I recently had the good fortune to visit the city of Berlin in Germany. As well as doing all the standard tourism stuff I did some research into how the people of the city think about Germany politically and how they perceive the city’s past. I came across a phenomenon called ‘Ostalgia’ which I wanted to unpack. Ostalgia is literally nostalgia for East Germany (‘ost’ is east in German), and this can be from people who previously lived behind the Berlin Wall or people who look back on the DDR with a romantic longing.
The reason for this piece isn’t to endorse everything the East German government did, but to look at how my own perceptions have been shaped by Western media and by my own ideological proclivities. I am a libertarian communist and so I am not in the same group as Leninists who long for the bureaucratic centralism of the Cold War.
There are a couple of reasons that Ostalgia became more widespread. I’ll get onto one which was policy driven, but an important thing was the reaction of people to German unification. The narrative that we in the West are taught is that the Cold War ended, Germany reunited, and the unified republic is now the premier economic power in Europe. Although many formed residents of the DDR were eager to see the system collapse, some have since found that former West Germans essentially gloat about this.
These people have argued that East Germany had no redeeming qualities and that, in essence, West Germany won. Faced with this position many former East Germans defended aspects of DDR to the insulting comments of their fellow countrymen, and this has manifested itself so much that more East Germans actually believe that life was better in the DDR than currently. The survey referenced above also points out that young people who didn’t live under the DDR and people who have since been enriched by the capitalist system are at the forefront of East Germany’s defence.
There are two manifestations of Ostalgia, one more benign and one more politically significant. Let’s start on the lighter note. There are some things in Berlin that you will notice that seem commonplace but are actually a result of this nostalgic feeling. One such example is traffic lights. When standing on a street corner waiting to cross the road, you will notice that the red and green men indicating when you should and shouldn’t walk have hats. This is because the design was modeled on a picture of Erich Honecker, the leader of East Germany from 1971 to 1989, in which he was wearing a straw summer hat. The continued use of this symbol was a deliberate act by the German government to cater to people who feel nostalgic, and if you travel to cities in former West Germany, you’d be hard pressed to find these hat-wearing men.
On the more serious side there are two interlinked manifestations of ostalgia: social attitudes and electoral consequences. The social attitudes are not regarding social issues like LGBT rights or abortion, but the social consequences of economic policies. For example the socialist system implemented in East Germany essentially didn’t allow unemployment. The East German government set quotas for everything from agriculture to heavy industry, and so if anyone was unemployed work would be found for them to help hit a quota.
There are some problems in relation to innovation and corruption that can arise with having such a centralised economy, but Germans who are unemployed currently look to recent history and see a society where unemployment didn’t really exist. If you were made redundant from a job you’ve had for a number of years, it’s easy to understand why this person may look back on the DDR with a fondness.
In more general terms there were lots of policies in East Germany that people in the United States, for example, would love. Education was free, healthcare was free, housing was improved and almost guaranteed, pensions were generous, trade unions were strong and so on. Although the East German government was incredibly repressive, there were aspects of the DDR that are celebrated as common sense by most modern countries.
In regards to electoral consequence of Ostalgia, the best example of the success of Die Linke. Die Linke is a broad-church coalition of different left-wing groups including democratic socialists, left-wing feminists, environmentalists, and full on communists. If people who lived in the DDR had a strong revulsion of what was implemented, it would logically follow that they would run like hell from a party that was quite ideologically similar. Not only is this not true but election results show that that the former DDR is Die Linke’s electoral heartland.
In the 2013 Bundestag election, Die Linke won 64 seats. The German electoral system is a mixed system with parliamentary constituencies and proportional represention. The 4 constituency seats that Die Linke won were not only all in the former DDR, they were the 4 constituencies in Berlin that were behind the Berlin wall. If you looked at an electoral map of Berlin you could pretty clearly work out the rough area of where the Berlin Wall had been.
The other 60 seats were won because of votes from around Germany. The five areas with the highest levels of support for Die Linke, each winning 20% of the vote or higher, were: Saxony-Anhalt; Thuringia; Brandenburg; Mecklenburg-Vorpommern; and Saxony. East Germany was comprised of five German states. Can you guess where I’m going with this? The above states both made up East Germany in it’s entirety, and have the highest level of support for far-left ideas.
As I said in the introduction the motivation behind this piece was to reveal my own short-comings. I believed that because of the central bureaucracy of the DDR it was horrible to live under and the Stasi were on every corner. There was definitely an element of truth in both of these assumptions, but to say that everything was horrible would be to ignore historical evidence and the experiences of people who are still alive. If surveys show that people who used to live in East Germany preferred it to a unified Germany, then I surely need to challenge my view.
The DDR had many problems but in order to be rational people we must always change our views when presented with new evidence. The DDR offers a decent blueprint for how to run a socialist society, but there are obvious problems about civil liberties and economics that need to be improved upon to make such a system work. My solution would be to focus on domestic consumption and avoid trade for as much as possible. This was attempted in the second half of the DDR’s existence, but trade between socialist countries only prevents countries states from withering away.