Hope, Fear, and Solidarity

A Chilean emigrant and a former GDR citi­zen recount the victory of Salva­dor Allende and the Unidad Popu­lar in Chile, the 1973 coup d’état, and the escape from Chile to the GDR.

25 Septem­ber 2023

The film poster for “I was, I am, I shall be” by the DDR-film­ma­kers Heynow­ski & Scheu­mann (1974)


53 years ago, the Unidad Popu­lar (“Popu­lar Unity”) led by the newly-elec­ted presi­dent Salva­dor Allende set out to trans­form Chilean society. A 40-point programme aimed to eradi­cate hunger and home­l­ess­ness, ensure that every child could attend school, and reclaim the country’s natu­ral resour­ces for the bene­fit of the Chilean people. Three years later, the alli­ance and its presi­dent were over­thrown by a mili­tary coup d’état led by the US-backed Gene­ral Augusto Pino­chet. There follo­wed an era of fascist dicta­tor­ship, in which repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of all curr­ents of the Unidad Popu­lar were targe­ted and relent­lessly perse­cu­ted. Thou­sands were impri­so­ned in camps, tortu­red and executed.

Even five deca­des years after the coup, many indi­vi­du­als remain miss­ing. At the same time, the true depth of Western invol­vement in the brutal coup is coming to light. To comme­mo­rate the unfi­nis­hed project of the Unidad Popu­lar (UP) and the inter­na­tio­nal soli­da­rity it garne­red, we have recor­ded the expe­ri­en­ces of two women: a Chilean aciti­vist who was active in the UP alli­ance and an ardent GDR inter­na­tio­na­list who helped exiled Chile­ans to conti­nue their struggle from abroad. Their stories paint a picture of the atmo­sphere of the time, from hope and inspi­ra­tion, to fear and dismay, and finally defi­ance and solidarity.

Nancy Lare­nas lived in the Chilean coas­tal city of Valpa­raíso until the coup in 1973. As an active member of the UP party Movi­mi­ento de Acción Popu­lar Unita­ria / Obrero Campe­sino (MAPU / OC, “Move­ment of Unitary Popu­lar Action / Workers Peasants”), she parti­ci­pa­ted in the imple­men­ta­tion of the program of the Unidad Popu­lar, was perse­cu­ted after the coup on Septem­ber 11, and had to flee her home­coun­try. Her path led her via Sant­iago to West Germany, then to Cuba, and finally to the GDR. Gudrun Mert­schenk, born in 1954, studied history and specia­li­zed in the Chilean trade union move­ment CUT. She was in close touch with many Chile­ans in the GDR, also through her work at the Inter­na­tio­nal Fede­ra­tion of Teachers’ Unions (FISE), where she assis­ted in orga­ni­zing soli­da­rity campaigns for the Chile­ans and was awarded by the “Bureau Chile Anti­fa­scista” for her work.

Hope in the Unidad Popular

While Salva­dor Allende hims­elf expli­citly ruled out the revo­lu­tio­nary path, the Cuban expe­ri­ence still acted as a beacon for left-wing forces in Latin America, inclu­ding for Nancy Larenas:

“I perso­nally and the youth of Chile, under the impact of the victory of the Cuban Revo­lu­tion, saw that it is possi­ble to take our future in our own hands and not live fore­ver under the pres­sure of U.S. imperialism.


In the 1960s, momen­tum came from the demo­cra­tic move­ment in Chile, but the condi­ti­ons were poli­ti­cally diffe­rent. In 1964, Eduardo Frei of Chile’s Chris­tian Demo­cra­tic Party was elec­ted presi­dent. This govern­ment star­ted to imple­ment an agra­rian reform, for exam­ple. The fact that this went ahead was rela­ted to the fact that the 1925 Consti­tu­tion had some loopho­les. And it was through these loopho­les in the Consti­tu­tion that Allende’s govern­ment then also brought about a change, for exam­ple, through the natio­na­liza­tion of copper and the deepe­ning of the agra­rian reform. That was the situa­tion at that time, and we threw oursel­ves into that move­ment with all our strength.


But the Unidad Popu­lar had drawn up a program for social justice based on the exis­ting bour­geois demo­cracy. It was a very diffe­rent approach to the one taken in Cuba. That is, we only won execu­tive power through the presi­dency, but not the depu­ties and sena­tors in the legis­la­ture, nor the judges in the judi­ciary, and still less so the military.”

