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.
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: http://mltoday.com/en/majority-of-eastern-germans-feel-life-better-under-communism-642-2.html)