How living "behind" the “Berlin Wall” cured me of being a socialist

We shall, today, hear much of the “fact” that it is 30 years to the day[i] since “the Berlin Wall came down”.

Actually, the Berlin Wall did not come down on that day. And people confuse the wall/fences around West Berlin -an enclave in the middle of East Germany (“the GDR”) – and the wall/fences between the GDR and West Germany (“the BRD”). But, on the evening of 1989 November 9, the authorities let people cross both these frontiers completely freely for the first time – probably since the end of the second world war. Controls were quickly restored – though these for GDR citizens these involved simply showing their ID cards or passports at the borders – and only disappeared fully with the later unification of the GDR and the BRD.

This is, I suppose, pedantry. But I feel justified in my pedantry when, by way of marking this auspicious anniversary, I hear my wireless and TV sets issue unremitting streams of hackneyed clichés about the GDR. You see, in the mid 80s, I lived there.

Now I realize what I have to say next is going to sound a bit like a “say what you want about Hitler, he was always kind to animals and children” style apologia for something indefensible. But that is not where I am going with this (the clue is in my title). Moreover, what I have to say below happens to be true.

The two things everyone “knows” about the GDR are “the Wall” and “the Stasi”.

The border controls (enforced by guards with orders to shoot people attempting to evade them) prevented GDR citizens from travelling freely to Western countries, or to the other half of their own capital city, without difficult-to-obtain official permission, or from moving to live and work in another part of what had previously been one country. These facts caused huge resentment and everyone – even staunch communists – bemoaned the situation. Some were even prepared to risk their own lives to leave the GDR and several hundred died doing so. But most people go abroad on holiday no more than once per year and most people most of the time (all over the world) are highly reluctant to leave where they live in search of pastures new[ii] - even when where they live becomes a war zone. Nearly everyone rejoiced when the GDR’s frontiers were opened but these frontiers were not at the forefront of most people’s minds most of the time as they conducted their everyday lives, and most stayed put once they were free to leave.

After the fall of the GDR, we learned that about one third of the GDR’s population had worked, in some capacity, for the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (the “Stasi”). A great deal has been written about this subject and many individual victims of the “MfS” suffered appallingly. But, again, for most of the people most of the time, the one of the most striking aspect of this system of social control was its sheer banality. Most of those recruited to “spy” on their fellow citizens were not recruited to supply useful information about other individuals, they were recruited so that they would become complicit in the system. Such recruits would fear to step “out of line” themselves and would supply information to the authorities (in a country without opinion pollsters or meaningful democracy) about the public mood.

In line with the clichés, the GDR was a country with a chronic shortage of consumer goods (including vital spares and parts). But the GDR was also a country without unemployment or homelessness or rampant inequality or significant crime where everyone had plenty to eat and drink.

But most people most of the time got up in the morning, went to work, came home, read books, watched TV, studied, fell in love, had children, had hobbies, undertook voluntary activities for the public good, got drunk, vacuum-cleaned their houses et cetera. And what I began to realize was that – for all the differences (good and bad) between “socialist[iii]” and “capitalist” societies - for most people most of the time, the lives of people in the GDR were not so remarkably different from people who lived in the West.

And even if all the more onerous aspects of life in the GDR had one day been fixed – a future I naively hoped for at one stage in my life – it would never, thereby, become some kind of utopian “new society”. Most people most of the time would have continued leading broadly similar lives with broadly similar concerns.

More fundamentally, I came to realize that most of the things that were wrong in the GDR were not magically going to be fixed by virtue of the fact that the means of production were publicly owned – any more than most of the things that were wrong in the UK were magically going to be fixed by simply reversing moves to privatize the means of production[iv] here. Who owns the means of production is simply not, I came to conclude, the pivotal issue when it comes to designing social policies that will improve lives.

Thirty years ago today, Germany and the whole world changed irrevocably – mainly (though not exclusively) for the better. But when I visit remoter villages in the East of what is now simply “Germany”, it is easier than you might think to imagine you were still back in the GDR.

The world, however, has new concerns and many countries – including my own - are busy erecting new barriers to the movement of people rather than tearing them down.

The problems we and our world faces are complicated. Those problems will not be solved – any more than the GDR’s were – by restricting the movement of people; and there are no universal panaceas to society’s ills in the form of specific economic models: “planned” socialism or “deregulated” capitalism.

The history of post-war Germany is replete with lessons for the rest of us, but it took me a life-time to learn some of those lessons. It seems that most of my fellow compatriots have yet to open their books.

[i] And, coincidentally, my birthday.
[ii] Despite what the “We need to take back control of our borders” brigade here in the UK would have us believe.
[iii] I use this term as it was used in the GDR to denote a society in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are held largely in public rather than private hands. I would still consider myself a “socialist” in the sense that term is sometimes used to denote a left leaning social democrat.
[iv] Nor, I thought, was privatizing everything in the UK magically going to produce the benefits promised by fanatical devotees of this policy. But that’s an argument for another day.

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