Farming practically collapsed in East-Central Europe after 1989. First came the dissolution of the collective farms, then came the influx of agricultural products from the West, and finally came integration into the European Union. Although some countries didn’t have collective farms (Poland) and other countries have yet to join the EU (Serbia, Albania), the pattern of a sharp drop in agricultural production holds true across the region. In the first 18 years of transition, production dropped by as much as 30 percent and, despite some recovery, did not get back to the levels of 1989.
Throughout the region there has been an emptying out of the countryside. Farms have either disappeared or become more efficient, so fewer farmworkers are needed. It’s the common story of modernity: a rural generation becomes an urban one. This process has been considerably slower in the Balkans, where agricultural employment has dipped only about 10 percent over that 18-year period. In the rest of East-Central Europe, however, the decline has been dramatic: a drop of more than 60 percent.
With the introduction of more modern technology and more intensive use of chemical fertilizers, agricultural production has become considerably more efficient in the region. Yields, after an initial drop, have increased remarkably. Once net importers, some countries have become net agricultural exporters. Poland, for instance, is now sending enormous amounts of diary products, poultry, and even tobacco to the EU, which absorbed 75 percent of its exports in the first half of last year.
Agriculture in East Germany experienced some of the same trends as the rest of the region. There was, for instance, a sharp drop in farm employment – 80 percent in the first five years after reunification in 1990. But there was also a lot more money, from the united German government, to ease this transformation. Although the government encouraged the development of family farms – which predominates in the west – the eastern lands focused more on cooperatives. And whereas industrial production in the former East Germany bottomed out, the farming sector remained stable, with output increasing and yields approaching those in the west only five years after reunification.
Back in February, I took a trip to Brodowin, a small town in what was once the East German countryside northeast of Berlin and near the Polish border. I was the guest of Bill and Anne Beittel, who once worked for the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker organization that hired me in 1990 to travel through the region. Bill picked me up at the train station, and we stopped off at a farm store on the way back to their house. The store was clean, cheery, and full of organic produce, much of which had been produced on the farm itself.
The farm had once been a collective farm focusing on livestock. “As a production unit, it was simply coming to an end,” Bill Beittel explained to me about the farm’s trajectory after the Berlin Wall fell. “They didn’t know what to do with all the liquid waste from the animals, so they were simply channeling it into the lakes. As a result, some of the lakes were just on the verge of dying. That stopped overnight. The conversion to an organic farm takes time. For that, they needed financing, and they found financing from a real estate agent in Berlin, who had a lot of money and a wife who had had serious health problems and had been treated successfully in an anthroposophical hospital.”
The farm went organic, and it basically saved the town. “Brodowin has an unemployment ratio of roughly 5%. Nationwide in Germany, it’s 8 or 9%, and in Brandenburg, it is probably on or above the 15% level,” Beittel explained. “We have a kindergarten right across the street here—which is bursting its seams. There are a lot of kids in Brodowin. We know other villages, perhaps a bit smaller, where the young people from about 16 on are gone. They have just a handful of younger kids, and the population is getting older and older.”
I talked with the Beittels about their work in the late 1960s to bridge East and West Germany, the impact of reunification on eastern Germany, their life in the countryside, and the relatively new phenomenon of transition towns.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Bill: I remember quite well. Anne and I had gone to bed on the evening of the 9th, maybe at 11 o’clock, when on the radio they were saying that there is talk about everybody getting permission to go from East Germany to West Germany. We said to each other, “Well, we’ve heard that all before. There’s talk about lots of things.” And we went to sleep. At about 6:30 in the morning the phone rang. It was my brother calling from California to wish me a happy birthday and to say: “What the hell is going on in Berlin? They’re dancing on the Wall!”
Once you confirmed that the Wall in fact had fallen, what did you think was going to happen?
