Katrin Bennhold: Lessons From the Former East Germany





[Katrin Bennhold is a correspondent for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. An economist by training, Katrin has been covering French and European politics for the IHT and its parent newspaper, The New York Times, for almost three years.]

PARIS — Like most people, I had slept through the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It was Friday, Nov. 10, 1989, and I was 15 years old, a teenager with boys and ballet classes on my mind and an identity firmly rooted in the western part of West Germany. History had happened overnight, and as the day after unfolded, everyone in my hometown seemed giddy with excitement — everyone except my parents.

This was before taxi drivers in West Berlin started to complain about the cheap competition from their Eastern colleagues and before jokes began circulating about “Ossis” who were crazy about bananas and didn’t know what broccoli was. Westerners had not yet seen their taxes rise to finance Eastern reconstruction, and Easterners had not yet lost their jobs.

What was there to oppose?

“It’s complicated,” my mother said, when I challenged her at the time.

My parents had been fierce critics of the Eastern regime. Left-wing intellectuals who were politicized in the 1968 student movement, they had been cheering on the growing Monday demonstrations demanding more freedom and democratic rights. On Nov. 4, when more than a million people gathered in East Berlin, the biggest march in the history of the (inappropriately named) German Democratic Republic, my father told me excitedly that this was possibly the most impressive display of democracy he had ever seen.

“We are the people,” the masses chanted.

“We Westerners could learn something from them,” my father quipped, only half-jokingly. There was a hopeful spark in his eye. Could the disastrous experiment in East Germany be reformed from within? It was a question that haunted the battered left in the West, desperate for a real-life example of democratic socialism.

But less than a week later, much to my parents’ dismay, “We are the people” had turned into “We are one people,” a slogan that spread rapidly on bumper stickers, talk shows and random graffiti in my school yard.

My parents’ misgivings about the inevitable momentum toward reunification ran deep.

They were vehemently opposed to a unified Germany at the heart of Europe.

For my father, a sociology professor who was born in 1934, a peaceful, democratic Germany was never to be taken for granted. His own father, a respected hospital chief, was a member of the S.A., the Nazi paramilitary force best known for burning down synagogues during Kristallnacht. He was 10 years old when the war ended, but his sense of collective guilt was intense. When he was 19, he spent a summer working in Hazorea, a kibbutz in northern Israel, his way of atoning for our country’s ugly past.

Beyond the ever-present ghosts of German history, my parents also shared a nagging fear, widespread on the left, that the collapse of the East would take pressure off West Germany to maintain a generous social safety net. My mother, a teacher and long-time union member, said the Communist bloc had always been the elephant in the room during tough negotiations.

“The two systems competed on every front, not just militarily,” she said. “Socialism tamed capitalism.”

To this day, my parents are convinced that the Reagan-Thatcher variety of free-market capitalism, which they believe led to growing income inequality and today’s financial crisis, flourished because of the absence of an alternative. The term reunification grated with them. They felt that West simply swallowed East and in the process discarded 40 years of mostly bad but some good policies.

It was, and largely remains, a taboo to suggest that the West, the winner of the Cold War, had any lessons to learn from the East.

In 1989, my mother argued that a united Germany should copy the East’s child care policies. Thanks to an extensive network of day care centers and one year of paid maternity leave, Eastern women had more babies, had them earlier, and almost all women worked. Female crane operators and scientists were not unusual (witness Chancellor Angela Merkel, a physicist, albeit childless.)...

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