German riot police supervising a demonstration in Dresden
November 9, 2014 marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and since that time Germany has, by all measures, become an economic and political juggernaut in the EU and beyond. This year marks another noteworthy occasion however, as Bodo Ramelow, a prominent member of Die Linke, has been elected prime minister of the eastern German state of Thuringia. Die Linke is Germany’s largest far-left party, and is largely considered a remnant of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party (SED). After winning the Thuringian seat, many individuals in Germany, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, are expressing concerns about the party’s influence in the region.
Much of the uneasiness regarding Die Linke stems from the separation of Germany during the Cold War — an era in which Germans in the SED-controlled German Democratic Republic (DDR) experienced decades of oppression by the government. The most infamous tool of this oppression was the Ministry for State Security, commonly known as the Stasi. The Stasi were a secret police force, much like the Soviet Union’s KGB, that spied on citizens through the use of wiretapping, mail searches, and even an extensive network of citizen informants. Shortly after Germany’s reunification, nearly 190,000 citizens were confirmed to be unofficial Stasi informants, with some estimates placing the true number at over 600,000.
Although decades have passed since the wall’s collapse, the memories left by the Stasi and the regime they supported have led to a wariness of Die Linke and its leaders, many of whom are accused of not sufficiently distancing themselves from the old SED. As a result, neither Die Linke nor its previous iterations have had a state Prime Minister since reunification, with the Thuringian seat being held by the Christian Democrats (CDU) for over 20 years. In this election, however, a coalition of Die Linke, SPD, and the Green Party were able to scrape together a victory for Ramelow in Thuringia’s state assembly, leading thousands in eastern Germany to the streets in protest.
Prominent German leaders, such as President Joachim Gauck, have lived through the oppression of the SED and thus feel deeply disturbed by signs of its apparent re-emergence. He referred to the results of the election as a reality that is “quite hard to accept,” a position made all the more understandable when considering his past with the DDR. A native of eastern Germany, Gauck was familiarized with the DDR’s paranoia when his own father was sentenced to 25 years in a Siberian Gulag (but was released 4 years later, after Stalin’s death) due to suspicions of espionage. In later years, Gauck committed himself to denouncing the unfairness he saw in the DDR’s regime, and the type of treatment he experienced is reflected in the memories of millions of Germans who endured that era.
In the face of such continuing criticism, Ramelow and Die Linke have tried to make amends to the people affected by the DDR through apologies and resolutions to uphold the “rule of law,” but those efforts haven’t yielded meaningful results. Die Linke’s image today is inextricably linked to that of the SED, and many of its positions, such as support for the dissolution of NATO, haven’t proven incredibly popular, to say the least. If Die Linke wishes to gain the respect its members are seeking, it will need to make a greater, more substantive effort at eschewing the actions of its predecessors and ridding itself of the political extremism that makes it so alienating within contemporary Germany.
Kwame Newton is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, majoring in Government.