Wolfgang Leonhard, Munich, West Germany

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Location Munich, West Germany
Length 38:42

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What was the appeal of Marxism-Leninism to your generation?

I think the appeal of Marxism­ Leninism for my generation was extremely great, large, very deep impact.    To maybe say a word, I was from 1935 to 1945 in the Soviet Union under Stalin, I was 14 when I came there, and 24 when I left. So I went to Soviet schools and later the Soviet universities, to the Institute of Foreign Languages, and especially important was the Comintern School, the highest ideological training school for foreign communists in the Soviet Union. And the whole life ...

What was the appeal of Marxism-Leninism to your generation?

The appeal of Marxism-Leninism for our generation was I think extremely profound, I was from 1935 to 1945 in the Soviet Union and meaning under the period of Stalin and we were taught Marxism-Leninism on different levels. In school, in the Institute of Foreign Languages, later in the Comintern School, the highest elite school for foreign communists. Always on a higher level. And if I look back at this tremendous amount of teaching we had, the first I think is – we were convinced at that time that this is the only scientific world outlook. All these other groups, Social Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives, they have opinions, but we, Marxism-Leninism, is the scientific world outlook, it's like mathematics and physics. We know what is happening. And it's consisting of philosophy, dialectic materialism, the whole approach to history, the whole history, theory, called historical materialism, political economy, the whole our views on economy and then of course the political consequences, the political theories. And everything is scientific, it's nature, society, history, is governed by laws. And these, the laws, only Marxist-Leninists know these laws. Other people, these bourgeois people, may be better in this or that practical question, but we are superior because we know the laws. And therefore you had the feeling of superiority. And also a feeling of security. If there are historical laws and according to these historical laws and economic laws, the history will derive to socialist and later communist society, history is on our side. There might be some setbacks and some failures and some mistakes, but the victory is given. Now this given victory does not mean that you should sit around idle. No. You know the laws. And then through your own activity, the activity of Marxist-Leninists, you can hasten the historical process.

The second main appeal of Marxism-Leninism for us at that time was the aim, the ultimate aim, the future classless communist society. The whole history from primitive communism, slave-owned society, feudalism, capitalism, and then the big turning point in history leading towards socialism and communism, the communist classless system, no government, no repression, no army, no police, no prisons, no laws. Withering away of the state, complete freedom of everybody, personal freedom. Workers' collectives, running factories, the ultimate aim was I think tremendous. And therefore the 7th of November 1917, the October Revolution was not a Russian event, it was a turning point of history, regardless of all the mistakes later, it went towards the ultimate aim of a classless communist society, and this made a tremendous impact on us who were at that time believed in Marxism-Leninism.

(after aside) How did this ideology which you've learned in the USSR, now how did this actually influence your actions when you went back, you and other communist party leaders went back to Central Europe after the war?

It had a tremendous impact, during all the time I was a believing Marxist-Leninist. The impact was that first of all when you read bourgeois papers, western papers, bourgeois books, they seemed so unclear, so diffuse, they had no reality in it. And secondly, Marxism-Leninism was so strong the impact, that you didn't look at reality anymore. You saw in the Soviet Union mass repressions, millions of arrests of innocent people, privileges of party officials, personality cult, rassification, everything which was in contradiction to ideology. But you tried to explain it, to defend it, because after all these things were small things, practical things. The real thing was the great long­term implementation of the ideological aims of Marxism-Leninism.

What were the practical consequences of this though as you, when you became political leaders of these new states?

When we went, returned from Moscow to Germany at the end of World War II on the 30th of April 1945 we had a very clear picture of what we wanted to do. We believed in Marxism-Leninism and the ultimate aim was of course to create a socialist and later communist Germany. But we are taught over and over again the different stages. So when we returned to Berlin we didn't want to introduce Socialism. On the contrary, we were informed to struggle against anybody, the sectarian communists who speak about socialism, we wanted an antifascist democracy. And a unifying movement of Communists, Social Democrats, Christians, Liberals, a broad antifascist democratic unity as a necessary transition, a long-term transition and I was talking this data, I believed in it. And I believed that now there would be a new page in the history of Germany, an antifascist democracy. And this antifascist democracy would last a long long time. And later, when the society is ripe, we then would may begin the transformation towards socialism, but that is only what we know, we wouldn't tell it to anybody else.

But this didn't last long. Actually, what you put into practice was in effect a sort of communist dictatorship was it not?

I would deny that, at the beginning I think there were many communists like myself, who really believed of only having a few key positions, and really working comradely together with all antifascists of other persuasion. But of course, very soon these kinds of believing illusionary communists like myself saw the reality and saw that the real diehard Stalinists have something very different in mind than what the idealistic communists at that time believed in.