The victory of the UP-candi­date Salva­dor Allende in the presi­den­tial elec­tions on 4 Septem­ber 1970 was indeed for Nancy a symbol of hope, “but we did not have the majo­rity, only 36 percent. That Salva­dor Allende ente­red the govern­ment was deci­ded in a runoff elec­tion in Parlia­ment on 24 Octo­ber 1970. The Chris­tian Demo­cra­tic Party, which to some extent still had a progres­sive side in the agra­rian reform, supported the UP first. But later, in the coup, they went along with it. That’s why we say golpe civico mili­ta­rio, because it wasn’t only the mili­tary that was invol­ved, but also civi­lian forces.”

The UP’s elec­tion victory was not only asso­cia­ted with great hopes in Chile itself – the entire socia­list camp follo­wed the events with great sympa­thy. Even in the GDR, as Gudrun recounts, there was great enthu­si­asm: “There were great hopes asso­cia­ted with it, also because the West was always accu­sing socia­lism of being ‘bloody’ or ‘unde­mo­cra­tic’. The Cuban Revo­lu­tion was always deni­gra­ted as ‘unde­mo­cra­tic’.” Now Allende and the UP had come to power not through a popu­lar upri­sing but through the bour­geois system’s own mecha­nisms. “You know, one would have thought that the Western world would now support Chile, espe­ci­ally since they had just cele­bra­ted the 1968 events in Prague and Dubček’s ’socia­lism with a human face’ so much.” The fact that the UP repre­sen­ted a broad front of progres­sive forces also gave hope: “In the GDR, too, there was an alli­ance, the ‘Natio­nal Front’, in which the four bloc parties and other mass orga­niza­ti­ons were repre­sen­ted. That’s how it was imagi­ned now in Chile, that there was a simi­larly broad alli­ance and that diffe­rent needs could be served through it.”

Nancy hers­elf was a member of a party inside the UP alli­ance: “In 1971 I joined the MAPU; it was a split from the left wing of the Chris­tian Demo­cra­tic Party. It was a small party, these were young people, they wanted more change. In 1972, the party declared itself Marxist-Leni­nist and split a short time later. I was then a member of the MAPU / Obrero Campe­sino (Workers and Peasants). As an orga­niza­tion, we had cells in resi­den­tial areas, in facto­ries, and that’s where I first read Das Kapi­tal. Things moved so quickly – we were in govern­ment for 1,000 days, only 3 years!”

Nancy’s student card at the Univer­si­dad de Chile

After the natio­na­liza­tion of the copper mines by the UP govern­ment, the USA stop­ped its invest­ments and impo­sed drastic sanc­tions, which hit Chile as a major copper exporter parti­cu­larly hard. Foreign exch­ange shorta­ges inten­si­fied, and infla­tion was rampant. With ever­y­thing from food produc­tion to distri­bu­tion in private hands, food prices were driven up by buying and hoar­ding in the emer­ging black market. In response, Commis­si­ons for Supply and Price Control (Juntas de Abas­te­ci­mi­ento y Control de Precios, or JAP) were crea­ted in 1972 as a struc­ture to ensure food supply.

MAPU dele­ga­ted Nancy to join one of the JAPs:

“These were neigh­bour­hood-level groups autho­ri­zed by the govern­ment to control prices on the black market, like a minis­try. The secre­tary of this orga­niza­tion was Alberto Bache­let, the father of Michelle Bache­let. He was, of course, later arres­ted and in March 1974 he died in jail as a result of torture. He had a heart attack. The JAP, toge­ther with the cordo­nes indus­tria­les [workers’ coll­ec­ti­ves in the facto­ries], were the seed of demo­cra­tic deve­lo­p­ment at the grass­roots level. The cordo­nes were present in diffe­rent indus­tries that were in the hands of the workers after the owners had refu­sed to conti­nue produc­tion. The workers then defen­ded the facto­ries. The cordo­nes indus­tria­les, of which there were about 200, were the second nucleus of popu­lar power, along­side the JAPs.


