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A lesson from behind the Iron Curtain


WHEN I was a boy in the early 1960s my family used to spend a fortnight during the summer holidays on West Germany’s Baltic coast. The Bay of Lübeck is where the frontier between Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg (now the federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) ran into the sea and which formed the northern extremity of the land border between the two Germanies.

The Strandhotel in Travemünde where we stayed year after year is long gone, but the map of the bay with its settlements is much as it was at the time. By some odd quirk dating back to the 13th century, Travemünde includes a spit of land, the Priwall, that extends eastwards of the River Trave and which was not popular with holiday-makers in those days despite its extensive sandy beach. Its prominent feature was a tall wooden East German watch tower, glowering behind its barbed wire, there to deter Western incursions, or so it seemed to me at the time.

By mid-August the nights were already drawing in. Dusk was well established by the time we were finishing our evening meal in the hotel restaurant with its picture windows looking out over the bay. All along the West German coast the bright lights of the summer resorts and the small towns flickered and twinkled, but on the opposite shore all was uniformly dark. On one or two occasions every summer, however, the Mecklenburg coastline came alive for minutes at a time with bursts of tracer fire as some brave escape attempt was countered by the authority of the state. Of the 5,600 or so Baltic escape attempts undertaken from 1961 onwards only 913 were successful; 180 lives were lost. It was not just a different country: it was a different and hostile world.

In my twenties work took me a number of times across the border into East Germany and gave me a new perspective on the Workers’ and Peasants’ State from their side of the fence. Superficially the general shabbiness and lack of prosperity was in marked contrast to the Germany that I had left behind at the Helmstedt Checkpoint Alpha border crossing, but more striking was the sense of fatalism and stasis among ordinary people: ‘We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.’

In this topsy-turvy world, any East Germans happy to talk to Westerners were likely to have been encouraged to do so as part of the state’s huge and impossibly cumbersome intelligence-gathering effort. For the most part, people wisely preferred to remain aloof. The official newspaper of the governing Socialist Unity Party of Germany, Neues Deutschland, and all local broadcast media reported selectively: their output was taken not as news but as a gloss filtered through the prism of the party line. Broadcasts from the West were receivable but were also partisan in their way, so the task for the inquisitive listener was to piece together a composite picture by a process akin to reversing a trailer using only wing mirrors.

East Germany taught me, above all, that the state can be distinct from and not necessarily on the side of its people. Brecht expressed this neatly in his poem, The Solution, written after the East German uprising of 1953:

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed on the Stalinallee
Which stated that the people
Had squandered the confidence of the government
And could only win it back
By redoubled work. Would it not in that case
Be simpler for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

As a result of my visits in the 1970s it seemed self-evident to me that people cannot prosper in a one-party state in which a vast administrative machine controls every aspect of life, crushes the spirit of the individual and destroys any vision of alternative futures.

East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic as it became after diplomatic recognition, lasted for 45 years between 1945 and 1990 and was reunified with or absorbed into (according to your preference) the Federal Republic for the last 33. Consequently, only former GDR citizens aged 50 or more will have a personal memory of how things were when the Socialist Unity Party was in charge. But the memory of totalitarian rule lingers, and this is one of the most encouraging signs on a Western political horizon which otherwise looks bleak.

Covid vaccine uptake in the eastern Bundesländer such as Saxony and Thuringia has been significantly lower than in the West, which may have less to do with the perceived safety and efficacy of the treatments and more to do both with the raft of compulsory vaccinations that were formerly required in the GDR coupled with a legacy of learned resistance to government messaging.

More recently local elections have produced wins for the ‘extreme right’ Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the universal pariah amongst the political and administrative elites. Ricarda Lang of the Greens described a democratic process in which the AfD prevailed as a danger for democracy. When one has grown up in the German Democratic Republic one has a right to be sceptical about how slippery that word ‘democracy’ can be in malevolent mouths.

Within many Western countries pursuing policies on which all the major political parties concur and which are inimical to the happiness and prosperity of their populations, there is understandable disaffection amongst voters. Germany is a perfect example where Social Democrats, Liberals and Greens are in coalition while the centre-right CDU-CSU alliance opposition marches in lockstep on the key issues of zero-carbon and ‘pandemic’ response.

What marks out the eastern federal states and distinguishes them from their neighbours to the west is their recollected experience of one-party rule and a residual resentment at being a poor relation to the heirs of the Bonn government. The more Germany resembles East Germany, the more the Germans in the east are pushing back.

Are there portents in all this for the UK, a country with a notionally elected uniparty and a bloated, self-satisfied, overweening public service? Mediocrity and decline are omnipresent and of course nobody is to blame, far less embarrassed, by the failure of the institutions notionally under their aegis as they sink further into the slough of despond.

The NHS is beyond shambolic, the police represent a threat chiefly to the law-abiding, water and power supplies will soon fail and council workers are petitioning for a four-day week in which they claim they can do five days’ work, adapting the old east German adage ‘We pretend to work and submit inflation-busting pay claims.’

The Conservative Home website says: ‘If Sunak can no longer win the next election, he must use his premiership to be honest about Britain’s economic decline.’ The tribalism must be very strong in the remaining Conservative Party members so they need treats like this from the political dressing-up box. But Sunak cannot be honest without laying the entire current economic mess at his own door. If there is anyone who believes that Keir Starmer will lead us to the sunny uplands, I urge them to avoid bridge salesmen.

For now we should watch the progress of the AfD and possibly other minority parties in Germany and hope for the best. Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system does not favour the slow emergence of small parties but keep in mind the Brexit Party’s performance in the 2014 Euro-elections. These were admittedly conducted under PR and fought on a single issue but the overwhelming result owed much to the unanimity of other parties over the EU and a general sense of electoral frustration. In short, when it matters to them, the mass of people will vote.

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Laurence Hodge
Laurence Hodge
Laurence Hodge is a regular contributor to The Conservative Woman

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