Last year's reformers left bewildered New Forum sought change, not unity

October 03, 1990|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN -- Jens Reich picked up the yellowing paper and read the last line of a petition that launched East Germany's opposition movement only a year ago:

"We call all citizens who want to help effect a change in our society to become members of New Forum. The time is ripe."

He shook his head, smiled and folded the paper. Since New Forum was organized in September 1989, almost every political landmark in Mr. Reich's world has changed. As of today, the country that he wanted to reform and humanize doesn't even exist anymore.

"I have very mixed emotions. I'm happy that East Germany is gone because it was rotten to the core. But it's the country of my childhood, the country where my children grew up, where I spent many happy hours with my family. In this sense I'll miss it a lot," he said.

Like many of the revolutionaries who opposed the government when it was difficult and dangerous to do so, Mr. Reich seems dumbfounded about the changes that have taken place. From a small group of teachers, pastors and environmentalists, they have seen their movement balloon, help to force the government to resign -- and then collapse.

Pastor Friedrich Schorlemmer, for example, said the resulting unification of the two German states has given him "very little to celebrate."

"As much as we wanted to get rid of our government, we also wanted to create a better country than West Germany. Our goal was never to become just an appendage to West Germany," he said.

Even among last year's opponents, however, Pastor Schorlemmer represents only a small minority. It soon became obvious that New Forum's leadership in East Berlin was out of touch with the membership in the rest of the country. Most of them wanted unification and capitalism, not glasnost and perestroika.

"We misjudged, but we never intended to become a political party. We just wanted to be a platform where other groups could start. In that sense, we were successful," said Bernd Kaehne, one of the founders of New Forum.

At New Forum's peak late last year, it had half a million signatures on its petition and had the moral authority to call massive demonstrations when the government didn't seem to be reforming quickly or thoroughly enough.

But with the establishment of political parties modeled after and financed by Western parties, New Forum gradually faded in importance. In national elections last spring, New Forum and two other opposition organizations received together only 3 percent of the vote and sent only 12 representatives to parliament.

By then it was clear that New Forum's dream of reforming communism had failed and German unity was assured.

"Everything happened so quickly. Only a year ago, the Communists were in power and we were being spied on and our phones bugged. Six months later, we had had national elections and the [conservative] Christian Democrats were in power. Before we could blink, our moment had passed," Mr. Reich said.

Although some New Forum members are bitter about the end of what had claimed to be "the first socialist republic on German soil," Mr. Reich clearly is not.

The organization's most effective spokesman, this 51-year-old microbiologist at the Academy of Sciences was one of the few who seemed to realize that New Forum succeeded because it was the only alternative and that most citizens just wanted to join West Germany.

If New Forum had called immediately for unification, however, it would have led to a Beijing-style massacre, he said.

"There was no other way. We had to call for glasnost and Gorbachev-style communism or face a Tiananmen," he said.

The Communist government's eventual collapse may excite him, but the rush to unity disturbs him because he thinks that East Germans are being made unnecessary victims of questionable economics.

On the whole, however, he views the changes as preferable to what existed before.

"When I think that a year ago my children couldn't travel abroad and now they can, that they couldn't read what they wanted and now they can, that they couldn't say what they wanted and now they can -- it's a tremendous change for the better," he said.

A little bit of nostalgia, however, creeps into his voice when he talks about the dramatic events of a year ago.

"When I look at the old fliers that we passed around, I realize the mistakes we made," Mr. Reich said. "We tried to project the entire East Berlin underground [opposition] scene onto all of the country.

"Of course it couldn't have worked, but I still get a chill when I reread them, naive as they may have been."

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