Tuesday, August 21, 2012

East Germany

The town in Thuringia where my ancestors/relatives are from bordered West Germany. My cousin took us to the location where the border had been. Appropriately, there's a farm, smelling of manure, and a McDonalds alongside the location. He said that he was one of the first people to cross the border because as an electrician, he needed to access the electricity across the border. The East German police almost shot him, and the mayor of the neighboring town had to speak on his behalf. He would have been 45 when the wall fell.

Although there are other family members in the town, it seems that they don't really intermingle that much. We met not only my cousin, his wife, daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, but my cousin's cousin and his son. "K" is in his 90s, and his wife is of Polish descent. She escaped to East Germany in 1944 (!) with only the clothes on her back. I still don't quite get that, but I guess East Germany was better than Poland at the time.

Under Communism, my cousins' electrician business seemed to flourish. And the town's main industries stayed because they couldn't really go anywhere else. However, when unification happened, the industries left the area and moved to West Germany. This disappointed my cousin (my father's 3rd cousin) because she wanted to go into that industry. Right now, Thuringia is the poorest district of Germany, I think I've read somewhere. It's a shame because the area we were in was so beautiful.

In Berlin, we ended up spending most of our time in East Berlin. It amazes me to think how much of the ground we covered was behind a wall for half of my life. One of our guides said, Russia took the best parts of Berlin. We did two tours, one a general walking tour and the other a bike tour of East Berlin and the Wall. I'm also reading Stasiland, by Anna Funder. The incredible amount of work that went into surveilling and controlling East Germans' lives is frightening.

I said to Amy in an e-mail that though I will never become a Republican, I do have a greater appreciation for why so many Russian immigrants I know are so fiercely libertarian and distrustful of any government program. East Germany was so clearly a failure economically and socially. The Communist totalitarian governments of the Soviet bloc exerted such control over individual lives and businesses that only the most obtuse and delusional person could have escaped feeling that government could ever be a positive force.

And I can see more about why people fear the redistribution of wealth. That was, obviously, government/fiscal policy in East Germany. And it failed. It's worth thinking about and analyzing why it failed, and how much of that was due specifically to the policies of redistributing wealth. But it's easy for me to see how the whys don't matter. It just didn't work, and I can't really blame the people who lived under that system for never believing that a bigger government could ever be a good thing.

From the East Side Gallery, photo by my husband:


AmyP said...

"She escaped to East Germany in 1944 (!) with only the clothes on her back. I still don't quite get that, but I guess East Germany was better than Poland at the time."

Here's a possibility. She may actually have been a German, rather than a Pole. After WWII, there was a lot of redrawing of borders and shifting of populations. The Soviet Union got an eastern chunk of Poland and expelled the ethnic Poles from there and Poland got a chunk of what had been the easternmost part Germany and expelled the ethnic Germans from there.


So, your relative might have been an ethnic German who got booted out of the part of Germany that became part of Poland after the war. (That didn't happen throughout Poland--my husband's grandfather was German-ish and had a German name and I don't think the family had any issues on that account.)

Aside from border issues, there was a lot of expulsion of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe after the war. My sister's German connections in Bavaria left Czechoslovakia after the war with only a jar of honey to their names. Before WWII, ethnic Germans had been very important to the economic development of Eastern Europe, in fact they often dominated the cities. During the war, some of those Eastern European Germans (Volkdeutsche) were unfortunately very active as Nazi collaborators, which no doubt contributed to the post-war expulsions.

AmyP said...

"And I can see more about why people fear the redistribution of wealth. That was, obviously, government/fiscal policy in East Germany. And it failed. It's worth thinking about and analyzing why it failed, and how much of that was due specifically to the policies of redistributing wealth."

Based on my Russian experiences, I'd say that it is a natural impulse to want to improve the material lot of yourself and your family and that a society can either harness that impulse for the general good or be destroyed by it. In a well-ordered society, it is hard to improve your material situation without also improving that of many people around you. A skilled hair stylist who works many hours will make more money than an unskilled one who works fewer, while at the same time improving the looks and morale of their clients and paying lots of taxes along the way. However, in a poorly-ordered society, there is no honest way to improve your material position. In fact, one of the features typical of Soviet Russia was that rather than building up the society through their labor, workers turned to anti-social activities like massive, catastrophic workplace theft. If it belongs to all of us, what is so wrong about taking some of it home and selling or using it? I was in Russia in the post-Soviet period, but this culture was still (or increasingly) visible among employees of large (and sometimes small) state enterprises. The logical endpoint of this came some years after I left Russia, when people in the area where I'd lived were stealing telephone line for scrap. It's an interesting social example, because the individual gain by the thieves was so small compared to the inconvenience and hardship suffered by hundreds or thousands of other people. Even when I was there, one of the first things you noticed about the urban landscape was how many manhole covers had been stolen. Given the frequent blackouts, walking around at night could easily lead to a very nasty fall down an open manhole.