It became very clear quickly that when the communist party took over were interested in total control of groups and individuals and so on. How did you, how was this experience (…?) in ordinary life, this ambition to have total control among the party?

Can I have a moment, that's very difficult. One minute…

When the Communist Party …[?] entered a more Stalinist phase and they aimed that sort of total control of groups and individuals and so on, how did this actually take place in practice, what did it feel like, and mean?

There was a tremendous difference between the first period from 1945 to 1948, and then since 1948. In the first period, at least in East Germany but I think in some other countries of Eastern Europe as well, there was real wish to collaborate with other antifascist forces. Maybe also in order that they should share the burden of the very difficult situation in the first years after World War II. But we believed still in comradely working together. At the end of ‘47, beginning of 1948, especially after the February '48 coup in Czechoslovakia it became obvious that now the communists were running towards getting total control. And the more idealistic communists were very sad, and even threatened by it and fearful and resentful and oppositional and that is where my big opposition came. But the Stalinists were happy, joyful, now it's our time, now we can get away with all these others. So there was a differentiation inside the communists, and of course many idealistic communists were either purged, some, many arrested, and some, like myself, escaped.

Why – it seems a paradox, almost a mystery, why did the Party, having achieved so much control on for example the political apparatus, trying to wipe out religion, the old bourgeois classes and so on. Why was this ambition for total control so?

The desire of the communists in Eastern Europe since 1948 not to limit themselves with strong influence but to desire the total control of all aspects of society, was a product of Stalinism. Stalinism implies total control, not, it's not enough to determine policy, to influence policy, to work together with other groups, no, total control of the economy, politics, armed forces, foreign policy, social problems, ideology, culture, total control, nothing less. This was Stalinism now imported from the Soviet Union into the countries of Eastern Europe.

Was this, did Marxism-Leninism play a role in this, or was it simply the peculiar characteristic of Stalin's reign that influenced the Communist Party?

It was the peculiar characteristics of Stalinism, justified with Marxism-Leninism with a somewhat falsified Marxism-Leninism.

Can I now turn to the Tito Stalin dispute, I wonder if you could tell us what that dispute really was about and what its implications were for the Communist parties elsewhere in Central Europe?

The Tito-Stalin break in many western books is described as a struggle between Yugoslav nationalism and Moscow international communism. There is hardly any statement with which I disagree as much as with this primitive and wrong statement. The reality was, it was a struggle between Moscow's hegemonial control and the desire of honest communists in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, to go their own way. Not because they were nationalist, but because they wanted to go their own way in order to look for a new model. For creating a socialist system which – what we thought at that time would embody both the correct tenets of Marxism-Leninism and avoid the horrors we all knew existed in Stalin's Soviet Union – the search for a new model. And that was the essence of the Soviet Yugoslav break in 1948, and that is why so many non-Yugoslavs, like me in East Berlin, were so favourable towards this big desire of the Yugoslavs to break the Moscow chain and to go an own way and create maybe a model of a socialist society, without personality cult, without collectivisation, without mass repressions, without purges, without the predominance of the secret police, to create a kind of better socialism, and that was the hope many people had in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary. And that's why we were secretly Titoists at that time.

What were the consequences of Stalin's vigorous rejection of this idea of developing alternative models of socialism, what happened in the communist parties in Central Europe after the Yugoslav split?

The Yugoslav break had international consequences, it was not only the expulsion of Yugoslavia from the world communist movement, but a ruthless suppression of any communists in any East European country who was either in favour of Yugoslavia or in favour of a different model (interruption)

What impact did the Tito-Stalin split have on the Communist movement in Central Europe?

The impact was not only that Yugoslavia was expelled from the world communist movement and was now an independent communist ruled country, but there were mass repressions, mass purges, in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria, against all communist party members and officials, were sympathetic to Yugoslavia, were dreaming of a different road to socialism, and a different moral of socialism, and even those people were purged, who were suspected of might wishing such a direction. And the mass repression of what was called Titoist at that time, meant that all the communist parties now were much more disciplined and much more Stalinists than before these purges between 1948 and 1950.

Was the real attack on people called Titoists Stalin's determination that there should be no real autonomy, no real independence in the Central European states? Even in the communist regimes?

Well this, the main reason for these purges was the totalitarian nature of Stalinism. There should be no country going another way to Socialism, there should be no party members, party officials, who were dreaming of such a way. The total control and the fear that Tito and Yugoslavia might create a model more and more clear, and therefore might be a serious danger for the totality of the Stalinist rule over Eastern Europe.

