Hans Modrow was born in the Weimar Republic, grew up in Nazi Germany, served in the Wehrmacht and was a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union until 1949. Joining the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (which united the Social Democratic and Communist parties) he became an energetic and effective political leader and rose to become party secretary in Dresden.
He became prime minister of the German Democratic republic at the point at which the Soviet guarantee of the GDR’s sovereignty was jettisoned.
These reminiscences describe how – as an exemplar of the hard working, disciplined cadres who who staffed the GDR state and party – he formed close relationships with his opposite numbers in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries and developed a sharp critique of the top leadership of the GDR.
The great strength of the book is Modrow’s frank and revealing account of the inner life of the GDR apparat; the practical and political problems that accompanied the construction of a socialist economy and the shaping of a socialist consciousness; the accumulation of contradictions in these processes and the protracted crisis that gripped and then paralysed the socialist bloc.
Most interesting is his detailed account of the political and diplomatic processes in which working class political power and socialist relations of production were dissolved in what proved to be a largely peaceful transition from socialism to capitalism.
Modrow is most centred on the travails of the GDR but from his exceptionally privileged viewpoint he reveals much about the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Gorbachov emerges as a political failure and a much diminished man.
In Modrow’s account the demise of the Soviet Union derived from a failure to create new types of socialist relations of production with over-centralisation in planning and management, bureaucracy, lack of responsibility and a reduction to only two forms of property: state owned and co-operative.
His sense of the Soviet political system runs on conventional lines. He asserts that was ‘deformed’ with ‘the roots of the phenomenon of Stalinism’ only described but not ripped out.
‘Attempts at reform had no complexity and ended without consequences’ he argues.
He quotes approving the Hungarian leader Kadar’s view that the communists had had to pass two tests – living through terror and persecution perpetrated by the reactionary forces, which in his view the majority had passed, but the other, was the test of power, and this one most communists had failed.
Modrow emerges as an honest and principled communist with the great virtues of his generation and the priceless fund of knowledge and experience in building socialism and exercising working class power.. His insights command respect and attention. However, as sometimes it seems with communists whose political experience is gained within socialism there seems a certain underestimation of the intensity of imperialism’s inescapable imperatives.
Hans Modrow was an active participant in the events that ended in the dissolution of working class political power in the GDR. Unlike some others, he worked hard to defend the gains of socialist construction in circumstances where an armed defence of political power would have had disastrous consequences and, it seems, little chance of success.
His account raises questions that have so far escaped a comprehensive theoretical answer – how is it that working class political power can be surrendered in the absence of serious armed conflict but bourgeois political power, it seems, cannot be surrendered without it?
This book was written in 2009. Events have confirmed the accuracy of his analysis that: “The Soviet Union as a former winner of the Second World War – this is a bitter truth – belatedly lost the war. It was demolished and Russia’s influence ended henceforth far behind the former borders of the USSR; the Warsaw Pact collapsed and NATO expanded eastward. I would not go so far as to say that the 28 million Soviet citizens gave their lives in vain in the Great Patriotic War, but the ‘reward’ for having freed half of Europe from the scourge of fascism seems, considering the present situation, unreasonably low.”