After the Wall

Peter Pulzer

The other wall, the mote famous and aesthetically more distinguished one, the one designed to protect China from the barbarians, inspired Kafka to one of his most profound reflections: ‘Try with all your might to comprehend the decrees of the high command, but only up to a certain point; then avoid further meditation.’ I do not suppose the rulers of the German Democratic Republic studied Kafka. They were merely nature imitating art. For a time they managed to inhibit meditation among their subjects, though without inducing comprehension. When meditation resumed, so did comprehension, for reasons Kafka would have been the first to grasp. The rest we know.

Die Mauer was published on the first anniversary of the breach in the Berlin Wall, the act that signalled more clearly than any other that comprehension had reached a fatal level. The bilingual text which includes a long interview with Willy Brandt is by Dr Fischer, the superb photographs of the Wall that take up most of the book are by Count Schulenburg. It is dedicated to Dr Fischer’s uncle, murdered in Auschwitz, to Count Schulenburg’s father, executed for his part in the plot against Hitler, and to the victims of the GDR regime, especially those who died trying to escape.

It is a problematic dedication, because it raises, without answering, the old question of whether, and how, the great tyrannies of the 20th century can be equated with each other. Those who commemorate the uniqueness of the Holocaust should certainly not ignore other genocides. Those for whom the Soviet Union was the evil empire need to remember other evil empires. All the same, the GDR was not the Third Reich all over again. Unlike the Soviet Union, Hungary and Romania at various stages, it was a prison, an exceedingly repulsive prison, but not a charnel house.

Those who know about these things tell us that being released from prison can be as great a trauma as being sent there, that the prison walls can remain real even when they have been left behind. The Berlin Wall, built in 1961, had two purposes. Short-term, it was to save the economy of East Germany by putting an end to the mass exodus of the population; in the first 12 years of the state’s existence over two million people had left. Long-term, it was to turn a state into a nation – not merely to reconcile the population to the regime through modest economic recovery.

That required an ideological turnabout. In the Fifties the proclaimed aim of the Communist regime had been to bring about German unity. They were the true patriots, the West German political class the traitors to the nation. Was it not Ludwig Erhard who, at American instigation, introduced a new currency, Konrad Adenauer who put liberal capitalism above unity, the Western allies who rejected Stalin’s offer of a neutral united Germany in 1952? Once the Wall was up, this changed. The 1968 Constitution still described the GDR as ‘a Socialist state of the German nation’; the 1974 Constitution described it as ‘a Socialist state of workers and peasants’. No further mention of its German character, instead only of its ‘permanent and irrevocable’ alliance with the USSR. The GDR’s national anthem, with its reference to Deutschland einig Vater-land, continued to be played, but not sung.

This policy of Abgrenzung (‘demarcation’) was a necessity. Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, while extending recognition to the GDR, also sought to penetrate its society. The regime’s response was to draw closer to Moscow and further away from Bonn. The international legitimacy of the GDR, the rise in living standards, the shower of Olympic gold medals – all these, it was hoped, would give the population some pride in their state, or at least induce them to accept it less grudgingly. Some West German observers, dissatisfied with the way the Federal Republic was going, professed to see the old Prussian virtues – personal modesty, public order, a sense of duty – preserved in the East. There may have been a bit of truth in that in the early Seventies – by the late Eighties it had all gone. According to a survey of workers’ morale, 36 per cent enjoyed ‘high job satisfaction’ in 1967, 24 per cent in 1987. In 1967, 42 per cent said they missed their work when absent from it, in 1987 22 per cent. As applications for emigration and abstentions in the one-party elections increased in the course of the Eighties, they were most noticeable in the places which became the centres of demonstrations in 1989 and – in some instances – of right-wing voting in 1990: the inner-city areas of Berlin, Dresden and Leipzig and the run-down factory towns of the South.

