Unite and Conquer: East Germany under the Capitalist Yoke

by David Steinsaltz


I. Echoes of the Fall

Humpty Dumpty sat on the Wall.

Humpty Dumpty had a great Fall.

All the king's horses

And all the king's men

Couldn't put Humpty together again.


Late one December evening in 1993, I sat over tea and chocolates in the snug living room of a rambling former pigsty in the East German state of Thuringia, long since converted into a trim and tidy family house.  As so often seems to happen, provoked perhaps by my own curiosity, the conversation turned to the Wende, the “turning”, as the Germans now call the political and social upheavals of 1989-90 which buried the “workers' and peasants' state of German nationality”, the late unloved German Democratic Republic.  "We were all taught in school what would happen if the capitalists took over.  They just never believed it.  They thought it was all propaganda.  The shock was, it was all true, and now they have no one to blame.  They can't even claim they were lied to." "They" here are the losers of the Wende, and the speaker is certainly not of their number.  A native of Thuringia, trained as a physicist, he found a comfortable management berth after the Wende with a West German pharmaceutical firm, earning fistfuls of hard deutschmarks which buy him the whole panoply of modern consumer goods that he could hardly afford to dream of five years ago.  Why then this rude dental inspection of so grand a gift stallion?

No question, this cynicism was not in the image that beamed around the world that November evening when the Wall fell, when the West cheered, when the Germans were, in the words of Berlin mayor Walter Momper, "the happiest nation in the world."  While political pundits throughout Europe and the United States disseminated endless screeds and tirades on the perils of German unification, the euphoric party at the Wall flew in under the normal radar of skepticism.  Even hard-bitten brinkmen and power-politicians turned misty-eyed when they spoke of the Deutsch brothers' glorious  reunion, after their surgical separation at birth.  Chunks of the Wall became such a popular gift item for the geopolitical sentimentalist in every home, that the few hundred meters which have been reinstalled as a memorial on the Bernauer Strasse in the center of Berlin, rutted like a gruesome dentist's-office poster with protruding iron roots, need a high chain-link fence and barbed wire to protect them from souvenir hunters and their chisels.  The once mighty, terrifying beast, now reduced to an innocuous zoo exhibit, worried by the passersby.  One wonders, if the GDR could have realized this commercial potential of the Wall for itself, whether its economic collapse might have been forestalled.

When I moved to Berlin in March of 1992, this potent scene was still fresh in my mind, swirled together with the currency-union revelry of the East Germans, and the fireworks of the unification on October 3, 1990. On the eve of unification, Chancellor Helmut Kohl had projected “blossoming landscapes” three or four years hence onto the territory of the soon-to-be former GDR, while his East German lackey Lothar de Maizière, the last prime minister of the GDR, vowed that “no East German will be worse off; on the contrary, most will be better off.”  For this a grateful populace rewarded the chancellor's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) with an overwhelming affirmation in the ensuing elections for a third consecutive term.  While I quickly learned that these promises had entered every comedian's repertoire as bywords for shameless electoral pandering, I did still accept the standard model of unification: starry-eyed East Germans hand-in-hand with their sturdy West German neocompatriots rebuilding their common homeland from the ruins, from the economic, ecological, and spiritual devastation inflicted by four decades of communist oppression and misrule.  Malcontents there would be, naturally, headed by the old nomenklatura and former spies, now facing trial or pining for lost privileges, and the indolent few who were unwilling or unable to adapt and seek new employment after their sinecures at East German combines had been axed to bring staffing down to tolerably efficient levels.  Even these would at least be supported, if not pampered as in former times, by the exemplary West German social net.  "No experiments!" was Kohl's battlecry, parroting his party patriarch Konrad Adenauer.  West German efficiency and hard-headed practical sense would engineer a solution for the East German economy as surely and meticulously as Daimler Benz engineered a new luxury automobile.  Unlike the communist allies further east, scraping in the dust for a few grains of moderate-interest chaff at the filigreed gates of the EC, Germany would metamorphose from a showdown of two rival political and economic systems, into the show window of a unified global economy.  And Berlin, the former flashpoint and symbol of Western defiance, would become a symbol of reconciliation, once again an avant-garde world metropole in  the center of Europe.  "Jetzt wächst zusammen was zusammen gehört," "now what belongs together is knitting together," was the exultation of Willy Brandt, an architect of the Ostpolitik which had kept the two Germanys on speaking terms with each other twenty years earlier.  If Czechoslovakia had a smooth "velvet" revolution, East Germany's transformation was hardly seen as a revolution at all, more as a sort of homecoming.

Of course we expected that these dismal figures would lap at the hands of the West when offered the chance to exchange their non-life for the bright lights of affluent consumerism.  The few images of life in the GDR which were filtered through to the US public portrayed gaunt existences punched out on an assembly line in Moscow, divided more or less equally among steroid-boosted athletic competition, military maneuvers, and plotting an escape to the West; even in my several years of German language and literature study at the university, the “other Germany” was never more than an occasional joke.  The Russians always commanded a modicum of interest: one was at the very least curious to know what sort of life could drive them to hang the threat of nuclear annihilation over our peaceable heads.  The East Germans were just the miserable puppets, not even significant enough to arouse concern about whether they suffered delusions of grandeur, whether they lived at all, in fact.  What is perhaps more surprising is that such expectations prevailed even among the West Germans who knew them, who had come annually as veritable Santa Clauses toting sackloads of Western chocolate, toasters, and cigarettes, which they exchanged for Russian matrioshka dolls and “panegyrics to the `golden West',”[DS1]  in the words of East German psychologist Joachim Maaz, author of several books on the psychopathology of the Wende.  Maaz remarks further that “I have heard of quite a few cases in which the East-West relationships fell apart, when the GDR citizens were no longer so crazy for Western products, but rather sought a genuine friendship, which couldn't be bought with deutschmarks.”[DS2]   As a West German sociologist more sardonically observed, “The reality of life in the GDR interested the people of the Federal Republic about as little as it did the politburo of the SED*.”[DS3] 

In the first few days of open borders the West Berlin fruit stands attracted even more attention than the sex shops, a prodigy for which even the most respectable East German stood on long queues to have a peek.  Imported fruit was a perpetual rarity, and bananas, a favorite of the Germans as long as anyone can remember, were a totem of all that was sweet and inaccessible behind the Wall.  The Ossi (East German) with his stalk of bananas was a good-natured cartoon figure, at first, but quips about the transformation of the GDR into a “banana republic” soon acquired a barbed and then a daggered edge.  The ingratitude of the East Germans seems genuinely to have shocked and offended the West German public; it seems to have come upon the East Germans themselves unawares.  They have their Mercedes and they have their bananas, so what are they complaining about now? would be a not-too-uncharitable summary of the mutterings, which are also to be found on the letters page of many a German newspaper, and occasionally on the editorial page as well.  Asked in a poll in late 1992 to write "one or two sentences" to those on the other side, West Germans offered sniffish platitudes such as, "No pain, no gain", "Patience, patience, patience", "Get to work and stop whining", "The prosperity in the West didn't come from twiddling our thumbs", and "More humility and gratitude".

The first “ingrate” I met was Harry, who drove me from Berlin to the Polish border in the summer of 1992.  In his late thirties, with fair hair and soft chin, pudgy and smooth in the way typical of those who sit at a desk for most of the week, or in the driver's seat of his gleaming Mercedes-Benz.  Nervous, his hands darting from the wheel as he spoke, blurting out far more than cool reflection would have chosen to reveal to an unknown hitchhiker: for instance, how wealthy he had become in the past two years, selling insurance, and investing in a chain of video-rental shops; and that he was on his way to the bank to deposit a check for over a hundred thousand dollars, which he only prayed would clear; his income, between $6000 and $12000 a month, which he simply stated, rather than flaunting it as a secret and allowing his automobile and shirt label to boast on his behalf, as any Wessi knows is the polite procedure.  We made several stops along the way, including one at his home, in a minuscule town near his birthplace barely ten miles from the border city of Frankfurt an der Oder.  It was a modern one-family dwelling, trim and bright, more than adequately large for his four-person household, crammed with all the gadgetry and gewgaws that industrial society can offer, and perched upon a serene peninsula that juts out into a picture-postcard lake.  Back in the mid-1980's, he told me, the Stasi* had wanted to acquire the whole block of houses, as retreats for favored employees, but one of the owners had refused to sell, scuttling the entire deal.  Odd, I had never imagined that refusing the wishes of the Stasi was a live option in the GDR.  As a result, Harry was able to purchase this house in 1988, presumably for a small fraction of its current value.

Is he satisfied with the Wende? I asked.  Rather to my surprise, his reply was a barely qualified negative.  He mourned for his uneventful life as an agricultural planner in the Frankfurt district government.  He had far less wealth then, he declared, “but you felt better.  Now you just have stress.”  He found himself forced to work fifteen-hour days to keep pace with the competition, with little opportunity to enjoy what he earned, always afraid that one mistake, one missed deal or undetected fraud could rob him of everything: money, job, home.  After an extended stop at the bank brought the cheery news that that check was, in fact, covered, he remarked that he felt constantly threatened, had to maintain perpetual vigilance: “The Wessis are always trying to cheat me.”  He railed at the politicians, who are all liars, just like before, and who scheme their own preferment by instigating wars and civil strife.  Since the Wende, he complained, social ties and trust have collapsed, neighbors are suspicious, jealous, even violent.  Crime has indeed multiplied severalfold in the East, especially auto theft and burglary, but also violent crime, of which the rampaging youths who hurl Molotov cocktails at refugee shelters and Nazi salutes at the television cameras are only the photogenic tip of the iceberg.

Harry is small potatoes among the Wendehälse, the “rubbernecks”, who managed a timely exchange of their Party pin for a cellular telephone, to establish themselves among the kingpins of the new Germany.  The biggest criminals of the old regime, naturally enough, are the most welcome and successful in the new.  As one Leipzig police officer remarked in late summer of 1990, “I am convinced that the adjustment to the new state will be easier for me than for the people who made the revolution last fall.  Those people will always be outsiders.”[DS4]   Even more cynical, or clear-eyed one might say, was the remark of a former Stasi officer around this same time, when the Stasi connections of several members of Lothar de Maizière's transitional government had broken out into a noisy public scandal: “If there are even ministers chosen from our people after the elections, that proves that we recruited the right ones.”  Egon Krenz, for instance, former youth minister in the East German politburo, who deposed the SED leader Erich Honecker in October of 1989 and tried to palm off the ever-more furious public with the neologism “Wende” while holding the line politically.  He is reported to be earning a far more princely income than Harry as an insurance broker and lawyer, aside from the small fortune advanced against his memoirs; how much of his seed capital was siphoned from secret Party accounts will presumably never be known.

Most ambitious and realistic young East Germans have chosen not to wait for the realization of politicians' blue-sky promises, and have instead made use of their new-won freedom of movement.  It is ironic that the mass of respectable politicians, journalists, and business leaders on both sides of the Elbe justified their breathless rush to get a unification agreement nailed down, by citing the mass emigration westward, especially of young laborers, professionals, and intellectuals, which was draining East Germany of its most productive and marketable workers.  The patent danger of this labor hemorrhage, which quickly disrupted health services and paralyzed many factories, was amplified in the menacing growl of the most popular protest slogan in that heady winter, which had metamorphosed from the populist truism "We are the people", through "We are one people", to the positively threatening, "If the deutschmark doesn't come to us, then we will go to it."  It was argued, by sensible men and women who under other circumstances would balk at delegating fundamental decisions of public policy to a confused mob, that the only way to staunch the lethal efflux would be to introduce the deutschmark into the East posthaste, and leave God and Adam Smith to sort out the rest.  Yet the outcome, little reported and apparently of little interest to the German public or the responsible government officials, has been precisely the opposite of what should have been desired.  In the thirty months following the currency union in June of 1990, one million East Germans resettled in the West; that is a rate of about one thousand a day.  This is indeed somewhat less than the two thousand who were fleeing each day in January of that year, just two months after the borders were opened, but the flow had already fallen back to one thousand a day level by the time of the GDR Volkskammer (parliament) elections in March.[DS5]   A sobering comparison is to the thirty months leading up to August, 1961, when the mass exodus threatened, by general acknowledgment, to implode the East German economy, when even US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Fulbright publicly (and President Kennedy privately) expressed astonishment that the East Germans had not sealed their border[DS6] : in that period the total number of refugees barely topped 500,000, and the stream only reached two thousand a day in the summer weeks right before the Wall was erected.  What exactly was accomplished, then, by the hasty currency union? is a question that hardly anyone, certainly hardly anyone in the West, seems to consider worth posing.  When I put the question to my acquaintance Petra, a Russian language instructor at East Berlin's Humboldt University, she waved aside my skepticism.  "This way they killed East Germany at once," she said.  "Any other way it would have been still more painful, we would have been killed by degrees."