I became presi­dent of the JAP in my neigh­bour­hood. It was a middle-class neigh­bour­hood where many members of Patria y Libertad, a fascist group, lived. We orga­ni­zed the supplies for some 120 fami­lies. The members of the JAP – not all of them were commu­nists, there were also socia­lists and Chris­tian Demo­crats – put toge­ther packa­ges accor­ding to the size of the fami­lies. We coope­ra­ted with the butcher. I went with him to the state meat distri­bu­tion centre and we took ever­y­thing to his store. When we went to pick up the goods, we were often threa­tened by the fascists of the Patria y Libertad, they chased us and tried to mug us.


They also tried to enter the butcher’s shop when the goods were being distri­bu­ted to take them away, but they failed. We knew that these people — the right-wingers and ultra-right-wingers — had mansi­ons, big houses, and big warehou­ses. They wanted to stock­pile all the goods to create scarcity.”

The situation deteriorates

At the time Nancy was active in the JAP, Gudrun was just 17 years old. She was a member of the Free German Youth and active in a singers’ club. She was fasci­na­ted by what was happe­ning in Latin America, had cont­act with young Chilean commu­nists in the GDR, and had seen the group Quila­payún at the Festi­val of Poli­ti­cal Song, who “gave her a special impulse [to] engage with the Spanish language.”

Gudrun and the GDR popu­la­tion also had learnt from their own expe­ri­ence that a rebel­lion against impe­ria­lism in one’s own coun­try would not simply be tolerated:

“We learnt from our own media that the bour­geois conser­va­tive forces, of course, had done ever­y­thing it could to prevent Allende from taking office. […] Nevert­hel­ess, the Congress elec­ted Allende, so he was able to take office on Novem­ber 4, and from then on there we could follow the conti­nuous reports, not only about the natio­na­liza­tion of the copper mines, but also about the living condi­ti­ons. Those who follo­wed this closely could really inform them­sel­ves about the situa­tion in Chile […] Through this compre­hen­sive report­ing, the names of not only figu­res like Allende, but also of Luis Corvalán, the gene­ral secre­tary of the Commu­nist Party, of course also of Gladys Marín, the chair­man of the Commu­nist Youth League, came to be known. Also, in the run-up to the 10th World Festi­val of Students and Youth, which took place in Berlin in 1973. Culture played a big role. For exam­ple, Quila­payún, Isabel Para, […] and Víctor Jara, who had visi­ted the GDR as a rela­tive unknown artist at the time. Other names like Carlos Alta­mi­rano, the leader of the Socia­list Party, and from the Workers’ and Peasants’ Movement.

The news coverage was very broad. We recei­ved reports of all the diffi­cul­ties that there were, such as the truckers’ strike. That, of course, had a signi­fi­cant effect because of the north-south axis in a coun­try like Chile.”

Back in Chile, mean­while, the situa­tion came to a head — also for Nancy:

“The contra­dic­tions inten­si­fied greatly. In prin­ci­ple, we had little power. The coup came on a Tues­day, early in the morning. The previous Sunday, Allende had met with all his minis­ters and allied parties. They had seen, of course, how serious the situa­tion was. There could really only be a civil war or a coup. But in the end, we were not armed for a civil war. The Right always propa­ga­ted that we had weapons, but that was not true, we had no weapons. In fact, in 1972, under Allende, the Right and mana­ged to get a new law passed in parlia­ment that allo­wed them to carry out gun controls. I myself got caught up in such a control with my comra­des, and navy comman­dos sear­ched us. That was a clear signal for me: I saw how these forces operate.


We had achie­ved 36 percent in the 1970 elec­tions. In the parlia­men­tary elec­tion in March 1973, we recei­ved 44 percent. So, we were actually growing by leaps and bounds. The fascists couldn’t allow it to conti­nue. In 1972, they began to try with great inten­sity to boycott the UP govern­ment. They then began plan­ting bombs to spread unrest. People were beaten. The contra­dic­tions and the class struggle rapidly came to a head.”

These deve­lo­p­ments were also follo­wed with concern in the socia­list count­ries. “The fear that this promi­sing path might be stif­led in Chile had exis­ted for quite some time,” Gudrun recalls.

