Thirty years after German reunification, young people in eastern Germany are setting out on a path towards a future that is worth living and are turning things on their head—discourses, life histories, difficult situations. A conversation with Philipp Rubach, who is in his early twenties, studying to become a history teacher, and is the founder of the initiative Aufbruch Ost in Leipzig. Translated by Louise Pain & Marc Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
You have received a lot of media attention—the title “Aufbruch Ost der nächsten Generation” (Aufbruch Ost for the Next Generation) comes to mind here. Can you explain what it’s all about?
Aufbruch Ost is a young movement—that’s how I refer to it these days. The movement was founded in the autumn of 2018 in response to the increasing swing to the right in Germany’s eastern states. One initial spark was definitely the AfD’s performance in the 2017 federal election: the percentage of votes received by the party was twice as high here as it was in the West, which greatly concerned me. The idea of a counter-movement emerged among my group of friends—you know, over beers, with everyone immediately wanting to join in—and the same group of friends was responsible for actually establishing the movement. We were working towards the year 2019, which would mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. Three state elections were also planned for that year, and there was a very real danger that the AfD might end up part of a government coalition. We’re young, we’re the next generation of East Germans, we want to effect change, we want to live here, which is why we’re joining forces with people who grew up in the West in order to fight for self-empowerment in the East. We stand for something different to what the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) of the 1990s stood for with its paternalistic approach to the East. We want an East Germany that stands for solidarity and are trying to shift East German criticisms of the system to the left. In order to achieve this goal, we have consciously sought and continue to seek out dialogue and want to facilitate spaces where these discussions can take place—especially in small towns and villages. Our goal from the beginning has been to establish local branches and build an East German grass-roots movement.
You made your first public appearance in October 2018 at the Leipzig Festival of Lights, with a banner that bore the words “Friede, Freude, Einheit? Treuhand-Aufarbeitung jetzt” (Peace, happiness, unity? Time to Reappraise Treuhand). How did people react to this?
First off, what was important to us was the action itself: drawing attention to this big question mark. We had no way of predicting what people’s reactions would be on the day. The Leipzig Festival of Lights takes place on 9 October on the occasion of the anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution and is a profoundly moving event. A prayer for peace is conducted in the Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church), with an impressive accompanying programme, and the minister-president of Saxony gives a speech, which is accompanied by stirring voices and images from the demonstrations conducted back in the day. In the middle of Augustplatz, candles arranged in the shape of a large “89” light up the annual proceedings. Meanwhile, we rolled out the ten-metre-long banner beside the stage in front of 15,000 people. We stood there for around two hours, accompanied by a photographer and dramatically lit from behind by floodlights, giving out homemade flyers and waiting to see what would happen.
By focussing on the Treuhandanstalt, which was merely one of the key players at the time, we wanted to deliberately question how successful the reunification process had actually been. We wanted to challenge the notion of reunification as the main success story of the CDU. Beyond this critical supplement to the story of German unity, the term “Treuhand” is a channel for all of the disappointment and outrage of the people who stayed in the East. It stands for a sell-out, for breakdown, and demolition, above all in terms of migration and its demographic and structural consequences. For East Germans, the Treuhand to this day still represents rifts in their biography, the devaluation of their life achievements, shame, resignation, and being robbed of a voice. In terms of numbers, we’re talking about roughly 8,500 businesses that employed a total of more than four million people.
Anyway, towards the end of the event, quite a few people came up to us and expressed their shock at seeing young people standing underneath the banner. But at the same time, they were receptive and asked why we were interested in this topic—some of them even thanked us. This was also the key to the media interest, as well as to the ongoing media coverage. Afterwards, we organized very open gatherings, which were attended by a large number of people. We visited town festivals and markets, chatted with people and asked them questions, put together an exhibition on the 1989 “autumn of utopia” and the subsequent Treuhand policy, took it to a number of different places, and talked about it in panel discussions.
Why do you think a change is needed, and why now?
As I said, that form of action was of great importance to us from the beginning. The issue of reviewing the Treuhand had clearly been a strategic consideration, but it was also backed by a particular interest, a very serious one. Why now? Because the files have now become available after 30 years, and because the Treuhand, which symbolizes the upheavals in the East, can also be viewed as a cause of the increase in support for right-wing parties and ideas. For us, the term Aufarbeitung (reappraising) encapsulates two concrete demands: first, we are expressing the right of each and every East German person to examine not only their own Stasi file, but also the Treuhand files. Secondly, we are calling for a re-industrialization of the East—one that all those who wish to live in the East will be able to profit from. This implies a different economic approach; the idea of economic democracy and progressive, dynamic ideas. For us as a younger generation, this is connected to our desire for future prospects. As a left-wing movement calling for an emancipatory awakening, we also want to focus on the resistance and protests that took place in the 1990s against the Treuhand policy. In addition to Bischofferode, counter-actions were also staged in Freital, for example, where demonstrators also succeeded in occupying the Dresden airport and blocking roads. The general consensus was that the Freital stainless steel works was past the point of renovation, and yet the protests led to this view being reconsidered. As a result, at least some of the jobs were saved, and the company still exists to this day. This is an example of something I’m researching.
