Hans Modrow, who as the last Communist prime minister of East Germany oversaw democratic reforms that opened the way to German reunification, has died at age 95, Germany’s hard-left Die Linke party said on Saturday.
“Last night Hans Modrow left us at the age of 95. With this, our party loses an important personality,” the party, successor to the East German Communist Party, said in a statement.
Modrow had said he would help turn East Germany into a democracy when he became prime minister of a communist-led transition government on Nov. 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 had been forced out as protesters across East Germany demanded democracy and freedom, echoing calls for change across Soviet-dominated eastern Europe following Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power in the Soviet Union.
Modrow announced the first and only free election in what was known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in March 1990, though it resulted in him ceasing to be prime minister.
Although he carried out reforms, he was accused by opponents 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 a municipal election in May 1989 but was not jailed and said the charges were politically motivated.
He went on to serve in the German parliament from 1990 until 1994, representing a forerunner to Die Linke called the PDS, and was a member of the European Parliament from 1999 until 2004.
Modrow saw himself as a reformer who had wanted to change the communist party from the inside and make it more democratic. In 1999, he told Reuters he did not want the old GDR back but said its achievements should be recognised.
“In foreign relations, under the GDR, the Cold War did not turn into a hot war,” he said. “And after the violence of World War Two, we succeeded in making friends with Poland.”
Rise through the party ranks
Modrow was born in 1928 in what was then the German town of Jasenitz — now Jasienica in Poland — and trained as a machinist.
During World War II he served as leader of a youth fire brigade platoon and towards the end of the conflict became a member of the Volkssturm, a Nazi militia that conscripted men aged from 16 to 60 in a last-ditch victory attempt.
At 17, Modrow was captured by Soviet troops and taken as a prisoner of war to the Soviet Union, where he attended anti-fascist classes and became a convinced Communist.
On his return home in 1949, the year the GDR was founded, he found work as a machinist and went on to study social science and then economics, in which he gained a doctorate.
Modrow was a functionary in the Free German Youth, the movement that nearly all East German youngsters joined, and rose through the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) to become regional party boss in Dresden from 1973 to 1989. He also served in the East German parliament for more than three decades.
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Modrow became East Germany’s de facto leader after Egon Krenz resigned as SED leader on Dec. 5, 1990, leaving Modrow holding the highest state post.
As prime minister, he won respect for living more modestly than his communist predecessors. He initially sought to dampen enthusiasm for reunification but in February 1990 unveiled a plan for uniting East and West Germany.
Presenting his plan for reunification in 1990, he said Germany should “again become a united fatherland for all citizens of the German nation”, but said unity could be achieved only under conditions that calmed the fears of its neighbours.
From 2007, Modrow served as president of the council of elders for Die Linke, a role in which he focused on the party’s development and history.