Turning to East Germany now, how would you characterise the uprising in June 1953, and why has there never been another outbreak like that in the GDR since then?

The uprising in June 1953 was primarily a workers' uprising, of a mass character, supported by the majority of the population of East Germany. And it was less like the later Prague Spring, and a little bit more like the Solidarność movement in Poland of 1980 and 1981, although of course on a much smaller scale, it lasted only a few days. And the reason why we had other uprisings in Eastern Europe but not, not again in East Germany, at least not up to now, is from my viewpoint primarily due to the fact that there was no country of the Soviet bloc where so many, where there were so many refugees, as from East Germany. So all the active possible oppositionals escaped to East Germany and secondly due in the last ten years, the Honecker leadership made a rather clever move, they not only permit but even encourage the population to look to western television broadcasts. And this is a loophole. They are two hours a day free of their own system, they can look and watch and pretend to be in another system. And then they take the permanent harshness of their own system easier. And I think this is the reason why later uprisings took place in other countries, but I would not exclude the possibility that there will be again uprising in East Germany, if the present or a future leadership will not initiate reforms in due time.

Do you think East Germany has the most successfully controlled society?

Yes, I would think from all, I can say yes, from all the countries of the Soviet bloc, I would think that the East German regime is relatively from a dictatorial viewpoint, which is not mine, the most successful in controlling the population.

Why is that?

The reason why, I think is due to the fact that it is easier to control the German population than populations of other countries. Because the population of East Germany has only known partially a little freedom in 1945-46 but was already, had already the 12 years of Nazi, the Nazi regime and therefore it was easier to re-create dictatorial structures. And I think it was also easier because all the oppositional people escaped to West Germany and therefore it was easier to control. But I would not overestimate the mechanism of control. I see also in East Germany tremendous contradictions and an increasing desire, particularly of the young generation, of more freedom, more independence, more autonomy, more initiative.

What would you say now is the central ideological claim made by the SED to justify its continued monopoly of power?

The main ideological reason given for the control is the idea that the German Democratic Republic, how it is officially called, is the first workers and peasants government in the whole of German history, that it's a break of all the tragic German history before. That despite its difficulties and shortcomings, it is a model of a new society. But I would tend to incline that very few people believe it.

What is the significance of GDR's regimes, exploitation now of Prussia, Prussian traditions, even Prussian military traditions, and the sort of militarisation of certain aspects of, of East German life?

The new method of the Erich Honecker leadership in the last three or four years to use national tradition for its own legitimacy is from my viewpoint very important indeed. The East German regime has no legal claim to, it is a lawless rule. It has no democratic claim because there are no free elections. For Erich Honecker and his regime, and maybe the regime of his followers, there is only one way to try to legitimise and that is to present itself as having a tremendous long historical tradition, which is made easier because the western part, the Democratic Federal Republic is a kind of very sketchy on that, so they first started with Luther. Rather different from what Marx and Engels wrote about Luther. And then went even so far as claiming as positively Frederic the Great and when in 1945 I had to write for the party education one booklet after the other against Frederic II, if you use the term Frederic the Great you were reprimanded by the party and could be expelled by the party, and now Frederic the Great, it is the hope through national tradition to legitimise the rule of the present dictatorship.

How far has the totalitarianism marked the Stalinist era, how far has that really disappeared from the communist systems of Central Europe today?

The totalitarian system in its essence still remains in certain fields. Namely the idea that the dictatorship is not only to control the people but to mobilise them, to mobilise them for the fulfilment of the aims of the dictatorship. What has changed tremendously are the methods of implementation. Under Stalin mass arrests, regular purges, harsh party language, were essence of the Stalinism. Now you don't need this anymore, you give them a little bit more leeway, you use a little bit more conciliatory party language, you don't arrest as many people any more, you don't have mass purges any more. You have a constant small reminder – “We are there. Don't go too far”. And these small reminders are enough, up to now at least, to keep these dictatorial systems in power.

Is there enough of the Stalinist legacy got into these systems to mean one couldn't rule out a return to a sort of Neo­Stalinism as one option?

I would not rule out the return to Neo-Stalinism, in fact in my book on the future of the Soviet Union, I give it as one of the six possibilities. I don't think it is very likely, but one cannot rule it out completely. The nomenklatura of the East European political power elite of the East European countries might return, or some might even wish to return to such form when they feel endangered, and there's a big struggle now inside the political power elite, between those who want to overcome the tremendous difficulties and contradictions by gradual reforms, and those who want to overcome that, or at least pretend overcoming it by increasing ruthlessness. I think that at present the reform wing has greater chances, but I would never rule out the danger of the return to Neo­Stalinism.

