“Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall.”
The children’s rhyme and its words Wall and Fall came to mind in connection with commemorations of the fall of the Berlin Wall — actually its opening up. Is such an allusion frivolous? Maybe. For millions, that event twenty-five years ago was marked by genuine, understandable euphoria. But unceasing ballyhoo in the German media, weeks and weeks ahead of the anniversary, and plans for 8,000 white helium balloons lit up by 60,000 batteries along the ten-mile length of the former wall, to be released in the evening with triumphant trumpet blasts, jubilant church bells, or something similar while Angela Merkel, Lech Walesa, Mikhail Gorbachev, Berlin’s ex-mayor, and other celebrities cast their eyes gratefully heavenward, may perhaps justify my somewhat different approach.
After the Wall lost its barrier status on November 9th 1989, what quickly fell in the months that followed hardly conjured up the funny-looking egg some recall from Alice’s looking-glass adventures. It was rather the forty-year-old institution calling itself the German Democratic Republic, the GDR. To employ again the ovoid allusion, one might inquire: Did it fall because it was totally foul? Was it given an outside push or two? And did that downfall represent simply the glorious revolution of a folk yearning for freedom — or is the matter more complicated? This is still very relevant, for many similar uprisings have since occurred — and are still occurring.
Why did the GDR go under? Despite reams of bad publicity since its start after 1945, it was born largely of the hopes and dreams of a relatively small number of survivors of Hitler fascism, some in exile on many continents, others in Nazi camps and prisons. These men and women were determined to create a new Germany — or part of Germany at least — rejecting fascism and the powerful forces behind it: Bayer and BASF (of I.G. Farben), which built and helped run Auschwitz; Siemens, Krupp, and Flick, which misused hundreds of thousands of starved concentration camp prisoners and forced laborers from all Europe; and the Deutsche Bank, which helped finance every bloody step of the way. Despite their defeat, for a second time, these forces never gave up plans for recuperation and renewed expansion and were already re-establishing themselves. But not in eastern Germany, where such plans were thwarted and their factories and property nationalized. It was this vitally crucial step by the GDR that was never forgiven, not to this day.
Those first activists, facing millions of widowed, orphaned, embittered, ideologically cynical or still Nazi-infected people, invited the best exiled anti-fascist writers, artists, professors, theater and film experts to help alter these moods and prejudices, at least in eastern Germany. Among those responding were Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler, Anna Seghers, Ernst Busch, Arnold Zweig, Heinrich Mann (who died just before his arrival). Others, like Hans Fallada, had remained in Germany but opposed fascism. These people, and those who learned from them, created progressive theater, music, film, and literature to match any in the world. Here, too, fully contrary to developments in that other Germany across the Elbe, Nazis were ejected from schoolrooms, lecture halls, police stations, and judges’ benches.
And though it started with a veritable pile of ruins, a wrecked industry which paid 95 percent of German war reparations and was increasingly discriminated in world markets, the GDR toiled to build a remarkable new economy — one without profits. With an almost total lack of natural resources a new iron and steel industry was created, also factories for ships, farm combines, cranes and machine tools, when possible in areas like Mecklenburg, for centuries primitive, feudal backwaters. And this with no Marshall Plan and the loss of Nazi-tainted engineers and managers who left in droves.
Gradually, especially after a ceaseless, well-organized westward brain drain had been harshly stopped by that Berlin Wall, more could also be invested in consumer goods. By world comparisons a high living standard was achieved, as nearly every home had a fridge, a color TV, a washing machine. Cheap public transportation was always stressed but about half the families had at least a small car.
In forty years, despite the worst of odds, the little GDR was able to solve many problems now troubling so many nations. For one small tax all medical care was completely covered, so was family planning including abortions, child care, summer camps, cultural and sports activities for young and old. All education was free, scholarships covered basic living costs so no loans were needed, and post-graduation jobs were guaranteed. Women were enabled to work — at equal pay rates; well over 90 percent did. Best of all, there was no joblessness, evictions were strictly forbidden, no one needed to fear the next day — or year. Lots still needed accomplishment, blunders were made, frequent shortages of one or the other commodity led to countless jokes — and lots of anger. And yet, poverty had been almost completely eradicated. Where else in the world was this accomplished?
But the GDR had to compete with one of the world’s most prosperous economies, West Germany. It was never able to match the swift innovation pace of competing corporations whose ups and downs may have cost many tears in lost jobs and ruined plans but meant a constant stream of chic, modern products — above all good cars. Like people elsewhere, GDR citizens thrilled at enticing advertising. But that was West German TV — GDR-TV had no commercials. Envy was widespread. It was worsened by often old-fashioned tastes of the men ruling the roost — and rule it they did, almost to the end.
I think most of those aging anti-fascists retained their original hopes, their ideals based on socialism. But as they grew older, accustomed to central rule and constantly flattered by the careerist Yes-men who always gather where power and perks are found, they increasingly lost touch with much of the population. Many freedoms were indeed curtailed, worst of all for the media which were, when political, dull, rigid, one-sided, and self-laudatory. As for free speech, after the earlier years the fears and anxieties featured in many Stasi films had largely disappeared, at least on a private, everyday basis. People usually said what they thought — except in public meetings or classes, where they often feared losing chances at a bonus, a promotion, or a trip to relatives across the Wall if they were seen as too “pro-western.”
The GDR had wonderful theater, opera, ballet; for other tastes there were good beat groups. Most of the better Hollywood and other western films were shown. Yet life for many seemed drab, cut-and-dried, regulated. People felt locked-in, even after the number of those able to visit West Germany kept rising, reaching a few million by 1988 (seniors had long been able to travel westward for a month each year).