“In March 1973, there were elec­tions, and the Right mobi­li­zed very stron­gly, but the UP still mana­ged to win a much higher percen­tage that Allende had won with [in 1970]. The Right reali­zed that Allende could not be brought down through elec­tions. They began to panic that some­thing long-term might be setting in, and not just in poli­tics, but also in the minds of the people. This fear was also quite palpa­ble from afar, but no one actually expec­ted what was to happen in Septem­ber 1973, neither here nor among the Chile­ans them­sel­ves, because ever­yone clung to the idea that Chile’s army was loyal to the consti­tu­tion. It was more of a hope that the army would keep a low profile in the barracks and not inter­vene poli­ti­cally. Unfort­u­na­tely, that turned out to be a miscalculation.”

A poster by the GDR’s Soli­da­rity Committee

Nancy: The coup in Chile

“Valpa­raíso and Vina del Mar were occu­p­ied by comman­dos in the early morning hours of Septem­ber 11. Navy ships had ente­red the port of Valpa­raíso and comman­dos had occu­p­ied streets and govern­ment buil­dings, univer­si­ties. The U.S. fleet of Opera­tion Unitas was statio­ned off the coast of Valpa­raíso. Unlike the coup attempt of 29 June 1973, when the people took to the streets to defend the govern­ment, this time the cities and their stra­te­gic points were taken while the people slept, so that they could not mobilize.

The navy comman­dos stor­med the univer­sity where I was study­ing archi­tec­ture, arres­ted all the students they could find, and took them in trucks to the first prisoner concen­tra­tion camp in Valpa­raíso, Playa Ancha Stadium.

When we woke up, the marine comman­dos and fascist groups of Patria y Libertad were all over the street. They control­led the entran­ces to our buil­ding. After the broad­cast of the last speech of our presi­dent Salva­dor Allende and the bombing of the govern­ment palace, our situa­tion was clear – it was a matter of saving our lives. We were caught in a trap, we had to get out of our apart­ment and the buil­ding as quickly as possible.

But we could not get out at first. The fascists gathe­red in the cour­ty­ard and cele­bra­ted the coup. They blocked the exit and star­ted drin­king. Only when some other resi­dents of the house complai­ned did they let the resi­dents leave. I snuck out with my husband. He was a well-known trade unio­nist, so we had to be extra careful. The repres­sive agita­tion was direc­ted against trade unio­nists and JAP members, among others. That means we would have had no chance of survi­val if we had been arrested.

He went out first and I went out after him. We had agreed on certain secu­rity measu­res in advance. If some­thing happened to him, I would have to go to the comra­des imme­dia­tely and let them know. And if I myself were to be arres­ted, I would have to shout so that at least others would notice. I told my comra­des from the begin­ning: If I am arres­ted, you have seven hours. After seven hours, I will tell ever­y­thing. I had always been afraid of torture – we knew what awai­ted us! We had read about the crimes of the dicta­tor­ship in Brazil…

It was not long before mili­tary commu­ni­qués on tele­vi­sion and radio began legi­ti­mi­zing the mili­tary action and justi­fy­ing the repres­sion of those resis­ting. Start­ing at 3 p.m., a ‘curfew’ was impo­sed throug­hout the coun­try. It was forbidden to go out on the streets because of the risk of being denoun­ced, arres­ted, or killed by the mili­tary patrol­ling the streets. People were afraid. I spent the days after the coup, walking around all day, thin­king. What do I do? Which way do I go now? I walked on the street and saw acquain­tances from the UP, young people. I saw the fear of death in their faces.

With all the violence and mili­tary perse­cu­tion in Valpa­raíso, a resis­tance action occur­red on 14 Septem­ber that surpri­sed the mili­tary comman­dos and regi­ments patrol­ling the streets. But it did not have a major impact because the resis­ters did not have the neces­sary forces.”

A poster by the GDR’s Soli­da­rity Committee

Gudrun: The news of the coup in the GDR

It was a Tues­day; the second week of studies had star­ted for me. I turned on the radio and the news came on that the Moneda had been bombed. I remem­ber crying and thin­king, this can’t be! How can an army bomb its own govern­ment buil­ding? I mean, there were many coups before 1973 and after 1973, and the figurehead was often captu­red or shot, but the bombing of the seat of govern­ment was a very singu­lar event. I spent the whole evening trying to get more detailed infor­ma­tion and yes, we were stun­ned. It’s still unbe­lie­va­ble to me today when I think about it, about the pictures. Of course, because I knew seve­ral young commu­nists from the Commu­nist Youth League, I was imme­dia­tely afraid. There were reports of perse­cu­tion and repres­sion. What is going on there? Have our comra­des been impri­so­ned? Have they been shot? Tortu­red? And then, over the years, we came to learn of many deaths.

