“Following-up on Solidarity Work” — INTERVIEW IN THE JUNGE WELT

On 06.05.2021, the German daily, the junge Welt inter­viewed two members of the Inter­na­tio­nal Rese­arch Center DDR (IF DDR) with regard to the back­drop, methods and objec­ti­ves of the organization.

Following-up on solidarity work

“Inter­na­tio­nal Rese­arch Center DDR” — Iden­ti­fy­ing Alter­na­ti­ves to Capi­ta­lism. A conver­sa­tion with Floren­tine Mora­les Sand­oval and Max Rodermund.

Inter­view by Markus Bernhardt
»Real Alter­na­ti­ves to Capi­ta­list Society« prepa­ra­ti­ons for the World Festi­val in Halle (Saale) 1951.

You foun­ded the “Inter­na­tio­nal Rese­arch Center GDR” (IF DDR) in 2019. What exactly is it all about?



Floren­tine Mora­les Sand­oval: After the Inter­na­tio­nal Rosa Luxem­burg Confe­rence in Berlin in 2018, there was a DDR-South Africa soli­da­rity meeting where we met with repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of the South Afri­can trade union NUMSA and staff from the Tricon­ti­nen­tal Rese­arch Insti­tute. A former ANC (Afri­can Natio­nal Congress of South Africa) mili­tant was also present at the meeting. The core ques­tion at the fore, was how progres­sive move­ments world­wide can learn from the expe­ri­ence of the former German Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic (DDR). Further­more, it became clear that in many count­ries there remain very posi­tive memo­ries of the soli­da­rity efforts endea­vou­red by the GDR and that these under­ta­kings should have conti­nuity. In 2019, the IF DDR was laun­ched to that end.



You are a small team of young huma­ni­ties scho­lars from East and West Germany. Where does the inte­rest of these young acade­mics in the GDR stem from?



Max Roder­mund: It is the percep­ti­ble crisis mani­fes­ta­ti­ons of capi­ta­lism today that are tending to impel a change in the percep­tion of the GDR. Against this back­ground, alter­na­ti­ves to capi­ta­lism are beco­ming more and more inte­res­t­ing for more people, espe­ci­ally young people. This will not neces­s­a­rily lead to a change in the charac­ter of the offi­cial histo­rio­gra­phy, but it is beco­ming incre­asingly diffi­cult to main­tain a reduc­tion­ist narra­tive of mass surveil­lance, inju­s­tice and econo­mic scar­city in the face of today’s problems, – for exam­ple regar­ding public housing and health policy, – as well as concer­ning world­wide mili­tary threa­tening postu­ri­ngs. We oursel­ves did not get to expei­ence the GDR, but we are inte­res­ted in the process of buil­ding socia­lism because it provi­des important perspec­ti­ves for the social issues of our time.



But why should we still be concer­ned with the GDR more than three deca­des after the fail­ure of the first attempt at socia­lism in this country?


M. R.: In the GDR, the econo­mic and poli­ti­cal power of private property was dispo­sed of. It was a real alter­na­tive to capi­ta­list society. A critique of exis­ting condi­ti­ons must assi­mi­late these expe­ri­en­ces in a serious manner and incor­po­rate them.


The igno­rance and arro­gance with which the GDR is often dealt with in Germany, – even in left-wing circles, –  is fatal in our view. This shows the effect of the offi­cial histo­ri­cal review.  Signi­fi­cantly, it is precis­ely from move­ments in other count­ries that there is inte­rest in lear­ning more about the GDR. And we want to make this access available.



How exactly does one have to imagine your work when you write that you want to examine and evaluate “the socia­list condi­ti­ons of the GDR that emer­ged at the time in sharp contrast to the capi­ta­list Fede­ral Repu­blic of Germany (FRG) system limits”? How do you proceed? Which sources do you evaluate?


