Inside East Germany

September 14 1987

Inside East Germany

September 14 1987

Inside East Germany


On the eve of East German Communist leader Erich Honecker's unprecedented visit to West Germany, Maclean’s sent its Brussels-based correspondent Peter Lewis to examine life in East Germany. His report:

The youths are known as gammler— “dropouts”—and they spend their days around the Alexanderplatz in East Berlin gossiping in conspiratorial undertones, shocking their elders with their ragged jeans, ill-matched jackets and long hair—the emblems of their dissent. They talk of rock stars like Madonna and of one day finding the good life in the West. But on the bleak streets leading off Friedrichstrasse, a couple of kilometres away, other East German youths toil on building sites wearing identical black pants and grey workstained shirts. As members of youth brigades assigned to restoring city monuments, they view themselves as

an elite, flaunting their hammers and saws as badges of conformity with their country’s work ethic. They claim to disdain the allure of capitalism for the challenge of finding fulfilment within the system. The gammler and volunteer construction workers hold one another in the deepest contempt. But they represent two faces of East Germany 38 years after the founding of the Communist state: those who accept it and those who—out of conviction, material ambition or sheer rebelliousnesswant only to leave.

When Erich Honecker this week becomes the first-ever East German Communist leader to visit West Germany, his main objective will be to break down the hostility

of 61 million West Germans toward what they call the “other Germany.” The 75-year-old Honecker, who has governed East Germany’s 17 million people for 16 years, appears to realize that he stands little chance of completely healing the wounds of Germany’s postwar division into opposing ideological camps. But aided by stirrings of détente between the superpowers as they prepare to sign arms-reduction accords, he may win a greater degree of legitimacy for his regime in the z West—and inaugurate 8 an era of better rela5 tions between the two

1 Germanies. g Honecker’s message during his five-day visit 'i will be that East Ger2 many has come of age

and that the bigger and richer West German Federal Republic is fated, by common language and shared identity, to co-operate with it. Diplomatic sources in East Berlin say that the mild-mannered, bespectacled Honecker will call across ideological lines for West Germans to make a fresh appraisal of the other Germany, in order to live more comfortably with it in the 1990s and beyond.

Honecker’s Germany is indeed very different from the West German democratic model that rose out of the rubble of the Second World War. Most Western analysts estimate that if the ugly 1,400-km barbed-wire barrier be-

tween East and West were torn down tomorrow, one-fifth of the East German population would move to the West. But that would still leave 13.5 million East Germans where they are. The fact seems to be that the great majority would be unwilling to barter a safe and orderly, if restricted and repressed, existence under Communist rule for the perils and uncertainties of life in the West. Declared East German civil servant Gunter Ruhle: “We tend to view West Germany as a heartless, competitive, elbow-jabbing society where only the very ambitious or dishonest succeed. Most East Germans believe they are not equipped to thrive in that sort of climate.”

What they are equipped for seems to outsiders to be a cushioned life devoid of material ills, frills or thrills. They can obtain a comprehensive education, adequate housing, decent jobs and—as long as they accept the ground rules of political conformity, which the vast majority do—immunity from state op-

pression or intrusion into their private lives. Those circumstances make East Germany arguably the most successful society in the Soviet bloc. As a measure of the regime’s newfound selfconfidence, an unprecedented one million East Germans are being allowed to visit the West this year—and the authorities in East Berlin predict with mathematical precision that of those only .03 per cent will fail to return.

Still, visitors find East Berlin shabby and inhospitable, a mixture of grand 19th-century buildings and ugly modern concrete towers, showcase boulevards and potholed backstreets. To a Western eye, East Berliners seem

poorly dressed, ill-groomed, dour and preoccupied. Goods in stores seem uniformly substandard and tasteless. And the waiting period for a new three-cylinder Wartburg or Trabant car is 10 years. Nevertheless, life is materially much better than it was a mere decade ago. In that period wages have almost doubled, while prices for basic goods and services have remained at 1950 levels. Rents and food cost roughly onefifth of what they do in West Germany; public transport costs one-tenth.

To offset the crippling cost of the subsidies needed to keep such necessities affordable, the state sets high prices on durable consumer goods. For all its flaws, a new Wartburg costs $17,900, color television sets cost up to to $4,500 and refrigerators $2,000. But the state bank offers credit to needy families at an annual interest rate of four per cent. And although the average monthly take-home wage is less than $800, most households have twice that much to spend because 80 per cent

of East German women work in equalpay jobs. Said Kurt Hölzinger, a construction worker who lives with his wife and five-year-old son in a threeroom apartment in Biesdorf, an East Berlin suburb: “Once rent, food and clothing are accounted for, a quarter of our double income remains for extras and holidays. We count ourselves as well-off.” He added, however, that “just the same, I wouldn’t mind trying life in the West.”

Hölzinger is like many of his fellow countrymen in wanting to sample life in the West. He is one of the 70 per cent of East Germans who receives Western television, which gives him a sugar-plum vision of the consumer society as portrayed in soap operas, feature films and commercials. But at the same time, West German TV reports extensively on scandals, crime, violence and drug-abuse in the Federal Republic, feeding East German prejudices about the darker face of capitalism. That is why Hölzinger will not likely move to “the other side.”

