I grew up in the Federal Republic of Germany, ie. the West. Since my family had no relatives in the GDR, the East, I never went there. The first time was around 1990 when I stepped through the Brandenburg Gate that was now open, and I vividly recall how that made me shudder.
Communists were a fringe in the West. Early on, the Communist party (KPD) gained a few seats in the Bundestag (parliament) with 5.7% of the vote. That only lasted from 1949 to 1953. The party was outlawed in 1956, which is possible in Germany for parties that subvert the constitutional order. In 1968, it came back with a different name as “Deutsche Kommunistische Partei” (DKP) and was kind of tolerated. Its members were, though, barred from all government jobs. The best result in federal elections that the DKP could ever muster was a dismal 0.3%. Since you have to clear a threshold of at least 5%, they had no seats in parliament. After the GDR collapsed and with it financial transfers, so did the Communist Party. It never went out of existence, and currently has 3,500 members.
You might think that the presence the Communists had in the Federal Republic of Germany was about as ephemeral as that of the similarly hapless CPUSA. Not so. They had a few pockets where they could get elected on the local level, but that was not it. The Federal Republic of Germany was a frontline state, and the East was very interested in gaining a foothold. In the background there was the Soviet Union, but most of it was handled by the GDR and their enormous police and secret service apparatus.
One example you could not escape if you were at a university, was the MSB Spartakus (Marxist Students League Spartacus). It only had a few thousand members, but was perhaps the dominant force at most universities. They were very well organized and got their training in the GDR. At a German university you have kind of a students’ parliament that is elected. Since many did not bother to vote it was easy to have an outsized representation. And the Communists brought in students from other universities to inflate their ranks during the campaigns, a practice they called quite fittingly: bringing in the Cubans.
But that was not all. Already in the 1960s, the then illegal Communists infiltrated what had been the student organization of the Social Democrats, the SDS (Socialist German Students League). Since the Social Democrats were very hostile towards the Communists, they tried to fend this off, but then gave up and set up a new organization, the SHB (Socialist University League). The success for the Communists was limited because the SDS was then taken over by the New Left and later splintered into various Maoist groups.
Next, the Communists infiltrated the SHB and took it over. It was later but another branch of the MSB Spartakus, with a slightly different flair as Socialist instead of Communist. The Social Democrats set up a new organization, the Juso-Hochschulgruppen (Young Socialists University Groups), and you guessed it: the Communists tried to infiltrate them, too. As far as I can tell they did not succeed, but gained a foothold (the so-called “Stamokap” faction named after the obligatory theory from the GDR that the West German system was “state-monopolistic capitalism”).
You had also similar phenomena elsewhere. For example, there were several layers of representations for schools where the lower level would elect the higher level: school, local, state, federal. The higher you went the more dominated it was by the Communists. But there were also other organizations that were taken over and were basically fronts, eg. the DFG (German Peace Society), which had once been a liberal organization founded in the 19th century. I think they had also a certain success with infiltrating some trade unions. Add to that the outsized, even dominant influence on the Peace Movement of the 1980s, and you have to concede it was quite a feat for such a fringe.
Spoiler alert: It all came crushing down after 1989 when the money from the GDR no longer flowed in. Newspapers, publishing companies went bust. And most people who are younger than I am, will not know what I am talking about.
How successful was it?
In a way very successful. The Communist influence was quite large for their small numbers. Perhaps one or two generations were pulled more to the extreme left than would otherwise have been the case. But I am unsure. That would have probably happened also for other reasons.
On the other hand, once you understood what was going on, the main problem was to keep track which organization was under Communist control, and you could disregard them. You develop a immune response that can be very sensitive. Once you hear certain catchwords, you immediately know what you are up against. It is like when someone now starts to talk about the threat of “color revolutions” or they feel the pain of peace-loving Putin because aggressive NATO encircles him, and I go: “Yeah, I know who pays you.”
What I find curious, but easy to understand is that now the by far best response to Kremlin propaganda here in Germany comes from the Greens. I am not a natural supporter, but I have to give them a lot of credit for that. The reason I find it easy to understand is that the Greens historically often came from the Maoist splinter groups of the 1970s who were in constant fights with the DKP tentacles, and then went through the Peace Movement of the 1980s where it was the same. They can smell this type of infiltration and manipulation ten miles against the wind.
So how successful was it again?
Not all that much. The strong showing was only relative to the weak underpinnings. There were maybe a few successes where the Communists could tip the balance at some points. But that was what are called “Anstandserfolge” in German (roughly: participation trophies). There was a real danger behind this. But as the election results show, the effect on the broader population was quite minimal. Propaganda has an effect, but it only goes so far.
The Communist regimes basically wasted a lot of money and invested their attention in something that did not work. They would have been better advised to spend their resources on the situation at home instead of trying to sway public opinion in countries that, once alerted, were rather impenetrable. I think they would have gone down in 1989 also without it, but my hunch is that the net effect was that they were weaker for it, not the West. And that is also my guess for what will happen with the current onslaught of propaganda. You have to be vigilant, though.
That said, it was still extremely annoying.