Political Structures in Stealing the Future

Where to start?

When writing a political novel the author needs to be very clear about the political structures that form the framework of the story, not to mention how they work on a day-to-day basis (indeed it is the tension between the theory and the practice of these institutions that provide the gaps that allow such stories to be developed).

The reader of Stealing the Future will have picked up on the fact that there are parliaments at several levels (Volkskammer at the federal level, and the Landeskammern at the Land, or regional level). But in Martin’s everyday life, most of the actual decisions are taken by the Ministry of the Interior (at which he works) or by the various assemblies – from the Central Round Table right down to the plenary meeting of the residents in his tenement block.

As I explained in the post Constitution of 1990, I chose to use the constitution (drafted by the Central Round Table in spring 1990) as a legal basis for ‘my’ GDR. Earlier versions of this document (envisaging a less centralised and more radical political system) might have been more useful to the GDR that exists in my books, but these are less well documented, so for the sake of realism I decided to use the final draft of the 1990 constitution.

As far as Stealing the Future goes, the two most obvious aspects of this constitution are the reinstatement of the Regions (Länder – or federal states), making the GDR a federation; and the omission of all forms of Round Tables and grassroots assemblies.

As a plot device the newly federative status of the GDR is negligible, and is only included in the books for the sake of remaining consistent with the 1990 constitution.

The continued existence of the Round Tables despite their absence from the constitution does, however, need some exploration.

What happened to the Round Table?

Those who have read the 1990 Constitution, and who are familiar with the late history of the GDR will know that this constitution does not mention the Round Tables, nor Workers’ Councils or any other form of grassroots democratic organisation. I would suggest there are two main reasons for this omission:

  1. Many of the members of the Round Table committee that drafted the 1990 Constitution were members of political parties: the SED/PDS (the Communist Party that had essentially ruled the country since before 1949) as well as the newly formed and the newly independent parties, such as the SPD, CDU, LDPD, DA, DJ etc. It was clearly in the interests of political parties to gain seats in a parliamentary setting (in the hope of forming a government and implementing their policies without input (interference) by the general population).
  2. The Round Tables themselves were not politically untainted – they had been formed in December 1989 by the SED/PDS in the hope of co-opting the leading figures of the opposition, and thereby to cling to some measure of power. Although the Communists did not quite succeed in this they did manage to keep control of the state institutions until the first free elections in March 1990, and consequently avoided sinking into obscurity (as Die Linke they are still sitting in various German parliaments).
    This first Central Round Table – and many of the more or less spontaneously formed Round Tables around the country – was therefore not democratic elected or mandated. Half of the seats were given to members of the SED and allied organisations and parties, the other seats were given to the main opposition groups and the new parties, according to their size.
    The Central Round Table (and other similarly constituted Round Tables) were therefore, at the time the 1990 constitution was drafted, not regarded as long-term democratic institutions, but rather short-term stop-gaps.

Considering the influence of the political parties in the first Central Round Table, and their desire to move towards a party-based elected representative democracy, how can I justify the continued (and influential) role of the Round Tables in Stealing the Future?

The Central Round Table vs the people?

If we look at the real history of the GDR, we can see two parallel developments:

At the ‘political’ level – the Central Round Table and the Modrow and de Mazière governments – we can see a clear distancing from the politics of the street, towards the politics of representative parliamentary democracy and a readying of the state institutions for a merger with West Germany.
A lot of the Central Round Table’s time was taken up in negotiating with and demanding concessions from the Modrow government.
At the grassroots level – on the streets – people were organising themselves. Citizens’ Committees and locally formed Round Tables commanded the police and town halls, instituted and oversaw disarmament of the army and the Stasi, opened new border crossings and took up international relations with neighbouring countries. For many East Germans this period – December 1989 to March 1990 is often regarded as a period of anarchy.

Let us take the question of how to deal with the Stasi as an example of how the two levels dealt with problems.

One of the Central Round Table’s first demands was the dissolution of the Ministry for State Security. Premier  Hans Modrow (SED member) was reluctant to do this, and first tried a renaming exercise – give them a new name (Amt für Nationale Sicherheit, Office for National Security) and a new charter and see if the problem goes away. Naturally this wasn’t enough, but no serious steps were taken by the central political forces until the 15th of January 1990 when Neues Forum (one of the few non-party groupings on the Central Round Table) ran out of patience with Modrow’s stalling, calling a demonstration at the main Stasi HQ in Berlin-Lichtenberg on the same day as the Central Round Table met to discuss the issue with Modrow.

In contrast, in most other towns in the GDR the Stasi offices had been secured over a month earlier by Citizens Committees keen to stop the destruction of files and to prevent arms and ammunition from being removed by Stasi officers.

In short, in Berlin the Central Round Table and the politicians were engaged in power struggles, while the people at the basis were acting – they showed spontaneity, dynamism and the ability to act, whereas the Central Round Table were tied up in politicking.

Western support for central institutions

Even though the grassroots showed initiative and commitment this wasn’t enough to wrest control away from the centralised power structures. In real life the GDR establishment was supported by West Germany, in turn supported by Gorbachev. The country was saturated with West German propaganda, political figures were financed, wooed or pressured by the West German political parties (including those from the far-right) and the BND, and slowly but surely the popular mood swung towards supporting unification and a representative parliamentary democratic system.

But in Point of Divergence I discuss the potential factors and events that might have changed this history: a political miscalculation by Helmut Kohl, the passive support of Gorbachev, active popular support for the For Our Land statement, followed by a successful general strike. This combination of minor tweaks to real history would, I argue, have been enough to strengthen the basis and the popularly constituted local assemblies, sidelining the efforts of central government and the Central Round Table.