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The legend behind the wall
"The GDR seemed doomed from the very beginning" is the pithy observation of Matthias von Hellfeld, a commentator for the Federal German broadcasting service Deutsche Welle. Indeed, at its inception in October 1949 the German Democratic Republic was not only very much smaller in size and population than its capitalist rival, the Federal Republic of Germany, but was far lower in per-capita income and production.
While Eastern Germany was paying massive reparations to the Soviet Union (as had been agreed by the leaders of the victorious allies at the Potsdam Conference in July-August 1945), Western Germany was absolved from this responsibility by the Western powers and was instead provided with huge transfers of US technology and financial aid under the Marshall Plan.
And- given that the GDR's main trading and technological development partners were to be the relatively poorer and less developed nations of Eastern Europe and the USSR, whereas the FRG had as its economic allies the richest and most technologically advanced countries in the world, also benefitting as an economic bloc from their control of resources in the Third World- that imbalance in possibilities for economic development would countinue throughout the existence of the two separate Germanies.
Naturally, none of those factors were mentioned in the Deutsche Welle commentary; an article which also, like the rest of the Western media coverage surrounding the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, strives to give the impression that it was the creation of the German Democratic Republic on October 7th 1949, and the actions of the Soviet Union, that divided Germany into two opposing states.
In fact the GDR was founded in response to the establishment on 23rd May 1949, on the territory occupied by the USA, Britain and France, of the Federal Republic of Germany. That event, which ensured the long-term division of the country with the most affluent two-thirds of it forming part of the Cold War Western alliance, was the fruition of a series of actions by the US, Britain and France which flagrantly violated the terms of the Potsdam treaty. Pat Turnbull recounts in an article published in the Autumn 2009 issue of the Socialist Correspondent:
In the post-war situation a four-power Control Council was in charge of Germany, corresponding to the four zones (Soviet, US, British and French) into which Germany had been split. All decisions were supposed to be by consensus.
The aim was supposed to be to implement the Potsdam Agreement and continue the process towards reuniting Germany as a democratic nation and concluding a peace treaty. In defiance of this aim, on December 2, 1946 the US and Britain unified their occupation zones to form the so-called Bizonia, and from then on all important questions there were settled not by the Control Council, but by a bizonal
In May 1947 a separate Anglo-American agreement established an economic council, an executive committee and other separate German administrative agencies for Bizonia. On September 1947, the US and British representatives concluded a new separate agreement on joint Anglo-American control of the Ruhr collieries, and established a Supreme German Court and Bank Deutscher Laender for Bizonia. In 1948 the French zone was incorporated and Trizonia was born.
Early in 1948 the Control Council had reached agreement on the principles of all-German currency reform and all details on new bank notes. But on March 23, 1948 the US, British and French representatives refused to continue with the preparations. On June 20, 1948 the Western Powers effected a separate currency reform which they had been preparing for a long time, using bank notes printed
in the USA. Economic relations between the parts of Germany were disrupted and trade between the Eastern and Western zones became in effect trade between two different states.
The Western Powers obstructed preparatory measures for setting up an all-German government. They did not allow the unification of parties across Germany; in March 1947 some Liberal Democrat Party organisations asked the Control Council permission to unite in a nation-wide Democratic Party of Germany, but this was prevented by the negative stand of the west. When, with huge membership support, the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party of Germany merged in the Soviet zone to form the Socialist Unity Party, no such unification was allowed in the western zones.
More than once from 1945 onwards the Soviet representatives on the Control Council proposed that trade unions function over the whole of Germany; the western representatives blocked it. The west banned in their zones the democratic organisations which had been very quickly established in the Soviet zone.
Divide and rule
The political, military and economic division, not merely of Germany, but of the European continent, was a key part of the Western Cold War project, the eventually successful aim of which was to isolate, weaken and destroy the Soviet Union and the communist movement. On April 4th 1949, six weeks preceding the founding of the FRG, The United States and its West European allies established NATO; the Warsaw Pact was not formed until 1955. And despite the formalisation of Germany's break-up into two states, the Soviet Union continued to propose the re-unification of the country, on the basis that it would become neutral and demilitarised. As Andy Newman has noted:
Even after the formation of the two states [FRG and GDR], reunification was anticipated. Stalin offered Soviet withdrawal in March 1952, and Beria made the same offer during his brief period in control of the USSR during the summer of 1953. However, the West was unwilling to concede to the demilitarisation of West Germany.