Although this system never conformed to most ideals of democracy, it was never absolute. There was a constant response to people’s needs, reacting to wishes and demands funneled upward from the big grassroots membership of over two million in the ruling party, from constant reports by the state security apparatus or Stasi (one of its more positive functions), and in full mailbags with personal complaints and requests.
Increasingly however, young people especially took all advantages, especially economic security, quite for granted. So many loved Donald Duck, admired handsome Marlboro cowboys or lovely Hollywood celebrities, and dreamed of crossing the Golden Gate or even feasting under a Golden Arch, without knowing or really caring about the conditions of those serving the big Whoppers.
Dissatisfaction increased in the 1980s as the economy slowed, hit by the desperate need to build, without outside help, an electronics industry, a giant housing program, and heavy investment in armed forces trying to match those in the West. And rulers who grew up politically in the years of Stalin never learned how to react successfully to such envy or dissatisfaction. They feared glasnost à la Gorbachev, recalling that Hitler had taken power with free elections and noting, not incorrectly, that the West was quick to use any openings to achieve “regime change.” By 1989, when this was accomplished in Hungary and Poland, soon largely “westernized,” dissatisfaction in the GDR boiled over, and people started to demonstrate, in Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, and elsewhere.
At first, when the Wall opened up, people demanded an improved GDR, with new freedoms. But when Kohl, Brandt, and many others moved in, waving well-packaged products, well-phrased promises, and above all well-printed, enticing West German D-Marks, the GDR went down the drain.
What role in the pushing was played by Vernon Walters, sent as ambassador to West Germany by George H.W. Bush in April 1989 with the aim of “going whole hog over there”? The morning after the Wall opened up he organized a flight for Chancellor Kohl to Berlin to inspect the area from a helicopter, then descend to “get into the act.” Later, speaking proudly of the fall of the GDR, he said: “We got here because we were strong. We got here because we were determined, and we got here because we defended the free choice of people to choose their own destiny.” Walters, a key player with Reagan and Pope John Paul in achieving regime change in Poland, had “been involved directly or indirectly in the overthrow of more governments than any other official of the US government,” among others Iran in 1953, Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973, even Fiji in 1987. As for people’s free choice, in his view the war in Vietnam was “one of the noblest and most unselfish wars” in USA history.
Plenty has changed in East Germany in 25 years. It’s a mix. Travel and consumer goods involve no other problems than their prices. Bright advertisements and commercials brighten TV programs, the streets, new cafes, even the sides of buses and streetcars. GDR industry was soon destroyed, both worn old factories and very modern newer ones were pawned off and closed down. Millions moved west, but with Germany now the strongest economy in Europe there has been a partial recovery; perhaps a third of the East Germans are doing better than before, about a third are holding their ground. The rest had bad luck. Medical coverage, though better than in the USA, is hit by jumps in price, like fares and rent. Private schools are blossoming everywhere for those with enough money. Higher education is increasingly for the well-to-do. The Daimlers and the Deutsche Bank ride high.
The GDR did change many people to a degree. Egotism, jealousy, even greed could hardly be eliminated entirely. But the small gap between the more and the less prosperous, while no one could become wealthy by exploiting others, the opportunities for women to find jobs and professions permitting far less subservience to husbands or bosses, the fact that no group was played off against others due to differences in age or background, and the feeling of economic security meant, as polls then found, that eastern citizens were on average friendlier and closer to family and workmates.
The freedoms achieved since are appreciated today. But a lack of response by leading parties to the needs of those with half-time, temp, and other insecure jobs, or none at all, has often caused new cynicism. Seeing a Tweedledee-Tweedledum species of democracy (to recall Alice), many stay home instead of voting; in recent state elections only half the citizens went to the polls. Others have indeed voted, to hit out at “the foreigners” — a truly dangerous trend. About ten percent, largely in eastern Germany, defy all media taboos to choose what they hope is a better alternative, the Left party.
But in view of today’s economic doldrums in Europe and the threat of a hard, belt-tightening future, some East Germans are wondering if, in believing all the promises and rejecting everything the GDR had offered, they made a partial blunder 25 years ago — like that, once more with Alice, of the gullible little oysters who fell for the friendly invitation to a stroll with the hungry Walrus and the Carpenter:
“Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
we can begin to feed.”
“But not on us!” the Oysters cried,
turning a little blue.
“After such kindness, that would be
a dismal thing to do!”
Does all this matter? Fat Cheshire cats are grinning as they corner ever more of the world’s wealth, damage the planet irreparably, and gain control of every phone call, email, or Sunday trip to the country with an efficiency Stasi officers would have envied. Though the dangers of communism or socialism seem abolished, they still aim at preventing any reconsideration of their possibilities, while squelching by intrigue or by force all signs of independence, progressive or not, in every country.
That is also certainly true in Germany, where many corporations and their politician friends still recall with a shudder an era when there was an eastern barrier to stacking gigantic fortunes and indulging in limitless economic and strategic ambitions. We see that in school curricula, tireless TV broadcasts, exhibitions, frequent ceremonies and plans for new monuments.
No king’s horses and no king’s men can put an eggy Humpty-Dumpty — or the GDR — together again. But there remains an almost panicky fear that the remnants, recollections of past accomplishments, might some day go into cooking up a healthy new soufflé — though not one at all to their liking. This, I am convinced, is the main reason for the fancy white balloons and the unceasing hullaballoo.
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).