Shortly after my return to the LSE from my Hamburg scholarship in 1957, I was elected vice-chairman of the LSE Labour students’ club. In 1958 I was asked to join three Labour MPs on a visit to the East German (DDR) government. This was partly because of my German language skills and my knowledge of Germany.
The official Labour position was not to recognise the DDR led by Walter Ulbricht. After consulting with Labour HQ, I said I would go and was asked to write a report on the visit.
I soon found myself on the road to Berlin in the company of multi-lingual Konni Zilliacus, MP for Manchester Gorton. Born in Japan to a Finnish father and an American mother, Zilliacus spent much of his childhood in England but was a graduate of Yale University.
In WWI he was invalided out of a French medical unit. He returned to Britain and joined the Labour Party in 1919. He was also the British envoy to the League of Nations. In WWII he worked for the Ministry of Information. His anti-NATO views led to his expulsion from the Labour Party but, when he supported Tito of Yugoslavia against Stalin, he was readmitted. He supported CND and opposed the Vietnam war.
The other two MPS were Bob Edwards and Ian Mikardo. Both had helped to form the leftist Victory For Socialism (VFS) within the Labour Party. Mikardo was a strong Zionist as well as a Labour leftist. We did not catch sight of Mikardo who was probably late on his return from the Soviet Union.
Edwards, a Spanish Civil War veteran of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, was for many years the Chairman of the Chemical Workers Union. Former KGB officer, Oleg Gordievsky, who defected to the UK, claimed that Edwards had been a Soviet KGB agent for many years.
A steel plant or discussions with economists?
Our guide was an attractive but rather sad-looking young woman. After a substantial lunch hosted by Johannes Dieckmann, a journalist and politician who served as the first acting president of the parliament of the DDR from 1949 to 1969, we were offered a visit to see one of the DDR’s economic achievements, Eisenhüttenstadt, the steel plant town near the Polish border.
Zilliacus declined on the grounds that this would be beyond his comprehension. He would rather talk to economists about the DDR’s other developments. Edwards and myself felt this would be more useful for us also. We were ushered into a room with comfortable seating arrangements and with little waiting, the experts arrived.
As German speakers Konni and I were allocated two economists. Edwards had two English speakers for himself. A little later I could not miss noticing that Konni was asleep. This did not deter the economists who went on and on. Meanwhile, Edwards simply nodded every few minutes. No questions followed. At some point in the visit, the MPs met Walter Ulbricht, the effective leader of the DDR. I was excluded as I was not an MP.
What I was not excluded from was a TV interview. Together with Konni I was asked about our trip and our views on the political situation. Without being provocative, I did offer criticism, including the expulsion of the millions of Germans from their homes at the end of the war. This in no way detracted from Nazi crimes.
The programme was shown on TV and I was able to see it through my friend Kay Blumenthal-Barby. My critique had been cut out! I subsequently rejected payment for my part in the interview.
What about that steel mill?
What would we have seen had we visited the steel mill and other achievements? Founded in 1950, the town was awarded the name Stalinstadt. As part of de-Stalinisation in 1961, it was renamed Eisenhüttenstadt (iron mill town). It was meant to have a range of industries and sporting and cultural achievements as well. Its population grew from 8,736 in 1939 to 36,937 in 1964.
After the fall of the DDR and the secret police (the Stasi), it was discovered that political prisoners had been exploited there. Some had to sew tights and bed linen, others make furniture or car parts. The less fortunate toiled under catastrophic conditions in coal mining or in the chemical and steel industries. This was hard, dangerous work. Well-known western companies made high profits from this slave labour.
Closer ties with the DDR
There were MPs on both sides of the Commons who wanted better relations with the DDR.
The Conservative MP for Skipton, Barnaby Drayson, was a frequent visitor. He negotiated a deal between an independent British company, an East German company and a British firm, in which he had a substantial private interest. His first visit behind the Iron Curtain was to Moscow in 1952. He was a company director and a member of the London Stock Exchange from 1935-1954. During WWII he served in the Western Desert and was taken prisoner. He escaped in September 1943, and walked 500 miles, with a companion, through enemy-occupied Italy.
Drayson developed other trading interests. 1975 saw the formation of an all-party British-Saudi Arabian Parliamentary Group, of which the leading officers were Drayson, fellow Conservative MP Jonathan Aitken and Labour’s Andrew Faulds. Although there was no Saudi Parliament, it seemed that trade was more important than politics.
Between November 1972 and May 1973, the UK and more than 50 other states recognised the East German republic and the DDR was soon able to join a large number of important international organisations.
Negotiations between Britain and East Germany started on 23 January 1973 and were concluded on 8 February when diplomatic relations started up. The British Embassy in Unter den Linden in Berlin was opened in April and, in return, the Foreign Office arranged for the East Germans to be given the very site in London they had already identified as their heart’s desire – 34 Belgrave Square, so close to their most mortal enemy, the Federal Republic of Germany at number 22.
I did not see much of Zilliacus after our visit. He died in 1967. I did visit him once in his Manchester Gorton constituency, an old locomotive town which had been Labour since 1906 when John Hodge was elected. The seat is ethnically diverse and its residents are less wealthy than the UK average.
Not long after the visit to the DDR, I went with a friend to a location near Oxford Circus to have a coffee and a chat. We sat down and I got an extreme surprise. The waitress who came to us was an attractive but rather sad-looking young woman. After I got over my shock, I asked her about herself and she revealed she was the twin sister of the guide in Berlin.
The London twin had been sent to England as a small child, while her sister had been sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis.