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On the Other Side of the Berlin Wall

East Germany and the fall

It was a colleague, Jonathan Bach, who discovered that Trebor Scholz and I, both currently associate professors at the New School, happened to be serving in the German military 25 years ago — but on opposite sides of the wall! As such, he brought us together for the Exit Ghost Symposium, giving us an opportunity to reflect on our experiences in the trenches of the Cold War. At the occasion, I reminisced how I spent November 1989 serving in the West German military remembering clearly that fateful day, its potential implications for us NATO soldiers and our given military objectives, and how my perception of East Germany, through several previous visits, had already changed before the fall of the wall. Having witnessed some of the positive aspects of East German society, I was disappointed about the rather immediate Western take-over of the former GDR and wished that East Germany would have had more time to develop a gentler, more economically viable path to democratic socialism. After all, there are several East German accomplishments that are worth emulating in an attempt to advance social justice and equity in post-industrial societies.

Back in November 1989, I had just embarked on the second month of basic training in a West German anti-tank infantry battalion located in Ebern, a small Franconian garrison town just 40 kilometers south of the German-German border. I had previously signed up for a two-year tour and was training to become a tank and unit commander. I remember November ‘89 quite well because my battalion had just returned to our barracks from an exhausting five-day training exercise. We spent the late afternoon cleaning our equipment and weapons when a private burst into the room and told us, “Guys, they opened the Wall… There’s a huge party in Berlin!” We all dropped our weapons and congregated in one of the rooms with a TV in it. The sense of unbridled joy projected on the TV screen was so contagious that we — regardless of rank — immediately started celebrating ourselves by drinking heavily and singing loudly until 0400.

Two hours later at 0600, all with a massive hangover and barely able to stand at attention, we received news during our morning briefing that we are being put on a heightened state of alert (orange) as the possible Soviet response to the opening of the wall (and, consequently, the rather apparent demise of the East-German communist system) was unclear at the time. If the Soviets were to put down the insurgency in the way they did in Prague 1968 or Budapest 1954, how would NATO respond? Would they risk World War III in support of East Germany’s velvet revolution? This uncertainty certainly made most of us nervous, even if we learned a few weeks later that an attempt by the East German government to convince Gorbachev to intervene remained unsuccessful. As such, the heightened state of alert was lifted right after New Year.

The thought of a potential military standoff with the Warsaw Pact at that time was rather daunting. As an infantry fighting vehicle commander in training, I had access to information pertaining to our principal marching orders — they were neatly drawn on a map in our Battalion Commander’s briefing room. As such, I knew that our primary objective, in line with the NATO doctrine of “forward defense,” would be to advance about 50km east into former Czechoslovakia, dig in, and hold off the anticipated onslaught from advancing Warsaw Pact forces. Upon discharging the six-man mobile unit, according to our orders, three crewmen were expected to remain in the Marder Infantry Fighting Vehicle and attempt to destroy three Russian tanks for each one of our own. Very well trained and with the help of sophisticated optical and communication systems, six Milan wire-guided anti-tank missiles, a 20mm auto-cannon firing up to 300 rpm of armor piercing ammunition, and a standard 7.62mm machine gun, we were trying to use superior Western technology to offset the WP’s numerical advantage. We would, as we learned quickly, never get a chance to unleash our devastating arsenal because our “realistic survival time” (verbatim) was estimated to be only four minutes once the battle started and our own tanks got blown up by similarly equipped Russian BMP2 tanks — or, worse, obliterated in a nuclear attack. My immediate question to my commanding officer as to why we should even bother fighting if our annihilation (and, presumably, that of the entirety of Central Europe) would be so instantaneous caused my captain to respond in disbelief: “But, Private, you have to fight for your fatherland!” I countered that some 50 years earlier, the same argument was made with devastating consequences. This remark earned me “Ausgangssperre,” which usually implies not being permitted to leave the barracks over the weekend.

Considering that I ended up defying my superiors quite a bit, I spent several weekends confined to the barracks cleaning weapons, smoking, and drinking with all the other soldiers who had faced disciplinary action. I regretted rather soon that I joined the military on a two-year contract and ended up writing a conscientious objection to military service, which only resulted in my formal dismissal from officers’ training as “mentally unfit” and a barely honorable discharge as regular conscript after 12 months of service. One of my many grievances about my military time was the ever-present notion of a “Feindbild” and thus the deliberate portrayal of an “enemy.” At U.S. operated training bases, we were ordered to shoot at targets consisting of the silhouette of an enemy combatant with a yellow dot symbolizing the face and with a red star painted on the helmet. In sniper training we were instructed either to aim for the face to ensure an immediate kill or for any body parts protruding from foxholes or other cover for immediate incapacitation; the purpose was to demoralize enemy combatants and also to lure them out of cover to help their wounded comrades, ensuring an easy kill.

