The Curse of the ‘Ossi’: Ideological Warfare in Berlin

‘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’.

I had been living in Berlin for a few months and was beginning to notice the constant ideological war that seeks to cast the former DDR, East Germany, as a grim, grey and 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.

Conversations

Another person, another conversation, another instance of denigrating East Germany, now in terms of discrimination.

‘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, but they were trained in the west’.

‘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.

Origins of East and West

With these conversations in mind, I decided to dig a little deeper. How and why were the two Germanies divided after the Second World War? Was it because of Stalin’s aggressive policy to put under the Soviet yoke as much of Europe as possible? Was it a defensive act on the part of the occupying powers in western Germany against communist world domination, all of which was embodied in the ‘Berlin blockade’ of 1948-49?

Not quite. Let us go back to the Potsdam and Yalta conferences, where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed to three key items in post-war Europe:

1. The four Ds: disarmament, demilitarisation, denazification and democratisation of Germany.

2. Reparations, vital for the USSR’s recovery.

3. German unity.

Stalin had even agreed to three occupation zones, with each symbolically represented in Berlin, despite it being deep in the Soviet zone. (How the French ever managed to get a toe in was beyond many, since they had embraced the Nazis a little too enthusiastically.) This was despite the fact that the USSR had exerted by far the major effort and lost the most in winning the war.

How did these three items fare after the end of the war?

1. The four Ds. Only in the eastern, Soviet sector was there any significant progress on these items, with systematic denizification the most notable. The occupying forces in the western areas were too keen to rearm Germany, which already began by the early 1950s. They found ‘ex-’ Nazis willing participants in the anti-communist struggle, and the Adenauer regime in West Germany gave preferential treatment to them through the infamous ‘article 31’.

2. Reparations. Soon enough, the occupying forces in the western zones reneged on the earlier agreements. The last thing the Anglo-Americans wanted was for significant resources, technology and money going to the USSR, so they stalled and blocked reparations from the west of Germany.

3. Unity. In contrast to the standard narrative, Stalin favoured political unity, the Anglo-Americans did not – this is perfectly clear from the increasingly rancorous discussions over what was to be done with Germany. Whenever Stalin or Molotov or other Soviet representatives pushed for a unified German government, the Anglo-Americans countered by arguing that the economic situation had to be addressed first. In other words, they wanted to axe reparations and keep Germany divided.

Why? The Americans and British could see that communist parties were becoming extremely popular, not only in Germany but across Europe. For his part, Stalin hoped that this ‘new democratic’ wave would continue in a united Germany and lead to a government favourably disposed to the USSR. In March 1948, Stalin urged the east German communists to draft a constitution for the whole of Germany as a beginning point for discussion with western politicians. He was even prepared for a non-socialist government as long as it was ‘democratic and peace-loving’. Yet he was realistic enough to see that the Americans in particular would not agree since it would threaten their desire to control western Europe. On that point he was correct: the Anglo-Americans were certainly not interested in a united Germany, for then it would risk falling out of their control. So they preferred a divided Germany.

Events unfolded. In June 1948, the UK, France and USA issued a communiqué stating their intention to form a western German state. A few days later a new currency was introduced in the western zones. By the end of June, Stalin ordered restrictions on access to West Berlin. Despite all the western propaganda concerning the ‘Berlin blockade’, it was not a blockade. Air access was permitted the whole time, for the purpose of supplies. Stalin’s reason for the restrictions was simple: he wanted to get the former allies back to the negotiating table. As soon as they agreed, the restrictions were lifted in May 1949.

Despite clear Soviet desires for unity, the fours Ds and reparations, the Anglo-Americans were simply buying time. By this time NATO had been formed. In September 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was declared and the first formal meetings of government held. The east had no option but to respond, reluctantly, with its own state soon afterwards.

Resistance and Persistence

All of that was overrun with the fall of the wall in 1989, when the old agenda from 1948 was finally realised and East Germany was eliminated. Yet the ideological war has not abated, with myriad efforts made to render the easterners as second-class citizens. But is the story all grim? In the midst of the denigration and overdone efforts to assert the narrative of the victors, is there not any sign of resistance? In the east, they resent the way ‘reunification’ has been a one-way process, steam-rolling a Western, capitalist agenda on an east that has lost nearly everything. And they fume at the misrepresentations of the east. Why is it that photographs of the former DDR are nearly always in black and white, often grainy and grim and grey? Did the sun not shine occasionally? Did people not enjoy and make the most of life?

In order to illustrate, let me focus on an unexpected example – the truly stunning ‘Stalinbauten’ or Stalin baroque of Karl-Marx Allee in Berlin. At once grand and very human, elaborate and restrained, these are true examples of the availability of decent accommodation for workers. After the victory of the Second World War, Stalin was handed a gift – a ruined street (previously called Große Frankfurter Straße). His response was to launch an architectural competition for the construction of what would come to be called ‘Europe’s last great street’ (Aldo Rossi). The result was something that draws me back again and again. Stone and architectural tile, metalwork and high quality timber, frescoes and grand stairways, facing facades with traditional Berlin motifs, open spaces and theatres, restaurants and shops, matching towers at either end (Frankfurter Tor and Strausberger Platz) – all of it constructed a distinct sense of proportion that is very welcoming indeed. Everywhere are opening and walkways, leading out to back streets that contain yet more award-winning examples. Apart from celebrating the boulevard, or allee, itself, the Stalinbauten also provides wide green spaces in squares and fields (although one or two of these have been filled in by dolts since). Completed in 1962 and running more than two kilometres along (and to the sides) from Karl-Marx Allee, it became one of the models for Stalin Baroque or socialist classicism – works of architecture that still stand and are acknowledged from east Germany to Siberia.

Indeed, the memory and practice of communism still runs deep. Many in the DDR supported it to the end. All the activity during the ‘Wende’ (turn) of the 1980s indicates as much – by groups in the new civic movements (Bürgerbewegungen: Neues Forum, Demokratischer Aufbruch), the Church and the sections of the government working for renewal. They produced a manifesto, For Our Country (Für unser Land), which was signed by no less than 1,167,048 signatures. And it was one effort among many, seeking to renew the socialist project from within.

Another example, equally unexpected: nudism. Nudism? Like Lenin and many of the leading Bolsheviks, the East Germans were and remain much more enthusiastic about nudism, or FKK (Freikoerperkultur). Stemming from the naturalist movement in the 19th century, the communists were much more advanced on this score and fostered the tradition. Indeed, they were more relaxed about bodies and sexuality more generally, so much so that the first sex change took place in the DDR, paid for by the state. Probably the best area for nudism still is the Mecklenberg Lake District, particularly the beautiful Müritz National Park. Here one engages in nude camping and hiking, for there are nude beaches and holiday places for the whole family. But one also continues to find nude trains and airlines. My love is nude cycling, since it means you need carry less with you.

Perhaps that is a symbol of the appeal of the communist project. I mean not an ossified government that faced the inevitable difficulties of maintaining legitimacy, that made many mistakes such as restricting travel by its citizens and watching them a little too closely. I mean the assumption of communality, that we are all – especially workers – one. I mean the assumption that each gives according to ability and to each is given according to need. I mean the assumption that whenever oppression and exploitation arise, people will desire liberation. And I mean that a far better way to live is not to produce much, but to desire little. It assumes a simple life shared by all, without the obscene acquisition of useless wealth.

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