News | German / European History - Democratic Socialism In Memorium: Hans Modrow (1928–2023)

Bidding farewell to one of the German Left’s most iconic personalities


Hans Modrow sitting at a table.
Hans Modrow in Berlin, 13 March 2019. Photo: IMAGO / Mathias Marx

In 1998, 25 years ago, the Karl Dietz publishing house published Hans Modrow’s memoirs for the first time. The occasion was his seventieth birthday. The title of the thick volume compiled together with the journalist Hans-Dieter Schütt, I Wanted a New Germany, could be understood as his life motto.

Gerd-Rüdiger Stephan is the director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Historical Centre for Democratic Socialism.

Translated by Loren Balhorn.

Hans Modrow was deeply influenced by his years as a Soviet prisoner of war. He attended an “Antifa school” there from 1945 to 1949. When he returned, he became a Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ) functionary in the newly founded German Democratic Republic (GDR). He advanced his career, but — unlike the generation of Socialist Unity Party (SED) cadres born before him, who came from proletarian origins such as carpenters, roofers, or hairdressers — combined it with an academic education. He returned to the Komsomol College in Moscow for another year, then completed the three-year course at the SED’s party college and studied at the Hochschule für Ökonomie in Karlshorst, before finally receiving his doctorate from the Humboldt University in 1966. Not many SED leadership cadres could boast such a CV.

He became a member of the East German parliament, the Volkskammer, by 1958, and joined the SED Central Committee in 1967, while at the same time taking over the leadership of the Central Committee Department for Propaganda. He proved to be a rising star there, but after the handing over of power from Walter Ulbricht to Erich Honecker, the latter sent him into the provinces. Hans Modrow was First SED District Secretary in Dresden for 16 years beginning in 1973. Yet being sent to the “Valley of the Clueless”, as it was known in East German slang, was tantamount to a certain demotion. Honecker preferred to surround himself with sycophants in East Berlin, such as Modrow’s predecessor in Dresden, Werner Krolikowski.

Modrow maintained close contacts with Soviet politicians through the Soviet embassy in East Berlin, the Dresden-based scholar Manfred von Ardenne, and through the head of the GDR’s foreign intelligence, Markus Wolf, mainly due to the circumstances described above. In the crisis year of 1989, these contacts led to his special role in the so-called Wende.

Don’t let this party break, don’t let it sink, but make it clean and strong.

Following a report to Honecker in late 1988 in which Modrow highlighted popular grievances concerning the supply of consumer goods in the Dresden district, which were partly due to East Berlin being given priority, the SED leader dispatched a whole brigade of inspectors to the Saxony district leadership. On 28 February 1989, Honecker gave him a dressing down in front of the Politburo and censured him, but left him in his position. Personnel changes were too conspicuous for him by this point, as they could be interpreted at home and abroad as a sign of growing political weakness.

Thus, after Honecker was ousted on 18 October 1989, Modrow was ready to take on a leading role in the new team led by Egon Krenz. Prior to that, however, the now-deposed leader had laid a cuckoo’s egg in his nest, so to speak. On Honecker’s express orders, the trains carrying East German emigrants who had sought refuge in the West German embassy in Prague passed through Dresden on 3 October, as they were not allowed to travel directly from Prague to the West (supposedly so that officials could collect their identity papers on GDR territory). The riots at Dresden’s central train station, which left many injured and immense material damage, would continue to haunt Modrow for years.

The Central Committee meeting held on 8–10 November 1989 that led to the opening of the Berlin Wall also elected Hans Modrow as a Politburo member and designated chairman of the Council of Ministers. When the party’s great hope was inaugurated into his new office as head of government on 13 November, the situation had changed completely. The GDR faced open borders, and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl presented his 10-point plan for “reunification” just two weeks later.

Hans Modrow had acquired the reputation of a modest politician, literally with his three-room new flat in Dresden, and that of a supporter of glasnost and perestroika, as embodied by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin. He pinned his hopes on Gorbachev to save the GDR in those days, which a rudimentary concept of a German confederation was designed to ensure.

