Remnants of a revolution

by Robin Meyer

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Like its brothers in 1918 and 1938, the evening of November 9, 1989, was a fateful ones in German history. After two months of regular public protest against governmental injustice, particularly regarding the denied freedom to travel abroad, and due to the steep increase in the number of citizens committing the ‘crime’ of fleeing the republic, the politbureau of the central committee of the Socialist Unity Party of the GDR, to give it its full title, had decreed to open the borders and allow 17m citizens to lawfully leave and re-enter the country without fear of persecution or death.

Yet the announcement of this well -planned step along the lines of Glasnost and Perestroika, necessitated by internal as well as international pressure from West and East, and meant to take effect on November 10, 1989, did not go according to plan. Günter Schabowski, member and spokesman of the politbureau, was not fully informed of the details of this new piece of legislation, largely due to his late attendance at the relevant meeting. Instructed by the newly-instated general secretary Egon Krenz to inform the public, Schabowski presented the new regulations close to the end of an evening press conference, after being prompted by a well-informed Italian journalist: private travel abroad was to be allowed without prior application, and did not require justification; visas could be obtained at the relevant border posts.

Bafflement ensued. A West German journalist enquired as to when this decree would come into force. Schabowski’s answer should enter the German history books: “To my knowledge, this comes into effect now … immediately”. All this happened just before 7pm; half an hour later, the West German TV station ZDF announced the Mauerfall, the fall of the Berlin Wall. By 9:15pm, people had started to cross the border.

For the GDR, this would prove to be the beginning of the end. What began as a well-planned evolution turned into a haphazardly executed, but fortunately bloodless and peaceful revolution. Less than a year later, the two German states would re-unite on October 3, 1990, a significant sign of the end of the Cold War. There can be no doubt that this re-unification has brought to the citizens of the former GDR many of the things they had been demonstrating for – a far more democratic government, the right to self-determination, and access to an unrestricted international market; many more rights gained and freedoms re-claimed could be mentioned.

However, in spite of its national and international importance, the re-unification had a more lasting, less unambiguously positive impact on many aspects of life in eastern Germany – aspects that are frequently not mentioned or simply forgotten when considering this historic event. Here I leave aside the political matters, such as the criminal prosecution of members of the East German government and military for proposing and enacting laws passed by GDR legislature, and I focus on the greater economical and work-related issues arising from this unique historic process. These are issues that impact on the ‘average’ citizen. Considering some of the more tangible issues resulting from the joining of two states with formerly different economic systems such as the employment situation, and the remuneration and equal treatment of citizens is instructive; they help to show that in socio-economic terms, the re-unification was an experiment gone wrong.

The employment situation in the GDR is a matter too complicated to unravel here in any detail; an awkward equilibrium existed between a high demand for labour due to the lack of industrialization and automation as compared to Western countries, and the often imperfect supply of material or even electricity energy needed for production, construction, etc. as a result of shortages or lacking funds for import. Nonetheless, article 24 of the constitution of the GDR guaranteed to each citizen the right to work, whilst its criminal code defined Arbeitsscheu, an ‘aversion to work’, as antisocial and therefore punishable behaviour. In reality, the number of unemployed citizens was expectably low, and lay-offs uncommon. Similarly utopian seemed the social cohesion and mutual responsibility of the members of a ‘brigade’, the smallest unit in any of the nationalized industrial production companies. Accounts abound of how the ‘antisocial’ behavior mentioned above (and often brought about by dissatisfaction with the absense of free choice of profession or private issues) was remedied by repeated encouragement from co-workers in what in modern parlance would be termed an ‘intervention’. In short, even failure to work rarely resulted in dismissal. It is worth remembering what wages in a socialist economy were worth: while the most basic model of the Trabant, the most common car in the GDR, could be had for 8,500 DDR-Marks – roughly equivalent to a year’s salary of a teacher – and required a waiting period of up to 10 years, the cost of living was almost negligible. Staple food prices had hardly been raised since the 1930s, and rent was as low as 0.80 DDR-Marks per square meter per month. For a family with two earners, this accounted for less than 10% of their income.

With the integration of the former GDR into the market economic system of the Federal Republic, this situation was bound to change. In 1991, unemployment figures for the five counties of eastern Germany showed more than one million out of work, more than 10% of the eligible working population; this compares to 6.2% in western Germany. Over the years, this figure would rise constantly until 2005, at which point 20.6% of the inhabitants of the territory of the former GDR were unemployed, as opposed to 11% in the west. The results: destitute villages, general discontent with the government, political disillusionment, and most worryingly, a rise in the number of followers of extreme right-wing and neo-fascist movements, advocating and sadly, at times enacting anti-immigrant ideas.

