Berlin, Between East and West

‘Berlin – oh, what a great city! I’d rather not be anywhere else’.

Mention Berlin to most people and they will respond in some such fashion.

It is the hip place to be. No matter whether you seek the ultimate shopping experience, a weekend party, a worthwhile property investment as part of your portfolio, or revel in its anti-capitalist reputation, everyone seems to be able to find a reason to go to Berlin. After all, Berlin is now harmoniously one. The monstrous wall – the symbol of the iron curtain, of communist repression – was pulled down more than two decades ago. And so Berlin has at last been able to recover its historical place as a major, global city, with something for everyone.

But live in Berlin for a while – as I did for some months in 2012-13 – and a different picture emerges. Almost 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. 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?

So I set myself to find out a little more about a city that is still very much struggling over these tensions between east and west.

Denigration

Three people, three conversations, each an instance of denigrating the east. One concerned dialects, another focussed on ideology, and third simply on discrimination.

Dialects

‘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’.

‘Easterner’

‘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.

Origins

With these conversations in mind, revisited from myriad angles, I decided to dig a little deeper into the history of east and west. Of course, that difference goes back much further, to the emergence of capitalism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the small variations in economics and social realities (land shortages in the west, labour shortages in the east) that led to significantly distinct paths. Or perhaps it goes back to the split between eastern and western Christianity in the early centuries of the Common Era, along with the successive waves of peoples who invaded the east during the massive shifts in populations over the centuries. But I was particularly interested in the specific history that followed in the wake of the Second World War.

East and West

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. 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 they fostered pliant governments. Of course, Stalin too favoured a government sympathetic to the USSR’s concerns, but he believed this would happen through popular groundswell.
  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 such 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.

Representing the Wall

A little more than a decade later the wall went up, reinforcing the perception of vast divide. Its remains were not far from where I lived in the east. A few sections stand still, perhaps preserved from the wrecking balls at the last moment because someone in the west realised their tourist and propaganda potential. The Mauerpark, with its museum, plaques and tastefully sprinkled sculptures of wall-parts, or the ‘East-Side Gallery’, a collection of murals along the River Spree, or the tackiness of ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ – they all work a little too hard to assert that life in the east was grey and grim and deathly. The ‘wall of shame’, Willi Brandt – the West German chancellor – called it. For Winston Churchill it was the clearest marker of the ‘iron curtain’.

At first sight, the finality of the wall’s fall is marked by a double-row of bricks – cutting across roads, footpaths and intersections – that traces the path of the former wall. Bronze plaques appear regularly, at least through the city: ‘Berliner Mauer, 1961-1989’. Contained, interpreted, neatly packaged – all in order to present the perspective of the supposed ‘winners’. Yet at nearly every point along the former wall, one finds more ambiguous dimensions of a memory and a project that cannot so easily be contained in this fashion.

Soon enough, in my search some facts emerged from the mists of that narrative. First, the wall does not cut the city in ‘half’, between a communist east and a capitalist west. Rather, the centre of Berlin is mostly in the east, with the suburban rump of the western part left to the occupying American, British and French forces after the Second World War – a deal to which Stalin had graciously agreed even though the Red Army had captured Berlin.

Second, it actually circles the whole of west Berlin, covering some 155 kilometres that includes canals, lakes, villages, fields and vast forests. Far from the grainy pictures purveyed by the ‘official’ history of the wall, towards the south-west it skirts the holiday playground of the Wannsee. Here inland beaches where nudists still frolic in summer – for nudism was fostered in the DDR – sit cheek by jowl with extensive forests and their tracks. I can imagine the pleasure of the builders as they cut through the areas where mansions of the rich and famous are found, isolating some – in the western part – from the water and thereby their source of value, and turning others – on the eastern side and beside the water – into places for all to visit on holidays, subsidised by the government.

But who did the wall seek to stop? In western mythology it was the whole population of the DDR, desperate as they were to flee to the land flowing with milk and honey. According to this story, a good number had already left the DDR due to communist ‘repression’, so the wall was built to prevent more – neglecting the facts that most of the border had no wall at all and that many of those who did leave had connections with the Nazis. But let us look more closely and see precisely who was preventing whom from crossing over in the early days of the two Germanies.

