The Guardian

The Guardian July 3, 2002

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

The GDR then and now

I returned a few days ago from a short visit to Greece and Germany. In 
Berlin, I was being shown around the centre of the former German Democratic 
Republic (GDR) part of the city by a German comrade when she pointed out 
the building where she used to work.

"That is the former building of the Central Committee", she said. "Now it 
is the Deutsche Bank building.

"So you see, it still belongs to the people who control the government."

I had never been to the GDR, so visiting that part of Germany today was a 
rather curious experience. The first thing that strikes you about East 
Berlin is how light and bright and green it is.

Forget all that capitalist propaganda about the eastern part being "drab" 
and "dull". All it lacked was Western advertising, which is a "colourful" 
addition that one can well do without.

Of course, the GDR's economy struggled to keep up with the image of West 
German prosperity. But that prosperity was of course confined to certain 
sectors of West German society.

Today, the former GDR experiences the reality of capitalist "prosperity", 
with the previously unknown phenomenon of homeless young people sleeping in 
the street.

Unemployment, also previously unknown in the Eastern part of Germany, is 
now over 20 per cent. Meanwhile the Facts About Germany handbook on the 
Federal Republic crows about the "tremendous" steps that have been made in 
"renovating" the economy of the former GDR.

The copy I have is a couple of years old, and at that time it seems, "the 
housing sector in the east [was] on the verge of a new 'investment 
offensive' now that some of the major obstacles such as ... the 
uneconomical system of rock-bottom rents have been removed."

Ah yes. Those uneconomical rock-bottom rents. Just who were they 
uneconomical for, I wonder. Certainly not the tenants.

A curious feature of visiting Berlin today is to see the restoration work 
going on at the huge Soviet War Memorial at Tretlow Park. Previously fenced 
off from the public and deliberately allowed to fall into disrepair and 
vandalism, the memorial was apparently the subject of an agreement between 
Putin and Schroeder to have it restored.

And I must say, the German Government is doing a good job of it. It is 
oddly endearing to see how well they have touched up the gold lettering of 
the large quotations from Stalin's Victory Day speech.

My cynical mind says it more to do with cementing Germany's position in 
Russia's trade and investment than with any concern for the fact that 
thousands of people lie buried here who fell in the task of ending the 
German fascist threat to humanity.

Like all such large war cemeteries, a visit here is a moving experience, 
even if the majority of the young people there on the day I went seemed to 
regard it as merely a pleasant place to stroll (or for two of them, to go 
in-line skating at high speed). But that too is as it should be, with life 
asserting itself over death.

According to my Facts About Germany handbook, the main 
characteristics of the retail trade today are "greater competition and 
smaller profit margins", which it blithely claims are "all to the 
customer's advantage".

That is, until the shop goes out of business in the face of this 
competition from larger retail corporations that can exist on smaller 
margins. This inexorable process of capitalism is not at all to the 
advantage of consumers.

It is not much good for small retailers, either. In fact, the German 
handbook, a couple of paragraphs further down points out that "many small 
traders could not compete".

Between 1962 and 1986 "the number of retailers fell from 445,000 to 
340,000". No doubt the 105,000 who "failed" no longer sing the praises of 
the capitalist system of "free competition".

Although the handbook talks at length about the Federal Republic's 
successful efforts to "revive" industry in the "new states" of the eastern 
part of the country, in fact the German Government has presided over the 
destruction of former GDR industrial capacity.

Major industries, like shipbuilding, on which whole districts depended for 
their economic survival, have been closed down. In fact, a significant 
aspect of the new situation in Eastern Germany is the decrease in 
population, as workers are forced to migrate to western parts of Germany in 
search of work.

Citizens of the former GDR refer to the unification of Germany as the 
wende, the "change". I think that is an almost ironic understatement.

In fact, the unification was much more an anschluss, and the effect on the 
careers of communists and other progressives, on education and culture, and 
on a host of other areas was in fact catastrophic. But of that we will 
write another time.

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