Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 11, 2019

The deck was stacked against East Germany

Filed under: economics,Germany — louisproyect @ 10:13 pm

I will be posting a review of Victor Grossman’s “A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee” to CounterPunch a week from tomorrow but couldn’t resist sharing this brief excerpt now since it is about as useful a summary of the disadvantages East Germany faced in trying to compete with West Germany. Perhaps compete is the wrong word since the goal was more modest, namely to offer its citizens what its leaders regarded as socialism. Yes, the country was burdened by secret police, bureaucracy and all the rest but there were many decent aspects that shine through in Grossman’s account. Even if Tony Cliff or Farrell Dobbs were the Prime Minister of East Germany, I doubt that they could have done much better with the cards they were dealt, including from the USSR.


I happened to land in a new republic where the factories, mines, and landed estates of those mighty guilt-ridden men had become public property and a barrier against their powerful rule as job-givers and decision makers. Their refusal to accept these losses in this divided country and city and their active hatred of the GDR demanded a choice. While socialism and capitalism were fairly abstract issues in the United States in the 1960s, chewed over in many theoretical variations, here, in my new home, the dividing line was far sharper, with echoes of fateful events in 1919, 1933, 1938, 1939, and 1945 resounding in almost every street we trod. “Which side are you on?” was not just a good union song but an almost daily decision. Until the Wall was built in August 1961, that other side was only one stop away on the subway, one step away on unchecked street borders. Many sought to evade a choice in some agreeable, unpolitical niche. But for a “political animal” like myself, this was never an option. And how in hell could I ever accept the rule of an Adenauer, Globke, Krupp, or Thyssen?

Yet how should I look upon this alternative Germany? How was it developing? What doubts and burning problems were present?

From the start, all cards were stacked against little East Germany. About the size of Ohio or Virginia, far smaller than the three zones forming the Federal Republic, close to California in size, it had neither the iron and steel industry of its Ruhr Valley nor endless tons of high-quality coal under its surface, but had to start off with one steel plant, hardly any natural resources except potassium salt mines, a little copper, and huge amounts of low-quality, damp, stinky lignite coal, its weak basis for electricity, fuel, and chemicals. Yet it was saddled with almost 95 percent of reparation costs. France, Britain, and the Benelux countries soon absolved West Germany from most payments. But Poland and the USSR, immensely demolished, desperately needed their share of reparations, which came almost exclusively from the Soviet-occupied zone. Whole factory complexes, machinery, rail tracks, and a good share of emerging new production were removed. To make matters worse, most industries in the East, like machine tools or textiles, depended on raw materials from West t Germany, supplied in varying quantities or not supplied, depending on how much pressure Bonn wished to exert in a changing political situation. Meanwhile, after 1947, West Germany was getting big investments through the Marshall Plan, a key factor in its “economic miracle.”

There was another serious drawback. Large numbers of engineering and managerial personnel, those most strongly infected with the Nazi bacillus and fearful of punishment under Soviet occupation or left-wing rule, and hating nationalization with its ousting of their beloved industry leaders, disappeared westward, before the Red Army arrived if possible but also, in later years, often at crucial moments. Many took plans, patents, and documents with them plus their know-how on running factories. Their change of address involved no new language to learn and no risk. Their former employers, soon an integral part of the “economic miracle,” were glad to offer them far higher pay than in the poorer, more egalitarian East. The young GDR economy thus faced not only wreckage, reparations (until 1953), and a cutoff from former resources but also had to rely on the thin ranks of engineers and managers willing to remain plus a new generation being trained in colleges that lacked professors and researchers who, having eagerly supported the Nazis, also had moved westward. Such luring of experts, including newly trained ones, was assiduously maintained through the years, even after the Wall made it far more difficult to “disappear.” A former manager of a big GDR shipyard told me how half of his pre-1961 class of skilled machinist apprentices were regularly lured away by West German companies, but only after they had completed their expensive training. That meant big losses in the East and big savings in West German costs.

