Gerd Poppe

* 1941  

  • "Since 1980, we organized the literary readings. Before that time, they had been taking place at Frank-Wolf Matthies, but since 1979, when he left the country to the west, we held them at our place. And there really were very, very interesting readings, with Adolf Endler, for instance, or with Elke Erb, Lutz Rathenow, with Wolfgang Hilbig - at that time we didn't know that he'd become one of the most significant German writers. So these readings were of course very interesting and they were of course immediately labeled as subversive. Up to the point of being fined for them - this happened to me. The Stasi and the police would often patrol at my door, checking the people who came into the apartment. And after three years, I gave it up and the sessions were continued in other apartments. By then, I had already been fined for the second time and it was basically an attempt to prevent any further reading."

  • "And now there's the fall of the Wall on top of it. For me this was of course a decisive milestone in my life. I had not seen that part of the world for 28 years and for another 20 years, I also hadn't seen the other part, and now suddenly you could travel over there. The masses streamed. I will never forget this, that evening and the details. We were sitting in an apartment in the former Wilhelm-Pieck-Straße, Torstraße today, and we sat there with several people and discussed with a French renegade. And somehow I stepped to the window and there was an enormous number of Trabant cars. They were on one side of the street, and the opposite side was empty. All of them driving in the same direction, one after the other. And I said: 'Erhard, turn on the TV, something is going on'. And so we saw the images, we saw them jiggling the fence, in the moments before the border crossings were opened. And of course, I jumped up and ran there as well and then I walked around West Berlin all night long. Even after all this time, I still had a few addresses in my head and could orient myself reasonably well. I tried to visit some of my friends in West Berlin but nobody was home since they had all gone to East Berlin at the same time."

  • "This made me pay attention to the developments there and it also made me cherish the hope that perhaps certain reforms were still possible in the GDR and that perhaps the freedoms would also become larger for us and that policy changes may also result from it. This hope was, of course, very soon disappointed, in particular with the crushing of the Prague Spring. In the GDR, significant attention was dedicated to the events in Czechoslovakia at this time, much more than, for example, to the Polish Solidarnosc later on. So the sympathy for the 1968 movement in Prague was very, very big, and consequently, there was also a lot of dissatisfaction, anger and protest when the Russian tanks rolled into the country. And also in general, I was really interested in this region, even in the following years, and in 1968, when these hopes were dashed, I went with friends to the Czech Embassy in East Berlin and lodged a protest letter, or even a solidarity letter to Dubček. So I very clearly expressed my dissatisfaction with the invasion and also with the involvement of the GDR in it. Thus, when I'm being asked for the beginnings of my opposition stance, it actually goes back to this year 1968.This was a key year for further development."

  • "At the same time we established an independent kindergarten because we didn't want our children to go to the official kindergarten, we were against this type of education. So we decided to do it ourselves, involved a woman and set up the kindergarten in an apartment in the Husemannstraße that belonged to tenants who were friends of ours and who had moved to the country. That apartment had originally been a shop and it had shop windows so you could see inside. This of course immediately alerted the state power as soon as they realized what was going on there. It was not at all common for parents to look after their children privately, so to speak, and to do it in front of everyone's eyes, which made matters even worse. The people went on the sidewalk, looked in the shop window and wondered: 'What's going on in there? Oh, maybe we could do it as well'. So, anyway, it existed for three years, between 1980 to 1983, and in a similar manner to these readings it was interpreted as a hostile act, but surprisingly it wasn't resolved immediately, because they were watching us first for a while, before they finally thoroughly destroyed the Kinderladen in December 1983. They arrived in the morning, at 5 a.m., disguised as construction workers with a truck. They sealed off the road on both sides, they smashed the shop window, kicked in the door, took the children's beds and the toys and tossed everything on the platform of the truck. Then they simply bricked up the shop window, the door, everything was bricked up. The first woman came with her child two hours later and stood in front of a wall that hadn't been there before."

  • "However, since the beginning of the seventies, for a brief period, we had the feeling that there was a certain easing of tensions. But that period was over very quickly after the takeover of power by Honecker, who very quickly reverted to the old way of repression and pressure that had been employed ever before. It was also similar to the Ulbricht era; the level was actually frightening by this ruling class. Anyway, in 1976 Biermann was expatriated and there also were all kinds of harassment of critical authors, artists and so on. So the expatriation of Biermann really meant a further stepping up the pressure. Together with a girlfriend of mine, we wrote a letter of protest and sent it to Honecker and at the same time I quit my work in Stahnsdorf and was about to look for a new job. It took me quite some effort to find one - I had already passed a job interview, everything had been arranged and then came this Biermann expatriation and the protest against it, and then I was informed by telephone that my job had been already given to somebody else."

