Written Articles

No One Was Poor - Return to the former GDR


“No one was poor and the change came too fast”

As I approached the border the line of Trabants grew. While empty ones went in the opposite direction, those that passed me were loaded with western goods, boots bursting with boxes and roof racks laden with washing machines.

This was the summer of 1990. In the spring of 1989 I had written to the East German embassy to seek permission to cycle through their country, the reply was polite but this would not be allowed. A letter I wish I could find now but has become lost in a series of moves and changes in life. The Autumn of 1989 saw the collapse of the Eastern block and one of the key events of the 20th century, so when I wrote again in the spring of 1990 I was surprised that permission was once again refused. However the news reports shown in the UK at the time indicated that the border was open.

I had obtained a Polish and Czech visa but if I couldn’t cross into East Germany, these would prove useless. However by July 1990 border controls had been removed but the country was in a state of flux and rapid change.

The border post was empty, barriers raised, a deserted complex already looking disused. For the next four weeks I cycled across East Germany, through Czechoslovakia and then north to the Baltic coast, experiencing the last of the eastern block as it was, Russian army bases, watch towers and high fences, not forgetting the cobbled roads. Change was coming and it was coming fast.

It is now August 2009 over nineteen years later and I am returning to see how the lives of those who I met in 1990 have changed. I had always considered a return but a visit to Berlin in December last year had inspired me, there was a city that was the symbol of a divided Europe, where Kennedy had exclaimed in 1963 :

“Ich bin ein Berliner.”

The wall now long gone, apart from a few small sections, its former course marked by a line of bricks. Once the capital of the east, now the capital of a unified country. Was it a city wanting to forget? But what of the rest of the country, the people and their lives?

Katrin’s Story

My plane was delayed but thanks to mobile phones Katrin had delayed her arrival at Dresden airport. In 1990 she had worked in a textiles factory. By 1992 this had closed but she retrained and now worked for the Government looking after state pensions. Her partner, Sven, works in a company that makes exhaust systems for Audi and Mercedes. One thing was the same, she still lived in a small village north of Chemnitz called Neiderfrohna, also home to her brother and parents. In 1953 Chemnitz was renamed Karl Marx Stadt by local politicians keen to seek favour with their masters in Moscow but in 1990 it reverted to its original name. However a massive statue of Marx still stands in its centre. Its backdrop is of a housing development, square and functional, so typical of architecture from the former DDR. A large inscription reads in several different languages:

“All workers of the world unite”

Near the statue is a McDonald’s restaurant, situated in the corner of a refurbished GDR tower block. This unit had been a Trabant car sales room and where Katrin had placed an order for a car. However the wall came down long before her name came to the top of the ten year waiting list and McDonalds became one of the first western companies to move in.

“Here in homes built for the socialist worker, lives one of the greatest signs of capitalism.”

Katrin is now forty five years old. She had been educated in the old East German system, worked through the collapse of communism and was now a mother living in capitalism. When I had met her in 1990 her English was unusually good, learnt mainly from her grandfather who had come to Britain. Russian was the main foreign language taught under the old GDR system. One of the things she had done was keep many of her old school books and reports. Over the next few days, as we caught up on nearly twenty years of life she shared her memories of life under Communism, thoughts about how it had changed and her hopes for the future.

“When you were nine years old you had to join the Young Pioneers and were presented with a medal. Each month you paid ten East-Pfennige and a stamp was put into your membership card, this had a message printed from Erich Honecker in it :”

Socialism is the main thing for life. Surrender to your father land.

“If you didn’t join, your parents would be given a poorer job or you were moved to a smaller flat. At the age of fourteen you joined the Free German Youth and wore a blue jacket.”

“All our education had a political message in it. One homework was to fill a page in your exercise book of newspaper articles that showed negative stories about the west, for each filled page you would get a merit. I actually did quite well and school my report read :”

Katrin works hard in the Socialist School.

One of the most interesting things to read was Katrin’s old English text books from the 1970’s. These were overtly political and continually used references to show how life in the GDR was better than the West.

“Today Britain is still one of the greatest capitalist powers. But under monopoly capitalism the new techniques, scientific discoveries and inventions do not help to end poverty and unemployment. Despite the claptrap about the working class being transformed into a new middle class via the use of cars, television and the rest, the reality is of near total populations being exploited by ever more distant native or multinational colossi. That’s why the working people devote ever greater attention to fighting unitedly (their sp) against the maneuvers (their sp) of these international companies.”

English for You - Book 5, page 70 – Some Aspects of British Industry

“In 1988 my photograph was used at the Leipzig Trade Fair. The intention was meant to show how the textiles company I worked for used the latest computer technology. Although the computer was made in the GDR by Robotron, I had to hold the disc upside down so the BASF logo could not be seen, as this was a western company. The printer was actually made by Epson but had a Robotron badge on it. However it didn’t work, because we couldn’t afford a cable to link it to the computer. This type of thing was normal in the old GDR!”

