Hans Modrow, who as East Germany’s last communist prime minister oversaw democratic reforms that paved the way for German reunification, has died at the age of 95, Die Linke, Germany’s hard-left party, has announced.
“Hans Modrow left us last night at the age of 95. With this, our party is losing an important personality,” the party, the successor to the Communist Party of East Germany, announced in a statement on Saturday.
Modrow said he would help turn East Germany into a democracy when he became prime minister of a communist-led transitional government on November 13, 1989, four days after the opening of the Berlin Wall that had divided East and West Berlin for 28 years.
The previous communist leadership was ousted as protesters across East Germany demanded democracy and freedom, echoing calls for change in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union.
In March 1990, Modrow announced the first and only free elections in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), although this resulted in his termination as Prime Minister.
Although he implemented reforms, opponents accused him of trying to delay political change and reunification, which took place in October 1990. He was also criticized for trying to rebrand rather than abolish the Stasi security police.
Modrow was found guilty in 1993 of electoral fraud in the May 1989 municipal elections, but was not jailed and said the charges were politically motivated.
He went on to serve in the German parliament from 1990 to 1994, representing the predecessor of Die Linke called the PDS, and was a member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2004.
Modrow saw himself as a reformer who wanted to change the Communist Party from within and make it more democratic. In 1999, he told Reuters that he did not want the old GDR to return, but said that its achievements should be recognized.
“In foreign relations, under the GDR, the cold war did not turn into a hot war,” he said. “Even after the violence of the Second World War, we managed to make friends with Poland.”
Climbing through the party ranks
Modrow was born in 1928 in the then German town of Jasenitz, now Jasienica in Poland, and trained as a machinist.
During World War II, he served as a fire youth platoon leader, and toward the end of the conflict he became a member of the Volkssturm, a Nazi militia that recruited men between the ages of 16 and 60 in a bid for one last victory.
At the age of 17, Modrow was captured by Soviet troops and taken as a prisoner of war to the Soviet Union, where he attended anti-fascist courses and became a staunch communist.
After returning home in 1949, the year the GDR was founded, he got a job as a machinist and continued to study social sciences and then economics, where he earned a doctorate.
Modrow was an official in the Free German Youth, a movement joined by almost all East German youth, and rose through the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) to regional party chief in Dresden from 1973 to 1989. He also served in the East German parliament for more than three decades.
Modrow became the de facto leader of East Germany after Egon Krenz resigned as head of the SED on 5 December 1990, leaving Modrow in the state’s highest office.
As prime minister, he gained respect for living more modestly than his communist predecessors. He initially sought to temper enthusiasm for reunification, but in February 1990 he unveiled a plan to unify East and West Germany.
Unveiling his plan for reunification in 1990, he said Germany should “once again become a united homeland for all citizens of the German nation”, but said unity could only be achieved on terms that appeased the fears of its neighbours.
Since 2007, Modrow has served as chairman of the council of elders for Die Linke, a role in which he has focused on the development and history of the party.