Since I have already traced the origins of the two countries, let me begin in 1950, when Konrad Adenauer was chancellor of West Germany, with massive army bases manned by American, British, French and many other troops. In that year the Korean War was underway and rabid McCarthyism was dominating not only US politics but all those parts of the world now under its imperial sway. So Adenauer proposed a combined European force with a German contingent, which would be sent to attack the communists in the east. With hardly time to draw a breath, after the Second World War, West Germany was on the path to rearmament. Back home, the West German government announced a new decree concerning ‘Anti-Democratic Activities by Public Employees’ – a McCarthyist code for anyone who was vaguely left. Actually, anyone who was not openly and vocally anti-communist was subjected to defamation and discrimination. For example, the Roman Catholic writer, Reinhold Schneider, wrote a couple of articles urging public debate on rearmament and the need to come to an understanding with East Germany. Given the repression of public debate in the West, he published them in East Germany. After that ‘mistake’, most West German avenues for Schneider to express his views were closed to him. Newspapers, magazines and radio refused to deal with him.

Further, the police were deployed to prevent West Germans from making contact with the East. In 1950, the police arrested more than 10,000 young West Germans at the border. They were returning from a meeting in East Berlin and were held at the border for over 24 hours until they agreed to register their names and undergo a ‘health’ examination. The following year, in May, the police arrested another large group, again over 10,000, which was returning from a ‘Meeting on Germany’ in East Berlin. This group refused to register their names, so they were held under arrest for more than 48 hours. Another event was on the calendar later in the year, the ‘Third Youth and Student World Peace Festival’ (5-9 August). The West German government ordered the police to close the border, which was at this time open and through which free passage was possible. And in May of 1952, a member of the Free German Youth was shot dead by police during a banned protest in Essen.

So the movement was very much from the west to the east, especially by young people seeking a way forward for a united Germany. The western powers were less than keen on the idea, so they did their best to block such movement. Not a story that is told in the lead-up to the wall’s construction.

But what is the wall actually like? My initial impression of the sections left standing was, ‘How low it is and how thin!’ Western representations of the wall presented it as a massive fortification, towering to the heavens. But the reality was less than the political spin. It was barely two metres high and perhaps 20 cm thick, a rather flimsy construction really. I was therefore surprised at the foundations that had been too difficult to remove, that were now used as the basis for other constructions. In quiet corners I encountered unexpected slabs of concrete, a twisted piece of cement reinforcement, a run of foundation blocks that proved too much to remove. In some cases, the line of bricks and concrete at ground level merged into a newer wall that had been built – behind an apartment block, a warehouse on the outskirts, a house that needed some sturdy grounding. Solid foundations it would seem, which can still be used in order to build again. Perhaps that effort at socialism was not so fragile after all, its foundations running deeper than one might have expected.

Denazification (Entnazifizierung)?

The wall’s real name is as telling as it is little known: the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, the Anti-Fascist Security Rampart. Was this merely hyperbole in the face of western aggression? Was it really a screen to keep east Germans out of the western rump of Berlin? Or was there some truth in the name? In order to find an answer, we need to revisit I some more detail one of the four D’s, denazification, since it has become a hot issue once again.

Spend a little time in Berlin and one of the standard lines you hear trotted out these days is that East Germany never went through a proper process of ‘denazification’ (Entnazifizierung), unlike the good people in the West. Instead, goes the narrative, nearly all the ex-Nazis in the east simply joined the new communist government, which explains the ‘totalitarian regime’, the dreaded Stasi and now the supposed burgeoning of neo-Nazi groups in the east.

The problem with this convenient story is that it ignores a rather inconvenient fact: communism was and is implacably anti-fascist. Stalin’s victory over Hitler’s Germany (for which the western front was a diversionary tactic of limited success) was explicitly celebrated as a victory over fascism. As soon as the war over, virtually all the Nazis in the east were arrested, banned from any involvement whatsoever and put in ‘re-education camps’. And in good old Stalinist fashion, a goodly number of them were granted an early funeral.

Meanwhile in the western occupation zones, the Americans made a show of denazification, with a massive censorship program that spent most of its time censoring criticism of the occupation. At the same time, the Americans shipped out most of the Third Reich’s leading nuclear scientists, ‘intelligence’ officers and whatnot, in order to bolster their anti-communist struggle. Not a few of them were awarded prestigious US medals. The British and French didn’t even bother with the show of denazification. They wanted people to run the civil service and since a significant number of the intelligentsia and the civil service had been Nazis not long before, they were simply reappointed. The British and French made some token arrests of a few elite members of the Nazi party.