F. M. S.: The compe­ting systems which were directly mani­fest between the FRG and the GDR for more than 40 years, essen­ti­ally deter­mi­ned the poli­ti­cal events of the time. This global poli­ti­cal context consti­tu­ted the frame­work condi­ti­ons of the entire poli­ti­cal, econo­mic, social, cultu­ral deve­lo­p­ments of the GDR and led to many contra­dic­tions and diffi­cul­ties in the cons­truc­tion of socia­lism. In our first issue, “Risen from Ruins” of our series “Studies on the GDR”, we present this context through a close exami­na­tion of the foun­ding condi­ti­ons of the GDR.


For our publi­ca­ti­ons, we draw on contem­po­rary sources from East and West as well as current scho­larly lite­ra­ture. Another central concern of the rese­arch center are inter­views with contem­po­rary witnesses.



Is your work then, really scien­ti­fic rese­arch or is it more or less alre­ady estab­lished that the GDR was the all-around better German state?


M. R.: We want to under­stand the achie­ve­ments and defeats of 40 years of socia­lism in order to learn from them. There is nothing to be gained by clai­ming that the GDR was simply better. But on the ques­tion of scien­ti­fic objec­ti­vity, it can be said that it is precis­ely the premise of the prevai­ling view of the GDR in which the result is alre­ady certain: The GDR must be bad because socia­lism is wrong. Not every scien­tist neces­s­a­rily starts with this precon­di­tion, but the cons­traints of the scien­ti­fic enter­prise, – first and fore­most the ques­tion of funding, – but also of acade­mic reco­gni­tion, repea­tedly promote this basic atti­tude toward the GDR.



As you have alre­ady mentio­ned, you work closely with the globally orga­ni­zed rese­arch insti­tute, the “Tricon­ti­nen­tal: Insti­tute for Social Rese­arch”. What are the bene­fits of this coope­ra­tion for your work?


F. M. S.: It is not about a bene­fit for us, but for our reader­ship. The impe­tus for foun­ding the rese­arch center was to share the expe­ri­ence of buil­ding socia­lism with move­ments, espe­ci­ally in the Global South, that are curr­ently enga­ged in social strug­gles accom­pa­nied by deba­tes about social alter­na­ti­ves. This is precis­ely where we want to contri­bute and show soli­da­rity. As an exam­ple, the land reform in the area of the later GDR can be well cited, in which there is a great inte­rest of the land­less move­ments in South Africa and Brazil. The Tricon­ti­nen­tal as a part­ner conveys to us the concerns of these move­ments, with which they them­sel­ves are closely connected.



You announce on your website that you want to take a closer look “at inter­na­tio­na­lism and the rela­ti­ons of state and social actors in the GDR to other count­ries and anti-colo­nial move­ments.” Was the GDR’s inter­na­tio­na­lism really so altru­i­sti­cally motivated?


M. R.: Of course it was not altru­i­stic. What is decisive is that the GDR’s inte­rest coin­ci­ded with the inte­rests of the libe­ra­tion move­ments and the oppres­sed. But you don’t have to be a commu­nist to see that the GDR’s inter­na­tio­nal soli­da­rity for the people on the ground was in shar­pest contrast to the foreign policy of the impe­ria­list states. So the ques­tion is, who did the soli­da­rity efforts bene­fit? Not the capi­ta­list econo­mic inte­rests, but the working class world­wide. In the long run, of course, the goal was to streng­then the socia­list camp. “Unsel­fi­sh­ness” here leads to a concep­tual dead end.


In our rese­arch series “Friend­ship!” we trace the many soli­da­rity projects of the GDR, precis­ely in order to clarify the ques­tion of what charac­te­ri­zed its inter­na­tio­nal relations.



You want to illu­mi­nate all aspects of GDR society and thus broa­den the view of funda­men­tal possi­bi­li­ties and diffi­cul­ties of alter­na­tive social, econo­mic and poli­ti­cal deve­lo­p­ment. Isn’t that a bit ambi­tious for a small institute?


F. M. S.: Sure, we can’t do ever­y­thing at once. We grow oursel­ves with the topics. Our “Studies on the GDR” initi­ally have an over­view charac­ter. We are driven by the useful­ness of the rese­arch work for progres­sive move­ments world­wide. This, along with the support of DDR experts on a variety of topics, helps us focus our work. For exam­ple, in light of the corona pande­mic, our second issue of the “Studies” series is devo­ted to health care in the GDR.