In a depressing reprise of traditional nineteenth-century teutonic obscurantism, German re-unification was declared an inexorable natural process, like the knitting of bones, to which Willy Brandt alluded; or, in another favorite metaphor of that century, it was announced that "the train has left the station".  The renowned author Günter Grass, one of the woolly-headed unpatriotic apologists for communism who opposed this sage orthodoxy, wrote an open letter to Spiegel editor and unification enthusiast Rudolf Augstein in February of 1990 under the title "The train has left the station -- Where to?"  "Does Rudolf Augstein himself not recognize that a train that no signal can stop anymore is programmed for disaster?"[DS7]    he wrote, advocating a period of confederation between the two Germanys, rather than immediate unity.  Continuing in this John Henry pose, man against the snorting machine, Grass threw another essay, "What am I saying.  Who is still listening", onto the tracks ahead of the train's headlong rush.  Three weeks ahead of the consummation of the currency union, Grass wrote that


The D-mark is crashing in upon an unprepared economy, and upon a population ignorant of the advantages and idiosyncrasies of the market.      []  The effects are easy to anticipate: firms that were already battered will go bankrupt immediately, other production sites that could have been restructured will be soon be illiquid, and new businesses won't even hazard the unequal competition.  Particularly cautious souls will resettle in the West with their newly exchanged money.  The level of unemployment can be expected to constitute a threat to public order.[DS8] 


It is hardly high praise to point out that Grass's predictions have proved painfully accurate, far more accurate than those of Dr. Kohl and the hard-headed money men at the Bundesbank; it is a cheap sort of oracle to preach obvious truths against the establishment's willful purblindness.  But even so solid an establishment figure as Social Democrat (SPD) leader Oscar Lafontaine, while not partaking of Grass's wish to preserve a remnant of East German socialism, and to maintain Germany's division as a perpetual mark of Cain for the crimes of Auschwitz and as a token of reassurance to its neighbors, did anticipate an economic calamity stalking the East close on the heels of the D-mark, and so advocated a convertible East German mark as a step toward full currency union.  His proposals, and his generally sensible approach to unification, were derided even within his own party as timid, unpatriotic and "behind the curve", spurned by the CDU government, and roundly rejected by voters in the East both in the March Volkskammer elections and in the all-German federal elections in December. [DS9]  On the other hand, a friend of mine, Barbara, an economics student from Potsdam, remarked that "no one seems to know anyone who says anymore he voted for the CDU.  You have to think, if any election in the GDR was a fraud, it must have been that one."



II. The City

And this is a Citye

  in name, but in dede

It is a packe of people

  that seke after meede

--Robert Crowley


Four years can be a geologic era in the life of a vibrant city, and in that time upwellings and frenzied deposits of new sediment have remolded the surface of Berlin, particularly, but not exclusively, in the East.  Most blatant is the ubiquitous arms race of garish commercial signs, bolted onto crumbling prewar stone facades, where once a solitary tin or two idling in the window would have announced the available wares, and where a mere rumor of certain scarce goods, nylon stockings, say, or toothbrushes, or a somewhat higher cut of meat, could incite ruthless queuing.  Two years ago it was still largely the locust swarms of West German chain stores, but the independent merchants, what few there still are, have adapted to the altered balance of power between buyer and seller.  The simple painted designations -- BAKERY, DRUG STORE, FRUITS & VEGETABLES -- what few are not yet covered over or scraped away, fade with each rain shower.  Where drab billboards once pounded out appeals to the solidarity of the working classes, today's billboards beseech the people with the same deadly earnest but more color to eat a different brand of Wurst or smoke a new brand of cigarettes.  “It used to be,” one East German student remarked, “you went shopping for the day, that meant, you went around to all the shops to see if they had anything you needed.  Now the shops are all full, and you spend even more time having to make tedious comparisons among the many brands, and among the prices in different stores.”  Die Qual der Wahl,” “the agony of choice,” is an oft-heard expression of this consumptive exhaustion.

The faades themselves are being cleaned up and repaired, but piecemeal, while ownership disputes are slowly resolved.  Often one sees spanking new cornices and curtains fitted onto a single renovated apartment in an otherwise uninterrupted swell of smoke-blackened granite.  A combination of historical preservation codes, government indifference, and scarce resources for new construction have protected these now-fashionable prewar edifices from the slash-and-burn redevelopment that prevailed in West Germany after the war.  Outside of a few showcase areas, though, preservation was largely a euphemism for reckless neglect.  Vast desolate colonies of thin-walled high-rise apartments massed on the Stalinist model largely on the outskirts of cities, beloved of apparatchiks as a concrete manifestation of the solidarity and homogeneity of the proletariat, were the homes of choice for millions of East Germans seeking modern apartments with decent water and wiring.  The moldering city center was abandoned to the rats and the bohemian youth, leaving plenty of empty dilapidated apartments.  These buildings are magnets for slightly adventurous young West Berliners willing to live for a time without telephones and lug sacks of coal up four flights of stairs to fire their heating stoves, to escape West Berlin's tight housing market and characterless apartment blocks, and incidentally shock some of the parents and grandparents who still hark back to the blockade and the building of the Wall.

Even more conspicuous than the renovation has been the infiltration of spiffy new Western telephone booths into the East, those outposts of technological civilization on the march.  At first they were a merely symbolic presence, at some sites standing empty for months before receiving the telephone equipment that is their official raison d'tre.  Now most of them are in service, and the perpetual queues are trailing off, as ever more homes are equipped with private telephones.  The modernization of telephone lines is expected to stretch into the last years of this decade; even now a phonecall between Berlin and Potsdam, a city which borders on Berlin's southwest flank, still crackles and buzzes more than a typical overseas connection.  Overdue servicing of power lines, drainage, streets, historical buildings, and God-only-knows-what-else, in East and West, have secured for Berlin the title of “Germany's largest construction site”.

Amid this metropolis of sandpits and scaffoldage one project stands out: the reconstruction of Potsdamer Platz.  To my first view it was a cheerless expanse of mud and weeds, churned up as though by artillery fire and nearly impassable in the rain, separated by a few hundred further yards of wasteland from the Brandenburg Gate, the ponderous portal to East Berlin which served as every cold warrior's favorite red-thumping backdrop, from Kennedy's “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech on down.  Between the wars two major train stations surrounded by copious cafés, theaters, the most elegant shops, and the embassy row on adjacent Wilhelmstrasse made this one of the liveliest plazas of interbellum Europe.  After the war, when the stations, along with most of the city, were heaps of charred ruins and slag, this was the point at which the Soviet, American, and British sectors met, consequently a mecca for blackmarketeers, and later the site of one of those delicious farces that helped keep the Cold War warmhearted in the `50s: an electronic billboard 65 feet high in the western sector flashing out disagreeable news to the communist East under the rubric “The free press reports:” faced off against the equally elevated message “The smart Berliner shops at the HO*

Such tomfoolery was at once passé in the predawn gloom of August 13, 1961, when special work details of the East German Volksarmee (People's Army) threw up barricades of barbed wire and paving blocks ripped with jackhammers from the adjacent Ebertstrasse.  It is an urban paradox, it disorients the first-time visitor, this rough wound at the very center of the city; surrounded by the Philharmonic and State Library, the Tiergarten (Berlin's central park), and the city's major axis, the boulevard Unter den Linden, this ought to be the most expensive and intensively developed real-estate, not wild scrubland.  This is the legacy of the divided city, the fossil shell of the Wall.  Only a few years ago there were long sandpits here, raked clean and white to highlight fugitive tracks for the guards twitching up in their high towers; there were tank traps, ditches and electrified fence; a flattened-out free-fire zone.  The wound has scabbed over a bit since I first saw it.  New trees have been planted to round off the Tiergarten.  The Ebertstrasse has been rebuilt, carrying torrents of traffic past the Brandenburg Gate, around and through the Potsdamer Platz.  There ground has been broken for the 21st-century version of the primitive 1950s billboard: a mammoth complex dedicated to the glory of that favorite son of West German industry, Daimler-Benz.  The expanse of wasteland stretching back to the Brandenburg Gate, though, is still owned by a less favored Teutonic spirit: here underground, somewhere, is the Führerbunker, where Adolf Hitler raved out his final days, an enormous political landmine which continues to frighten off development planners.  The free press reports...

The largest masonry project in Germany, figure of hate and horror, of intrigue and isolation, in its time the Berlin Wall was surely the world's most flexible concrete structure.  To West Berliners it was a threat, a besiegement, though the sense of menace abated with the familiarity of years: on blustering postcards West Berlin was touted as “the best preserved walled city in the world”.  It was also a 50-mile-long bulletin board and graffiti art gallery. It was a prison wall separating friends and families.  It was an execution wall where some eighty young East Germans were cut down, attempting to cross the street to a freer life. In countless speeches of Western leaders it was proclaimed a billboard that advertised the failure of communism.  In the official jargon of communist officialdom meanwhile it was an “antifascist bulwark”.  It was, as some East Germans ruefully observed, when the opening of all forms of intercourse with West Germany exposed them for the first time to significant levels of AIDS, “East Germany's condom”.  And for most Berliners, indeed, for most Germans, the wall was fundamentally a settling influence, damping by its sheer bristling impermeability the tension of cross-border rivalry and the East Berliners' temptation to flee, allowing those on both sides to build more normal lives.  “A wall,” as Dostoevsky wrote, “is something calming, final, morally absolving; something perhaps even mystical.”

In January, 1989, Honecker declared that the Wall would stand another fifty or a hundred years, unless the grounds for its existence were eliminated.[DS10]    He was wrong.  The Wall fell inside of a year, but the grounds for its existence, the hemorrhage of emigrants, for instance, did not vanish, despite the fireworks and the jubilation.  The jubilation was understandable, and I myself felt cheered by the visible evidence of a human triumph over oppression, the opening up of raw, healthy earth, where so recently the cankerous machinery of death and division had held sway.  But I also began gradually to hear of the depopulated towns and countryside of the former GDR; of the 20 to 30 percent increase in mortality rates in most age groups, despite a rapid influx of the most sophisticated western hospital technology[DS11] ; of the overflow conditions in the one thriving industry remaining in the East, the psychiatric clinics and suicide hotlines; of the bored and hopeless youth rampaging through immigrant quarters and refugee hostels with their Nazi slogans and their Made-in-the-USA baseball bats; all of which were, and remain, blunt testimony to the devastating economic and social dislocation in the wake of the Wall's collapse, for which pensions and welfare payments could hardly compensate.

Among the more innocuous novelties that year in the newly reunited Reichshauptstadt Berlin was the high-gloss Olympia campaign, which by that fall had already reached the smarmy intensity of a carnival shill, with plump, sunny-yellow teddy bear* faces winking from ever more shop windows and taxicab advertising panels, with the slogan “Olympia 2000 -- We're Taking Part”.  Reportedly over fifty million dollars were spent in the attempt to land the Olympic games for Berlin.  When the idea was first mooted, around the time of the Berlin 750-Year jubilee in 1987, to host the Olympic games in divided Berlin, it had at least the virtue of utopian bravado; since its realization was inconceivable, the scheme hovered in the ambrosial realms, where not even the most bitter critic of government posturing could wish it ill.  When the border was opened, the Olympia project thudded to earth, among the mundane but formidable difficulties of rebuilding a united city and preparing for the federal government's arrival from Bonn, also projected for the millennium.  Crying “Baby needs a new mass-transit system”, Berlin mayor Eberhard Diepgen threw the Olympia dice again and again, vowing that the Olympics would solve every problem confronting the city.  The grinning bears, however, could hardly rouse the populace above a disinterested stupor.

