Back in the GDR

by Chris Bertram on August 3, 2003

I’m very much looking forward to seeing Goodbye Lenin!, especially because I’ll be interested to find out how far the film tallies with my own (admittedly brief) experience of the GDR. I spent a week there in 1984, staying with some medical students in Leipzig whom my girlfriend had made friends with in Hungary on an earlier holiday. They’d been very interested that we thought of ourselves as Trotskyists and we, in turn, were keen to discover what a “deformed workers’ state” (to use the official Trot jargon) was like. At the time (early Thatcherism) Britain was in a real mess, and the claim was frequently made that the GDR had a higher per capita GDP than the UK. So we went there expecting both a somewhat repressive society and one where living standards were similar to our own. So what did we find?

The population, so far as we could tell, was neither fanatically pro-regime nor pro-Western. I remember an elderly woman hearing us talking in English in a cafe and striking up a conversation. She told us that she had spent the Nazi years in Leeds, only returning to Germany with the end of “fascism” as Nazism was universally referred to. I’ve blogged before about our experience of playing a game of Monopoly with our hosts. They certainly didn’t have the capitalist ethos (near bankrupt players could depend on their comrades to bail them out!) and we Western socialists thrashed them easily! At the time, the people I talked to said that they wanted more democracy and political freedom, but not Western-style capitalism. They all seemed moderately hostile to the regime and I remember that there were jokes about people from Dresden being orthodox communists because the Western tv transmitters didn’t reach that far. East Germans were both proud and ignorant of their own history. Leipzigers in particular were proud that their town had witnessed the defiance of Dimitrov, later secretary to the Comintern, who was put on trial by Goering in 1933 (and won). But though they new about the high points of Communist history, they didn’t know much about the lows. My friends knew nothing of the history of the KPD (the pre-war Communist Party) before the Stalinist Thaelmann faction took control in 1927. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were known, of course, but as icons rather than as thinkers (their ideas would have been too radical for the GDR).

The public face of the regime was, of course, everywhere, with many banners and posters vaunting the achievements of the regime and the benefits of “Peace”. We didn’t get to see East German tv until I was in West Berlin (as our friends didn’t have a tv set, and when we did, we saw two programmes: a long (a really long) speech by Chernyenko and a drama about sabotage in a factory making agricultural machinery. As for political repression, I really have very little to say. We know now, of course, that the Stasi kept tabs on pretty much everyone (so I’m sure there was a little file on me somewhere). We misread the conditions of our visa and failed to report to the local police until three days after our arrival. But when we did go, full of trepidation, the policeman was very friendly and relaxed and stamped our passports without making a fuss. One of my student friends, who had been required to read “The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky” (not one of Lenin’s best IMHO) told me that he had asked at the library for a copy of the work to which Lenin’s was a reply (Kautsky’s “The Class Struggle, I think). Although the work was in the catalogue, he was told that he was not permitted to inspect it, let alone borrow it. The same friend also displayed a certain wariness when out in public with us, and on one occasion, when we visited a bar, asked that we remain silent and not speak in English.

It was evident, almost immediately, that East German living standards were way below those of capitalist Britain.There was a terrible selection of consumer goods. There really was not much worth eating in the shops (and endless bottled vegetables), though many East Germans grew their own produce on allotments. Having heard our hosts moan about the difficulty of getting decent food, we were amazed to find a wide range of cheeses for sale. Or so we thought. In the shop, there were packets advertising Rocquefort, Camembert, Brie, Gouda and many other varieties. We bought many packets and took them home to general hilarity: all the packets contained identical processed cheese. Oranges from Cuba did seem to be plentiful (though they were a horrible brown/green colour) and on a trip to the zoo we discovered animals chewing through enormous quantities of turnips. Back at our friends’ place we looked up “turnip” in the German-English dictionary to find it rendered, literally as “animal food”. Clearly there was room for Anglo-German cultural disagreement on what counted as “food”.