Bill: We had very little idea what was going to happen. We were not prepared, as many people were not prepared for the fall of the Wall in this fashion at that time. We knew the economic problems in East Germany. We knew of the social unrest. But we did not think that this Wall would fall that quickly. So we were caught unawares. I don’t really know what we thought would happen. We knew what we would have liked to happen, and that was what did not happen: that East Germany would not be gobbled up by West Germany and just taken over and then exploited, if you will. Instead of looking for ways to come together and find a renewed common ground, the attitude was that everything that was from the West was good and therefore was good for you also. There were, of course, groups in East Germany that had very different ideas and were opposed to this rapid takeover by West Germany, but they lost ground rather rapidly.
You both had been working for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) from 1968 to 1973 on opening up communication between East and West Germany.
Bill: Anne and I and our three kids came to Germany in 1968, on a two-year assignment that we then extended for two years. Then we extended for an indefinite period, but it turned out to be another year. After that year, we said to the AFSC central office in Philadelphia, “The people who should be talking to each other are doing so now, and therefore it’s time to close down this program. It’s expensive to keep a family of five in Berlin, and there are priorities of greater importance.”
Had you been in Germany prior to 1968?
Bill: I was here first in 1946: on a cattle boat to Bremerhaven. We were bringing not cattle but horses to Poland. This was a United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) program. It was started actually by the Brethren with Heifers for Relief after the war and then it was expanded by UNRRA. That was my first impression of Germany. From the docks in Bremerhaven until we found buildings that were not completely demolished, it was about a half-an-hour ride on the trolley. There was just rubble. Rubble, rubble, rubble. Of course Bremerhaven was quite a convenient target when the bombers couldn’t make it all the way to Dresden or Munich because there was too much flak. It wasn’t so good to land a plane that’s full of bombs. So, they unloaded their bombs in this part of Germany.
But you must have been very young in 1946.
Bill: I was 16. We were recruited through the Brethren Service Committee to take care of the livestock on these boats.
Did you grow up on a farm?
So this was an entirely new experience for you.
Bill: It was an adventure. We not only went to Bremerhaven. After Bremerhaven we went to Cherbourg. We had a half load of coal, and they had to unload the coal by hand, because there were no cranes in operation. It took them six days or something like that. And then all of the cowboys, as we were called, took off for Paris. We were four days in Paris.
That must have been fun for a 16 year old!
Bill: It was. It was very exciting. We even made it to the Folies Bergère. What was even more exciting: after the show we went around the corner and saw the performers coming out the stage door without their feathers on.
When you returned to Berlin in 1968 with your three children, your initiatives were focused largely on the diplomatic corps?
Bill: The diplomats were an important part of it. The American mission in Berlin as it was called then — it was not an embassy, because the embassy was in Bonn, and there wasn’t a consulate — was a military mission, but the diplomats there did the same sort of things that they would do in a consulate in Hamburg or somewhere else. But the political section of the American mission was larger than the political section in Bonn. Which meant that a high percentage of the people were there for espionage. That was normal practice, I think, in that sort of situation. We had contacts there and were viewed with suspicion, just as we were viewed with suspicion in official circles in East Berlin. One of the East German foreign officers recommended that I be banned from East Berlin—not permitted to enter anymore—because it was clear that I was working with the CIA. I haven’t seen my CIA report. I have my Stasi report, parts of it. I don’t want to see any more because it’s such a mixture of fact and fiction. I don’t know if the CIA reports are similar.
The problem was always that the observer, or the informal informant as they were called, reported to the officer immediately above him, and the officer reported to the next level, and the next level, and so on. At each level, they improved the story a little bit to show how effective they and the other levels were working. That’s probably where the fiction expanded so that the final report would read: “it is known that Beittel has regular contacts with the CIA.”
They could have written, “It is known that Beittel has regular contacts with the Stasi” in a similar way, because these were the people with whom we had contact. The head of the North American section of the foreign office in East Berlin came from a Communist family that fled Hitler’s Germany to England. So this man went to school during the war in Quaker schools in London. In our first meeting, he said, “You don’t have to tell me anything about Quakers. I know everything about Quakers.” He also read me the riot act: “Don’t think you’re going to be able to do the sort of research you did in Yugoslavia here in East Germany.”