The only people outside of the Berlin Senate and the sponsoring Daimler-Benz and Hertie corporations who even took the Berlin candidacy seriously were the Autonomen.  These are the left-wing radicals whose countercultural “scene”, which once flourished in the hermetic environment of walled-in West Berlin, is now centered in the working-class neighborhood of Kreuzberg and now in its East Berlin counterpart Prenzlauer Berg.  Unlike New York's Greenwich Village or the Latin Quarter of Paris, Kreuzberg had been preserved for almost three decades in a state of warm, muzzy decay, protected from capitalist depredations by having its back up against the Wall, and reinforced by Berlin's peculiar occupation status as a demilitarized city, which made it a refuge for young men fleeing the draft; Prenzlauer Berg simply moldered in the indifferent shadow of the communist bureaucracy, serving as a pressure valve which the authorities knew to cherish, as much as its independence occasionally frightened them into fits of repression.  Now the hardy Autonomen were fighting a desperate last-ditch battle, to defend their own turf against the hated Yuppies, who swarmed in the wake of the real-estate speculators, driving out the students, workers, immigrants, and the small shops which had shaped the district's character, with doubled and tripled rents.  Olympia, with its corporate sponsorship and resonances of Hitler's 1936 Olympics, and of the 1972 Munich Olympics which they blamed for the tripling of rents in that city, not to mention the murders of seven Israeli athletes, represented everything these antifascist warriors despised.  Soon a new symbol was sprouting on streetlamps and subway walls across the city: the same dopey Berliner bear with a crumpled smile and blood trickling from a bullet hole in the center of its head, carrying the slogan “Nolympix”.  When representatives of the International Olympic Committee visited Berlin they were greeted by large-scale anti-Olympics demonstrations, a bomb attack on a department store of the Hertie chain, and a security operation by many hundreds of police officers which shut several streets in the center of Berlin even to pedestrian traffic.  This certainly convinced the committee members of the ability of the Berlin police to protect their bare lives, if not quite demonstrating a prevalence of support for the games in the city.  Diepgen insisted, in ever more forlorn press-releases, that the IOC had assured him that the protests would not affect Berlin's candidacy in any way, that open differences of opinion -- in contrast to the unanimous jubilation in front-runner Beijing -- were recognized as a positive characteristic of a democracy.  The anti-Olympics forces responded by mailing a videotape of violent demonstrations to the IOC, with a minatory voice-over vowing an escalation of violence should Berlin get the nod.

The final decision, announced in Monaco on September 23, 1993, was anti-climactic in the extreme.  As expected, Berlin polled only 10 of the 95 votes, placing just ahead of Istanbul in the first round, and dropped out in the second round.  Even among the few diehards who had appeared for the official victory party at the Brandenburg Gate reporters could find hardly a soul to express an opinion other than, “It's probably just as well.”  Diepgen announced the next day that the Autonomen protests and violence were to blame after all.  Plans were soon announced in Bonn to fix a schedule for the transfer of the federal government to Berlin, as a sort of consolation prize for the crestfallen mayor; not that they actually decided upon such a schedule, but that they moved from vaguely proposing someday to make such a decision, to setting a firm procedure -- or potential procedure, open to eventual modification -- by which the Bundestag* might decide upon a schedule.  Meanwhile, construction of new government buildings in Bonn proceeded apace.

The real Olympics, AD 1992 in Barcelona, were rather less auspicious for the legend of seamless unification than the mythical Olympics AD 2000 in Berlin.  While most news reports exulted in the exploits of the first all-German Olympic team since 1936, divisions were not far to seek.  East German athletic organizations, having produced undeniable world-class success, were buried under doping scandals and eliminated; the success of any GDR athlete, except the thirteen-year-old swimmer Franziska van Almsick who was fted by the news media as an unsullied pubescent national sweetheart, were implicitly written off to steroids, and failure attributed to the sudden withdrawal of same.  East German athletes in Barcelona reported being treated like second-class guests on a West German team, rather than as equal members of the national team.  Most of their trainers were left home in Germany, because the team ostensibly lacked funds to bring them along, while the money was found to fly out hordes of West German officials and trainers, and even two special cooks just for the equestrians.  “Just like the colonial masters in German Southwest Africa,” wrote Der Spiegel, “club presidents now exploit the athletes in the East for their own glory -- and at the same time treat them like their niggers.”


III. Scorched Earth

…for men forget more easily the death of their father

than the loss of their patrimony.

--Niccolò Machiavelli[DS12] 


After forty years of socialist rule, the territory of the GDR was in ruins; the economic collapse, barely hid the ecologic devastation which was the only economic that the isolated and cash-strapped East German economy could defer.  Vaclav Havel has written that, after four decades of communist oppression, the only loyalty that the Czechoslovak people had left was their elemental connection to the land, to their native soil, and that even that bond had been strained almost to breaking by the systematic environmental rape in which they had been implicated.  A similar observation, perhaps even more pointed, could be made for East Germany.  While environmental pollution cannot be termed an exclusively communist province, their hapless competition with the industrial West drove East Germans to ever more ruthless exploitation of their paltry natural resources.  The only native energy source was low-grade brown coal, which generated more smoke than heat, and blanketed cities in sulfur smog through the winter; scrubbers for industrial chimneys were deemed an unaffordable luxury.  Uranium mining, mainly for Soviet  weapons, threw radioactive dust willy-nilly over nearby towns and highways.  So much untreated sewage and toxic industrial waste was pumped into East Germany's major river, the Elbe, and into all of its tributaries, that by the time it reached the West German border it was barely fit to be used even as industrial coolant.  Almost until the end of the GDR, environmental protection was essentially limited to protecting the secrecy of all data on environmental damage, and harassing environmental activists.  In the last months of 1989 the government heralded a new openness and began publishing the gruesome facts; but only the unification, with the immediate extension of West German environmental laws and subsidies from Bonn, offered hope for a rapid improvement.  Perhaps even more significant, some thought, would be the impetus toward international cooperation in grappling with ecological problems.  In phrases such as “blossoming landscapes” many heard hopeful signs of an ecological new dawn.  Surely the scandalous revelation that some of the most hazardous waste sites in East Germany contained material which Western European companies had secretly paid them to dump, should have taught a lesson to captains of industry about the futility of sweeping our filth under the iron rug, and about the need to find lasting global solutions.

Instead of responding to such desperate physical realities, which can only be toiled, not argued, away, the Germans have preferred to squabble and litigate over the ruins.  A Hobbesian struggle has broken out over real estate and businesses nationalized or confiscated by the GDR.  The wholesale expropriation of property belonging to real or ostensible Nazis, undertaken by the Soviet occupying force between 1945 and 1949 when, among others, most of the aristocracy lost their lands and castles, is anchored in the 2+4 Treaty and legally inviolable.  This was an unwavering condition for Soviet approval of the treaty.  For all other property questions, though, in particular for those arising from forty years of GDR confiscations, the ironclad policy is “restitution before compensation”; that is, that the government is to restore all properties to their “original” owners, rather than pay a monetary compensation, except in the rare cases in which the property has become a public facility, such as a street, that cannot be turned over to private ownership.  This has sparked off a guerrilla war of bureaucrats, house for house and plot for plot, between the formerly dispossessed, usually émigrés or the children of émigrés whose homes and land were seized by the East German government after they fled the country; and the future dispossessed, East Germans who stand to lose the homes in which they have lived as long as forty years, which they have in many cases purchased and maintained at tremendous personal expense.  The revenants are vilified as golddiggers who, having grown plump and comfortable in the West[DS13] , now return to scrape up the last dregs of value that they had once left behind and written off.

The scale of litigation is immense, involving as it does a large fraction of the land mass of an entire country.  One hears bizarre anecdotes, such as that of Herr G., neighbor of a friend of mine, who took the opportunity of unification to visit the northeast German town also called G., ensconced in a landscape of lakes and rivers, where the boating was reported to be particularly splendid.  (Herr G. is a boating enthusiast.)  When he arrived and introduced himself he found door after door slammed in his face, until he heard what rumors had been circulated, and was at pains to explain that, no, he was not the Baron von G. or some such entity, come to reclaim the town: just a simple tourist.  Such fear is by no means exaggerated.  In the town of Kleinmachnow, for instance, just south of Berlin, as of mid-1992 eighty percent of the houses were under litigation: 8000 of the 11000 residents were, most likely still are, and for the foreseeable future will be, facing eviction.  The courts progress with glacial swiftness in these matters, helped along by the local authorities, who in many cases try to protect their neighbors by misplacing the pertinent documents.  Town councils have also seen fit to revenge themselves on the Western intruders by denying development permits even for uncontested properties, although the investment in construction and renovation is sorely needed.  Banks, naturally, prefer to avoid the whole mess, so that home-improvement and construction loans are virtually unattainable for most properties in the East.  From the rate at which cases are being processed, some districts extrapolate that it will take them upward of 50 years to settle all the outstanding claims.

Homelessness, mental breakdown, and death are all profound afflictions, in their own way, but it was merchandising that first drove home to me the discord between Germans of the old and the new federal states.  It was not just the slick supermarkets which had been imported from the West, but almost every product sold in them as well.  Aside from a carton of eggs which proudly proclaimed its origin in “the Brandenburg Marches”, every item seemed to have been bottled or canned, processed or produced in West Germany.  It was not only the rigidity of the supermarket chains that was responsible, but also the East Germans' delirious demand for Western products.  One particularly drastic illustration is the fate of the Thuringian farmer who used to sell her eggs at a local market.  After the borders were opened she found herself left hanging with her wares, while her erstwhile customers purchased “Western” eggs for five cents more apiece from a Franconian farmer who had driven in with a truckload.  After he had peddled his entire stock, he bought out the local woman's eggs at her price, put his own price and sign on them, and had soon unloaded them as well.[DS14] 

By the time I arrived, consumer euphoria had yielded to disgust.  An article in Der Spiegel reported an astonishing new trend: a handful of companies were successfully hawking old East German brands in the home market.  Of course, the brands and the factories where they were produced were generally now owned by West Germans or foreign investors, a fact duly noted in the patronizing tone of the article.  Silly Ossis, it sneered, first they storm the West German shops, ready to pay good money for any piece of trash with a western brand label on it, and then, when plummeting sales have driven most indigenous firms out of business, and destroyed their jobs, a sharp West German advertising firm can still come through and milk them again, selling their own products back to them with a new slogan that appeals to their tattered scraps of regional pride.  “It's like a pat on the shoulder,” said one marketing executive.  “We say to the frightened people: What you did wasn't all bad.”  It is enough that they be told daily by politicians and news media that their lives to date in the GDR were corrupt through and through; that they hear from prospective employers that their skills are now worthless and their habits infra dig; that they are expected to adopt, or to purchase, new lives from the West.  At least they can still drink a beer with the taste of home when they return from the employment office, or from the clinic in Berlin that charges up to $1500 for Western makeovers, training hapless Ossis to improve their employment prospects by dropping their eastern dialects, dressing in western fashions, and cutting their beards according to approved western styles.  The neologism-happy Germans now have a word for this fond indulgence in memories of supposedly simpler pre-Wende times: Ostalgie, a portmanteau of Ost (east) and Nostalgie (nostalgia).

