An Englishwoman in 1980s Dresden

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Die Hacke'sche Höfe in Berlin, 1979.

Through her excellent Twitter feed (source of the above photo), which posts a picture from the former East Germany every day, I came across this 2014 interview with Paula Kirby, an Englishwoman who taught English in Dresden in the mid-1980s. (Yes, she had a Stasi file and has seen it, although the results were unspectacular.) I find her observations colorful and free of the tiresome polarization that this issue often provokes. They generally mesh with accounts I've heard from East Germans. A few excerpts:

[T]he GDR was full of surprises. Shall I start with the good ones? Dresden was beautiful: literally breathtakingly beautiful, or at least, the city centre was. The half-finished suburbs full of hideous tower-blocks were as ugly in Dresden as they were elsewhere in the GDR, but much of the historic old town had been lovingly rebuilt after the war, and even the modern areas, such as the Prager Strasse pedestrian zone, where my flat was, were amazingly light and spacious, with dancing fountains and flower-beds bursting with colour, and people sitting outside at the street cafés, lapping up the sunshine while drinking coffee and eating cake. This was not what I had been expecting of a city behind the Iron Curtain!

Then there was Dresden’s astonishing cultural provision – It wasn’t just that there was an abundance of cultural offerings, but that the appreciation of culture clearly had mass appeal. The famous Old and New Masters art galleries were always busy, and I don’t think I ever went to a classical concert in the enormous Kulturpalast (‘Palace of Culture’) that wasn’t absolutely packed. And not just with the kind of people you might have expected to see in the West, where such things tend to be perceived as middle-class pursuits. In the GDR there was nothing elitist about going to a classical concert or opera: it was simply something enjoyable and stimulating that was accessible to all. Tickets for the newly re-opened Semper Opera House were only on sale once a week, from Monday lunchtimes, and people would start queuing before dawn, even in the depths of winter, in order to be sure of getting them.  Cultural events were heavily subsidised so, even though the opera tickets were still fairly pricey in relation to average wages, they bore no resemblance to the obscene prices charged in the West; and other cultural events were truly affordable for all. This was something I loved, and I still think that life in the GDR was enormously enriched by it.

On a personal level, most people were friendly, curious, warm, helpful and eager to show off their home town and region. I did genuinely get the impression that most people I met broadly approved of what the GDR was trying to do, even if they were critical of some – or even most – aspects of the reality. The lack of freedom to travel was, of course, a very sore point: even Party stalwarts would privately admit to feeling resentful about this. Officialdom could be tricky, especially because the GDR was always seeking ways of getting hold of hard currency, and so there were certain things (notably hotels and international train travel) for which Westerners were required to pay in Deutschmarks. One glimpse of my British passport, and the demands for western currency would begin! All very well, but I was being paid in GDR Marks and, having only just graduated, had no western currency to spare. The university gave me an official document confirming that I was “building socialism in the GDR” and that the requirement to pay in hard currency therefore did not apply, but it didn’t always do the trick, and then the long circuit from one bureaucrat to another to another would begin all over again until I found someone who was willing to cut through the muddle for me.

There were some bad surprises too – the political propaganda I had been expecting, of course: just not that it would be quite so relentless. It was in the textbooks I was expected to teach from, it was on TV, it was in the newspapers, it was on banners draped above shops and offices, it saturated the endless staff meetings, it was even lit up in red neon letters on a block of flats near my home (“Socialism will triumph!”). The same goes for the bureaucracy: it wasn’t unexpected, but the extent of it and the frustration that went with it (and the number of times you would wait for hours to see an official, only to be curtly turned away because you didn’t have a particular form with you, or you did have the form but you hadn’t already waited two hours somewhere else to have it stamped by another official first …), these were things to which I eventually became accustomed but never reconciled.

While nearly all East Germans I got to know socially and professionally were warm and welcoming, an encounter with people in their official capacities was often stressful. Most shop assistants, waiters, post office clerks, ticket desk staff and even doctors’ receptionists often seemed to go out of their way to convey their low opinion of you and their resentment at having to engage with you. “Customer service” seemed an unknown concept, and to go shopping or to the local post office was to face an almost certain lecture on the many ways you had failed to live up to expectations. You would be scolded for not having wrapped your parcel properly, for not standing at the right place in the queue, for not stepping up to the counter quickly enough when it was your turn, for not having your ID ready to show, for not having the right change, for giving them too much small change, for speaking too quietly and, of course, for speaking too loudly. Such encounters were a constant test, it seemed: one we were all doomed to fail. In fact, of all the challenges of everyday life in the GDR, this was the one that ground me down the most.