The GDR imme­dia­tely called for soli­da­rity actions. It was clear that the mili­tary regime would not be supported. It was not at all compa­ti­ble with our ideas. Yet the offi­cial state­ments in West Germany were along the lines of: ‘Now our trade rela­ti­ons can norma­lize again’. For the West German govern­ment, the natio­na­liza­tion of the copper mines was of course an ‘encroach­ment on free­dom’. Rela­tively early on, the ques­tion arose as to why the West German govern­ment, with the Social Demo­cra­tic Prime Minis­ter Willy Brandt, did not support the social demo­crats or the socia­list Allende more. You know, this imme­dia­tely reve­a­led how econo­mic inte­rests trumped poli­ti­cal conside­ra­ti­ons. The Willy Brandt’s govern­ment recei­ved advan­ced warning that the coup would take place and it did not warn the Socia­list Allende. The GDR’s Minis­try for State Secu­rity [MfS or ‘Stasi’] then inter­cepted this infor­ma­tion and tried to warn Sant­iago, but unfort­u­na­tely it was alre­ady too late.

The beha­viour [of the two German states] after the putsch was also quite diffe­rent. […] As we lear­ned much later, there were concrete measu­res taken by the GDR to protect people and get them out of the coun­try. Lists of the most wanted people were imme­dia­tely published, and Luis Corvalán, Gladys Marín, Carlos Alta­mi­rano, and all the top offi­ci­als were on it. They were merci­lessly hunted down. The worst exam­ple is the artist Víctor Jara. He was so despi­sed by the right because of the songs he wrote. There had been earlier attempts to assas­si­nate him. At that time, he was always given protec­tion, also by the youth asso­cia­tion. And when they got hold of him after the coup, they tortu­red him in the worst way, and then murde­red him.”

A poster by the GDR’s Soli­da­rity Committee

Flight and exile

In Nancy’s home­town, which was occu­p­ied by the navy, inha­bi­tants were constantly checked in the streets. She recounts how people were iden­ti­fied as leftists and arres­ted based on their clot­hing alone. Nancy had no choice but to smile. If she went out on the street, she put on her best clothes, made hers­elf up and smiled. That was the best, the only camou­flage. She and her husband made their way to their fami­lies to say goodbye.

“On 11 Septem­ber, our escape began. It lasted until the end of Novem­ber. On the day of the fascist coup, we came to my in-laws’ house to say good­bye before curfew. Two days later, the police arres­ted my father-in-law while they were sear­ching for my husband. He sat in detention all night, but was even­tually released. My parents-in-law had fled Germany them­sel­ves deca­des earlier. He was a Jew from Frank­furt and had been perse­cu­ted by the Gestapo at the time. My husband had been able to secure a German pass­port through his parents.

In contrast to our despair, my sister-in-law and her husband were very happy about the coup. They had cele­bra­ted the events with cham­pa­gne. You see, there was also this pola­riza­tion within the families.

Finally, we went to my parents’ house, who were also poli­ti­cal. Their house was also sear­ched, and all the neigh­bours watched on as it happened. The situa­tion became ever more tense for us. During curfews, neigh­bour­hoods were cordo­ned off and house after house was sear­ched. Those who had UP people in their homes could be arres­ted or shot.”

A poster by the GDR’s Soli­da­rity Commit­tee (“Chile under the protec­tion of the junta – tens of thou­sands of orphans since the coup”)

This situa­tion lasted for weeks for Nancy before she hitch­hiked with her husband to Sant­iago in Novem­ber, where her party had orga­ni­zed an apart­ment for the two of them. But even there they had to flee when it became known that the comrade who had arran­ged the apart­ment for them had been arres­ted in Valpa­raíso. Nancy ended up with acquain­tances through her JAP cont­acts, but they turned her husband away because of his prominence:

“For him, the only option was to go to the West German embassy. Howe­ver, the West German ambassa­dor, Kurt Lüdde-Neur­ath, refu­sed to provide diplo­ma­tic protec­tion. But my husband refu­sed to leave the buil­ding. He could not be forci­bly remo­ved. Other Chile­ans were sent away.