This garage-sale of the GDR Volkseigentum, the public property, under which rubric fall not only land and public buildings, but all factories, most homes and shops, resorts and hotels, and Erich Honecker's limousine, which was last seen being rented out for wedding parties, this “sell-out” or “salvage operation” as it is alternatively described, is coordinated by the Treuhandanstalt, the “Holding Company”, surely among the most controversial institutions of the new Germany.  It began with a noble purpose, namely, to take over management of state-owned firms and real estate, to save jobs and productive capacity in the East by directing their restructuring and the replacement of antiquated machinery and methods.  (One East German spinning mill managed to land a hefty profit just a few months after the currency union by selling one of its machines, vintage 1905, which had been in use up until that time, to a West German industrial museum.)[DS15]   The Treuhand, according to the plan of the terminal Modrow government in East Berlin, which founded it in cooperation with the experimental-democratic “round tables” organized by the civil-rights parties, was to guide East German industry from the old communist “planned economy” into a new “socially- and ecologically-oriented market economy”: a guiding hand as well as a sort of capitalist decompression chamber which would allow the East German companies time to adapt themselves to the rigors of capitalist competition.

The “third way”, this chimerical crossbreed between the lion of capitalism and the lamb of socialism was discarded with the tag “utopian twattle”, and the lamb was led off to the slaughterhouse.  Fixated upon the ideological pole-star of corporate ownership, and its evil antipode of state- or employee-owned industry, the Treuhand steamed forward into a maelstrom of privatization that many compared to a scorched-earth policy.  Even if the capitalist propaganda were essentially true, those brave tales starring brilliant corporate leaders and pioneering small-business people who would swarm out, oozing enlightened self-interest and managerial skill over the blighted landscape, dreaming innovative restructuring schemes which would elude dullard government bureaucrats in their featherbeds, even if all that were true, privatization would have been a wrenching process, a vast and uncertain economic experiment.  East German companies were simply in no condition to be valued appropriately.  They had been formed in a regime that, for good or ill, valued people fundamentally as workers, not as consumers, and certainly not as accumulators of capital.  Factories were organized so as to give work to as many as possible, and to keep them working.  There was little motivation to develop new machinery that could do the work of a hundred people when that would simply entail finding new work for those hundred people; in the West workers are simply a troublesome “labor cost”, and vanish residueless from the balance sheet when they are “made redundant”.  Whereas West German workers were supposed to function as specialized cogs in a smoothly running machine, East Germans prided themselves on their ability to improvise, to meet their production quotas despite a malfunctioning machine; or to repair the device with scissors and string; or, when all else failed, to sit and play cards on the shop floor for weeks on end while waiting for a part or a technician to arrive.

To adapt such institutions to the ramrod West German market conditions challenge even the most conscientious and brilliant entrepreneurial talent.  What could attract such an individual?  West German factories already had more than enough spare capacity to fill the increased demand from the East, and if more were needed, they could be more profitably acquired further east, in Poland or in Czechoslovakia, where wage levels were on the order of one-tenth those in Germany.  The decision was quickly reached, in corporate headquarters throughout the land, that East Germany would be useful only as a market, as a nest of ravenous consumers, not as a production site.  This was impeccable mercantile logic.  It would be far more economical to allow the potential competitors in the East to collapse, and then perhaps to buy up any useful assets at a bargain price, than to invest in them as going concerns; in some cases, as a Berlin police investigation found in the spring of 1991, Western businessmen actually bribed their Eastern counterparts, mostly still holdovers from the Communist regime, with money or offers of new jobs, to run their companies into the ground.[DS16]   Excepting a very few patriots, visionaries and youthful adventurers seeking an untamed frontier, the bright, ambitious, and honest people who might have made the best of a bad situation, kept away from the “New Federal States”, leaving the field clear to the usual run of carpetbagging scoundrels on corporate and government expense accounts.

The most charitable appraisal one could offer of the Treuhand's performance would be to emphasize its essentially incoherent mandate and the conditions that were far from optimal -- for instance, the first Treuhand director, Detlev Rohwedder, was assassinated by agents of the RAF* not long into his tenure -- and that only a few indictments for outright corruption and embezzlements have been found.  But the infamous German thoroughness and bureaucratic zeal seems to have gone on holiday here, replaced by a zeal to succor West German industry.  It is no surprise that the properties and the jobs in their care are not always well served by this, as illustrated by one particularly egregious example: Two journalists, with no more spycraft  than a fake business card, and assumed Doctor title, and a borrowed Mercedes, presented themselves as representatives of an unnamed Western chemicals conglomerate seeking to purchase an extant plant in the East which could be refitted for manufacturing pesticides.  By the judgment of outside auditors they were offered two of the most valuable remnants of East German industry at far below their appraised worth.  In fact, the Treuhand virtually offered to pay “Dr. Weinberger” and his associate to take one of the properties, the Wolfen film works, off their hands.  The Treuhand had long had a troubled relationship to this plant, famous for having produced the world's first commercial color film back in 1936.  While it was generating gross sales on the order of 150 million dollars a year on its new ORWO brand of color film, which West German consumer-products testers ranked as “good”, Treuhand officials grumbled to the news media that the money spent developing the new film might just as well have been incinerated, and that the Wolfen product is superfluous, since equally good film is available elsewhere.  Now the Treuhand was offering to give the unloved factory away, gratis, to the billionaire industrialists, with a 75 million dollar lagniappe for investment; the state government of Saxony-Anhalt offered to sweeten the deal with tax breaks, with matching funds at nearly 2 for 1 to subsidize investment, with a subsidy for the necessary waste-treatment and incineration facilities, and with electricity rates more than twenty percent below those which the film plant paid while it was under Treuhand ownership.  The gifts from public funds totaled $2 billion of the $2.7 billion planned for this “privatization” project, and the state economics minister Horst Rehberger assured the investors that “further incentive programs are possible”.[DS17]   In return, the investors promised to guarantee jobs at their new plant for all of three years.  It might be wise, it was suggested to them meanwhile, not to be too public about their plans: neighbors might be touchy about pesticide manufacture.

Such largesse toward wealthy strangers out of the public purse is hardly in accord with the purported goals of privatization, nor is it adequately explained by appealing to the land's Christian traditions.  Is it too cynical, then, to point out that the director who negotiated this deal, came to the Treuhand from the Bayer AG, parent company of AGFA, ORWO's main West German competitor, which already stood accused of bribing retailers to drop ORWO products[DS18] ?  Or that Horst Rehberger and four other government ministers of Saxony-Anhalt, including the prime minister, all imports from the West, were forced to resign in the fall of 1993 after it was disclosed that they had fraudulently inflated their own salaries.[DS19]    Cynical or not, it is the natural question for East Germans who are being asked to swallow this new economic order in the name of free market efficiency.  That highflown rhetoric frequently serves as a cloak for the avarice of plutocrats is familiar wisdom to the former citizens of the GDR “The reunification was,” according to an article in the French left-wing newspaper Libération, “the quickest way for the people of the GDR to trade their Trabant* for a VW Golf, without leaving their home town”; applying this formula to the Western side of the supply curve, we might note that the unification was the quickest way to transfer billions of dollars of taxpayers' money to Volkswagen and a hundred other corporations without the Bundeswehr leaving barracks.  While the US and the rest of Europe were sinking into recession, while the East German economy was disintegrating, corporations in West Germany were booking fat profits in the newly opened Eastern market.  It is only reasonable that disenchanted East Germans should seek the responsible parties under the rubric Cui bono, particularly when a fair number of prominent scandals have highlighted exactly the sort of freebooting capitalism that their much-maligned Marxist indoctrination taught them to expect.  Whether criminal machinations were the exception or the rule at the Treuhand is almost a moot question.

While East Germany failed in almost every way to realize more than a grotesque caricature of the communist ideals and slogans that the regime so fatuously daubed on every banner and factory wall, the “workers' state” was a fact which in forty years permeated daily life.  To work was simultaneously a citizen's right and obligation, and was the core of most social and political structures.  The industrial combines which are being filleted and hawked piecemeal were so bloated because they were never conceived as simple production facilities, were never intended to maximize profits by externalizing costs.  What is being privatized are not just factories, but entire structures of local administration and social services.  The factory was only a tiny portion of the company's property, which in many cases included the employees' homes, day-care facilities, schools, policlinic and pharmacy, athletic facilities and swimming pool, cultural center, clubhouse for teenagers, even spas and vacation sites for the workers.  All this is being sold off, in some cases given away along with the burdensome factories, to private investors who, unsurprisingly, see little profit in maintaining a clinic or youth center. [DS20]    When the above-mentioned poll in late 1992 asked whether “your town provides sufficient leisure activities for children and young people”, only 8 percent in the East answered that it does, as compared with 57 percent in the West.

The Treuhand has no balance line for any of this, but two years after the Wende rising suicide statistics for Leipzig included “fear of lost livelihood” as the third most common motive for suicide, after illness and age-induced depression. “Work in the East,” Dr. Maaz writes, “has far more ambivalent and emotional associations than in the West.”  Whether one aspired to the ranks of the “Heroes of Labor” or silently defied the regime and its five-year plan with shoddy work or even sabotage, work provided, as Maaz reflects, a substitute rhythm for the petrified existence, compensating for the narrow absurdity of GDR existence: “Work gave meaning to people in the GDR, brought people together and bound up their affections.  In the West I see that work is generally a job, aimed at earning money, so the `real living' (pleasure-oriented) can get going after hours.  So unemployment is for us, not only a threat to our livelihood, but also a decisive loss of social and spiritual purchase.”  People in their sixties, fifties, even younger, are being shown brusquely, after their years of toil and sacrifice, not only that the shimmering socialist future toward which they were supposed to be trudging was a synthetic mirage (already the common currency of cynicism among all but the most corrupt and the most idealistic before the Wende) but that all their hardwon survival skills, their accommodation and evasion of authority, are now not only as worthless as the weightless “aluminum chips”, the East German coins, but held in contempt. [DS21]  The GDR was, in the memorable phrase of West German diplomat Günter Gaus, a “niche society”, in which the citizen withdrew from the sterile briarpatch of public life to a hermetic personal sphere of work, home, and private connections.  Vitamin B* supplied the basic comforts of life, whether an acceptable cut of meat or a plumber to unstop the drains, which official institutions were unable or unwilling to offer.  “I suffered less from the Stasi than I did at the hands of the waiters, plumbers, and taxi-drivers,” writes the author Monika Maron, an outspoken critic of Ostalgie, who emigrated from East to West Germany in 1988.  “I could ignore the Stasi, I didn't need them.”[DS22]   One learned to adapt and improvise, to know someone who knew a plumber or butcher, and to find something that could be offered in return.  Suddenly the niches, carved and cultivated over a lifetime, have crumbled, leaving individuals of no more than average initiative shivering and alone.

Those with work, or who still consider themselves employable, are by and large just as exposed to wind and whim as the unemployed.  There are as yet few structures, other than the civil service, in which workers can be securely ensconced.  Rather, they are locked into a never-imagined Darwinian struggle.  It is a characteristic of market economies, an essential characteristic and probably a primary source of their phenomenal efficiency, that accomplishment is measured only in relative terms: good work must be better than the competitor's.  An employer who ignores this rule, who fails to devote sufficient cunning to the problem of depressing wages, who accommodates the human needs of the workers, will sooner or later be steamrollered by a competitor whose productivity is just one percent higher.  At any rate, few are ever tempted down this garden path.  While German workers do enjoy greater legal rights and union protection than their hapless counterparts in the United States or the United Kingdom, or in poorer third world countries, the rickety East German economy renders those rights largely theoretical.  As conservative economists have long recognized, there is no tonic like widespread unemployment against the blight of immoderate labor demands.  Independent entrepreneurs, such as Harry, are forced to work crushing hours to keep ahead of the competition: the margin between wealth and penury is as thin as a personal check.  Employees, on the other hand, confront progressive waves of layoffs, in the face of which each must strain to prove himself indispensable, which no one truly is.  The East German author and molecular biologist Jens Reich, one of the founders of the opposition party “New Forum” which was instrumental in toppling the communist regime, said in an interview three years later,


I am troubled by the way we've been treating our lives since 1989.  Our time is chopped up, it passes away in perpetual disquiet and agitation for everyone who is part of the working world and so of the competitive struggle.  I fear that in 10 or 15 years, when I retire, I'll have to say: I never used the opportunities that freedom, being liberated from immediate everyday worries, offered.  I have to get onto the stress-treadmill, too, otherwise I can't pay the rent for my apartment.  This hectic obsession with the present moment underlies the sham existence of the West Germans.    If you don't thrash about, you get carried away with the current.[DS23] 


This was what I heard from Harry, and from my many East German friends and acquaintances, that to them the new Germany means above all stress: stress of overwork, stress of too many choices, stress of an uncertain future with an enormous potential for failure.  According to a 1992 investigation by the Center for Social Research in Berlin, 16 percent of East Germans describe themselves as “unhappy and depressed most of the time”, and more than 33 percent say that life today is “too complicated”, that they “can't cope anymore”.  Perhaps even more troubling, psychologists find that many East Germans are extraordinarily reluctant to reveal that they are suffering under the strain, whether to their coworkers or to a doctor, for fear of being labelled `weak' or `unreliable', and delay seeking therapy until they are on the verge of nervous collapse.