Indeed, the preferred objective of the USSR was that Germany should follow the Austrian path. Austria was also originally under shared occupation, but the USSR favoured unification on condition that it was militarily and diplomatically neutral. This was achieved by 1955.
As Mary Fullbrook explains in her bibliographic essay 'Interpretations of the Two Germanys 1945-1990' : “analysis of the actual steps through which the division of Germany proceeded reveals that the Western Powers repeatedly took initiatives to which Soviet measures came largely in response”.
Thus the communists created and led the German Democratic Republic, but not under circumstances of their own choosing. The Berlin Wall, which was constructed in August 1961, was built for two very pressing economic reasons, one of which is little known. Pat Turnbull recalls:
By 1961 63,000 people were living in Berlin, GDR, but working in West Berlin. Because of the exchange rates, they were earning four or five times as much as West Berlin workers. They were living in GDR Berlin, paying low rents, food prices and fares without paying a penny in taxes to the state. In effect, 32,000 GDR workers fed the border-crossers with the surplus product of their labour for ten whole years.
Then there were the smugglers. ‘The Wall and Humanity’ (GDR, 1962) puts it like this: ‘They, too, followed the same recipe for accumulating wealth: take, say, 100 west marks; go to the exchange office and change them into 500 east marks. Go shopping in Democratic Berlin and buy – let us say, a camera. Return to West Berlin and sell the camera there for some 400 west marks. Then start the whole dirty business all over again. Take the 400 west marks, change them into 2,000 east marks and become a rich man within a few months at the expense of the GDR!
‘This was the loss to the GDR – 35 thousand million marks, 35 thousand million marks that might have been invested in the construction of schools, hospitals, for the more rapid increase in living standards…'
The other reason was to stem the flow of mainly highly skilled workers and professionals- the cost of whose training had been borne by the GDR- to the West, where they would recieve substantially higher wages; not only because the West was richer but because it was a more unequal society, with much higher pay differentials between employees according to their skill levels.
But for the building of the wall, the GDR's economy would have collapsed; and its construction was a great success in the short and medium term. Having plugged the drain of financial and human resources to the West, the economy of the East was stabilised, and soon began to grow more rapidly than that of the West- though, due largely to the effects of the US-imposed trade and technology sanctions which were applied by all the advanced capitalist countries via CoCom (also known as the 'economic arm of NATO'), it never came anywhere near to catching up.
The imposition of the Berlin Wall was also a highly significant success in maintaining peace in Europe- by emphatically demonstrating that the GDR would not succumb economically and politically, it was one of the factors which led to a moderation of the confrontational policies of the NATO bloc, thus opening the way for a degree of detente between the USA and the USSR, and their respective allies. As Vincent Browne remarks in an article in the Irish Times, entitled 'Berlin Wall celebrations mask reason it was built':
The wall defused a dispute that hung over from that [Second World] war, a dispute that could have resulted in far worse consequences, possibly a nuclear conflict in the heart of Europe.
And he speculates:
There is reason to suspect the then US president, John F Kennedy, may have agreed secretly with the construction of the wall as a way of defusing the crisis, which threatened confrontation between the Soviet Union and America. Kennedy remained curiously silent when the wall went up.
But the construction of the Berlin Wall represented a long term moral and ideological defeat for the 20th Century communist movement. Vincent Browne observes:
The wall became a symbol of the tyranny of communist eastern Europe, and its fall 20 years ago was seen as an emblem of victory for the 'free world'.
And in the end, when the wall was demolished, the German Democratic Republic itself was pulled down with it.
