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Homesick for a Dictatorship: Majority of Eastern Germans Feel Life Better under Communism

By Julia Bonstein

Part 2: 'People Lie and Cheat Everywhere Today'

Wall decorations from Bali decorate his living room, and a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty stands next to the DVD player. All the same, Schön sits on his sofa and rhapsodizes about the good old days in East Germany. "In the past, a campground was a place where people enjoyed their freedom together," he says. What he misses most today is "that feeling of companionship and solidarity." The economy of scarcity, complete with barter transactions, was "more like a hobby." Does he have a Stasi file? "I'm not interested in that," says Schön. "Besides, it would be too disappointing."

His verdict on the GDR is clear: "As far as I'm concerned, what we had in those days was less of a dictatorship than what we have today." He wants to see equal wages and equal pensions for residents of the former East Germany. And when Schön starts to complain about unified Germany, his voice contains an element of self-satisfaction. People lie and cheat everywhere today, he says, and today's injustices are simply perpetrated in a more cunning way than in the GDR, where starvation wages and slashed car tires were unheard of. Schön cannot offer any accounts of his own bad experiences in present-day Germany. "I'm better off today than I was before," he says, "but I am not more satisfied."

Schön's reasoning is less about cool logic than it is about settling scores. What makes him particularly dissatisfied is "the false picture of the East that the West is painting today." The GDR, he says, was "not an unjust state," but "my home, where my achievements were recognized." Schön doggedly repeats the story of how it took him years of hard work before starting his own business in 1989 -- before reunification, he is quick to add. "Those who worked hard were also able to do well for themselves in the GDR." This, he says, is one of the truths that are persistently denied on talk shows, when western Germans act "as if eastern Germans were all a little stupid and should still be falling to their knees today in gratitude for reunification." What exactly is there to celebrate, Schön asks himself?

"Rose-tinted memories are stronger than the statistics about people trying to escape and applications for exit visas, and even stronger than the files about killings at the Wall and unjust political sentences," says historian Wolle.

These are memories of people whose families were not persecuted and victimized in East Germany, of people like 30-year-old Birger, who says today: "If reunification hadn't happened, I would also have had a good life."

Life as a GDR Citizen

After completing his university degree, he says, he would undoubtedly have accepted a "management position in some business enterprise," perhaps not unlike his father, who was the chairman of a farmers' collective. "The GDR played no role in the life of a GDR citizen," Birger concludes. This view is shared by his friends, all of them college-educated children of the former East Germany who were born in 1978. "Reunification or not," the group of friends recently concluded, it really makes no difference to them. Without reunification, their travel destinations simply would have been Moscow and Prague, instead of London and Brussels. And the friend who is a government official in Mecklenburg today would probably have been a loyal party official in the GDR.

The young man expresses his views levelheadedly and with few words, although he looks slightly defiant at times, like when he says: "I know, what I'm telling you isn't all that interesting. The stories of victims are easier to tell."

Birger doesn't usually mention his origins. In Duisburg, where he works, hardly anyone knows that he is originally from East Germany. But on this afternoon, Birger is adamant about contradicting the "victors' writing of history." "In the public's perception, there are only victims and perpetrators. But the masses fall by the wayside."

This is someone who feels personally affected when Stasi terror and repression are mentioned. He is an academic who knows "that one cannot sanction the killings at the Berlin Wall." However, when it comes to the border guards' orders to shoot would-be escapees, he says: "If there is a big sign there, you shouldn't go there. It was completely negligent."

This brings up an old question once again: Did a real life exist in the midst of a sham? Downplaying the dictatorship is seen as the price people pay to preserve their self-respect. "People are defending their own lives," writes political scientist Schroeder, describing the tragedy of a divided country.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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