Helmut Frenz, the former bishop of the Evan­ge­li­cal Lutheran Church in Chile and secre­tary gene­ral of the German section of Amnesty Inter­na­tio­nal, put pres­sure on the West German govern­ment, and the ambassa­dor even­tually had to change his position.”

In her distress, Nancy also turned to the West German Embassy and insis­ted on stay­ing, since her husband was a West German citi­zen. The cultu­ral atta­ché in charge finally relen­ted and instruc­ted her to appear at the ambassador’s resi­dence that same evening, where a door would open at 9 p.m. sharp — that was her only option. Nancy agreed, and at 4 p.m., toge­ther with a comrade from her party (MAPU-OC), she drove to the ambassador’s resi­dence in his car.

“We looked for the door but could­n’t find it. My comrade had to leave, and I walked around for four hours, always with a smile. A few minu­tes before 9 p.m., I met a diffe­rent comrade in a small square behind the ambassador’s resi­dence. He was to inform the party if some­thing went wrong. The street was guarded by the mili­tary. While we were still thin­king about what to do, a young man appeared and walked purpo­sefully toward the street running along the side of the resi­dence. I knew instinc­tively that I had to follow him. I said good­bye to my comrade and ran after the young man. He suddenly jumped to the side, show­ing me the side door. It turned out that he was a doctor and a member of the Commu­nist Party.”

At the resi­dence, Nancy was inter­ro­ga­ted by the West German intel­li­gence service, given an alien pass­port, and escor­ted to the airport because it was still possi­ble that she would be arres­ted on the way. In Decem­ber 1973, shortly after her husband left their home­land, Nancy was flown to West Germany. The two were taken to Hanau in “a refu­gee shel­ter where Russi­ans and former GDR resi­dents were also housed. Each family, no matter how large, had only one room, there was one toilet for ever­yone, for washing up only one sink, nothing else.” 

Nancy and her husband left for Cuba, from where they actually wanted to go to Argen­tina, but there too a mili­tary coup struck. In 1976 they were suppo­sed to return to the FRG “and I said, no, that is out of the ques­tion for me.” Instead, the MAPU-OC arran­ged for her to go to the GDR.

Arrival in the GDR

Imme­dia­tely after the coup, the GDR became the main host coun­try for Chilean exiles in Eastern Europe. It directly took in about 2,000 refu­gees and provi­ded them with an inte­rest-free loan and new apart­ments. A further 3,000 Chile­ans would follow over the next 15 years. Gudrun recalls: “Rela­tively quickly, concrete measu­res were imple­men­ted. The refu­gees – we called them emigrants at that time – were not only distri­bu­ted to Berlin, but to diffe­rent cities. […] It was clear from the start that they would not only be taken in and left to their own devices, but they would be given apart­ments, which was not so easy in the GDR at that time either, because we still had a big housing problem. Fort­u­na­tely, the housing program had alre­ady begun, so the Chilean emigrants actually always recei­ved appro­priate housing. Also, school and educa­tion, jobs and places to study, so that many were able to conti­nue their educa­tion rela­tively seam­lessly — despite the language barrier, of course. The same was true for their profes­si­ons, which they then either comple­ted here first or were able to work straight away.”

Nancy also comple­ted her studies in the GDR, earned her docto­rate and worked there. The coun­try quickly became a new home for her:

“In the GDR I had recei­ved many things that I had never had before — neither in Chile nor in the FRG. I had ever­y­thing I needed to deve­lop freely. In Magde­burg, a new apart­ment block was provi­ded for us Chile­ans. We recei­ved 5,000 GDR Mark per head. That was a lot of money back then. With that we were able to buy all the house­hold appli­ances, furni­ture and bedding we needed. I had never had my apart­ment carpe­ted before!  Ever­y­thing was new. We had to pay rent every month, of course, but it was rela­tively small. We paid 50 GDR marks for three rooms. Through work, I earned 660 marks alone, and then my husband’s wages came on top of that.”

