Live in Berlin for a while – as I did for some months in 2012-13 – and you soon find that every day you are bombarded in an ideological war that seeks to cast the former DDR, East Germany, as a grey, repressed place. The standard of living was low, there was no industry or initiative, people were not free, all they wanted to do was escape. Throughout the city, plaques and denkmale – points of interest – seek to peddle the official, western narrative, the narrative of the victors. Westerners continue to resent the east, spinning a narrative concerning the cost of integrating the east, resenting the tax that still applies for ‘redevelopment’, while rapidly attempting the gentrify to inner city that was part of east Berlin.
Three people, three conversations, each providing an insight into denigrating the DDR. One concerned dialects, another focussed on ideology, and third simply on discrimination.
‘Were you born in Berlin?’ I asked her after she sat down next to me on the train to Berlin. Thrilled to find someone from Australia since she had lived there recently, she was keen to talk.
‘Yes’, she said.
‘So do you speak the Berlin dialect – Berlinerisch?’ I said.
‘Only when I am angry’, she replied. ‘My mother is from outside Berlin, so she made sure that I did not grow up speaking the dialect. But my father, he is from Neukölln and he speaks it well and truly’.
‘But why do you speak it only when angry’, I said.
‘It’s not a good dialect’, she said.
‘But why not?’ I said.
‘It’s a working class dialect’, she said. ‘In the west, it was very much the dialect of the lower class, while the upper class looked down on it’.
‘What about the east?’ I said.
‘There it was the official language, spoken by everyone’, she said.
‘Is that still the case?’ I said.
‘Of course, east and west no longer exist as such’, she said. ‘But these differences are still present’.
‘Yeah, I guess such deeper differences don’t disappear overnight’, I said. ‘But do you think that’s a result of the emphasis on workers in the communist east? The language of the lower class becomes the official language’.
‘I suppose so’, she said. ‘But now that difference, between a capitalist west and communist east, is overlaid by the difference between middle class and working class’.
‘So a double condemnation’, I said. ‘It marks one as either from the old east or from the working class, or both – at least in terms of the ruling class’.
‘Yes’, she said, laughing. ‘But it’s still not a good dialect’.
Ideology and Science
‘I could have left’, he said. ‘I could have gone to the west, but then I would not have seen my family for a long time’.
In a modest apartment we sit and talk late into the evening. He was a professor of theology at one of the universities, but grew up in the east.
‘Where did you study?’ I asked.
‘Leipzig’, he said.
‘And why?’ I asked.
‘It was an obvious development’, he said. ‘I was one of the few who showed an interest in Christianity and went to church. So it was assumed that I would study theology’.
‘Did you work in a parish?’ I said.
‘Yes, around my home in Saxony’, he said. ‘I had five small churches in villages. The congregations were small, but now they are even smaller. We would apply for money from the state to maintain or restore the churches. And then everyone in the village would join us to work on the church, for even if they didn’t go to church, the people felt that the church was very important for the village. People forget that about Germany. Even in the east, the church was so much part of the culture that is was inconceivable not to have one in a village’.
I mentioned a theologian from Amsterdam, who had been called as a minister to a Reformed parish in the DDR. The congregation was quite left-wing and wished to provide resources for a renewal of the DDR.
‘Yes, we had those in the theological faculties’, Stefan said. ‘They were the ideological ones, working for the state and for the Stasi, and not the “scientific” scholars. The state took two approaches. At Humboldt, they took over the faculty, ensuring appointments by those who were left-wing. But at Leipzig they took a different approach: every second appointment was made by the state, while the other one was made by the churches. So at least we had a few “scientific” scholars where I studied’.
‘But were not the church appointees also “ideological” in their own way?’ I asked.
‘Not at all’, he said. ‘They carried on “scientific” research. You need to understand that anyone who was in some way employed in the public service of East Germany, who cooperated with the government, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the DDR – they were all ideological. It was the same as working for the Stasi’.
‘I have just lost my court case’, she said. Dejected, she sat across from me at a table in a minuscule shop, imbibing the other beloved beverage of Germans – coffee.
‘You, a court case!’ I said. ‘What was that about?’
‘Discrimination’, she said.
‘Sexism?’ I asked. ‘Homophobia? Age?’
‘None of the above’, she said. ‘Political discrimination’.
‘Political discrimination?’ I said. ‘How so?’
‘I recently applied for a job’, she said. ‘But I did not get it’.
‘But that happens all the time’, I said.
‘Yes, but I was reasonably sure that I was the best qualified for the position’, she said. ‘So – against my nature – I wanted access to all the documents, you know, associated with the application and decision’.
‘Freedom of information?’ I said.
‘Exactly’, she said. ‘And you know what: scrawled across the front of my application in large red letters was the word “Ossi,” Easterner. It gets worse, since throughout my application every single one of my qualifications was circled in red’.
‘What in the hell for?’ I said.
‘I gained all of my qualifications in the DDR’, she said.
‘But what about the other applicants?’ I asked.
‘As I suspected’, she said. ‘Their qualifications and experience were quite inferior to mine’.
‘So you were denied the job simple because you were from Communist East Germany’, I said.
‘Exactly’, she said. ‘That’s why I took the case to court’.
‘That didn’t work either, by the sound of it’, I said.
‘No’, she said, ‘but I wanted to test the system. They have all sorts of anti-discrimination legislation: gender discrimination – tick’, she drew a large tick in the air. ‘Racial discrimination – tick; discrimination of the basis of sexual orientation – tick; age discrimination – tick; discrimination due to disability – tick …’
‘But not political discrimination’, I said. ‘Especially against former communist countries in Europe’.
‘No, that is acceptable’, she said. ‘It doesn’t count as discrimination, since my training was obviously tainted, “ideological,” and therefore not acceptable. It smacked me in the face how the very framework of the anti-discrimination legislation is determined by Western, capitalist assumptions. And you sure as hell can’t challenge these “natural” and “universal” categories.