“On the ideological front, there was no peaceful coexistence”: Interview with Ulrich Kolbe

Ulrich Kolbe (*1963), whose parents had served in various foreign assign­ments for the GDR, grew up in an inter­na­tio­na­list house­hold. From 1987 to 1991, he taught German at the “Medifa”, a Medi­cal School in Qued­lin­burg that specia­li­sed in the trai­ning of inter­na­tio­nal students, prima­rily from the natio­nal libe­ra­tion move­ments or newly inde­pen­dent states. Today he works as a free­lance trans­la­tor, editor, author, photo­grapher, and instruc­tor in California.

As part of our rese­arch into the Medifa, we conduc­ted an inter­view with Kolbe in July 2021. In this first part, he descri­bes the GDR’s anti-impe­ria­list stra­tegy in gene­ral and discus­ses the deve­lo­p­ment of the poli­ti­cal conscious­ness of GDR citi­zens. In the second part, we talk about the importance of the Medi­cal School itself, both for the students and for the inha­bi­tants of Quedlinburg.

Can you briefly explain how internationalism was understood in the GDR? What was the significance of solidarity?

After 1989, certain concepts were no longer spoken of, they no longer played a role, or they were dismissed. “Prole­ta­rian inter­na­tio­na­lism” was one of them, as was “soli­da­rity” or “peaceful coexis­tence”. These terms could be heard in at least every other GDR TV news show. They were well known to the people in the GDR. And some of these terms were also put into prac­tice – they became part of people’s lives.

Prole­ta­rian inter­na­tio­na­lism, as we unders­tood it, was based on a simple state­ment that can also be found in Karl Marx’s Mani­festo of the Commu­nist Party: “Workers of the world, unite!” It is some­thing with which natio­na­lism can be coun­te­red, namely, to say that people in diffe­rent count­ries, with diffe­rent skin colours, are in fact all the same and they have the same inte­rests. It is about living in peace, about growing up in peace and about health care.

Prole­ta­rian inter­na­tio­na­lism, as it was unders­tood in the GDR, reco­gni­zed that there were three main curr­ents of the revo­lu­tio­nary world process. First, there was the socia­list camp based on mutual assis­tance, with the Soviet Union at its head. Second, there were the workers’ and commu­nist parties in the capi­ta­list states. Here, too, there was mutual assis­tance. Of course, many of these parties had a great inte­rest in the GDR’s expe­ri­ence in buil­ding a new society. Youth from France, for exam­ple, or from West Germany came to the GDR during their summer breaks via youth orga­ni­sa­ti­ons. Here in the Qued­lin­burg County, for exam­ple, there were part­ner­ships with towns in France that were often gover­ned by commu­nist mayors. They were inte­res­ted in the GDR and deci­ded to send 40 young people here in the summer. So that was the second current: the commu­nist and workers’ parties in capi­ta­list count­ries. The third current driving the revo­lu­tio­nary world process accor­ding to our under­stan­ding were the natio­nal libe­ra­tion move­ments in the newly libe­ra­ted or inde­pen­dent count­ries. Mutual aid took place on these three levels.

I want to unders­core that this coope­ra­tion was some­thing mutual. It was not the case that the small GDR, with limi­ted econo­mic resour­ces, always just chip­ped in. Some­thing was also given back – whether it was an exch­ange of certain expe­ri­en­ces, or diplo­ma­tic reco­gni­tion.1 But it was not prima­rily about Valuta [i.e., gene­ra­ting conver­ti­ble or “hard” currency] or anything else, it was really help on a purely human level. That is exactly what prole­ta­rian inter­na­tio­na­lism is. It was about having some­thing to oppose the flag-waving people, no matter if it was for the Euro­pean Foot­ball Cham­pi­on­ship or the World Cup. We have one flag, and, if anything, it is a red one. It was about stan­ding toge­ther for peace, for progress, and for social justice. So that’s the basic defi­ni­tion of what we unders­tood prole­ta­rian inter­na­tio­na­lism to be. Living that was a daily task for ever­yone and it was prac­ti­ced differently.

To what extent was this anchored and practiced in the population at large?

I don’t think it got any easier as the years went by. In the begin­ning, the circum­s­tances were rela­tively clear. When a large coun­try like the USA bombed a small one like Viet­nam, inci­ne­ra­ted it with Agent Orange and muti­la­ted its people, it was rela­tively easy to convey to the people here in the GDR who we were support­ing and why. It was clear that US impe­ria­lism, on the one hand, was trying to sabo­tage the GDR through West Berlin, and, on the other hand, it was bombing this small coun­try in Asia, for which we had great concern. So, there was a very natu­ral connec­tion between the students who came from Viet­nam and us. The same was true for the students who came from Pales­tine or Leba­non because US impe­ria­lism was also respon­si­ble for the devas­ta­ting situa­tion in their count­ries. As a result, people first had the same under­stan­ding on this track. This meant that we had an equal under­stan­ding with one another.

