Hans Modrow, 1928-2023: Son of the German Democratic Republic
Hans Modrow, then the GDR's Prime Minister, waves to the crowd at an election campaign event in Neubrandenburg, March 14, 1990. Modrow, who served as the GDR's last leader, has died. He was 95. Modrow, a reform-minded Communist, took over the fast-changing country shortly after the Berlin Wall fell. | Arne Dedert / AP

Highly regarded by the many who knew and knew of him, it would be no exaggeration to say that Hans Modrow was the son of the German Democratic Republic, of which he was the last-but-one Prime Minister.

Only five when the Nazis came to power, his generation was overshadowed by hatred, fascism, and war. He trained as a machinist. Towards the end of the war, he was conscripted into the Volkssturm (a mass militia set up by Hitler in 1944).

He was taken prisoner of war by the Red Army and went to the Soviet Union. There he attended an anti-fascist school. In 1949 he returned to the east of Germany, the part which then became the German Democratic Republic (GDR). He worked again as a machinist and joined the GDR’s Free German Youth organization.

He soon joined the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED)—founded in 1946 through a unification of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) on the territory of the future GDR.

In December 1957, he entered the GDR parliament (Volkskammer) remaining there up to the end of the GDR. Parallel to his job, political, and family duties, he studied economics, gaining a doctorate in 1966 from Berlin’s Humboldt University.

Hans Modrow lays a wreath during a memorial ceremony on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II at the memorial for Red Army soldiers in Berlin, May 9, 2015. | Michael Sohn / AP

Later, Modrow became the SED’s first secretary in Dresden. Although a member of its central committee, he wasn’t in the politburo so he didn’t come into prominence until the events of the autumn of 1989.

In its 40 years, the GDR became a highly developed country. Together with the USSR and other socialist countries in Europe, it won high standing in the struggle for peace and disarmament and for the support it gave to developing countries and national liberation movements.

At home, GDR leaders had clearly lost touch with the realities of the daily lives of ordinary people. Enthusiasm for the policies which Mikhail Gorbachev introduced upon becoming Soviet leader in 1985 gained support—even though hardly anyone could envisage where all this was going to lead. GDR leaders were highly skeptical of them.

Protests began calling for the GDR to mirror Gorbachev. By Oct. 18, 1989, the extent to which they had grown forced the resignation of the GDR state and party leader, Erich Honecker. The administration of his replacement, Egon Krenz, long seen as his successor, barely survived seven weeks.

Demands were made for new elections to the Volkskammer and the opening of the GDR’s borders. On Nov. 9, Krenz ordered that they be opened. Four days later, the GDR government resigned.

On Nov. 13, Modrow was overwhelmingly elected prime minister by the Volkskammer. He built a new government so as to secure public confidence on the basis of the best traditions of the GDR. A roundtable consisting of people from wide sections of GDR life was established so that Modrow could build a broad consensus for his policies and prepare for Volkskammer elections. These took place on March 18, 1990.

The opening of the borders had dramatic implications. West German firms and mass media moved in, flooded the GDR market (to the detriment of GDR firms), and West German parties swallowed up parties which had long been partners of the SED (then renamed Party of Democratic Socialism). Calls of “We are the people” became “We are one people.” By then, reactionary forces from the West had taken over the transition process and pushed for German unification.

With the division of Germany following the war, the Allied powers — the U.S., Britain, France, and the USSR—had to be involved in any unification process. The West took advantage of the weak state of the Soviet economy. With Gorbachev being unable (or unwilling) to continue supporting the GDR, its fate was sealed.

Realizing what was coming, Modrow presented proposals for unification—especially that a united Germany had to be militarily neutral. At the end of the war, the Allied powers stipulated that never again should war break out from German soil. This had to be respected; peace and disarmament had to be the cornerstone of any unification. As it turned out, Gorbachev was carrying out negotiations on this issue with the U.S. and West Germany over the heads of the GDR.

Unification not only led to NATO engulfing the GDR, but it also led to it expanding further east, despite assurances given to Gorbachev that this would not happen. The initial consequences of all this became only too clear in 1999 with the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

The opening of the borders and the introduction of the Deutschmark the following year exposed the GDR to the full thrust of capitalist competition. A mass shedding of labor and the running down of GDR enterprises followed. Modrow did all he could to protect workers who were faced with unemployment.

Following WWII, the property of Nazi war criminals was expropriated in the GDR. In what became known as the Modrow Act, Modrow sought to protect those who benefited from the land reform programs following the war—the opening of the borders led to many fearing losing their plots of land and homes through claims from previous owners.

Despite sympathy among voters for Modrow and the PDS under its new leader, Gregor Gysi, in the Volkskammer election, the (West German) CDU under Chancellor Helmut Kohl had the trump card—the Deutschmark. By promising this currency, a victory for the CDU-led Alliance for Germany became a foregone conclusion.

Modrow became an opposition politician. In 1990, he entered the Bundestag. In 1994, he led the PDS list in the European parliamentary elections. Polling what was in context an impressive 4.7% of the German vote, the PDS narrowly missed winning its first seats there. This result laid the basis for the PDS to get back into the Bundestag later that year. In 1999, when it won its first seats in the European Parliament, Modrow was among the six who got in. He wanted to stand again in 2004 but bowed to pressure from party leaders to step down.

Hans Modrow, right, is welcomed to a commemoration for Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, founders of the German Communist Party, at a cemetery in Berlin, Jan. 13, 2019. | Markus Schreiber / AP

Modrow became honorary chairman of the PDS. Following a merger with the party Election Alternative for Labor and Social Justice in 2007 to become what is now Die Linke, Modrow became chairman of its council of elders. In recent years, differences have emerged between this body and the party leadership, with the latter seeking to position the party as a “party of government in waiting” and being open to compromises on its key policies, even on peace, so as to be part of a future coalition.

For current party leaders, this council became of little significance. Modrow felt that he had been given the cold shoulder and stepped down.

Always in demand and traveling widely, international solidarity was central to his life, especially his support for Cuba, which he visited many times. In 2019, he was awarded the Cuban Order of Solidarity. His last birthday wish was for donations to be made to the Tamara Bunke school in Mayabeque, Cuba.

Modrow visited Britain for the first time in 2005, fulfilling a long wish to visit the country where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels did much of their pioneering work. He gave the annual oration at the grave of Marx in Highgate Cemetery that year and again in 2013.

Despite being advanced in years, he retained an immense ability to analyze and discuss complicated issues calmly and with respect. His life was anchored in the finest traditions of the international working-class movement and will be remembered with pride.

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Keith Barlow
Keith Barlow

Dr. Keith Barlow is a member of Die Linke in Leipzig, Germany.