What was once East Germany’s challenge will shortly become an issue for the whole of Germany.
In 1990, East Germany had to handle the delicate issue of the withdrawal of Soviet troops. This was no small question. There were 380,000 Soviet troops stranded by the fall of the Wall and the unification of Germany. When I was in Berlin in spring 1990, you could already buy the fur hats and insignia and various other military paraphernalia of the Red Army piled on the ground outside Checkpoint Charlie. More ominously, the soldiers were also selling their weaponry on the black market to arms dealers.
It took four years to negotiate the withdrawal of the last Soviet soldiers. “The withdrawal of more than half a million Russian troops and dependents from Germany since 1991 is described by historians as the biggest pullout ever by an army not defeated in battle,” wrote Stephen Kinzer in The New York Times in 1994. “Along with soldiers and civilians of the former Soviet armed forces, Russia has removed more than 1,300 planes and helicopters, 3,600 artillery pieces, 4,200 tanks and 8,200 armored vehicles. It has withdrawn 677,000 tons of ammunition, including an unknown number of nuclear-tipped tactical shells.”
The Soviets also left behind large tracts of land they had used as military bases and testing grounds.
“The nicest one is right here between Berlin and Potsdam,” David MacBryde told me in an interview in February. “It is a large heath area that was first used by a military in 1713. There are pictures of Teddy Roosevelt on a horse out there. The Red Army took this area when they captured Berlin, and it had been a major tank exercise area for the Soviets, right across from the British and the French sectors. There was a small non-profit environmental club out there that had already existed before the Wall came down. They had convinced the Red Army base commander, during bird-breeding season, not to do tank exercises in this particular area. So there had been some environmental efforts there. Also, it’s on the west side of West Berlin. For regional and city planning reasons, a lot of folks wanted to prevent urban sprawl there after the Wall came down. So there were a lot of reasons to turn that large area into a nature preserve, which was very successfully done. Now it’s a foundation.”
When I met David MacBryde in West Berlin in 1990, he was working on a variety of projects connected to military conversion and economic development. He still lives in Berlin and still follows these issues. He looks back at that critical period of 1989-1991 as a missed opportunity to retire the two-bloc system and create an entirely different security structure in Europe – conversion on a grand scale. He shares with me an article from The Wall Street Journal from March 12, 1990 entitled “’European Peace Order’ presses NATO” that describes the support from the foreign ministries in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union for a new European peacekeeping structure. NATO eventually sidelined the proposed alternatives, and those three countries disappeared off the map.
But the experience that eastern Germany went through in the early 1990s may prove useful for the united Germany as it faces significant cuts in U.S. military presence in the country. By 2015, major U.S. bases in Heidelberg, Mannheim, Bamberg, and Schweinfurt will be closed. Sequestration and further Pentagon cuts may mean even sharper reductions. What will happen to the land once occupied by the U.S. military, and what can the German government do to help out the communities so economically dependent on the bases?
Perhaps David MacBryde and his partners from eastern Germany can go back into business turning swords into ploughshares in the western part of the country.
Do you remember where you and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Wall?
I was standing at a bar in a hotel in Washington D.C. I looked at the screen and said, “What kind of odd satire are we seeing here?” But it was real. And then I called back home to Germany. I’d been in Washington at a conference. I’d been working on a publishing project on conversion of military facilities. I was trying to get people to think about what we could do because changes were happening.
Did you immediately think after the Wall fell, “This is going to have major ramifications for this work”?
I was convinced that you could feel the ground shifting. I thought it would have huge ramifications. In 1985, there was an American Friends Service Committee church delegation to the two Germanys, and I helped a little bit with organizing that. Out of some conversations from there, I tried to set up stuff with some German churches, labor unions, some academics. I went to a lot of ecumenical church meetings in the two Germanys and was convinced that changes were coming upon us.
