Horst Sachs' political views

The material below is taken from "V A Schmidt and M Aigner, Lebensspuren in und nach der DDR. Interviews mit Horst Sachs und Gustav Burosch, Mitt. Dtsch. Math.-Ver. (3) (1997), 23-33." However, we have changed the format so it is no longer in interview format and, although we try to keep as close to Sachs' meaning as possible, we don't intend it to be a translation. [Notes are by EFR]

Horst Sachs' political views

Now we are going into the field of politics, which is so difficult to discuss in Germany today without prejudice. In the German Democratic Republic the exchange of ideas among close colleagues, of course, was possible without any reticence. However, we felt very much constrained and suffered accordingly. Of course, this was never discussed in public. Many things had to be accepted, often it was necessary to go along with the lesser evil.

There were no difficulties attending meetings in socialist foreign countries. The situation was different with meetings in capitalist foreign countries. There were two obstacles. One was a political obstacle: only a person who it was believed was sure to come back was allowed to leave. The second obstacle concerned money. In the years of economic upturn, the German Democratic Republic didn't want to show any meanness on this point: anyone who was allowed to leave was sufficiently equipped with Western money so that he didn't appear abroad as a beggar. Later, however, the situation changed: money was gladly accepted, which was often quite annoying. In the last years of the German Democratic Republic I often had invitations to conferences: if travel and subsistence costs were borne by the host - that was a very important point - then mostly I was allowed to attend, without the offer of financial support from the host I didn't even apply for permission.

A special situation existed concerning conferences in West Germany. For example, travelling to Oberwolfach [Note: Oberwolfach is the West German Mathematics Research Centre in the Black Forest] (except in the last years of the German Democratic Republic) or to meetings which were financed by NATO, were not approved in principle: for these meetings there was no point in making an application. When I add it all together, I was only able to attend three meetings that were of interest to me.

There were different points of view why applications were rejected. There were political reasons: Will the traveller return? Will he represent the interests of the German Democratic Republic in the foreign country? There were scientific reasons: To what extent does the journey serve the science and scientific reputation of the German Democratic Republic? There were economic reasons: What is the value of the conference participation for the economy of the German Democratic Republic? And finally, as far as possible, they wanted to avoid having those who would have loved to travel, but were not allowed to, envious of others.

If you wanted to attend a conference, you were asked by the competent state or party authority: How does it benefit us? Then it was decided, let's say, that five people could attend. But suppose ten people had received an invitation. In the end, the person who best succeeded in persuading the deciding authority of the importance of his participation, according to the above criteria, was allowed to go.

I myself was a part of the German Democratic Republic, which I wanted to be, even with all the restrictions that I have just described in detail. So of course I was interested in "giving back" as much as possible, so that this state could finally overcome its permanent difficulties, so that it could devote itself more to basic humanistic concerns, so that it could develop more tolerance, so that it could develop a broader spiritual horizon.

The German Democratic Republic came into existence when I was an undergraduate student. We students didn't notice much difference when the it was founded. There was no striking difference between the old Soviet occupation zone and the young German Democratic Republic - of course, the authorities were no longer under the control of the Soviet Military Administration and the daily newspaper "Rundschau" issued by the Soviet Military Administration changed its appearance. I watched closely (as far as it was possible to do so) what was going on politically, and I also understood how small the scope for politics was. Stalin died in 1953, and the first decisions of the new Soviet leadership, which were to rehabilitate Stalin's victims, looked very promising. So I said to myself: now you cannot stand apart anymore. In June 1953 I became a candidate of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, and after a two-year candidacy I became a member. [Note: The Socialist Unity Party of Germany was founded in April 1946, on orders from the Soviet Union, through a merger of the German Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party. For the following 40 years it controlled all of East Germany's major institutions.] In principle, I had no problems with the Party, but in detail, however, I had many criticisms. There were honest dogmatists, and there were those whose methods were quite questionable. Today one sees more clearly: straight representatives of the latter category have now totally changed their political credo so that they can be prominent role models in the first rank of leading politicians.

I had never held any offices within the Socialist Unity Party of Germany or the state apparatus, I was never a member of parliament. I was first and foremost a mathematician and I would certainly have been a very bad official. Of course, at the level at which I worked, I was involved. So I was, for example, for six years Chairman of the Mathematical Society of the German Democratic Republic: the mathematicians of the German Democratic Republic needed their own organization, they needed their own representation.