How do you think  your status as a foreigner (and particularly, your identity as a Westerner ‘behind the iron curtain’!) impacted upon your experiences in East Germany?

On a personal level, most people were friendly, curious, warm, helpful and eager to show off their home town and region. I did genuinely get the impression that most people I met broadly approved of what the GDR was trying to do, even if they were critical of some – or even most – aspects of the reality. The lack of freedom to travel was, of course, a very sore point: even Party stalwarts would privately admit to feeling resentful about this. Officialdom could be tricky, especially because the GDR was always seeking ways of getting hold of hard currency, and so there were certain things (notably hotels and international train travel) for which Westerners were required to pay in Deutschmarks. One glimpse of my British passport, and the demands for western currency would begin! All very well, but I was being paid in GDR Marks and, having only just graduated, had no western currency to spare. The university gave me an official document confirming that I was “building socialism in the GDR” and that the requirement to pay in hard currency therefore did not apply, but it didn’t always do the trick, and then the long circuit from one bureaucrat to another to another would begin all over again until I found someone who was willing to cut through the muddle for me.

…I think it’s unfortunate that today, so many people seem to want to deal exclusively in black and white. While there were aspects of the GDR that were, in my view, inexcusable, and I would never wish to downplay the persecution of those who dared to express thoughts and pursue goals that did not conform to the state ideology, it was not (for most people) the relentlessly grim and terrifying place of Cold War propaganda; and while there was also a great deal that I remember with fondness, nor was it the paradise on Earth that many of the Ostalgiker would have us believe. The reality was far more varied, far more complex and, above all, far more interesting. That’s what I try to convey through my tweets.

The most conspicuous kind of Ostalgie is the pure, un-nuanced version, which simply holds that everything damals (“back then”) was better. There are countless such groups on Facebook, where, if you were to believe everything you read, you would be convinced that everything damals tasted better, no one went without anything, the queues and the patchy supply situation only made shopping more interesting, the Trabant was the best car in the world, industrial pollution didn’t harm anyone, people rarely fell ill, national service in the army was the best laugh ever, and people who fell foul of the Stasi must have done something to deserve it. I have even seen a number of comments suggesting that we shouldn’t make such a fuss about people shot at the Wall, because they knew what the risks were and had only themselves to blame. Everything was for the best, in the best of all possible GDRs.

Personally, while sharing the nostalgia for some aspects of the GDR (if offered a trip in a time machine, I would set the dial firmly for Dresden 1985 and zoom back there like a shot; not because it was so wonderful, but because it was so interesting), I have little patience with those who are determined to whitewash history so completely.

However, there is also a more nuanced form of Ostalgie which I think is more defensible and represents a much more serious challenge to the reunified Germany. One of the enduring resentments felt by many in the East is that, whereas what they wanted was a genuine unification ­– a new Germany comprising the best aspects of both republics ­– what actually happened felt more like a takeover, or even a conquest. There was an assumption on the part of West Germany that everyone in the East accepted that the West was superior in all respects; and I think that assumption was largely false. There were many things about the GDR that much of the population genuinely valued: low rents, full employment, state childcare, good schools. It wasn’t that most GDR citizens despised socialism and longed to be plunged into full-on capitalism: what many of them wanted was not primarily a higher standard of living but more personal freedom. And while reunification has given them that, it has also brought with it a whole raft of problems that were unknown in the GDR, where virtually no one needed to worry about not being able to afford the basic necessities, and where there wasn’t the endless pressure to consume, consume, consume. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that some people in the East feel alienated in the new Germany, or that Ostalgie groups regularly talk about having had their Heimat(‘Homeland’) taken away from them.

Alcohol and Socialism

From a display at the Stasi Museum in Leipzig:

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Translation:

3. Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse occurs when alcohol consumption leads to a contradiction between socialist moral requirements and a socialist lifestyle, on the one hand, and actual behavior, on the other.

Since most of us now drink and live a life in contradiction to fundamental socialist principles, we are all alcoholics. I find that strangely reassuring.

Golden Rules for East German Teachers

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Courtesy of the DDR (East German) Museum Pirna, a plaque with guidance for teachers: 

Golden Rules for Teachers' Work

Make an Effort to Maintain Ideological Clarity!

Take Up a Firm Fundamental Position!