But even the Americans gave up on their efforts by the early 1950s, under pressure from Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. In one measure after another, ‘former’ Nazis were released from prisons and pardoned. Those pardoned included Nazis responsible for dragging people off to prison, for shootings, executions, causing bodily injury and so on. Above all, ‘article 31’ removed restrictions on persons ‘incriminated’ with the Third Reich, since they had suffered so much since the end of the war. In an early example of anti-discrimination laws, they were given preferential treatment for government, educational, medical and many other positions. Thus, whenever a vacancy occurred, the committee was instructed to check with a list provided by the Ministry of the Interior to see whether someone with this past was available so that he or she could be given preferential treatment for the post ahead of better qualified candidates. Once in positions of influence, these ‘ex-’Nazis worked hard to ensure their buddies gained posts elsewhere. Why? The new enemy was communism and who better to fight the good fight against communism than unreconstructed fascists.

Benefits of ‘Reunification’

What is the German economic secret, especially since a capitalist West Germany overran the east? How has a ‘reunified’ Germany managed to become the economic powerhouse of a once again crumbling Europe? Is it due to the good, solid, hard-working Germans, putting their shoulder to the wheel of commerce? Is it because they have been prudent with their finances, not letting the welfare system get out of hand, unlike those lazy and profligate Mediterraneans? No, it is due to the internalisation of western and eastern Europe. Despite all the complaints from the western side, ‘reunification’ – a euphemism for a capitalist west overrunning the east – has been immensely beneficial for German big capital.

Unlike the increasingly racist countries in other parts of western Europe, Germany includes the cheap labour of eastern Europe and the exploitation of western Europe within itself. While others focus on racialised class conflict, with desperate and ugly efforts to keep out those dreadful Poles, Balts, Slovaks, Balkans, Romanians, Hungarians and Bulgarians who both take jobs and drain their welfare systems (no contradiction there, of course), Germany has much of it nicely within. This has enabled the suppression of wages for the whole of Germany for the last couple of decades. For example, the university system is in tatters, living on reputation alone. Public services are minimal, a non-computerised labyrinth that repels even the doughtiest. People work harder for less pay – apart from the unemployed owners of capital. As a result, the other countries of western and southern Europe find themselves outmanoeuvred, for German manufacturing is cheaper, wages are lower, profit margins higher.

Further, the German banks ensure that the capital flow from the rest of Europe is centripetal. Interest rates for the whole Eurozone suit Germany. And while they may tout their loans as benefitting all, prophesying dire warnings should a cash-strapped country exit the Eurozone, the reality is a little different. They need everyone stay in the Eurozone to ensure a steady run in their own direction.

In fact, I had my own experience of how the German approach to debt operates. At one point I purchased a ‘Bahn 25’ card: at 25 Euro it gives you 25% discount on all travel on the German rail network for three months. The German network is adequate, not brilliant, but the deal sounded attractive. Soon enough, the outlay seemed to be returned. Generous buggers, I thought, especially if you book early, get a 29 Euro ticket for anywhere and then an additional 25% off.

But … when the initial period of my Bahn 25 card ran out, I was sent a friendly looking notice about renewing it, now for a year. This time it was over 60 Euro. Since this one wasn’t worth my while, I simply ignored it. Before I knew it, a stern letter arrived in the mail. Pay up, it said. You have seven days or the debt collectors will call, with leather straps, pliers and chains, in order to extract that amount. A flurry of inquiries ascertained that I had automatically, without any acquiescence on my part or even notification, been signed up for the year-long contract and that I was now – without warning – indebted to the German state.

A small insight into the experiences of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, let alone all those countries in eastern Europe?

Resistance and Persistence

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? What about ‘Ostalgie’, the various efforts to recall life in the DDR? Trabiworld, close by the Brandenburg Gate, offers Trabi Tours, parties, hire cars, even a Trabant limousine. Ostel, near Ostbahnhof, presents an ‘authentic’ DDR experience, should you wish to stay there overnight. The DDR museum gives a hands-on display of life as it was supposedly lived. And the DDR shop, which sells all manner of items from before 1989 – from egg cups to school textbooks, salt shakers to writing paper. Plenty of material, to be sure, but is it really a form of resistance? Not really, for it fits within the larger narrative: the DDR is carefully contained, sealed off and located in the past. Relics, kitsch, flotsam and jetsam – all that left from a failed experiment in communism. No resistance here.

