A few generations from now our descendants will wonder, “What took them so long to figure out that we’d reached the limits to growth?” The answer, of course, is that growth is the core of the myth holding the American psyche together. If it’s false, what’s the meaning of “life, the universe, everything?”
Karen Armstrong writes:
“We are meaning-seeking creatures. Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonise about the canine condition, worry about the plight of dogs in other parts of the world, or try to see their lives from a different perspective. But human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.”
I want to step back from our gargantuan dilemmas of 2009 and reflect on the East German intelligentsia I interviewed in 1990-1992 at the time of the unification of Germany. Readers might find this recollection tangential, irrelevant or idiosyncratic; nonetheless, my rationale is this: these East Germans faced the destruction of their national myth, which held that socialism was the true victor over Nazism and that capitalism’s demise was inevitable. In America unquestioned belief in growth has inspired us throughout our history, yet it is going the way of the East German’s mythology. Since myth is universal and timeless I see instructive parallels –there are major differences to be sure- between the demise of socialism in the GDR (East Germany) and the end of growth in America.
I interviewed approximately 100 intelligentsia -professors, doctors, lawyers, artists, actors, and writers- who were in the process of explaining to themselves how it was that socialism, not capitalism, had collapsed. Here are the categories into which I sorted their thoughts:
ü “Stalinism, not socialism, had failed.” About half felt this way.
ü “This was a capitalist conspiracy.” About 5% held this view, even though it was without evidence or plausibility.
ü “Socialism is an ideal system, but mankind is not mature enough to practice it.” About forty percent offered this interpretation, which included the hope that in the distant future socialism would prove victorious.
ü About 4% took an absurdist or existentialist view.
ü A handful proclaimed that they had always known that capitalism was the superior system. (These were the obsequious and I did not believe their story. A few later committed suicide, as did some of those who saw a conspiracy at play.)
Few in the West know that the vast majority of GDR intelligentsia thought the breaching of the Berlin Wall an historic opportunity to reform socialism, not as a sign of its demise or the end of their nation.
Most of them had played only a marginal role in the Neues Forum reform movement that formed in autumn 1989 or in the “Monday Demonstrations” in Leipzig that led up to the fall of The Wall, on November 9th.
They were a relatively privileged class but nonetheless not held in high esteem because the GDR branded itself a “Workers State” and the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) leaders did not trust intellectuals to always conform to the well-known injunction, “The Party knows best.” Also, the Stasi, the secret police, who had informers everywhere monitoring their work, utterances and conduct, intimidated them. Only a few of those I interviewed or met informally anticipated the end of the GDR; all others were convinced, like virtually all political pundits in the West, that the Cold War would go on indefinitely. And they were equally certain that the Party had a firm grip on the nation.
So the sudden magical interregnum after the Wall fell in November 1989 to March 1990, when a plebiscite on unification with the FRG was held, gave them –they thought- a breathtaking chance to fulfill the promise of socialism. Accordingly, many of them attended political roundtables, organized discussion groups at their work places, and took part in other political activities to reform the GDR. More than two-thirds told me, “We had a real democracy for four months” without realizing the impossibility of the GDR surviving minus the aid of the Soviet Union, which at that time was rapidly approaching its own collapse.
To their astonishment and dismay, in the March referendum East German blue-collar workers overwhelmingly rejected socialism and voted for unification. This made it ganz deutlich (absolutely clear) that the myth they had lived their lives through –even those who were deeply critical of the Party shared this myth- was invalid.
This is illustrated by catchphrases that entered the language after the opening of The Wall and then after unification referendum. Immediately after The Wall fell “vor und nach Der Wende” (before and after The Turn) came into vogue. After the unification vote, however, the intelligentsia began to speak of “Die Abwicklung,” (literally unwinding or winding down), the dismantling of the GDR and all traces of socialism. At this point many began to describe their lives in the GDR as “a dream, it all seems like a dream,” thus allowing them to establish a psychological “Grenze” (boundary) between their present and the passing of their national identity and socialist state.