In fact, with this little book project on conversion, I talked to the people at the Soviet embassy in Berlin about what I was doing. I wanted to ask them if they had any experts, and then find some American experts to work with them together on conversion. They were not particularly interested. I complained that they were not helping me more on this project. And one of the Soviet guys said finally, “The military expenditures are a headache, but that’s not really our problem. The system isn’t working.” And when the Soviet embassy people in East Germany told me that, I thought, “Aha, times are changing.”
Do you remember your first experience going over to the East after the Wall fell?
One of the first things I remember is in South Berlin where there’s a U.S. military base, which they used for urban warfare training. On the other side of the fence was East Germany where they had a watchtower. We went up on the watchtower in East Germany to look at the base in West Berlin. I remember a sergeant getting rather excited. He said, “Hey folks, keep your eyes open and look in the direction of the enemy.” And the guy sort of laughed, because where was the enemy now?
It’s not that I had all that much experience in East Germany, But I knew some places, so I could help folks find where they wanted to get to in East Berlin. I was kind of amazed as an outsider, as an American, to see how little contact there had actually been, that people didn’t even know where the street addresses were, who to find, what to do, and so on. And also how much of a barrier the Wall was mentally.
You’ve been watching the transformation of Eastern Germany over the last 23 years. I’m curious your overall impression of the transformation of East Germany.
I’m very impressed that it happened. I’m curious why the East German economy still has not quite caught up to the West German economy. Wages are lower. Productivity, the way it gets measured, is lower. One thing that struck me was that the productivity in West Germany was so high that it really didn’t need the factories in East Germany, didn’t really need the employment. I myself was working from project to project and was very aware of employment issues, including my own.
What does it take for a country that’s been outside the market system to come into it? And can you come into a developed market very easily or not? I helped work on a whole bunch of economic development programs, including military bases that were being shut down. I participated in German efforts to use Work Project Administration (WPA) kind of programs, stuff that we did in the States in the 1930s to try to generate work.
Both in the East and the West, or just in the East?
There had been some efforts in the West before, because the economy in West Germany had actually been in somewhat of a recession. When the Wall came down, there was a tremendous economic boost in sales of West German goods. But to try to get the East German employment going, there were huge efforts to do what they call ABM (Arbeitsbeschaffungsmaßnahmen or job creation schemes). In the little non-profit I worked with, one point we had 34 very highly paid lawyers and other kinds of folks on ABM projects. This was not just a cyclical downturn. It was a structural change. So, how do you do economic stimulus programs in that context, not only in Germany, but also more generally for economies in transition?
Can you give me a little bit more in detail, for instance, about the specific conversion projects you were working on: where it worked well and what the challenges were?
The nicest one is right here between Berlin and Potsdam. It is a large heath area that was first used by a military in 1713. There are pictures of Teddy Roosevelt on a horse out there. The Red Army took this area when they captured Berlin, and it had been a major tank exercise area for the Soviets, right across from the British and the French sectors. There was a small non-profit environmental club out there that had already existed before the Wall came down. They had convinced the Red Army base commander, during bird-breeding season, not to do tank exercises in this particular area. So there had been some environmental efforts there. Also, it’s on the west side of West Berlin. For regional and city planning reasons, a lot of folks wanted to prevent urban sprawl there after the Wall came down. So there were a lot of reasons to turn that large area into a nature preserve, which was very successfully done. Now it’s a foundation.
So, it wasn’t a conversion to an economic productivity site but a green conversion.
Yes, a green conversion. It got turned into an educational green nature preserve area. A contrast is in Southeastern Brandenburg. Mullrose was a Soviet town. Part of our group went down there, and it didn’t work out. The whole area was depressed, economically depressed, and we couldn’t stabilize it.
What did you hope to do in that town?
That’s a good question. There was so much unused land in Brandenburg, around Berlin or in East Germany generally. The military bases covered over 6% of the land area of Brandenburg, which is a large number. But that was a relatively small problem compared to the general problem of land use in the area, which included all the land in the old East German coops that had collapsed or were not functioning.