But find resistance I did, in some unexpected places. Some are small glimpses, moments that one may pass over without noticing, signals of an approach to life that offers a better possibility. I think here of the cups, jugs and plates that turn up occasionally at the flea markets. Not any crockery, piled in the worn boxes hauled out of trucks every weekend, rain, snowstorm or shine. No, the ones marked ‘Made in the DDR’ are of a simple, functional design. Each milk jug is of the same dimensions as the other, with perhaps different decoration. And each fits neatly within the other so that they may be stacked compactly and efficiently. So too with the cups, plates, saucers, bowls and so on. The same dimensions, the same curve, the same size. So what is so spectacular about that? In the false ideology of choice under capitalism, one finds all manner of designs and shapes, most of them useless, all of them faux variations on what should be a simple, functional item. Simplicity, function, efficiency, singularity – when you have the right item, why change it?

Second is the Ampelmann, the little traffic light man. The West tried to abolish this one, but the innovative design from Karl Peglau, the traffic psychologist, has become more popular than ever. Introduced in 1961, the Ampelmännchen became extremely popular in education, children’s stories, television and so on. Soon they were joined by the Ampelfrau, sometimes sitting on a bicycle at special crossings. After a failed effort by the West to remove the Ampelmännchen and enforce their own images, the Ampelmann and Ampelfrau had the last laugh, since now they even adorn western parts of the city and parts of the rest of Germany. As Peglau put it: ‘It is presumably their special, almost indescribable aura of human snugness and warmth, when humans are comfortably touched by this traffic symbol figure and find a piece of honest historical identification’.

Third is the truly stunning ‘Stalinbauten’ or Stalin baroque of Karl-Marx Allee. 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 back) 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.

Fourth, there is 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, not merely since it means you need carry less with you. The trick, as I have found, is not to stand up in the pedals too often, especially when people are behind you.

Finally, 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.

What is that 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. 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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Berlin Epiphany

I never warmed to Berlin. I may have lived there longer than many an other place, the third longest in fact, but I was not enthused. A party town, a shopping destination, an investment opportunity, a hip and alternative place, a city where so many go to find themselves – none of these grabbed me about a town that pretends to be all things to all people. What repelled me most? The arrogant assumption that you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Much like New York.

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So how do you make your home in place that leaves you alienated? Perhaps it was Anklamer Strasse, in Mitte, where we had our first apartment. Close by the line of the old wall – too close in fact, for we were within sight of the Mauerpark with its neo-Cold War propaganda against the DRR. I watched yet another apartment across the street transformed into a luxury complex, with the roof removed and a penthouse lowered in its place by crane. I heard Danish spoken on the street, in an area where they buy up Berlin apartments for a weekend in a ‘wonderful town’. Provincial people there are, asserting themselves in an obnoxiously arrogant fashion typical of those from a tiny country out in the big world. And I witnessed the DDR-era coal handler lose his job. Covered in soot from head to foot and with a cigarette permanently hanging from his lip, he knew not what he was going to do. He had worked in a corner between the apartment buildings, shipping stacks of coal in and out. No longer was it felt appropriate for such a primitive and filthy operation to be in an area favoured by the smart and upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. Much safer without all that coal dust for the 1.6 children and their expensive toys, not to mention serious fathers and mothers with large teeth and sharp angles.

2012 December 028 (Berlin)a

Perhaps it was Warschauer Strasse in Friedrichshain, where some of the old apartments survived the war. Here at least were graffiti, broken footpaths, hole-in-the-wall eateries, the Eastside Gallery (part of the wall) and drunks on Friday and Saturday nights. But here too you can be grungily trendy and find expensive foodstuffs and eco-tobacco at the Biocompany shop across the road. Here you may spend hours in front of the mirror ensuring that your hair looks as though it was never combed, arrange the jeans to hang low, and ensure the stubble is just the right length. Here you had to make sure you sat in public view, rolling a cigarette, or walked along the street with a beer bottle in hand. After all, you’re alternative.

Perhaps it was the place on Flughafen Strasse in Neuköln, where there was serious graffiti and the entrance to the building looked like some drug-dealer’s den. It was the only place we stayed in the old west of town, with that rougher appeal I have come to like. More Arabic and Asian and African shops, more languages spoken on the streets, more smells and foods and whatever from around the world. But here were many of the unemployed who had made their way to Berlin seeking work. Young people from Greece and Spain and Italy descended on Berlin, unwittingly seeking revenge on the country that had screwed them over in the EU debt crisis. But there was little work for them here – unemployment runs at 40 per cent these parts. Africans too ended up in Neuköln, but not even the dirty jobs reserved for foreigners were open to them, so they stayed in cheap hostels, spilled out in the streets, at a loss for what to do with all that time on their hands.