  • "As I said, in 1983, they arrested my wife, but by then these peace activists from Holland were very active, she received hundreds of letters in jail. Well, of course she did not get to read them in pre-trial detention, but the Stasi of course could see what a noise it had triggered. Then Petra Kelly went on a tour, meeting a ton of people and pleading for their release. At first, two of the four arrested women were released. Bärbel Bohley and Ulrike initially remained in prison. But then, all world protested against the arrest and that was probably the reason why after six weeks they came back home. Because these Western protests were so strong. This was a new development that we hadn't known before."

  • "I have to say that in the seventies, there were a couple of trips that were very important for me. I could travel abroad for the first time in the seventies, so I had to be almost 30 to be allowed to go abroad. So in the beginning it was to Poland, then Hungary, then Czechoslovakia - I visited Prague several times again. In Czechoslovakia, in Prague, I visited dissidents. Meanwhile, the Charter 77 had been established and I followed these developments with great attention. I also knew the founding papers; I read the writings of the signatories so I knew who they were. They partly comprised personalities of the year 1968, but then, it was above all, the circle around Havel. Previously, I had already been greatly impressed by the foundation of Kor in Poland, this committee for the defense of the striking workers of 1976. So those were new developments, on which I built and actually at a very early stage. Together with friends, we visited dissidents in Budapest. In Prague, I visited Petr Uhl and Anna Šabatová several times. There were two visits and when I came for the third time, Petr Uhl was once again in prison. So there were contacts with dissident circles in these countries and so I had the chance to what they did. I saw that they organized courses in apartments, or they printed independent magazines, illegal samizdat publications, there were demonstrations, happenings of various sorts, despite the repression. And all of this was very inspiring for me, it set me on fire. I thought that we now finally had to do similar things, despite our delay in comparison with these countries. So, parallel cultures, so to speak, a counter-culture that had been established there, systematically, a counter-public."

  • "We then established the Initiative for Peace and Human Rights with a small group of people. The starting point for this was the end of 1985, when a seminar on human rights, which was to be held in a church room, had to be cancelled. And that was the beginning of this initiative, which in the period that followed was based very strongly on the content of the Charter 77, in particular because the Charter 77 strove to define a concept of peace not just consisting of military activities or the absence of war, but as it called for a balance of internal and external peace. They basically said that if a country did not respect the rights of its citizens in their own country, then its peace declarations and manifestations intended for the outer world are not trustworthy either. We had actually completely taken over this position by the early eighties."

  • Full recordings
  • 9

    Berlin, 04.07.2014

    (audio)
    duration: 03:44:05
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
Full recordings are available only for logged users.

I acted deliberately and knew what could happen.