The impression of generally poor living standards seemed to extend to housing. Our friends lived in the only inhabited apartment (on their staircase) in a condemned tenement block. One thing that took some getting used to was the toilet facilities. To go, one had to step out into the corridor and into what looked like a cupboard where there was a bench and what seemed to be a saucepan lid. On lifting the lid one was presented with a shute running straight down to the cesspit several floors below from which rose a most appalling stench. I was constipated for days! Apparently, a modern, flushing wc had been scheduled for installation, the parts had been delivered on day 1, but had been stolen by the time the workmen arrived on day 2. Nevertheless, the official records stated that the apartment had been modernised (in this respect, anyway!) and since the records must be right, nothing could now be done.

One day we visited Wittenberg (the town where Luther did all that nailing-to-the-door stuff) and spent a whole morning thinking there was something strange about the place. There was – the silence! Since East Germans had to wait many years to acquire a Trabant (the little state-manufactured car powered by a 2-stroke engine) most did not have one. There was no traffic, and so no traffic noise. On the same day we met an East German teacher of English and her teenage daughter, who were amazed to see Western tourists. I have to say that the teacher’s English was not especially good – but since she had never visited and never could visit an anglophone country, that was not surprising.

There was a definite edginess in the streets in the neighbourhood where our friends lived. We dressed oddly by East German standards and were shouted at by strangers on one occasion. We also witnessed a violent confrontation in front of the main railway station between football fans and police. When we saw gangs of fans in other areas later, we felt pretty nervous.

There are many other things I could mention (the pollution and how bad it was, for one). The main thing to say, though, is that though the GDR was a shoddy and poor place, it was not, at least for most of its history, a place that matches the dystopian fantasy imaged of the communist bloc that one sometimes finds in the blogsphere. There were not, as far as I could tell, widespread disappearances, torture or any of that stuff. Rather, people adjusted, adapted, whispered and grumbled and hoped for better times (though all thought that the wall was there for the rest of their lives). Grim and depressing, sometimes, but this was not Leningrad 1937. It was also a place where people could, on the whole, be pretty certain about the shape their lives would take. Sometimes this meant compromise. My doctor friends wanted to be together and get married, but they knew that there was a danger that once they had passed their exams they would be assigned to different cities. There was some flexibility in the system: you could say where you would prefer to practise. If thet put down a popular city like Berlin, then the likelihood was that they would each be sent to random towns, perhaps at opposite ends of the country. So they chose to go to Chemnitz (or Karl-Marx Stadt), guessing, correctly, that there would be few volunteers for that grim industrial Saxon city. They were right, and they got to stay together.

ADDENDUM: The Financial Times has a review of recent books on the GDR.



norman geras 08.03.03 at 11:16 pm

I have to say I found Good Bye (sic) Lenin disappointing, Chris. The trailer really appealed to me; the basic idea seemed pretty good. But once you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve got the whole thing. It unfolds, or rather remains where it is, over too much time and by the end I was impatient to get home.


Kieran Healy 08.04.03 at 1:10 am

a drama about sabotage in a factory making agricultural machinery.

Oh boy.


Raven 08.04.03 at 2:14 am

If you expect a comedy (although it is pretty comical in parts), then I can understand that you might find it a disappointing movie.

But it captures pretty nicely (in my opinion) the difficulties of change after reunification, the development of the family depicted in the movie, the way people care for each other, and the heartbreak caused by the separation of families during the time Germany was divided.

I found it a very humane (and in a sense a very true) movie.


Gabriel Syme 08.04.03 at 11:48 am

There were not, as far as I could tell, widespread disappearances, torture or any of that stuff. Rather, people adjusted, adapted, whispered and grumbled and hoped for better times (though all thought that the wall was there for the rest of their lives). Grim and depressing, sometimes, but this was not Leningrad 1937.

The horrors were there alright, if you knew where to look. Plus thousands of little human tragedies, people with no control over their lives, forever locked in the grey, dull and mediocre existence. I was a dissident in another East European country and I still shudder at the memory of those days…


Doug Muir 08.04.03 at 2:30 pm

I’m not sure what the point of Chris’s post is. In a week in East Germany in 1984, he didn’t see disappearances and torture. Okay…

In all seriousness, we now have a pretty good picture of how things were in the DDR back when. No, it wasn’t the totalitarian nightmare that oppresses the imagination of many naive (and some not so naive) anti-Communists. On the other hand, it was an oppressive state that wasted enormous human potential, ravaged the environment, and left a legacy of damaged institutions and loss of social trust that is still hurting the country today.

