“We always asked ourselves: Does this solidarity project serve the overall development of this country?”

Interview with Achim Reichardt, the last director of the GDR’s Solidarity Committee

Achim Reichardt, born in 1929, served as a diplo­mat for the GDR in Sudan, Leba­non, and Libya. From 1982 to 1990 he was gene­ral secre­tary of the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee of the GDR, an orga­niza­tion that emer­ged in the 1960s to admi­nis­ter the finan­cial and mate­rial dona­ti­ons coll­ec­ted by the GDR’s mass orga­niza­ti­ons in support of the libe­ra­tion move­ments and newly inde­pen­dent states in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Soli­da­rity Commit­tee became a central coor­di­na­tor of the GDR’s inter­na­tio­na­lism throug­hout the world. After 1990, Reichardt endea­vored to ensure that the remai­ning finan­cial resour­ces of the Commit­tee – dona­ti­ons from GDR citi­zens – contin­ued to be used for meaningful support in the Global South. 

How did inter­na­tio­na­lism come into your life, or how did you first expe­ri­ence it?


When you enter poli­ti­cal life, you some­ti­mes don’t know exactly where your path will lead, which direc­tion you should take. But once you become active, as I did imme­dia­tely after the war as a young man, first in local poli­tics, where my father was appoin­ted as a town mayor by the Soviets, then you realize what mutual support means. If I think back to my first inter­na­tio­nal cont­acts, they were with the Soviet offi­cers of the time, who supported the mayors and muni­ci­pa­li­ties in the villa­ges. It made a special impres­sion on me that the Soviets helped us, the young people in the GDR, even though in their home­lands, they had most certainly expe­ri­en­ced quite diffe­rent things at the hands of the Germans. This impres­sion contin­ued and streng­the­ned over the years: you felt you were being supported and tried to give some­thing back. Perso­nally, I tried to make cont­act with the Soviets during each of my deploy­ments. The lasting memo­ries that are burned into my mind are from my time in Libya, where I effec­tively had no base and had to build ever­y­thing from scratch. This would not have been possi­ble without the help of Soviet, Czech, and Polish friends who were very active there. Even later, you somehow always sensed that people who were on the left were stri­ving to support each other, and that was the decisive thing for me.

How did the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee come into being and develop?


The Soli­da­rity Commit­tee did not exist in the GDR from the begin­ning. After 1945, it was first the new mass orga­niza­ti­ons, the trade unions, also the women’s orga­niza­ti­ons, that sent soli­da­rity contri­bu­ti­ons to orga­niza­ti­ons with which they had cont­act. These self-direc­ted deve­lo­p­ments contin­ued, and it was not until the end of the 1950s and the begin­ning of the 1960s, when the libe­ra­tion move­ments on the Afri­can conti­nent became stron­ger and some states had gained inde­pen­dence, that the Africa Commit­tee1 emer­ged as an organ in its own right.


The Soli­da­rity move­ment de facto deve­lo­ped along­side the inter­na­tio­nal conflicts: After Africa came Viet­nam, later Chile, and there was always a demand for soli­da­rity, and it became appa­rent that the indi­vi­dual groups and orga­niza­ti­ons alone could not handle the matter. Ther­e­fore, other opti­ons were explo­red and gradu­ally the Commit­tee was formed inclu­ding the Viet­nam Commit­tee and the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee for Chile. Long before I came to the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee, it was formed as a non-govern­men­tal body.


It became appa­rent early on that it was mostly inter­na­tio­nal acti­vi­ties that the commit­tee was pursuing, because within the GDR, Volks­so­li­da­ri­tät2 had emer­ged. Support within the GDR was ther­e­fore not on the agenda of the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee. It was essen­ti­ally about how to inform the popu­la­tion. There were a great many acti­vi­ties in this area, by the parties, mass orga­niza­ti­ons, trade unions, women, FDJ, Young Pioneers. Above all, schools, i.e., teachers, got invol­ved with soli­da­rity work and infor­med child­ren. When I star­ted my work in the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee, I tried to make perso­nal cont­act with every orga­niza­tion, espe­ci­ally with the trade unions. Large compa­nies approa­ched the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee and asked whether one of us would come by and talk about soli­da­rity in the union groups. Jour­na­lists regu­larly repor­ted on the soli­da­rity work in the company and regio­nal newspapers.

