Ian Welsh looks at the hankering of 57 percent of "East" Germans for the days of the Communist dictatorship
OMG, Martin Ritt's film adaptation of John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold turns 50 this year. Can it really be that long since the days when British spy Alec Leamas (played in the film by Richard Burton) crossed into the German Democratic Republic to burrow his way into the dreaded Stasi? Now, we're told, ex-East Germans look back at the days of the GDR as the good old days.
"Triumphalism of the 'we've won, so we don't have to treat the population well' variety may well yet bite capitalists, and all of us, hard."
-- Ian Welsh
The other day Ian Welsh offered a post called "Happiness and Freedom: East German Version," which I approached skeptically. After all, I'm quite aware that, since German reunification, while former West Germans have deeply (and often loudly) resented the large sums the federal government has spent to nudge the economically "backward" lands of former East Germany upward in the direction of their more prosperous Western kin, former East Germans often have the feeling, for good reason, of being stranded in economic no-man's land. So it's only natural, isn't it?, that they might hanker for the "good old days" of the German Democratic Republic -- good times that we know never were.
But Ian covers the "nostalgia" factor -- and proceeds to lay out a powerful case that those erstwhile Easterners aren't imagining things, if you take the time to look at their present world through their eyes. And what they're seeing, he suggests, is of more than passing interest to us here in the heartland of Western capitalism.
Ian's jumping-off point is a Spiegel Online International piece by Julia Bonstein, "Homesick for a Dictatorship: Majority of Eastern Germans Felt better under Communism," which reports on new poll results released Friday. Ian begins by quoting this brief excerpt:
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."The state with the Berlin Wall," Ian writes, "which people died to get across, is remembered fondly?" And he points out:
Some of this, as the article points out, is nostalgia. Some of it is from people who were children or not even alive when East Germany fell.The Spiegel interviewees, Ian notes, "tend to acknowledge the East German Stasi police state as bad, then wave it aside." And he says he's not surprised by the poll findings -- first because "the happiness and life satisfaction data for East Germany showed a precipitous fall after unification, as it did in Russia after Communism fell there" (a drop that "has been made up since" but was "huge"), and second because "there were things that East Germany, in particular, did well."
To start, it did community and civic association brilliantly: There were clubs for everything, people joined them, and they enjoyed them.
Happiness is strongly correlated to community: The sort of anomie which capitalist societies encourage, where you know hardly anyone well, destroys happiness.
Second, there wasn’t a great deal of inequality compared to modern capitalism. The research on happiness and equality is robust -- the more equal a society, the happier people are.
Third, everyone was more or less taken care of. They may not have been taken care of with the finest consumer goods, but they had enough food, shelter, and so on.
Fourth, they didn’t have to move much. Labor force mobility in Germany today isn’t terrible, but the sure knowledge that you can stay where you were born and grew up can be as much a comfort as anything else, and it means that you don’t leave behind your community -- your friends and family.
Capitalist transitions are brutal. The data from China is unambiguous: People moving from their ancestral villages to the city generally are never, personally, as happy as they were in the village.
LET'S LISTEN TO THAT ONE MORE TIME:
"CAPITALIST TRANSITIONS ARE BRUTAL"
Hmm, Ian has already sounded this theme, linking post-Communist East Germany and post-Communist Soviet Russia. And he begins to bring the theme home, asking, "How badly has your life been affected by the fact that your government spies on you 24/7?"
East Germany may have had huge numbers of informants, but London has cameras everywhere and “anti-social disorder orders,” which make virtually any behaviour cops want to call illegal, illegal. Nor was East Germany’s incarceration rate nearly as high as America’s is now, and so on.And "it's a bad sign," he says, "when you aren’t even considered a better place to live than East Germany, with its Stasi."
Sure, “the police state” was bad, but that wasn’t, to people who lived there, necessarily the most important thing about being an East German. Westerners believe this because of relentless cold war propaganda. Then the USSR and the Warsaw Pact fell, and our lords and masters started building their own surveillance and police states.
The failures of the post-Soviet era are making that period look better and better. In Russia, there is a surge of nostalgia for the USSR, for reasons which are are remarkably similar. People are discovering that, as wonderful as Levis jeans are, there is a cost to the modern consumer society in terms of anomie, corruption, and economic precarity.He recalls this "bitter joke" from '90s Russia:
Everything they [Communist authorities] told us about Communism was a lie. Unfortunately, everything they told us about Capitalism was the truth."And so the wheel turns," Ian concludes.
When capitalism, in a large region in one of the most successful countries in the West, has half the population thinking communism wasn’t so bad, something has gone off the rails. Triumphalism of the “we’ve won, so we don’t have to treat the population well” variety may well yet bite capitalists, and all of us, hard.There is, by the way, lots of interesting material in the Spiegel piece, which is well worth a look.