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Learning from past mistakes, the GDR and beyond

07 Oct

DDR roundel


The German Democratic Republic (GDR/DDR) was founded 64 years ago today in the former Soviet Zone of Germany, following the declaration of the Federal Republic of (West) Germany in the three Western occupation zones. Berlin was also divided into four occupation zones, and the Soviet sector of Berlin became the capital of the GDR. The three Western sectors of Berlin were an enclave of capitalism 100 miles inside the Socialist GDR, and were collectively known as West Berlin.

Effectively East Berlin was an integral part of the GDR, and West Berlin, despite its geographical position, was part of the FRG, though neither side was happy about this as Berlin was officially still an occupied city with 4 occupation zones – Soviet, US, British and French.

There was an open border in Berlin until August 1961, and free movement from East to West and vice versa. It was possible for East Berliners to get high paid jobs in West Berlin whilst enjoying the subsidized rents, subsidized food, etc. in the East, and for West Berliners to pop over to the East and buy cheap subsidized food in their shops. The strain on the GDR economy became too great as their citizens either got jobs in West Berlin or emigrated to the Western sectors of the city or West Germany, where they were guaranteed West German citizenship. Professionals were highly sought after and were offered high salaries if they emigrated to the West, so the GDR was being drained of people they had educated and trained to this level at their expense.

While West Germany received Marshall Aid to rebuild after the Second World War, the GDR paid reparation fees to the Soviet Union for the whole of Germany, yet despite this it became one of the leading industrial nations in the world, with a standard of living much higher than most of the Socialist block.

By 1961 some sort of barrier between the Western and Eastern parts of Berlin became essential but the brutal nature of the Berlin Wall with its death strips, minefields and the shooting of people trying to flee West, mirrored on the inter-German border 100 miles West, was one of the biggest mistakes the GDR made.

It should have been possible to erect border installations to stop the brain drain, and the influx of Westerners stripping shops of subsidized goods to take back home, by economic measures. A tax could have been imposed on goods bought in the GDR by returning Westerners, and a hefty deposit (raised by public collections) could have been required for GDR citizens to visit the Western parts of Berlin and West Germany. This deposit would be refunded when they returned to the GDR, and bureaucratic measures could have insured it was impossible to commute between the two halves of the city for work as each visit would require a new visa which would deliberately take days to process, plus the deposits would have to be processed.

This would have been a much more humane way of restricting the movement of populations and ending the cross-border scams which were damaging the GDR economy.

Another lesson to be learnt is that no political system can be imposed by another country, and Socialism was imposed on many of the countries liberated from Fascism by the Soviet Red Army. The Soviets required friendly ‘buffer states’ after suffering tremendous losses due to the Nazi invasion of 1941, but neutrality was negotiated for Finland which bordered the Soviet Union, and even for Austria in 1955. Soviet troops withdrew from Vienna that year (Austria had been divided into occupation zones much like Germany).

Once Socialism was established in the Soviet Zone of Germany, which then became the GDR, a semblance of democracy was established in a Communist-led coalition government (and similarly for Czechoslovakia which actually voted in the Communists in a free election in the 1940s). There was a forced merger between the German Communist Party (KPD) and the much bigger Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the GDR, which formed the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Other political parties included the Liberal Democrats, the National Democrats, the Christian Democrats and the Democratic Farmers Party. These together formed the National Front of the GDR, a coalition which was effectively dominated by the SED, which itself was dominated by the Communists.

A joint list of candidates was put to the electorate periodically, but they could only vote for the entire list, dominated by SED candidates, or reject it. To vote for it, you simply put it in the ballot box, but to vote against you had to go in a booth to strike all the names out. You were then noted as a dissident, and were seriously harassed and disadvantaged in many ways. A similar system existed in all the Socialist countries. They were not, therefore, genuinely free elections.

True you could join one of the political parties in the GDR and take part in the selection process, but again it was dominated and controlled by the SED, and much like our own Labour and Tory Parties, the leadership was firmly in control of the party machine, the conferences/congresses, etc.

Basically the GDR, like the Soviet Union, was effectively a one-party State, and what happens in a dictatorship like that? Why the ordinary people feel there’s no point in becoming politically active or joining the ruling party/parties, but careerists, opportunists and criminal elements flock to join them and get awarded special privileges. In no time at all the whole of the Socialist system is corrupted as it is run and firmly controlled by people who have no real interest in Socialism, and are just out to help themselves and their own families.