Why was the Commit­tee not a govern­men­tal insti­tu­tion? What did this status mean?


It has to do with the fact that the whole move­ment was crea­ted through dona­ti­ons. I remem­ber, for exam­ple, that the trade unions had orga­ni­zed a dona­tion for a part­ner orga­niza­tion in an East Afri­can coun­try. Or when I was working as a diplo­mat in Sudan, I got to know that our farmers’ orga­niza­tion had cont­acts there, and so on. Such cont­acts meant that it was below the state level. At the same time, the state played a key role in faci­li­ta­ting our work. For exam­ple, the Commit­tee was allo­wed to pay for trans­port in GDR marks rather than in foreign currency, which was usually the case. The Minis­try of Finance sorted this out with Inter­flug (the GDR’s state airline) for us, because we had no foreign currency of our own. The same applied to soli­da­rity supplies that were shipped.

Through conver­sa­ti­ons with my prede­ces­sors, I lear­ned that there had also been state support to pay for person­nel costs in seve­ral cases. But in my time, the flow of dona­ti­ons was so great that we did not need to draw on addi­tio­nal govern­ment support other than paying for ship­ments in GDR marks. We were able to prove that our admi­nis­tra­tive costs — compared to the total volume of soli­da­rity — never excee­ded 2%, usually only 1%. This also meant that the dona­ti­ons could be effec­tively deployed.

There was close coor­di­na­tion between the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee and the GDR’s embas­sies or trade missi­ons over­seas. The embas­sies, for exam­ple in Mozam­bi­que or Ethio­pia, would hear from their cont­acts what was needed. That was one direc­tion. And the second direc­tion was that the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee main­tai­ned close rela­ti­ons with the respec­tive orga­niza­ti­ons in these countries.

How did the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee inform the GDR popu­la­tion about its work and what did inter­na­tio­na­lism mean to them? 


I empha­size it again, the decis­i­ons on how and where the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee should conduct its acti­vi­ties were made in consul­ta­tion with the respec­tive mass orga­niza­ti­ons. The repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of the trade union, women’s orga­niza­tion, etc., always agreed on the plans for the work of the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee in terms of natio­nal poli­ti­cal acti­vi­ties, and also on the prio­ri­ties of mate­rial soli­da­rity. With the support of the broad mass orga­niza­ti­ons and parties, there were very many events — inde­pen­dent of the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee — on news in Viet­nam, on the Korean War, and later on Africa. I can’t remem­ber much of it, but you would only have to look again in the news­pa­pers of that time to see what was going on. There were also central soli­da­rity events in which the commit­tee and I as gene­ral secre­tary parti­ci­pa­ted. These were about Viet­nam and Korea, then the PLO, Nami­bia, South Africa, Mozam­bi­que… all the count­ries where the struggle for inde­pen­dence and against oppres­sion was taking place.


When I star­ted working for the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee, I was faced with the ques­tion of how the work had been done so far and what could be impro­ved. I noti­ced that there were so-called perma­nent donors to the Commit­tee, but that there were also many dona­ti­ons from groups, from the schools, from Natio­nal Front3 resi­den­tial commu­ni­ties, and also from poli­ti­cal parties. This did not yet include the soli­da­rity of the trade unions, but only what went directly to the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee. At that time, we discus­sed in the circle of those respon­si­ble how we could be broa­der in our reach and, with the help of the trade unions, began to go into the facto­ries as well. This proved parti­cu­larly effec­tive, because in many compa­nies there were young people from other count­ries and for us it was not always just a matter of talking and handing out infor­ma­tion. We used this inte­rest and the possi­bi­lity of exch­ange to get in cont­act with the trade union groups and to inform about soli­da­rity. We then contin­ued this work in the schools because there were also many active student groups.