Equally disturbing is the sterilization boom in East German gynecological clinics.  The clinic in Magdeburg, for instance, which sterilized 8 women in 1989, performed the procedure 1200 times in 1991; the number of sterilizations at the university clinic in Leipzig tripled in that time.  While some wave off such developments, attributing them primarily to women's expanded opportunities and to the lapsing of official ideology and social structures in the GDR which pressured women to produce their quota of children for the socialist fatherland, the fact is that gynecologists report hearing above all from women, some as young as 18 years, seeking to improve their chances in the job lottery. Although German law forbids potential employers from asking an applicant whether she is pregnant or intends to have children in the future, such questions are common, carrying the obvious penalty for those giving the wrong answer; in some cases women include a certificate of their sterilization right up front with the résumé.  It is not unknown, either, for personnel directors themselves to suggest off the record that an applicant certify in this way her unwavering commitment to her job, should she be granted one.[DS24]   As a result of such harsh disincentives to childbearing, and the bleak prospects for the future, as well as emigration of so many young people, the birthrate in East Germany has dropped by a precipitous 50 percent since the Wende, a demographic collapse unprecedented in German history, even in the calamitous aftermath of the Second World War.[DS25] 

“Women are the real losers of the unification.”  There is no need of investigative journalism or abstruse theories to confirm this commonplace.  The GDR was by no means a feminist paradise, but the government did recognize and protect a woman's right to choose not to have children, through a liberal abortion law, or to have children, without thereby being driven from their jobs as though to pursue a private vice.  West Germany never legalized abortion except in exceptional cases, and the constitutional court has so far blocked a compromise regulation which was mandated by the unification treaty, leaving the West German law in force.  East Germany provided women with generous leave for childbirth and nursing, free child-care, kindergartens, and full-day schools, extra vacation days, shorter workdays, with little or no damage to their careers.  While employment was often a double burden on women, whose husbands, there as elsewhere, were little inclined to take on a reasonable share of housework, there is no doubt that near-equal participation in the public sphere of the workplace, and independence of means seduced many women in the East into perceiving themselves as autonomous citizens of equal stature to men. Women's employment in the East has dropped from 90 percent before the Wende to less than the West German rate of 50 percent, and among those unemployed are nearly all of the single mothers, many of whom now live from a pittance of unemployment or welfare payments, isolated and impoverished.  To quote the East German dramatist Heiner Müller, the economic restructuring in the East has accomplished “what no reactionary dictator could have done, namely, to drive two thirds of all working women out of the workforce.”  Indeed, it took Adolf Hitler three years in power to reduce the proportion of women in the workforce to 32 percent, a level which Eastern Germany reached in two years after the unification.[DS26] 

Again, the ingratitude is not confined to the obvious victims.  Criticism comes from unexpected quarters as well: from my acquaintance Margit, for instance, a researcher in cardiac surgery at an institute in East Berlin.  Not only has she been able to afford to bump herself up from eight years back on the Trabant waiting list to first in line for a Fiat Panda, she has also had her opportunities as a scientist vastly increased by the modern laboratory equipment and the Western journals to which she now has access, not to mention the freedom to travel to conferences and share information with colleagues abroad.  While not denying these many benefits, she regularly speaks up in praise of East German science as an autonomous and productive endeavor, and condemns the invasion of bureaucrats, mostly men from the West, who presume themselves by virtue of sheer occidentality fit to oversee the work of mere East German scientists, and who justify their own wasted salaries by eliminating redundant positions; “redundant” here meaning any research already funded in the West.

About half of all academics and research scientists have lost their posts since the unification, some of them because of their unacceptable political activities on behalf of the SED or Stasi, most simply for the sake of economy, to reduce “overstaffing”.  In former times East German universities were so grossly overstaffed that the students underwent teaching in minuscule groups, forced into direct contact with their professors, a fate which was thankfully spared their counterparts in the properly staffed universities of the West, where “seminars” attract an ample attendance, often upward of a hundred students, and where the regal Herr Professor could not find more than a couple of minutes to speak to each of his students, even if he were so inclined.  In a recently published paean to the developments in West German education over the last two decades, the sociologist Karl Otto Hondrich praised the “loneliness and freedom, the traditional maxims of the German university”, which have resurged in recent years with the waning temptation of student-teacher dialogue.  The good Dr. Hondrich knows how to calculate the benefits of such freedom: “The universities have doubled the number of their students in the last 15 years, increased the number of graduates and research projects by 20 percent, produced ever more doctoral candidates, essays and books, colloquia and lecture notes; all this without any significant increase in levels of staffing.  This represents an unbelievable increase in productivity of teaching and research.  What entrepreneur wouldn't lick his chops at the prospect of such rates of growth?”  Nor are these long-suffering entrepreneurs left without cause for personal salivation.  In particular, the steady reduction in financial assistance for students forces a majority to study longer before they graduate, while they offer themselves up simultaneously as “what employers crave the most: flexible, cheap, educated workers, with which they cushion the rigid wage and benefit structure of the labor market.”[DS27]   Unlike the despicable East German educational system, which only trained people for as many jobs as were available, often directing high-school graduates with inferior grades and no connections into unpopular fields, such as teaching, the West German universities allow students to pick their own field of study, thus placing the burden onto the student to guess where there might be work, and to acquire just the right mix skills to match an employer's needs.  Those who guessed right are a boon to industry, well qualified for their industrial niche, with no risk or investment demanded from the company.  The student herself bears the entire risk, thus “saving employers their expensive recruitment and selection procedures.  She delivers herself for a free trial.”  And those who are hired for the long term come a good deal cheaper than their arrogantly scarce predecessors who were graduated 15 years ago.

IV. Veni, Vidi, etc.

Out spoke the victor then

As he hailed them o'er the wave,

`Ye are brothers! ye are men!

And we conquer but to save.'

--Thomas Campbell[DS28] 


In the 1920s the German workers' movement invented a new rite of passage, the Jugendweihe (`youth initiation'), as a secular substitute for confirmation.  The custom was suppressed, of course, in the Third Reich, but was then actively promoted in the GDR  Jugendweihe was almost compulsory, and the refusal to participate, usually because the parents were deeply religious or anticommunist, could seriously damage a child's prospects.  It was not, however, a harsh compulsion, since a majority of East Germans were quite contentedly atheist, glad to be freed from the influence of the church, and welcomed the secular opportunity for a family festival.  Over forty years it became a simple part of life, an ingrained custom.  Many West Germans, though, both in person and in print, express surprise that East Germans hold on to such a communist relic, rather than reverting to the West German custom of confirmation.

The East German film director and former dissident Konrad Weiss, now a member of the Bundestag, is not alone in lamenting the overweening domination of Western laws, customs, and habits, “as if it were essential to reproduce every last idiocy from the West accurately in the East, whether antiquated rituals or just asinine bureaucratic formulas written in a pseudo-German that makes my skin crawl.”[DS29]   The unification has many of the trappings of colonization; indeed, two thirds of East Germans responding to one opinion poll consider themselves to have been “conquered” and “colonized”[DS30] .  An oft-repeated quip has it that “learning from the West means learning to win”, an ironic twist on the old SED dogma about “learning from the Soviet Union  An even more caustic dictum reworks the Lord's Prayer: “On Earth as it is in the West”.[DS31]    The West Germans, for their part, incline unabashedly toward the vocabulary of Germany's brief colonial venture in Southwest Africa, with the Ossi forced into the role of the despised Herero.  According to a maxim favored in the summer of 1990 at the bars of the Interhotels, the luxury hotels of the still-GDR where the dealmakers and carpetbaggers congregated at room rates between $200 and $300 a night, “You could make the Ossis happier with a bunch of glass beads than the niggers on the Congo.”  Even the respectable Spiegel wrote, at the end of an article on the divisions remaining in Berlin two years after unification, that “In 1991 about 100 West-Berlin women said `I do' to men from Africa, but only 46 married an East-Berliner.  The Ossi still comes behind the nigger.”[DS32]   The extra money that the federal government still pays to civil servants who take up temporary posts in the East, to compensate for the inferior living conditions, and for the expense of weekly commuting, is called “bush money”.

There is one other historical conquest and occupation to which Germans often allude in this context, a most telling one for any armchair psychologist: the Allied occupation of West Germany and Berlin after the Second World War, which ended formally with the 2+4 Treaty in September of 1990.  The allusions are oblique, proceeding by way of a presumed analogy of the SED regime to the accursed National-Socialists.  If the communist rulers are relabeled Hitler, then the benevolent West Germans are obliged before God and Man to play the thankless role of the cruel-to-be-kind denazifying Americans, British, and French.   For the generation now in power, who came of age amid the indignity of occupation and Marshall Plan charity, it must be an irresistible and undreamed-of thrill now, at last to be cast as the victors.  It is a balm for humiliation, a balm for guilt.  No wonder, then, that Chancellor Kohl and his cohorts, in particular Steffen Heitmann, his preternaturally tactless handpicked nominee for the Federal presidency, have once again been preaching the end of the “post-war period”, declaring that the time has come to lay the Third Reich ad acta.  This is high political theater, laden with irony.  The blithe alacrity with which the early Federal Republic welcomed any old Nazi who managed to elude the hangman at Nuremberg, allowing them into the highest posts in business and government, not excluding the chancellery, was always the bread and butter of left-wing protest and SED dogma.  The Federal Republic still maintains an “Ernst Rodenwaldt Institute for Military Medicine”, named for the Third Reich's pioneer of “racial hygiene”, an outspoken advocate of the Nuremberg racial laws and critic of the “liberal-Jewish race-denying spirit” of the Weimar Republic.  Margit commented bitterly to me that “by us they come and unscrew every streetsign with a communist name on it, but something like this they don't touch.”  Many East Germans, who themselves, or whose parents and grandparents, underwent the brutal denazification of the Soviet-occupied zone, do[DS33]  see the capitalist foundations of the Federal Republic resting on collusion with fascism.  Now the rhetorical roles are reversed.  The left-wing West Berlin law professor Uwe Wesel, longtime advocate of an unflinching examination and pursuit of Nazi crimes, now writes that to prosecute those who committed crimes officially or unofficially sanctioned in the GDR, the border guards who shot East Germans fleeing to the West, for instance, would be intolerable ex post facto justice.  In the same anthology, with the polemic title “Because the Nation Needs Reconciliation”, the West Berlin journalist Peter Bender writes that “If the old Federal Republic was able to become a passable democracy despite having taken on nearly all the Nazi judges and civil servants, then it is clear that even a few thousand unregenerate former communists cannot endanger the united Germany.”[DS34]   The GDR dissident Wolfgang Templin counters that “Adenauer would turn in his grave if he could hear, from which camp these posthumous accolades were emanating.”[DS35] 

The fate of communist leaders, officials, and the “unofficial coworkers” (IMs), the small-time Stasi informers, was and remains the nexus of the gravest and most factious controversies which have engaged the new Germany; the fault lines run not along the border, or between economic strata, but often through individuals.  The trial of Erich Honecker is an instructive example.  When the former SED general secretary found refuge in the Chilean embassy in Moscow, cynics jeered that this was the most desirable outcome for the West German politicians, who feared above all to have their cozy relationship with their communist counterparts exposed in a public trial.  Later, in the summer of 1992, when diplomatic pressure from Bonn had Honecker expelled and brought back to the same prison in Berlin where he had been interned fifty years earlier by the Nazi regime, quite a few of the same people expressed renewed outrage.  It is not that there was any significant sympathy for the shriveled-up former dictator; but many East Germans recognized that it was not Honecker alone who was to be tried here, but the entire East German political and social system, and, by extension, themselves.  The following January, when the doddering arch-communist was adjudged unfit to stand trial and was whisked off to exile in Chile, because his inoperable liver cancer was supposed to dispatch him inside of six months, justice was once again seen to be truckling to establishment interests.  It surprised me that their former subjects so rarely expressed outrage at the luxuries that the hypocritical Honecker & Co. had amassed at their expense, much of it skimmed from individual care packages which West Germans sent to their friends and relatives in the East; but when I remarked on this to my friend Anita, another student from Potsdam, she replied, “Take a look at Honecker's house in Wandlitz, compared with what the West German politicians take for themselves.  It's laughable.”  An East German writer has pointed out that “Honecker had to employ 16 million East Germans, in order to live as well as a West German foreman who employs 16.”[DS36]   It is a question of one's individual sense of absurdity, whether one views the candor with which Western political and business leaders gorge themselves at the public trough as an extenuating or an aggravating circumstance, in comparison with the more petty and discreet East Germans.

