Geoff Eley On “Ossiness”

Here, historian Geoff Eley evokes some of the complicated feelings of mistrust and resentment spurred in East Germans by the way re-unification of Germany was handled. The prose is sometimes a bit academic, but Eley makes interesting points.

Eley maintains that many Western politicians denied the East Germany government any sort of recognition whatsoever, painting it as nothing more than a chilling Communist dictatorship (which, of course it was). This blanket characterization, though, meant that "the legitimacy of the forms of popular experience fashioned during the life of the GDR became systematically denied." (remember what I said about academic prose).

It is important to grasp what was entailed in such a process of denial. It affected not only the official history of the old East German state and the political tradition incorporated by the SED, the postwar record of GDR Communism, and the specificities of what used to be called actually-existing socialism. Much more fundamentally, that denial also disallowed the mundane accomplishments of ordinary citizens’ lives – that is, the arduous process of having tried to build workable lives inside the constricting boundaries of what an established but beleaguered and poorly-resourced state could realistically make available.

[U]nderstanding the distinctive modalities through which East German residents built their lifeworlds and negotiated their coexistence with the SED is a crucial step towards grasping the predicament of Easterners since 1990. Not only had unification deprived former residents of the GDR of the operating contexts for which their political habitus was fitted, but it also threw them into a vastly differing social scene, where their skills were dismissed, their psycho-cultural outlook derided, and their pasts belittled. This loss of bearings, bitterly seared into the consciousness of East Germans by the accompanying deindustrialization, destruction of livelihoods, and loss of social supports, is a different kind of injustice from the sort prosecuted by the victorious West Germans, but surely one deserving of note. As Lindenberger observes, events ‘were experienced not only as a material loss but also above all as an expropriation of social relations and structures, of moral values and habits, of a specific East German culture, through which GDR citizens had mastered their lives in the preceding four decades and which they now regarded as their legitimate "Ossiness"’.

Eley here is evoking — for an audience that can barely imagine it — what it would be like to live in a country whose entire political structure, habits and customs, consumer products, and work relationships either disappeared or changed radically within a few years. It’s a fascinating thing to think about, I find. 

I’ve met a number of "proud" former "Ossies" (people from East Germany or Ostdeutschland) myself. They have complex and often-contradictory feelings about the former East German state, but many of them are proud in the way Eley describes: they built a satisfying, ethical life in a society that made this difficult. To this pride, many added an admiration for the some of the social ideals of East Germany.

We are not talking here about party faithful, but about people such as Wolf Biermann or Rudolf Bahro (G), who considered themselves both socialists and dissidents. Instead of replacing the East German dictatorship with a genuinely democratic socialist successor state, they watched as it was erased from the history books. When re-unification was being negotiated, East Germany was considered to have nothing to contribute to the discussion about how the new Germany’s social or foreign policies (for example) would look. East Germany’s role was simply to be passively absorbed into the West and express proper gratitude for the opportunity. Of course, East Germans would also be entitled to huge transitional payments from the West, but this was hardly a signal of recognition as a partner of equal dignity in the debate over what a re-unified Germany would look like; rather the opposite. As one acquaintance from the East recently put it, "we didn’t think we were demonstrating to replace a series of depressingly uniform concrete housing blocks with a series of depressingly uniform fast-food chains."

I don’t agree with Eley in every point, but his thesis does explain the vicious circle that keeps coming up in East-West German relations: Ossies have a quiet, but strong grudge against the West for "anti-Communist triumphalism" (Eley) displayed during re-unification and the lack of respect for individual experiences it showed. Westerners, in turn, sputter with rage at the fact that the Ossies could be so ungrateful for one of the biggest wealth transfers in history (most Westerner still pay a large chunk of money to the East every month as a "solidarity payment.")

Eley thinks the fading of the anti-Communist triumphalism in recent years signals a chance for a more nuanced and satisfactory approach to the issues. Let’s hope he’s right.

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