Socialism and the End of East Germany


East German Implosion

My immigrant ancestor from Germany, John Siegling, came to Charleston, South Carolina, in about 1818. Not more than a year after his arrival, he opened a music shop for instruments and supplies. How he—a foreigner—could do that so quickly amazes me. Where did he get his start-up capital? Why not start his career under the tutelage of an established shop-owner first, or find a partner to shoulder the responsibilities? He obviously had an outlier grade of self-confidence to start his own business and make it succeed as well as it did. Native Americans cannot discount the entrepreneurial energy that immigrants bring to America.

     Old Siegling Music House at 243 King Street, Charleston, South Carolina

Like a lot of immigrants, he sent money home to his family in the Old Country. He had a big family of brothers and sisters back home in Germany who were struggling to make a living, and parents who had their own needs as they grew older. Not surprisingly, some of his siblings wanted to come to  America and take advantage of the opportunities here.

I learned a lot about their aspirations when my mother found a box of old family correspondence in about 1993, mostly letters from the German side of the family addressed to John. I speak German, so Mother asked me to translate them, which I did, and they sort of changed my life. For one thing, I became interested in Great-great-grandfather's hometown in Germany, Erfurt, in the former East Germany.

The Berlin Wall came down spectacularly in November, 1989. In the East Berlin Schauspielhaus, Christmas Night, 1989, Leonard Bernstein conducted an orchestra and a choir of 200 to perform Beethoven's 9th Symphony. My readers can hear it on YouTube. It enthralled the Berliners the way it has enthralled generations—its affirmation of human life and the drive toward personal happiness. This affirmation appearing especially after the the Fall of the Berlin Wall made it a seminal event—proof that individual initiative supported by capital in the context of a freedom-loving nation works, and the regimented egalitarianism offered by Marxism does not.

The concert-organizers changed the words to the choral movement, from "Ode to Joy" to "Ode to Freedom;" but I maintain that Schiller was right and the organizers wrong. People want joy more than freedom. The collapse of the Berlin Wall had as more to do with poor living conditions and the lack of consumer goods as it did a love of freedom. That's only human nature. East Berliners could pick up West Germany radio and knew that West Germans enjoyed a huge retail trade and could buy almost anything they wanted.

Rehabilitating East Germany cost West Germany a fortune, perhaps three trillion dollars, to replace water-works, clean up toxic waste-dumps, replace obselescent telephone systems. The list goes on and on. Marxist socialism condemned East Germans to something less than a Third-World peoples republic. Industrial installations were so outdated, they had value only as scrap-metal. Most homes in Erfurt used coal-stoves for heat, but the smoke from the high-sulphur coal poisoned the air so badly during the long winter nights, it was unsafe to go outside. The caustic smoke even melted the stucco from exterior walls.

No one on the Left, neither in East Germany, nor in this country, wants to admit that modern nations cannot succeed without capital. A nation like East Germany had nothing to offer the community of nations but left-wing moralistic slogans and a dispiriting, regimented lifestyle. East Germany could serve as the poster-child of all the nations that declare war on capital. They might as well practice blood-letting again as a medical procedure. Everyone else wants capital transfusions.

From Der Spiegel magazine, a comparison of advertisements in East and West Germany. The banner tacked to the wall of the building in East Berlin reads: "East Germany is living proof! Life is better without capitalism!"

With no capital, East Germany could not renovate anything, could not upgrade exisiting facilities, or fund private start-ups. The abolition of private property meant that the government had to run the factories and create the shops. It provided the only economic vehicle the East Germans had to give themselves a decent life. Like government services anywhere, bureaucratic routine prevailed over creative measures to develop products or a customer base. The bureaucrats saw no need to improve anything. They only answered to their superiors.

East Germans made a joke out of bureaucratic snafus. If they saw a line of people at a retail-outlet, they reflexively got in line, too. The Soviet Eastern-bloc nations never had enough retail-outlets for their government industries, and the outlets routinely ran out of consumer goods. East Germans had a catch-as-catch-can attitude about the availability of consumer goods.

Another comparison of life in the East and the West. A line of customers waits outside an East German bakery,hoping they will get some bread to take home.

Place a hundred citizens randomly in a nation that permits private capital to fund business start-ups, and they will stay put. Then place those same citizens in a nation governed with socialist central-planning, and they will want to leave on the first day. No one needs to test people to prove the truth about the two systems. Everyone already knows socialism doesn't work. If you said, "Let's go create  a socialist nation and put these concepts to work," everyone would snicker at your naivté. They are not cynical, just realistic. How then does Bernie Sanders attract so many young voters? He does it by acting like an evangelist. His followers want faith in something, not a legislative agenda. No one  wants to actually live in a socialist nation, just condemn others to it.