The usually unflappable German justice system has been tying itself into ever more stupendous knots, vexed by the same contradictions which have confounded my friends, not to mention the politicians and journalists.  Was the GDR a legally constituted nation?  Were Honecker and the SED its legitimate government?  If not, then how to explain the treaties, the state visits, and Honecker's never-failing red-carpet reception?  But if so, then by what authority, according to what law, can people be prosecuted who obeyed the laws of their own land in their own land?  The compromise solution is that West German judges have been trying cases according to East German law, in which, naturally, they have no expertise, while selectively annulling the most distasteful portions.  For instance, the law specifically allowed soldiers to open fire on fugitives at the border; thus, all murder convictions so far in these so-called “Wall-sniper trials” have been quashed on appeal.

Even more contorted are the legal arguments which would prosecute Honecker and his cohorts for having ordered border guards to shoot to kill, which might contravene international conventions if indeed there was such an order, which is not proven; or for ordering the construction of lethal booby traps and laying of mines along the border, which were never formally validated by the legislature.[DS37]   If we are to prosecute government officials for otherwise legal policies (and certainly no one would contend that any international law forbids, or even discourages, a country from laying mines along its borders  -- “Good fences make good neighbors”) which kill that country's citizens, who should be held responsibility for the traffic fatalities, which doubled as soon as powerful Western automobiles swarmed onto the East German roads, killing more people in the first six months of 1990 than had been killed at the border during the entire 28 years that the Berlin Wall was in place?  Unlike the Nazis, the SED left no great mounds of corpses which cry out to the conscience of the world, past the legalistic cavils, demanding some reprise of the Nuremberg war-crimes tribunal.  Indeed, I was astonished at the tame nature of many of the “scandals” that were being dug out of the Stasi archives around the time of my arrival.  After the standard diet of communist atrocity stories and innuendo dished out by news media in the United States, I could hardly believe that the discovery that the Stasi might have had a hand in a dissident's unwarranted confinement in a mental asylum, and his ultimate suicide, could be shocking; a heinous abuse of power, no question, but no government ever lost its democratic credentials over such isolated misdemeanors.

The level of farce in recent trials of Stasi leaders has been high.  Erich Mielke, director of the Stasi for over 30 years, was sentenced in 1993 to six years in prison for the 1931 murder of a Berlin police officer, with evidence scraped out of yellowing Gestapo archives.  Markus Wolf, Mielke's deputy in charge of foreign espionage, inconvenienced the prosecution by not having killed anyone.   Wolf resigned from his post in 1987, when he wrote the groundbreaking book Troika openly critical of the SED regime, and so emerged in the GDR's last years as the unexpected partisan of reform. Certainly he was not the St. Francis of espionage that he has tried to present in his recent interviews, wholly innocent and ignorant of the repressive skullduggery going on down the hall, at the internal security division of the Stasi: good manners and kind thoughts never lofted anyone to the pinnacle of a Cold War intelligence service.  But there is no evidence, no published evidence at least, that Wolf was more nefarious in performing his job than his counterparts Klaus Kinkel of the BND (the West German espionage agency) or George Bush of the CIA; more effective, to be sure, but not more nefarious.  To argue, as the court did, that the BND spied only defensively, to protect the Federal Republic, while the Stasi spied offensively, to the detriment of the Federal Republic, is the sort of self-serving legalistic inanity that gives double standards a bad name.  The appeals court in Berlin agreed, and the case now awaits a decision by Germany's constitutional court.  Meanwhile, Wolf's agents, the former spies of the GDR, continue to be hunted up and put on trial.[DS38] 

One other prominent figure who has been tarred with the Stasi brush is Manfred Stolpe, formerly consistorial president of the Protestant Church in the GDR, now prime minister and leader of the SPD (Social-Democratic Party) in the East German state of Brandenburg.  It is hardly surprising that, in this capacity, he met often with government representatives, including those of the Stasi.  In 1992 the newspapers reported that newly uncovered documents from the Stasi files revealed that Stolpe had been registered with the Stasi for many years as an IM, an informer, with the code name “Secretary”.  In this capacity he met regularly with Stasi agents, and had even, at one clandestine meeting, been presented with a rare old Bible and a medal in recognition of his valuable service.  (The medal, being secret like all such decorations, was actually kept by the Stasi.)  Stolpe countered that his position required him to mediate between the church and the government, and while he personally found these contacts unsavory, he had used them to reduce friction and to defend church people whenever possible; he had never, he claimed, passed confidential or damaging information to the Stasi.  The majority of his constituents in Brandenburg seem to have accepted this explanation, although civil-rights activists have countered that Stolpe is either nave or disingenuous to contend that such conspiratorial cooperation could have helped anyone but the Stasi.  Since the details of Stolpe's reports are not in the public domain, and since their impact on individuals or on the church as a whole would be nearly impossible to tease out of the skein, the media soon fell to squabbling about such petty matters as whether he lied about the date of his citation, and who had actually handed the medal to him.  This strengthened the impression of many, that here a prominent East German was being battered down by the Western press for the crime of having lived in the GDR.

Yet even as many East Germans grumble about “victors' justice”, many others, or quite often the same ones, complain of the Federal Republic's absurdly lenient final reckoning with communist scoundrelry.  It is hardly surprising that a man who lost his teaching post or foreman's job, or was even imprisoned or confined to a psychiatric institution, because a false friend had reported his antigovernment quips to the Stasi, should crave revenge now that that regime is toppled, should be outraged to see the opportunist thrive in the new order, while he himself is still unemployed and unemployable.  Former Stasi agents are banned from the civil service, but it is a disappointing lesson in the limits of justice for him to discover that the most powerful and lucrative positions in capitalist Germany are in the private sector, where the government rarely interferes.  Furthermore, as Jens Reich points out, “while the public hunt for informants is mainly concentrated on the question of cooperation with the Stasi, slander and informing were much more common and also more effective in the `harmless civilian' arena: The Stasi gathered information, but the Party secretary could directly influence the approval for travel abroad or an appointment.”[DS39]   Teachers who barred their students from a university education by reporting them to be “politically immature”, because they refused to sign a petition supporting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia or condemning Israel, or because they criticized the Soviet Union in a homework essay, were just doing their jobs, and were not dismissed after the Wende; likewise school directors who dismissed politically heretical teachers.  The German parliament has refused to authorize compensation to these victims for lost wages; and reinstatement is in most cases not an option, since schools and universities, hospitals and factories, if they haven't been liquidated, all have been sloughing employees, not hiring new ones.  While it would be satisfying to see the denunciator bounced out, replaced in the post by his former victim, such poetic justice is impossible to apply impartially.  The most that they are entitled to is financial support for vocational training and for university study even beyond the usual age limit of 30 years, and calculating the lost years of work into their pensions.  If they have been imprisoned for political reasons they are entitled to monetary compensation from the German government.  They do also have the right, which should not be belittled, to read their Stasi files, to learn the truth about what befell them, and who was responsible.  One could argue that the revelation of their disgraceful behavior to the friends, neighbors, relatives, even spouses they betrayed, is in itself the most fitting punishment for the petty informers.[DS40] 

Such redress is denied those on the other side of the Cold War divide, those prosecuted in the 1950s and '60s in West Germany for their communist sympathies.  More than 150,000 West Germans were investigated for “endangering the state” and other vague suspicions, thousands were tried, others were imprisoned for years without trial.  Some were charged with belonging to the Communist Party, which had been banned in 1956, others with specially minted ex post facto laws and prohibitions.  For instance, the “Central Collective Happy Vacations for all Children”, which had arranged low-priced two-week vacations for children since 1954, mostly in the GDR, was banned in 1961, and its directors put on trial for “intelligence work endangering national security”.  Had they been caught spying for the Stasi?  No, their “intelligence work” consisted of informing the East German authorities of the children's identities.  Such people have no prospect of indemnification, despite a doomed bill proposed in parliament by the PDS*, and of course they have no access to their security files.  Instead, distilling the vital lessons from the web of illegalities in which the East German security forces entangled themselves, Chancellor Kohl's party has been pressing for a broader legalization of electronic surveillance by police and Verfassungsschutz, the “Bureau for Defending the Constitution”, as the West German internal security police are euphemistically named.  One of Erich Mielke's lieutenants was speaking from expert experience when he advocated turning over the Stasi files to the former adversary, the BND.  “Security services know how to keep secrets,” he said.


V. News and Propaganda[DS41] 



The reporters who write in the West,

Tell lies unfettered and bold;

While their colleagues who write in the East

Must lie properly, just as they are told,

And since he is roundly deceived

On his TV from both sides each day,

The average German believes

That he's learning the whole truth this way.

--Wolf Biermann*


Official propaganda was an omnipresent reality in East Germany, but far from what many outsiders often suppose.  A state such as the GDR, where nearly every home could receive West German radio and television, could not hope to isolate its citizens from undesirable facts and opinions; from the time of the Helsinki Accords in 1975 foreign reporters were allowed to report from East Germany, curtailing the SED's monopoly on domestic news as well.  Asked to describe East German television news, residents of East and West Berlin have told me it was dull, without the glossy production of West German news reports.  The facts, such as they were, were generally true, or at any rate too trivial for anyone to care: this or that factory director received a medal for achieving his yearly production quota, Erich Honecker met with the Polish Defense Minister, and so on.  Political repression and environmental scandals were purely foreign affairs, confined to client states of the US.

History texts ignored such uncomfortable occurrences as the 1953 workers' uprising, when panicked East German leaders called upon the Soviet army to shoot down demonstrators, and the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact which opened the way for Hitler (and Stalin) to invade Poland.  On the other hand, the labor struggles of the 19th century, and the mercantile colonialism of Europe and the United States were a good deal more extensively discussed than in West Germany or the United States, and the connections to modern international trade practices sketched in.  The secondary-school civics textbook An Introduction to Marxist-Leninist Philosophy includes a chart of the value of stock holdings of cabinet officials in the United States.  I found myself wondering, facetiously, why that information had not found its way into the civics text I had in school, in the chapter on “Checks and Balances”, for instance, or right after “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

In my own school in New York State, all history was strapped into a Procrustean bed called “the evolution of democracy”: events that did not evidence the inexorable procession of parliaments, constitutions, and “liberty and justice for all”, were lopped off, perhaps presented off to the side as curiosities, usually just buried.  The end result of history was the perfect democracy, the United States of America, in all its resplendent glory.  In the GDR, the Procrustean bed was called “class struggle”, a process which, naturally enough, flowed by the natural law of history, as revealed by Karl Marx, toward the final resolution of class conflicts in a socialist state: the GDR, that is, and its “big brother”, the Soviet Union.  The latter schema did not demand more cutting, more gaps, more violence done to the fabric of history than our own -- history is inevitably a moth-eaten fabric, barely holding together, if at all -- and if the methods by which the official history was enforced were a good deal more draconian than they were in our schools, it should be borne in mind, as Anita remarked, that “no student bothers finding out for herself about history.   How many people care that much about politics?”  In my own high school, it was exceedingly rare that anyone would challenge the predigested historical pabulum, and I can recall being reprimanded myself on several occasions for “distracting” the class by introducing issues outside of the approved syllabus into class discussion.