While the basis of Socialism was laid in the GDR and the other Socialist countries, and they achieved full employment, security in old age, good education, health and other public services, and good transport networks, also subsidized rents, etc. those Party officials and State bureaucrats got special privileges and better class housing, cars, etc. It was, therefore, a very distorted form of Socialism where the basics were provided for all, but there was a ruling privileged clique. With the added fact that after 1961 it was almost impossible for ordinary GDR citizens to even visit their relatives in the West (unless they were of pensionable age; visas were issued to most GDR pensioners as if they stayed in the West their pension burden would then be on West Berlin and West Germany not the GDR!)

In 1989 Hungary opened its borders to the West, and many GDR citizens used that route to go West, where they were guaranteed West German citizenship if they so desired. The grass always seems greener on the other side, particularly if you were constantly bombarded with TV adverts from West German television for products which you could only buy, if you were lucky, with Western currency in the GDR Intershops.

The Berlin Wall and inter-German border thus became virtually redundant in 1989, but the GDR survived for another year, then was officially re-united with West Germany, but in effect, absorbed into or annexed by the Federal Republic by common consent of most GDR citizens. A decision many of them later had second thoughts about, when they found that everything was not so rosy under a free enterprise system, with no security in old age, with no guaranteed full employment, and the other advantages of even the imperfect Socialism the GDR enjoyed.

This, in my view, constituted the final mistake – to allow the GDR, which had existed for 40 years, to just be annexed by West Germany. Under the GDR’s Socialist Constitution all the political parties mentioned existed in the National Front, so a slight amendment of this Constitution would have allowed them, and other political parties, to exist and put up rival candidates in genuinely free elections provided they maintained the Socialist nature of the State.

In the West we have various political parties which put up rival candidates to run capitalism so there is no reason why the Socialist countries could not have allowed other political parties to freely contest and win elections and administer their own brand of Socialism. This would have ended the corruption and bureaucracy of being effectively a one-party State, because a government which became too corrupt or bureaucratic could be voted out, and another political party given a chance to run Socialism.

There are many varieties of Socialism, and the Yugoslav version, for instance, based largely on worker cooperatives was very different to the Soviet one of huge State monopolies, and it worked much more efficiently.

The GDR had basically the Soviet model, but also quite a few private shops and publicly owned firms like Carl Zeiss of  Jena. If anyone could make this model work it would be the efficient Germans, and to a large extent they did.

GDR citizens enjoyed a higher state of living than citizens in the Soviet Union, and their country was one of the leading industrial nations of the world. No way were all their factories out-dated or clapped out, as was made out when the country was taken over by the West Germans and used as a pool of cheap labor for years.

A great opportunity lost to build on the imperfect Socialism established for 40 years, try out new models, and retain the unique identity of the first Socialist state on German soil.

Now the whole of Germany flounders along with much of the rest of Europe, East and West, to find its way in the European Union, which is neither one thing nor another. It is not a federal union, and yet it is more than a loose confederation of independent states. The Euro is an excellent idea, but it will never work unless there is a unitary federal state and central control of the economy. There must be a level playing field in all EU states with a  universal minimum wage, similar pricing thruout the EU, and a central European fiscal policy. Much as in the United States, where the individual states have a lot of autonomy, but you don’t get a situation where 49 states have to bail out a 50th state when it gets into debt because the US dollar is centrally controlled by the federal government.

The EU is not a Socialist union, that could come about later perhaps with a break-away group of states, but even as a free enterprise/capitalist union it is making mistakes which will doom it to go the same way of the GDR if it does not learn from its errors. The last thing I want to see is the break-up of Europe into warring states, and a repeat of the terrible conflicts we saw in the 20th Century, which all started in Europe centered on Germany.

Germany is a wonderful country, and its people are friendly and very efficient. West Germany made capitalism work as efficiently as possible, and the East Germans made a basically inefficient, bureaucratic Soviet model of Socialism work quite efficiently. I hope Germany is the driving force towards a federal European Union, led by Angela Merkel whose family emigrated the other way from Hamburg in West Germany to Leipzig in the GDR.

As for Socialism, I’m afraid that may have to wait till the mistakes and crimes of the 20th Century versions are a more distant memory, but the lessons learnt from these errors are remembered and not repeated.

Look towards former Yugoslavia for the future of Socialism in the 21st Century. They got it right economically, competing cooperative and Socialist enterprises in the market place, but they too had a one-party dictatorship. Achieve plurality in the political field as well, as the GDR could easily have done in 1989/1990, and you would have a truly democratic Socialist state or Socialist union where different parties could compete to run the system which must replace the outdated and unstable capitalist system eventually. Capitalism needs a big arms industry, paid for by the taxpayers, and constant wars in order to survive the booms, slumps, mass unemployment and depressions inherent in the drive for maximum profits.

Mao said it, but really never practised it: ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom’. Meaning there are many roads to Socialism, many models of Socialism. There can be as many political parties contesting elections as there are models of Socialism.


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