A German Socialist Feminist's Agenda

— Mary Janzen interviews Petra Blaess

Petra Blaess became a member of the Federal Parliament in 1990, at age 26. She had gone to work as an editor in German television after completing graduate studies in German literature at Humboldt University in Berlin. She was interviewed by Mary E. Janzen in Chicago last year, when she was in the country on a speaking tour.

Against the Current: How did you become the political representative of the PDS from Berlin?

Petra Blaess: It's not typical for a young woman to be a member of the German parliament. The reasons can be traced back to the Spring of 1989 when possibilities opened up for all people, including young people and women, to become very active politically in the so-called “Roundtables.” For me, it was a very good time to be in politics. It became possible for people from different organizations and parties to work together, without hierarchical distinctions, on special projects.

In March 1990 I was one of fifty members of a special commission, representing every participating arty, that was in charge of the first free parliamentary elections in the German Democratic Republic.

I was the delegate for my organization, the Independent Women's Association, the first feminist organization in the GDR, founded in the autumn of 1989. The members of this electoral commission elected me as their leader. I was then 25 and a graduate student at Humboldt University with no experience in national politics. It was, of course, a very great task in such an historic time to lead this electoral process, but it enabled me to work with many interesting people and I found that I really enjoyed politics.

At this time, I started to work in television as an editor and political publicist, but I found that I preferred politics. In autumn 1990, the PDS [Party of Democratic Socialism] offered me an opportunity to run for parliament on the PDS/Left List, which reserved electoral slots for independent leftists, including some from former West Germany.

As the PDS/Left List candidate for Berlin, I had the second place on the ballot after our leader Gregor Gysi, and so I was elected because of the high number of votes our party received, especially in East Berlin. In Germany, parties must receive 5% of the votes in order to enter parliament. In this first election in unified Germany, the “5% limit” applied to votes received in either the former West or former East Germany. Because we received 16-18% of votes in the former East Germany, we were able to enter parliament.

In the 662-member German Parliament, we are a small minority of sixteen people. Five are not members of the PDS. Of these sixteen, nine are women and seven men, because of a PDS requirement that at least 50% of candidates and party officials must be women.

I think that it's very good that the parliament doesn't consist only of old men -- and that the PDS/Left List parliamentary representatives include more women than men. Parliaments all over the world consist mainly of old men, which is a problem because they make decisions that affect women.

In the parliament we are all held responsible for forty years of GDR history, including me, aged 28, or my three colleagues who are originally from West Germany. If I give a speech in parliament about social affairs, for example, the old Christian Democrats yell at me, “You are responsible for forty years of dictatorship and Stalinism.”

Our main task in parliament is to be a left opposition and to give the Social Democrats, who would like to be the next government, a little pressure from the left. Being in opposition, we have nothing to lose in parliament.

Of the 662 members of parliament, nearly 150 originally came from East Germany and most of them are in the government parties. Most of them support the policies of the government, however, and don't represent the people of the former GDR. Therefore it's very important that one original East German party is in parliament, because the leaders of the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats, and the Liberals are all West Germans. The few East Germans in these parties are not in important positions.

ATC: Could you talk a bit more about your relationship to the former GDR. You came into the PDS as an independent feminist. As you grew up, did you consider yourself a socialist?

P.B.: I think my life was typical for a young woman in the GDR. Like most children, I was a Pioneer [state youth group -- ed.], and it was a very good time, I must say. I was very active and very happy because we got to participate in lots of cultural activities. I attended four different schools and had very good teachers. After the Pioneers, like most of the young people in the GDR, I was a member of the Communist youth organization, the Free German Youth. Most of the after school activities were under the umbrella of the Pioneers and the youth organization, and they were not just political activities.

After twelve years of schooling, I entered Humboldt University in Berlin and studied German and history. In 1986, I became a member of the SED, the Socialist United Party [East German CP], not because I was completely in agreement with its politics or those of our government, but because it was for me the only way to be a politically active woman at the university. Most of my teachers -- also well-known, international specialists  --  were party members.

