August/September 1968 in the GDR
(Click on picture to see all the photos in the montage)
What was it like the other side of the Iron Curtain when Czechoslovakia was invaded in August 1968? I know because I was there in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) at the time, on a friendship visit with other peace activists and trade unionists as guests of the Peace Council of the GDR (Friedensrat der DDR).
The various Peace Councils and Peace Committees were affiliated to the World Peace Council, a Communist-front organization directed from Moscow. I was a representative of the non-aligned Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament along with my colleague, Sheila Cooper. Other people in our group included Mervyn Rice of the Youth Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and also a representative of the Young Liberals (who had previously been invited to the GDR by the Liberal Democratic Party of Germany, one of the political parties in the Communist-led coalition government which ruled the GDR). He was, in fact, more left-wing than many Labour Party members, always singing a song about Harold Wilson being a Tory. There were two representatives from the British Peace Committee, but they had come out against the invasion of Czechoslovakia, following the line of the British Communist Party, which had also condemned the invasion.
Consequently, once the invasion took place, the Morning Star, the British Communist Party newspaper, and the only British newspaper normaly available in the Soviet bloc, was not available after the invasion took place. Our hosts in the Peace Council told, us, at the end of our visit, they could have got us copies if we had asked them.
Instead we got read the editorials from Neues Deutschesland, the official newspaper, interpreted tongue-in-cheek by Peter, our interpreter. There was no getting away from the propaganda; even when we were on the Baltic coast in Kuehlungsborn loudspeakers blared across the beach not announcing lost children, like they did in Margate, but propaganda about the counter-revolutionaries in Czechoslovakia and the necessity to defeat them, hence the ‘fraternal assistance offered by five Socialist countries’, one of which was the GDR.
There was considerable embarassment that the last time German troops invaded Czechoslovakia was at the time of Munich, when Hitler’s Nazis annexed the Sudetenland.
However our German hosts were nothing if not straightforward. When we asked why the invasion of Czechoslovakia was necessary they did not quote the official Moscow line about counter-revolutionaries or the revisionist nature of Alexander Dubcek’s ‘Socialism with a human face’, instead they invited us to look at a map of Czechoslovakia. Had it gone over to the Western camp, they pointed out, it would give the West Germans, whose maps still showed their ‘lost territories’ in not just East Germany but parts of Czechoslovakia, Poland and the USSR, a corridor right up to the borders of the Soviet Union. Having lost so many millions in the Second World War, the Soviets were not prepared to let the West Germans or NATO invade the USSR again, hence the need for the friendly ‘buffer’ states.
However our German hosts in the Peace Council were following the Moscow line generally. Leeway was given to us Westerners, but Sheila remarked how the GDR Peace Council representatives coldly walked by the representatives of the Czechoslovak Peace Council in our hotel without even acknowledging them after the invasion, because they were appointed by the Dubcek government and were therefore regarded as counter-revolutionaries. The British Peace Committee representatives, being part of our Western group of visitors, were of course given VIP treatment along with the rest of us, as they tried to persuade us of the necessity to defeat the threat of counter-revolution in Dubcek’s Czechoslovakia, hence the necessity to crush the Prague Spring.
(Click on picture to see all the photos in the montage)
Our group, which also included trade unionists, were taken on a tour of the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall in front of it, where we climbed a platform and looked over the Wall at Westerners looking back at us from a similar platform in front of the Reichstag in West Berlin. It was a surreal experience. In the Brandenburg Gate officers of the National People’s Army showered us with propaganda about the ‘Wall of Peace’ and showed us films of prostitutes in West Berlin flashing their breasts at heroic GDR border guards, trying to entice them to flee over the Wall to the West.
When two Scottish trade unionists, known to us as Wee Maggie and Wee Jimmie, were asked what they thought of East Berlin, or as they called it, Berlin – Capital of the GDR, they replied that it was nice, but the Wall was not nice and should be pulled down. They asked why it was put up, and our German hosts as direct as ever said ‘to stop people running away!’ The Soviets would never have been so honest. On visits to the USSR awkward questions were always avoided, and never answered directly.