What did he mean by that? What research?
Bill: I came to Berlin from Yugoslavia where I’d done research on one of the communes in there. This was reported to the head of the North American section, which was our official contact in the foreign office of East Berlin. I told him I had no intention to do research, that this was not the purpose of my stay in Berlin. But I’m sure he read me the riot act because he knew there was somebody listening who would report what he said to me. Or perhaps there was a microphone someplace. I don’t know, I’m not an undercover agent. The only thing I know about this undercover business was that we simply assumed when we came to Berlin that our telephone would be tapped.
In the third year of our work in Berlin, I was in Washington at some function at the State Department. A diplomat who had been previously posted to West Berlin in the military mission said, “Hey, Bill! What are you doing here? You still working for the Quakers?” And in the course of our conversation I said, “We always assumed our telephone would be tapped, so we tried not to put anybody in a difficult position in anything that we said.” And he said, “Yeah, you’re right. You never said anything of any interest. We had you tapped from the day you got there.” So I assumed that he had been working in Berlin not only as a cultural affairs attaché. I found this an interesting confirmation that it was wise not to mention names of somebody we had visited in East Berlin.
You said that in 1973, you recommended to AFSC that they close down the office, because the contacts were going on without the assistance of the AFSC. Tell me a little bit about what happened between 1968 and 1973 that enabled you to make that assessment.
Bill: In 1969, I worked with Geneva rather closely on trying to get diplomats from East Germany to the Quaker conferences for diplomats. When I was in Bonn I talked to the western embassies there about the coming conference and our intention to invite East German diplomats, and they said there would be a NATO boycott. That’s what the Germans told us. We went to them first and said that we were inviting East German diplomats, not as observers, but as participants. They said, “There will be no West Germans, and we’ll call for a NATO boycott.” Which was very effective, except for Holland and Norway. The Dutch diplomat came directly from vacation to the conference and didn’t get word that he should not go. And the Norwegians said, “oh, what the hell,” and they went anyhow.
The following year, when we went to Bonn and announced that we would be coming first of all to the German foreign office, they said, “Oh yes, please come!” They took us out and wined us and dined us at a very fancy restaurant and said, “There was some little misunderstanding last year, but I hope that it won’t fog our communication.” They had made a complete change.
Then, in 1972, the Americans rang me up. It was the head of the political section. He said, “Can you come by?” I said sure. I went by and he said, “Can you arrange informal contacts with the East German diplomats from the foreign office?” And I said, “I can try.” I looked at him, and he knew what I was thinking: that means the United States is getting ready to recognize East Germany. I didn’t need to say it. And when I went to the foreign office in East Berlin, to this Quaker school man, and I told him the purpose of my visit, he just laughed and said: “They’re going to recognize us, aren’t they?” And I said, “They didn’t say anything of that nature, but I understand your comment.” After that we had coffee and cognac, which means that it was a welcomed visit. There was an acknowledgment in the West that recognizing, or refusing to recognize East Germany, was not going to move things forward. I would guess that the recognition probably contributed to the developments that led to the fall of the Wall.
I arranged two such meetings. I was not present at either one, nor do I know who was there. They took place in cafes in East Berlin. The problem was, of course, that the Americans could not ring up the foreign office in East Berlin, nor could the foreign office ring up the American mission. That obviously couldn’t work, diplomatically speaking.
A week later, a British diplomat said to us about the informal meetings in East Berlin, “We’re on the bandwagon, we’re going also.” And a Dutch diplomat told me the same thing a couple days later. They were looking for an opportunity.
And what role did Ostpolitik and the West German government play in this process?
Bill: It laid the ground for this, the work of Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr. Egon Bahr is still very active. Egon Bahr must be 90 or so, but he’s still writing.
Once you finished up this work in 1973, you remained in Berlin.
Bill: We’ve been here since 1968. In Berlin or in Brodowin.
And what did you continue to do after 1973.
