The division of Germany into a socialist and an at least vaguely capitalist part was one of history’s great natural experiments. The outcomes of the experiment speak for themselves. After reunification, East Germany’s GDP per capita was just one third of the West German level. The poorest West German region, Schleswig-Holstein, was still two and a half times as rich as the richest East German region, Saxony. Every other available indicator of economic performance (productivity, capital intensity…) shows a similar gap. There was a three-year gap in life expectancy as well.
The cost of cleaning up the mess left behind by socialism has been colossal. Net fiscal transfers from West to East Germany since 1990 add up to €1.9 trillion (in today’s prices), which is roughly equivalent to the GDP of Britain.
Add to that the human cost associated with over four decades of totalitarian rule – the imprisonment of dissidents, the shooting of people attempting to commit Republikflucht (=’desertion from the republic’, i.e. emigration), censorship, surveillance etc. – and you can make a fairly strong case against socialism.
But this debate has been settled long ago, right? Nobody would defend the GDR nowadays, right?
Wrong. Seumas Milne, a former Guardian journalist and currently the Labour Party’s Executive Director of Strategy and Communications, still does.
A capitalist counterrevolution?
In an interview with George Galloway on TalkSport Radio, on the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Milne presented a peculiar interpretation of history.
In his version of events, the popular uprisings of the late 1980s, which brought down the regimes of the Eastern bloc, never happened. What really happened was a counterrevolution initiated from above. Sinister forces conspired to overthrow the Workers’ State, and force a capitalist economy upon an unwilling public. The average Joe never wanted any of this. He was just a passive bystander, who did not understand what was happening until it was too late. In Milne’s words:
“[T]here was a group of people in power who saw that they stood to benefit from the restoration of capitalism, and many ordinary people who benefited in many ways from the form of socialism there was in Eastern Europe didn’t really feel ownership of the system, and they didn’t necessarily see what was happening, or what they could do to stop it.
But […] most people in a good number of those countries regret the loss of […] the positive aspects of that system […] 1989 was an important shift, and an important loss, for many millions of people. As well as some gains. […]
In Eastern Germany most people today have a positive view of […] the GDR, and regret its passing […] [T]he huge social benefits that have been lost, not only in Eastern Germany but across Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union are mourned by the people of those countries”.
The Berlin Wall, in this version of events, was primarily an instrument of defence against Western aggressors. This is true for the less pleasant aspects of the GDR in general: if the West had not been so mean to them, the GDR would have been a civil liberties paradise. Milne explains:
“A particular form of socialism grew up in the post-war period in the conditions of the Cold War […] East Berlin was absolutely at the front line of the cold war. That’s what the Berlin Wall was. It was a front line between two social and military systems and two military alliances, and a very tense one at that. It wasn’t just some kind of arbitrary division to hold people in, it was also a front line in a global conflict. And that conditioned a lot of the things that happened”
It is a creative reinterpretation of history. It is also complete nonsense.
The March 1990 Volkskammer election
Let’s start with the idea that the ‘silent majority’ of the GDR’s population still supported socialism, and was just overwhelmed by events. In hindsight, we often treat the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany’s reunification, and the introduction of a market economy in the East as inextricably linked, or even just different stages of one single event. They were not. The GDR’s fate was not sealed on 9 November 1989, but on 18 March 1990, the day of its first-ever democratic election (which would also be its last).
Several of the parties that ran for that election were explicitly opposed to reunification, and for the preservation of socialism. Those were, in fact, the main themes of that election: it’s the economy, stupid. The option of preserving socialism was definitely on the ballot paper. We could imagine one of those parties, or a coalition of several of them, winning the 1990 election, in which case reunification would not have happened, and the GDR would have continued to exist as a sovereign, socialist state.
Firstly, the Socialist Unity Party (SED), which had ruled the GDR for forty years, ran for office again. It had renamed itself the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) in the meantime, and expelled some of its Stalinist hardliners, thus presenting itself as the party of a nicer version of the status quo. Secondly, the democratic protest movement also contained explicitly socialist groups, who wanted to democratise the GDR from within, but were also committed to preserving it. Those groups formed an electoral alliance, the Coalition for Action United Left (AVL), which ran on a socialist platform.
Thirdly, a West German Trotskyist party, the Spartakist Worker’s Party (SpAD) set up an East German branch, to “mobilise against a capitalist reunification, and for a socialist future”. Their diagnosis was that the GDR’s version of socialism wasn’t REAL socialism, and that REAL socialism had not been tried yet:
“The Stalinist bureaucracy of the SED government proved itself unable to fulfil the people’s desire for freedom and justice, and discredited the idea of socialism. We, the Spartakisten, say: Socialism, under the real leadership of the working class, has not even begun yet.”