This posed a moral dilemma for me since I never saw East Germans or any Eastern Europeans or Russians as my enemy and found it troublesome to shoot at targets that willfully depicted fellow human beings. Au contraire, I had the good fortune to befriend a group of young East Germans and their families during a high school trip to Hungary in the early summer of 1988 and thereby got the opportunity to visit East Germany several times before the wall fell.

This chance encounter at Balaton Lake resulted in a life-long friendship with the Zimmerman family and their son Renee, who I just saw again this summer when visiting Germany with my family. At the time, the Zimmerman family spent their one-week vacation in Hungary with a travel group from Aue, a small mining town in southern East Germany’s Erzgebirge region. Hungary, at the time, was one of few locations East Germans were allowed to travel to. Renee’s father Bernd was team manager of an East German first division soccer team, BSG Wismut Aue, and we immediately became fans of this team (and still are!). As such, two friends and I regularly traveled into East Germany between 1988 and the summer of 1989, before I entered into military service. We visited several East German cities during away games against Energie Cottbus and Carl-Zeiss Jena and saw a sold-out home game against much-dreaded Stasi-club Dynamo Dresden. During this particular game, I got a sense of the East German people’s courage and defiance as the entire stadium erupted in chants of “Stasi raus, Stasi raus!!!” (Stasi leave, Stasi leave). The plainclothes Stasi agents who were customarily placed throughout the stadium literally stood out from the crowd as they were visibly dumbfounded, possibly even a bit intimidated. I was generally amazed how candidly people expressed their views and their disdain for the Stasi and the communist administration. But what was most striking to me in my memories of the GDR was the sense of camaraderie and solidarity people were displaying to one another, once they felt sure enough that the other person was not a spy. This organic solidarity manifested itself in the ways people talked and confided in each other, how people helped each other out, and how they ultimately supported one another. This was something that I felt was utterly missing in the capitalist West I lived and grew up in. As such, I harbored, if anything, great sympathy for the East German people, a sympathy that had not always existed since my very first experiences with the GDR as a West German teenager were anything but positive.

I still recall my very first impression of East Germany from 1982, when my father took my mother, my younger brother, and I on a tour of the cities in Eastern and Northern Germany in which he lived in during and immediately after World War II. We started in his birth town, Berlin. Fourteen at the time, I will never forget the eeriness and sense of discomfort we felt when driving across the German-German border en route to Berlin. As we entered the heavily fortified and armed East German border inspection, encountered the deliberately unfriendly and fully armed border guards, and felt trapped inside the imposing and depressing security and fencing installation, a sense of fear enveloped us. We were helplessly sitting in the car waiting for what seemed an eternity until we were processed and sent on our way to Berlin. We were given explicit instruction not to exit the motorway and only use specially designated rest-stops. Since the path down the antiquated concrete panel motorway (the same that Adolf Hitler commissioned) took over five hours, we had to stop at a rest-stop that contained one of the famed “Intershops” where you could buy Western merchandise, especially liquor and cigarettes, with Western currency at discount prices. East German people we encountered there were reserved and careful not to interact with us, as we were careful not to interact with them.

It is hard to describe the feeling of relief we felt once we arrived at our destination, the “island of freedom” of West Berlin. The air, literally and figuratively, changed and felt less constricting. I will never forget the strange feeling of standing on the western side of the Brandenburg Gate gazing across only to find people in East Berlin doing the same: staring at us. My first visit to East Berlin at the time, if anything, confirmed the negative impressions. Once we crossed the checkpoint, the eastern side of Berlin looked, smelled, and felt different. Even dinner at the most recommended Eastern eatery felt seriously lacking — from the unfriendly and slow service, to the mediocre meal, to the cheap aluminum silverware, it all tasted and felt comparatively bland. If anything, this experience only reinforced a rather patronizing West German sense of superiority and pity for the “poor and exploited” cousins in the “Ostzone.” This picture was then further reinforced by public education and unfavorable media portrayals of the GDR and its political system — a portrayal and stigma that, as Trebor Scholz noted, apparently still prevails two decades after unification. In my case, it took a chance encounter with East Germans, a consequent friendship, and multiple trips to East Germany to set the record straight in my mind and see some of the positives, including general political principles about equality and social policy approaches that I still support to this day.