Bill: We had an opportunity to go to Geneva and organize the conferences for diplomats, which were not only for diplomats. They called them conferences for intellectuals or something like that. They had journalists and other people who came with their inputs. But we decided not to go to Geneva, because we had moved our three kids around a lot, and it was not an opportune moment to put them into a new language setting. So we stayed put. I was a househusband for two years, and then I got a job in a neighborhood center in Zehlendorf, one of several neighborhood centers in Berlin founded by British and American Quaker organizations in 1948.
At the outset the center was a place where people could keep warm, repair their shoes, do some sewing. But it expanded into a whole development with kindergarten initiatives, a program for older people, youth work. I developed there a program for young delinquents and criminals. We called it Werkstatt Knast. Werkstatt is a workshop, and Knast is prison or jail. It was a play on words, offering work instead of jail. We were working with the youth officers assigned to the juvenile courts and with juvenile judges, trying to get them to send the kids to us for work assignments instead of incarcerating them. We never had more than four or five at a time. We were two social workers and one trainee. I did that until I retired.
I was in Zehlendorf the other day. It’s quite a wealthy part of town now. Was it a wealthy part of town back then as well?
Bill: In comparison with other sections, yes. Zehlendorf is the upper crust. It developed differently from the neighborhood center in Shöneberg for example, which is more of a blue-collar district than Zehlendorf. In Zehlendorf you have a higher proportion of lawyers, real estate people, doctors, and bankers than in other districts.
How did the fall of the Berlin Wall affect the work of the neighborhood center in Zehlendorf?
Bill: The first thing was that we invited people to speak, like Barbel Bohley who had been active with the Church and other opposition groups. These were the people that we thought should be widely heard. In the beginning, there were roundtable discussion groups with all sorts of people, not only from the Church, where they came together to debate what should be the future of the GDR. There were some very good inputs into these discussions. There was no urge to immediately come together with West Germany. In the West German constitution at that time was a passage that read, “At the point of reunification, should it happen, then the constitution shall be rewritten incorporating the interests of both parts of Germany.” But that never came to pass.
That was a great disappointment for what I would call the constructive, progressive-thinking people in East Germany who were not interested in scrapping everything that had been of value. They wanted to find ways in which some things could be maintained, expanded more effectively and more humanely. They were not opposed to the two Germanys, but they were not urging rapid unification at any cost, which seems to me is what happened. There were probably many more East Germans interested in rapid reunification. They wanted to have the same currency as the West Germans did and drive a Mercedes, not a Trabant.
I’m sure that the proportion was probably weighted in that direction, and that the disappointment over what happened is perhaps higher among those people than among the more progressive people. People thought that everything would become rapidly much better, that they would become richer and so on. That did not occur—at least not up to expectations. And the industry in East Germany was demolished, partially because it was not at the technical level of the West, partially because the West could produce enough to take care of East Germany (which required tremendous transfers from West to East). You can feel the disappointment in Brandenburg. You can feel it here in Brodowin. It’s not a hidden disappointment.
How do people express it here?
Bill: In a variety of ways. Some people, and not just Party people, say, “It was much better previously” and “everything’s gone downhill since” – even though these people now drive a much newer car than ours and previously maybe had no car. Then there are the people who have a more balanced approach and say, “We had some things that were very good and they have deteriorated, but we have this opportunity now to go elsewhere.” Then there are some who are very critical of the East Germans and say: “They are so accustomed to getting things delivered on the plate without any effort. They are people who believe that even if it was not exactly what you want on the plate, at least you got it in the old structure. And they therefore will not get up on their hind legs and do anything. They complain that things are bad, are getting worse, but they won’t organize.”
For example, the large farm here in Brodowin came up with the idea of developing a central heating plant to replace these individual gas heating that we have. They said that there is enough wood that can be harvested each year in this area to shred and use as the combustible material. This idea met with very little interest in Brodowin. People were saying simply, “No, it’s not good.”
