Against the odds the GDR built a state that provided for most people’s needs – but it could not fulfil a desire for change, writes VICTOR GROSSMAN
“Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall.”
The children’s rhyme came to mind in connection with commemorations of the fall of the Berlin Wall,or rather its opening. Is such an allusion frivolous? Maybe.
For millions that event 25 years ago was marked by genuine, understandable euphoria. But unceasing ballyhoo in the German media, weeks and weeks ahead of the November 9 anniversary may perhaps justify my somewhat different approach.
There are plans for 8,000 white helium balloons lit up by 60,000 batteries along the 10-mile length of the former wall to be released in the evening of November 9 with triumphant trumpet blasts and jubilant church bells or something similar while Angela Merkel, Lech Walesa, Mikhail Gorbachov, Berlin’s ex-mayor and other celebrities cast their eyes gratefully heavenward.
After the wall lost its barrier status on November 9 1989, what quickly fell in the months that followed hardly conjured up the funny-looking egg-man from Alice’s looking-glass adventures. It was rather the 40-year-old institution calling itself the German Democratic Republic.
Did it fall because it was totally foul? Was it given an outside push or two? Did that downfall represent simply the glorious revolution of a folk yearning for freedom — or is the matter more complicated? This is still very relevant, for many similar uprisings have occurred since, and are still occurring.
Why did the GDR go under? Despite reams of bad publicity since its start after 1945, it was born largely of the hopes and dreams of a relatively small number of survivors of Hitler fascism, some in exile on many continents, others in nazi camps and prisons.
These men and women were determined to create a new Germany — or part of Germany at least — rejecting fascism and the powerful forces behind it.
These included Bayer and BASF (of IG Farben), which built and helped run Auschwitz; Siemens, Krupp and Flick, which misused hundreds of thousands of starved concentration camp prisoners and forced labourers from all Europe and Deutsche Bank which helped finance every bloody step of the way.
Despite their defeat, for a second time, these forces never gave up plans for recuperation and renewed expansion and were already re-establishing themselves in the western part of Germany.
But not in eastern Germany, where such plans were thwarted and their factories and property nationalised. It was this vitally crucial step by the GDR which was never forgiven, not to this day.
Those first activists, facing millions of widowed, orphaned, embittered, ideologically cynical or still nazi-infected people, invited the best exiled anti-fascist writers, artists, professors, theatre and film experts to help alter these moods and prejudices in eastern Germany.
Among those who answered the call were Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler, Anna Seghers, Ernst Busch, Arnold Zweig and Heinrich Mann (who died just before his arrival). Others, like Hans Fallada, had remained in Germany but opposed fascism. These people, and those who learned from them, created progressive theatre, music, film and literature to match any in the world. Here, too, fully contrary to developments in that other Germany across the Elbe, nazis were ejected from schoolrooms, lecture halls, police stations and judges’ benches.
And though it started with a veritable pile of ruins, a wrecked industry which paid 95 per cent of German war reparations and was increasingly discriminated against in world markets, the GDR toiled to build a remarkable new economy — one without profits.
With an almost total lack of natural resources a new iron and steel industry was created, also factories for ships, farm combines, cranes and machine tools in areas like Mecklenburg, which were for centuries primitive, feudal backwaters.
And this with no Marshall Plan and the loss of nazi-tainted engineers and managers who left in droves.
Gradually, especially after a ceaseless, well-organised westward brain drain had been harshly stopped by that Berlin Wall, more could also be invested in consumer goods. By world comparisons a high living standard was achieved, as nearly every home had a fridge, colour TV and a washing machine. Cheap public transport was always stressed but about half the families had at least a small car.
In 40 years, despite having the odds stacked against it, the little GDR was able to solve many problems now troubling so many nations. For one small tax all medical care was completely covered, so was family planning including abortions, childcare, summer camps, cultural and sports activities for young and old.
All education was free, scholarships covered basic living costs so no loans were needed, and post-graduation jobs were guaranteed. Women were enabled to work at equal pay rates — well over 90 per cent did.
Best of all, there was no joblessness, evictions were strictly forbidden, no-one needed to fear the next day — or year. Many things were still lacking however, blunders were made, and frequent shortages of one or the other commodity led to countless jokes — and lots of anger. And yet, poverty had been almost completely eradicated.
But the GDR had to compete with one of the world’s most prosperous economies, West Germany. It was never able to match the swift innovation pace of competing corporations whose ups and downs may have cost many tears in lost jobs and ruined plans but meant a constant stream of chic, modern products — above all good cars.
Like people elsewhere, GDR citizens thrilled at enticing advertising which they saw on West German TV — GDR-TV had no commercials. Envy was widespread. It was worsened by often old-fashioned tastes of the men ruling the roost — and rule it they did, almost to the end.
I think most of those aging anti-fascists retained their original hopes, their ideals based on socialism. But as they grew older, accustomed to central rule and constantly flattered by the careerist yes-men who always gather where power and perks are found, they increasingly lost touch with much of the population.
Many freedoms were indeed curtailed, worst of all for the media, which was, when political, dull, rigid, one-sided and self-laudatory.
As for free speech, after the earlier years the fears and anxieties featured in many Stasi films had largely disappeared, at least on a private, everyday basis. People usually said what they thought — except in public meetings, where they often feared losing chances of a bonus, a promotion or a trip to relatives across the wall if they were seen as too “pro-western.”
The GDR had wonderful theatre, opera and ballet and there were good pop groups. Most of the better Hollywood and other Western films were shown.
Yet life for many seemed drab, cut-and-dried, regulated. People felt locked-in, even after the number of those able to visit West Germany kept rising, reaching a few million by 1988. Seniors had long been able to travel westward for a month each year.
Although this system never conformed to most ideals of democracy, it was never absolute. There was a constant response to people’s needs, reacting to wishes and demands funnelled upward from the big grassroots membership of over two million in the ruling party, from constant reports by the state security apparatus (one of its more positive functions) and in mailbags full of personal complaints and requests.
Increasingly however, young people especially took all advantages, especially economic security, for granted. So many loved Donald Duck, admired handsome Marlboro cowboys or lovely Hollywood celebrities and dreamed of crossing the Golden Gate or even feasting under a golden arch, without knowing or really caring about the conditions of those serving the Big Macs.
Dissatisfaction increased in the 1980s as the economy slowed, hit by the desperate need to build, without outside help, an electronics industry, also by a giant housing programme and heavy investment in the armed forces.
And rulers who grew up politically in the years of Stalin never learned how to react successfully to such envy or dissatisfaction. They feared glasnost à la Gorbachov, recalling that Hitler had taken power with free elections and noting, not incorrectly, that the West was quick to use any openings to achieve “regime change.”
By 1989, when this was accomplished in Hungary and Poland, soon largely westernised, dissatisfaction in the GDR boiled over and people started to demonstrate in Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden and elsewhere.
At first, when the wall opened up, people demanded an improved GDR with new freedoms. But when Kohl, Brandt and many others moved in, waving well-packaged products, well-phrased promises and, above all, well-printed, enticing West German D-Marks, the GDR went down the drain.
Next: Eastern Germany today. Next month the Morning Star will commemorate the fall of the wall with a series of articles by former GDR prime minister Hans Modrow.