How Fake is American Niceness? How Is American Niceness Fake?
The Fallacy of Context Omission

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.

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