And yet, despite myriad difficulties and highly skeptical, even cynical sectors of the population, the economy had started up again, and here and there with genuine, new enthusiasm.

13 Comments »

  1. Oh…the deck was stacked against the poor little Stalinists who only controlled E Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Russia, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, etc etc. and truly couldn’t compete with the more endowed W. Germany. Another example of Proyect’s TINA– there is no alternative thesis. Poor Stalinists, so isolated, so bled dry by fascists, ignoring of course who the Stalinists facilitated, enabled the fascists to come to power.

    Don’t you ever get sick of genuflecting to things as they were?

    Comment by Anti-Capital — April 11, 2019 @ 10:30 pm

  2. Anti-Capital should read Victor’s book. This comment shows only ignorance and arrogance. BTW, I edited the book.

    Comment by Michael D Yates — April 12, 2019 @ 12:05 am

  3. My wife was coincidentally in Berlin on a Journalistes en Europ scholarship when the wall came down. She spent a lot of time between the two Berlins. Despite the Stasi and the seeming austere nature of the East, it was two other things really stuck in her mind from that time. One was that people were not defined by their work. They did other things with their time – belonged to groups based on their interests etc. No obsession with what you ‘do’ and what you earn. The other was that they didn’t seem to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Somewhat naively perhaps, they wanted the ‘socialist’ model but with the freedom that the West seemed to offer, particularly travel. They really appreciated the security the state provided around the essentials of life, especially things like cheap childcare. And whenever my wife went back to the West it seemed crass – garish neon and billboards, evidence of drug addiction and a pressure that seemed overwhelming. She doesn’t nostalgise about East Germany, she’s no Stalinist, but she knows there were elements there of what could have been.

    Romania in contrast felt like Hell on Earth . . .

    Cheers,
    John

    Comment by John Edmundson — April 12, 2019 @ 4:06 am

  4. Thanks for teving an ignored topic. Socialism and marxism were seriously applied in heart of Europe..

    Comment by steve — April 12, 2019 @ 9:03 am

  5. […] Source: The deck was stacked against East Germany | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by The deck was stacked against East Germany | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist – Last Man There — April 12, 2019 @ 11:55 am

  6. I passed through Teheran and Sofia in 1971–fear was palpable in the air at noon in those places, as it is for me now in Manhattan, which I find terrifying. It wasn’t the same fear, but just a different bolgia of a very big hell … . I remember now good Ljubljana felt by contrast–wonderful double-jointed buses you could ride for free … .

    No idea how E. Germany or in particular E. Berlin would have felt, but I’ve never liked all the crap about brave little Dondis with their fingers in the dike of Bolshevism and star-crossed lovers dying plangently in a hail of machine-gun fire as they Sprint for Freedom. Reagan’s bleating admonition to Gorbachev–god what a piece of self-serving horseshit–how the redbaiting Democrats ate it up as they always secretly do when confronted with naked reaction.

    If you ask me, we could use a big dose of collectivist austerity of some sort–sure to resemble E. Germany in some respects–not to advocate Stalinism in any way–but why not? Not plumping for Trabants, but even they were a cool piece of engineering under the circumstances … . Death to the Dodge hemi!

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 12, 2019 @ 1:17 pm

  7. I passed through Teheran and Sofia in 1971–fear was palpable in the air at noon in those places, as it is for me now in Manhattan, which I find terrifying. It wasn’t the same fear, but just a different bolgia of a very big hell … . I remember now good Ljubljana felt by contrast–wonderful double-jointed buses you could ride for free … .

    No idea how E. Germany or in particular E. Berlin would have felt, but I’ve never liked all the crap about brave little Dondis with their fingers in the dike of Bolshevism and star-crossed lovers under a hail of machine-gun fire as they Sprint for Freedom. Reagan’s bleating admonition to Gorbachev–god what a piece of self-serving horseshit–how the redbaiting Democrats ate it up… .

    If you ask me, we could use a big dose of collectivist austerity of some sort–sure to resemble E. Germany in some respects–not to advocate Stalinism or Russian tanks in any way–but why not? Not plumping for Trabants, but even they were a cool piece of engineering under the circumstances … . Death to the Dodge hemi!

