East Germans don’t have a monopoly on nostalgia

Although the GDR was little better than an open prison, a surprising number of its former citizens hanker after the old days. Such a longing for old certainties exists elsewhere in the West, too.

Neil Davenport

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In the past decade, a number of middle-class radical acquaintances of mine have made a sort of pilgrimage to Cuba, to check out the country before it finally opens up to the likes of McDonald’s, Starbucks and Toyota. For some, Cuba has become an anti-consumerist paradise, even if actually living there is far from heavenly. It is surprising that former anti-Stalinists, with a long background in Trotskyist organisations, would slobber enthusiastically about Cuba’s welfare and healthcare system. So much for ‘neither Washington nor Moscow’.

Recently, there has been a similarly warm reappraisal of another Stalinist outpost: the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The GDR was made up of the portion of eastern Germany handed over to the Soviet Union in the postwar carve-up and existed from 1946 until 1990, when it was reunited with West Germany. The German term Ostalgie describes the feelings of ex-GDR citizens who miss aspects of life in the Stalinist state. Many Ossies (easterners) have started to complain about the overly negative press their former homeland tends to get. It is this ‘balanced reappraisal’, of putting former GDR citizens ‘at the centre of their history’, that provides the research foundation for Mary Fulbrook’s The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker. Fulbrook, a British academic, was intrigued to find that more and more GDR citizens were openly discussing ‘fond memories’ about what appeared to be little more than an open prison (though with worse rations).

The term ‘People’s State’ seems bitterly ironic given the wholly artificial creation of the GDR in postwar Germany. German citizens had no say in the division of their country between the Allies and the Soviet Union. For those living in the eastern sector, this imposed settlement had more brutalising and damaging consequences than those fortunate enough to remain on the western side of the border. Once this deeply peculiar and artificial state had stabilised, and the deprivations of the immediate postwar period had subsided, Fulbrook argues, there was active participation in the GDR from ordinary East German citizens. And it is the contemporary absence of this ‘widespread sense of community and collective responsibility’ that partly informs the fad for Ostalgie in Germany today.

The GDR was not simply ‘another’ state sucked into the Soviet bloc; rather it arose from very specific circumstances in Germany itself. The Soviets entrusted political rule to a hybrid of the German Communist Party (KPD) and the Social Democrats to form the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in 1946. It is a testament to the weaknesses of these organisations – understandable given the battering they received under the Third Reich – that the SED quickly bought into the ‘collective guilt’ thesis foisted on to German citizens by the Allies: that all German citizens were responsible for the slaughter of six million Jews. As a consequence, the new socialist elite had ‘little trust in the political judgement of the millions of their German compatriots: the millions who had either actively supported Hitler or had passively acquiesced in his rule’.

Even by the standards of Stalinist repression, GDR citizens were under greater scrutiny and surveillance than anywhere else in the Eastern Bloc. The GDR secret police, the Stasi, had some three million of the country’s citizens under surveillance (the country’s population was about 16million in 1990). This was mostly down to the fact that the use of force was the only way to get the country working.

This surveillance society was also informed by the distrust the political elites had towards their citizens: the potential ‘class enemies’, the ‘secret supporters of Hitler’, over whom they were now ruling. The bitterness old German leftists had towards fascist activists explains why some GDR citizens were also willing to spy and inform on those ‘suspected’ of being against socialism. Indeed, to the extent that the GDR had any sliver of legitimacy in the eyes of its imprisoned citizens, it was in the fact that its leaders, like Erich Honecker, could package the state as an anti-fascist one. The GDR represented ‘the innocents’ compared with the ‘complicit imperialists’ of the West, where former Nazis were still in positions of power. According to Fulbrook, during times of unpopularity, the SED played its anti-fascist card to win back support against the ‘corrupt, decadent system’ on the other side of the border.

