Archive for the ‘Postcommunism’ Category

In honour of the little people

In GDR, Postcommunism on November 25, 2009 at 12:17 pm

I was recently at a conference in Cambridge devoted to Cold War that preceded the East-West rapprochement that followed 1989. A number of the ‘big players’ were there, from Eisenhower’s grandaughter to White House men who had served under Reagan, and Gorbachev’s former spokesman.

It was an impressive array of Cold War warriors, and enormously educational. But somewhere in the dissection of the whys and wherefores of this almighty clash of ideologies, something was lost. That something was the individual.

Looking back at what I have learned about the GDR, what really stands out for me are the stories of the little people. For example, the old lady in Leipzig who had marvelled at the people at the next restaurant table speaking French.

Or the woman who had a copy of the proscribed Gulag Archipelago for one night only and stayed up till morning to read it, before this ‘contraband’ had to be quickly passed on. Or the reckless 18-year-old who got himself arrested by the Stasi, gambling (correctly, as it happens) that West Germany would buy his release.

And of course the man at Bornholmer Strasse whose father died only months before 9th November 1989. Like my own grandmother, who served as a fire warden in the famously blitzed Coventry in WW2, these people’s names will not be found in any textbooks.

Like threads in the swirl of a pattern, their individual tales are lost in the grand design of the fabric of history. But put your face up to the canvas, look closely, and they’re there. They’re everywhere; the big narratives are but the sum of all their short stories. I salute them all.

Icons and ironies

In Postcommunism, Wall on November 6, 2009 at 9:31 am
U2 Bburg Gate (640x480)
The Hammer & Sickle flies again in Berlin

The Hammer & Sickle was on prominent display again last night in Berlin, but only as part of U2’s gig under the Brandenburg Gate. “Thanks for building the set,” Bono drily commented in their free pre-MTV European Music Awards show.

Album Achtung Baby was recorded at the time of reunification (1990) at the famous Hansa studios near the Wall, and their Zoo TV stage show took diminutive GDR Trabi’s and mounted them on stages around the world.

U2 always have an eye for the moment. The gate was hugely symbolic long before the Wall made it off limits in ’61, so this spot at the end of the Unter Den Linden was the perfect place to mark the anniversary of Berlin’s (latest) rebirth.

As Jay-Z guested on anthem Sunday Bloody Sunday at one of Europe’s most famous landmarks – under the quadriga that depicts the chariot-riding Roman goddess of victory – it became a giant video screen while searchlights touched the clouds and made patterns in the black November sky.

“Thanks for coming out on a cold night,” said Bono. It was worth it for a little piece of history.

Heroes and villains

In Germany, Postcommunism on November 2, 2009 at 9:35 am

In a wonderful irony, a McDonald’s now stands on the corner of Frankfurter Tor on the former socialist shopping showpiece that is Karl Marx Allee. This is where visiting dignitaries were brought, and officials made sure that here – unlike other places – the shops were always.

And yet, in a wonderful twist that seems to say so much about the transition from socialism to capitalism, it does not open until 9.30am in the morning – missing the breakfast rush as commuters head to the U-Bahn station outside.

Speaking of dignitaries, a reunion has taken place between Gorbachev, Bush Senior and ex-Chancellor Kohl. History will probably be kind to all of them, but as one reader comments here, Gorbachev’s back was against the economic wall and he had little choice.

Was he a visionary? By all accounts the USSR was broke and IMF loans were drying up to the Eastern Bloc (USSR and satellite states like East Germany and Poland) when it started to break up in 1989. Historians have also indicated that Gorbachev was not in favour of the break-up of the Soviet Union which followed.

“Between the truth and the legend, print the legend,” is a well known quote. The fact that it is attributed to a number of famous people exemplifies the arbitrary subjective nature of history. The comments board under this article is a mixture of informed debate and puerile mudslinging, but it shows how polarised views can be.

The Monday Demonstrations crowd chanted “Gorbi, Gorbi” in the streets of Leipzig. Whatever Gorbachev’s motivation, on this side of Europe he looks set to go down in history as the man who tore down the Iron Curtain. Further west in Russia, some see him as the man who ruined an empire and weakened a once-great country. Such is history.

Greener Grass?

In DDR, Film, Postcommunism on May 10, 2009 at 6:04 am
You lived the regime, now buy the t-shirt

You lived the regime, now buy the t-shirt

Nostalgia is not what it used to be. But as Ossis look to their wealthier Wessi brothers and wonder if capitalism is all it’s cracked up to – a sentiment that some in the UK have shared as the banking crisis kicked in – some of them hark back to the bad old days. From the Stasi bar in Lichtenberg, to this t-shirt I bought in a Wedding army surplus store, Ostalgie is a mini industry.

The postcommunist joke is that they used to have money, but nothing to buy. Now they can buy whatever they want – but they have no money. One thing I observed in the workplace, and life in general, is that change is unsettling. People like certainty, even if that means paying a price for fixing their daily reference points in drab communist-era concrete. It’s the proverbial devil you know. We’re all familiar with the expression “it’s the waiting I can’t stand”.

From the welders of the uncompetitive Gdansk shipyards, to the little old ladies in Bratislava panelkas and the unemployed factory workers of Leipzig – ‘new’ members of the capitalist club are finding out that winners means losers too. The yin of boom also means the yang of bust.

It’s understandable that some look back to a time where they didn’t have much, but they knew they wouldn’t lose it either. As the popular film Goodbye Lenin! points out, it wasn’t all bad, and it’s debatable whether East Germany was unified with its neighbour – or just absorbed by it. But the wonder of communism is not that it collapsed, but that it lasted as long as it did: it was propped up on IMF loans from the system it despised. Ostalgie says as much about human nature and the loss of comfort zones as it does about the disappearance of the DDR.