Visibly, East Berlin began to “unwind” soon after the Wall opened with all manner of western commerce –boutiques, restaurants, record stores, electronic shops, street prostitutes and beggars (both were unheard of in the GDR)- appearing in the cultural center of East Berlin. Amid the sunshine and ephemeral warmth of an October afternoon -just days after the unification- a professor in environmental management told me as we walked along Unter den Linden near Friedrichstraße, “This is no longer my city, my country. There is nothing –technological, legal, economic– from the GDR that will be incorporated into the unified Germany; all that we accomplished will pass from existence.”
I asked, “Do you wish the GDR could return?” He replied instantly, “Never. The past times of the GDR were bad for science. It could cost you everything if you went against the Party. Imagine being at a meeting to discuss pollution, knowing how many toxic dumping sites there are and the environmental problems of burning brown coal. You could not raise these issues. The discussions were absurd, like about punishing a farmer who dumped some fuel into a stream.
“Economic growth to prove that a socialist economy could compete with capitalism –this is what the Party cared about. The environment could wait!” he bellowed as he slammed his fist onto the table at the outside cafe where we had just sat down for coffee. He settled down and looked closely at me, “What I have seen thus far of your Western democracy and freedom does not appear good to me either; you do have not real freedom; it is another illusion like we had here. You ignore serious environmental problems, just as we did.” I gave him a quizzical look and he said, “In the West, there is much pretense of democracy; the real decisions are not made by the people, or the people are quite easily tricked by their leaders. I see this so clearly.”
He went on, “Back to your question: No, I do not long for the days of the GDR –it was verrückt (crazy).”
I asked him, “Then what country are you a citizen of?”
“Ha!” he frowned in pain. “Such a question. I feel I am an East German; I cannot imagine being just a German.” It was not long before I was asking everyone I interviewed this question. Almost all of them gave a tortured reply amounting to, “I just can’t say “German,” or “A part of me will always be an East German.”
In the early years of the GDR virtually all of the intelligentsia –Berthold Brecht is a notable exception- whole-heartedly internalized the Party’s mythology. (Remember that until 1961 the border to the FRG was open; all one had to do in East Berlin to expatriate was walk across the street –and many did.) They rationalized the Party’s authoritarian structure as a phase necessary for the transition from capitalism to communism, and some reveled in it because they had authoritarian personalities. They were emphatic that Nazism had been overcome “by the Soviets;” and many times I was told, “All the Nazis who were here in the east fled to the West German side” where they were coddled. Several historians I met, however, told me this was mythically true but empirically false. More than a few Nazis –admittedly low-level ones- ended up quite at home in the Party. “It was not much of a switch organizationally or psychologically,” one famous GDR historian told me.
Many intellectuals took part in building the Wall, viewing its construction as necessary to halt the West Berlin black market, which was a major drain on the socialist economy and a quarantine of the “evil” influences of “The West.” All utopian communities -the GDR was more a dystopia- face the problem of keeping the outside world at bay, as a practical matter and as an inspirational rallying point.
Therefore, the GDR claimed to be staunchly and uncompromisingly anti-fascist/anti-capitalistic, meaning the FRG was a crypto-fascist state. This is a dichotomy between the sacred (socialism) and the profane (capitalism), which the Wall embodied by establishing a hermetic spatial border; it even had a psychologically transitional Niemandsland (no man’s land) in many places. The importance of demarcating this good/evil separation to the establishment of a national identity in the GDR cannot be overstated. The course taken in West Germany was deemed morally and epistemologically false, a distortion of human nature and rational knowledge. It justified the material, political and spiritual sacrifices imposed on East Germans. Forty-five years after the Second World War ended, however, the GDR not the FRG had ceased to exist.
The near universal commitment to the myth of the GDR explains for me why the Party and the intelligentsia did not anticipate collapse and absorption by the FRG. Similarly, the dedication to growth as the natural state of the universe accounts for the woeful lack of preparedness in America for peak oil.