Gerd Poppe 2014
Gerd Poppe 2014
photo: Jacob Venuß

Gerd Poppe was a pioneer and an important representative of the opposition in the GDR. He was born in 1941 in Rostock. His childhood was marked by the aftermath of the war in a bomb-destroyed city. In 1947, he started attending school and throughout his school years he would feel a deep aversion to the constant presence of Soviet heroic stories and Stalin images. After graduation, he served a one-year apprenticeship as an assistant fitter in the Warnow shipyard in Warnemünde. Thereafter, he studied - respecting the wish of his father - physics in Rostock; in 1964, he finished his studies. From 1965 to 1976, he worked as a physicist in the Stahnsdorf semiconductor factory. Poppe sees the construction of the Wall in 1961 as the beginning of his dissent towards the system. Although his political interest grew stronger throughout the years, he still believed in the possibility of an evolution of the communist system and was looked heavily to East Central Europe, where he saw a greater measure of freedom. After the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, he signed the letter of solidarity in the Czechoslovak embassy. In 1970, Poppe moved from Stahnsdorf to Berlin, where he made many new acquaintances who shared his critical attitude towards the system. Through his friends he met Robert Havemann and Wolf Biermann. Poppe would refuse military service and had to serve six months as a so-called “construction soldier” (Bausoldat) in 1975. The expatriation of Wolf Biermann in 1976 was a turning point for Poppe: He addressed a protest note to Honecker, whereupon the Academy of Sciences withdrew its support for his employment. Henceforth, he was in fact banned from working and worked until 1985 as a mechanic in a Berlin swimming pool. After Biermann’s expatriation, Poppe also lost a large part of his circle of friends, as many emigrated to the West. In addition, many of his Trotskyist friends were arrested at this time and as a consequence, Poppe’s apartment was searched by the police. However, in this period, Poppe got to know a number of new people: the reading of Rudolf Bahro’s “The Alternative” in 1977 served as an inspiration for him. In 1979, Poppe tried in vain to persuade Bahro to withdraw his consent with his expatriation after release from prison. During this time, Poppe’s relationship with Havemann also intensified. After the lifting of his house arrest in 1979, Poppe would often visit him. The second half of the seventies were characterized by numerous political discussions in small groups held by Poppe; however, they were always held in the same sort of circles and thus had no effect on the public. At this time, he was still positioned left on the political spectrum, but by the end of the seventies, he had lost the hope for democratic reforms. Poppe would also keenly follow the situation in and make frequent trips to the Central and East-European neighboring countries, especially to Czechoslovakia and its Charter 77 movement. The activities in East and Central Europe served as an inspiration for him that was to be put into practice in the GDR as well in order to create a counter-public. The peace movement of the late seventies, which was unfolding predominantly in the ecclesiastical context, was extremely important for the beginnings of the opposition movement. Poppe too had numerous contacts with the international peace movement, but he never acted out of Christian motifs. Starting in 1980, Poppe would regularly organize literary seminars in his apartment. These were surveyed by the Stasi under the heading of “unapproved happenings”. Poppe was subsequently charged with administrative fines. In 1980, Poppe and some others founded an independent school for children, which existed until 1983, when it was destroyed by the Stasi. Already in 1980, Poppe could no longer travel; he had been blacklisted and would be always turned around at the border crossing. The more important became the meetings with international activists in East Berlin: In 1983, the contacts with the international peace movement became more intense; during the second END-Convention in West Berlin, their representatives paid a visit to the opposition in East Berlin. This first meeting was held in Poppe’s apartment, which developed in the following period into a major hub for international activists. In the same year, the contacts with the West German Greens were established - Poppe stayed in close touch in particular with Petra Kelly. The West German politicians were able to smuggle books, journals, letters, but also technical devices into the GDR, using their diplomatic passports. This support was important for the publication of illegal samizdat magazines in which Poppe was involved. In 1983, Poppe’s wife Ulrike was arrested along with Bärbel Bohley for “treasonable news transfer”. This triggered massive protests of the international peace movement that resulted in the release of the detainees after six weeks of pre-trial detention. Such a reaction of the totalitarian regime was a new phenomenon of the eighties: arrestees who had attained a certain level of international recognition were released after their arrest since protests were expected. Poppe himself, for instance, would always be arrested only for one day, to stop him from attending events (for example in 1979, the trial with Havemann). In 1985, together with Bärbel Bohley and Wolfgang Templin, Poppe founded the opposition group “Initiative for Peace and Human Rights (IFM)”. The starting point for the foundation of the group was a planned seminar on human rights, which was cancelled due to pressure on the parish in which the seminar was to be held. The IFM was based heavily on the content of the Charter 77 and on its peace concept of the balance between the inner and outer peace. The samizdat publications were very important in this context as they enabled a GDR-wide distribution and thus the linking of the various groups. The result was a network that also enabled the spreading of information about events in other countries or joint solidarity statements. Since the early eighties, Poppe was increasingly being surveyed by the secret security police. Since 1980 onwards, he was banned from traveling. Records show that in 1983, his arrest was being considered and since the mid-eighties, the Stasi tried to pressure and destabilize his family with the aim of forcing them to leave the country, however, it did not succeed in its plan. Since 1985, Poppe was able to work as an engineer in the construction office of the Diaconia. During the Revolution of 1989, he represented the IFM at the round table, being a member of the “New Constitution of the GDR” working party. In the Modrow government, in office between February and March 1990, Poppe was minister without portfolio. In the March 1990 elections, he ran for the Alliance 90 (Bündnis 90), which he then represented until October as a member of the freely elected People’s Chamber. In 1992, Poppe could see his file at the State Security. Throughout the years, he had been spied on by about 40 people. The IFM had been infiltrated as well, with up to six active informers at times. From 1990 to 1998, Poppe was Member of Parliament for the Alliance ‘90 /The Greens. After the 1998 elections, he became the first special representative of the federal government in the foreign-affairs ministry for human rights. He was thus able to take up his original commitment to the cause of human rights and foreign policy. Since 1998, he has furthermore been a member of the board of the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED dictatorship.