Unfortunately for the SED, the Federal Democratic Republic (FDR) in West Germany was far better at getting good-quality food and consumer goods into the shops. Exhortations to anti-fascism wore thin when decent clothes, cars and groceries were in short supply in the East, which was particularly embarrassing when the GDR’s stated goal was the material betterment of all. As such, the GDR’s limited ability to compete with the FDR’s higher productivity was a persistent problem for the ruling bureaucracy. After East German workers downed tools and staged a serious uprising in 1953, attempts to improve the quality and variety of consumer goods – rather than the previous obsession with heavy industry – became the main direction of the GDR. Elsewhere, the bureaucracy attempted to compensate for the absence of consumer goods – for example, citizens had to wait 15 years for the privilege of owning a Trabant car – by providing a wide range of cultural activities, crèche facilities for young families and a commitment to gender equality.

Fulbrook finds that many Ossies speak warmly about the recreational facilities, the engaging cultural activities and the cheap holidays available in the GDR. And this is a recurring theme throughout The People’s State: that GDR citizens were able to lead ‘perfectly ordinary lives’ of work, leisure and raising a family. Although Fulbrook doesn’t in any way gloss over the grotesque inadequacies of the GDR, celebrating the fact that adults could get on with the job of procreation and recreation is setting the bar quite low as to what qualifies as a successful society. Surely a communist society should aim to facilitate extraordinary lives, of greater leisure time and experimentalism, of weekend trips to the moon and fantastic new discoveries? Cheap camping holidays in the Baltic are a poor substitute.

The other problem with Fulbrook’s ‘perfectly ordinary lives’ standpoint is that measuring social progress becomes a rather subjective process. For Fulbrook, the fact that young families in the 1960s and early 1970s could find contentment and happiness within the GDR’s ‘socialist new towns’ and collective recreational activities is proof that this warped state had something going for it. Fulbrook is genuine and sincere in her aim to be scrupulously academic and unbiased in The People’s State, but she does appear to be influenced by the irksome ‘happiness’ agenda, and its corollary of growth scepticism. Rather than exploring in detail why the GDR failed to stimulate economic growth, Fulbrook is keen to show how the recreational aspects of GDR life provided more than adequate compensation for the lack of fresh bananas and quality jeans. So when citizens were helping to construct new socialist towns, the sense of collective spirit generated by the project appears to Fulbrook to be more important than the quality of materials being used.

Still, at least Fulbrook doesn’t buy into the Western left’s prejudices about the ‘marvels’ of the Eastern Bloc’s healthcare system. Far from the GDR excelling at caring for the sick and elderly, Fulbook found a healthcare system that was even worse than in Western European countries. Medicines and machines were in short supply; problems of staff shortages meant hospitals and care homes were in a state of disrepair; and the quality of services was meagre, too. Far from being the apex of a socialist paradise, the health system in the GDR was just like other aspects of the command economy: inefficient, wasteful and incapable of using labour productively. In fact, the SED’s priority of producing consumer goods, at least to offset any further revolt by its citizens, meant that many problems in the GDR’s health services were overlooked.

The People’s State doesn’t provide much detailed economic analysis as to the workings, and non-workings, of the GDR’s economy. (I would recommend reading Frank Furedi’s The Soviet Union Demystified before tackling The People’s State.) But Fulbrook is wise to examine the GDR’s economy both internally and in its international context, examining similarities and key differences between the GDR, other Eastern Bloc states, and the West. She correctly identifies how the withdrawal of Soviet economic support, particularly on oil supplies, was the final act that flattened the GDR’s economy entirely. As this tiny state was forced to become even more self-sufficient, problems of waste and inefficiency were exacerbated. By the end of the 1980s, this barely functioning society started to resemble a battered developing nation rather than a fully modernised economy.