Be Optimistic!

Be Humble!

Be Balanced! Guard Against Cynicism!

Judge Your Work Realistically and Be Critical of Yourself!

Recognize Successes! Use Scolding Rarely!

Trust and Love Children!

Respect the Pupil! Give Him Responsibility! 

Convince, Don't Browbeat!

‘A Pretty Girl For Pleasure At a Place Convenient For You’

Doing a bit of tidying-up recently, I found a business card I got during a recent trip to Sofia, Bulgaria. I was minding my own business, waiting by the side of the street to be picked up by friends, when I watched a nice, but unspectacular late-model sedan park in a nearby parking lot. A guy dressed in a nice but unspectacular suit, perhaps mid-30s, well-groomed, emerged from the car carrying a briefcase. He spotted me and walked directly over.

He said, "Can I help you?" "No, I'm just waiting for a friend," I replied. Then he said "Well, in case you would like some company," and gave me a business card. I assumed it was his business card, and that he either wanted to buy me a drink to practice his English, or to do something more, er, Greek. Then he walked away. This was the card:

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Well, that was unexpected. At least my heterosexuality is confirmed, I thought. Not that I needed any confirmation, mind you. Just reassuring. 

I noticed that there's only one phone number, but the rates on the front and back of the card are different. This hardly speaks for the conscientiousness of Bulgarian pimps. Unless there's actually a difference between 'top models' and 'pretty girls for pleasure'.

The more I thought about it, the more questions I had. The guy who gave me the card looked like a mild-mannered accountant. I was waiting right in the middle of Sofia, not in some park where odd grunting sounds come from the bushes. Do Bulgarian pimps just hand out cards to ordinary Bulgarian men and tell them to give the cards to anyone who looks like a horny tourist? Or is this mere hospitality, like a tribal chieftain offering his wife to a traveler?

In any case, since I was staying with friends, I didn't enjoy the company of any pretty girls for pleasure. But t then again, the minute you exit a German train station, you see that you don't have to leave Germany to enjoy the company of Bulgarian prostitutes (g).

‘Rostock is a Beautiful City’

A brief slice of an educational English-learning TV show from the former East Germany. Unfortunately, it cuts off just before the good part, in which Muttonchop drops some Sweet Slabs of Socialist Science™ on the English reporter: 

Remedial Logic for Immigration Debates: The Fake Xenophobia/Few Foreigners Paradox

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A recent article in the Monde Diplomatique about Poland bears the title 'Real Xenophobia, Phantom Immigrants'. 

When motivated thinking rules the day, as it does in the European immigrant debate, fallacies spread like weeds. This article is an example. It fits into the trope, repeated over and over by immigration liberals: 'Why do Poles/Germans living in Saxony/Slovakians oppose immigrants so much? There are hardly any living there!'

The fallacy here is so glaring that you might be inclined to think this argument is only for idiots. Perhaps, but most of the people who fall for this howler are just engaging in motivated reasoning, a hallmark of human nature. They will recycle any old argument, however flimsy, so long as it supports their existing opinion. We all do it. Intelligent people do it less than unintelligent people, since they have a superior ability to recognize logical errors. But even the smartest fall into the trap. Studies show only trained philosophers are capable of consistently avoiding motivated reasoning.

In case you're tempted to buy this argument, let's look at why it's bogus. The thinking of anti-immigration Poles is as follows (not singling Poles out, just using them as an example — bez obrazy!):

We oppose immigration because we think immigrants bring problems, and we don't want those problems in our country.

You may disagree with the premise of this argument (immigrants = problems), but there's nothing inconsistent about it. For that matter, Albanians might oppose nuclear power, even though there are no nuclear power plans in Albania, because they believe nuclear plants bring problems.

In fact, this habit of thinking is literally written into European law:

The precautionary principle (or precautionary approach) to risk management states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public, or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus (that the action or policy is not harmful), the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action that may or may not be a risk.

As Steve Sailer tellingly observes, when it comes to genetically modified foods or chemicals, European law demands extensive study before any risky activity, no matter how remote the possibility of harm. When it comes to immigration, though, anything goes! 

Poles who oppose immigration are applying the precautionary principle to immigration. The one foolproof way to avoid having a nuclear meltdown in your country is to not build any nuke plants there. The one foolproof way to avoid having any genetically-modified plants in your country (aside from intruders) is to not plant any there.

