Obituary: Gunter Mittag

Click to follow
Gunter Mittag, politician: born Stettin 8 October 1926; Member, Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) 1946- 89; Head, Transport Section, Central Committee, SED 1953-58, Candidate Member, Central Committee 1958-62, Member 1962-89, Secretary 1962-73, 1976-89; Secretary, Economic Committee of Politburo 1958-61; Deputy Chairman and Secretary, GDR Economic Council 1961-62; Candidate Member, Politburo 1963-66, Member 1966-89; Member, Volkskammer 1963-79; Member, State Council 1963-71, 1978- 89, Vice-Chairman 1984-89; died Berlin 18 March 1994.

IN MANY respects Gunter Mittag reached the high point of his political career between 1958 and 1971 trying to put the economy of the German Democratic Republic on a more rational, market-orientated basis.

The then leader of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), Walter Ulbricht, had appointed him a candidate member of the ruling Politburo and Secretary (the most important post) of the Economic Commission of the Politburo. Mittag's job was to look for ways of getting away from the old Stalinist economic dogma of production for its own sake and strong emphasis on the growth of the heavy industries. Partly influenced by reforms in Khrushchev's Soviet Union, Mittag came up with proposals which became known as 'The New Economic System of Planning and Managing the Economy'. This involved more emphasis on light industry, more specialisation, more emphasis on quality, a degree of decentralisation, more encouragement of private and semi-private businesses, the rediscovery of profit and banking, the use of cybernetics and the attempt to diversify the export markets of the GDR.

In 1963 Mittag's ideas were accepted by the SED at its congress, and he was made a full member of the Politburo in 1966. In the same year he was also 'elected' to the GDR parliament and to the executive of the trade-union federation. In 1962 he had been appointed the Politburo's Secretary for Economic Affairs and as such was in charge of the economy. Ulbricht had been following the Soviet reform line by putting Mittag to work. After the fall of Khrushchev in 1964 and the introduction of a more conservative line by Brezhnev, Ulbricht again followed the Soviet party. Mittag retained his positions until 1973 but his reforms were doomed long before this.

In 1971 Erich Honecker took Ulbricht's place as SED leader and immediately pushed further in the direction of recentralisation and the primacy of politics over economics. Almost all of the remaining private sector was nationalised. Mittag was ousted as economic secretary in 1973. He had lost his position in the Council of State in 1971 but he held on to his membership of the Politburo and of the rubber-stamp parliament. He was given the prestigious, but less important, post of First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers (deputy head of government).

Growing economic difficulties forced Honecker to reorganise his team again in 1976 and Mittag was called back as Politburo Secretary for the Economy. Three years later he was reinstated in the Council of State. Most believed that although Honecker needed him, Mittag had made his peace with Honecker.

Gunter Mittag was born in Stettin in 1926, and completed elementary and secondary schooling. He served as an auxiliary with an antiaircraft unit towards the end of the Second World War. He then took up training with the state railway. He joined the SED in 1946 and rose rapidly, working as head of its traffic department from 1953 to 1958. In 1958 he was awarded a doctorate by the Dresden Transport College. For some years he suffered badly from diabetes yet this did not prevent him from carrying on. He was a frequent visitor to West Germany negotiating economic deals.

When Honecker fell in 1989 Mittag fell too, being held responsible for the chaotic state of the East German economy. Later he was accused of the misappropriation of public funds. His (genuine) ill-health was used to save him from facing prosecution. He always appeared more of a technician than an ideologue but he undoubtedly enjoyed the privileges of power.