But I can remem­ber towards the end of the eight­ies, voices could be heard saying things like, “Back then we sent the Viet­na­mese our soli­da­rity dona­ti­ons and now we buy clothes from them.” Many Viet­na­mese contract workers in the GDR sewed jeans at home as a side job. Jeans were not available in our shops, but we could buy them from the Viet­na­mese workers.


So, towards the end of the GDR, in the late 1980s, the mood somehow chan­ged. There were various reasons for that. One reason was, of course, that it was no longer so easy to diffe­ren­tiate the good guys from the bad guys in the world. For many, of course, inter­na­tio­na­lism was more than just sticking soli­da­rity stamps in the union member­ship book every month.2 Many did look for and find other possi­bi­li­ties. For them, the solu­tion was, for exam­ple, to meet with foreign citi­zens, to invite them around and to estab­lish cont­act with them on a perso­nal level. For many, that was the case, but not for all, of course.

“Uncon­querable Viet­nam” – a GDR stamp in soli­da­rity with the Viet­na­mese struggle.

How were GDR citizens informed about developments in the countries fighting for their independence?

We would have to go further and look at the GDR’s very flawed infor­ma­tion policy, for which Joachim Herr­mann3 was largely respon­si­ble. If you swit­ched on the news show Aktu­elle Kamera on evening tele­vi­sion, you could expect that the first 10, 15, or some­ti­mes even 20 minu­tes would show nothing but reports on the public enter­pri­ses or “cour­tiers’ report­ing”, as we sarca­sti­cally called it. Who did the Chair­man of the Coun­cil of State receive as foreign guests today? And only after these 20 minu­tes, the focus finally turned to what was happe­ning in the rest of the world. What is the situa­tion in Chile’s prisons? What progress was the libe­ra­tion struggle in Angola and Mozam­bi­que making? We, who were poli­ti­cally inte­res­ted, found that infu­ria­ting at the time. We felt that the empha­sis in the report­ing was comple­tely wrong. We saw oursel­ves as inter­na­tio­na­lists – the global issues should have come first. They would certainly have elici­ted the inte­rest of the popu­la­tion at large. But a higher autho­rity didn’t see it that way.

In Qued­lin­burg, at the Medi­cal College and else­where, inter­na­tio­nal events were held to discuss deve­lo­p­ments in Africa and Asia. In 1973, I still remem­ber, there were count­less soli­da­rity events for the patri­ots of Chile, some of whom escaped to the GDR by the skin of their teeth. After we all cele­bra­ted toge­ther at the World Festi­val of Youth and Students in Berlin during the summer of 1973, many of the Chile­ans that retur­ned home were shortly there­af­ter driven into Santiago’s stadium, where they were tortu­red and murde­red. We mana­ged to bring quite a few back to the GDR, and you felt a very broad and genuine move­ment of soli­da­rity at that time. It wasn’t some­thing impo­sed from above, it wasn’t deman­ded of us.


I think that at that time, in the 1970s, the majo­rity of the popu­la­tion was still behind these soli­da­rity campaigns and really supported them with heart and soul. The fact that this was later successfully under­mi­ned by the West is tragic. At some point, people began to consider their own well-being, their own car, and their own bunga­low as somehow more important than what was happe­ning to their comra­des in other count­ries. That is a real shame.

What then distinguishes diplomacy from internationalism, or is one part of the other?

I would certainly say that the foreign policy of the GDR was carried and charac­te­ri­sed by the ideals of prole­ta­rian inter­na­tio­na­lism. But now I must bring in another signi­fi­cant concept: peaceful coexis­tence. This was a concept that one heard every day in the 1970s. It found its expres­sion, for exam­ple, in the fact that the Soviet Union and the USA flew a joint space mission in 1975. At the same time, the Norwe­gian Thor Heyer­dahl was travel­ling with an inter­na­tio­nal crew consis­ting of rese­ar­chers from many diffe­rent count­ries. In this way, inter­na­tio­na­lism could also be expe­ri­en­ced for us on the screen.

It was not always accom­pa­nied by prole­ta­rian inter­na­tio­na­lism, but an inter­con­nec­ted­ness, a policy of détente was percep­ti­ble. That gave us courage at the time. Foreign policy and inter­na­tio­na­lism — peaceful coexis­tence, as we called it, should be main­tai­ned and supported ever­y­where, but not on the ideo­lo­gi­cal front. For exam­ple, Marxism-Leni­nism was not taught as a subject at our Medi­cal College for inter­na­tio­nal students – we were a medi­cal insti­tu­tion, not a poli­ti­cal one. But if someone had given poli­ti­cal spee­ches or star­ted move­ments that ran coun­ter to the aims of this inter­na­tio­na­list educa­tion, they would certainly have had to be stop­ped. Because, on the ideo­lo­gi­cal front, there was no peaceful coexis­tence. That was precis­ely a prin­ci­ple of prole­ta­rian inter­na­tio­na­lism: vigilance.

