As we head towards another General Election in 2015, once again politicians from the Right and Left will battle it out, hoping to persuade the electorate that either a big state or small state will best address the challenges facing our society. For 40 years, Germans living behind the Iron Curtain in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had first-hand experience of a big state, with near-full employment and heavily subsidized rent and basic necessities. Then, when the Berlin Wall fell, and East Germany was effectively taken over by West Germany in the reunification process, they were plunged into a new capitalist reality. The whole fabric of daily life changed, from the way people voted, to the brand of butter they bought, to the newspapers that they read. Circumstances forced East Germans to swap Communism for Capitalism, and their feelings about this change remain quite diverse.
Initially, East Germans flooded across the border, bursting with excitement and curiosity to see what the West was like – a ‘West’ that most had only known through watching Western television. For some, sampling a McDonald’s hamburger – the ultimate symbol of Western capitalism – was high on the to-do list, for others it was access to Levi’s jeans or exotic fruit that was particularly novel.
At the same time as delighting in consumer improvements however, many East Germans felt ambivalent about the wider changes. Decades of state propaganda that painted Western societies as unjust places where homelessness, drugs and unemployment were rife, had left its mark, and many East Germans felt unsure and slightly fearful of what was to come.
From a position of full employment in 1989, 3 years after reunification 15% of East Germans were out of work. For those who struggled to put bread on the table after reunification, the advantages of having a wider range of goods to buy remained a largely theoretical gain. For others however, reunification led to greater freedom to pursue individual career choices that were not dictated by the state’s needs.
The end of East Germany’s ‘big state’ model led to the disbanding of its Secret Police, the Stasi, which had rooted out opposition to the State’s dictates. In the 1980s, 91, 000 people worked for the Stasi full time and a further 173, 000 acted as informers. To enforce socialism, they tapped people’s phones, wired their houses, trailed suspects and even collected smell samples in jars, so that sniffer dogs could track their movements.
For those who were made to feel vulnerable and afraid by a regime that watched, trailed and threatened to imprison them, such as political opponents, Christians, environmental activists or other non-conformists, the fall of the Wall and the end of the GDR most often brought relief: the Western set-up allowed for greater freedom of expression and greater freedom of movement.
For the majority of East Germany though, this was not how they felt: since many say they had no idea of the extent to which the Stasi was intertwined with daily life, the end of the GDR did not bring with it a sense of relief. In fact, many East Germans felt that there were many things the West could learn from the GDR, and were resentful at the lack of openness to incorporating any East German policies or practices in the reunification process.
Leaving a Communist society behind and joining an existing Capitalist one brought concrete advantages for East Germans, but it simultaneously threw up a whole new set of challenges. For East Germans, unfamiliar cultural norms in reunited Germany, and also the absence of their usual way of life was profoundly unsettling. As one East German woman put it in a diary entry from December 1989:
“Everywhere is becoming like a foreign land. I have long wished to travel to foreign parts, but I have always wanted to be able to come home … The landscapes remain the same, the towns and villages have the same names, but everything here is becoming increasingly unfamiliar.”
This view was echoed my many East Germans, who were conscious that they, for example, dressed differently from their Western compatriots, didn’t know how to pronounce items on the McDonalds menu when they were ordering and didn’t know how to work coin-operated supermarket trolleys in the West. With the fall of the Wall, a whole way of life evaporated. The certainties on which day to day routines had been built ceased to exist.
Swapping Communism for Capitalism has prompted diverse reactions from East Germans. Few would wish to return to the GDR, even if it were possible. However while many delight in having greater individual choice about what they eat, where they go, what they do and what they say, they often also have a wistful nostalgia for life before reunification, where the disparity between rich and poor was smaller and the solidarity between citizens seemed to be greater.