The background of this disparity is complex, influenced by demographic, industrial and geographic factors as much as international trends. A significant internal contribution to the problem, however, lies in the largely failed attempt at integrating East and West German industry. Most GDR companies were integrated into a VEB (volkseigener Betrieb – literally, a company owned by the people); the privatization of these companies over the first years after the re-unification led to the redundancy of 1.5m workers, more than 35% of the original workforce. This process was organized by the Treuhandanstalt, a trust agency formed for the purpose. After the violent death of its first manager Detlev Rohwedder at the hands of the Red Army Faction, his successor Birgit Breuel summarized the agenda of the Treuhandanstalt: “Privatise quickly, since we think that privatisation is the best form of economic rehabilitation. Secondly, privatise resolutely – a company that has a future must be rehabilitated, to give courage and hope to the people. Finally, shut down carefully”.

The third option, however, became almost default. The difficulties with converting a business from a centrally planned economical model to a market economy model are innumerable. The GDP per capita of the GDR was a fraction of that of its western neighbour, companies were overstaffed by a wide margin, and facilities were not of a western standard. The crucial blow, however, came with the appreciation of the East German currency to its western neighbour at a ratio of 1:1, where previously 4:1 was a more realistic estimation, thus rendering formerly profitable export businesses such as the refrigerator maker VEB dkk Scharfenstein economically unviable.

Many companies were fated not to make it through what has been termed Wendejahre, the turn-over years. One such example is the East German airline Interflug; after an initial agreement with Lufthansa, a fusion of both companies was rejected by the Federal Antitrust Division, resulting in loss of business and eventually liquidation. Only a select few companies were saved from such an end, most famously Jenoptik, formerly VEB Carl Zeiss Jena, producer of various fine-mechanical and electronic systems as well as lenses. Christa Luft, former Secretary of Economy in one of the final East German governments and now member of parliament for the socialist party Die Linke, briefly summarized the overall havoc the Treuhandanstalt wrought in a 2010 parliamentary address: “One simply cannot speak of an economically or structurally motivated political strategy. Otherwise, businesses that were regionally relevant, able to provide employment whilst yielding profits would have been treated with greater care” – not cannibalized and bankrupted.

It is evident and widely accepted that grave mistakes were made in this transition period, owing both to the unique situation and to economic exploitation of the East by a few reckless adventurers. Moreover, it goes without saying that the integration of one state and its economy into another one is a costly business; to support the federal state, a tax of initially 7.5%, now 5.5%, was levied to support the efforts of the re-unification. This so-called Solidaritätszuschlag, the ‘solidarity supplement’, has caused great controversy and led to a series of constitutional court cases due to the fact that the financial assets gained by the state were not entrusted for a specific purpose, and therefore can be and have been spent on any item of the federal household.

A further controversy concerning the salary of civil servants was solved only a few years ago. For twenty years between the re-unification and the so-called Ostangleichung, the ‘homogenization of the East’, civil servants working in East Germany, at that time including a large number of teachers and military personnel, were paid 10% less than their colleagues in the West. The process of homogenization was graduated over seven years, beginning in 2003, and only taking full effect in 2010. A similar difference in treatment of East and West may still be seen in benefit payments, which in the former East are 5% lower at the same cost of living.

The minimalist picture painted here is not meant to be an accusatory one, nor does it strive to defend the doomed economy and politics of the former GDR. Instead, it means to show that after the re-unification and the accompanying euphoria of a once split people re-united, not all problems were solved – far from it. Few ‘victims’ lost their lives in this peaceful, bloodless revolution, but a fair number lost their livelihood. Talking to former Easterners, one will hardly find anyone whose family, relatives or friends were left completely untouched by the Wende; often, and anecdotally, they will mention those who ‘believed’ in socialism and were utterly distraught when history decided differently. Even those who were less invested and who readily list all the shortcomings and dire realities of the former GDR will remember certain elements fondly – camaraderie, a better and more thorough education, a secured living.

The Mauerfall celebrates its 24th anniversary this year; few pieces of the antifaschistischer Schutzwall, the ‘antifascist rampart’ as it was called in official documents, are left in Berlin as a reminder of the city’s history. Only recently, a few more pieces have been removed to grant easier access to a newly built luxury apartment block. Whether the mistakes committed during the reunification, serving no historic purpose, will disappear as readily, remains to be seen.



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