We tried to find ways to bridge the animosities between those who suffered under the Stasi and the former Stasi workers, between those who had been in the SED (Socialist Unity Party) and those who hadn’t. But to find ways to bridge these gaps was very very difficult. I’ll abbreviate the discussion we had in church circles. Some said, “Get up off your ass and do something!” And the others are those who complained. It’s a knotty problem, and it’s not easy to resolve quickly.
We have found, however, a small opening to bridge the differences between the old Brodowiners and those who have come since the Wall went down. Of the 420 people who live in Brodowin, I would guess there are 30-40 who came from the West, as we did. But that is also a knotty problem. On the personal level, our motto was, as we came, “We’re the new-comers.” I had long hair at that time, with a ponytail. I rode a very old bicycle that I put together with the kids who were in my project in the neighborhood center. It was a strange combination: old man, long hair, foreigner, West, and who doesn’t speak perfect German.
On the contrary, when we built this house, we knew that the concrete base for the house had been poured for six weeks, and it was okay then to start building. Many parts of the frame were not built here, but south of Berlin, and then brought in on a huge truck, and then they could put it up piece by piece. We knew when that truck was arriving. So, the day before, we came here and put up our little tent out in the garden and went to sleep. The truck arrived at 4 o’clock in the morning. Anne went out, but by the time she got to the truck, the driver had already climbed into his bunk, so there was no communication there. The next night, we slept in our tent as they started using a big crane to put up the pieces of the house. The following morning, as we crawled out of our very small tent, our neighbor, who was at that time 82 or 83, was standing at the fence watching us.
She said, “I think you’re going to be here a lot over the next period of time.”
And we said, “Yes.” We didn’t know her name, and she didn’t know ours.
“You don’t have to stay in the tent,” she said, “You can stay with me. I have a little apartment on the first floor of my house that’s not used. I don’t rent, but you can sleep there.”
We said, “Well, thank you very much.”
She said, “Come over this evening when you’re through there.”
So we went over, and we told her, “We have our sleeping bags, we have everything we need, except a place to put them.” But when we came in there was a big double bed all made up, a little bathroom, and we got a key that day.
Years later there was a knock on our door from a neighbor who’s a very good friend now. She said, “Grandma Heddy never would do a thing like that. We were all absolutely amazed!” They couldn’t tell us at the time because we didn’t know them that well.
We have some very very good friends here, both old Brodowiners as well as new Brodowiners. We’re on friendly terms with our immediate neighbors, even if we are on different wavelengths. We know other former West Berliners who have houses here, where they have had difficulties with their immediate neighbors. Why? I don’t know. In a small village there are certainly going to be some people who have difficulties with other people. It’s normal. It may not be good, but it’s normal. We try to be open to all people. If we hear, “that person is not quite kosher,” we take it as some information—we don’t comment on it. And then we talk to that person and they say, “that person over there is not quite kosher” in the same way. We have differences of opinion with some of the people that we consider friends, but that’s okay.
You mentioned that one of the big concerns here was the farm, which had been a collective farm.
Bill: In English, if you want to be derogatory, you’d call it a “collective farm.”
And it had pigs and produced milk—
Bill: It also had cattle.
And it employed quite a few people.
Bill: Quite a number because it was not as mechanized as it is today.
But it made a transition.
Bill: As a production unit, it was simply coming to an end. They didn’t know what to do with all the liquid waste from the animals, so they were simply channeling it into the lakes. As a result, some of the lakes were just on the verge of dying. That stopped overnight. The conversion to an organic farm takes time. For that, they needed financing, and they found financing from a real estate agent in Berlin, who had a lot of money and a wife who had had serious health problems and had been treated successfully in an anthroposophical hospital.
And this is why this is a Demeter farm. Demeter is the trade name that employs methods developed by Rudolf Steiner, the biodynamic practices that people accustomed to conventional farming find difficult to understand. For instance, you fill a cow’s horn with manure and bury it, and then you dig it up six months later, when the moon is in the right phase, then you mix this horn full of manure with so many gallons of water in a big vat and then you spray it on the field to awaken the powers of nature. They also use manure in more conventional ways, of course. But they don’t use any chemical pesticides or fertilizers. But the particular magic associated with this approach is difficult for dirt farmers to understand. We think that it would have made sense to make it an organic farm, but without this additional input, which I think alienated some people. The farm now is largely owned by a family with a great deal of experience with large farms, not with organic farms, but who are willing to learn about organic farming and promote it. Some local people are still involved financially, and other local people are employed by the farm. The farm can sell its organic products at a higher price than the stuff in the supermarket.