The building of the wall was necessary, there was no other possibility. I asked myself: how would the English or the French behave in a similar situation? And the answer was clear. The acquisition of intelligence was aimed at weakening and thus the annihilation of the German Democratic Republic. The people who left the German Democratic Republic (most of whom had been educated in the German Democratic Republic), had they not also escaped their national moral duty of reparation to the peoples of the East, on whom fascist barbarism had inflicted immeasurable human suffering and had left devastating destruction? And how could one morally justify the departure of so many doctors who left their patients in hospital? Of course, it was tempting to benefit from the Cold War and accept the gifts of the Marshall Plan. There was a shop window over in the West: a lot of money, fast cars, a dazzling picture - in the East there were obligations and work, and at most a Wartburg or Trabant. [Note: Wartburg and Trabant were cars manufactured in East Germany. Basic cars, they were rather noisy, cramped and uncomfortable.]

Living in East Germany, I was stuck in the tradition of anti-fascism. I was very close to people who had lived their lives in the fight against the fascist rogue and suffered, even hard suffering; some had lost all their relatives in concentration camps. That meant a lot to me and weighed heavily on me. In the 1980s it became apparent that the political system of the German Democratic Republic was moribund, that our leading politicians were no longer able to understand the signs of the times and were unable to adapt their political decisions to the circumstances. There was already a dangerous situation.

In 1988/89 I was in Kuwait for a year (here I continued to receive my German Democratic Republic salary, and I gave up the high hard currency salary I received there). Although you cannot see the details from a distance, you can see the silhouette all the more clearly. It became absolutely clear to me, for more than a year and a half, that the German Democratic Republic could no longer maintain this inflexible system. That was the time when Gorbachev tried to initiate a new policy, but it was still spoken about in the German Democratic Republic as a "change of scenery". When I returned in early June 1989, I was firmly convinced that there would be rioting on 17 June. [Note: 16 June and 17 June 1953 were the dates of strikes and an uprising against the government of the German Democratic Republic. It was violently put down by Soviet troops. From that time on, 17 June became established as a national holiday in West Germany to commemorate the uprising.] But everything remained calm; there was no material impetus. Then people began to leave through the opening via Hungary to Austria begun in May 1989.

Many party members saw the situation in real terms, criticized the party and tried to bring it "up" on the party's path - but it probably never arrived there or, if it did, they ignored it. However, we knew exactly that if part of the party publicly opposes the regime, then not only this, but also the German Democratic Republic itself, which we wanted as a socialist alternative, would be destroyed. In the late summer of 1989, a state was reached where we had to tell each other, now nothing works. Each lost day only increased the magnitude of the inevitable disaster.

There was a period of when nobody spoke out. Erich Honecker (who was ill) was not there and, Egon Krenz, his deputy, did not comment. No one knew what was going on in the Politburo. There were two groups: the ones who clearly said what was going to happen and tried to adjust to that, and the others who were simply unable to understand what was happening. I remember an event organized by the district leadership of the Socialist Unity Party in that year. As always, the deputy district secretary spoke about things that were completely unimportant in this situation. Then there was a spontaneous objection: Honecker must resign, otherwise it will not work. At that moment the Great Hall was in tumult. The district secretary gave up and said: I do not know what's going to happen. Then a miracle happened. The situation was extremely tense and dangerous, a thoughtless reaction of a politician, a subaltern commander, a leader on one side or the other could have caused a massacre. But that did not happen: all who bore responsibility acted with prudence. Fortunately, my large, well-founded, fear that bloodshed would come was not confirmed.

I hoped, but I have to say straight away that in sober consideration of reality I did not believe in it, but one may hope - I hoped that it would be possible to realize what leading anti-fascist intellectuals like Christa Wolf and Stefan Heym are very dedicated to doing, to throw off the old shackles and realize a true, humanistic socialism - that is what real communists have always wanted. [Note: Christa Wolf (1929-2011) was an East German literary critic and novelist who was critical of the leaders of the German Democratic Republic but was loyal to socialist values and opposed reunification. Stefan Heym (1913-2001) (the name is a pseudonym for Helmut Flieg) took a rather different line. He was also a writer but he was in favour of reunification, but wanted the reunified Germany to be run on socialist lines.]

After the reunification, I continued to be involved in politics. I am a member of the Party of Democratic Socialism. [Note: This party was the legal successor to the Socialist Unity Party.] Many times it is thoughtlessly said: these are the old people, the incorrigibles. No: we are the honest ones who already had their problems with the Socialist Unity Party. The Party of Democratic Socialism, however, is something very heterogeneous, still very much searching for its ideas. If you now look at the members, at least one thing is clear: we have nothing to hide, we speak openly and honestly with each other and with others. I consider myself as a person who strives to understand time and evolution and to play an appropriate role in it - but I am not sure that I will always succeed.

Last Updated November 2017