But things soon began to come to a head. There was no escaping the pressure of the street, and on 3 December 1989 all SED leadership bodies, the Central Committee, the Politburo, and General Secretary Krenz were compelled to resign. A 26-member working committee, of which Modrow was nominally no longer a member (as he attached great importance to the personal separation of party and government), took on the preparation of a special party congress, which met in two sessions on 8–9 and 16–17 December 1989.

In a dramatic late-night session shortly after 1:00 on 9 November, he addressed the delegates: “Don’t let this party break, don’t let it sink, but make it clean and strong.” Afterwards, a legend grew about a “secret speech” that succeeded in stopping the process of disintegration. There was nothing secret about it, however, as it could be read in the official minutes and was also recorded. The party congress created the SED/PDS, consolidated a basic anti-Stalinist consensus, and gave rise to a leadership team that was to shape the “Party of Democratic Socialism”, renamed in January 1990, for many years (alongside Hans Modrow, Gregor Gysi, Lothar Bisky, Michael Schumann, Heinz Vietze, among others).

He travelled to Moscow as prime minister and new deputy party leader of the PDS in late January. Gorbachev had decided not to oppose unification of the German states in the meantime, and the guest from Berlin had to accept this with surprise. He spontaneously decided to take a radical turn that had not been agreed upon with the party leadership and his government and, returning to East Berlin, presented his concept “For Germany, one united fatherland” on 1 February 1990.

He proved unable to regain the initiative in the ongoing processes, however. Helmut Kohl blew him off ice-cold together with the representatives of his government of national responsibility (including numerous figures from the new opposition movements, in Bonn in mid-February 1990. Kohl’s government would no longer put money into the ailing GDR — it was needed above all to grant loans to Moscow.

These many events over a very short period of time left a deep mark on Hans Modrow. When the first free Volkskammer elections were held on 18 March 1990, he still had a few days to prepare the handover of office to Lothar de Maiziere. Modrow stepped into the second row, but remained extremely active in his party and in parliament, where he served until 1994. He had succeeded in securing a peaceful transition in the GDR. Like many others, he had to learn to shape politics in a way not found in GDR textbooks in the process. He made mistakes, but showed great courage and humanity.

He made mistakes, but showed great courage and humanity.

From 1994 onwards, he got caught up in the cogs of the Federal German justice system, particularly for the falsified 1989 Volkskammer elections and the accusation that he made false statements. He received a suspended sentence in the second instance. He learned to deal with these accusations politically. From 1999 to 2004, he was a member of the European Parliament for the PDS. He was also active in the unification process of the PDS and WASG to form Die Linke, of which he became the honorary chair in 2007. This function often enabled him to present his opinion on basic social problems and developments at party congresses, with thoroughly relevant aspects and impulses.

Hans Modrow supported the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in its work for decades, as a member of the association, as a member of the board of trustees for many years, as an advisor for international work (in China and on Korean issues), and as the founder of the trustee Modrow Foundation.

The former advocate of glasnost and perestroika was ultimately disappointed by what Mikhail Gorbachev represented, and had few kind words to say about him. His attention to the post-Soviet space remained undiminished. He was deeply affected by the outbreak of war last February, and by internal party developments on which he had always sought to have a positive influence since his “secret speech” in December 1989.

His health problems took a sharp turn for the worst in 2022. At the age of 94, he still attended an extraordinary general meeting of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation addressing the social and political situation after the last federal elections in May 2022. In November, he made his last appearance in a small public setting, planting flowers at the Socialist Cemetery in Berlin’s Friedrichsfelde neighbourhood, organized by the Modrow Foundation.

When Neues Deutschland called him a “witness of the century” in the full-page article marking his ninety-fifth birthday on 27 January 2023, it was a well-chosen title. His witnessing has now come to an end. We commemorate and venerate Hans Modrow. He was not the only one responsible for the peaceful course of events in 1989–90, but he was one of its decisive personalities, also in the years that followed. We will never forget him.