2012 December 080 (Berlin)a

So I took to walking and to my bicycle, to see what I could make of Berlin. Eastward my front wheel would turn, to streets with names like Karl-Marx-Allee, Karl Liebknecht Strasse, or Strasse der Parisser Kommune. Such areas are thinner in Berlin, especially when compared to places like Minsk or Red Petrograd, or the towns of eastern Germany where the communist era is still thick on the ground. Yet if you slow down, you can still find statues of Marx, the Kino Internationale, Kosmos, and Moskau Restaurant. Here you encounter plaques to the first president of the DDR, and the glorious Stalinbauten or Stalin Baroque – the ‘last great street of Europe’, where the majestic apartments speak of human space.

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I began to notice a little more, particularly when I rode the Mauerweg on my bicycle, 155 kilometres mainly through forest and open land. Contrary to what one may read, many, many traces and relics of the wall remain. It may be a section of the main wall left standing in some open space, or a watchtower turned into a youth retreat. It may be sections of hinterland wall that are now used as fences, or pylons that someone has enterprisingly acquired for his own constructions. It may one of the many electrical boxes, a section of maintenance road, or light posts still used. And it may be a cement platform, a bricked-in railway station wall, the side of a house, or the foundation now used for another structure. Once I knew what to seek, I saw relics everywhere on my ride. The first half I rode in sections during winter. With U-bahn and S-bahn stops between 20 to 30 kilometres apart, I could have the track to myself. It might have meant walking the bike over slippery ice for parts, or seeking the next train station as my extremities began to freeze, but explore it I did. The last half I rode in one day during summer, streaking from Wannsee to Bernauer Strasse, through forests, over waterways, and across farmland, before slipping back into the city.

2013 June 129 (Berlin)a

There I finally gained a feel for the new project that they had attempted in the DDR, if not across Eastern Europe. In our last days we lived close by Alexander Platz, where the Stalinbauten ends. Standing outside the Kino Internationale, my gaze went out over the simple lines of the apartment blocks and open streets. Given a clean slate by the destruction of the Second World War, the architects and builders enthusiastically set out to produce the space of a new society. Clean lines, light buildings, open spaces, and murals celebrating science, space exploration and the plenty of nature released by a new mode of production.  Yet, it was not so much the individual buildings themselves but their relationship to one another that struck me at this moment. Here thought has been given to how they connect, to their angles and sight lines, to the sensation as one walks on the street or stands still as I was doing. Here function, aesthetics, simplicity and durability were the main concern – rather than jamming in cheap apartments for the sake of city taxes and quick profits by dodgy investors. Above all, I was taken by the physical sensation of air and space and openness in the lived reality of human collectivity. In a moment of epiphany, it seemed as though everything was in the right place. It reminded me of seeing gleaming high rises in the towns among the hills of Bulgaria. When the sun shines upon them at dawn, they gleam with the promise and eagerness that once was felt, for how communism manifests itself in the structure of space. Past tense? That feeling has not passed.

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2013 June 110 (Berlin)a

A Real Journey: Floods, Train Crashes and Non-Stop Parties on the Berlin-Amsterdam CNL

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It began with a simple enough plan: I would travel on the City Night Line on two consecutive evenings, from Berlin to Amsterdam and back again. Why? I needed to see someone in Amsterdam. Actually, the real reason is that I was keen for a couple of nights sleeping on a train. The nine and a half hour journey each way would begin in Berlin at half an hour past midnight; I would arrive in Amsterdam at mid-morning for a leisurely get together; I would take the return train, leaving in the early evening. 28 hours, there and back.

If only it were so simple.

With half an hour to spare, I arrived at Berlin Hauptbahnhof to await one of the great pleasures in life – a sleeper. It was to be a couchette, shared with two or three other people. On the platform, I espied a running message on the noticeboard: ‘etwa 2 stunden spater’. What does ‘stunden’ mean? I wondered. A few moments, perhaps.

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A fellow passenger stopped to ask, ‘Does this train also go to Copenhagen?’ – in German.

After voicing the few words in German I know, he switched to English.

‘Yes’, I said. ‘A couple of carriages go through to Copenhagen. I took that part of the train a few months ago … but tell me, what does “stunden” mean?’

‘Hours’, he said. ‘The train is delayed by more than two hours’.

‘Why?’ I said.

‘Flooding in Central Europe’, he said. ‘The train is coming from Prague and had to take the long way around the floods’.