“People in the west think we had a poor life but it wasn’t bad at all, we were happy. Everyone had a job, somewhere to live – there were no poor people. The standard of health care and education were very high. You got 90% of your salary while on maternity leave for a whole year and then there was free child care for all. We don’t get that now. The only thing we couldn’t really do was travel to the West. You could go on holiday for fourteen days to other eastern block countries. I still have a friend in Bulgaria, we write to each other in Russian.”

“After the wall came down there were changes every week, people lost their jobs and homes. There was no support for them. The change came too quick.”

Katrin’s son Constantine is fourteen years old and with his friend Richard, who also lives in the village, are much like teenagers here in the UK. They play music together and want to form a band. They cycle to school, enjoy volleyball and basketball. He supports Werder Bremen football team.

Katrin talked about the change and the future.

“I think it will not be until Constantine’s generation leave school and start to take up jobs will the change be complete. They will have not experienced the old system and be free to think for themselves.”

Ute's Story

Ute had originally worked in a factory making typewriters, this closed very soon after the wall came down. She now works as a teaching assistant at the school where her two children, Hanna and Emil, attend.

“When the factory closed I worked for a charity that looked after homeless people. This was a completely unknown situation for people. In the GDR everyone had a job and somewhere to live. Capitalism and the collapse of the wall was not good for everyone.”

Bernd's Story

Bernd is seventy years old and has lived in the village of Neiderfrohna for all his life. Born at the start of WW2 his whole life was shaped by communism. It wasn’t until 1993 that the village had a telephone. Back in 1982 a state run store opened but it closed in 1990 and was never to open again. If there is one symbol of life in the GDR it is that of the Trabant car, affectionately know as the “Trabi”. Made from a plastic that can not be recycled and powered by a 600cc two stroke engine, it was basically an enclosed motorcycle with four wheels.

“I got my first Trabi in 1957 although I do have a Mercedes now, it lives in the garage and use my current Trabi for the daily errands. There isn’t much room and you had to leave space in the boot for a tool kit, which needs to be kept close to hand! It reminds me of my youth and the life we used to have. As for the Mercedes that’s fine for holidays.”

“The only way to jump the ten year long waiting list for a Trabi was to pay more and buy a second hand car. It only cost two hundred Ostmarks to learn to drive but there were no cars to drive!”

“You only had to wait two or three years for a MZ motorcycle so this was much better, they sold quite well abroad and were all named after different birds. The factory was quite close to here and didn’t actually close until last year, so they must have been good”

Andreas' Story

When the wall came down in 1989 Andreas was sixteen years old and planned to be an electrician but he now works as an English teacher.

“The big change was you could travel more. I first went to Ireland, it was very expensive for us. I cycled to Austria in 1990 and was amazed to find no passport control or enforced money change, this was a big surprise, we couldn’t even find anyone to stamp our passports. In 1989 we all got involved in the change but now only half (50%) of the people can even be bothered to vote”

The Future

Returning nearly twenty years later I was not certain what to expect. In the time we had together I managed to retrace some of my steps. The campsites were still there. They now had hot showers and seemed a little more cared for. The Czech border was now less defined, once a high fence, now it was no more than a stream and a series of stone markers. However the roads were much busier, the old East Germany was a much quieter and more pleasant place to cycle twenty years ago, even if many of the roads were cobbled.

One of the motives behind my original visit was to see Dresden, a city which holds such an emotive history. As the wall came down much of its tragic past was still there to be seen, I met five other foreign tourists on my first trip. But now the city has been restored to its grand past and the tourists bustled around, taking photographs, buying souvenirs and drinking coffee. Here was the symbols of the new capitalism. However, this regeneration is not universal, as I found on a visit to the nearby town of Alternburg.

As the wall came down, the manufacturing industry that so dominated the countries economy also collapsed. However this change was already happening in the west. Five years previously the one year long miner’s strike in the UK had already come to an end. Areas such as South Wales and the North East were feeling the pain of economic change. There was a collapse of manufacturing in the western world, as this aspect of the economy moved to emerging countries such as China and India. It could be argued that the changes in the GDR came about due to a change in the world economy, rather than Glasnost and the removal of the wall.

During my second visit there were Federal elections and although the ruling Christian Democrats were re-elected with 40%, the Die Linke party, which has some links to the old GDR, polled 20%. There seemed little concern or comment about this. The real challenge comes from the far right NPD, the National Party. Taking advantage of the concerns found in the unemployment black spots of former mining communities such as Cottbus, near the Polish border. One of Katrin’s school friends was now the local NPD representative.

“When we knew her at school, she was just like the rest of us. What makes someone change and join them (the NPD) it’s really frightening.”

As the world shrinks our economies are ever more linked, the challenges facing the old East Germany may not be that different from those we face in the UK. While I was there Katin’s mother had her seventh birthday. All the village came, partied the whole day and on into the evening. The sense of happiness, family and community were as strong as ever. Hopefully in another twenty years time, these are the attributes that will not have changed.