To what extent did communist systems build into them genuine political and cultural pluralism without to challenging the leading role of the communist party and without threatening the role of the Soviet Union?

In the communist party system there are sometimes discussions about what is called democratisation. And I think we should know that of course this term does not mean democracy in the western sense of the word – pluralism, market economy, rule of law, multi-party-system, no. But a democratisation has a certain meaning. It means the party still rules. But it only rules the main directions, and permits groups to have a little bit more, a little bit more autonomy and initiative. It is the attempt of remaining in power, but using less coercion for detailed questions, limiting it to the fundamental ones, and permitting certain groups inside the party to solve their own problems, hoping that thereby people will be more active, will have a certain degree of participation, and will show more initiative. The power remains the method changes.

How stable is this because how can you give people certain amounts of freedoms, and then tell them they can't go any further?

The problem with this new idea of democratisation which you might say limited autonomy is of course very difficult. On one hand it's a necessity in a modern industrial society, you need autonomy, independence and initiative in order to continue the kind of economic progress. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult, because if you give people a certain amount of freedom, initiative, then very often they demand more. The question will remain if it will be possible of for what communist reformers are thinking to, to liberalise the system without giving up power, if this is possible at all. There are people in the west who think it's impossible, and there are people in the communist-ruled countries who also claim it's impossible. The answer is not yet given. I would think there is a certain amount of possibility of liberalising the system without that the whole system crushes. But this is more an opinion because the example has yet not been given. Hungary and China are two examples where through reforms really a certain amount of things have changed, but we still don't know if this will be a stable form for the future.

Would an alternative stable form be a return to economic efficiency, to allow a certain market system to operate, but maintaining an even stronger discipline?

There are people both in the Soviet Union and in the Eastern European countries among the political elite who try to avoid this democratisation even in the limited form I mentioned before, and try to modernise the system, with more technocratic methods plus increasing discipline. There are strong forces in the political elites of all East European countries who favour the direction, but this way I think is impossible. Technocratic disciplinisation is no answer for the tremendous economic social and political problems, the East European countries are confronted with.

How would you assess the total damage done to society in Eastern Europe, by communism, in the last 40 years?

Communist systems now ruled 40 years over the countries of Eastern Europe or Central Europe included – East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia , Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, and the consequences are first of all in the economic social sphere, in 40 years of communist rule it has been absolutely clearly proven that in the economic technological advancement they are far behind not only Western Europe, Japan and the United States, but even among some of the new developing countries like Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, so far behind, which would not have been necessary, the forces are there. The second is in the social sphere. There is no question that the population of the mentioned countries of Central and Eastern Europe under communist control had tremendous sufferings, which were unnecessary in that amount, if another system, more modern and more pluralistic, would have existed. And the third aspect is the cultural and intellectual sphere, where there was 40 years of suppression, there were certain periods here and then where the suppression was not harsh and there was a certain amount of cultural intellectual freedom, but as a whole the cultural and intellectual development of course has suffered a great deal although in this third aspect I would say that much more has been done, not published, not seen, than many people in the West assume, and I would tend to think that if we would have free developments in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe now in the Soviet bloc, we would be astonished what creative energy has been there in these 40 years, which has been not published, not seen, but will be seen the moment democratic freedoms will be appearing. So in all of these three aspects I would say there were tremendous sufferings, but I would like to say one positive aspect of 40 year rule of communism in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and that is the politicisation. People live in a political country and even those who believe, there are very few left, those who are critical, those who are against, think much more in political terms than those people who live in Britain or Western Europe or United States, who take democracy for granted. Whenever one speaks with refugees from East Central Europe coming to the West, one is almost astonished how much more politically they are thinking. So, 40 years' tremendous suffering, economy, social and cultural intellectual life, but the communist regimes politicised them. And this can be of great advantage for future reforms.

Thank you very much.

To sum up 40 years of rule of communist powers in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe led in the economic sphere to technological running behind, in the social field, to tremendous hardships, 40 years of hardships for the population in the cultural and ideological field, suppression, but maybe there was one positive thing and that was the politicisation.    People living in these countries have thought politics, they don't believe it, but they think critically. Some are even openly against it but they think more in political terms and one is always pleasant astonished when one speaks with refugees, who think much more in political terms of political analysis than people who grew up in a western democratic society and don't, and are not under this pressure. And I think this politicisation is maybe the one positive point in 40 years of communist rules, and might lead to those forces who in future will struggle for reforms of the inside the communist ruled countries.

If Gorbachev's full reform programme succeeds in the Soviet Union, will this allow real pluralism, real democratisation in Eastern Europe, or not?