In the party, we also dealt with problems of our teaching and research in party meetings, not abstract things. In our department, Germany Studies, we had very good discussions about the future of socialism. We had a lot of political problems with the leadership of the university, which was part of the governmental structure.

One of the problems of the SED was the structure. You had thousands of people in the apparatus, and a system of hierarchy. In my opinion, you can't have good politics, because such an apparatus did what it wanted, without regard to the wishes of the people at the base.

I entered the party after Gorbachev came to power. In East Germany, we had great hope that socialism could reform. This was our aim. And it was like a “little revolution” in our heads. Without Gorbachev, I wouldn't have joined the SED. This was a time of very good discussions in the GDR, but only in small groups at the base of the party, not in the apparatus or in public.

In 1989 and 1990, some very well-known people from the PDS came from my university, the Humboldt University. I had known them for quite a few years. They spoke to us about their plans for modern socialism, although this discussion was more illegal than legal. For this reason, my world view was not shattered in the autumn of 1989. I'd grown up with a modern view of society and modern socialism. I had done historical research on fascism, Stalinism, and structures in society.

It was clear to me that the GDR could not exist any longer as it was. Autumn 1989 was, for me, not the end, but the beginning of a new time. I am one of hundreds of thousands of people who hoped that with the reform and the peaceful revolution in the GDR, it would be possible to have a new, socialist republic. You can't say we were against unification, but we preferred that it be a slow process.

ATC: Why didn't you oppose unification if you wanted a democratic socialist Germany? Didn't you anticipate that the East, with a weaker economy, would be absorbed by the West?

P.B.: We hoped that they would be two partners with equal rights, but this didn't occur. In the Summer of 1990, the so-called unification treaty was developed between the GDR and West Germany. The PDS, the civil rights movement, and the Greens were the only organizations that said “no” to this treaty because it was evident that the rights of people from the GDR were not protected, in terms of property ownership, employment, etc.

ATC: I noted in reading transcripts of some of your speeches that the Social Democrats (SPD) applauded you more than the Greens.

P.B.: This isn't typical. My specialty is social policy and women's policy, which are the areas where there is some common ground between the SPD and PDS. Small minorities among the Social Democrats are my colleagues, who are involved in the same issues as I am. The two parties have great differences in policy on asylum [for refugee immigrants], for example. For the majority of Social Democrats, we are their greatest enemy in parliament; we -- not the Christian Democrats -- because we are to their left.

There are only eight Greens (five men and three women) in parliament, and social affairs is not their special interest, unfortunately, so they are often absent for the debates. When a Green applauds a speech on women's issues, it is my friend Christina Schenk from the independent women's movement who works with the Greens. For the other seven Greens, we are considered their greatest enemy.

ATC: You said that the SPD supports the section of the German constitution which protects the life of the unborn, and that it does not support a woman's right to an abortion. How do you explain that socialists would oppose a woman's right to choose?

P.B.: I question whether the German Social Democrats are socialists. It is a party with a great history, and some SPD members originally had left aims, but its policy in practice is government policy in a capitalist country. In Berlin, for example, there is a coalition between the SPD and the Christian Democrats; the SPD carries out the conservative government policies. They have no left profile or left policies. Except for some of the women SPD senators, who are very good, the Berlin Senate has a conservative policy.

The system in West Germany is so conservative that the Social Democrats are also conservative. After the next election, the differences between the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats will be even smaller. On the issue of asylum and social policy, they compromise. I am afraid that this is the future.

The two largest parties regard the Republicans (a far-right party) and the PDS as their greatest enemies, equating the “extreme right” and the “extreme left.” However, you can see from the high rate of violence against foreigners, you can't compare left and right “extremes.” They equate the Republicans and PDS in having a poor relationship to the constitution, which the PDS criticizes from the left.