Two decades later, and despite the attempts by politicians and the press and television to revive the spirit of 1989, that year in which the cheers of partying Berliners provided the theme tune for the stamping of Western dominance and the 'free-market' onto the face of the world, a shadow hangs over the anniversary celebrations of the defeat of communism in Europe. In the countries which have experienced both social systems, the view of very many people is that capitalism has not delivered on its promise of providing more prosperity than the socialist economic system; and unemployment and job insecurity- problems which did not exist under the communist regimes- are ravaging those societies.
A public opinion survey conducted in eight of the former socialist countries, published on 2nd November 2009 by the Pew Research Center, included the question: 'compared with communism, the current economic situation is- better or worse?' The answers were as follows:-
Poland: Better 47%, Worse 35%
Czech Republic: Better 45%, Worse 39%
Russia: Better 33%, Worse 45%
Slovakia: Better 29%, Worse 48%
Lithuania: Better 23%, Worse 48%
Bulgaria: Better 13%, Worse 62%
Ukraine: Better 12%, Worse 62%
Hungary: Better 8%, Worse 72%
And despite twenty years of strenuous efforts by the government, the media, and other institutions to re-educate the population with capitalist values and opinions, a big proportion of those who live in eastern Germany have refused to accept the official verdict on the GDR. In July 2009, the magazine Der Spiegel reported in horrified tones, under the headline 'Homesick for a Dictatorship: Majority of Eastern Germans Feel Life Better under Communism':
Glorification of the German Democratic Republic is on the rise two decades after the Berlin Wall fell. Young people and the better off are among those rebuffing criticism of East Germany as an 'illegitimate state.' In a new poll, more than half of former eastern Germans defend the GDR.
As the article noted:
Today, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 57 percent, or an absolute majority, of eastern Germans defend the former East Germany. "The GDR had more good sides than bad sides. There were some problems, but life was good there," say 49 percent of those polled [...]
These poll results, released last Friday in Berlin, reveal that glorification of the former East Germany has reached the center of society. Today, it is no longer merely the eternally nostalgic who mourn the loss of the GDR.
The Der Spiegel article included an interview with a 30 year old man who, although he has achieved personal success under capitalism, rejects the denigration of the German Democratic Republic:
Birger is sitting in a Hamburg cafe, defending the former communist country. "Most East German citizens had a nice life," he says. "I certainly don't think that it's better here." By "here," he means reunified Germany [...] In Birger's opinion, there is no fundamental difference between dictatorship and freedom. "The people who live on the poverty line today also lack the freedom to travel."
Birger is by no means an uneducated young man. He is aware of the spying and repression that went on in the former East Germany, and, as he says, it was "not a good thing that people couldn't leave the country and many were oppressed." He is no fan of what he characterizes as contemptible nostalgia for the former East Germany. "I haven't erected a shrine to Spreewald pickles in my house," he says, referring to a snack that was part of a the East German identity. Nevertheless, he is quick to argue with those who would criticize the place his parents called home: "You can't say that the GDR was an illegitimate state, and that everything is fine today."
To help its readers to understand this alarming phenomenon, the Der Spiegel article cited some experts including the political scientist Professor Klaus Schroeder. Schroeder is deeply worried by the fact that young people today have not imbibed the negative portrayal of the German Democratic Republic which they are taught in school:
He warns against efforts to downplay the SED [Socialist Unity Party] dictatorship by young people whose knowledge about the GDR is derived mainly from family conversations, and not as much from what they have learned in school. "Not even half of young people in eastern Germany describe the GDR as a dictatorship, and a majority believe the Stasi was a normal intelligence service," Schroeder concluded in a 2008 study of school students. "These young people cannot, and in fact have no desire to, recognize the dark sides of the GDR."
Schroeder [...] received more than 4,000 letters, some of them furious, in reaction to reporting on his study [...] Some of the material gives a shocking insight into the thoughts of disappointed and angry citizens. "From today's perspective, I believe that we were driven out of paradise when the Wall came down," one person writes, and a 38-year-old man "thanks God" that he was able to experience living in the GDR, noting that it wasn't until after German reunification that he witnessed people who feared for their existence, beggars and homeless people.
