Life Without the Flashing Lights: the Reality of Living in East Germany

November 9, 1989: East and West Germans broke through the Berlin Wall, coming together to celebrate the dissolution of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) after 44 years of separation. As SED (Socialist Unity Party) officer Günter Schabowski announced that the citizens of the DDR were allowed to cross the border into East Germany, Beate Lukas was sleeping. People buzzed about the news in the Straßenbahn (tram) on the way to work, and when she arrived she realized that several of her coworkers decided instead to travel to West Berlin. A few days later, she made her way to West Berlin for the first time and encountered bright neon lights and colorfully lit signs. Flashing lights advertising products she had never heard of, shopping centers crammed with people, Cadillacs driving around instead of the usual Trabbis – she had never seen anything like it. At some point it becomes too overwhelming, and she returns to East Berlin. “When I returned to Alexanderplatz, everything was suddenly terribly gray – something which I had not noticed before.”

On the surface, these starkly contrasting images present a lively West Berlin and melancholy East. Although the strong wave of anti-communism that accompanied the Cold War has receded, it continues to affect the way we see communist and socialist societies, and these images may be taken to be indicative of the general sentiments within the respective governments. However, despite close surveillance, various restrictions, and a struggling economy – which, to Americans, is inconceivable – Beate and her colleagues recall a sense of security, community, and simplicity. Coming from the simple, unquestionable reality of the East, it was difficult for the Ossis (East Germans) to get used to the bright lights of the West, which drew them into a harsh, competitive world.

Following the surrender to the Allied powers in 1945, Germany was divided into two separate entities: the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD) in the West and the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) in the East. Beate’s colleague Olaf describes the DDR as “a political entity that arose from German soil in the outcome of World War II and as a result of the Cold War.” And as it existed behind the ‘Iron Curtain,’ “the DDR was never a fully sovereign state, but always a part of the occupied territories of the Soviet Union, and treated as such.” Under the “benevolent eye” of the Western powers, the BRD adopted a democratic government with a market economy, “whereas in the Soviet zone the occupiers raided all the industrial equipment and confiscated private property” (Romano 145). In the DDR’s state-controlled economy, there were often shortages. When Beate turned 18, she received a form to apply for a car; the usual waiting period for a Trabant was about 10 years. When her family was remodeling their house in 1983, they were forced to trade items they had in order to get the material they needed.

Italian historian Sergio Romano’s obvious distaste for the command economy established by the U.S.S.R. was also shared by the United States. The U.S. government viewed the BRD as the only legitimate government and the future of Germany (Office of the Historian). While reading from Romano and the State Department’s website, I noticed that their arguments were relatively one-sided. It is true that the U.S.S.R. confiscated East German property, but it was used simply as a repayment for the damages sustained by the U.S.S.R. during the Second World War (Lindemann 328). The State Department focuses solely on the fact that the DDR was not a legitimate country in their eyes, and that its collapse was an inevitable victory – a triumph of light over darkness.

Beate grew up in an environment where the grim aspects of the DDR were not as apparent to her. There was always heavy Überwachung (surveillance) and a certain pressure, but she did not feel it personally. “Those who, in any way, ‘stepped out of line,’ for example, did not want to work, spoke out against the State, wanted to leave the DDR, watched television from West Berlin or West Germany (and listened to Western radio messages) felt [the pressure] quickly.” For disobedience, punishment ranged from losing the right to an education to being sent to jail. She recalls that a classmate, Susanne, did not receive a place in a university despite having high marks, because her father left for a business trip and did not return. Beate and her colleagues note that it was difficult to follow one’s desired career path. Without relatives who held high positions, worked internationally, or were members of SED, Beate did not receive a place at Humboldt University in Berlin. Instead of pursuing Ethnography, her preferred career, she only had the opportunity to study economics. Her brother was prevented from being a pilot on the basis that their father was a pilot. “It was feared that they would not return to the DDR and the rest of the family would also want to leave.” Similarly, her colleague Olaf was prevented from studying because only one to two students were accepted into Erweiterten Oberschule (EOS), a school which extended high school education after completing the eighth grade. He could not attain his preferred career as a geologist unless he enlisted in military training for three years, so he decided on job training. “No real performance or payment system existed in the economy, so one as a trained worker has earned partially less than his colleagues.”

