An Englishwoman in 1980s Dresden


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.

Immigration Drives Populism to the Tipping Point

Fareed Zakaria:

Supporters of Trump and other populist movements often point to economics as the key to their success — the slow recovery, wage stagnation, the erosion of manufacturing jobs, rising inequality. These are clearly powerful contributing factors. But it is striking that we see right-wing populism in Sweden, which is doing well economically; in Germany, where manufacturing remains robust; and in France, where workers have many protections. Here in the United States, exit polls showed that the majority of voters who were most concerned about the economy cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton.

The one common factor present everywhere, however, is immigration. In fact, one statistical analysis of European Union countries found that more immigrants invariably means more populists. According to the study, if you extrapolate from current trends, “as the percentage of immigrants approaches approximately 22 percent, the percentage of right-wing populist voters exceeds 50 percent.” Hostility to immigration has been a core theme of every one of these populist parties.

One way to test this theory is to note that countries without large-scale immigration, such as Japan, have not seen the same rise of right-wing populism. Another interesting case is Spain, a country that has taken in many immigrants, but mostly Spanish-speaking Latinos, who are easier to assimilate. While you see traditional left-wing economic populism in Spain, you do not see right-wing nationalist movements.

The backlash against immigration is rooted in fact. As I pointed out in a Foreign Affairs essay (written in September, before Trump’s victory), we are living in an age of mass migration. In the past three or four decades, Western societies have seen large influxes of people from different lands and cultures. In 1970, foreign-born people made up less than 5 percent of the U.S. population; today they are about 14 percent. The rise is even sharper in most European countries, home to 76 million international migrants, recently coming mostly from Africa and the Middle East. Austria, for example, took in almost 100,000 immigrants last year — adding 1 percent to its population in 2015 alone.

This much change can be unsettling. For most of human history, people have lived, worked and died within a few miles of the place they were born. But in recent decades, hundreds of millions of people from poorer countries have moved to wealthier ones. This reflects an economic reality. Rich countries have declining birthrates and need labor; poor countries have millions who seek better lives. But this produces anxiety, unease and a cultural backlash that we are witnessing across the Western world.

What does this mean for the future? Western societies will have to better manage immigration. They should also place much greater emphasis on assimilation. Canada should be a role model. It has devised smart policies on both fronts, with high levels of (skilled) immigration, strong assimilation and no major recoil.

The study he refers to is here. An excerpt from the abstract:

Among the central tenets of globalization is free migration of labor. Although much has been written about its benefits, little is known about the limitations of globalization, including how immigration affects the anti-globalist sentiment. Analyzing polls data, we find that over the last three years in a group of EU countries affected by the recent migrant crisis, the percentage of right-wing (RW) populist voters in a given country depends on the prevalence of immigrants in this country’s population and the total immigration inflow into the entire EU. The latter is likely due to the EU resembling a supranational state, where the lack of inner borders causes that ”somebody else’s problem” easily turns into ”my problem”. We further find that the increase in the percentage of RW voters substantially surpasses the immigration inflow, implying that if this process continues, RW populism may democratically prevail and eventually lead to a demise of globalization.

And some findings specifically about Austria and Germany:

In Fig. 2, using the data for Austria and Germany over the past three years (2013-2016), we demonstrate that the percentage of RW populist supporters also depends on the inflow of immigrants into Europe. Illustrative is the Austrian example, where in 2013 parliamentary election the far-right party won 20.5% of the popular vote, roughly reflecting the sentiment predicted from the percentage of immigrants living in Austria at the time. However, due to a high inflow of immigrants that in the second half of 2015 reached unprecedented proportions [33], the local Vienna election saw the percentage of RW voter suddenly jump to 33%. This sudden change in popular vote is reminiscent of phase transitions (i.e., tipping or critical points)—well documented in social sciences [35, 36]—whereby the closer a country to a tipping point, the more abruptly voters turn their back to moderate parties and start voting for more extreme alternatives. A qualitatively similar phenomenon is seen in the case of Germany in Fig. 2(b)-(c)....

Why would countries with a relatively high and a relatively low inflow of immigrants exhibit about the same increase in the percentage of RW voters? This result may be a consequence of the EU’s political organization. Because the EU functions practically as a supranational state with no internal borders, if one country decides to accept immigrants, this decision may have repercussions for all the other member states. The increase in the percentage of RW populist voters may therefore more systematically depend on the total inflow of immigrants into the entire EU, expressed here as a percentage of the total EU population, than the inflow in any individual country. Some, albeit anecdotal, evidence to the effect that the decision of one country may affect the situation in another is seen in the case of Sweden and Norway. The former country was among those that were hit the hardest by the recent migrant crisis, yet the latter country saw practically the same annualized increase in the percentage of RW voters.