Today's Germany is described as a "slave state" and a "dictatorship of capital," and some letter writers reject Germany for being, in their opinion, too capitalist or dictatorial, and certainly not democratic. Schroeder finds such statements alarming. "I am afraid that a majority of eastern Germans do not identify with the current sociopolitical system."
Other Western experts, also disturbed by the refusal of millions of people in eastern Germany to endorse the official opinion on the German Democratic Republic, resort to psychological explanations. Writing in the Daily Telegraph on 7th November, Professor Charles S. Maier of Harvard University suggests that a final solution to the problem of positive views of the GDR may only be achieved when those Germans who experienced life under socialism are dead:
People don't like to be told they were pursuing a fool's errand for most of their lives and that their experiment (as one regime stalwart conceded) was a mere footnote of history.
How to validate their 40-year experience without whitewashing an abusive system has proved an almost insuperable challenge – perhaps to be solved only by the final passage of the GDR generation.
The good life
What is it that young people in eastern Germany hear in those family conversations which so alarm Professor Schroeder, and which Professor Maier hopes will cease to take place when the older generation have gone to their graves? Though largely transmitted by word of mouth, and unmentionable in the mainstream media, the social achievements of the German Democratic Republic have been recorded by some academic studies and left-wing publications.
Among the latter, a booklet by Bruni de la Motte and John Green, entitled 'Stasi Hell or Workers’ Paradise? Socialism in the German Democratic Republic - what can we learn from it?' provides some very useful information. The authors, both of whom spent many years in the GDR, remark:
In our own society, which is dominated by the freemarket ideology, we have seen a breakdown of communities, of solidarity and mutual care, particularly since Thatcher announced that ‘no such thing as society exists’. We have become a society of self-centred individuals. Our society is ridden with fears – of crime, unemployment, homelessness and isolation.
One of the great achievements of the GDR was to create a stable society largely free of such existential fears. Everyone had a right to education, a job and a roof over their heads. An emphasis was placed on society, rather than on individualism, promoting co-operation, solidarity and mutual help. This process of socialisation began with children in the kindergartens, continued through school and into the workplace and housing estates. Almost everyone felt responsible for communal areas, for the cleanliness of their housing block, the transport systems, public buildings and their workplaces.
In schools the better pupils helped those less able and class achievements were seen as equally important as one’s own individual attainments. A sense of pride grew in achievements of the school class, the school itself or the state – they were things everyone had contributed towards and of which they could be proud.
In the factories the brigade or team system also helped engender the idea of co-operation and better working together. Brigades would also socialise outside work and celebrate joint successes with a social get-together in a local restaurant, a group trip to the theatre, exhibitions or sporting events.
The majority of people were encouraged to think and behave in terms of promoting the good of society and not simply their own individual advancement or wealth.
All this brought about a more cohesive society; people felt a sense of belonging, and there was a general lack of cynicism and pessimism. People felt part of a system which wasn’t exploitive and in which they were valued as vital contributors to the greater wellbeing of all. They were imbued with hope and witnessed a steady improvement in their material well-being and could look forward to a secure future for themselves and their children.
While the level of wages and the availability of consumer goods were considerably lower in the GDR when compared to West Germany, working class people enjoyed a lifestlyle of co-operation and security. As Bruni de la Motte and John Green record:
It was not just in the rhetoric that workers and workers’ rights were placed high on the policy agendas of the socialist countries. After all, the main aim of any socialist state, based on the theories of Marx and Engels, was to achieve the freedom of workers from exploitation and oppression; they were seen as the motor and central pillar of society. Work itself was elevated to a place of pride and esteem and, even if you happened to be in a lower paid or manual job, you were valued for the work you did which was necessary for the functioning of society. The socialist countries were also designated ‘workers’ states and it was not merely an empty phrase when their governments argued that the workers, who produced the commodities that society needed, should be placed at the forefront of society. Those who did heavy manual work, like miners or steel workers, enjoyed certain privileges: better wages and health care than those in less strenuous or dangerous professions, like office work or teaching.
