Manfred Gerlach, East Germany’s last head of state and the first politician outside the ruling Communist Party to hold that position, died Monday in Berlin. He was 83.
His wife told German newspapers and the public television network MDR that he had died after a long illness.
Gerlach was the chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party, one of several smaller parties totally subservient to the Socialist Unity Party, when the Berlin Wall fell Nov. 9, 1989.
Known for his support of liberal reforms, he was elected acting chairman of the Council of State on Dec. 6 that year after the resignation of Egon Krenz as the general secretary of the Socialist Unity Party and chairman of the Council of State. With Krenz’s resignation, Hans Modrow, East Germany’s Communist prime minister, became the country’s de facto leader.
Gerlach had won popular favour for his criticism of the Communists after the wall fell, and he caused a stir by calling into question the leading role of the Communist Party in an article in Der Morgen, the Liberal Democrats’ newspaper, on Oct. 13, 1989. In the ensuing weeks he came out in favour of free elections, free speech, more latitude for private enterprise and fewer restrictions on travel.
He served as head of state for only a few months, as German reunification proceeded apace. A restructuring of East Germany’s government led to the abolition of the Council of State, and Gerlach stepped down April 5, 1990.
The son of a mechanic, Manfred Gerlach was born May 8, 1928, in Leipzig, where he helped form an anti-fascist youth group at his school in 1944, for which he was arrested.
After the Second World War, he joined the new Liberal Democratic Party, one of several small parties tolerated in East Germany to give the appearance of a pluralistic political system, and helped found the Leipzig chapter of the Free German Youth, East Germany’s Communist youth organization.
Gerlach held executive positions with the Free German Youth and the Liberal Democratic Party in Saxony in the late 1940s and 1950s.
He studied law at the Walter Ulbricht German Academy of State Sciences and Law, and in 1954 he was named general secretary of what was by then called the Liberal Democratic Party of Germany. In the 1950s he was also mayor of Leipzig.
In 1967 he was elected party chairman, a post he held until Feb. 10, 1990, when the party, rededicating itself to its original liberal principals, elected a new chairman and formed a coalition with two other liberal parties to field candidates in East Germany’s first free parliamentary elections.