Your approach of challenging the predominant account of history has been met with a great deal of interest from both the media and society. How would you explain this?
We see ourselves as “the voice of the East”, and we say exactly what many people are thinking with the issues that we raise. According to a recent MDR survey conducted with more than 17,000 viewers, only three percent of East Germans believe that Germany is truly reunified today. Almost half of those surveyed said that the living conditions in the East would never be the same as in the West. We are addressing these problems and talking openly about them, and are trying to come up with solutions. In our opinion, the left has not done enough of this is the last few years. Our methodology is crucial to our success. Our tactic was and is to forge new paths and to try out new forms of political engagement: grass-roots, historically aware, getting out of the progressive bubble and into rural areas, engaging with regional and social issues—paying particular attention to how we engage with people, and taking greater account of the local sphere—as well as standing side by side with people.
Who do you mean by “the left”?
I’m especially referring to the left outside the parliamentary sphere, but party-political figures also sometimes fail to address these problems (or no longer do so). How else can you explain the phenomenon of people who always used to vote for left-wing parties now voting for right-wing parties? But let’s stick with the extra-parliamentary left. There’s the eastern branch of the Antideutschen, whose members grew up here and who, because of their intense experiences, now only see doom and gloom. They occasionally speak of a “racist consensus”, they stage important defensive actions, but never go on the offensive. And there is the “West German civic left”, which sometimes involves itself in the politics of the East, but has still yet to confront history and is therefore unaware of problems and potentials. Our analysis of East German society contradicts the analyses put forward by both the West and the East German left. We take a different approach, use a different language, speak with East German people, not about them. This approach has aroused significant interest, it has hit a nerve—together with other voices like those of Petra Köpping, Jana Hensel, and Valerie Schönian.
Thomas Oberender refers to your movement at various points in his booklet “Empowerment Ost” (Empowerment of the East). Were you aware of this? I have to read it to you, because it’s so fitting here. He writes: “Thirty years on, after hearing their situation discussed at length from the outset, the language of those directly affected—the language of East Germans—is finally being heard. It is the language of those who lived through and witnessed the times of which we speak; above all, it is the language of their children and grandchildren in Leipzig or Rostock, who, in a very detailed and everyday manner, explore the other reality of life in the GDR and the lengthy period of change and reunification that ensued. For me, this process is what it means to ‘occupy history’: 30 years after the Berlin Wall was opened, there is a politics of memory from below that is seeking to carve out some breathing room for the experiences of those who lived in the GDR and in the period that followed its demise. This new politics of memory from actors like Aufbruch Ost … can perhaps help us learn to better understand the distance between the two reunified halves of German society, and not allow this disparity to become a dynamic of division—one that is currently being championed by the populist right.”
Really? (happy, surprised, and also proud) What a cool guy. I’ve noticed him, I like the things he says. I’ve seen his book, but I haven’t read it yet. So no, I wasn’t aware of that. We haven’t had any contact with him so far, but should definitely talk with each other.
(Re)occupying history; (re)appropriating it: is that your wish?
That’s an interesting way of putting it. Yeah, I guess you could say that. We definitely wanted to question and add to the historical discourse and the common narrative of German reunification. The history of Germany generally tends to be West German history. In the past, when people spoke about East Germany, they would talk about the GDR and the fall of the Wall, but rarely about the period that followed: the turmoil of the 1990s. The fact that people can no longer dodge the subject of the post-reunification period is also our achievement. Apart from that, we haven’t just remained on the historical trail, but have also directed our focus and energy towards contemporary issues. For example, we’re providing concrete forms of support to the new health centre in Leipzig’s Schönfeld district and are working together with militant trade unions to bridge the pay gap between East and West.
You were born in 1996. How do you deal with situations in which people question your judgement or interpretation of the GDR and the period that directly followed reunification and thus essentially shut down the possibility for discussion, or rather for much-needed intergenerational exchange?