 My First Trip to Erfurt

I did not actually visit Erfurt until nearly nine years after the Fall, during the cool, rainy summer of 1998. I spent most of two weeks taking in a wonderful old city that had lived under the yoke of a dictatorial socialist regime for the last fifty years, and it was terrible. I wanted to leave again. In the celebrated Altstadt, dingy, abandoned buildings had empty, darkened windows. The people shuffled past me looking hollow-eyed and depleted. Construction-sites with cranes and scaffolding marred the view, complete with stacks of building materials.  
The people would remind some Americans of the Soviet Union: sinister youths with pit-bulls, jolly boys and girls begging for spare change. Fortunately, I met some interesting, knowledgeable people who knew about Erfurt's historical ups-and-downs and remained positive about the future. I toured Erfurt with them and looked at the medieval and Renaissance-era buildings badly needing repairs. The referred to them as "unpolierte Diamantsteine," unpolished diamonds.

A building in the Markgrafengasse, 1998

 

 

 

The same building, 2011

Johannesstraße 15-17, 1998

 
 Johannestraße 15-17, 2011

 

But a lot of Erfurters decided that life in West Germany was too good to pass up, and they did not want to wait for an influx of capital from the West to improve conditions. They packed up their tiny East German cars and relocated to the West, or else travelled by train and abandoned their cars. The East German Trabant make a distinct sound, like a noisy mo-ped covered with a car body and four wheels. YouTube videos show American car enthusiasts driving them.

East German Trabant

Once I toured Erfurt, I understand why so many East Germans moved to the West. The contrast was as great as Antarctica and the rain forest. There were almost no shops in Erfurt in those early years, as the East German economy went over to the Western capitalist model. East Germans had listened covertly to West German radio every night and knew they could buy anything at department stores in the West, and they wanted some of that, too.

Even after nearly nine years of continuous work, Erfrurt still looked grim and gloomy, so much so that I wanted to turn around and leave. So much remained to be done. Buildings needed to upgrade their wiring, plumbing, and heating. Most older buildings have no air-conditioning, as Americans think of it. Germans just open their windows and turn on a fan.

Erfurt Andreasviertel, 1990
                   

These images remind me of the TV program "Life After People," broadcast on the History Channel starting in 2008. Erfurters had to sit and watch their neglected buildings collapsing around them. They complained that, during the Soviet-era, the government routinely neglected their buildings—not making repairs for years. They lacked the capital to fund repairs. Considering the East German antipathy for capitalism, the lack of repair-capital should not surprise anyone. They might as well hate money. It is unrealistic to expect ordinary people to behave like that. Most people would love to have more money—their own, or even someone else's.

How Did East Germany Fail?

Deutsche Welle, the German government's broadcasting service, provides radio-broadcasts world-wide. When I was first learning German, I used to sit on the roof of my parents' home in Columbus, Georgia, and listen to DW broadcasts on my short-wave radio-set. DW published an article on-line titled "East Germany: A failed experiment in dictatorship" on October 7, 2019, to commemorate the end of the Deutsche Demokratische Republik exactly 70 years after its founding in 1949. It fact, it was neither democratic, nor a republic, but a Marxist dictatorship.

I thought about that title: Boy, dictatorships sure get a bad rap, a nation rife with street-cops, secret- cops, lots of military parades, and so on. My attitude about governing is more practical: sometimes a dictatorship works; sometimes it doesn't. A lot depends on the intentions and policies implemented by the government. Definitely, the East German model did not work. But the reason it did not work had more to do with the policies of government than its dictatorial application. A government "by the people," as East Germany claimed to be—it clearly was not! On the other hand, nations like the People's Republic of China, Singapore, Chile under Augusto Pinochet, and other examples, prove that a dictatorship can work.

Often, dictatorships take upon themselves the job of providing places of employment and the means to making a living. Political scientists dub this system "Central Planning," coined by nations like the Soviet Union. The government itself provides the outlets that sell everything ftom toasters to toenail clippers. They do not do a very good job, judging from the examples that I know about. They also have a thing about equality: every person should own the same of everything, which means nobody has much of anything. If you have no choice in the matter, you learn to tolerate it, while hoping for bigger portions.

The argument, whether dictatorships work or not, is moot. In a free-society, capital always works.

Capital gives a society funding to make improvements. Banks make loans and underwrite business ventures. People with capital can pick and choose which projects to support. They can fund start-up ventures that are not on the bank's radar. If you eliminate the possibility of capital investments from private parties, you might as well shoot the nation in the proverbial foot.