All my colle­agues were active in some groups outside the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee. There you could feel that the GDR popu­la­tion was really invol­ved. Their atti­tude was: We are slowly over­co­ming our time of hard­ship, but in other count­ries, their hard­ship conti­nues and is even grea­ter than ours. There were many such expe­ri­en­ces… As gene­ral secre­tary of the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee, this aware­ness prompted me to get invol­ved directly, not just to send out my colle­agues. Seve­ral hundred people from all walks of life always took part in the annual reports of the Commit­tee during its presi­dium meeting. The spon­sors of the Commit­tee – the trade unions, the women’s and farmers’ orga­niza­ti­ons – contri­bu­ted a great deal to ensu­ring that our work and acti­vi­ties were reflec­ted in their circles.

The Soli­da­rity Commit­tee published a brochure series entit­led “Anti-Impe­ria­list Soli­da­rity” to inform readers in Germany about the strug­gles and the situa­tion in the Global South. 

What soli­da­rity projects and expe­ri­en­ces do you remem­ber most?


That’s diffi­cult. One of our stron­gest bonds was with Viet­nam. It was essen­ti­ally about the Viet­na­mese being able to rebuild their coun­try after inde­pen­dence, after the wars had ended. We asked what they needed, and we couldn’t always fully meet their needs, but in essence our task was clear. Above all, it was about trai­ning young people in the GDR. I can still remem­ber the Moritz­burg4 in Dres­den very well, because I later met some of the child­ren. The young Kore­ans and Viet­na­mese who recei­ved their educa­tion there later took up important roles in poli­ti­cal and social life in their count­ries. As far as Korea was concer­ned, the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee, toge­ther with the GDR’s State Plan­ning Commis­sion, coor­di­na­ted econo­mic aid to the coun­try and finan­ced it from the Soli­da­rity Fund. In the early 1980s, my prede­ces­sor co-signed an agree­ment with Viet­nam. This was another exam­ple of combi­ned actions between the state and the Soli­da­rity Committee.


It was an honor for the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee that repre­sen­ta­ti­ves from these orga­niza­ti­ons and count­ries, when they were in the GDR, paid us a visit. This happened for exam­ple, when Namibia’s Sam Nujoma came, or the ANC’s Secre­tary-Gene­ral Alfred Nzo, and so on. Even Yasser Arafat, whom I had alre­ady met, always came to the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee for a meeting when he was in Berlin. When I was invi­ted to Nami­bia for the decla­ra­tion of inde­pen­dence in 1990, I had the honor of talking to Nelson Mandela. I told him where I came from. And he said: “I will never forget the youth of the GDR. They wrote me so many letters, cards, and so on.” I must say that was impres­sive. A person who had been behind bars for 24 years had taken note of the GDR’s youth movement.


One big action that I still remem­ber fondly was the hospi­tal in Nica­ra­gua. That took a lot of work from our colle­agues who helped to build it. The lion’s share of the work had been done by the GDR’s Natio­nal People’s Army, because they built a field hospi­tal there. The Soli­da­rity Commit­tee then had to get actively invol­ved in supp­ly­ing mate­ri­als for the hospi­tal and for the staff. I am convin­ced that this was a very important action. Follo­wing the GDR’s demise, I had talks with those respon­si­ble on the Fede­ral German side, who told me that such a project was too deman­ding for them. As far as I know, it was then priva­ti­zed in parts. At that time, there were also doctors trai­ned in the GDR who worked in the hospi­tal for a short time and were even­tually poached by the Western side. There was always this hard struggle.

What role did the Commit­tee play in the deve­lo­p­ment of the hospital?