Orwellian legends notwithstanding, such words as “freedom” and “individual rights” were not struck from the East German lexicon; they were only reinterpreted along lines congenial to the self-righteous autarchs of East Berlin.  Thus, the fundamental human rights were defined to be: the right to food, clothing, and shelter; the right to medical care; the right to work.  Though these are all included in the United Nations Charter of Human Rights, they are officially appraised in the United States, and to a lesser extent in the Federal Republic of Germany, as consumer goods, to be purchased by those who can afford them.  In the above-mentioned civics textbook there are quite a few references to “freedom”, such as: “When someone talks about freedom, you should always pose the question: Whose freedom do you mean?  What class is served by this freedom that you're talking about?  What do you want to free yourself from, what is the purpose of this freedom that you demand?”  While the self-serving casuistry of this recommendation stinks like a desecrated corpse, the questions are well worth keeping in mind, at a time when the only freedom that has any currency is “free trade”.

Human cognition and judgment are underpinned by an elemental need to arrange our chaotic perceptions into structures of “rule” and “exceptions”.  Once formed, such structures are extraordinarily stable and flexible, capable of absorbing almost any impact of mere facts.  Any politician who advances beyond the level of shaking down fellow third-graders for their lunch money must learn to influence his or her constituents on this level, to provide them with a formula for interpreting mere facts to the politician's advantage.  The grander and simpler the theory the more appealing, and the more readily it can absorb and smother prior structures: hence Adolf Hitler's dictum about “the big lie”, hence the unflagging popularity of conspiracy theories, for instance those American perennials concerning the John F. Kennedy assassination.  “What convinces masses,” as Hannah Arendt wrote, “are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.”[DS42]   We in the West have been taught to see the dictatorial repression, the corruption, the abuse of power, the governments' spying on its citizens, as fundamental characteristics of communist regimes.  On the other hand, similar activities of our own governments, such as the FBI's CoIntelPro, need to be put into context: they are aberrations, not the nature of the beast.   Communist regimes preferred to focus their people's attention on the inherent contradictions of capitalism, on the growing cleft between rich and poor, the hordes of homeless beggars whose numbers swelled through the 1980s, particularly in the United States; we incline to view the fates of those unfortunates as an accident, which could be repaired by proper fine-tuning of our system, or as not due to the system at all, but to the failings of individuals.  East Germans recognize consciously the message that West Germans, through long familiarity, absorb subliminally: that the wino passed-out in his own urine at the end of the subway car serves the same purpose as the rumors of Stasi prisons.  It is the traitor's head spitted on the city gate, a warning to those tempted to stray from the path of system-approved righteousness.

Instead of accepting that their cousins to the east might have a lesson or two to teach about the constitution of a just society, West Germans have inclined to use their notions of freedom and justice as another club with which to bash the East Germans.  Rechtsstaat and Unrechtsstaat, literally “just state” and “unjust state”, are magic formulas intoned as an ego me absolvo and a j'accuse.  East Germans complain that those who simply tried to live normal lives, who disposed themselves toward their government just as the West German government did, as a recognized de jure regime, are treated as presumptively tainted by the official corruption of the Unrechtsstaat.  The sheep must be divided from the goats, victims from the villains, and heroic self-sacrifice, conscious opposition to the government, is the current measure of good citizenship for citizens of the GDR  This is not to say that those heroes are to be rewarded; Konrad Weiss observes that “for the reconstruction [in the East], the West German industry has availed itself without scruple of those who were responsible for the disaster.  Criminal economics comrades have found berths even at the Treuhand, while civil rights activists have hardly a chance with a West German firm, because they are considered insufficiently conformist.”[DS43]   Conformism is rewarded in cash in the West, as it was in the East, but a whiff of contempt clings to the East German; the master conformists, the Stasi general and the Volkskammer representative, may simply take each new opportunity with a smile, but what of the average citizen?

An acquaintance of mine, Renate, now a physical therapist in West Berlin, whose contempt for the GDR and its denizens was cemented during the almost two years that she spent in prison in the early 1970s for attempting to flee to the West, told me of a woman who had been blackmailed into spying for the Stasi.  This woman, too, had made plans to flee to the West, but when she was found out the authorities offered a deal: in return for not being prosecuted, she would report on the conversations of a band of “criminals” (actually dissidents) who met in the café in which she worked.  Renate's comment: “How could someone do that?  I can't understand it.  I would never inform on people to the authorities.”  Indeed she would not, but such upright recalcitrance is far from the norm.  It is perfectly usual for citizens to cooperate with the police, it is exceptional that they should agonize over their motives, over the possible misuse of their information, over the harm that could befall the innocent, or over the validity of the laws which define the criminals.  “State's evidence” is a venerable tradition in the West, too.  Is it a crime to spy on one's friends and neighbors, to report their private activities and conversations to the state security?  Perhaps it should be.  What, then, are we to say of the files of intimate data that the Verfassungsschutz has amassed on more than 600,000 German citizens and of the bureau's casually using these data to smear disfavored politicians and applicants for teaching positions?  The few news reports which mention these tactics fail to mention any massive protests, or any widespread refusal by the worthy citizens to inform on the personal lives of their neighbors.  And what shall we say of the hundreds of informers paid to infiltrate left-wing and pacifist organizations in the West?  What of the employer who fired a worker when the Verfassungsschutz informed him, in explicit contravention of federal privacy laws, that two of her friends had once served time in prison as members of the RAF*?

Petra, my Russian-language instructor, once remarked to me that she [DS44] had felt herself under surveillance not by the Stasi, but since the unification.  What specifically did she mean? I asked.  She cited the mailings that she received from any number of companies who seemed to know a great deal about her, starting with her name and address, continuing with the fact that she and her husband were building a house, and ending in the unknown.  To be sure, privacy rights are better protected in Germany than, for instance, in the USA, where employers have almost unlimited rights to snoop into their workers' private lives, and where a barely regulated credit police distributes intimate data to anyone willing to pay; still, such corporate files are unsettling to those more familiar with the use of personal files in a police state, and should perhaps be more unsettling to us who are accustomed to these practices, and who imagine that we know their limits.

A West German friend dismisses such analogies, citing the immeasurably greater level of repression in the GDR: more informants (`flächendeckend', `blanket' espionage, is the favored hyperbole); grave consequences for the victims, who stood accused of crimes of conscience that should never be crimes; politicized courts; vile and inhumane prisons; even executions, until capital punishment was abolished in 1988; without free press or legal opposition to check the arbitrary power of the regime.  All this, and much more, is undeniable truth, a damning indictment, but hardly to the point.  We may hold to the rigid standard that obliges the citizen to obey the laws currently in effect in his or her own nation.  We may go further, to hold up a “Nuremberg” standard of individual responsibility, which supersedes any nation's law or army's command in vaguely defined matters of basic humanity.  But it is insupportable to set as a standard, that the individual should be held responsible for judging the government's worthiness, and grant or withhold obedience accordingly.  It cannot be that spying and petty treachery are villainous if performed under one regime, to be pilloried and in some cases prosecuted in the courts; but under another regime a laudatory endeavor, to be protected and in some cases rewarded with cabinet posts.  It is good to spy for a good government, and bad to spy for a bad government.  How do we distinguish the good from the bad?  Quite simply, the bad government engages in bad spying, whereas the good government conducts only good spying.  The circle is vicious in the extreme.


V. Transfixed in the Onrushing Headlamps of History

“French patriotism is a warming of the heart, which expands through this warmth until its love encompasses not just the closest relatives, but all of France, the entire land of that civilisation; German patriotism, on the other hand, is a contracting of the heart, which pinches together like leather in the cold, so that the German hates everything foreign, so that he no longer has any desire to be a cosmopolitan, to be a European, to be anything but a narrow German.

--Heinrich Heine[DS45] 


It should be evident that the central issue is neither an ideological opposition, communism against capitalism, nor East against West, but that, in the words of psycho-sociologist Margarete Mitscherlich-Nielsen, “At last Germans have the opportunity to despise fellow Germans.”[DS46]   One of my most striking discoveries, after I moved to Berlin, was the flagrant contempt expressed by most Germans, especially, but not exclusively, by educated Germans, for all things German.  German films are despised, as is German rock music, language, and literature.  Time after time I was told, often by strangers I had just met, variations on “How can you stand it here?  The Germans are horrible.  I want to move away as soon as I can.”  Perhaps this was considered a form of politeness to me, a foreigner, but if so, it is a most abject one, as well as being the only attempt at politeness that many people ever hazarded.  The Polish author Andrzej Szczypiorski tells of a stay in Baden Baden, in southwest Germany, near the French border, when his hosts told him, “We Badeners, we aren't really Germans  We have Latin souls, love wine, beautiful women, love songs.”  A few days later, in Hamburg, a man said, “We Hamburgers, we aren't really Germans.  We have a hanseatic tradition, Scandinavian customs.”  So he asked, if this is all true, where do the Germans live? to which the man replied, “Go to the GDR.  That's where the Germans live.”

West Germans have long berated Easterners for their atavistic germanness, for the qualities that the cosmopolitan West would like to have sloughed off: nationalism, submissiveness, parochialism, and petty snooping.  Thus, one reads in a 1983 book on the punk scene and other countercultures in the GDR, that “what is being defended here [by the government] is not socialism.  Here is a conservative middle-class culture defending itself against being called into question by marginal groups.  Those who swing the hammer of state power, as if it were to prevent the collapse of socialism, are just following their petit-bourgeois instincts.”[DS47]   Indeed, the reports of Stasi informers, fixated as they seem to be on treasonous interior decoration and sinister Western pop music, not to mention the nervous fascination with all things prurient, read like the notes of a bunch of chattering small-town quidnuncs, puffed up with delusions of national significance.  In return, East Germans reproach Westerners with their own list of teutonicisms: arrogance, cold rationality, mercenary greed.  The stranger may be inclined to think he hears the cacophony of millions of pots and kettles calling each other black.

