Picture: East and West Berliners tear down a portion of the Berlin Wall courtesy NPR.
This year, 2014, heralds 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. It’s a momentous anniversary for Germans who are commemorating 25 years of reunification. However, just as the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s democracy unleashed a flood of bittersweet reflection on the unfulfilled dreams of our post-apartheid era, so too is 25 years of reunification in Germany being observed not just with celebration, but also with contemplation.
The fall of the Berlin Wall has had an impact far beyond Germany’s borders. Its collapse in 1989 heralded the end of the Cold War signalling the triumph of Capitalism over Communism. In that historic moment, East Germans gained their individual freedoms, but along with the rest of the world, they also lost an important counterpoise to rising neoliberal Capitalism, which exploded in the aftermath of Communism’s decline.
Directed by Wolfgang Becker, the 2003 tragicomedy, Goodbye Lenin
, neatly sums up the contradictions thrown up for East Germans, who, having gained their coveted individual freedoms after the fall of the wall, suddenly found themselves losing the very social protections they needed to foster greater certainty about their future as autonomous citizens in a united Germany. Some who were born in the former socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR), which existed from 1949 to 1990, still struggle with the idea that they lost the country of their birth.
The Berlin Wall came down quite suddenly in November 1989 making the marriage between East and West Germany an abrupt affair. It followed relatively soon after Russian leader, Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost-inspired December 1988 speech at the United Nations, which announced less Soviet control over Eastern Bloc countries. Despite Gorbachev’s overtures to the West, East Germans were not really anticipating the imminent collapse of the GDR. In fact some of the last daring acts of defection to the West were recorded as late as August 1989, three short months before the wall came down.
The long-term results of reunification have not exactly been dire for East Germans, but they also haven’t fared as well as their western counterparts in a united Germany. The immediate aftermath of reunification was particularly traumatic for East Germans who were forced to make adjustments to a new government, new economy and new way of life.
For example, in the immediate aftermath of reunification, unemployment exploded in East Germany, as the centrally planned socialist economy was suddenly forced to make way for a capitalist economy.
Big Frankfurt banks took control of the assets of the East German State Bank and more than 8,000 publicly owned East German enterprises were handed over to an agency established specifically to manage their privatisation, the Treuhandalstat
agency. Largely staffed by West Germans, it is argued that the Treuhand
(as it was commonly referred to) virtually ran East Germany in those early days of reunification. It played a decisive role in determining which former GDR companies and by association, communities, would survive.
All in all, as a result of the manner in which the Treuhand
is said to have managed the privatisation process, more than half of East Germany’s four million strong workforce lost their jobs in the early 90’s. Women bore the brunt of the unemployment crisis.
Given the immense challenges suddenly foisted upon East Germans, perhaps it is unsurprising that the mood in the country turned intense. Alongside massive industrial action against the privatisation agency, an unknown gunman assassinated the chairman of the Treuhand
Things are very different in 2014. Those early challenges have long passed. Today Germany has the strongest economy in Europe and the unemployment rate stands below seven percent.
It’s not exactly all roses. People on the eastern side of Germany are still playing catch up with their counterparts in the West. Former East Germans argue that even today, a quarter of a century after reunification, it is West German interests that drive national debates in the country. There is also the lingering stigma of East German inferiority that fuels resentment amongst former GDR citizens who harbour feelings of nostalgia for some of the finer points of socialist GDR.
In an era of rampant global unemployment and inequality, we would all be wise to take note that there was was close to full employment in the GDR as well as gender equality in the workplace. Women were able to participate optimally in the economy due to excellent state sponsored childcare. East German women were in fact encouraged to and became highly educated. They were decidedly sexually liberated too.
In fact, women’s liberation is also accredited for the social acceptance of public nudity in the former GDR. Freikörperkultur
(FKK), roughly meaning, “free body culture”, was easily embraced and nudity became an act of defiance against the control wielded by the state. Nevertheless, authorities also turned a blind eye to it, so public nudity became one of the few freedoms GDR citizens enjoyed without recrimination.
The GDR was a secular society. People opted for atheism even though the Communist state accommodated religion and gave the churches a high degree of autonomy. In fact, a survey conducted as recently as 2012 couldn’t find anyone over the age of 28 that believed in god in the eastern half of Germany.
As for saving the planet, recycling was practically a way of life in the former GDR.
Ultimately, it was extreme levels of state control that undermined the success of the GDR’s socialist programmes amongst its citizens.
The GDR was an example of an extreme surveillance state with tentacles that reached deep into the daily lives of its citizens. People both feared and loathed the Stasi (the GDR’s secret police). Ironically, given the technological advancements of the 21st Century, it is the United States of America today that has become the supreme surveillance state, breaching the privacy rights of its own population as well as every digitally connected citizen on the planet.
But much like North Korea and occupied Palestine today, the GDR was also an open-air prison. So, in the end, it was people’s disdain for a paranoid restrictive authoritarian surveillance state that fuelled the revolt against the socialist GDR.
But there’s something else also quite distinctive about the timing of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The wall came down at the end of a decade, the 1980’s, which many describe as the pinnacle of Capitalism. In fact, National Geographic produced a wonderful series, The 80’s: The Decade that Made Us
, which succinctly puts the era into perspective:
“It was 10 years of nonstop glamour, unchecked excess, ruthless ambition and explosive technological innovation that combined to produce the historic changes and global events that made us who and what we are today.”
It was almost impossible for socialist states to contest the allure of Capitalism at its peak. But today, more than two decades later, in this era of financial crisis and a time of unwarranted inequality, it feels as if the world, much like an oversized tanker out in the middle of the ocean, is turning slowly again and adjusting course for another direction. From Europe to South America to Africa, there is a resurgence of interest and growing support for alternatives to the consumer-driven egoism of Capitalism.
A slew of Latin American governments have embraced Socialism, Sweden has just voted a centre-left coalition government into power, whilst in Germany itself, breaking news this week is that the Left Party (Die Linke
), will lead a federal state for the first time in German history in an alliance with the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Green Party in a red-red-green alliance, signalling a challenge to the austerity of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
Here in South Africa trade union Numsa has signalled its intention to build a movement for Socialism. Coincidentally, three months ago, on August 10, the last day of Numsa’s International Symposium of left-wing parties to explore the establishment of a Movement for Socialism in South Africa - on that exact same day - I happened to be in Berlin on a family holiday visiting the DDR Museum
on the east side of Berlin. The significance of the occasion wasn’t lost on me. As I strolled through the DDR Museum with its interactive displays that give visitors a taste of everyday life in the former GDR, I observed the relics of a once-powerful authoritarian one-party socialist state and wondered what Numsa, now openly on a path to establishing a “socialist South Africa” has in store for us.
In 1989, Communism collapsed with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Twenty-five years later, Capitalism too, seems to have run its course. The world is undoubtedly on the cusp of change. But our future success will not come from a resurgence of polarised Cold War ideologies. Rather it will be determined by our courage to learn from the hard lessons of history as well as our ability to respond to the challenges of the 21st century with compassion for the needs of ordinary men and women.