Stalinist tendency rattles German former Communists

Just a few months ago, the former Communists of East Germany were popping champagne corks to celebrate successes in the parliamentary elections in October.

Yesterday, as they began their three-day conference, they were tearing each other apart. The Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), as the Communists renamed themselves a after the Wall came down, is in the midst of an identity crisis. n The leadership hadrelucantly accepted the creation of a hardline group called the Communist Platform in the PDS. The Platform is led by Sahra Wagenknecht,25, the party's enfant terrible, with a penchant for Stalinist outbursts.

The philosophy student has shocked colleagues by arguing that Socialist ideals were betrayed after Stalin's death in 1953 and by calling the quashing of the 1968 Prague Spring "the suppression of the counter-revolution".

"Socialism that is not democratic and that does not embrace human rights is condemned to fail," the party's leader, Lothar Bisky, warned the 425 delegates yesterday.

Mr Bisky, a former film school rector, says that he feels "shivers running down my back", at Ms Wagenknecht's remarks. Gregor Gysi, the party's best known public figure, has insisted that unless Ms Wagenknecht is voted off the executive this weekend, he and Mr Bisky will go.

The fury may signify little. A Communist split still seems unlikely. If it does come, the popular appeal of the "mainstream" PDS would only be strengthened. In last year's elections, the PDS gained 20 per cent of the east German vote and 30 seats in parliament. The party came within a whisker of being able to help unseat Helmet Kohl's ruling Christian Democrats.

Mr Gysi's "bright troupe" - a mixed bag of former Communists, fellow-travellers, and mavericks, like the east German author, Stefan Heym - were well pleased.

The PDS's success is based on disenchantment with the western takeover. Many east Germans feel their identity has been trampled on. The PDS's east German identity is its strongest card. In Bonn, west German Social and Christian Democrats talk of the PDS as a totalitarian danger. In the east, even the party's opponents are unwilling to write the PDS off.

Christoph Bergner, a Christian Democrat unseated as a regional prime minister last June because of the PDS, believes Bonn's tactic of demonising the PDS has been misguided. One recent poll suggested that almost two thirds of east Germans believe the PDS is unfairly treated by the west.

This week's internal explosions are overdue. Ninety per cent of the 130,000 members are former Communist Party members, many of whom yearn for the old days. Then there are reformers, including many who were at odds with the old regime (Mr Gysi was a lawyer who defended East German dissidents) but who decided to throw in their lot with the PDS. And there are the disadvantaged who profited little from the old regime, but who have no love for the brave new world. They are perhaps most important of all.

Some,however, have already had enough. Karin Dorre, a member of the party executive, last week announced that she was leaving the party in advance of the conference this weekend.

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