There is a serious post to be made on the topic of Communostalgia. In fact, there is a rich and, so far, largely neglected vein of material here. There is nostalgia for the good old days in every single post-Communist country, and it’s not always restricted to the obvious candidates like the elderly and the poor.

In some cases it’s simply nostalgia that is Communist by historical accident: every 40 year old has a soft spot for the songs he first heard when he was 21, even if they were awful things about international brotherhood and unity. In many cases, though, it’s a real sense of loss of thing like a slower pace of life, a sense of national pride and dignity, very close ties of family and friendship, etc. Or of decrepit but beloved institutions like Pioneer Camp for kids or free group vacations with the worker’s union. There’s the uneasy fear of having made a Faustian bargain with the market that underlies so much political discourse in the region. There’s the tangled connection between Communism and nationalism, which is most obvious in Russia but which is an issue in several other Eastern European countries too. And then of course there’s the whole related but distinct phenomenon of Yugonostalgia, which is rapidly becoming a cottage industry in the former Yugoslavia.

There are a number of fascinating essays waiting to be written on these and related issues. Unfortunately, “what I did with my summer vacation, 1984” is not it. Sorry, Chris, but do try again.

(FWIW, I live in Romania, which was pretty similar to East Germany — somewhat poorer, a bit more oppressive, otherwise much of a muchness.)


Chris Bertram 08.04.03 at 2:40 pm

There are a number of fascinating essays waiting to be written on these and related issues. Unfortunately, “what I did with my summer vacation, 1984” is not it. Sorry, Chris, but do try again.

Doug, it was a *blog posting*, not an essay. Just my personal take on what I saw and heard and I’m not claiming any special authority for myself.


Richard 08.05.03 at 10:25 am

Perhaps you might be interested in how Leipzig is these days? I visited it last year.

Of course, it was Leipzig where the demonstrations that led to the fall of the DDR began. There’s a column errected in the middle of the square to commemorate the fact. Overall it did seem a rather quiet place to me (the election rallies being held at the time were not exactly enthusing the populace). These days Leipzig’s town centre at least is indistinguishable from any Western city but the suburbs are full of beautiful old buildings that have fallen into desuetude, and the train from Berlin to Leipzig passes by many crumbling old factories. Gleaming new trains far better than anything in the UK pass through rural poverty you would not see in the UK.


James 08.06.03 at 4:41 pm

I’ve left it late to comment on this blog entry, but I rarely drop in on Crooked Timber for much the same reason, if in reversed polarity, that ‘Kieron’ rarely looks in on Glenn Reynolds.
If Chris’ impression of communist East Germany in its later days doesn’t live up what he imagines other people’s fantasies of it are, well, it sounded bad enough for me. As for nostalgia, I grew up in post-imperial Britain, which was ridden with a longing for the past right up to the days of John Major. But, like the East Germans, it wasn’t a longing for ALL of the past – we weren’t nostalgic about: no votes for women/pre-NHS childhood mortality/preWar coalmining/smog/no bathrooms/dentistry. It seems to be a universal human tendency to recall group endeavour with fondness, and many East Germans do interpret their history in that way. So do our war veterans, our veteran political campaigners, or more or less any group who have worked together for a common cause. But there is another kind of fantasy about Ostalgie: that it is more than a selective nostalgia, that there was worthwhile compensation in communist life for the Stasi, the lack of passports, the unfree press and television, the rotten food, the absurdities exemplified by Chris’s anecdote about the doctors who wanted to live together. That post-Wall life in the east can be properly understood by characterising it as the ravages of untrammelled capitalism (by whom? the West Germans, the EU? doesn’t sound too likely to me). These too are heavy exaggerations. (I doubt Chris needs telling, however, that 1984 was not East Germany’s blackest year. I’m not accusing him of thinking that.)


Roger Sweeny 08.06.03 at 7:25 pm

How can anyone talk about “Good Bye, Lenin!” and not mention “Hogan’s Heroes?”

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