The Western Left Misses the Old Communist East Germany
Part I: The Left Looks at Germany’s Socialist Path, and Finds it Worthy
Most Germans—polls show, despite current economic difficulties, do not regret the fall of the Wall, the collapse of the Communist regime in the East, and the eventual reunification of their country. What doubts there are, however, come from the ranks of the Western Left, who seem to have the ability to regularly air their arguments in the op-ed pages of The New York Times. I read one such report in the paper’s pages while visiting Berlin, written by Katrin Bennhold and titled “Lessons From the Former East Germany.”
Bennhold beings by noting that “Like most people, I had slept through the fall of the Berlin Wall.” At the time, her parents, 60’s activists, sided with the millions of protesters gathered 20 years ago in East Berlin, who were demanding what she knows was “freedom and democratic rights.” But as activists of the Left, they feared that the collapse of the DDR (German Democratic Republic) would lead to the leaders of the West cutting apart the welfare state, and adopting a free-market capitalism influenced by what she calls the Reagan-Thatcher model. Their fear, she writes, was achieved. The West “simply swallowed East and in the process discarded 40 years of mostly bad but some good policies.”
She proceeds to identify those “good” policies that existed in the Communist East. They include child care policies that included a “network of day care centers,” paid maternity leave, and women who worked in various jobs. It was a society of both female crane operators and scientists, she writes. She gives as an example the career of the current German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Merkel was a physicist by training, but Bennhold simply ignores that even though Merkel obtained a higher education in the Communist state, she was hardly happy about her life there.
Bennhold should look at the message that Merkel gave Germans on the anniversary of the fall; the first female chancellor told her fellow Berliners: “The great theme [of the current celebration] is happiness and satisfaction that everything developed the way that it did.” Acknowledging that Germany has problems as a result, Merkel explained that “It was the fate of one generation that essentially had to pay for the inefficiency of the G.D.R.’s economy, and whose expectations could no longer be fulfilled.” The fall of the wall, Merkel said, “ the end of the Socialist Unity Party dictatorship and German reunification transformed my life. In short, I would not be chancellor, nor even politically active, if the wall were still standing. After Nov. 9, 1989, thoughts became thinkable that before had been completely unthinkable. For the first time, a person like me had the opportunity to engage in community life, to take on responsibility.” There was no alternative, she said. “Reunification in peace and freedom was a great blessing for our country. The integration process went well for the most part. I think we put things more or less on the right track at the time — otherwise the rebuilding of the Eastern states would not have gone so successfully.”
Ms. Bennhold does not think so. She wants to break the “taboo” that “the West …had any lessons to learn from the East.” These include paid parental leave for over a year, medical centers that have doctors with different specialties, and reform of the education system. In her eyes, all of these were in place in the DDR, and serve as an inspiration today to so many. She does not want to return to what she calls “state socialism,” but rather—although she does not put it that way---the never created “socialism with a human face.” Instead, West Germany missed the opportunity to do that. The contemporary near bankruptcy of the nanny state in the West goes unmentioned, aside from noting that the “woes” of the German welfare state “has to do with demographics,” not with any misbegotten social policy. The West should have had “the humility to look more closely at the way things were done in the East,” she concludes.
As if her op-ed was not enough, the Times, as Leon Wieseltier reports in TNR, (Dec.2 issue) “invited a Leninist to explain the meaning of the occasion to their readers.” He is referring to the op-ed “20 Years of Collapse,” by Slavoj Zizek, international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities in London. His argument is that capitalism fails to provide the “life of sincerity and simplicity” with which the Left sought to replace the old Stalinist regime; in other words, the very “socialism with a human face” that Bennhold cannot get herself to name but for which Zizek fills in the blanks. That, he asserts, is what the rebels of East Germany really wanted, and it “deserves a second chance.”
His article reeks with sarcasm. He refers to “the sublime mist of the velvet revolutions,” which came quickly face to face with “the new democratic-capitalist reality.” In his eyes, that led to disappointment- and the rise of nationalist right-wing populism, and horrors, a “belated anti-Communist paranoia.” He is angry that Lithuania even banned the public display of Communist images; one wonders, does Zizek regret that Germany bans the display of the Nazi swastika? Or does he think that only potent fascist symbols should be banned, and not Communist ones?
Zizek argues that the protesters of Communist regimes like the one in East Germany did “not ask for capitalism,” only for “the freedom to live their lives outside state control,” one that would be “liberated from the primitive ideological indoctrination.” Zizek does not address that all of the social programs he and Bennhold revere came with that very indoctrination built in; it was part and parcel of the programs that were continually offered as proof of the revolution’s great success. That the regime never produced enough commodities to meet their citizens' basic needs is somehow forgotten. Perhaps this is what he means about leading a life of simplicity.
The point was well made by cultural columnist Edward Rothstein, who a while back wrote about the same Museum of the DDR I reported on last week. He notes that “the museum also reminds us that East Germany claimed to be engaged in a social experiment based on a utopian vision. A survey of mandated salaries demonstrates that ideological preferences were rewarded over rarefied achievement and training. A picture from a day care center shows children lined up on a ‘potty bench,’ where ‘everyone remained seated until the last one was done.’ This was more than toilet training, the museum tells us: ‘It also was the first step to social education.’”
Rothstein explains: Its “moralism was mixed with tyranny, individuality suppressed in favor of legislated social virtue.” They were the two parts of the same regime; not a regime from which the “good” utopian elements can be isolated and made to be part of the reality of the “bad” capitalist West today. The regime, Rothstein puts it, demanded obeisance “in the name of virtue,” and was “saturated with terror and blood.”
My next blog will deal with this reality, as I report on the Stasi and how it permeated the entire old regime, and in which I offer my impressions of the Stasi museum and what it says about the nature of the old “really existing socialism” that ended in 1990.