And although the regime that he lives under seems bent on discouraging people from becoming rich, as they can become in the West, it does offer lavish rewards to its worker and professional elite. A bonus system in industry encourages workers to exceed average production figures. Scientists, doctors and university professors earn between $2,000 to $3,500 a month, and party functionaries and ministers make even more. But incongruously, the biggest earners of all are East Germany’s rock music stars. In the early 1980s the East German leadership reversed its long-standing opposition to pop culture and decided to let local entertainers compete with Western groups for the hearts of East German youth. As a result, such singers as Tamara Danz and Frank Schobel achieved almost instant fame, acquiring in the process Western limousines, private homes and six-digit incomes.

A key to the mentality of most East Germans can be found in the educational system, which carefully plants the seeds of ideological conformity. Children attend kindergarten before starting school at 6 and enrolling in the Pioneer Corps. Later, 65 per cent of Germans between 14 and 25 join the Youth Federation, whose doctrine—like that of schools and sports associations—is unmistakably Marxist-Leninist. But spokesman Peter Horn denies that the Youth Federation resorts to brainwashing. “We simply coax the young into the realization that our system is the most equitable,” he said.

When the young people have absorbed the Communist doctrine, the party, unions, media and simple peer

pressure all combine to make certain it is not forgotten. But that still leaves the government with the awkward task of justifying the Berlin Wall to the people behind it. The standard response since the Wall went up in 1961 has been that it is needed to protect East German socialism from subversion and assault by hostile forces in West Germany. Probably no more than a third of East Germans accept that argument, but the Wall has been there for so long that most seem to accept it as a fact of life.

Meanwhile, the country prospers as few of its Communist neighbors do. Between 1970 and 1985 East Germany’s gross national product almost

doubled, to $180 billion. Economists attribute that to the growing efficiency of East Germany’s Kombinat system, devised in the 1960s as an alternative to strict central planning. Gathering whole branches of industry under one roof, the 283 Kombinats carry out their own research, production, marketing and sales. As a result, East Germany’s advanced machinetool microelectronic, chemical and textile industries all export well over half their output. About 60 per cent of all exports go to the Soviet Union and other Soviet-bloc nations, which in turn supply East Germany with almost all its raw materials. The remaining exports are sold in the West for hard currency. Indeed, the need for strong currencies to buy Western machinery for its factories was so pressing that until recently East Germany quietly reserved its best goods for the West. However, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev recently served

notice that he expects better-quality goods from East Germany. Said economics professor Ernst Richter of East Berlin University: “While our economy needs hard currency, it also depends absolutely on Soviet readiness to supply raw materials, so we are on the spot.”

It is the economy’s solid performance that has so far permitted Honecker to ignore Gorbachev’s call for perestroika—restructuring — and a more open society throughout the Eastern Bloc as well as in the Soviet Union. The East Germans claim that their Kombinats are 20 years in advance of anything that the Soviets have produced. As a result, they say, it

would be pointless to change the economic system. Just the same, an air of both perestroika and glasnost (openness) has crept into East Germany. The last Communist party congress in December opened a breach for private enterprise by authorizing motorists to provide taxi service in their spare time. It also permitted plumbers and electricians to operate independently after their normal state working hours. Then, the state bank agreed to offer wider loans to entrepreneurs willing to open private restaurants. And in a gesture to the middle classes, the state decided to put up 25,000 plots of land for sale at moderate prices to city-dwellers who want to build chalets in the country.

Politically, too, the atmosphere is becoming more relaxed. The tightly controlled press has begun to air subjects that only a year ago were taboo. In April the East German medical journal Deine Gesundheit (Your

Health) reported that alcoholism had reached “alarming proportions.” Last month the 1.3-million daily circulation Youth Federation’s newspaper Junge Welte (Youth World) examined the problem of East Germany’s extremely high abortion rate. Those changes and others in the past 18 months—a return to topless bathing on the beaches, a thinner police presence on the streets, a willingness by officials to admit the system’s shortcomings to outsiders— reflect the less forbidding picture of East Germany that is now emerging.

But it is a slow and uncertain process, and penalties for outright dissent remain severe. East German jails hold 4,000 political prisoners, most of them caught trying to escape to the West. For those who try to move to the West legally, the penalties are more subtle. Only three years ago those who applied to emigrate would be hounded by the security police and lose their jobs and the right to higher education for their children. Now— with a reported 500,000 applications outstanding—the authorities have left the candidates for emigration in their jobs while punishing them in lesser ways, such as denying them subsidized holidays or tearing up their orders for cars or better housing. As for the gammler, if the street rebels persist in refusing to work, they are likely to be jailed on loitering or petty-crime charges.

Still, recalcitrants say that the current atmosphere is less oppressive than only a year ago. In July the government abolished the death penalty and announced a wide amnesty, scheduled for October, for all but war criminals, murderers and spies. Also, there have been reports that, in connection with Honecker’s trip to West Germany, border guards have been ordered to refrain from shooting at people trying to escape to the West.

Whether that order will become permanent depends largely on the outcome of Honecker’s trip and whether Honecker thinks that the built-in dangers of further liberalization are a reasonable price to pay for wider acceptance in the West. His answer will not appear in any official communiqué. Instead, it may emerge following his return to East Berlin—if no one shoots when the next East German climbs the Wall.