For instance, in 1966 in the USSR I asked some Soviet youth (diplomats’ sons and daughters hand-picked to meet us) about conscientious objectors in the USSR and was told ‘no such people exist in the Soviet Union’. In the GDR, by contrast, there was provision for conscientious objectors, and homosexuality was also legalized and very open in East Berlin during our visit. I’m sure our Soviet friends would have assured us that ‘no such people exist in the Soviet Union’ if we had asked about the rights of gays there.
Similarly in 1970, on another visit to the USSR, a trip down south including a river cruise down the Volga to Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) was canceled due to a cholera outbreak. We knew it was cholera, they knew it was cholera, but the dreaded word could not be mentioned. When our Communist Party group (it was a Lenin Centenary trip) asked why we could not visit Volgograd our Soviet hosts just looked very awkward and said: ‘Well…. you know the situation, it is difficult’. That is all we could get out of them.
Back to the 1968 visit to the GDR, and we were given seats on the visitors’ platform in Marx-Engels Platz that September for a big rally ostensibly against fascism and revanchism in West Germany, but in actual fact all the speakers, according to our interpreter, were defending the ‘fraternal assistance by five Socialist countries to defeat counter-revolution and defend Socialist Democracy in the Czechslovak Socialist Republic’. Even a speaker from West Germany was found to praise this intervention. Most of the crowd were wearing the blue shirts of the Free German Youth or the white shirts of the Wilhelm Pieck Young Pioneers. About 100,000 filled the huge square, which made headlines in the next morning’s Neues Deutchesland newspaper.
Mr Nii, a Hiroshima survivor, was in East Berlin during our stay. He was touring the world telling people to get rid of nuclear weapons. He had already spoken to many meetings in Britain as a guest of CND and other peace groups, but Friedensrat der DDR would have nothing to do with him. Poor Mr Nii stayed in his hotel, unable to speak to any meetings because to condemn nuclear weapons would mean criticizing not just Western ones, but those of the Soviet Union as well.
I have to admit I was at the time a hardline Stalinist member of the British Communist Party or rather at that time its youth section, the Young Communist League. So although I supported the intervention in Czechoslovakia I had to more or less bite my tongue as a representative of the non-aligned CND. Mervyn Rice, the YCND representative, left the GDR in protest at the invasion, but Sheila and I decided to stay on and discuss the situation with our hosts.
Only at the very end of the holiday, in a farewell speech in Kuehlungsborn to our hosts at the Georgi Dimitroff FDGB (a sort of East German TUC) hotel did I finally publicly reveal that I supported (at that time) the intervention, but it came with a barb. I’d already spotted the deficiencies in the system which led me to leave the Communist Party after a second visit to the GDR in 1976 where all these shortcomings were pointed out to me by my life-partner who decided to accompany me at the last minute. Yet back in this little speech in 1968 I referred to ‘bourgeois practices’ in the GDR such as tipping waiters who were evidently not paid a living wage, and rather unwisely suggested that the GDR might be next on the list of countries to be offered ‘fraternal assistance’ by the Soviet Union to correct the error of its ways. This did not go down well, and Peter (our interpreter) called me an idiot for making such a speech.
Of course it was idiotic. The invasion would not defeat the ‘bourgeois practices’ but defend them, because a bureaucratic clique was in control in the Soviet Union and the countries which invaded Czechoslovakia. This should have been obvious to me as Frau Wetzel of the GDR Peace Council was not like any peace campaigner I knew in the West. She never criticized militarism in her country or the Soviet Union, and only seemed interested in the finer things of life. She sat on a typical robust German deckchair on the beach in Kuehlungsborn in a silken gown wearing a lot of jewelry, flashed a gold-toothed smile at us and told us to dress for dinner that night as the hotel was throwing a special party. Sheila and I complained that we had hitched to the GDR and not thought it necessary to pack evening dress for a visit to a Socialist country, to which she waved a regal braceleted hand and told us to wear the best we have.
Her colleague, Eberhardt, was the representative of the Socialist Unity Party, which led the coalition government in the GDR. It was a forced merger between the former Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party, but in the SED the Communists were in control, and they also controlled all the other parties in the National Front coalition. Of course Moscow largely dictated the line of the SED itself, though certain leeway was allowed, as in the case of conscientious objectors and homosexuals for instance, where the East Germans were much more liberal than their Soviet comrades.
