Monday, 10 November 2014

When the Walls come tumbling down

After having read this excellent piece by fellow seditionary Paul Staines on the fall of the Berlin Wall, I'd like to add my recollections of  living in Germany when the wall fell.

I was working in Frankfurt at the time, running some of the large mainframe computers for an American Bank. Unlike many of the ex pat community, I decided to immerse myself in local culture, learn the language and plug into the whole German ethic. I learned to click my heels, eat Currywurst and drink coffee strong enough to tarmac an autobahn. I was determined to become EingeDeutsched (integrated) and was soon adopted by my neighbours as one of their own.

Many of my friends still had family in East Germany and contrary to popular belief were able to travel freely to visit them - always a fun occasion as a whole village would turn out to see what a new car looked like or marvel at a bowl of fresh fruit. I was invited along just after the Wall fell and can only describe the journey as a living time machine. Firstly, the stench of two stroke exhaust fumes and brown coal burning hung in the air. Most household heating came from Victorian stoves burning anything they could find and fat, burly women dragged small carts full of firewood along cobbled streets. They'd never seen an Englishman, let alone one who could speak German and were extremely keen to introduce me to the ways of the East. In the 40 years since the war, they had been immersed in Soviet culture and relative poverty. Their favourite foods were Russian salads and beetroot soup, washed down with vast quantities of some God forsaken spirit available on every street corner. Fashion was anything they could lay their hands on from the West - in itself a walking museum of bleach wash jeans and mullet hairstyles, the favoured method of rebellion was to ride a 250cc MZ motorbike with monkeybar handlebars and listen to rock music. These were a people trapped in a bizarre void of 1950 meets naked survivalism.

I was into motorsport and decided to enter a local rally organised by one of the many small motorsport clubs that existed in the East. Their usual entrants were hyper tuned two stroke Trabants or the odd beaten up Lada but the crowds were massive and eager for any type of entertainment. I rocked up in a fully loaded 4 wheel drive Escort Cosworth with 400bhp with flames spitting out of the exhaust and it was quickly decided that I shouldn't compete but could drive as the "show car". Local Communist Party dignitaries demanded to be shown what technology the West had produced and after a few short bursts of 0-60 in 2.3 seconds and handbrake turns, most ran off into the bushes to vomit, shaking their heads in disbelief. Hurtling out of a forest onto a tarmac road whilst on gravel tyres at light speed and meeting a 5 deep crowd in the road who had never seen a car travel as fast nearly saw me on a manslaughter charge. It was beyond their comprehension that a ton of metal could arrive to where they were standing hoping for a better view so quickly

West Germans generally despised the "Ossies" as ignorant inbreds, workshy and full of self entitlement after 40 years of sucking at the teat of the Glorious State and they were partly right. To survive under Socialism, most had learned to keep their heads down and mouths shut, do as little work as possible and become invisible to the legions of informers, State busybodies, party apparatchiks and bureaucrats. To simply survive the winter and eat well was the goal of most of East Germans with the promise of a summer break to many of the State organised "holiday camps" an added bonus. The one thing they had in common with the West Germans was the automatic assumption that everything is forbidden unless it is expressly allowed ( a vile trait, slowly infecting the UK now ) and my explanation that no one required ID or a registered address in the UK brought howls of disbelief. How was this even possible? It must be anarchy, surely?

25 years have passed and Germans are still paying eye watering amounts to try and undo a mere 45 years of State Socialism. East Germans are still at the bottom of the heap for employment, with most employers preferring an eager Turk or a workhorse of a Pole and their expectations that the State will provide pervade outside of most major cities. Property in parts of the East is practically worthless and despite the best efforts of billions and billions of Euros being thrown at it, the East remains a wasteland for many. It will take three generations to undo the damage inflicted by the glorious Peoples Workers Party - and that in itself should be a salutary reminder to us all that the State is not and never will be your friend.

I shall be watching "The Lives of Others", possibly the best and most accurate depiction of life under the East German Communist Party. I suggest you do the same, if nothing else, as a reminder of what could have been. Never take your freedom for granted - it is but a pen stroke from a Politician removed. Forever.

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