It is very interesting to reread these reflections from 35 years ago in the light of subsequent developments. The people I met still believed in the worldwide triumph of communism six years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. My first visit to Bulgaria was also in the summer of 1989, and I remember hearing of the resignation of their President Zhivkov while driving to a meeting on the Gaia Hypothesis in Cornwall.
Suddenly you see the wall behind you, barbed wire and concrete stretching into the distance in both directions then a look-out post. You have crossed the border and the train trundles into Oebisfelde station for passport and customs control. What are you taking into the country as a gift? No publications apart from The Morning Star and Marxism Today, I hope, as they are the only reliable sources of information on Britain. Postcards? – Fine. I had visions of trying to explain why I had with me Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’, the magnum opus of a well-known bourgeois philosopher, but my cases were not opened. Out of the window the first slogans – white printed on red – The Protection of the Border Is the Affair of the Whole People, The Teaching of Marx is Almighty, Because it is True (Lenin), Away with NATO Rockets. Further on, affixed to a factory * Karl Marx Lives in our Lives and Deeds.
Leipzig Station is one of those gigantic vaulted constructions, rather larger than Kings Cross. The university is five minutes walk away, one tram stop. Trams and buses are frequent and cheap – about 4P per ride, irrespective of the distance. In the Karl Marx Platz one finds the university, the concert house, the post office and the opera house. The last two buildings have the respective slogans In the DDR The Ideas of Karl Marx are Being Realised, and Everything for the Benefit of the People. By chance I met a fellow-Scot who was also looking for accommodation. In turn we come across a landlady who was looking for some lodgers, so we made our own arrangements. Her flat was comfortable and well furnished – we were luckier than those who had to share a bed, as we both had our own rooms.
Society and Economics
The population of the DDR is around 17 million. There is no unemployment, indeed, the people can hardly envisage such a state of affairs. Some 88% of women of employable age work. Wages are fixed by the State and provide for a reasonable standard of living, even if the gap between East and West Germany is glaring. The town centres are generally in good repair, but suburbs tend to be more depressing and dilapidated than Western counterparts; there is less street lighting. There are virtually no parking restrictions in Leipzig, a city of some 500,000 inhabitants hence no meters and wardens. Naturally, there are far fewer cars: the ones there are –Trabant and Warburg, for instance, are small, noisy and smelly although they are meant to be quite reliable. The waiting list for a car is about 13 years. One has to wait some 8 years for a telephone, and up to two years for a washing machine or fridge. These, however, are the worst examples. Clothes and less sophisticated consumer goods, including TV and other electronic equipment, are readily available.
Basic commodities are very cheap and plentiful – milk, cheese, bread biscuits, Wurst, beer, etc. Soft drinks and water are ruined by the addition of particularly revolting carbon dioxide. Eating out is cheap. Restaurants are graded and prices fixed accordingly. A main course and beer would cost £1.50. If you drink nothing but beer, you have to beware of going into a restaurant where none is available after 8pm. Vegetables and fruit are sold at so-called Vitamin bazaars. There is a plentiful supply of cauliflower, cabbage, turnips, potatoes and apples. Cherries were in season. Towards the end of July this year’s tomatoes, apples and pears started to appear. Items which were scarce or unavailable included: mushrooms, peppers, celery, peaches, apricots, bananas, grapes and oranges.
Ideology and the Media
As described above, there are slogans everywhere, many more, by all accounts, than in other Eastern European countries. The main emphasis is on the close alliance with the Soviet Union, the maintenance of Socialism, the importance of sport and the threat of NATO aggression. The newspapers reinforce these messages daily, as does the youth organisation, which as its own journal. A headline might consist of a message of solidarity sent to the Central Committee of another communist country. News of the West is mainly on NATO rockets, unemployment, economic collapse and disasters. Magazine stands have a range of general interest and leisure interest publications, but, conspicuously, no pornography. Bookshops are well stocked with literature, science, economics and philosophy – also with travel brochures to other communist countries where the people are allowed to go on holiday – depending on availability of foreign currency. Incidentally, the State Bank is very crowded, so that service is cumbersome and slow.
There is a pervasive sense of the historical inevitability of the advent of Socialism and Communism in the World. Handbooks describe how the process of transition was instigated in the Soviet Union in 1917, and has continued ever since. Capitalism is regarded as doomed by the forces of History. Any attempt to deny this or to hinder revolutionary ‘progress’ is branded as ‘revisionist’ or ‘reactionary’. ‘Progress’ can only be in the Communist direction, by definition. There is a ready-made answer to all social problems. Slick use of terms covers any cracks in the system. The words ‘Imperialists’ and ‘Aggression’ can only be predicated of capitalist regimes. Thus it is impossible to argue that the Soviet presence in Afghanistan is an example of imperialist aggression, like the US in Vietnam. Moreover, it is a communist duty to defend any gains for socialism against reactionary forces, as well as to fight for ‘progress’ where the disunity arises: hence foreign intervention is capitalist interference in ‘internal affairs’ or ‘international solidarity’: the guerrilla becomes the heroic freedom-fighter. Human rights questions are brushed aside with the accusation that unemployment is a violation of human rights; the Soviet Union is idealised as the harbinger of the New Jerusalem.
According to Socialist ideology, there can be no peace on earth without worldwide communism, synonymous and co-extensive. There are slogans to go with everything, including sport, peace and socialism. As already mentioned, there is a close association between the words capitalist, imperialist and aggression. Any build-up of arms is a reaction to a prior NATO or US threat. This year, with the imminent possibility of the deployment of Pershing and Cruise missiles, the fear is intensified, memories of war and devastation are reawakened in a people who have experienced it first-hand. If NATO deploys these weapons, the Warsaw Pact will have no alternative but to respond; they will not be browbeaten by the Americans. The scale of the threat plays straight into the hands of the propagandists, since it is so obvious that the US is trying to gain the upper hand in order to negotiate from strength. One of the most penetrating arguments concerns the profit accruing to those companies who manufacture the arms…..
In class one morning we are discussing these issues and reach a point of loggerheads – we cannot accept that we will be swallowed up by socialism, but they see world-domination by socialism as inevitable and as their mission and purpose. I realise that we are missing each other as human beings. I rise and give the greeting of peace to all present, communists and non-communists. The human contact prevents us from entrenching ourselves in dogmatic positions. I am reminded and remind them of Einstein and Russell – remember your humanity and forget the rest.
Culture and Religion
There were many concerts in Leipzig, some in the open air. Every evening at 6.00 in the Thomaskirche, where Bach was Kantor, there is a short service of two organ pieces, with a psalm and prayer between. Even if there is no trace of The New Age or meditation in the DDR, the Church is in good heart. The meetings organised in various cities this year attracted up to 100,000 people, over half of whom were under 25. There is a substantial training scheme for theological students, even if committed Christians are unlikely to be found in the Central Committee. One pastor remarked that the state had noticed that Christians were good and honest workers…This year Church and State are cooperating to celebrate the centenary of Luther, seen in some quarters as a Marxist before his time. In the Nikolaikirche there was a horrendous anti-war exhibition, almost as horrific as the smouldering remains of Buchenwald, transformed into a monument against fascism. While visiting the site we heard shots in the distance….
In the end the brotherhood of man cannot be founded on atheistic materialism, it can only arise from communion with the transcendent Spirit of Love within each of us.