Eberhardt was as far removed from a Socialist as you could imagine. He only seemed interested in wine, women and song. That a peace delegation invited by a peace council needed a representative of the ruling party in government to accompany them everywhere shows just how restricted the whole affair was, and how the peace committees and peace councils in the Soviet bloc were completely controlled by the government and, in effect, by Moscow. If they strayed out of line they were at first shunned and ignored, then dismissed and replaced by hardliners as the Czechoslovak Peace Council were by the Soviet-backed Gustav Husak government which followed Alexander Dubcek’s.
I remember Sheila taking me to a dingy tenement block in East Berlin soon after we arrived, and the door was opened by a frightened woman. Something to do with Mr Nii and his unofficial visit to East Germany. She must have been brave to risk meeting foreigners and hosting one who wanted to criticize Soviet nuclear weapons as well as Western ones. No doubt the Stasi were watching us and the woman.
I also have a memory, in our hotel, of someone asking for a visa or ticket to visit the West and the official insisting this was impossible, and visas were only available ‘for Socialist countries’. I’m not sure who was asking and why the conversation was in English, but it gave a flavor of what it must be like to live in the Eastern bloc, as did an incident on the 1970 visit to the USSR when we met two Soviet citizens who had French ancestry but could not get visas to visit the country. They told us their Soviet passports were more or less worthless, making a gesture as if to throw them in the garbage.
I have long since changed my views about the invasion of Czechoslovakia and about the Socialist countries generally. A corrupt bureaucratic clique of careerists and opportunists were in control due to the lack of free elections and any real opposition, so while the basic needs of the people were catered for and the basis of Socialism existed – such as full employment, security in old age, good public services, etc., this bureacratic clique creamed off the best of everything for themselves, and also had access to imported luxuries from the West.
A friend whose mother in the diplomatic service told me she joined the ruling Hungarian Workers’ Party just to get perks and privileges for herself and her family had Savile Row suits imported from London for her young son, who ended up going to Oxford University when she was posted to London, still in the diplomatic service, long after the Socialist government fell in Budapest.
Alexander Dubcek, like Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union much later, really wanted to create a freer Socialist society. Unfortunately the bureacratic elite wanted to protect their privileges, so the Soviet-led invasion ended Dubcek’s ‘Prague Spring’ and a hard-line coup ended Gorbachev’s ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’ and eventually led to the break up of the Soviet Union.
I still think it a great tragedy that all the Socialist countries did not institute reforms in the 1989-1991 period which would have preserved the many things their imperfect Socialism had achieved, but allowed at least other political parties to contest elections and, if they won enough seats, administer their brand of Socialism. This, within a Socialist Constitution, would have meant a corrupt and elitist regime could be replaced, and freedom of travel and of the press is also essential. While the Berlin Wall was obviously necessary in a city with two diametrically opposed political and economic systems, as was the inner German border fortications, it was wrong to mine these and shoot people trying to cross these borders illegally.
All countries protect their borders, including the USA which has erected a fence between it and Mexico, but in the case of the Berlin Wall and the inner German border financial measures could easily have restricted the flow of scientists and professional people from the GDR to West Germany. A hefty deposit for instance, returnable when they came back, raised by public subscription. They would then feel honor bound to come back, especially if their families were still in the GDR.
The open border in Berlin before August 1961 was untenable, as GDR citizens were living in cheap subsidized flats in East Berlin and getting high-paid jobs in West Berlin. The USA poured money into West Berlin to make it a showcase of Western capitalism in the heart of the GDR (it was 100 miles inside East Germany). But there was no reason to stop visits to the West, especially as many East Germans had friends and relatives there. I’m sure a hefty deposit would have insured most GDR citizens returned after a visit, and the deposit could then be used for someone else to visit the West.
After all, despite all its deficiencies, the ‘Ostalgie’ for things associated with the old GDR lingers on, everything was not bad there. But things like the GDR Peace Council left an awful lot to be desired, such as the right to protest about all nuclear weapons including Soviet ones, not just Western militarism!
(Click on picture to see all the photos in the montage)