ATC: You said that you felt that it was important that the PDS existed as a successor to the SED (former East German Communist Party), and that you had a responsibility or a relationship to that heritage of the GDR.

P.B.: It is important to bring our history to the new unified Germany. The forty year history of the GDR isn't convenient to the Federal Republic of Germany at the moment. They like to say “you had a bad history of Stalinism,” and that everything in the GDR was bad, including childcare, abortion rights, big factories, and agriculture production through communal farms.

It is necessary for us to say that these things were good in the GDR and that other things were bad. The official policy of the PDS is to criticize the former system because we do not regard it as real socialism. But it's good to acknowledge history.

ATC: Would you consider yourself a dissident in the former GDR?

P.B.: I would never describe myself as a dissident. I think dissidents were a very small minority who had a really bad life in the GDR. It was not true, as you read now, that most of the people were dissidents.

ATC: As a university student, you described criticism of the SED from within the framework of socialism. With the big state security apparatus, how was this possible, without people being reported and suppressed?

P.B.: Within our discussion club at the university, it was acceptable to discuss alternative ways to develop socialism. Some people were more involved in official government policies, but our section of the university didn't typically have real hardliners.

It was very important for my development to have these opportunities. I don't know how typical this was. My parents were not involved in official politics. I was the only one in my family who was at university and politically active. I can't compare my experience with others. My grievances with the leadership of the party were not the determining thing, although I hate the old men.

With my subsequent experience in the West, I would never enter a party where I hated the leadership. But in the GDR, your choice was limited to being active within the official structure of the party or to be a dissident. The opposition existed under the roof of the Protestant church in the GDR, and this wasn't my ideology. Although most of the dissidents were not Christian and regarded themselves as socialists, they could only hold meetings in churches, for example. But they were a very small minority.

ATC: You predicted that the SPD and the Christian Democrats would converge more and more in their policies. Do you think that the PDS, the left opposition, will grow?

P.B.: Not automatically; I would hope so, but I think it's problematic. Nineteen ninety-four will see elections for the European parliament, as well as state, community, and German parliaments. There is a danger that in the next German Parliament there will be no left opposition from East Germany. I believe we will be able to hold the 5% minimum, but it will not be easy, because now the 5% must be won in unified Germany.

ATC: Are the neo-Nazis a new phenomenon or were they simply underground during the forty years of the GDR?

P.B.: Neo-fascism was not a public phenomenon in the GDR. Some worked illegally and maintained connections with neo-fascists in West Germany. After unification the neo-fascists could maintain open connections with their friends in the West. When I was the leader of the electoral commission in 1990, we prevented the fascists, Republicans, and the National Alternative from participating in the elections in the former GDR.

ATC: What is on the agenda for the future?

P.B.: I hope that in the future, we can build up a human society. My aim is to gain more equality in society. At this time, the capitalist system is the winner because the socialist system was not the real socialist system. The socialists and the left made a lot of mistakes.

We now have to learn to be in opposition, to provide pressure for equal rights for all the people. It's a small task, which is really a big task. In unified Germany, the government and leaders of industry and companies are free to attack social security and workers' rights in ways that weren't possible as long as the GDR existed for comparison. Now only West Germany exists with its “pure capitalism.”

Attacks on trade union and other social rights are a great danger. More and more issues will be decided on the basis of money. In both Germanies, we had more progressive systems of health care than in the USA. It's important to fight for political priorities that help men, women and children, and not decide everything on the basis of money.

ATC: What to you is the relationship between feminism and socialism?

P.B.: In my opinion and experience, there is agreement. Socialism and feminism have the same aim: to have a human society without hierarchy. We need to discuss the reasons for hierarchy in the contradictions between classes, between poor and rich, which are also contradictions between men and women. It is a pity that the official ideology in the socialist countries only discussed the contradictions between the poor and rich and not between men and women. Feminism was taboo in official discussion.

ATC 50, May-June 1994

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