On 9 November 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down I realised German unification would soon follow, which it did a year later. This meant the end of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the country in which I was born, grew up, gave birth to my two children, gained my doctorate and enjoyed a fulfilling job as a lecturer in English literature at Potsdam University. Of course, unification brought with it the freedom to travel the world and, for some, more material wealth, but it also brought social breakdown, widespread unemployment, blacklisting, a crass materialism and an “elbow society” as well as a demonisation of the country I lived in and helped shape. Despite the advantages, for many it was more a disaster than a celebratory event.
Just two examples. My best friend, a foreign languages teacher, lost her job and was blacklisted because, at the time the wall fell, she happened to be teaching at a government law college. She was not a member of the party or indeed political at all. After much effort she managed to find a job helping young people excluded from school, with no long-term contract and on a much lower salary. My brother, who has a PhD in the philosophy of science, lost his research job at the academy and ever since has only been able to find odd, low-paid temporary jobs.
Little is known here about what happened to the GDR economy when the wall fell. Once the border was open the government decided to set up a trusteeship to ensure that “publicly owned enterprises” (the majority of businesses) would be transferred to the citizens who’d created the wealth. However, a few months before unification, the then newly elected conservative government handed over the trusteeship to west German appointees, many representing big business interests. The idea of “publicly owned” assets being transferred to citizens was quietly dropped. Instead all assets were privatised at breakneck speed. More then 85 percent were bought by west Germans and many were closed soon after. In the countryside 1.7 million hectares of agricultural and forest land were sold off and 80 percent of agricultural workers lost their job.
In July 1990, when the GDR still existed, a hasty “currency union” was introduced with the result that the GDR economy was plunged into bankruptcy. Before unification the West German mark was worth 4.50 GDR marks; however, at currency union it was fixed at parity with an exchange rate of 1:1. The result was that GDR export products rose in price by 450 percent overnight and were no longer competitive; the export market (39 percent of the economy) inevitably imploded.
Large numbers of ordinary workers lost their jobs, but so too did thousands of research workers and academics. As a result of the purging of academia, research and scientific establishments in a process of political vetting, more than a million individuals with degrees lost their jobs. This constituted about 50 percent of that group, creating in east Germany the highest percentage of professional unemployment in the world; all university chancellors and directors of state enterprises as well as 75,000 teachers lost their jobs and many were blacklisted. This process was in stark contrast to what happened in west Germany after the war, when few ex-Nazis were treated in this manner.
In the GDR everyone had a legally guaranteed security of tenure and ownership to the properties where they lived. After unification, 2.2m claims by non-GDR citizens were made on their homes. Many lost houses they’d lived in for decades; a number committed suicide rather than give them up. Ironically, claims for restitution the other way around, by east Germans on properties in the west, were rejected as “out of time”.
Since the demise of the GDR, many have come to recognise and regret that the genuine “social achievements” they enjoyed were dismantled: social and gender equality, full employment and lack of existential fears, as well as subsidised rents, public transport, culture and sports facilities. Unfortunately, the collapse of the GDR and “state socialism” came shortly before the collapse of the “free market” system in the west.
November 8, 2009