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Germany: PDS Has Problems Defining Declaration On Berlin Wall

The successors to the East German Communist Party are seeking a way of condemning the Berlin Wall without issuing an apology at the same time. The Party of Democratic Socialism, or PDS as it is commonly known, acknowledges that finding a suitable text is necessary if it is to do well in the coming elections in Berlin. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports.

Berlin, 2 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Today in Berlin the national executive of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the renamed former Communist Party, discussed the draft of a statement it plans to issue on 13 August -- the 40th anniversary of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. The head of the Federal Party, Dietmar Bartsch, told reporters that many details remain to be settled but that a preliminary statement may be issued tomorrow.

The PDS is under pressure. Elections for a new city government and a new mayor will be held in either September or October. There is a possibility that the PDS might win enough seats to form a governing coalition with the Social Democrats. The party's most prominent figure, Gregor Gysi, a charismatic lawyer, is expected to do well in the race for mayor of the city -- a post once filled by the respected Social Democrat Willy Brandt, who was responsible for Germany's original policy of openness toward East Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe.

But Bartsch told correspondents in Berlin, "The problem is the Wall." He said the leadership knows the broader public will not accept the PDS's democratic credentials without clear condemnation of the Wall and the killings that took place there.

In the last few weeks, several PDS officials have been criticized in the press for declaring that the building of the Wall was necessary, at least at the time, and should not be condemned outright. At least 916 East Germans were killed -- either by gunfire or by stepping on mines -- while trying to flee to the West. Hundreds more were caught trying to scale the Wall and sentenced to long terms in jail for trying to flee from the communist East.

Bartsch notes that the PDS leadership also recognizes that a large percentage of its members oppose public condemnation of the Wall. Some PDS officials have said the Wall was justified by the ideological struggle between East and West in the 1960s and had helped prevent conflict. The PDS leader in Saxony, Peter Porsch, went so far as to assert that the Wall had "maintained peace in Europe and the world."

German commentator Ulrich Mueller said today that such beliefs allow many East Germans to claim that the call for apologies is misplaced, for in effect the Wall was built not by East Germany but by the Cold War.

He said this conviction allowed the chairwoman of the PDS, Gabi Zimmer, to express her "heartfelt sorrow" for each victim of the Wall, while at the same time rejecting a blanket apology for the construction of the Wall. In a statement that emphasized the ambivalent feelings shared by many East Germans she also acknowledged that it was "not possible to build up a socialist, just and democratic society in the shadow of the Wall."

The local leader of the PDS in Berlin, Petra Pau, said today she also felt that no apologies are needed. But she emphasized that one could not justify what had happened on and around the Wall, and apologies should be made to those who suffered directly:

"There is no way to justify the killings and injuries which took place on the Wall. That had nothing to do with socialism or democracy. We can only apologize to those who suffered. We will make a very clear statement about the Wall and the border security of the DDR; about this inhumane border regime."

Gysi, would-be candidate for mayor of Berlin, has acknowledged that he finds it difficult to find the right words. In recent interviews Gysi has said he could not "apologize" on behalf of the PDS for what he condemns personally. He said the word "'apology' implies guilt and this has to be done on an individual basis." Both the Social Democratic Party, the Christian Democratic Union, and many ordinary Germans argue that this is not enough for a man who wants to lead the city where the Wall and its killings occurred.

Despite the problems of trying to accommodate the gamut of opinion about the Wall, Gysi is unequivocal in condemning the former GDR regime for what happened at the Wall.

In a statement this weekend, he said: "No state has the right to use arms as a means of preventing people from determining for themselves where they want to lead their one and only life."

This ambiguity highlights the difficulties the PDS leadership is having in drafting a suitable text that will condemn the murders that took place at the Berlin Wall without alienating East German voters who still believe that the Wall was justified -- at least when it was built in 1961.