Skip to main content

On the Berlin's Wall - Responses to Portside Posts - View from an American Living In what was the German Democratic Republic

Victor Grossman, an American who has lived in Berlin for more than sixty years, gives his reflections on the German Democratic Republic (GDR), responding to two recent posts by Portside.

printer friendly  

Re: The East German Influence 25 Years After Fall of Berlin Wall (Portside post - Nov. 15, 2014)

Philip Oltermann's Guardian article on East German influence in today's Germany (Nov 16) was unusually honest, especially in this "Hurrah for Unification" atmosphere at the 25th anniversary of the opening of "the Wall".  One small correction: the free "household day" at full pay every month for most women did not reflect any conviction that "housework was still considered a female domain" but rather consideration that despite all propaganda on sharing household duties, women almost always carried the heavier burden. But because of criticism on this point, the "household days" were later extended to men who raised children alone or cared for ailing wives.

I would add the sad postscript that a large number of GDR social measures - such as union-run vacations and summer camps for a pittance, free rehab at spas, free theater tickets for working people, a ban on evictions and a guaranteed job - were not continued or reborn under any name. And Oltermann's judgment that on the possibility of a first-time state premier from the Die Linke (the Left party) "reaction in Germany has been surprisingly relaxed" seems very optimistic. Both Premier Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck have weighed in angrily against the prospect, loud media voices have called to arms, and the Greens and Social Democrats have agreed to accept such a premier only if the party officially calls the GDR an "Unrechtsstaat" - an unjust state lacking law or justice: Though this undoubtedly applies in many ways, it not only disregards many key social achievements but also interesting democratic elements, while ignoring the very unjust (and for years extremely Nazi-laden) features of the West German state.

Re: The Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Failures of Actually Existing Economic Systems (Portside post - Nov. 17, 2014)

Prof. Wolff's brief comments on the fall of the GDR contain many good and interesting ideas, happily different from the usual baloney spread so freely on the subject. But as one who observed the downfall from the inside, working briefly as a laborer in a major factory and visiting very many more as journalist, I want to raise questions about some of his theses.

He sees a main cause of failure in that "GDR's workers did not democratically produce and distribute - and thereby control - the economy's surpluses at their points of origin in enterprises... They did not control the funds that enabled the state to function. Had enterprises been democratized, they would have held the means to limit and balance the state's power."

Surplus funds - earnings are one side of it and workers controlling production and distribution is also a great goal, relatively simple in a small enterprise. But in a big factory daily decisions are required on which acids, metals or power sources must be purchased, when and where this is most advantageous, how they can be storaged, what quality and what prices are optimal, what machinery must be purchased, and when or where products can best be sold in view of prices in other countries. Such questions require the opinions of experienced, skilled engineers, chemists, international trade experts. The average working man or woman in the plant can certainly contribute personal experience, know-how, and a sense of fairness, all important - but not sufficient. And in human terms most working people, after a day's hard work, want not to join discussions but to get home to care for domestic tasks and, if possible, relax.

One answer is to meet for such decisions during working time, but this has its limits.

Another response is to encourage workers to learn about physics, chemistry, machine tools or commerce, domestic and foreign. And this is exactly what the GDR did (both solutions actually). But it was found that men or women who, after the day's work, spent hours each week at difficult classes or burned midnight oil studying books on production themes rarely did so purely out of socialist consciousness, especially after the early, perhaps revolutionary years (if they can be called such in the GDR). "Moral" calls to help in building socialism and/or opposing capitalism, especially as they became monotonous and repetitious, lost their effect.  People making such sacrifices, being human, expected to move up the ladder economically, to become foremen or, if young, able and ambitious enough, to get training at a trade school or college, after which they would find such jobs in their original or other enterprises. Had they thus become "state officials"?

Indeed, since a large proportion of German managers, engineers and other experts left the East in the postwar years (many of them had been the most devoted Nazis), the GDR not only wanted to but was forced to build up its industrial staff, up to top managers and directors, very largely with people from working-class backgrounds.

What about less local problems? Workers in a factory making tables and chairs may have wanted higher wages and better equipment, but had to be convinced that miners and steelworkers had to be paid more than they, not only because the jobs were heavier, and higher pay was required there just to get workers, but because without steel and coal (virtually the only resource the GDR possessed) there could be no tools, machines or energy to manufacture tables and chairs. And without a completely new GDR factory for agricultural combines there would not be enough bread and butter, without new fishing vessels there would be no herring. It was not always easy to offer an overall view of the economy and its basic truths to the person making tables and chairs. It was constantly attempted, but being convincing is a talent not possessed by everyone, and the job was not made easier by a constant, daily stream of extremely clever propaganda from West Germany, showing off countless handsome, tempting consumer goods from an economy where no one had to give a damn about one plant being bankrupted by another with a newer, catchier product or a better means of squeezing more work from its employees.

In the GDR, it was not easy to squeeze too much work from anyone; workers could resist by working slow or in many cases could find another job. And they did have unions; it was the factory union committees which ran the workers' affairs in matters like the inexpensive vacation trips, housing problems, the often extensive medical facilities, child care for working parents and sport and cultural offerings, which were considerable and free of charge. There were even items like marking birthdays of retired senior workers with visits and presents. In general, the unions were more or less vigorous depending on their members. True, there was centralized pressure from both the unions and party leadership to increase production in the tough, eventually lost race to catch up with West German consumer levels, even though the GDR was increasingly able to manufacture very good home appliances and other consumer ware.

The system certainly had many faults and problems like careerism, envy, taking it easy "on company time". Nor could corruption, though limited in scope, ever be totally banished by any magic socialist wand. But any analysis, with thoughts on future hopes for other countries, must take into account that democratic workers' control of production and distribution in a modern age and above the level of  small local workshops is a very complicated business.

As it was for the GDR.