Although the DDR restricted and controlled the outputs of its citizens in many ways, the government provided many benefits for its citizens. “The DDR was a state that, on one hand, offered its people a lot which is not typical today – work, support, free health care, free places in Kindergarten and schools, affordable houses. On the other hand, the economy was a Mangelwirtschaft (economy of scarcity). In the GDR, there was a persistent unpredictability of supply, which often expressed itself in shortages of chocolate, meat, butter, and other consumer goods. “There were many items which we did not have or rarely had – one often had to improvise or trade.” She remembers going to visit her grandma and getting the chance to eat a whole banana herself, the nicest thing she had ever eaten. The memories of scarcity, however, are not as compelling as those of security and simplicity in her childhood, along with the sense of community. She remembers being able to let her four-year-old brother walk the rest of the way to school alone without having to worry. As a society that valued community, or Gemeinschaft, everyone watched out and cared for one another regardless of status or financial standing. People typically associate socialism with oppression and constant misery, but that is not the case; Olaf contests that “otherwise the suicide rate would have been higher. Certainly one is often upset about certain inadequacies and restrictions, but one must also partially engage and adapt. Just like in every social system.” Initially following the reunification, the economic disruption caused a drop in life satisfaction in East Germany. Olaf believes the feeling he experienced in the DDR was the same as other young people in the BRD; the surveillance, pressure, and scarcity did not affect him as much as one would expect based on denunciations of socialism. In the current integrated society, former West and East Germans now display equal levels of happiness, which are far greater than the years directly after the reunification.

“I have predominantly good memories of the DDR. Sometimes I miss it.” Beate clearly displays the Ostalgie, nostalgia for East Germany, which many Ossis who grew up in the DDR experience despite higher levels of happiness under the current system (Lindermann 394). After the fall of the DDR, life was very different. The anticipated “swift and peaceful” German reunification was not feasible (Lindemann 393). Although Wessis and Ossis celebrated together when the Wall came down, it was still many years until the entire Berlin Wall and the psychological barriers separating them would be removed. The economy of East Germany was far behind the West and proved difficult to reintegrate (Lindemann 394). Regional inequalities still exist, leaving the East behind the West with higher unemployment and poverty rates, population decline, and scarcity of large companies. Unemployment in the former West Germany is at 5.6%, whereas in the former East Germany it is above 9%. Despite the economic difficulties, the United States viewed the fall of the DDR as a victory; Beate, however, had a different experience. “Life was totally different. There was no more security. I lost my job half a year after the Wende, something which would not have happened in the DDR.” After going through a retraining course and getting a new job, she was out of work for an operation. While there, she received a letter from her coworkers. Thinking it was a get-well-soon card, she was surprised to discover a termination notice. She repeats, “Such a thing was inconceivable in the DDR. People worked and held together. If someone was sick, then they were helped.” Olaf recalls that during DDR time, his wife received a year of paid maternity leave and still had her job at the end of it. Focus had shifted from collective well-being to profit. Beate also had to repeat her studies, because her credentials were not recognized under the new regime. The individualism of the new capitalist economy proved to be a lifestyle that was difficult for East Germans to adopt. Olaf appreciated that performance and skills became more important than belonging to a certain political party, but Beate resented the superficiality of the bright lights and flashy images. “People pay more attention to the outside, and to present yourself well is more important than a person’s character or to do something good… People have become ruthless, selfish, and superficial.”

After the fall of the Berlin wall, socialism in East Germany offered people a security which they had not felt since hearing Hitler’s promises. A 2009 poll found that 57% of East Germans still defend and glorify the DDR. Citizens knew what was expected of them and what to expect of the government. Choice was mostly taken from the hands of the individual, but to some people, the simplicity and lack of many responsibilities was a sort of freedom. They may not have had the democratic rights to vote or openly express their opinion, but they were ensured the rights to basic necessities and security. Opinions about communism and socialism tend to focus on the negative aspects without mentioning the benefits, because it is seen as a great threat to American capitalism. Helmut, another colleague of Beate, said “socialism is an idea which also has to do with – somewhat philosophically – a common good. The theory can be difficult to implement, and in the DDR there was not truly socialism but actually a dictatorial state with Mangelwirtschaft.” It is difficult to put a finger on the concept of the DDR, but for some it represented a period of simplicity and togetherness.

Like the other DDR citizens, Beate received 100 Deutsch Marks as Begrüßungsgeld (welcome money) on her first trip to West Germany. Combined with her savings, she and her friends use this money to plan a trip to South Tyrol. They were the first citizens of the DDR to ever be greeted there. As they walked along the shore of a lake, some loud Italians tried to sell them leather jackets. “When we did not want to buy anything, they asked us where we were from – East Germany or West Germany. After our answer – from East Germany – they went away, because they knew we had no money. I can remember their disparaging look well.”