Another interesting pair in this context is Germany and Poland. Again it was the former country that experienced a high inflow of immigrants, yet it is in Poland that 53% of the population thinks that their government should refuse asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa (and only 33% thinking Poland should do the opposite). The Polish example may contain another important lesson. Namely, this country seems to have already transitioned from the tolerant mode of democracy associated with globalization to a mode dominated by RW populism. If so, the implication is that the fraction of immigrants at which the Polish population is pushed beyond the tipping point is much lower than in western EU countries. Poland—and similarly Hungary, both of which share decades of socialist experience—is among the toughest opponents of immigration into the EU, strongly debating against the quotas that the EU imposed with a goal to more evenly spread the shock of recent migrant crisis.

The two most interesting findings of the study to me are first the idea of a tipping point: when a country reaches a certain level of immigration (and problems associated with it) support for populists begins rapidly increasing until they may become the most popular party in the country. The latest polls show (g) that the AfD in Germany is now at 15%, the Greens have dropped 3-4% to 9%, and the SPD continues its historic slide, now at 20%. Germany probably won't have as clear a tipping-point as other European countries owing to its fractured party landscape and historic suspicion of parties to the right of the CSU. But who knows?

The second factor the study points to is that Europeans are considering mass immigration as a European problem. Their point of view seems to be that we gave up a considerable amount of sovereignty over our own national borders in return for at least an implicit promise that Europe's borders would offer a similar amount of security. But they don't, and some bad actors within northwestern Europe have further undermined the implicit agreement by continuing to lure large numbers of unsuitable immigrants with their overly-generous policies. So we will elect populists at home in the hope that they will pursue policies that will minimize the fallout inside our own national borders.

That seems like a pretty sensible response to me.

Alcohol and Socialism

From a display at the Stasi Museum in Leipzig:

Stasimuseum leipzig


3. Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse occurs when alcohol consumption leads to a contradiction between socialist moral requirements and a socialist lifestyle, on the one hand, and actual behavior, on the other.

Since most of us now drink and live a life in contradiction to fundamental socialist principles, we are all alcoholics. I find that strangely reassuring.

Golden Rules for East German Teachers


Courtesy of the DDR (East German) Museum Pirna, a plaque with guidance for teachers: 

Golden Rules for Teachers' Work

Make an Effort to Maintain Ideological Clarity!

Take Up a Firm Fundamental Position!

Be Optimistic!

Be Humble!

Be Balanced! Guard Against Cynicism!

Judge Your Work Realistically and Be Critical of Yourself!

Recognize Successes! Use Scolding Rarely!

Trust and Love Children!

Respect the Pupil! Give Him Responsibility! 

Convince, Don't Browbeat!

Suspiciously Sickly-Sweet Sentimental Stupidity

We all love the Internet, and not just platonically, but it does have its unsavory corners. No, I'm not talking about Pornhub, I'm talking about those videos offering us Moral Improvement™ in the form of 90 seconds of manipulative piffle.

Let's take this example, showing a somewhat dusky-complected 6-year-old child actor on the streets of Tbilisi.  

First, she's dressed in shabby clothing. Everyone ignores her. Then, they dress her up in nice clothes, and people intervene to ask where her mother is, if she needs help, etc. They totally ignore a precious, beautiful, pure, innocent, doe-eyed six-year-old girl angel as if she didn't exist, based solely on the fact that she's not dressed nicely. 

Conclusion: people -- in this case Georgians -- are monsters.

Damn you, Georgians! Damn you all to hell

Black-hearted hell-hound that I am, though, I cannot seem to take the moral message to heart, even though it's so superficial simple. Twin demons of Skepticism and Worldly Experience bar the way.

For those readers who don't live in large European cities, let me explain. Everywhere large numbers of people gather -- tourist attractions, train stations, outdoor events, etc. -- you will see many children looking exactly like the one in the video. Dusky complexions, shabby clothes, the whole nine yards. And yes, people will generally avoid and ignore them.

This is because these are gypsy child beggars. And many aren't just beggars, they're thieves as well. How do I know this? Because I personally have been robbed by them twice. Once in Cologne, once in Piraeus.

In fact, I actually wasn't robbed by them in Piraeus, but that's only because I literally kept swatting them away. I was waiting in line for a ferry which had a one-hour delay. A group of 4-5 Roma beggar children were moving up and down the line, snaking in and out between groups of passengers. Some were begging, some were staging diversions, and some were trying to snake their little hands into travelers' bags. People with hard-sided suitcases were relatively safe, but backpacks were much more tempting targets. Two children surrounded my backpack, constantly probing the sides for hard objects, trying unzip pockets and reach under flaps. 