Who bene­fits from your work in the end?


F. M. S.: We offer rese­arch and educa­tio­nal mate­ri­als to promote an inter­na­tio­nal exch­ange about a part of the history of the labor move­ment. Conver­sely, we also need to engage with the history and poli­ti­cal proces­ses in Chile, South Africa, Viet­nam and else­where in order to write texts that our inter­na­tio­nal audi­ence can relate to. We see oursel­ves as a scho­larly inter­face between discourse and action. In the spirit of popu­lar educa­tion, we ther­e­fore strive to create an acces­si­ble entry point to the topic — from which ever­yone can benefit.



Can former citi­zens of the GDR support your research?


M.R.: Abso­lut­ely! Some time ago, we had alre­ady laun­ched an appeal in the junge Welt, expli­citly looking for contem­po­rary witnesses who had been invol­ved in the GDR’s soli­da­rity projects at home and abroad. This resul­ted in exci­ting cont­acts. We now inform once a month in a news­let­ter about the status of our work and about plan­ned inter­view projects, and we welcome feed­back. Precis­ely because our rese­arch does not embed the expe­ri­en­ces of GDR citi­zens in the narra­tive of the “unjust state,” we have recei­ved good feed­back so far.

Background: International Research Center GDR

The Berlin-based Inter­na­tio­nal Rese­arch Center GDR (IF DDR) focu­ses in parti­cu­lar on inter­na­tio­na­lism and the rela­ti­ons of state and social actors in the GDR with other count­ries and anti-colo­nial move­ments. In many count­ries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the posi­tive impul­ses for econo­mic and poli­ti­cal sove­reig­nty, such as those set by the GDR with nume­rous soli­da­rity projects, have been remem­be­red, the rese­ar­chers write on their website. Where econo­mic and social alter­na­ti­ves to the exis­ting ones are once again in demand, where anti-colo­nial, anti-capi­ta­list and socia­list move­ments are once again forming, there is also a spike in inte­rest in the expe­ri­en­ces and deve­lo­p­ments of the GDR.


With a small team from the East and West, the IF DDR sifts through and sorts exis­ting lite­ra­ture, combi­nes it with first-hand expe­ri­en­ces in eyewit­ness inter­views and, on this basis, deve­lops scien­ti­fi­cally sound and descrip­tive publi­ca­ti­ons in a wide variety of media formats. With its studies, the IF DDR aims to “contri­bute to current deba­tes on social strug­gles and poli­ti­cal alter­na­ti­ves that are fed by the condi­ti­ons and expe­ri­en­ces of GDR socialism.”


Alre­ady, a number of publi­ca­ti­ons on various aspects of the GDR can be found on the rese­arch center’s home­page. The first issue of “Studies on the DDR”, for exam­ple, traces the emer­gence of the GDR after the Second World War and “follows its deve­lo­p­ment from an anti-fascist demo­cra­tic state to a socia­list one”. Central to this is “the econo­mic start­ing posi­tion, which was parti­cu­larly diffi­cult after the war and due to the repa­ra­ti­ons and deter­mi­ned econo­mic life,” the scho­lars conclude. Conse­quently, the text focu­ses on the economy of the GDR, its achie­ve­ments as well as its contra­dic­tions. In addi­tion, infor­ma­tion is provi­ded about central charac­te­ristics of socia­list society and work such as: inter­na­tio­nal soli­da­rity, coll­ec­tive orga­niza­tion in state-owned enter­pri­ses, and plan­ned economy. In the near future, publi­ca­ti­ons on health care in the GDR and the land reform carried out in the later terri­tory of the GDR are to follow. The series is inten­ded to “provide the basis for an inter­na­tio­nal exch­ange about the GDR by tracing the cons­truc­tion of this socia­list state and its reality of life on the basis of selec­ted aspects of ever­y­day life.” The series “Friend­ship!” is in prepa­ra­tion; it will be devo­ted to the socia­list maxim of inter­na­tio­nal soli­da­rity and will explore the GDR’s inter­na­tio­nal rela­ti­ons as well as their effects and after-effects. (bern)