Interview With Conductor Kurt Masur 'The Spirit of 1989 Has Been Exhausted'

Renowned German conductor Kurt Masur, a former music director of the New York Philharmonic, talks about his part in the peaceful revolution of 1989, East German leader Erich Honecker's understanding of culture and the contents of the file the East German Stasi secret police kept on him.


Kurt Masur, 83, is considered one of Germany's most important conductors. In a SPIEGEL interview, he discusses his role in the peaceful revolution of 1989, his troubled dealings with officials in Communist East Germany and how German reunification has left many eastern Germans in despair.

SPIEGEL: Professor Masur, you're credited with being one of the people who kept the Monday demonstrations held in Leipzig in 1989 to protest the East German government from turning bloody. As the situation was threatening to escalate, loudspeakers in Leipzig broadcast your appeal, in which you asked the city's inhabitants: "We urgently request that you remain calm so as to make peaceful dialogue possible." And, as it turned out, the demonstrations did remain peaceful. What's left of the spirit of that era?

Kurt Masur: I'm reluctant to answer this question. The spirit of those days has pretty much been exhausted, and things haven't turned out well for everyone. In fact, for many people, reunification has meant more suffering than gain. And many are quite desperate.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean by desperate?

Masur: I know of people who decided to kill themselves because they'd lost everything dependable in their lives. Just look in the eyes of the young people: Just one year after reunification, most had lost their sparkle. On the one hand, there's unemployment and the feeling of being superfluous. On the other hand, many in this generation never even try to find a job. They figure out that they can live fairly well off government benefits and earning a little extra money on the side.

SPIEGEL: You sound disappointed. Were your hopes really so high in 1989?

Masur: It was heaven on Earth. I've never seen so many happy faces as I did on that October 9 (the day of the largest protest). It was a peaceful revolution. And it was proof that people in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had learned to act in a very politically deliberate way. I'm still impressed by how smart they were -- and by the way the security forces remained calm. On that day, not even a single window was broken.

SPIEGEL: Did you really see those events as a revolution?

Masur: In a certain sense, yes. When 17- and 18-year-olds said goodbye to their parents that day, it was like they were heading off to war. But everyone had had enough. All of them -- all 70,000 of them -- were able to overcome their fears.

SPIEGEL: Military units were deployed around Leipzig, ready to respond to the protests.

Masur: We could only make guesses about that. We'd read in the paper that, if necessary, the protests would be broken up by force of arms. When they heard that, representatives from the New Forum (editor's note: a reform movement started in 1989) got in touch with me. My office at the Gewandhaus became something of a communications center that day. I called Kurt Meyer, the party's cultural representative. When he called back two hours before the demonstration was supposed to get underway, a small group gathered at our house and rushed to draft the appeal, which I then went on to record onto a tape.

SPIEGEL: A total of six people signed the appeal: a theologian, a cabaret performer, three district secretaries for the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) and you.

Masur: Yes, I wasn't the only hero. We were a miniature version of the people, and we had to agree on consistent wording. The three comrades from the party hadn't received specific instructions from Berlin, so they were constantly telephoning back and forth.

SPIEGEL: Did it feel like you were making history?

Masur: At the time, we weren't thinking about changing the world. The most important thing was to act. For weeks, the public mood had been at breaking point. At a certain point, the Gewandhaus Orchestra had to call off a recording we were making. The oboe soloist apologized, saying: "Mr. Masur, I can't do it anymore. I just passed by the church, and they were throwing a young girl onto a truck by her hair."

SPIEGEL: You led a performance on the night of October 9. How did the concert go?

Masur: Well, the demonstration was over, and no shots had been fired. But, just in case, I put on my tailcoat. The orchestra manager came and said: "The house is full; all the musicians are here. We can begin." That was the strangest part about this revolution: The revolution was Monday evening and, by Tuesday morning at the latest, everyone went back to work as usual. I will never forget that concert.

SPIEGEL: As part of your job, you had to deal not only with intellectuals and artists, but also with members of the Communist Party. Was your loyalty ever questioned?

Masur: Only someone who hadn't lived in the GDR would see a contradiction there. Leipzig is one of Europe's music centers. Bach, Mendelssohn, Brahms, they all worked there, and the Gewandhaus belongs to the heart of the city. As its director, of course I had to work with the people who ran the country and the city. I welcomed Mr. Honecker (the GDR's leader from 1971 to 1989) to my concert hall just as graciously as I would have kissed the Queen of England's hand if she had come there. I was the host.

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BTraven 10/13/2010
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The concert hall whose construction was very much influenced, both in the planning and building phase, by him is one of the most exiting in the world. It has been an important factor to attract new investors to a town which had always been very open minded to business but has the handicap that it lacks sights which are so attractive that people come from far away in order to watch them. Dresden is, of course, in a much better position. In a way the hall has been as important to the development of Leipzig as the Guggenberg museum has been to Bilbao.
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