Yeah, at the start of the Ostkonferenz (East Conference) in Weimar, Gregor Gysi said that back in 1989, I hadn’t even been thought of yet. You’re expected to justify yourself before you’re allowed to engage with the subject at hand. It’s important for me that I point out that we have also taken into account the experiences of older generations in our deliberations. We travelled to Bischofferode before the first action and spoke with Gerhard Jüttemann, as well as Gesine Oltmanns from the Stiftung Friedliche Revolution. Apart from that, one thing I can say is that we young people are directly affected by the consequences of historical events, and this is why the issue of reappraising the past is relevant to us. It’s worth mentioning keywords like leadership positions, mobility pressure, and Nazis. Causal connections such as the migration of young, highly-skilled people, for example due to wages, the life prospects associated with that, the ensuing absence of whole social strata that would in turn be so badly needed by the East German civil society that is so often invoked. We need the experiences of the older generations, but the older generations also need us in order to reengage with issues and histories and find new solutions. It is important that we start a conversation, and that we keep that conversation going.
Earlier you mentioned wanting to “shift East German criticisms of the system to the left”. Why do you think that the East’s awakening should be a decidedly left-wing one?
In order to answer that question, you have to look at why the East is so receptive to right-wing rhetoric and ideologies, as well as the attribution of a (primarily) right-wing character to East Germany. This is complex and is marked by certain interactions, reflexes, and resistance, too, and unfortunately also by unsavoury alliances. It is clear that racist continuities that were not dealt with before and after 1990 persist today; people have had fewer experiences of migration, but there are also social structures that have been created by emigration, the painful experiences that followed reunification, the lack of representation in German society, and the feeling of being a second-class citizen. In the East, it is not uncommon for class consciousness to manifest in the form of East German identity politics—this is a potential that the left has failed to make the most of. We were criticized for “letting the right in the East off the hook with our explanatory approaches”. That’s not our objective. On the contrary, we are trying to use these conversations to get the point across that the identity politics of women, migrants, and East Germans need to be considered together; they can’t be separated. Our awakening is therefore clearly a left-wing one, because left-wing political movements should first and foremost take the side of the weak.
What drew my attention to your movement—and also impressed me—was a question you posed at a conference in Dresden in the spring of 2019. After two and a half hours of in-depth discussion about the East German people, you asked the large panel of speakers: “If we are always going to talk about the Treuhand, shouldn’t we actually be talking about a much larger dimension? Shouldn’t we actually be looking at turbo-capitalism and the blatantly neoliberal, market-radical politics that took place here at the time and that did not come to an end in the mid-1990s, but in fact hit Greece in the same way after the financial crisis? Shouldn’t we be viewing this in a broader European context—one that is critical of capitalism?” Many nodded their heads emphatically, but the answer to your question sought to relativize the issue—a kind of reflex, perhaps. Do you think that studying the neoliberalism that began around the end of the 1970s in Western Europe and made its way to East Germany and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, that viewing it in a “broader European context” can help us better understand what happened to the workers at the time? And do you think this could lead to people becoming more aware of their situation today?
You’re referring to Philipp Ther’s notion of the große Transformation (great transformation)? Yeah, I think it’s important to deal with it critically, in both the East and the West, and with a view to the EU’s austerity policies in Southern European countries, as well as structural problems and social issues and needs.
What do you have planned in terms of political action in light of the media’s interest in the 30-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, or rather the attention garnered by East Germany because of its state elections?
As I already mentioned, we have redirected our political work in the wake of this Ostjahr (Year of the East). Since then, we have primarily been concentrating on trade union work. This has meant attending strike actions and supporting workers by doing public relations work, as we did for example for Teigwaren Riesa. There is no doubt in our minds that we will continue to fight for the workers in East Germany, even if the election results might deter us. We will only be able to take the wind out of the right’s sails if we fight with workers for fair working and living conditions. Because East German state elections will be happening again in 2021, in Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt, and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. We are also interested in a number of the mayoral elections, for example those in Hoyerswerda and Chemnitz. We want to join forces with our West German friends to fight for a united East Germany. The alliance Unteilbar (indivisible) serves as a role model for us. We also support Polylux, a network of solidarity for associations, initiatives, and projects in East Germany. And we are looking forward to a number of publications and the debates that will be revisited and conducted alongside them, such as Erinnern stören: Der Mauerfall aus migrantischer und jüdischer Perspektive (Disturbing Remembrance: The Fall of the Wall from the Perspective of Migrants and Jews), released on 3 October and written by Lydia Lierke and Massimo Perinelli from the RLS, or Die Gesellschaft der Anderen (The Societies of Others) by Naika Foroutan and Jana Hensel. In the future, we would like to incorporate the perspectives of migrants to a greater extent in the structure and composition of Aufbruch Ost, and in the sense of alliance work and “strategic alliances”, as Naika Foroutan has so aptly put it. The Initiative 12. August in Merseburg is already heading in this direction. In terms of our methodology, we want to focus on organizing and are planning a Ladenprojekt (shopfront project) here in Leipzig. When it comes to discourse, as I mentioned, we want to take a closer look at the perspectives of migrants, but also explore aspects of “colonization” in East Germany. We will continue to work individually on Aufbruch Ost by way of research, journalism, and rap.