There was very close coope­ra­tion with the FDJ and its friend­ship briga­des, also with the Minis­try of Health and the rele­vant agen­cies that were neces­sary to deve­lop the hospi­tal. After all, it did not remain a project of the army, which with­drew after the cons­truc­tion. Instead, it became a great object of soli­da­rity that still has an impact in some form today. And there were simi­lar, small projects in other count­ries, for exam­ple in Ethio­pia. There, a health station was built far away from the capi­tal. When I was in Ethio­pia, I was invi­ted to visit the station. It was diffi­cult to reach and could only be supplied by airplane — we flew over endless green forests and moun­ta­ins. It was important to build struc­tures not only in the centers.

How were projects gene­rally brought to the atten­tion of the Commit­tee or how were they initiated?


The Commit­tee itself had cont­acts with progres­sive orga­niza­ti­ons in the respec­tive count­ries. Howe­ver, I had alre­ady refer­red to the close coope­ra­tion between the embas­sies and the Commit­tee: The GDR Foreign Minis­try had allo­wed the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee to corre­spond directly with the embas­sies, which was a great advan­tage. Embassy meant not only the diplo­ma­tic repre­sen­ta­tion, but also the commer­cial repre­sen­ta­tion, who also had cont­acts. The appli­ca­ti­ons that came in were coll­ec­ted. There were also inter­na­tio­nal confe­ren­ces, where mostly the offi­cial repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of those orga­niza­ti­ons were present and important corre­spon­den­ces arose. It is diffi­cult to trace this in detail, but I can only keep remin­ding you how often Sam Nujoma, when he was in the GDR, also came to the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee. That had a poli­ti­cal effect as well.


The GDR had a UN repre­sen­ta­tion and could be found in important inter­na­tio­nal orga­niza­ti­ons. Crucial infor­ma­tion and requests to the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee to support the respec­tive count­ries also came from there. This concer­ned, for exam­ple, the WHO or educa­tio­nal work. We orien­ted our work around these requests, respon­ded to them and asses­sed their viabi­lity: was it possi­ble or not?


We also had very close coope­ra­tion with the soli­da­rity commit­tees from Finland, Denmark, and Norway. In coope­ra­tion with these orga­niza­ti­ons, we actively worked toge­ther, for exam­ple, to build kinder­gar­tens and send teachers. Within the GDR, of course, this was done in coor­di­na­tion with the specia­li­zed minis­tries; you can’t do it without them. On the whole, this turned out to be posi­tive… The Finns also mana­ged many deli­veries, where we as the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee could not get to for finan­cial, currency-rela­ted reasons. They loaded mate­ri­als in Helsinki onto GDR ships, which were reloa­ded in Rostock or Warne­münde in the GDR and then went down to Africa. This kind of coope­ra­tion also worked out well.

How did the reci­pi­ents receive soli­da­rity, how did it arrive in concrete terms? 


We atta­ched great importance to the fact that the reci­pi­ents were actively invol­ved in the soli­da­rity contri­bu­ti­ons and that certain mate­rial supplies were not squan­de­red or conver­ted into money. I can still remem­ber reports from Mozam­bi­que and Nica­ra­gua at the time that the bene­fits really did reach the reci­pi­ents and the masses. In my book I wrote about the exam­ple of our Jupp Jeschke, who had very good rela­ti­ons with Nica­ra­gua. He was invi­ted to visit a remote area toge­ther with jour­na­lists where at that time there were still clas­hes with oppo­sing forces. He was intro­du­ced to the people in the village when suddenly a woman screa­med “Wait, wait!” and ran away. She came back with her child­ren and said, “Look at this man, he sent you the school­books!” And that was a sign for us — and it wasn’t the only one — that the text­books were really distri­bu­ted far into the country’s terrain and not just left some­where in the capital.


There were also requests from many part­ners where we had to say from the outset: We cannot manage that. For exam­ple, there was the wish to build a hospi­tal right away. But buil­ding a hospi­tal does not only mean putting bricks on top of each other, but also provi­ding the subs­tance, i.e., doctors, nurses, etc. In this respect, the GDR played a posi­tive role in trai­ning young people at the medi­cal school in Quedlinburg.

