linke – which only this fall agreed to include in its platform that the East German regime had been an "unjust regime" – has more to do to address a history in which some of its members played a role.
Die Linke parliamentarian Frank Kuschel of the Thuringian town of Ilmenau was one of those whose Stasi activities as informer are well known. Shortly before giving his vote to Ramelow Friday, Mr. Kuschel said he had apologized to victims but that “I expect from a modern democracy to be given a chance to learn from my mistakes.” Kuschel is one of two former SED members who actively collaborated with the regime.
“When you’ve worked for the Stasi and spied on so many people, you can’t stand on the podium and be a candidate,” says Christel Willinski, a resident of Ilmenau. Ms. Willinski has supported the SPD since reunification, but said she would leave the party over its new coalition with Die Linke.
She says Die Linke is an unrepentant heir to the SED, under whose rule she was prevented from finishing school, getting her own apartment, or even choosing the vacation destinations she wanted. “It was daily pinpricks, constant harassment.”
“Die Linke is a party that hasn’t come to terms with its past," she says. "And if the SPD choses to work with that party, then it’s not my party anymore.”
Many critics of Die Linke want to know who collaborated with the Stasi, and whether former informants have genuinely expressed remorse to victims. Political scientist Oliver Lembcke of the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena said that to have members of the former SED like Kuschel hold such high-profile political positions sends the "wrong message."
“A lot of Germans will read the election of Ramelow as a process of normalization. They’ll say, ‘now after 25 years, it’s time to move on; things have changed a lot,” says Dr. Lembcke. “But then many others will say, ‘why are people who have inflicted such harm to others still sitting in parliament, why do they remain leading political voices?'”
German President Joachim Gauck gave the debate a moral dimension. “People my age who experienced the GDR will have real trouble swallowing this,” Mr. Gauck, a civil rights activist of the GDR who used to head the Stasi archives, said this fall. “We... respect decisions by the people, but at the same time we have to ask ourselves: Is this party really far enough removed from the ideas once held by the [SED] so that we can now fully trust it?"
'Not the SED anymore'
Many insist that Die Linke has changed. “The party isn’t the SED anymore,” the SPD's Mr. Gross says. He says he understands the fears of victims of the GDR regime, but “our role is to lessen their fear, to show, maybe in five years, that a red-red-green coalition can work.”
Patzelt of Dresden University says that Die Linke has become a normal leftist party. “To me the important things is that the Die Linke no longer denies that GDR was a dictatorship, that this past political system was best to get rid of, “ he says.
But like him, many acknowledges that there is still work to be done, particularly on the part of individuals within the party.
“Those who have been supporters [of the East German communist regime] have trouble saying, ‘well, it is a part of my life that went in the wrong direction.’ This is something one can hope for, but that cannot be forced on them.”