Last but not least, there was the ultra-hardline Communist Party of Germany (KPD). Their diagnosis of the events was that the SED had been infiltrated by traitors and counterrevolutionaries, and needed a return to the good old days of Stalinist purges. I think Seumas Milne would have liked them.
Thus, in the March 1990 election, socialists were spoilt for choice. The reason why reunification happened, and why a Western-style market economy was introduced, was simply that the anti-market/anti-reunification parties won less than one fifth of the vote between them.
Do East Germans want the GDR back?
But that was then. What about Milne’s claim that a majority of East Germans today have “a positive view of […] the GDR, and regret its passing”? Presumably, Milne refers to a 2009 survey in which people were asked whether they agreed with the statement that the GDR had “more positive sides than negative sides”. 57% of respondents agreed.
However, according to a different survey, 74% of East Germans also say that reunification had brought them personally “more advantages than disadvantages”. This survey contains a more detailed breakdown by policy area, and it specifically asks respondents to benchmark East Germany against West Germany (or the reunified Germany).
It turns out that in the areas most clearly related to the economic system, namely ‘economy’, ‘living standards’ and ‘opportunities for professional self-realisation’, the West enjoys a clear lead. The West does worst in the categories ‘school system’ and ‘protection from crime’, neither of which are specifically socialist: the school system and the police were (and still are), of course, also state-run in West Germany.
There may well be a lot of East Germans who miss aspects of the GDR, but it is not necessarily the socialist aspects that they miss. Today, we would presume that somebody who has a positive view of the GDR must be politically on the (far-)left, but the GDR also had various aspects that would appeal to hardline conservatives.
The GDR’s school system was highly discipline-focused, even militaristic. The GDR’s criminal justice system was tough and punitive. These are aspects which the reunified Germany (or Britain) could easily copy, but I doubt that this would make Seumas Milne happy.
Unfortunately, the above survey does not ask about immigration. But judging from the huge East-West gap in support for anti-immigration parties, it is not a huge stretch to argue that some of today’s GDR-nostalgia is not about socialism at all, but about immigration. The increase in immigration, or exposure to foreign cultures more generally, was one of the biggest changes that people experienced after reunification. The GDR had some immigrants, namely from poorer socialist countries like Cuba and Vietnam, but compared to today, it was an ethnically and culturally very homogenous country. As always with social changes of this kind, some people are happy about it, some are not.
Seumas Milne seems to assume that when East Germans say that they miss the GDR, what they mean is that they miss state-owned car manufacturers, five-year plans, military parades and hammer-and-compass banners. Some may. But some of them miss things about the GDR that would make Seumas Milne cringe, namely a disciplinarian education system, a tough-on-crime criminal justice system, and cultural homogeneity.
A protection rampart?
Further, Milne’s claim that the Berlin Wall was built more for defence purposes than to stop emigration is ludicrous. Between the founding of the GDR and the construction of the Wall, more than 2.7m people migrated from East to West Germany. If they had all lived in one place, they could have formed a city larger than Hamburg. And this figure is an absolute lower-bound. It is based on records from West German refugee centres, so it does not count people who, for example, stayed with friends or relatives.
This massive brain drain undermined the economy, and jeopardised the Five-Year Plans. The GDR simply could not have functioned without emigration controls. In this sense, the Wall and the border fortifications achieved their aim. It abruptly stopped the exodus, and the planners could engage in workforce-planning again.
In the GDR, the Wall was officially called the ‘Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart’. Milne simply regurgitates the regime’s propaganda. Its military relevance, however, was zero. If the Cold War had turned hot at any point, the Wall could not have stopped a missile or a warplane. At best, it might have slowed down a tank by five minutes, or ground troops by twenty minutes. It was not even useful as a protection against espionage, because it was only ever a barrier in one direction.
East Germany was the richest country of the former Warsaw Pact. It was probably the least bad example of a socialist economy that has ever existed; indeed, as far as socialism goes, the GDR was probably as good as it gets. And yet, it still could not convince its citizens to stay. It still depended on a heavily fortified border, a shoot-to-kill order, a pervasive secret police, and in the worst case, on Soviet tanks, for its very survival. Overall, that is not an impressive record.
But we’ll see. Maybe Seumas Milne will soon get a chance to try out his version of socialism in Britain, which will, no doubt, avoid all these pitfalls.