So, has the farm “saved” the community?
Bill: It has indeed saved the community. Brodowin has an unemployment ratio of roughly 5%. Nationwide in Germany, it’s 8 or 9%, and in Brandenburg, it is probably on or above the 15% level. It’s not only the big farm. There is also a goat farm and a sheep farm, both of which are organic (Demeteer) farms. There’s another man who produces meat products from game. We have a carpenter. We have a kindergarten right across the street here—which is bursting its seams. There are a lot of kids in Brodowin. We know other villages, perhaps a bit smaller, where the young people from about 16 on are gone. They have just a handful of younger kids, and the population is getting older and older. In Brodowin, there are a lot of old people, but there are also younger families. It’s not just the pastor with his seven kids. We have two families with five kids each.
So do you see Brodowin as the future of Eastern Germany? Earlier you said, “people were not getting up off their hind legs to do things,” but it sounds like people are right here.
Bill: It’s a mixture in Brodowin. There is perhaps more getting up here than elsewhere, partially due to the farm, because people see that it’s prospering. You can see it in the machinery they’re using. In my book, the farm is almost too large. That means that there are enormous tractors charging around the countryside. It’s almost industrial farming. Industrial organic.
They have a phrase for it in the United States: “the organic industrial complex.” The organic farms in California have gotten so big that they are just like industrial farms.
Anne: They had a study here on organic farming and how it mixes with nature protection. It was a three-year intensive study that produced a book. They made some good suggestions. For example, they found that if they don’t cut the grain as deep, then they protect birds that nest on the ground. The project ended, but they keep in contact and the discussion continues.
Also part of the new excitement is the transition town movement. We went to a seminar on this topic a few years ago and together with some students at Eberswalde University – they have a school for continuing education with a focus on sustainable development and agriculture – started a transition town project there.
I’m not familiar with the term you used: “transition towns”?
Anne: If you look on the Internet, the first transition town was in England, in Totnes. Now it’s all over the world. The idea was to reintegrate people into caring for the place they live – instead of everybody in their own little nook with the old ones here, the young ones there – and to create a new sense of belonging. It’s different in every town, of course, because it depends on the local situation. But the idea is to motivate people to come forward and offer their ideas about how they want to live. Eberswalde has a population of 35-40,000. It’s also important because it’s located on the water routes to the Oder, so it was industrially developed in the GDR time.
Are there other transition towns in the former GDR?
Anne: There are several initiatives in Berlin. Of course, not for all of Berlin, but in different parts of the city.
Are there other things that you think of as signs of hope?
Bill: One of the hopeful things is the electronics industry that is trying to take root in former East Germany. In Eberswalde, there are two or three firms making solar collectors. One of the former airfields is going to become one of the largest solar parks in Europe. This is a hopeful thing, but the solar industry at present is also suffering from competition from China. As it is in the United States.
What do you think has remained from the old days of the DDR, either in terms of the good or the bad?
Bill: The lethargy that I mentioned before was also very present in East Germany.
Anne: Yes, like you say, lethargy. On the other hand, there is a sense of solidarity in terms of unquestionably helping your neighbors — even if you are critical of them sometimes or they may not be your particular friends. That’s what people who went to the West before the Wall came down very often said: they came to the West and they lived in the house and everybody was for himself. Nobody looked left or right. And they missed that from East Germany.
Do you think that it’s possible that people in the West have learned or can learn from that experience, or are the people in the West generally not interested?
Anne: Let me tell you a little story. Once in GDR times, we were driving near here, close to the cloister in Chorin. We went onto one of those rocky old streets, and it tore open the oil pan. It was Sunday, and every store was closed, so we were sitting in the middle of the GDR. We walked out of the woods and there was an older man, and we explained what happened to us.
