Search This Blog

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Remembrance of Things Past: The GDR

For an old Cold-Warrior like Der Spiegel – the influential German newsweekly, recent opinion polls in Germany brought considerable alarm. After nearly two decades of German re-unification, pollsters found that a majority of citizens living in the former German Democratic Republic – what Westerners call “East Germany” – defend the former socialist state.

In the face of a continuous onslaught of triumphal propaganda demonizing the GDR, eastern Germans still hold a positive view of that country. In Germany – as in the US – every aspect of life in the GDR is painted as evil: GDR border guards killed border-crossers, as though US border guards never killed border-crossing Mexicans (the crucial difference, I guess, is which direction they are going!). The Stasi spied on GDR citizens, as though the odious berufsverbot and political snitching never occurred in The Federal Republic (not to mention the many domestic surveillance and blacklistings that have befallen US citizens). It was not enough that the achievements of German socialism were never acknowledged in the West, the end of the Cold War brought a savage assault on every feature of life under the “dictatorship”. Even The GDR’s most celebrated cultural gems – like Bertolt Brecht – were transformed into unhappy captives of Communism (in spite of the consistent content of his works).

But the people of the Ost, after a constant bombardment of thought control and twenty years of capitalism, think differently. According to Der Spiegel:

…57 percent, or an absolute majority, of Eastern Germans defend the former East Germany. “The GDR had more good sides than bad sides. There were some problems, but life was good there,” say 49 percent of those polled…

Instead of taking these results as a serious reflection of popular sentiment – perhaps re-examining some of the Cold War assumptions – author, Julia Bonstein, embarked on a mission to diminish the poll results. She found a ready ally in Klaus Shroeder, director of an academic institute that studies the GDR. He, too, is alarmed that “Not even half of young people in eastern Germany describe the GDR as a dictatorship, and a majority believe the Stasi was a normal intelligence service” – a finding he relays from his 2008 study of school children. He faults them for defending the GDR based upon family conversations rather than the official textbooks. Imagine challenging textbooks! “These young people cannot, and in fact have no desire to, recognize the dark side of the GDR,” he remarks.

Schroeder received over 4000 responses to his study, many outraged at his outrage. A sampling provided by the Der Spiegel article:

"From today's perspective, I believe that we were driven out of paradise when the Wall came down," one person writes, and a 38-year-old man "thanks God" that he was able to experience living in the GDR, noting that it wasn't until after German reunification that he witnessed people who feared for their existence, beggars and homeless people.

Today's Germany is described as a "slave state" and a "dictatorship of capital," and some letter writers reject Germany for being, in their opinion, too capitalist or dictatorial, and certainly not democratic.

The audacity of these former citizens of the GDR! Undeterred by these rebuffs to the official media line, author Bonstein sought some personal responses to the unpalatable poll results. In the cock-eyed contemporary media version of “balance and fairness” she located some prosperous former GDR citizens who would surely share her shock at the attitudes of the misguided multitudes. Surely Germans who were successful after the Wall came down would see the vast superiority of capitalism over the “drabness” of socialism.

Not so.

Thorsten Shoen, a 51 year old with creature comforts sufficient to impress Bonstein, vigorously defends the GDR:

"In the past, a campground was a place where people enjoyed their freedom together," he says. What he misses most today is "that feeling of companionship and solidarity." The economy of scarcity, complete with barter transactions, was "more like a hobby." Does he have a Stasi file? "I'm not interested in that," says Schön. "Besides, it would be too disappointing."

His verdict on the GDR is clear: "As far as I'm concerned, what we had in those days was less of a dictatorship than what we have today." He wants to see equal wages and equal pensions for residents of the former East Germany. And when Schön starts to complain about unified Germany, his voice contains an element of self-satisfaction. People lie and cheat everywhere today, he says, and today's injustices are simply perpetrated in a more cunning way than in the GDR, where starvation wages and slashed car tires were unheard of. Schön cannot offer any accounts of his own bad experiences in present-day Germany. "I'm better off today than I was before," he says, "but I am not more satisfied."

Schön's reasoning is less about cool logic than it is about settling scores. What makes him particularly dissatisfied is "the false picture of the East that the West is painting today." The GDR, he says, was "not an unjust state," but "my home, where my achievements were recognized." Schön doggedly repeats the story of how it took him years of hard work before starting his own business in 1989 -- before reunification, he is quick to add. "Those who worked hard were also able to do well for themselves in the GDR." This, he says, is one of the truths that are persistently denied on talk shows, when western Germans act "as if eastern Germans were all a little stupid and should still be falling to their knees today in gratitude for reunification." What exactly is there to celebrate, Schön asks himself?

Hmmm… This is not the picture paraded in the media. But, of course, who knows more about life in the GDR, Cold-warriors or the citizens of the former socialist country?

Another younger man, Birger, interviewed in a café, also defends the GDR: "Most East German citizens had a nice life… I certainly don't think that it's better here." He goes on to subtly prick the smugness of the Der Spiegel writer: "I know, what I'm telling you isn't all that interesting. The stories of victims are easier to tell… In the public's perception, there are only victims and perpetrators. But the masses fall by the wayside." Indeed, they do, especially when viewed through the eyes of privileged capitalist commentators who find a cause in every dissident, every unpublished poet, or every café intellectual crowing about the lack of freedom. But dry figures of income distribution, employment, social security, education and cultural participation make for boring copy… except to the masses.

The Cold Warriors at Der Spiegel will never grasp the meaning of the poll results, but hopefully their message will not be lost on those who seek a better life for working people in the US.

(The full Der Spiegel article is available on-line at the MLToday website:

Zoltan Zigedy


Joe said...

I lived in the GDR as a young man. It's amazing about what people looking back nostalgically at it can't grasp.

Anonymous said...

I lived in the GDR as a young man in the 1980s. I fully understand why people keep looking back at those times. Not because the life was easier, but because today their past is being transformed into a monster by some shitty new "historians" who are totally brainwashed and hired to do some asslicking propaganda job for war mobsters, media-monopolies and criminals in CIA, NATO, White House etc. Despite obvious political and economic pressures people in the GDR never lost their dignity and I salute them. Whereas some guys from the West for 20 years have been telling them "you are a dirty Stasi whore, you've never had a decent life at all".


Anonymous said...

Large numbers of the GDR populous want to make sure their neighbors never get ahead and will welcome a secret police state to accomplish this. This psychological comfort food seems an easy sell over there.
I am not too suprised as here in the US as many as 20% feel approximately the same way. The main difference here is they do not call themselves socialists. but hide their feelings most times.
As in the GDR they chose equality over liberty when the choice is presented though.
I believe the US educational system does seem to support the economic and social model of centralization, but the actual market place culture seems to present enough opportunity and success to educate the sensibilities of most people the other way.
There is a sort of general entrepeneurial spirit here created by day to day living which leads to people expecting their lives to improve by their own efforts and little to result from turning it all over to the state. Most state welfare efforts are seen as traps for those involved and people put down those they suspect of taking advantage without just cause.
Even many leftists find the opportunity society too much to resist and take that road... the road of risk, ending up better off if not rich.
Socialists in the US even call themselves progressives or liberals or something else and can only support and inch at a time change toward a controlling state.
For hope and change they support thin and watered down measures like those Obama et al has presented. Its all quite hopeless here to get to socialism head on so they must always couch it by taking a long torturous circuitous route. Even Obama had had to backpeddle like crazy since he is suspected of playing the statist game and his Democrat Party apparatchics have begun a revolt, leaving his 20% by themselves, exposed and likely to be ousted and out next election cycle.