An Interview with Rainer Eppelmann

June 6, 2009 4:56 am Last Updated: June 6, 2009 7:27 am

Given the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, The Epoch Times interviewed Rainer Eppelmann, a former Protestant pastor and currently the chairman of the commission which deals with the history of the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Mr. Eppelmann was the Defense and Disarmament Minister in the Maiziere Cabinet, the government of Lothar de Maizere, and he was East Germany’s first and last freely elected prime minister before the reunification of East and West Germany.

Epoch Times (ET): Do you have any memory as to how you heard about the Tiananmen Square Massacre?

Rainer Eppelmann (RE): Yes, it is still fresh in my memory as this was something that touched me deeply.

We had already been aware of the student demonstrations on Tiananmen Square and that the demonstrators had not left the square. The West German and GDR television media publicized this.

We found out that it wasn't only the Poles, the Czechoslovakians, the Hungarians, some people in the former GDR and the Soviet Republic who took to the street and said, “An end to dictatorship!” It was also citizens of the People's Republic of China.

Our first reaction was one of hopefulness. This event strengthened our confidence, told us that we were on the right track, and seemed to point to the fact that the time was ripe for change and for more democracy. Therefore, our shock was deep when we witnessed how brutally China's regime suppressed the uprising—especially since thousands had stood together to say, "We no longer support what is happening in our country, and you have to take responsibility."

I remembered how my father had recounted the reaction by the GDR regime against its people on June 17, 1953. They called in Soviet tanks, and those tanks moved against unarmed demonstrators. The demonstrators stood arm-in-arm in the belief that the tanks would stop. Instead, they moved forward, injuring and killing the people.

This was the same brutal action that we saw at Tiananmen Square. We felt deeply troubled. As a matter of fact, it was still vivid in our minds when we took to the streets in the autumn of 1989. We still held the hope that our government would not dare to carry out such an action in Europe—an action that the heads of the Beijing government had dared to do. Naturally, we had no guarantee that it would not happen again.

We also thought of the students who were treated so inhumanely. In the church where I was a pastor at the time, the Samaritan parish of Berlin's Friedrichshain, a funeral service for those murdered [in Beijng] was held. I believe this was the only church where such a service was held.

ET: Can you remember the time frame?

RE: I can't remember the exact day, but it was shortly after the incident. We needed a few days to prepare for it. People from our parish and other parishes attended the service and the Protestant Church Mission actively helped in the preparations. The church service was very well attended.

There was a metal door in front of our church which we had closed, and we opened only the wooden church door so everyone could see the vestibule. We put up large white flower arrangements to symbolize mourning.

On the one hand, this was a church service, and on the other hand, it provided an opportunity for those who wanted to make a wordless statement with flowers.  The flowers were left until they had withered.

I can still remember that during the church service a truck stood behind the church, and the truck bed was covered. Apparently it was left there by the Secret Police Ministry and was filled with cobblestones.

At the time, the secret police had considered that, if given the chance, it would resort to violence. In some way, this was a wake up call for us.

Egon Krenz was in charge at the time, as Honecker was ill. [Honecker] had celebrated the Chinese regime’s action jubilantly, agreeing with the way they dealt with the counter revolutionary students. Fortunately, he was served his due a few months later. [Erich Honecker had escaped to the Soviet Union after the reunification, but was extradited back to the reunified Germany and later died of cancer in Chile. He was released from prison one year and six months before his death due to his terminal illness.]

ET: Can you remember how many people attended the church services?

RE: We did not keep track of the number who attended, but the church was packed. I guess there were between 800 and 1,000 people.

ET: This was truly a brave action. Did the State Security issue a warning to you before the service?

RE: No—even the truck I told you about didn't stand in front of the church entrance, but rather parked behind the church. We only noticed this by sheer chance. Obviously, they no longer dared to be open about such actions. Just a month earlier we had exposed their election fraud.

I'm not sure if you know about the following. During the so-called elections for voting in the municipal parliament, we had begun to keep a count in May. The counting at the polling stations was to be public according to GDR voting laws. We were present in all polling stations. We were able to prove that they cheated when the official numbers were made public the next day. 

ET: Can you remember how you found out about the Tiananmen Square Massacre that evening? Was it from radio or television broadcasts?

RE: We heard about it from television broadcasts. I spoke last week with Mr. Nooke. He remenbered that he was in the Sofien Church and had heard the news on the radio. [Günter Nooke is the appointee for Germany’s Federal Government Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid Office at the Foreign Office].

I was at home at the time and heard about it on television. I somehow remember having seen one lone student who walked toward a tank in the hope of stopping them. They first came to a stop, but then they rolled on.

ET: Can you recall your thoughts when seeing these photos?

RE: I was very dismayed and also angry. At the same time I held the frightening thought, “Will the Eastern Berlin regime act the same as the regime in Beijing?” Actually, our situations were not dissimilar.