German clas­ses were orga­ni­zed for the Chile­ans in the early morning hours from 7 to 9 a.m. so that they could learn before going to work or univer­sity. Since Nancy joined later and the teacher was no longer teaching due to illness, she began working at the Wohnungs­bau­kom­bi­nat (housing cons­truc­tion enter­prise) Magde­burg without knowing the language. There she joined a work brigade:

“The brigade would meet every week to discuss comple­ted and upco­ming work. I worked with archi­tects, gradua­tes from Weimar, who were rede­sig­ning the city center of Magde­burg. We worked in a comra­dely atmo­sphere, our office was the craziest of all, of course, with so many architects.

Living in the GDR shaped me and streng­the­ned my commu­nist convic­tions. The laws also impres­sed me: as a woman, I had just as many rights as the men. I had never expe­ri­en­ced that before. In the Wohnungs­bau­kom­bi­nat in Magde­burg or in the cons­truc­tion company in Jena, there were extra rooms just for women where they could rest if they felt uncom­for­ta­ble. There was also one day of paid house­work per month. Of course, this was all a process; women were still doing too much house­work in addi­tion to their profes­sio­nal work. But it was going in the right direc­tion. My time in the GDR was very good.

At that time, I also saw how the West’s propa­ganda against the GDR was beco­ming more and more intense. It was aimed at arou­sing envy for luxury goods in the West: clothes or tropi­cal fruits and so on.”

The exiled members of the various UP parties contin­ued their poli­ti­cal struggle from abroad. In the GDR, “the struc­tures of the Unidad Popu­lar […] were able to re-estab­lish them­sel­ves in a certain way, thanks to the commit­ment of the Chile Anti­fa­scista office,” Gudrun explains.

“This office emer­ged from the Chilean Embassy in the GDR, and became the hub for soli­da­rity actions in the diffe­rent count­ries and for main­tai­ning cont­acts with our poli­ti­cal orga­niza­ti­ons. The Commu­nist Party of Chile had its head­quar­ters in Moscow, while the Socia­list Party had its head­quar­ters here in the GDR. The fact that […] the gene­ral secre­tary of the Socia­list Party, Carlos Alta­mi­rano, was smug­g­led out of Chile in the trunk of the car of a GDR intel­li­gence agent certainly played a role there. Alta­mi­rano then found asylum in the GDR for a long time. After the coup, the GDR severed diplo­ma­tic rela­ti­ons with Chile. Only a trade mission was main­tai­ned in Chile, which was used to get more people out.”

The DDR’s Soli­da­rity Commit­tee promo­tes a photo exhi­bi­tion. Pictu­red is Gladys Marín, the chair­per­son of Chile’s Commu­nist Youth League.

In the Inter­na­tio­nal Fede­ra­tion of Teachers’ Unions (FISE), which had its head­quar­ters in Berlin in the 1980s, Gudrun worked with Chilean colle­agues to provide infor­ma­tion about the situa­tion in Chile and to support comrades:

“I didn’t just do the job by the book; I was parti­cu­larly commit­ted to the Chilean cause. […] I had kept in touch with the diffe­rent Chilean teachers’ unions and looked after people when they were here. We had also been in cont­act with Radio Moscow from time to time to read out appeals and so on. I was then given an ‘Hono­rary Certi­fi­cate for Chile Soli­da­rity from the Chile Anti­fa­scista Office’.”

“The soli­da­rity was massive,” Nancy recalls. “There were many events about Chile, and we were very privi­le­ged. They gave us ever­y­thing. To this day, that expe­ri­ence touches me.” West Germany even­tually accepted members of various UP parties, albeit reluc­tantly, as Nancy points out, “In the West, the whole Chris­tian Demo­cra­tic party [CDU] was against the Chile­ans. We were called terro­rists. They only accepted poli­ti­cal emigrants from Chile where the Social Demo­crats were in govern­ment — in Hamburg, Frank­furt, West Berlin, Hano­ver, and so on.”

After 1990

In 1988, Nancy made an attempt to return to Chile and start again. For almost two years she tries to gain a foot­hold in her old home­land, but the poor condi­ti­ons make the project impos­si­ble. She had to wait two years to get her acade­mic degree reco­gni­zed and was unable to earn any money in the mean­time. So, she retur­ned to the GDR, but the society she had gotten to know was falling apart:

“Then came our great defeat. I came back and suddenly found myself back in capi­ta­lism! Ever­y­thing was gone and I had to start from scratch again. I was in Berlin and had no poli­ti­cal home. MAPU was Marxist-Leni­nist, but the members were mostly petty-bour­geois – lawy­ers and acade­mics – there were few workers and peasants in the end. Then in 1996 I joined the Commu­nist Party of Chile here in Germany. After our defeat, that was the only party that expres­sed my ideals. The Chile­ans in the GDR were afraid because there was a danger that the West German govern­ment could extra­dite us. So, they formed an asso­cia­tion to protect us.”