How did you decide whether to support a cause?


When we wanted to imple­ment a soli­da­rity project, we always kept in mind what the wishes were and asked: does this project serve the over­all deve­lo­p­ment of this coun­try? I was giving the exam­ple of the hospi­tal in Nica­ra­gua, and it also applies to Viet­nam, for exam­ple. There, we inten­si­vely supported the hospi­tal in Hanoi and helped to build an insti­tute that provi­ded care for the many people in Viet­nam who had lost legs or other limbs as a result of the war and the mines. When I was in Viet­nam in 1985/86, I visi­ted this insti­tu­tion, and they were very grateful that many Viet­na­mese could walk again. We also carried out such measu­res in other countries.


For us, the main focus was on libe­ra­tion move­ments and count­ries that had begun progres­sive deve­lo­p­ment and wanted to move forward. But there were also actions of the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee aimed at provi­ding huma­ni­ta­rian aid in cases of severe clima­tic chan­ges and disas­ters, but the big problem for us was: In these cases, we some­ti­mes did not know if it would reach the reci­pi­ent at all, because there were no other estab­lished rela­ti­ons. That’s why I mentio­ned the exam­ple of Nica­ra­gua in my book, where it was not only a matter of sending people there, but also of directly deve­lo­ping a trai­ning school so that plum­bers, instal­lers, etc. could be trai­ned locally. And that was always the direc­tion we were looking at.

How did the soli­da­rity work change after the end of the GDR? 


It was diffi­cult to conti­nue the work at SODI5 in the way it had been done at the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee… I also expe­ri­ence the problem here in my home­town: There were two asso­cia­ti­ons for Gambia that have nothing to do with the govern­ment. This is a private cont­act that was deve­lo­ped and what they do is posi­tive. But it’s just a small opera­tion. When I look at SODI today – even though they are still active in the count­ries that we mainly supported, Viet­nam and so on – but suddenly a small opera­tion emer­ges in Congo; there’s a little project popping up in India; arising through private cont­acts. And that is in fact what we did not do. If there is an asso­cia­tion and a village, and there is someone who wants to deve­lop the village, that is posi­tive. But if I invest 1,000 €, 2,000 € or 5,000 €, not much happens. Ther­e­fore, the huma­ni­ta­rian work today tends to be more a drop in the bucket; support is distri­bu­ted here and there. We oursel­ves always admit­ted that our soli­da­rity is just a drop in the bucket, but we sought to ensure that it would at least serve to deve­lop some­thing. Not just the small farmer or the small village or the kinder­gar­ten – while that is bene­fi­cial! But we should consider the situa­tion in its enti­rety. I some­ti­mes shake my head at the small projects I see here and there and when I look at it that way, the commer­cial aspect is always atta­ched to it. What I reali­zed in the years after 1990 in the Fede­ral Repu­blic of Germany: There is no point in working alone on certain actions. When you see the tele­vi­sion appeals for large aid projects, where three or four large orga­niza­ti­ons throw the coll­ec­ted money into one pot, it is still always about indi­vi­dual small projects.


As the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee, we of course also visi­ted the respec­tive count­ries, either in connec­tion with the projects or some­ti­mes for stopo­vers, in order to make cont­act with the part­ner orga­niza­ti­ons. The inte­res­t­ing thing is, we as the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee were trea­ted like state guests. Repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee were recei­ved by minis­ters. This happened to me perso­nally when I was in South Yemen, and I was totally surpri­sed. I was invi­ted to meet the presi­dent, and he than­ked me for all the soli­da­rity that the GDR had provi­ded at each level, where certain measu­res were also state measu­res. The reco­gni­tion of the achie­ve­ment as that of the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee – that is, of the GDR citi­zens – was admirable.

The IF DDR conduc­ted two inter­views with Reichardt on 23.02.2021 and 06.04.2021. They have been edited slightly for better readability.

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