The attempt to build an East German identity contained a multiple irony. In its primary objective it failed. The population did not think of themselves as ‘GDR citizens’ but as Germans. They saw their condition as abnormal. Normality is what existed ‘over there’. A normal person did not have to queue, seek favours from party officials or toe a meaningless ideological line. A normal person could wave us passport and take a trip, could go out of his front-door and buy everyday items like a video recorder, a BMW or a banana. There were no normal persons in the GDR.

An indirect effect – and this is the second irony – is that the existence of the GDR encouraged a West German identity. The Federal Republic, after all, was a success story, politically and economically, nationally and internationally. The individual citizen could bask in its reputation. He cheered when the Communist regime fell and the Wall was opened. But nobody in the West demonstrated to chant: ‘We are one people.’ The Westerners whipped out their pocket calculators and did not like what they read. The West German Left in particular distrusted the unification process. They feared a revival of German chauvinism and great power mania, an expectation that the Gulf War has negated. West Germans voted for Chancellor Kohl in last December’s general election because they thought he could manage unification more efficiently than the SPD’s Oskar Lafontaine, not because they thought it was the greatest thing that had ever happened to them.

The third irony is that those who most wanted to preserve the GDR, other than the nomenklatura and their hangers-on, were the dissidents round the New Forum and the Peace and Human Rights movement. They wanted a humane, democratic GDR, a self-governing civil society and not a Western takeover. Jens Reich, one of the most intelligent and sympathetic figures of the New Forum, has said that he first experienced a GDR identity after the overthrow of Honecker and Krenz. In the year that followed few East Germans agreed. Like the New Forum dissidents, they wanted normality, but they defined it differently. As unification begins to bite – and here we have the final irony – more and more East Germans are beginning to feel like Reich. Not that they want the GDR back, but it is becoming evident that although Germans are one nation in one state, they have more than one society.

The predominant mood in the East German Länder at the moment is disillusionment, in the Western Länder impatience. According to a recent poll, 85 per cent of East Germans think of themselves as second-class citizens in their own country; about half have second thoughts of some kind about unification. What they are underestimating is the burden that West Germany have so far borne. The per capita gross domestic product of the Eastern Länder is currently 25 per cent of that of the West, the standard of living about 45 per cent. Nearly half their income comes out of the Western kitty. This imbalance is bringing out some of the least admirable German characteristics: in the East, envy and self-pity; in the West, disdain for the incompetence of other peoples.

East Germany derives both the advantages and the drawbacks of being adopted by a rich uncle. On the one hand, there is the ready availability of money and know-how. At least some of the investment so far is a response to political pressure and sentiment rather than market calculation. A German businessman totally free to invest his capital would get a better return in Thailand or Brazil than in Chemnitz or Magdeburg. Against that, East Germans are under pressure to conform instantly to the manners of the rest of the family. Unlike Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia, they cannot adopt the ‘Portuguese’ strategy of choosing their own timetable for modernising, democratising and preparing for EC or ERM membership. They cannot devalue their currency or keep their wages low to maintain their competitiveness. They have been forced into a league for which they have not yet qualified.

Wage inflation, property disputes, pollution and an inadequate infrastructure are not the only reasons for the current recession, however. What the disappearing iron curtain revealed was a rust curtain. The Soviet bloc’s notion of catching up with the West was catching up with the Victorians. Not only is industry backward, it is of the wrong kind, heavily concentrated in sectors in which there is worldwide excess capacity – steel, shipbuilding, chemicals, textiles. Production methods were labour-intensive, requiring repetitive operations from a semi-skilled work-force. Added to this is the collapse of the Soviet trading bloc. Much of Eastern Europe produced second-rate goods for the undemanding Soviet market. Now that the Soviets have to pay hard currency, they prefer to shop in South Korea. Some East German towns depend on one industry producing for one customer – as in the case of Rostock, which built ships for the Soviet Union. Once present orders are delivered – if they are delivered – Rostock will look like Jarrow in 1932.

