1989 – My West

by Ingo Schulze

Recently I have been receiving almost daily invitations to various events designed to commemorate the autumn of 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the events which followed. So have many of my colleagues. These offers are extended not only from within Germany itself or from various Goethe Institutes, but also from a variety of festivals, universities, academic conferences and book fairs all around the world. This attention could certainly be seen as cause for celebration. However, a sense of unease stirs even with the questions sent along in advance. The most common is: ‘What was your personal experience of the 9th of November?’ The second is often: ‘What is your opinion on German reunification: is the process complete?’. By the third question I realise that I have taken a wrong turn: ‘What needs to be done for unification to reach completion?’ What on earth is that supposed to mean? My own impression of all this is that the people posing these questions are deeply bored by them and have had enough of the topic of German reunification. At best they may hope for a nice anecdote. The twentieth anniversary of the Fall of the Wall is shaping up to be as interesting as a Sunday sermon on the radio.
‘Weren’t you happy that the Wall fell?’ Of course I was happy. Who wouldn’t have been? But is that what it is really about? What worries me about most of these questions is the fact they are so un-political. They are as un-political as our politicians, who ultimately want to be managers. The only point of difference between the two is that politicians tend to reach agreement – more or less – with the committee. Their ethos and methods are focused on the question of how they can achieve as much consumption and growth as possible. They expect this to provide a solution to everything; all other problems take a back seat.
To enable us to deal more effectively with the problems of today, there are certain questions which need to be posed afresh. Why was there no real ‘unification’ in Germany? Why – in spite of all the billions which have been poured into it – is the former East still unable to stand on its own two feet? Why did it take until 2007 for the economy to reach the same level as in 1989? Unlike the Polish, Hungarian or Soviet ruling parties, the SED (the Socialist Unity Party) wasn’t able to initiate reform from within. The GDR leadership regarded themselves as the undisputed ‘victors of history’. Right until the end the GDR was a dictatorship, even if it was one which – for the most part – was overcome peacefully, without bloodshed. This was to the credit of both sides, of the peaceful demonstrators, but also of the select figures in the Party who could have responded with violent suppression. The opposition, gathering their strength, were probably more surprised than any at their own success. They were also wholly unprepared for it. On paper, the winners of the vote on 18 March 1990 were the discredited faction party the CDU, headed up by de Maizière, who only weeks before had waxed lyrical about a gentler form of Socialism. After some initial hesitation, Kohl had welcomed his Eastern compatriot with open arms. His gamble paid off. In the end, forty-eight per cent of a ninety-eight per cent turnout voted in favour of the ‘Alliance for Germany’, comprising the CDU, DSU and Demokratischen Aufbruch. This meant unification; the only uncertainty was when and how.
The economy suffered enormously. As a dramaturge I earned seven hundred Ostmark net, which at the beginning of 1990 equated to 150 Westmark at best. Why would anyone choose to work in the East, when just a hundred kilometres away they could earn ten times that? Back then what we really needed was a period of transition. But those in power lacked the political will for that. It was easier to win over a population used to an economy of scarcity with promises of luxury, and – at the beginning of the summer holidays – to hand out Deutschmarks at a rate of one to one, or, for savings of over four thousand Deutschmark, at one to two. The majority of the GDR population were all too willing to believe in this Father Christmas, even though they all must have known that their employers couldn’t afford to start paying in Deutschmark, that they would end up going under in a matter of weeks or months. Even de Maizière himself, the last of the CDU’s prime ministers, spoke in his inaugural speech on 19 April of the necessity of agreeing protective measures with the Federal Republic. These failed to materialize.
A transition period would have meant asking something of the East Germans, would have put votes at risk and might have created competition, and made people reflect on how the reduction in wages through the influx of East Germans in the West could be prevented.
It was easier to put off dealing with these problems. And so a new, heavily state subsidised market came into being in the East, which Kohl was able to place in the hands of the domestic economy free of competition.
As an East German, I am often asked by other Eastern Europeans what we did with all the money, which they hoped in vain for and we received. So, either the East Germans are idle layabouts who spent their time frittering away what their brothers and sisters in the West worked for, or something doesn’t quite add up. Between 1990 and 1992 the number of gainfully employed in the West rose by almost 1.8 million, whilst in the East the unemployment rate soared from zero to 1.28 million. In addition to this, over a million people left the East between 1989 and 1991 (whilst 120,000 went from West to East in the same time period). Kohl was right: a de-industrialisation of seventy to eighty percent meant that the countryside in the East literally did begin to bloom.