Fulbrook also identifies similar social trends to Furedi as a consequence of the autarkic economy. For example, she notes the tendency towards self-sufficiency and the ‘make do and mend’ strategies deployed by substantial numbers of GDR citizens. But rather than seeing self-sufficiency as further evidence of a backward social system, and one inferior to capitalism, Fulbrook can see a positive human dimension to it. The pragmatism of making life a little more bearable in the GDR meant that people continually helped each other out. They were in contact with each other on a daily basis as this was the only way to improve their immediate lives. It is the absence of such solidarities today, she notes, that is one of the sources of Ostalgie amongst former GDR citizens.

At the start of The People’s State, Fulbrook is careful to highlight the problem of nostalgia when conducting social research. She notes that the passing of time can lead individuals to put a positive gloss on rather downbeat times; rose-tinted memories are hardly a reliable starting point for a research hypothesis. Nevertheless, it does seem that a substantial number of former GDR citizens haven’t found paradise in the unified Federal Republic of Germany. In one recent piece of sociological research, a former GDR citizen said they felt like ‘an immigrant in their own country’. Ironically enough, divisions between Ossies and Wessies are greater now than they were when Germany was physically divided.

This feeling of anomie and rootlessness expressed by Ossies, however, has less to do with the ‘marvels’ of the old GDR and more to do with how the West has changed. What’s striking about ex-GDR citizens’ complaints of ‘not being part of society anymore’ is how such sentiments have been expressed by workers in the West, too. Certainly in Britain, a country that has gone further in distancing itself from its past traditions and solidarities than many other places, many workers also feel like they don’t ‘fit in’ with the norms of New Britain. They, too, feel ‘unwelcome’ by an ever-more remote and disdainful political elite.

In the opening chapters of The People’s State, Fulbrook outlines the goals and vision of this new society by the ruling SED. It’s striking how there seems to be a genuine desire to create the Good Society, of ensuring decent living standards, of raising cultural standards and of facilitating the conditions through which people can develop their talents. It is this vision, this clear idea of what society stands for, that enabled GDR citizens to be part of something bigger than themselves, even if the end results left a lot to be desired. But this wasn’t peculiar to the Eastern Bloc – a vision of the Good Society, of using modern science and technology to improve people’s lives, also acted as social glue in Europe and America. Indeed, part of the battle between western Capitalism and eastern Communism was a competition over which system could best provide for its citizens.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Bloc, the West no longer has to prove that it is committed to ensuring the Good Society or championing the benefits of modernity. In fact, Western leaders are more likely to indulge all kinds of reactionary loathing towards the positive aspects of modernity. As a consequence, European societies are bereft of any vision to integrate their citizens. The managerial, dictatorial role of the EU has effectively replaced proper democratic participation. Although living standards have never been higher in Europe, there has also never been a weaker sense of what it means to be a citizen of Germany, Britain, France, Holland, etc. The problem of anomie expressed by former GDR citizens is actually one that is acutely felt by many citizens across Europe, particularly among older generations who were used to being ‘part of society’ and were encouraged to act as citizens in a meaningful way. Ironically, the most distasteful aspects of the old GDR – lack of freedom and rights, extensive state surveillance, the ‘suspicion’ that the masses are fascists-in-waiting – are all now found in the West, including Britain.

The People’s State is a fascinating, compelling, thoroughly researched book on what life was like in the former German Democratic Republic. It’s also a relief to read something about Germany that isn’t just about the Third Reich and, in the pre-history of the GDR, it’s a pointer to new generations that the most economically advanced country in Europe was once home to the most politicised and organised working class (not for nothing does Frankfurt still have a ‘Karl Marx Avenue’ and ‘Rosa Luxemburg Street’). As with all history books, the themes and observations are informed by contemporary ideas as much as events from the past. At times, Fulbrook appears influenced by today’s anti-materialism and the importance of ‘psychological wellbeing’ and is thus far kinder to the old GDR than she needs to be. Nevertheless, by raising the question as to why so many Ossies are yearning for the past, she prompts a broader question as to why many ordinary people in the West actually feel the same.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker, by Mary Fulbrook, is published by Yale University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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