Since Gorbachev became General Secretary on the 11th of March 1985, there is a tremendous change in the nature, in the atmosphere, in the political cultural atmosphere of the Soviet Union, what is called glasnost, but very little in actual changing of the system, meaning perestroika. I think that Gorbachev and his followers, but they are a minority, maybe 15% of the officials are really in favour, mean it seriously. The obstacles are so great that the problem if ever this re-structuring, this perestroika will take place, is a very difficult question to answer. Already today however the impact on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe is felt, in Hungary under János Kádár, Bulgaria even under Zhivkov, Poland under Jaruzelski are more or less tuned to the new line of Gorbachev. Whereas Rumania under Ceaușescu, Czechoslovakia under Husák and … [?] and East Germany under Honecker, the leadership of these countries are obviously against it, fearing that the reforms envisaged by Gorbachev would lead to tremendous dangerous developments from their viewpoint in the countries of Central Eastern Europe, developments towards a democratic and freer life which they will not be able to control and that is why the leadership of Czechoslovakia, Rumania and East Germany is now against it.

Thank you

And that is why the leadership of Rumania, Czechoslovakia and East Germany is now so strongly against glasnost and perestroika.

What if Gorbachev succeeds in his reforms in the Soviet Union?

If Gorbachev and his reform followers would succeed in perestroika, in somehow changing the Soviet system, making it more transparent, more effective, more lively, more full of initiative, then I think this will have great repercussions in all countries of Central and Eastern Europe belonging to the Soviet bloc. I have a limited optimism. Implying that sooner or later similar reforms now envisaged by Gorbachev will become reality, in the countries mentioned, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, particularly. My limited optimism is economic, technological necessities are so strong that you can't avoid relatively far-reaching economic reforms in these countries. Two, in a country of a communist dictatorship, you can't separate economic reforms from a change in the political and cultural atmosphere, a change in the methods of political power, so therefore the economic reforms will lead to a liberalisation. And three, the people, especially in the younger generation are not ready any more, like in former times, to submit to a dictatorial authority, they become more autonomous, more independent, showing their own wills, their own wishes, their own demands. And fourth – if in the Soviet Union the great perestroika will succeed, which might take ten or fifteen years, then it will become increasingly difficult and later impossible for any leadership of East Germany, Rumania or Czechoslovakia to block itself, then it will spill over. These four points give me the hope of a future liberalisation in the communist ruled countries of Eastern Europe, not in the western sense of the word of a multi-party system, rule of law, pluralism in the western sense, but a change in the methods of political control, greater autonomy and greater possibilities in cultural and intellectual life, greater participation, even if this is from our western value system not very much – for the people living there it would be absolutely essential if such a liberalisation will take place in the future.

Wolfgang Leonhard (1921–2014)

Wolfgang Leonhard

Wolfgang Leonhard was born on April 16, 1921 in Vienna as Wladimir Leonhard (since 1945 he bore the first name Wolfgang); he died on August 17, 2014. Leonhard was a German historian and publicist.

His communist-minded mother emigrated with him to the Soviet Union in 1935, fleeing the Nazis. A year later she was innocently arrested by Stalin's henchmen and sentenced to twelve years in a labour camp in Siberia. After finishing school, he began his studies at the Moscow College of Foreign Languages. He was forcibly resettled in the fall of 1941, like all Germans at that time - Leonhard to northern Kazakhstan. In the fall of 1942 followed his education at the Comintern School, the main ideological-political training school for foreign communists in the USSR (1942 - 1943). From 1943 on Leonhard worked at the "National Committee Free Germany" in Moscow.

Wolfgang Leonhard arrived in Berlin from Moscow in May 1945 with the "Ulbricht Group". From 1945-47 he was an employee of the Agitation and Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the SED, and from 1947-49 he was a teacher at the SED "Karl Marx" Party College. In opposition to Stalinism, Leonhard fled the Soviet zone of Germany to Yugoslavia in March 1949 and has lived in the Federal Republic of Germany since the end of 1950 as a commentator on problems of the Soviet Union and international communism. Numerous television appearances over the decades also made him known to a broad public.

After studies and research at Oxford (1956-58) and at Columbia University in New York (1963-64), Wolfgang Leonhard worked for 21 years, from 1966-87, each spring semester as a professor at the History Department of Yale University, giving lectures and seminars on the history of the USSR and international communism.

He has visited the Soviet Union regularly since July 1987, and Russia and other CIS countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Since 1993, he has served five times as an OSCE election observer at elections in Russia and Belarus. Wolfgang Leonhard witnessed the election campaign for the recent presidential elections on March 26, 2000 in St. Petersburg.