Peaceful coexistence with imperialist neighbours – is that not in fact the antithesis of proletarian internationalism?

That’s a good ques­tion. On the one hand, our task was also to make socia­lism attrac­tive as a social model and desi­ra­ble for people in other count­ries. In this way, we wanted to prove that we are not like they portray us in movies produ­ced in the west. We are not the snar­ling commu­nists who eat babies and so on… But it is abso­lut­ely true that, from the very begin­ning, the enemy tried to disrupt our progress and deve­lo­p­ment here by various means. This was most tangi­ble right up to 1961, of course.4 And perhaps one of the mista­kes in the government’s thin­king was the expec­ta­tion that the capi­ta­list states would roll over the border with tanks at some point and try to end things that way. I think that was still very much ingrai­ned in the thin­king of the party and state leader­ship. Yet the fact that the ideo­lo­gi­cal infil­tra­tion – which certainly exis­ted – took place concurr­ently and was stir­red up with very perfi­dious methods, in large part via West German tele­vi­sion, proba­bly could not be circum­ven­ted in the end.

Under the condi­ti­ons of a show down between two social systems comple­tely oppo­sed to each other, I don’t know how things could have been hand­led better. West German tele­vi­sion would have had to be comple­tely banned from the GDR, but that was impos­si­ble. So, I suppose you can say that prole­ta­rian inter­na­tio­na­lism was side­lined because peaceful coexis­tence was at stake. That is true. The flip side of peaceful coexis­tence was, of course, the costly arms race in the socia­list states. The Soviet Union as well as the small GDR had to commit huge resour­ces that could other­wise have gone to other sectors had it not been for this objec­tive need for security.

Soli­da­rity poster of the Soli­da­rity Commit­tee for the victims of the Pino­chet dictatorship.

What can be learned today from the GDR’s experiences?

Yes, this is the central issue: to learn from the lessons of the GDR’s 40-year exis­tence. The inter­na­tio­na­lism, the inter­na­tio­na­list work that was done here was certainly one of the best aspects our small coun­try. When I went to school in the GDR, we lear­ned about the Paris Commune of 1871. The lesson was: don’t give up. There are, of course, setbacks; there always will be.

We felt so sure at the time that this would­n’t happen to us – we knew the Soviet Union was on our side with its massive, strong mili­tary that had been able to defeat Hitler’s fascism. We were far too sure that it could never happen to us, that things could not go back­wards for us. And if some­thing did go wrong, we reckoned that any mili­tary inva­sion could have been answe­red imme­dia­tely by the Soviet Union’s strength.

Lessons? For me, for the youn­ger GDR gene­ra­tion, it’s proba­bly: don’t give up, keep going. I expe­ri­en­ced this myself when talking with the U.S. volun­teers who had fought fascism in Spain during the Civil War in the 1930s. These figh­ters had been defea­ted by Franco and, after retur­ning home, they were put under surveil­lance for deca­des by the FBI. Their pass­ports were confis­ca­ted, they were not allo­wed to travel abroad, simply because they had been poli­ti­cally active. And yet they continued.

Ulrich Kolbe had close cont­act with Harry Fisher, who had writ­ten a book about his expe­ri­en­ces in the Spanish Civil War. Kolbe trans­la­ted Fisher’s book and travel­led with him through Germany to promote it.

You know, in 1990, some people here began putting a big circu­lar yellow sticker from the West German coffee company Tchibo on their brief­ca­ses. The slogan on it said, “Oh, fresh beans!” The company Tchibo promi­sed that anyone who visi­bly carried one of these stickers could win a Merce­des. I reproa­ched these people for having fallen for all that stuff, belie­ving it, and parro­ting it. “Yeah, sure, ever­y­thing was terri­ble in the GDR, and we didn’t have anything. There was constant surveil­lance by the Stasi and so on…” I really hope that people will start to see these stories for what they are, namely propa­ganda. And that people realize that life in the GDR – despite all its short­co­mings and inade­quacies – was much, much better than what it is portrayed as in the media today.

The young gene­ra­tion should learn from the history of inter­na­tio­na­lism that it can work. So long as we don’t go through the streets waving flags, drunk and belie­ving only in our own coun­try, so long as we reco­gnize that people in other count­ries have the same inte­rest as we do – to enjoy peace, secu­rity, and justice – then inter­na­tio­na­lism will conti­nue. It must.

The inter­view was conduc­ted in Qued­lin­burg on 07.07.2021. It has been slightly edited for better readability.

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