When people ask what East Germany was like, most already have their own preconceptions. And why not? I certainly did before I lived there. Those of us who traveled to East Berlin on MWR shopping trips saw very little of East Berlin, and nothing of the GDR.
Just as East Berlin was a showcase for the GDR, West Berlin basked in the exorbitant financial subsidies of West Germany and the Allies. Berlin was unique, as many liked to say, but it wasn’t the real thing. And while the Wall separated a city, it did nothing to change the Berliner, whether he lived in Kreuzberg or Marzahn.
Today, the seemingly endless rows of socialist housing constructed in the 70s and 80s represent a large chunk of the only affordable housing remaining in a city plagued by real estate vultures and a growing tide of West Germans wishing to be a part of Berlin.
The real estate men are not stupid either, and so the Karl-Marx-Allee is once again cleverly marketed as Stalinallee, its apartments in high demand. Even Stalin is making a comeback, it seems, as long as there is money involved…
With the increase in rents and costs Berlin has become an unaffordable city for most ordinary Berliners, and it is ironic that the GDR and its ‘failed’ socialist policies should be viewed much differently than just 25 years ago.
Suddenly, the ornate, colorful facades that have replaced the drab gray GDR-era facades in Prenzlauer Berg are no longer so attractive to those who begged for the end of Socialism. When the bullet-ridden facades disappeared, so did their subsidized rents.
That meant that they, too, would eventually have to disappear. Is it any wonder that Berliners cringe when they hear the new residents (many of them government employees) chatter in their Swabian and Rhinelander dialects while searching for expensive condos in East Berlin?
In 1989 you could have become a millionaire selling bananas to East Germans after the Wall opened. Now, most don’t give bananas a second look, mostly because it is a luxury they can longer afford since their rents are usually 50% of their income.
Everything in the east was the object of derision: West Germans made fun of the old East Berlin streetcars – twenty-five years later, the lines are being extended to the West. West Berliners also mocked the ‘inefficent’ Reichsbahn and the East Berlin S-Bahn: In 2011 the S-Bahn – completely insolvent and dependent on regular Deutsche Bahn cash infusions, suffered a major collapse in the winter. It had been reduced to bare-bones operating funds. To keep profits maximized, maintenance had been reduced and trains had been taken out of service (because they were GDR-era trains!) Then tracks and switches froze in the bitterly cold winter, causing mass chaos. Commuters went into revolt. The only solution was to re-hire the people who had been let go, and to quickly (and quietly) place GDR-era trains back into service. The ‘primitive’ practice of GDR railway workers pouring liquid manure on the frozen switches to keep them functioning in freezing weather was no longer quite so silly, and even the anti-GDR publishing house, Springer Verlag, announced angrily that ‘even the GDR could do better!”
Those of us who lived in the GDR can only smile when we see the now reunited city of Berlin in a state of constant fiscal collapse. East Berlin went bankrupt subsidizing the working class; reunited Berlin has gone broke stupidly rebuilding the imperial castle and subsidizing the wealthy. Berlin ‘s debt is greater than that of the GDR’s at its highest level. Not only the pretty buildings in Prenzlauer Berg are a facade, so is the imaginary wealth of this once great city. It is all a facade.There is a certain hypocrisy that one encounters in Berlin, and the bottom line is: Socialism doesn’t look quite so bad anymore.
The GDR was my home. It was there that I stood in line for fresh paprika from Hungary or oranges from Ecuador. I traded good Berlin beer for asparagus with friends in the Brandenburg countryside.Country eggs changed hands for ketchup from Albania. It was a place where all the resident of an apartment building took turns cleaning the common areas, and where the children collected paper and bottle caps for recycling. I heated my apartment with dirty, sulfurous (and cheap) brown coal, a smell one seldom encounters in Berlin today. That coal was delivered by a soot-covered man with a horse and a wagon. Tickets for public transport were mostly on the honor system: you could take one without paying. But why wouldn’t you pay? After all, the price was almost nothing!
Yes, I stood in lines in the GDR. I stood in line not because there wasn’t anything, but because they wanted to make sure as many people as possible got their share. Did the system always work? No. Was there abuse? Sure. But, unlike in the West, no one ever went hungry. EVER. Our apartments may not have been the most modern or stylish, but no one was homeless. EVER. Some things are non-negotiable. Unless you live under capitalism.
Unlike most East Germans, I had lived in the West and I was able to compare things for myself. Despite the daily frustration of life in real-existierenden Sozialismus (real socialism, as it was called), I actually preferred my life in the East. It was simpler and it was easier to be happy.
A program I recently watched maintained that people are their happiest not when they have all that they want, but rather when they have all that they need. This may be the reason that East Germans, despite many of the so-called deprivations, were happier than many of their West German cousins. The problem was, they just didn’t know it. Today, two decades after unification, former East Germans know what they gave up. And they gave it up for bananas, video recorders and a Golf GTI. And as Germany grapples with record numbers of welfare recipients and unemployed, suddenly Socialism doesn’t look quite so bad. That’s right, I said it again.
I was able to take two vacations a year (albeit not to the West), put money in savings and eat well, even by Western standards. I made good money as a member of the MfS (1400 Marks a month), but my former partner W. was a truck mechanic. And he made more money than I did repairing Russian dump trucks!
I lived in a two-room apartment in an war-damaged building in Friedrichshain. With the exception of my television, a coffee table and a video recorder (which I never used), everything I owned was produced in the GDR.
I didn’t even have a functioning shower in my apartment, and I had a wood-burning stove next to my gas range in the kitchen. What I would give to have a wood-burning stove now! I was never happier in any place I have ever lived.
And if daily life in the GDR was not so perfect, we appreciated everything we had. Appreciating what you have is the first step to being happy.
Yes, and here we are being ‘tortured’ in Fredersdorf in 1987, eating warm rhubarb pie and drinking coffee on a beautiful summer day with friends.