ET: What was the main message of the church services?

RE: We had agreed about the message—two words: "No violence." We had a shared responsibility to our community, the regime and the citizens.

The citizens, in this case the students in Beijing, had caused an obstruction using nonviolent means—something highly desirable. Basically, a society can only survive through engagement with its citizens. This was the students' starting point—just to engage with their government. The students showed exemplary behavior through their actions, but the regime failed miserably through their reaction.

ET: Failing—is this word truly the appropriate description?

RE: Yes, they failed without a doubt.

ET: What would you say about the student movement that was beaten down? Did they play a role in the process of democratization of the Eastern Bloc countries?

RE: Well, not directly. We should look more towards Solidarity in Poland and Charta 77 in Czechoslovakia. For us in Germany, those were of greater importance because they had survived for a longer time and couldn't be wiped out, despite the imprisonment of some or the actions against the Priest Popieluszko [a Polish Catholic priest associated with Solidarity and murdered by agents from the Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of that country].

For us, knowing that a clergyman was beaten to death with bars from a picket fence affected us greatly because it was so much closer in proximity, stronger and more impactful than a situation that was over in a few days—namely the situation in Beijing.

At first, it was a sign of great hope. Even in the Republic of China the quest for freedom was happening, so the movement was not limited only to Europe. This gave us courage, as something like this was not only happening in the GDR, in Poland, and Czechoslovakia, but also in far-away China.

When looking from our point of view, the GDR citizens had learned a lot from western television about life in a democracy. We had to realize, however, that most Chinese citizens had no idea about life in a democracy, and yet they were so bright.

Despite not knowing about democracy, they declared, "We are no longer content with a dictatorship, no longer satisfied with it, and we no longer agree to it. We want a different life. We want to take part in the decision-making process. We want to know what is going on in our country and what is happening with us." This was an enormous act of courage.

Therefore, you can imagine the grief and the dismay among us when we found out about the already well-known reaction by the regime and how it treated its citizens. Even today, we still admire these people and the courage they displayed in going there and doing this [truly demonstrating peacefully].

ET: You are in charge of the Foundation that deals with the history of the Socialist Unity Party of the German dictatorship. In China, the Tiananmen Square Massacre is a forbidden topic, just as are many other subjects. What do you think about this?

RE: I have to recognize that up until now, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has not desired to think about or accept criticism about its history. And, to be truthful, I have no clue if the CCP could ever undergo reform. The communist regimes in Middle and Eastern Europe could not be reformed. That is why they had to go. History taught us that. Those who cannot be reformed will be destroyed sooner or later.

And this is the same for the communist party. If it is not ready to lead into democracy, can't accept any criticism, is unable to recognize where it has gone wrong, and recognize that there may be people or groups here and there who could be more successful than they, they will have to leave. And if they don't leave voluntarily, they will be forced to do so. 

ET: One last question. You were a Protestant pastor. Why was the religious community such a driving force at the time in the GDR?

RE: This had to do with the so-called decree regarding organizations—the existing GDR law. This edict decreed that every GDR citizen could hold an assembly or a demonstration. It was only necessary to register the assembly with the respective German police station. One had to provide certain information, such as why, who else was involved, the time frame, and so on. But it did contain a sentence stipulating that this was mainly the responsibility of the party and the mass organizations, just as it is in the Peoples’ Republic of China. However, at the end there was an exception. The churches did not have to register their church sermons. The churches were granted the only exception to the rule.

We had thought of this codicil given the threat of the NATO expansion, especially since the Russians had improved upon the SS-20 and SS-21 [solid-fuel, two-stage, ballistic missiles], which were more accurate and could fly further than the older systems. This was a threat to the NATO countries and resulted in their upgrade to cruise missiles and Pershing-rockets, to achieve a nuclear tie, according to the NATO twin-track decision of 1980.

They announced at the same time—and this was to the credit of the former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt—“We are ready to stop producing our defense systems if you are willing to dismantle yours. Something like this can only happen through negotiation." The Soviet Union was not ready to negotiate at the time. Negotiations were only possible under Gorbachev, but not until 1985.

In the GDR, this circumstance forced us to say something against the situation, especially since the GDR regime was in full agreement with the Soviet Union. We established peace circles. The circles began with a biblical reading and finished with a blessing so that this could be called a religious affair. And, as one could not meet anywhere else in the former GDR, people came to these events who otherwise would never set foot in a church.

ET: Did they not control and observe the church meetings?

RE: Naturally, they also came to these events, as they wanted to assure that staff from the security agencies were present. This was the reason why many people did not dare to come. They were afraid to partake, or they left immediately after saying, "I can't take this. One can see that these people are only here to listen to what is being said and then will report on it later." Yet, these agents did not dare to get involved or prohibit these events. 

ET: Mr. Eppelmann, we thank you for the interview.