And the one foolproof way to avoid having any Cologne-on-New-Year's-Eves in your country is to keep immigrants out.

You may consider this illiberal or inhumane, but there's one thing it ain't: illogical.

Eurhythmics from the East

For those of you who don't speak German, this curious gem of a video from the International Socialist Peace and Freedom Conference of 1974 (held in Rio de Janeiro) shows the East German women's rhythmic gymnastics team introducing their new outfits for the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.

All 22 ladies show off the daring new 'Progess and Equality' themed uniforms, half black and half multicolored, which were the first in East German history not designed by Margot Honecker, wife of East German Premier Erich Honecker and Minister of Education.

The voice-over commentary is by Erich Mielke, Director of the East German Ministry for State Security (Stasi). Having the secretive super-spy appear on mainstream television programming was part of the short-lived 'Protecting You, Protecting the State, Protecting the Future' program, which was designed to improve the reputation of East German spy agencies. Mielke was removed from the spotlight after he made comments about the apparent facial hair growth of some of the gymnasts, which is just visible from certain angles in this video.

German Word of the Week: Jubelperser

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On June 2, 1967, the Shah of Iran and his wife Farah paid a state visit to Berlin, West Germany. Wherever he went, there were demonstrations by Berliners against the hospitality being shown to the dashing autocrat. To shield him from these demonstrators, the Iranian regime arranged for a group of about 150 Iranians to accompany the Shah and cheer him on.

Since the people were Persian, and since they cheered and celebrated (jubeln in German) the Shah, they were called the Jubelperser (g) "Cheering-Persians". It's pronounced roughly YOU-bull-pair-zer. But these Jubelperser had a sinister side as well — some of them were members of the SAVAK secret police.

As the protests came to a head during the Shah's visit to the Berlin opera house, the Jubelperser took a break from cheering, whipped out clubs, sticks, and batons, and began beating nearby demonstrators. German police, who despised the student demonstrators, stood by and watched without doing a thing except possibly smirking.

Later that day, when the Berlin police violently dispersed the demonstrators, policeman Karl-Heinz Kurras (g) for reasons that remain unclear to this day, pulled out his gun and shot student demonstrator Benno Ohnesorg (g) to death. Kurras was never convicted of a crime for the shooting. In 2009 it was revealed that he had been an unofficial collaborator with the Stasi. The death of Ohnesorg on June 2, 1967 greatly accelerated the radicalization of parts of the German student movement — in fact, one terrorist group that operated during the 1970s was called the "June 2nd Movement".

Jubelperser has entered the German vocabulary to describe paid professional fans, or generally any crowd which displays unnatural or exaggerated enthusiasm. There doesn't have to be something a bit menacing about their display, but if there is, the term fits even better. Example of use in a sentence: "When a flightsuit-clad Angela Merkel ran awkwardly onstage to the sound of 'Rock You Like a Hurricane', the audience, mainly members of the Youth Wing of the Christian Democrat Party, dutifully cheered like Jubelperser."

Austria: Right-Wing Populist Party in the Lead

The "Freedom Party of Austria" is a right-wing nativist/populist party comparable to the Front National in France. Its most famous leader was the spectacularly bizarre gay anti-immigrant Jean-Claude van Damme look-alike Jörg Haider, who once said:

"The social order of Islam is opposed to our Western values. Human rights and democracy are as incompatible with the Muslim religious doctrine as is the equality of women. In Islam, the individual and his free will count for nothing; faith and religious struggle – jihad, the holy war – for everything.

Haider died in a drunk-driving crash in 2008, with a BAC of 1.8, after leaving a gay bar. 

The Freedom Party has long been a force in Austrian politics, and it's even formed governing coalitions. It used to be (European) liberal / nationalist, but is now right-wing populist. Parties to the left of the FPA have tried to limit its participation in government and exclude controversial FPA members from high posts.

Now, thanks to the refugee crisis, the FPA is the strongest party in Austria. The most recent opinion poll (g) shows Austrians favor the Freedom Party by 33% Next come the Social Democrats with 23%, then the center-right People's Party with 21%. Two-thirds of Austrians disapprove of the current government (a grand coalition of center-right and center-left), especially its handling of immigration. The current Chancellor of Austria is a member of the Social Democratic Party, which would get 23% of the vote, 10 points behind the Freedom Party.

Austria has just stopped migrants crossing the border, stranding groups of them in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and Hungary, which are busy screaming insults at each other and tossing the refugees back and forth (g).

The crisis continues.