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 12, 2019 @ 1:20 pm

  8. Nothing short of a big dose of collectivist austerity will save humanity.

    Comment by davidbyrnemcdonaldiii — April 12, 2019 @ 1:49 pm

  9. Don’t know how same comment was posted twice–apologize

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 12, 2019 @ 5:44 pm

  10. “I passed through Teheran and Sofia in 1971”

    Would love to know your impressions of Tehran back in 1971 if you care to share. Any particular details come to mind?

    Comment by Reza — April 13, 2019 @ 6:16 am

  11. Reza–only very general ones, I’m afraid. I wasn’t as keen an observer then as I got to be later and passed through very rapidly on my way to Afghanistan. Also, my actions aren’t especially creditable to me–I was in the process of a sort of nervous collapse that began during my senior year at college, continued in an acute form for the next ten or fifteen years, and haunts me to this day–nothing to do with the Shah.

    I remember getting into a dispute with a taxi driver in Teheran over a fare. This grew rather heated because of the language difficulty and my unfamiliarity with the currency–I think he probably was trying to jack me up–and suddenly two men in plain clothes materialized and everyone went very quiet and the small crowd that had gathered melted away. As I recall, I paid the driver what he wanted and got the hell out of there. This is where I get the impression of fear in broad daylight.–not my fear but the fear of the onlookers who so suddenly grew quiet and vanished.

    One had the impression of being watched constantly. I have a recollection–probably false–of finishing a class of tea and seeing a portrait of the Shah looking back at me from the bottom of the glass. (I must actually have been looking through the glass at the serving tray or something else.) There was an icy calm over deep turbulence, the sources of which at the time were as inscrutable to most young Westerners as Chinese writing.

    One obvious problem I think was that the flood of young thrill-seeking Westerners were perceived by many Iranians as an imposition by the government of the Shah, while –since their presence was a source of unwanted conflict–they were unwelcome to both the government and its opponents. The government of the United States was likewise embarrassed and hostile. We had no idea what we were getting mixed up with.

    As I say–a wantonly subjective impression. The trains were full of troops being transported in the aisles–one knew not where or why. Men came and stared rudely into compartments harboring mixed-sex groups of foreign travelers–my group looked like hippies, but weren’t–as if expecting some kind of floor show. The imposition of all the drug-seeking, sexually uninhibited Europeans and Americans pouring through at the time on the actual background of Iranian life created a situation so awkward and potentially volatile that it wasn’t possible to tell what was really going on, even if one had possessed the wit to understand..

    Some precincts were strictly off-limits to the invaders–one was warned not to go near the Imam Reza shrine in Mashad, for example (this may have during the observation of Eid–I have no record of the actual dates.)

    We were the unwelcome guests of a tyrannical government already IMO in deep trouble that would much have preferred it if we had not been there–something with which, for very different reasons, one suspects the regime and its opponents were in agreement.

    On the way back from Kabul I “booked passage” so to speak in a modified bakery van belonging to a group of typewriter mechanics from Hull, one of whom had decided not to continue on to India with his friends. This chap was driving the van, loaded up with cheap water pipes and other salable goods (stowed in specially build subfloor compartments) back to Hull to sell the goods. He accepted a few paying passengers of various nationalities to fill up the empty sleeping spaces left by his friends.

    The van was emblazoned quite imprudently with an enormous Union Jack-. Along the way in Iran, small boys came out and gawked and hooted and threw things. At one point–in Mashad also I think–the Union Jack attracted a rug merchant of Jewish origin who pleaded desperately with us in a barely intelligible hash of European languages to help him arrange an exit from Iran–promising a fortune in wonderful silken carpets if we did so. His sense of desperation was unmistakable–we were too ignorant and too out of things to guess what the situation actually was, but you couldn’t miss the urgency.

    This was seven or eight years before the 1979 revolution, so I have no idea what the political situation actually was at the time.

