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  • Writer's pictureStephen Balogh

Chill winds from the west

This short blog entry is a return to ideas of personal liberty, a theme I’ve already raised elsewhere (e.g.

Sometime in mid-1990 I happened to be on a short break in Devon. Staying in the same small hotel was a young couple from the German Democratic Republic, which was shortly to become defunct through re-unification with the Federal Republic of Germany. (In fact, the term “re-unification” is a bit of a no-no amongst Germans and the vaguer term “die Wende”, “the turning point”, is generally preferred.)

Falling into conversation with the couple, the subject of the impending dissolution of East Germany inevitably came up. I’d brought in my own preconceptions as a Brit, albeit informed by having stayed with family members many times in a Hungary run by the monopoly Hungarian Socialist Workers Party over the previous 15 years or so, some of my relatives holding tacitly differing political persuasions that in uncoded form could have easily landed them in hot water.

What was so striking to me is how sincerely these young, idealistic German people talked of the aspirations of socialism, of equality, of universal healthcare, of the social safety net, of the elimination of “wasteful” economic activity such as competition and excessive consumerism and marketing. They were fearful of the full chill winds and onslaught of capitalism from the west, contemplating it with a mixture of trepidation and disgust.

When 3 October 1990, the day both East and West Germany ceased to exist (actually, in treaty terms, the FRG became Germany to ensure continuity of membership of the EC, the UN and NATO and discontinuation of membership of the Warsaw Pact), I wondered how these German travellers marked the passing of their worldview-made-politic.

That conversation has come back to my mind from time to time, but particularly on two occasions. The first was in 2003 when I read the book “Stasiland“ by investigative journalist Anna Funder. From visits to torture chambers and interviews with surveillance officers, loyal snitchers and their various targets, it reconstructs the massive scaffold of Stasi (Ministry for State Security) apparatus operating in the GDR right to its end of days. I’ll just quote some snippets from a couple of book reviews: “… a slow motion understanding of decades of human pain and cruelty” (Sunday Times) and “… a grim journey into a country in which the ratio of watchers to watched was even higher than that of the Soviets under communism” (The Times).

I was by then wondering how idealistic those Germans would still be 13 years later.

The second occasion is in fact the last few months in which I watched, in quick succession, German-language dramas “Deutschland ’83”, “Deutschland ’86” and “The Same Sky” (that last one set in 1974 against the backdrop of the world cup played in and won by West Germany, so with an added competitive frisson especially when East Germany beat Beckenbauer's giants in one of the group matches). All three series combined east/west cold war situations grounded and matters of loyalty, compromise and betrayal at individual and family level. The Same Sky in particular features the neighbour-on-neighbour spying so redolent of George Orwell’s 1984, encompassing universal surveillance and denouncing of thoughtcrime. The decadent west hardly gets off scot-free, but it is the portrayal of the world of the “Osties” that is most vivid.

I am by now wondering how idealistic those Germans would still be 30 years later.

By whatever means it was achieved, the empirical experiment of Germany’s partition showed that, from pretty much the same population, vastly different social and political structures can arise by a combination of top down (or external) coercion and peer social pressures.

Historical and indeed current examples of extreme forced behavioural norms abound a plenty, but one of the most sociologically interesting if unnerving aspects of the current coronavirus epidemic is the giant experiment in forced mass behavioural modification. Whilst there is a growing backlash in many countries (the latest occurring in Germany, Denmark and France to name but three) and widespread infringement of restrictions, it is remarkable – and not a little scary – how readily the population at large has complied with strictures unthinkable only 250 days ago.

Which reminds me of one of the most striking lines from my favourite film, Carol Reed’s “The Third Man”. Filmed beautifully against the contemporaneous backdrop of post-war ruined Vienna, Baron Kurtz muses “I tell you, I’ve done things that would have seemed unthinkable before the war”. The insinuation later in the film is that he was dealing in gravely dodgy black market goods, highlighting that economic circumstances can heavily influence changes to the way people act, not just political constraints.

This brief blog entry about aspects of personal freedom cannot form anything like a comprehensive treatise (John Stuart Mill got there first with “On Liberty”, and Shami Chakrabarti sort-of got there second with “On Liberty” – I suggest you pick only the older one of the two to read unless you've finished scraping up every last autumn leaf outside). From autocratic Big Brother tendencies to dictating precisely what people are allowed to think and say right through to straightened personal circumstances, freedom is a precious and oh-so-fragile feature of human experience, and under threat in this age and country just as for all other times and places.

Right on cue, I’ve just noticed that “Deutschland ’89” was released last month in the US and can’t wait to watch it once the authorities permit it in the UK. But in doing so I will be wondering what that German couple think of this particular rendition of that momentous, freedom-restoring epoch, and what it cost for the society and its people they so loved.

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