One nation, two states
Richard J. Evans
Events are moving fast in East Germany. Over the past couple of weeks, the popular revolution, instead of settling down to a period of quiet preparation for free elections, has been gaining momentum. As many people predicted, the regime of Egon Krenz did not last very long. What toppled him was not, however, the fact that nobody could forget his role in rigging the local elections earlier in the year or his ostentatious endorsement of the Chinese authorities’ massacre of the students in Tiananmen Square. What has fuelled the people’s disaffection with the Communist Party has been the revelation, which apparently came as a shock to almost everyone, of the depth of hypocrisy of the old Honecker regime, with its Swiss bank accounts, its vast hunting preserves and its luxury villas stuffed with Western goodies. The popular anger which has vented itself on the offices of the hated Security Police has been driven by the appalling realisation that the privations and hardships which the ordinary GDR citizen was made to undergo in the name of socialism were not shared by Honecker and his fellow guardians of socialist ideological purity.
The East Germans have always been considered relatively well off by Comecon standards. Even if many of the economic and statistical claims made by the regime were largely fictitious, still things were never as bad as in Poland or Rumania. Yet material discontents have played a major role in popular dissatisfaction with the regime. When the first waves of East German refugees began to flood over the Bavarian border a few weeks ago, they were welcomed, so the newspaper reports noted, by crowds of West Germans brandishing bananas. It wasn’t an obscure piece of political symbolism: the meaning of the gesture was transparently clear to all concerned. For the fact is that bananas are virtually impossible to obtain in the GDR. And not only bananas. Those millions of East Germans who poured through the Berlin Wall when it was opened early in November did not come back laden with compact-disc players. What they put in their shopping-bags to bring home after their day out in the West was more modest: oranges, mandarins, satsumas, all kinds of ‘southern fruit’ and other foodstuffs which it is virtually impossible to obtain in the GDR.
After a month in Leipzig on an academic exchange two years ago, living off the income provided by the East German authorities – and a very generous income it was too by GDR standards – I came back to the West with an irrational craving for bananas. Staying in a well-furnished new flat provided for me by the Karl Marx University, and cooking for myself, I was able to get meat, potatoes, milk, butter and eggs without difficulty and at absurdly low prices. My daily tram ride to the Deutsche Bücherei, the old German National Library, cost me less than a tenth of what it would have done in West Germany. Beyond the basics, however, choice was minimal.
Even in 1987 it was not difficult to hear the mutterings of discontent on the streets of Leipzig. It was the 750th anniversary of the founding of Berlin, and all the construction workers in Leipzig had been carted off to the capital city to spruce it up for the tourists. Since his accession to power in 1971 Honecker had poured money into new housing schemes, but the older buildings in towns like Leipzig were falling to pieces. The 18th-century centre of Potsdam, where I went later, was virtually in ruins, and most of the plaster work had fallen off the beautiful old Gründerzeit villas on the outskirts. In Leipzig, people were expressing their annoyance by fixing home-made stickers to the rear windows of their cars, mocking the pretensions of Berlin with slogans such as ‘828th anniversary of Leipzig’. There were mutterings too, against the Russians, whose military presence was obvious everywhere.