In Chile itself, the dicta­tor­ship conti­nues to have an impact deca­des later. Gudrun and her husband have been trave­ling to the coun­try regu­larly since 1990. They quickly noti­ced how the stig­ma­tiza­tion of the socia­list project contin­ued even after the end of the dicta­tor­ship. From their travels in the 1990s, Gudrun reports on the whis­pers of left-wing acti­vists, the silence of those respon­si­ble, the absence of the UP period in history books and Allende in the public sphere:

“We visi­ted friends, all people I had met through FISE. People who had never left Chile, and people who had had to emigrate and then had retur­ned. It was very inte­res­t­ing to see, because in 1995 the dicta­tor­ship was still very present even among these people them­sel­ves. We always intro­du­ced oursel­ves as former GDR citi­zens and had very diffe­rent reac­tions: Some said nothing at all, others remarked that we had imme­dia­tely helped — but then they would also speak more quietly. That was really striking. We were with acquain­tances in the Minis­try of Educa­tion and had to realize that there, too, history is writ­ten by the victor, of course, and the Unidad Popu­lar either did not appear in the text­books at all or was nega­tively char­ged. We also saw a monu­ment where all Chilean presi­dents since inde­pen­dence in 1818 were listed, only in 1970 there was no presi­dent, the last one was Eduardo Frei and then Pino­chet was mentio­ned. Allende didn’t appear at all and that was remar­kable to us.”

When the couple picked up two hitch­hi­kers on their jour­ney and Gudrun had to explain that she had prac­ti­ced her Spanish with Chilean emigrants, they were met with incom­pre­hen­sion. Emigrants were those who had escaped the time when there was “nothing, nothing to eat, no work.” Gudrun encoun­te­red a comple­tely distanced and distor­ted image of that time among young people there:

“They had heard, if they heard anything at school, only nega­tive things. That people had been lifted out of poverty, that there were people who could move into a perma­nent house for the first time; that land occu­pa­ti­ons no longer had to take place to make a shel­ter out of card­board and wood; that there was a half-litre of milk for the child­ren; that there was a school lunch; that the child­ren could go to school at all – none of that was taught.”

Fore­bo­din­gly, Gudrun reco­gni­zed in this a paral­lel to how the GDR would also to be dealt with:

“That was actually the harbin­ger of what is now taking place here with us: That the GDR is essen­ti­ally deni­gra­ted, and even posi­tive achie­ve­ments are somehow given a nega­tive touch. That was frigh­tening. What we witnessed back then almost 30 years ago, was now repea­ting here.”

A poster by the GDR’s Soli­da­rity Committee

Despite all the diffi­cul­ties in Latin America, Nancy sees the legacy of the UP conti­nuing in the strug­gles of the left-wing forces on the continent:

“Allende’s program provi­ded that each child would receive half a litre of milk. Enough food for all. Educa­tion for all. […] And you see the revi­val of these goals in the progres­sive govern­ments of Latin America: Vene­zuela, Boli­via, Ecua­dor, and so on. They also tried to bring about social justice through the exis­ting laws. But this is incre­di­bly diffi­cult. In 2000, it star­ted with Hugo Chávez in Vene­zuela. As an army offi­cer, he had the mili­tary behind him. Now there’s also an attempt in Colom­bia, but that’s still in the stars. That’s the problem with these progres­sive govern­ments in Latin America: the popu­lar majo­rity often mana­ges to win the execu­tive (the presi­dency), but not the parlia­ment, the judi­ciary, and even less so the mili­tary. Vene­zuela remains the excep­tion in this regard.”

This makes it all the more important for her to learn from the expe­ri­en­ces of the UP period and to stand in solidarity:

“Because they were not well prepared for the coup at that time, many comra­des of the Commu­nist Party in Chile fell. They had not asses­sed the situa­tion well. They tried to stop fear from spre­a­ding. But in the end, we all protec­ted each other – other­wise I would­n’t be here today either.”