In the GDR, factories and workplaces had a constitutional obligation to ensure the care and health of their workers, but they also had responsibilities in the social sphere. The GDR saw itself as a worker-centred society in which not only the state but every employer together with the trade union had a duty of care for their workforce. There were workplace clinics, doctors and dentists attached to large factories and institutions. For those working in more dangerous or less healthy environments there was regular health monitoring. From medical care, to the provision of leisure and holiday facilities and childcare, even down to the most personal issues of finding accommodation were often taken care of by the workplace. Larger factories or institutions had their own children’s holiday centres set up for their employees’ children. There children could go on summer or winter holidays without their parents and would be looked after by trained staff, who organised games and activities for them.
Workers were involved in discussions of workplace issues and the organisation of the work process. Though, real involvement in the economic and production plans of their workplaces was often realised more on paper than in reality. The national trade union (FDGB) in the GDR was often dismissed in the West as merely a state run organisation to prevent workers rebelling or going on strike. However, even though it didn’t have the independence from the state that trade unions have in the West, it played a key role in ensuring the health and safety and wellbeing of the workforce.
The trade union owned and ran a whole number of rest homes, sanatoria and holiday accommodation which were used by the workforce and their families for nominal prices. This system helped solve the problem for working parents of caring for their children during school holiday periods. By the 1980s around 80% of the population was able to go on some form of holiday, although most of these would be taken in the GDR itself, many in one of such centres at very low prices.
No worker could be sacked, unless for serious misconduct or incompetence. However, even in such cases, other alternative work would be offered. The other side of the coin was that there was also a social obligation to work – the GDR had no system of unemployment benefit, because the concept of unemployment did not exist. There were, of course, cases where employees were sacked illegally for what was considered ‘oppositional behaviour’, but usually the sanction involved demotion rather than sacking.
There were, of course, workplace grievances which were sometimes not solved to the satisfaction of the workforce and a strike would take place. In 1971, for instance, 48 strikes took place and 39 in 1972. Strikes were not officially banned, but were certainly not encouraged and every effort was made to solve problems before they reached such a stage [...]
Working people in the GDR certainly had a level of self-confidence, a feeling of self-worth and dignity which is often missing among the workforces under capitalism. This influenced the mental health of individual workers and helped cement a social cohesion – positive impacts that can not be underestimated.
There was no unemployment. Education was provided free of charge at every level, from nursery school to PhD.
And, as the authors note, the German Democratic Republic had an exemplary record in providing for the rights of women and the welfare of children:
The GDR had arguably one of the best childcare systems in the world. The state provided virtually free nurseries and kindergartens (parents could choose between a workplace or neighbourhood nursery/kindergarten); only food had to be paid for – a nominal charge. This system was vital in enabling women to embark on careers outside the home and explains why 91% of all women of childbearing age opted to have children. The nurseries and kindergartens were run by trained professionals, who provided the children with a stimulating and, according to their age, appropriate educational input. They were a strong force in the vital socialisation of children.
From 1980 onwards, mothers qualified for 12 months leave from work after the birth of each child, on full pay; and this leave could be shared between both parents. They could also take up to 6 weeks off work per year to look after sick children; and there was a no-redundancy protection for single mothers.
Those things were achieved despite the considerably lower level of production technology in the GDR, compared to the FRG. Most of those achievements were abolished after 1989.
As Professor Charles S. Maier emphasises, the generation which lived under the socialist system will eventually die. Will that be the end of the glorification of the German Democratic Republic? In the united Germany of today, as in the rest of the capitalist world, it is the rule that- despite the further advances of technology over the last two decades- society can no longer afford even those social benefits which the people have so far retained.
More likely, even when the experiences of those who lived under socialism on a part of German territory are no longer be available first-hand, the story of the GDR- despite its unwanted beginnings, its adverse circumstances and its inglorious end- will continue its legend: a small state which showed something of what can be achieved in a socialist society.
Stasi Hell or Workers’ Paradise? Socialism in the German Democratic Republic - what can we learn from it? by Bruni de la Motte and John Green, is available at £3.50 from Artery Publications.