Two people I interviewed illustrate the ubiquity and depth of the socialism myth in the GDR. One was a Stasi operative whose cover was as a hospital based physical therapist. He told me that the younger generation of Stasi members like him worked in the field and “we could see that the people were turning against the Party. We could not possibility deal with all the discontent. We relied on intimidation of the few to control the many.” When he and his colleagues attempted to inform their superiors –who were men from the WWII era- they were rebuffed with, “Oh, these are just a few malcontents stirred up by Gorbachev. We can arrest some of them and this will pass.” When the demonstrations intensified, the Party forced Erich Honecker, the long-time dreaded and despised heard of the Party and the government, to resign in late October 1989, reasoning that this would calm the people. This of course emboldened them. The demonstrations became larger and spread to Berlin, where intelligentsia began to join in with the demonstrators who carried signs reading, “We are the people.” The Stasi operative told me “on November 4th somewhere between five hundred thousand to one million people came out to demonstrate in Berlin.” There were some Stasi and police attempts to repress the demonstrators but one demonstrator I later met told me, “You could see shame in the eyes of the police. Many held back their blows and rough tactics when their officers were not looking.”
This Stasi operative went on, “I began destroying documents on November 1st. I knew all was lost and the people would turn against us; there were a few things I did while with the Stasi that I am not proud of and I wanted to destroy the records of these acts.” Then he said something I found astounding. “The decision to open the Wall and the entire border was made in panic in reaction to the massive demonstrations, as a way to finally placate the people. The Party did not intend to open the border permanently, you see. They gave our GDR citizens a three-day holiday to ‘visit’ the West. They even said passes would be issued; you know, we Germans are very orderly.”
I was not sure I understood him and asked, “You mean the Party thought they could open the Wall for the weekend, issue passes, and then everybody would return Sunday and go back to normal Monday?”
“Yes, they thought, ‘Let the people’ -whom they regarded as children- ‘see the West and then they will realize that they live in a worker’s paradise.’ They had no idea the decision to open the Wall was their final one in control of the country. It was the end of the GDR.”
Another person I interviewed worked in what is the equivalent of the Commerce Department. She told me, “I saw the economic and fiscal data. It all pointed to the conclusion that the GDR was bankrupt and we had no prospects of recovering. But no one higher up could grasp this simple fact; they always had some silly scheme to try to save the economy –they even sold cobblestones from closed off streets in East Berlin to the West Germans to raise hard currency. You see, there was pre-world war equipment in many factories, corruption by government officials, incredible environmental pollution and degradation, and a lack of the will to work among many workers worn out by empty promises from the Party. All together, I knew in 1987 that the GDR would fail.
“When I told husband, a loving man, the GDR would fail, he said, ‘Du spinnst’ (you’re mad).”
“What about reforming socialism?” I asked, “Did you think that was possible?” She smiled wryly and said, “It was possible in my heart, but not in my head.”
A substantial number of those I interviewed after speaking with her vigorously rejected this explanation, saying, “No, the West Germans enacted policies aimed at undermining GDR industries and commerce. They colonized us to sell us goods and make us dependent on them. We could have saved the GDR economy.” My view is that both were right, but the economist in the commerce department was outlining ultimate or master causes that could not have been avoided.
In 2009 America we will not have the psychological benefit of a vote to reject the myth of growth. Indeed, our government, media and institutions are looking for “green shoots” and unequivocally hope for a return to growth. From their point of view there is no other option, so it is natural to grasp at any positive number as a sign the economy has hit bottom and is beginning to rebound. It is why both Bush and Obama believe the financial houses are the most important sector of the economy; why neither could see that the automobile industries are finished. It is why no alternative vision of the future is offered by our cultural, economic, and political establishment.
But fundamental change does not come from those with vested interests in the status quo. I believe that, like the Party fatuously deciding that opening the Wall was a good move, our leaders have amply proven unable to see the new world emerging (although this is fluid and we can expect about 1% to awaken from their “dream” as our situation worsens). This means those of us on “the fringe” –much like the economist whose husband thought her foolish- have no choice but to keep speaking in whatever voice and style we honestly think fits the moment of history in which we find ourselves.