However, back in November 1989 I would have never imagined that Unification would occur within just one year and before I even got discharged from the army. In hindsight, I hoped that the GDR would have had a bit more time to find its own, gentler path to “Democratic Socialism.” But that was perhaps too much to expect of a people who grew tired of the “real existing socialism” that was, more than anything else, constraining their lives and dreams. Most ordinary citizens felt betrayed by their leadership that, contradicting Marxist principles, morphed into an exploitative bourgeois elite itself — with privilege and unrestrained access to Western goods. While the ordinary East German had to wait 10-15 years for a Trabbi (a substandard East German mini-car with a 30HP two-tact motor), party leaders were driving Volvos and Mercedes. Worse, like the Nazi regime before it, the East German leadership became increasingly paranoid and employed extreme measures of social control, violence, and surveillance to keep their people in line. The leadership even felt compelled to build an “anti-fascist protection barrier,” as the wall was euphemistically called, to keep their constituents from voting with their feet. The Central Committee and the political system it established and micro-managed ultimately distinguished itself through its political and economic ineptitude despite its social accomplishments, especially when compared to other Warsaw Pact countries. Let’s not forget that East Germany emerged as the eight biggest export economy in the world and surpassed all other communist countries in terms of economic productivity, standard of living, and income.

But in the end, that was not good enough, as these achievements paled in comparison to the ultimate point of reference and main rival: West Germany — the world’s third biggest export economy, which, built upon a social market economy, created a robust, middle class society with one of the highest standards of living in the world: a standard that East Germans, courtesy of West German TV and its own propaganda, knew about. And once East Germans were finally allowed to visit the West and were handed DM 100 “Begrüssungsgeld” (welcome money), I cannot blame them for standing in front of West German shopping displays wide-eyed and in disbelief. With such an enticing “carrot stick,” why wouldn’t East German people follow the business-friendly, conservative script that Helmut Kohl and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) prescribed? If I were confined and restricted like that and then saw the apparent West German success, I might have voted for the CDU and its quick-fix approach to unification, too.

But even as a West German I did not and I voted, as card-carrying Social Democrat since high school, for the Green party instead. The Green party, at the time, proposed a slower path toward potential unification and further experimentation with a gentler, economically reformed, environmentally conscious, and modernized democratic socialism. In the meantime, the two main parties — CDU and SPD — outdid themselves in the race for winning East German hearts with promises of quick prosperity through immediate economic and political unification. I can fully understand why Trebor and some of my East German friends were not particularly eager to adopt a West German script and the predictable rapid political and economic take-over by the West, its banks, and investors. Even then, I shared their concern that a quick unification would deprive East Germans of their autonomy in determining the course of their history. Despite all its fallacies, the East German experiment with democratic socialism also had positive outcomes in that it achieved remarkable equity within society and implemented a range of programs and policies that industrial societies only wished they had. By the mid 1980s and despite all its problems and inefficiencies, the GDR boasted near full employment, affordable housing, full emancipation of women including equal pay and reproductive rights, free high quality education and childcare, universal health care, and near complete social protection. Although these accomplishments came at a price, it would be premature to dismiss completely the accomplishments of the GDR and eradicate its history fully from the collective historic memory — as the new rulers so swiftly did. And let’s not forget that many residents of the Eastern German states found themselves in a much worse, more hopeless situation in the period after unification and perhaps even to this day than under state socialism where, at least, they had jobs, housing, friends, and stability.

The main lesson from East Germany, to me, is that a more egalitarian society can be created and that the realization of important social goals, including fair income distribution, affordable housing provision, and free public services such as education, health care, and social service provisions are not only desirable; they are attainable. I also learned that greater equality has important social benefits in that it increases solidarity among people. It is regrettable that East Germany, ultimately, resorted to extreme measures of coercion, thus losing legitimacy among its own people and creating its demise. I firmly believe, however, that liberal democracy, entrepreneurial spirit, and socialist egalitarianism do not have to be mutually exclusive, as it is possible to have a more interventionist and redistributive state on the basis of a firm, liberal-democratic framework. The possible marriage between economic efficiency and social equality is perhaps best exemplified by Scandinavian Social Democracies and their progressive welfare economies. Surely, they don’t get every aspect of handling society right (i.e. immigration and xenophobia), but they certainly find themselves on a more sustainable, economically viable, and socially agreeable path than those capitalist societies that follow the neoliberal script with its inherent socio-economic polarization, especially the United States.

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Jürgen von Mahs

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