Sunday, 8 November 2009
Junk for the Many: a Reflection on the Fall of the Berlin Wall
It’s twenty years now since a great tsunami swept across Eastern Europe, smashing the Berlin Wall with huge force, smashing the communist certainties. Of course I never knew the old Germany, that part of Europe frozen in ideological permafrost, but I’ve heard stories. Father used to travel to what was called the German Democratic Republic on business, staying in Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin. The thing he remembers most about ‘Trabiland’ was the sheer grey monotony of the place, the monotony of ordinary life, a place where the only colour was provided by huge bill-boards with reassuring slogans like Es lebe unsere DDR-Long Live Our German Democratic Republic.
Yes, it did live for a time, but only after some major palliative intervention by the colourless mediocrities who ran the place. The barrier built across the centre of Berlin to stop the people of the people’s republic retreating into the past, retreating into capitalism, was ludicrously proclaimed to be the anti-fascist schutz mauer- the anti-fascist protection barrier, a self-serving lie that I imagine convinced very few.
As far as social equality and socialism were concerned this pseudo-state born of the Cold War was among the most corrupt in Europe. Most people had to queue for hours for basic goods, things like shoes, but if anyone had ‘hard currency’, especially the deutschmark, they could go to what were known as Intershops, places where all sorts of luxury goods were on sale. The DDR was a never-never land, where bureaucrats drove past in huge black limos to their splendid country dachas, passing endless trabants on the way, full of people going to overcrowded and ugly city apartments.
I’ve always been intrigued and puzzled by communism. The basic question for me was why people would ever have embraced such a perverse and hypocritical doctrine, a doctrine that seemed to challenge all that is good and decent in life; to challenge, it might even be said, life itself. I suppose there was a certain amount of misdirected idealism, hinted at in movies like Goodbye Lenin. But for most people that must surely have ended with the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, far too colourful, far too liberal, far too human for nonentities like Leonid Brezhnev and Walter Ulbricht, the leader of the DDR at the time, those butt ends of Marxism.
Among the many long-term causes of the fall of the Berlin Wall the invasion of Czechoslovakia surely has to count high. Here for all to see was a system that could not permit its citizens even the mildest of liberties and economic freedoms, a threat to ‘socialism’, which for Brezhnev and Ulbricht clearly meant limousines and dachas for the few and junk for the many. The wisest comment ever made about communism in general was George Orwell’s ‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.’ Nowhere was this more obvious than the DDR, where television provided a window on the west, contrasting the richness of capitalism with the poverty of socialism.