“Should we call the police?” we asked him.
“No, that doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Let’s have a look at it, maybe we can put something on it so it doesn’t leak.”
To make a long story short, he called his son-in-law who took his 11-year-old car—which he needed everyday to go to work—and pulled us from here to the border of Berlin. We wanted to give him some of the East German money that we had because of the mandatory exchange. But he wouldn’t take any. He just went back.
Then we stood there at the border control. How to get across? We waved at the West German cars. Nobody stopped. Finally, the Volkspolizei stopped a Mercedes, with this guy and his girlfriend and made him take us across to the other side. On the other side he dropped us like a hot potato. This was an interesting experience. I think it stands for more than just that. It stands for this: here, you help when help is needed. You don’t look the other way.
Bill: We had a tornado here two or three months ago. A real twister like that is very unusual in this part of the world. We weren’t here — we were in Berlin. But it took the roof off of our neighbor’s barn and smashed it into another neighbor’s glass front. Two days later, Jörg and Mike were there with the owner of this house putting up a new roof. Mike is a roof specialist, Jörg is just a friend, but that’s how it works here. You don’t wait until you can get a firm to come and do it. You just start doing it.
Anne: I think they have experience in doing that. During GDR times, you had to invent all kinds of things to get things done. That still continues: when there’s a problem, you find a way to solve it.
Bill: Konrad, who is now 75 or so, built 12 or 13 tractors in the GDR era. He would take a transmission out of a junked truck or something. Some of them have little tiny motors and a couple of gearboxes, and other unusual features. They’re still running. And he and his son-in-law built another one a couple years ago. He has his own which he has now spruced up, painted nicely, and put a wagon behind it. He picks up guests at the train station and brings them here for special events. He’s quite a character.
What do you think will be the legacy of the GDR, 50 or 100 years from now?
Anne: It will be forgotten. The world changes so rapidly. People who are now 19 don’t know anything about the GDR. They still hear some stories from their parents, but it’s not their reality. The older we get, the more we realize what’s part of our life and what’s only a story for children and grandchildren. And it’s a story…well, it’s just a story. And there’s not much feeling or emotion in it. It’s like what I heard from my mother who was nine years old at the beginning of the First World War.
Bill: I think it will be a footnote when they talk about the rise and fall of the Soviet Union: the GDR and Poland and Czechoslovakia and all of these countries that were affiliated with the Soviet Union. They will be a bloc in history 100 years from now, and not a very large bloc. But who knows, maybe we’ll have a real socialist system in the United States in 100 years, if there’s still a United States.
That’s true. Or here in Germany. Or in Europe.
Bill: In that case, they might say, “That’s when people tried out this system and they made some mistakes. But now we’ve got it under control.”
Brodowin, February 2, 2013
The Interview (1990)
Over dinner at a reasonably good Greek restaurant in the Kreuzberg section of West Berlin, Bill filled me in on AFSC history in Berlin and the Two Germanies, from Roland Warren in 1962-64 through to the Beittels’ five-year tenure, 1968-1973. The purpose behind AFSC activities at the time was “to bring East Germany into the family of nations.” One of the first steps in this process was bringing representatives of both Germanies together at the same table. At the time, AFSC was sponsoring annual diplomatic seminars, providing an opportunity for second and third tier diplomats of various countries East and West to discuss international issues, a different focus each year. The hope was that such officials, upon graduating to the top positions in their respective embassies, would maintain contacts with their counterparts in adversarial countries and thus be more inclined to engage in more peaceful dialog.
In a 1969 seminar, AFSC invited East Germans as participants and promptly suffered a boycott of representatives from NATO countries. The next year, however, Bonn apologized and East German representatives were accepted at the symposiums, although East Germany had still not been recognized diplomatically by the United States. In 1972, American diplomats in West Berlin approached AFSC representatives and asked them to set up informal meetings with East German diplomats. After two such meetings, the contacts East-West blossomed and shortly thereafter, the United States recognized East Germany. Thus, the role of AFSC international representatives in Berlin came to an end.