In addition to the one-to-one introduction of the Deutschmark there was also a further cardinal error. It would have been possible – an option taken up in the other Eastern bloc states – to transform state property into private property by either making over flats and houses to their respective tenants, or selling them at a reduced price. This would not only have provided security, but also a certain level of creditworthiness. But the opposite happened. Restitution claims took priority over arranging compensation for the existing inhabitants, leading to instability and upheaval.
A transitional period would also have allowed a start-up period for businesses. In the months immediately before the monetary union it was possible to start up a business with next to no capital, because hardly anyone had financial reserves at their disposal. Where would they have got them from? Those of us in the East at the time were aware of a particular freedom, lasting a few months, which caused envy even amongst the Western democracies. This was a freedom untouched by money, property or even party hierarchy.
I now believe that, above all, a transitional period would have enabled us to avoid being overpowered, to come to our senses, reflect, and to prepare for a true unification. Unification with the East offered the West the opportunity to re-think current practices and transform itself. This, after the end of the Cold War, and the arms race, could have been the ultimate peace dividend.
There are a number of suggestions that could have been successful, not just in the East. A public healthcare system, for example, in which the doctors aren’t compelled to act simultaneously as businessmen; insurance schemes which aren’t focused purely on profit; a transportation system which represents an ecological alternative whilst also providing a service to the community; a comprehensive, cost-free support network of crèches, nurseries and day schools, and so on. Firms could even have sold shares to the workforce and sought additional investments from their municipalities, states and the federal government in order to keep trading (as was the case in the Zeiss factories in Jena).
The most important opportunity, however, was for the politicians to engage directly with the citizens, and to not absolve them from personal responsibility by election promises of a glowing future made up of the swift introduction of the Deutschmark, cash in hand and prosperous, blooming landscapes.
We hear time and time again what an outcry there was in the Federal Republic at the end of the 1980s at the suggestion of a public opinion poll being carried out. Nowadays, by contrast, head offices have no problem whatsoever in obtaining their employees’ personal information, on their bank accounts, telephone contacts, illnesses and other intimate details. And is there any protest? The employees are forbidden from speaking up, and within a day it’s all been forgotten as yesterday’s news.
One matter which is often classified as an East-West or West-East problem doesn’t seem to be that anymore, not even on the surface. Between 1989 and 1992 the number of millionaires rose by almost forty percent. This set the trend for the future: profit is privatised, whilst losses are nationalized. Meanwhile, some of the towns in the West have begun to look greyer than their twinned partners in the East.
The discussion which failed to take place in 1990, can and should take place now. At what point is it sensible for the people to take matters in hand for the sake of each other? What – according to the rules – should be relinquished to the private economy? We could talk about the electricity industry, the banks, the healthcare system, insurance, the rail, education, the postal service, or even the defence and pharmaceutical industries. Why should a company which isn’t forced to focus purely on ever-increasing profit be seen as a bad thing for the people, and its employees? It’s obvious by now that the focus on growth and maximisation of profit is no longer the way forward. According to the latest reports on global warming we have only five to ten years left in which to make a difference. While we are trying to kindle the flame of consumerism there are a billion people without sufficient food or clean water. Where is the political party pledging to deal with these issues if elected? The internationalization of the economy must be followed by one of the people, an internationalization of politics if you like, in which the various states aren’t reduced to playthings for companies and speculators.
The discussion and debate of twenty years of peaceful revolution is inextricably linked with an examination of our world today. Perhaps my view will prove to be wrong. I could certainly cope with that. What I can’t cope with is the self-assurance of the ‘victors of history’; their arrogance in believing they are above the debate, above the discussion, above the demand to take action. The arrogance towards life in the GDR would be bearable, if its contemporary mirror image wasn’t quite so criminal. The self-assured belief that all we need is better management won’t save us.
Translated by Jamie Searle and Victoria Smith.
A version of this article first appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 7 March 2009 and appears here by kind permission of the author.
Cover of Ingo Schulze’s latest novel.
Cover of Ingo Schulze’s latest novel.
Ingo Schulze’s
latest works include the novels Adam und Evelyn, published in 2008 by Berlin Verlag, due in English in 2010 from Alfred A. Knopf, New York; and Neue Leben (Berlin Verlag, 2007), now available in English, again in the U.S.A. edition (New Lives, Alfred A. Knopf, 2009). Both are translated by John E. Woods.