There's a very evocative and accurate chapter on post-Soviet Russia in P.J. O'Rourke's Eat the Rich. The Albania chapter is also good.

AmyP said...

There's a very interesting Russian movie entitled "Tycoon: A New Russian" (2002). (The Russian title is Oligarkh. In the 90s, "New Russian" was somewhere on the semantic boundary between entrepreneur and gangster.)


As a feature film, it has some issues, but purely as a guide to how-to-loot-a-country-without-going-to-jail, it's fascinating. Interestingly, the heroes/villains of the piece are the sort of people who in a different cultural setting would be founding Google or Facebook. It's just that in their society, the most natural and lucrative outlet for their talents is massive fraud.

AmyP said...

The more spectacular theft in Russia was a post-Soviet phenomenon, but there had been a culture of guiltless petty theft throughout the Soviet period. And then with regard to the Soviet leadership, there's the question of whether legal ownership is necessary. Does it matter if you don't own stuff if you can do anything you like with it? By the end of the Soviet period, it was becoming difficult to tell the difference between the pigs and the farmers. Brezhnev, for instance, owned dozens (some say hundreds) of cars and enjoyed a very, very nice lifestyle.

The Soviet theory was redistribution. In practice, the higher ups (and people in certain professions) were in an excellent position to redistribute stuff to themselves. This fact was not lost on ordinary people, who were also able (to a lesser extent) to redistribute state resources. Under the circumstances, it's amazing the system kept going as long as it did.

Sorry for the prolixity! This is one of my favorite subjects.

AmyP said...

One more thing--you can achieve a close approximation of Brezhnev's personality by imagining Elvis with tanks.

Wendy said...

Amy, your example of theft in post-Soviet Russia, with the reasoning that when people believe they own everything collectively, they think it ok to take it, doesn't really make sense. I think your point about the lack of hope of making material progress is more appropriate. You seemed to conflate the two.

I mean, look at abandoned houses in the US, being stripped for copper and anything else. We don't have the idea of collectivism here; what people are doing is acting anti-socially because they are poor and need to make money somehow, even by stolen goods.

AmyP said...

I was mixing the examples of workplace theft and stealing telephone lines, which are somewhat different.

When I was there in the early post-Soviet period, there was acceptance of the idea of taking stuff from work and it wasn't anything to be embarrassed about among friends. And it often wasn't bare survival, either--it was the difference between survival and middle class comfort. Here are some examples:

--My principal (who had an excellent salary) mentioned bringing home potatoes from the school cafeteria. (After my time, she eventually got in trouble for dipping into the money parents had contributed for paint and school repairs.)
--My best student's dad managed to embezzle enough bricks from the mine where he worked to build a garage (a very important item for an apartment dweller with a car).
--A nursing home cook mentioned taking home food from the nursing home, because she said the old people couldn't eat it all. (I'd like to see the old people before accepting that a circa 1995 Russian nursing home had too much food.)
--I can't remember the mechanics of it, but a bright young government lawyer I knew was managing to do VERY well. He was a very smart kid.
--The librarian at my school was indignant at the lack of initiative of the chicken factory workers who complained about their tiny salaries. "Just stick a chicken under your coat and walk out the door!" I once heard her say (or something very similar).

I eventually realized that everybody that I knew who had a government job and seemed materially comfortable had some sort of grift going.

There's a jocular curse in Russian, "May you live on just your salary."

I wasn't around during Soviet days, but based on my reading, even during those days, there were many possibilities for turning government property into your property. Here are a few possibilities (I don't know if they were all actually in use, but Russians are very smart people--I expect if anything, they had way more methods):

--Use the old count-the-same-thing-multiple-times trick to evade inventory control.
--Steal perishables and attribute the missing stuff to "spoilage." (The Soviet Union allegedly had huge spoilage issues in the agricultural sector.)
--Steal tools from work. (This was a huge issue in the Soviet Union.)
--Short store customers ever so slightly on each purchase of cheese or meat--10 grams here, 10 grams there, pretty soon you've got a whole sausage! (There's an old Soviet joke about a professor with delusions of grandeur--he thinks he's a butcher. Butchers did very well in the Soviet Union.)
--Demand bribes for doing your job. (Very useful for plumbers and similar who were often gifted vodka for showing up.)
--Pretend to be out of whatever you're selling, but keep back some under the counter. Either pay for it yourself at the store price and then resell at a huge profit on the black market or barter with somebody who has stuff or services you need.

Anyway, that's probably barely scratching the surface of possibilities. Russians are REALLY smart, and there were a million ways to make extra money or get extra stuff in a system where profit was officially forbidden.