It would be almost three hours before it actually arrived. The real journey had begun, and I was not yet on the train. At that point, I began to notice that German summer evenings are actually rather cool. I had tossed in a thick merino wool jacket at the last minute, not thinking I would ever use it. That was to be one of the few things that went right on the journey.

What does one do on a big, cold German railway platform in the middle of the night? I walked about, read, wrote, tried to snooze (as most of the other passengers), spent one whole euro to use the station toilet, pondered the universe … until the train squealed and creaked into view. The first light of a northern European summer dawn was already spreading as we boarded.

Now I found that my bed was the topmost one in the couchette. Here, with barely room to stretch out horizontally, I made my own bed in the dark, found a remote corner for my bag (after dropping first from a great height), managed accidentally to switch on the main light, and generally made a great din. The Czech muscle man below grunted a few times in complaint.

At long last and in almost full light, I finally went to sleep, waking some six or seven hours later to find the cabin entirely my own – and to find that all my possessions were still there. The others had alighted somewhere during the morning. I had a simple wash, stretched out, and ate a breakfast of cold and soggy pizza (from the night before) and butter milk. A feast fit for a king!

In the clothes in which I had slept, I negotiated a sweaty Amsterdam summer day to find my friend, but only after missing his stop on the tram line and enjoying a grand tour of parts of Amsterdam I had explored some years earlier. At least now the second thing to go right on this trip happened, for he had a late lunch ready for me and we thoroughly enjoyed our interchange.

Not six hours later my return train was due to depart. However, to get there I needed an Amsterdam tram. Easier said than done. Normally the trams run every five-ten minutes, so one merely rolls up to a tram stop and soon enough a tram clunks by. Not on this occasion. Almost half an hour later an overcrowded tram pulled up at the stop. Unlike China, where people always seem to find room for one more, even if one has to hang from the ceiling, the Dutch are rather uncomfortable with one another at close quarters – an anomaly in a country where space is at a premium. A harried and sweaty driver waved away my effort to pay. The tip was a freebie; I soon found out why. The air-conditioning had given up the ghost, and the effect was like a sauna, with sweat dripping from chins, fingertips and elbows. The signalling system on the tram had gone the way of the air-conditioning, the system that ensured the tracks changed over for our route at intersections. At each turn, the driver opened the door, leapt out with a massive iron lever and changed the tracks by hand. It was more exercise than he had done for a long time. Slowly, painfully, we crept towards Centraal station.

The train itself, the overnight sleeper, actually departed on time, at 19:01. This is not such a great feat since Amsterdam Centraal is its starting point. And a glorious train it is, with part going to Copenhagen, another to Warsaw, another to Moscow via Belarus, and another to Prague. The massive reshuffle happens at Hanover, where the city night line trains meet, exchange carriages and then head off to their respective destinations. I was on the Prague section, for it goes through Berlin.

The first hour or so went smoothly enough. I read for a little, chatted with a travel companion (who had emigrated from the Netherlands to Australia), and made my bed for an early night. After all, I was to arrive at Berlin at 4:30 in the morning, so best to get some sleep while I could. As I was starting to drift off, we noticed that we had been in Arnhem for quite some time. Soon the doors opened, people piled out, bewildered and peeping up and down the platform in search of further information. But the break wore on … the noticeboard said we were one and half hours late, then two and half hours, then three hours and twenty minutes. The conductor finally told me there was an accident between here and Emmerich, in Germany. Or rather, an engine had exploded at the station. We were not going to go through Emmerich on the trunk line into Germany.

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Now it was a seriously real journey.

The Dutch immigrant was supposed to be at a conference in Prague, starting at 10:00 the following morning. The train was, under normal circumstances, due to arrive at 9:30. Already, the floods would mean would not be there until lunch time. With our new challenge, he was not sure he would arrive at all, so he began to think of abandoning the trip altogether. I too wondered whether I would make it back to Berlin. Meanwhile, the younger people in our carriage made the most of the opportunity, buying more wine and beer, and then swilling it down while puffing on endless cigarettes. The platform became the scene of a massive party.

To the surprise of everyone, after we thought we would spend the night at Arnhem, the whistles blew and we were herded on board. The train creaked into motion, finally having found a way around Emmerich. I fell on my bunk and was comatose in less than a minute. For once, the delay suited me fine, since now I would not arrive in Berlin until a civilised hour, some time in the morning or perhaps mid-afternoon. I awoke a few minutes before arrival, sweaty, greasy and smelly. I had not changed my clothes or had a wash for the entire journey.

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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.