At a demonstration in Berlin on October 2, 1992, the day before unification, one sign carried the slogan, “Thank you, Helmut Kohl, for bestowing a revolution upon the German people.”[DS48]   Not just in Bonn, also in Washington and Moscow; not just in the parliaments, also in the boardrooms, the nabobs queued up to smear themselves with credit for having trounced the inferior communist system.  Just recently, when the speaker of the Bundestag spoke on the occasion of the presidential election in May, 1994, and thanked those responsible for the unification, there were three names on her roll of honor: Helmut Kohl, George Bush, and Mikhail Gorbachev.[DS49]   Amid the squeals of self-congratulation, it was almost possible to forget that those were not the names on the Stasi enemies-lists, those were not the faces that stared down the guns in Leipzig, those were not the men and women, no mere columns of numbers but a million individuals, and not a corporate sheikh among them, who mustered in the Alexanderplatz in East Berlin to demonstrate against the government.  The artists and scientists of the GDR, such as Christa Wolf and Bärbel Bohley, spoke up before the crowd, and the crowd stood and cheered.  They fought the revolution, the only successful popular revolt in German history, the only time Germans have ever faced down their own oppressors.  After the battle had been won, the West German politicians rolled in with their massive party machinery and flattened the nave intellectuals arrayed around their round-table; the West German corporations rolled in with their supermarkets and shopping malls and plucked the fat profits; but it was the East German people, and in the vanguard a plucky band of East German intellectuals, who defeated the communist dictatorship.  As Jens Reich remarks, “We won democracy by our own struggle, without any corpses.  We didn't take it on as a gift.  The gifts were all given out after 1945, namely democracy and freedom -- but not to us.”[DS50] 

To this list of gifts we might add the patronage of the only world's only functioning industrial power, nearly all of Germany's industrial capacity, and the invaluable service of old Nazis in the reconstruction.  East Germany, traditionally poorer and less industrialized than the West, began its life as an independent state with the great despot Stalin as its occupying lord, and with an understandably vengeful Soviet army still dismantling whatever industry had survived the fighting and shipping it back, to help rebuild the shattered Soviet economy.  In fact, the fear among the American leaders that they would indirectly be providing the reparations payments to the Soviet Union seems to have been the primary grounds for their decision to divide Germany, and so to allow each occupying power to take reparations from its zone as it saw fit.  In effect, then, the one-fourth of the country that became the GDR was forced to pay the entire reparations bill, even while the other three fourths were receiving development aid under the Marshall Plan.  It is hardly a surprise, even ignoring questions of communist mismanagement, that economic development in the East should have lagged so grievously behind that in the West.  We lost the war together, many East Germans complain.  Why is it that only we were punished, and are still being punished?  It is absurd that Chancellor Kohl should tout “the grace of late birth” as a miracle stain-remover of the spirit for himself and his contemporaries, too young to have soiled themselves badly in the Nazi swamp, and then claim the advantages bestowed by the occupying powers as marks of their own virtue and diligence.

Some East Germans try to recoup their honor in time-honored fashion, by beating down someone else, whether foreigners, members of minority groups, or the former socialist brother nations to the east.  The neo-Nazi thugs, well-publicized for their oafish racial bluster and brutality, have run rampant in many East German towns and cities.  West Germany has had its share of incidents, but it is in the East, for instance when a refugee hostel in Rostock came under attack, that crowds of solid citizens have come out to applaud.  They may feel like second-class Germans, but in opposition to Poles, Romanians, or Africans, they are simply Germans, and even apparently reasonable people itch to assert the power which they now implicitly represent.  Harry, for instance, the Ossi neo-tycoon who drove me to the Polish border.  I remarked to him that I had never before considered the fact that the arbitrary transfer of Poland hundreds of miles westward after the Second World War, to border on the Oder and Neisse rivers, that the German cities built on those rivers were split in half, with the eastern half now in Poland.  In particular, the Eastern portion of Frankfurt an der Oder, where I was headed, is now the Polish town of Slubice.  “That's right,” he replied, “I know some people who live there, and you know what?  They say themselves that they don't feel comfortable living there, where it was really German territory.  So maybe one of these days we'll have to make some alterations.  Maybe Germany will buy that territory back.”  Economic conquest rather than military, hard deutschmarks in place of hard steel: Germany's eastern neighbors are nervous, even as, or rather because, they see the only path to prosperity leading through Germany to the European Union.  On the day before the unification, Günter Grass reminded his countrymen that “On the eastern side of the Oder they have cause to wonder: If the rich West Germans deal with their poor compatriots so pitilessly, how can we expect the united Germans to pay us Poles back”.

In the quest for a glorious common past, many Germans hark back to the second Reich, to imperial Germany before the First World War.  A colossal equestrian statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I which stood by the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel rivers near Koblenz until it was damaged in the Second World War and taken down by the British, has now been ceremoniously returned to its pedestal.  The imperial capital Berlin is to be restored, and the now democratic parliament is to meet in the renovated Reichstag building.  Even more striking is the enormous plastic bag which at the moment nicely fills the Marx-Engels Platz in the center of East Berlin.  In the late spring of 1993 nearly 100,000 square feet of polyester canvas were stretched over a wire frame, and painted an ochre-shaded full-sized replica of the imperial palace, which was bombed out by the Allies during the war, and finally demolished by the communist authorities in 1950 to make space for those gargantuan parades so dear to the Stalinist heart, in which the populace would pass in review before its masters.  The palace had occupied this space, and the adjacent lot, where the Palace of the Republic now stands, a hideous 1970s-era glass and marble jewelry box in which the Volkskammer was wont to gather, and the mock-up represents a campaign to have the asbestos-contaminated communist palace eliminated, and the imperial one rebuilt, at an estimated cost of at least 300 million US dollars.  A West German student touted the baroque palace to me, as an “essential historical element of the city”.  Coincidentally, he came around scant minutes later to praising the recent demolition of a huge bust of Lenin which had graced a park in Berlin.  “The capital city of a democracy,” he said, “can't have a monument to a dictator.”  In troubled times such as these, apparently, even a Kaiser can become an honorary democrat.

It would be grotesquely unfair to suggest, as many foreign journalists are fond of doing, that the Germans are simply a lower breed of jackal, hiding revanchist inclinations behind a paperthin pacifist mask until they are prepared to pounce.  I know of no people who have been so thoroughly and consistently willing to explore and accept responsibility for their own and their parents' crimes as the postwar Germans; certainly not the United States, where great Indian killers such as President Andrew Jackson and General Custer are still numbered among the national heroes.  But despite the misapprehension fostered by the German word “Vergangenheitsbewältigung”, literally “overcoming the past”, the national past is not an acute infection to be eliminated with a good purging and a shot of historiographical penicillin.  It is a permanent condition, for good or ill, apt to overwhelm the present at times of weakness or inattention.  The psychologist Maaz points out that “we are not dealing just with sweeping change in the political and economic systems of East Germany, but also with a dangerous psychosocial deformity of Germany as a whole.  Just take a look at our past: All of us together were responsible for German national-socialism.  The characteristics in us that made it possible have not been touched.”  Thus, he contends, “fascism has been transmuted into Stalinism and consumerism.”  Such brash relativising is anathema to the commissars of consumerism, who would like to believe that, having survived its opponent, consumerism is now, like the victor of a medieval joust, confirmed as the paragon of political virtue.  Hardly anyone wants to see the cautionary lesson in the collapse of the GDR, to recognize the explosive power that advertising's endless commercial flatulence can accumulate in even the most apparently stable state; or to ask whether the vaunted prowess of Western economics is only buying time for an even more devastating explosion, when at last it falters in this ever-accelerating race.

* S.E.D. = Socialist Unity Party of Germany, the ruling party in the G.D.R. from the time of its founding.

* Stasi = Ministry for State Security, the East German secret police and espionage agency.

* HO = Trade Organization, the designation for the East German state-owned shops.

* The bear has been the city's mascot -- “Bear-lin” -- since the Middle Ages.

* Bundestag = lower house of the German parliament, responsible for drafting legislation.

* RAF = Red Army Faction, a left-wing terrorist organization led in the early `70s by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, hence the designation sometimes applied in the U.S. press, “Baader-Meinhof Gang”.  Baader and Meinhof were both murdered in prison.  The RAF still exists, in some form or other, and still commits occasional acts of mayhem, including, most recently, the bombing of a new prison in 1993.

* The Trabant, one of two makes of automobile manufactured in the GDR, noisy, stinky, as safe and solid as a tissue box, was always in short supply.  A standard joke had it, that a bank robbery would be impossible in East Germany, because the bandits would have to wait fifteen years for the getaway car to arrive.

* Beziehungen = connections.

* PDS = Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor party to the SED

* Biermann, a politically minded East German songwriter, was expelled from the GDR in 1976, ending several years of gradual cultural glasnost and precipitating a bitter split in the East German writers' union.  This song, “German Miserere”, was written a year later.

* RAF = Red Army Faction, a left-wing terrorist organization led in the early `70s by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, hence the designation sometimes applied in the U.S. press, “Baader-Meinhof Gang”.  Baader and Meinhof were both murdered in prison.  The RAF still exists, in some form or other, and still commits occasional acts of mayhem, including, most recently, the bombing of a new prison in 1993, and the assassination of Treuhand director Detlev Rohwedder in 1991.

 [DS1]"Gewinnmaximierung...”, p. 190. (in Die Treuhand)

 [DS2]Der Gefühlsstau, p. 92

 [DS3] Frühling im Herbst, p. 128

 [DS4] Frühling im Herbst, p. 165

 [DS5] See Das war die D.D.R., appendix.

 [DS6] Honoré M. Catudal,  Kennedy and the Berlin Wall Crisis, p. 201.

 [DS7] Ein Schnäppchen namens DDR, p. 15.

 [DS8] Ein Schnäppchen namens DDR, p. 23.

 [DS9] Der Spiegel, 34/1992, p.31

 [DS10] Timothy Garton Ash, In Europe's Name, p.356.

 [DS11] Nicholas Eberstadt, “Marx & Mortality: A Mystery” in New York Times, 4/6/94, p.A21

 [DS12] The Prince, XVII.

 [DS13] “Erst vereint, nun entzweit”, Der Spiegel, 3/1993, p. 56.

 [DS14] Schneider, Volk ohne Trauer, p. 94

 [DS15] Schneider, Frühling im Herbst, p. 162

 [DS16] Roesler, Die Treuhand, p.  30; FAZ, 4/12/91.

 [DS17]Heimbrecht, p. 61.

 [DS18] Heimbrecht, p. 62.

 [DS19] “Raffkes in der Klemme”, Der Spiegel, 47/1993, p. 36.

 [DS20] Hildebrandt, in Die Treuhand, p. 80.

 [DS21] Maaz, Das gestürzte Volk, p.48.

 [DS22] Maron, Der Spiegel, 35/1992, p. 138.

 [DS23] Der Spiegel, 51/1993, p. 45.

 [DS24] “Alles über den Kopf”, Der Spiegel, 22/1992, p. 99.

 [DS25] Nicholas Eberstadt, “Marx & Mortality: A Mystery” in New York Times, 4/6/94, p.A21

 [DS26] “Das Glitzern in der Wüste”, Der Spiegel, 39/1993, p. 51.

 [DS27] “Totenglocke im Elfenbeinturm”, Der Spiegel, 6/1994.

 [DS28] “Battle of the Baltic”

 [DS29] Konrad Wei, “Verlorene Hoffnung der Einheit”, Der Spiegel, 46/1993, p.44

 [DS30] Die Treuhand..., p. 77.

 [DS31] Der Tagesspiegel, 12/27/93, p. 6.

 [DS32] “Privat geht vor Katastrophe”, Der Spiegel, 30/1992, p. 51.

 [DS33] Der Spiegel, 46/1993, p. 238.

 [DS34] Peter Bender, “Wo ist die Grenze zwischen Moral und Nutzen”, Weil das Land Versöhnung braucht, p. 45-6.

 [DS35] “Wahrheit, nicht Rache”, Der Spiegel, 41/1993, p. 59.

 [DS36] Rolf Schneider, Frühling im Herbst, p. 156.

 [DS37] Uwe Wesel, “Aristoteles, Markus Wolf, und die Mauerschützen”, Weil das Land Versöhnung braucht, p. 94.

 [DS38] Wesel, pp. 98-9.

 [DS39] Jens Reich, Abschied von den Lebenslügen, p. 15.

 [DS40] “Böses Ende”, Der Spiegel, 50/1992, p.105.

 [DS41] Frühling im Herbst, p. 179.

 [DS42] The Origins of Totalitarianism, 11.I.

 [DS43] Konrad Wei, “Verlorene Hoffnung der Einheit”, Der Spiegel, 46/1993, p. 44.

 [DS44] Cf., “Blaues Wunder”, Der Spiegel 15/1992, pp. 90-3 and “Frauen an der Hotelbar”,  42/1993, pp. 58-63.

 [DS45] Die Romantische Schule, I

 [DS46] Mitscherlich-Nielsen, “Und wieder keine Trauerarbeit”, Die Treuhand, p.200.

 [DS47] Null Bock auf D.D.R., p. 36.

 [DS48] Frühling im Herbst, p. 180.

 [DS49] Der Spiegel, 22/1994, p. 27.

 [DS50] “Auf Glitschigem Boden”, Der Spiegel 51/1993, p. 45.