We skipped to more recent events. “We all thought we knew what was happening in East Germany,” Bill said. “But we didn’t.” The fall of the wall in November came as a complete surprise and “the people who were most flabberghasted at the events were the observers on the spot.” Surprise at first produced doubt: “Here we thought: they’ll put the stopper back in the bottle.” When the East German government didn’t, Bill began to realize how strong a pull the Wall had on his imagination. With the Wall gone, West Berlin as “a little island, a little paradise” was no more. East Germans were pouring into the city, housing was becoming tight, there were new employment pressures. Berlin was slowly losing its special status (Berlin’s exceptional nature can be seen, East and West, in electoral results: W. Berlin with its Red-Green coalition, E. Berlin with its overwhelming support for the SPD and the PDS). As if to continue its special standing, Berlin has been discussed as a potential capitol for the united Germany. This would require an enormous amount of money, to shift staff and institutions. Bill sees this move as inevitable, because of nationalism.
How did he feel about the elections, the victory for CDU universally mourned by those on the liberal-left in both Germanies? When it comes to election results, he’s never very happy: “I was always in the opposition before elections and in the opposition afterwards.” He is perhaps more disturbed at a trend among East Germans to shift blame entirely upon the shoulders of “naughty Stalinists.” This refusal to accept more collective responsibility reminds him of German reaction after 1945 and the opprobrium reserved only for Nazi officials and not for the society as a whole.
Another psychological issue came up in our discussion. Bill mentioned an article recently published in the FRG by an East German psychiatrist. In this article, the psychiatrist singled out a new syndrome: a crisis of identification. After the November changes, the high hopes for mass participation without coercion from above lasted for perhaps two weeks. The same people calling for an end to the State secret police and the Communist government “began looking for knowledgeable and strong people to tell them what to do. The belief that they could do this by themselves was gone.” A lot of East Germans, Bill thinks, feel that they should not have ceded so much responsibility to established structures– but they hold their tongues, The velocity of events encourages their silence. Furthermore, many are simply tired. As one artist friend told him: “I don’t want to demonstrate anymore.”
There are exceptions to this rule, however: “people who are not sitting on their cans and waiting for proper charismatic leaders.” In the small East German town Kleinnachmoll, a group has formed since the fall of the Wall to work on community activities. Their first project was repairing an old masonry portal. Their next task was more political. When experts from the West came to the town to look into converting what had previously been a school for party officials into a school for market-oriented managers, the group protested that a better use for the building would be a home for the aged. They are now bringing their case to the people of Kleinnachmoll.
A major problem facing the new East Germany (or the new German nation) will be what to do with all the party officials, the secret police informers and the dogmatic deadwood scattered throughout East German society, within virtually every East German profession. In an earlier discussion, Stasi expert David Crawford argued that all those associated with the hated secret police should simply be thrown out of their jobs, allowing others to fill their places. At the time, Bill pushed David: who determines level of collaboration? will there be no mechanisms that would allow such people a second chance? are there really enough qualified people to fill all the vacated positions? David, I think, articulated a common German attitude. Hatred for the Stasi is so great–remember the various stormings of the Stasi headquarters in several cities–that revenge is much desired. Couple this thirst for revenge with a desire to find scapegoats and evade collective responsibility and East Germany is facing a de-Stasification that will probably suffer from the same problems as de-Nazification did 45 years previously.
On the question of rapid unification and the apparently popular vision of the CDU, Bill envisions enormous costs in the range of 500 billion marks (monetary union, extension of West German social net, retooling East German industries). The CDU will not, however, talk about these costs before the West German elections in December. Otherwise, W. German citizens might blame Kohl for destabilizing their economy. Therefore, Kohl has made some recent statements about slowing the pace of unification. Bill wouldn’t be surprised if Kohl didn’t want the CDU to win in East Germany in order to make the SDP responsible for the costs of unification.