    An index of the stupidity of those days: I recall being in some sort of vehicle park near Istanbul, just on the verge of entering Bulgaria and proceeding thence onward to Amsterdam and the U.S. A fashionably hippie-looking young woman emerged from her very snazzy and expensive motor home and somehow got talking with the boys in our van. She was apparently on her way to Afghanistan–NB that going further was a bit dicey, as this was the time of the Bangladesh secession, though the idiots kept on coming. Someone asked her why she was making the trip. She responded in an accent so posh it sounded like a caricature: “Oh, you know–a stoned adventure!” [pronounced ad VEN-chaw].” That just about summed it up.

    Sorry I can’t offer you anything of real historical significance–thanks for asking. In those days you could climb into a car in the Place de la Concorde and drive all the way to Delihi with a few pauses for visas and whatnot along the way. Remarkable–not the least because none of the thousands involved except for a few mentally unstable types like me appears to have learned anything from the experience.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 14, 2019 @ 5:34 pm

  12. Farans, Thank you for the reminiscences. Much appreciated!

    My guess about the ‘fear factor’ you sensed is that it was a real fear you sensed. In Feb of 1971, some left wing/socialist activists (Fedaayeen-e Khalq) who believed in Che Guevara type of guerrilla tactics and strategies attacked a police outpost in northern region of Iran by the Caspian Sea (in Siahkal). That must have put the SAVAK (secret police) very much on red alert. So, I suspect the two plainclothes gentlemen who caused the crowd to disperse quickly were most likely recognized as SAVAK agents. You did well to pay the taxi driver and get the hell out!

    Comment by Reza — April 14, 2019 @ 7:01 pm

  13. Footnote–apologies for poor spelling and punctuation BTW (all my posts suffer from this)–I note that the Shah’s big, weird purported 2,500-year celebration of the Persian Empire, a highly unpopular event attended mostly by foreigners awash in forbidden alcohol, happened in October of 1971, not long after my visits to Mashad (coming and going). This seems to have crystallized opposition to the Shah, which must have been building when I was there. My impression was that there was a lot of turbulence if one had known where to look–not just the “Fedayeen” Reza mentions, though that is fascinating information of which I was unaware.

    I have no idea what the specific background of the desperate “carpet merchant” was, and how that tied in to the building crisis of the regime (if it did), but he certainly seemed desperate. The Jewish community in Iran fell from around 80,000 to less than 20,000 after the 1979 revolution–it seems to me that things might already have been heating up in 1971 if this man was on the up and up.

    It’s hard to see how a merchant in Mashad could have had much to do with the State of Israel or the U.S. Department of State at that point (obviously if he’d had that sort of contacts he wouldn’t have needed to appeal to a van full of hippies), so I’m inclined to attribute his desperation to religious persecution or some sort of specific accusation of wrongdoing locally or both. Not a pretty thing to see, and not something to feel good about.

    Of course, I suppose he could have been a government agent trying to find out what we were up to or provoke some kind of illegal activity.

    One of our number was an amiably dippy Swedish high-school graduate who decided somewhere in Bulgaria that some leaves he saw by the roadside were of particular botanical interest. He stowed some away, with the result that we were detained a full day when Italian customs found them and tore the van apart looking for the bricks of hashish and opium they assumed we must be hiding.

    Suspicions were rife all along the way–we were only feather merchants as it happened, but drug dealers or political subversives would have been so much more exciting.

    I’ll never forget the alternating eternal optimism and utter despair on the faces of the Italian customs men as they trotted back and forth in front of us with ever-renewed racks of test tubes full of god knows what, testing substances found in our luggage and finding no dope time and time again. We were damned lucky that none of us was stupid enough to have been smuggling hashish secretly.

    We never did discover exactly what the purported rug merchant wanted us to do–we would have had to stay over an extra day in Mashad and visit his shop in order to find out–risky business–we demurred. Is someone’s life on one’s conscience as a result? I wish I could say no with certainty … .

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — April 15, 2019 @ 5:10 pm


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