They literally paid no attention to me. I shoved them away, and they simply came right back. This lasted for 15 minutes. Only when I began shouting at them, which drew attention, did they finally move on to the next guy. Eventually, a police officer appeared, and they drew back somewhat. He immediately divined what I was shouting about. The guy spoke some English. I asked him why they didn't do something about them. "Eh," he said, "we'd like to, but there are just so many of them, and we don't have enough manpower. Same thing is happening at all the docks. If you make eye contact, they beg. If you have a soft bag, they try to get inside it. Either way, they just keep trying until they get something. They have nothing else to do, and if they don't come back with enough at the end of the day, their boss beats them. Sometimes their boss is their parents. My advice -- get a hard-sided suitcase."

Deciding to play the naive American, I asked whether they shouldn't be in school. "Sure they should, but we have no idea where these ones live. They always run away from us, and even if we catch them, they don't speak Greek or English. They're gypsies, that's what makes a gypsy a gypsy. Their parents are all illiterate, they don't care about school, they just want quick money. They've been living like this for hundreds of years. There are some gypsies who are decent people, but there's lots of them who live from sending their children out begging, and there's nothing we can do about it. Sometimes we raid the camps and register the children, but if we try to force them to enroll in school, almost all of them just move on. A couple stay, though, so there's some progress."

The guy seemed eager to practice his English, and both myself and the rest of the people in line wanted to keep him nearby, since the ferry was nowhere in sight, and he was keeping the Dickensian urchins at bay. I asked him whether they could be taken away from their parents if their parents were proven to be involved in sending them out begging and keeping them out of school. "Nope. We usually can't even determine who the parents are. They often don't have any documents they're willing to show us, they're usually illiterate, and often there's nobody in the entire family who speaks Greek or English, and definitely nobody who's willing to speak it with a cop.

"You can't terminate parental rights if you can't prove who the parents even are. And even then, you're not supposed to take Roma kids away from their culture. Although frankly, if you ask me, if this is Roma culture I say it's not worth saving. There are plenty of Greek families who can't have kids or who have room for one more. These kids could be learning Greek, learning to read, eating properly, going to school, going to the doctor, learning to play sports and finally getting a job and supporting themselves. I'm not going to say they could be going to Church because I'm a Communist. But still, this is no life for anybody."

So I bet if you asked the people in the UNICEF video above, they would say: "I asked them to remove the girl from the restaurant because we have a lot of Roma beggar children here who do exactly what she was doing, snaking between the tables, stealing anything they can find. They are a terrible nuisance we deal with every day. I feel sorry for the children, but they do not want and will not accept assistance, that's not why they're here. Giving to them supports criminal gangs who exploit children. I give to charities that provide meaningful help."

And as much as that 120-second video wants me to think otherwise, I think that's a perfectly fair, rational, and humane response.

'A Pretty Girl For Pleasure At a Place Convenient For You'

Doing a bit of tidying-up recently, I found a business card I got during a recent trip to Sofia, Bulgaria. I was minding my own business, waiting by the side of the street to be picked up by friends, when I watched a nice, but unspectacular late-model sedan park in a nearby parking lot. A guy dressed in a nice but unspectacular suit, perhaps mid-30s, well-groomed, emerged from the car carrying a briefcase. He spotted me and walked directly over.

He said, "Can I help you?" "No, I'm just waiting for a friend," I replied. Then he said "Well, in case you would like some company," and gave me a business card. I assumed it was his business card, and that he either wanted to buy me a drink to practice his English, or to do something more, er, Greek. Then he walked away. This was the card:

IMAG0006 IMAG0007
Well, that was unexpected. At least my heterosexuality is confirmed, I thought. Not that I needed any confirmation, mind you. Just reassuring. 

I noticed that there's only one phone number, but the rates on the front and back of the card are different. This hardly speaks for the conscientiousness of Bulgarian pimps. Unless there's actually a difference between 'top models' and 'pretty girls for pleasure'.

The more I thought about it, the more questions I had. The guy who gave me the card looked like a mild-mannered accountant. I was waiting right in the middle of Sofia, not in some park where odd grunting sounds come from the bushes. Do Bulgarian pimps just hand out cards to ordinary Bulgarian men and tell them to give the cards to anyone who looks like a horny tourist? Or is this mere hospitality, like a tribal chieftain offering his wife to a traveler?

In any case, since I was staying with friends, I didn't enjoy the company of any pretty girls for pleasure. But t then again, the minute you exit a German train station, you see that you don't have to leave Germany to enjoy the company of Bulgarian prostitutes (g).