An even greater unknown is the state of human capital. There is a notion, in some parts of the West, that all you have to do is to dangle incentives in front of people and they will jump. Some will. Some East Germans have done so and are doing so, by moving West or commuting. Not all of them, though, succeed in adapting. The Western social market economy is not a single uniform phenomenon that grew up overnight. The versions which have evolved in Germany, France, Sweden or Canada are rooted in the conventions of those societies and respond to local expectations. They have been in place for at least one, in some cases two generations and they are not free from tensions and conflicts.

Those who have grown up under ‘really existing socialism’ have inevitably turned into a different species. To survive under that system it was necessary for the individual to foster some attributes and repress others. Individual initiative or conscience was at a discount, as was a sense of personal responsibility – ‘collective irresponsibility’, an attitude under which ‘the system’ was to blame for everything, and everyone covered up for everyone else, just about sums it up. Since, moreover, most necessities were intermittently available only on the black market, in hard-currency shops, by bribery or by theft, public morality was blunted. A Polish entrepreneur, asked why workers seemed reluctant to move from the state sector to the private, said that they feared they would not be able to steal with a clear conscience from a private boss.

Side by side with that there grew up a tendency to depend on the state for benefits or security. What may well have begun as enlightened welfare policies soon degenerated into ways of buying off different client groups. The fetish for freezing public transport fares inhibited investment. The trams that rattle through the streets are museum pieces, only a quarter of the East German railway system is electrified, and on large parts of the network there is a 20 m.p.h. speed limit. The fetish for freezing rents means that large parts of the housing stock appear not to have been touched since the Weimar Republic, except for patched-up war damage. Nevertheless, in an economy in which money bought little, benefits in kind were valuable. The sort of semi-free market in housing and labour without which the economy cannot take off threatens the few advantages East Germans derived from their regime. The old order has therefore been rejected unevenly. The 1989 revolt was against the inequalities that resulted from the nomenklatura’s privileges and the arbitrary authority of jacks-in-office, not necessarily against the relative equality and security of social condition. Whatever else one had to contend with, it was not unemployment.

One other welfare benefit of the old GDR has suffered: cheap, high-quality music and drama, at any rate if it was safely derritère-garde. Now the theatres are half-empty: people have other preoccupations. A recent Cherry Orchard in Schwerin was a flop. Too much like the real thing, it seems.

‘We shall probably replace the Wall with an ornamental fence,’ Lt.-Col. Uwe Karsch, MA (Marxism-Leninism), told Dr Fischer in the autumn of 1989. There is no fence, but the notional wall that separates divergent expectations and relations with the state has not gone. Added to that there is the fear that other parallel walls will follow. And how many of the walls are new and how many merely resuscitations of ancient antagonisms, between Czech and Slovak, Teuton and Slav, Central Europe and the Balkans, Latin Christian Europe and Greek Christian Europe? As life becomes more difficult, the old scapegoats are making a return appearance, from Gypsies to you-know-who. The zonal borders in Germany may have been arbitrarily drawn at Yalta, but the River Elbe has always been a cultural divide in Germany. To the West the Germans’ horizon was on the Rhine and Alps, to the East on the Eurasian land-mass. For forty years the peoples of Eastern Europe were told that it was the relations of production, not tribal instincts, that determined human consciousness. Initially there were some true believers, but in the end the impact of that message was zero. When the peoples began to meditate they comprehended, and when they comprehended, the Wall came down. But it is one thing to destroy tyranny, another to build the city of the sun. That is why Kafka warned against meditation:

not because it might be harmful; it is not at all certain that it would be harmful. What is harmful or not harmful has nothing to do with the question. Consider rather the river in spring. It rises until it grows mightier and nourishes more richly the soil on the long stretch of its banks, still maintaining its own course until it reaches the sea, where it is all the more welcome because it is a worthier ally ... But after that the river overflows its banks, loses outline and shape, slows down the speed of its current, tries to ignore its, destiny by forming little seas in the interior of the land, damages the fields, and yet cannot maintain itself for long in its new expanse, but must even dry up wretchedly in the hot season that presently follows.