We tried to use that town as an educational base for training in sustainable agriculture. We tried to do some gardens, and some sustainable agricultural pilot projects in connection with the school system in Cottbus. Some of that worked somewhat, but it wasn’t large enough to stabilize the effort.
Were there any successful projects in terms of conversion to an economic zone, or some productive service of manufacturing?
There were some. There are some tourist areas in East Germany, for instance. But I don’t see any kind of economic development that’s taken hold and worked. There have been some interesting efforts, controversial and difficult, with some new technology around solar power development bringing economic development. But now some of those companies are having problems because of wage competition internationally, so some of the solar power companies have gone bankrupt. There were some military bases on the German-Polish border, Slubice and Frankfurt (Oder), which were successful in terms of logistics. As trade opened up, there was train and truck logistic development, and that was more positive.
You must have worked with Helmut Domke in Brandenburg on conversion.
Oh yes. He was responsible for dealing with the Red Army personnel, which was a very intense situation, and he was very helpful there. Manfred Stolpe was the governor of the state of Brandenburg, and he was also open. He was a church member also, and out of a lot of that church work, people knew each other, and there was some opening to “turning swords into ploughshares.”.
It seemed like you had some support at the federal level. I talked with Vera Lengsfeld, and she was very proud of her accomplishments turning two military bases into nature preserves.
Getting the nature preserves in East Germany was a big deal. In the very long term it was also good for the real economy.
Is there still room for this kind of work in Germany, or has the chapter been closed on this issue?
It has not been closed on environmental areas. And there’s still some work to be done on military base conversions. In West Germany, there are some towns that are facing difficulties if U.S. troop levels go down. And there is a center for conversion in Bonn that helps municipalities and regions. But I don’t think it’s a huge issue anymore.
Were there other projects that you were working on as well that worked with East Germany, or was it largely the conversion work?
What I had been working on before the Wall came down was a book project. The point of the book was to see if we could get experts together to discuss what could be done with 1% of the East German and 1% of the West German military budget, to work in common on conversion issues. And this had a lot of parallels with the United Nations Agenda 21 kind of municipal and regional democratic planning efforts, or attempts to get citizens involved with planning. Military bases were then a particular focus that could be used, not always successfully, for Agenda 21 issues. And that has expanded a lot. The first time I heard of Angela Merkel, she was an environmental minister, and she was working on a local Agenda 21 in an area that also had some military bases and facilities.
How far did you get with the book before the Wall came down?
When the Wall came down, the book was superfluous. We did come out with a small brochure on the military facilities in Berlin and in Brandenburg.
Have you followed up with work on the unified Germany’s military budget?
I haven’t looked at the German military budget. What did help was that Rainer Eppelmann was East German and also a church person who was in the Neues Forum and became the East German defense minister. In August 1990, East Germany stopped all military production. I think that’s the only time that’s happened in history.
It’s too bad the state disappeared not long after that. It sent the wrong message to states, that they’re going to disappear if they get rid of their military production.
Actually the decisions had already been made to merge East Germany into the Federal Republic of Germany. I remember the controversies from that time. Some people thought there might be two years of transition, but it turned out much shorter. I was urging people to move quickly, because I didn’t think the two-state solution would survive very long. Unfortunately, it didn’t.
Where do you think reunification went well, and where did you think it didn’t go so well? You mentioned the continuing economic disparity between the two halves of the country.
I’m delighted that it happened. It was a huge win for human rights and democracy, so that was just great. But there were some troubles with the process. There were some cultural differences and some things that to me felt like racism.
Can you give any specific examples?
In trying to do some economic development work in Brandenburg, there were a lot of what I would call Western carpetbaggers, people coming from the outside. My father comes from North Carolina, so I’m sensitive to that issue. Overcoming slavery was important, but carpetbaggers were also an issue. In a sense I was one myself. I was from outside. You could see some of the tensions with people coming in, people with good intentions perhaps, but who knew how the system worked and who understood the bureaucracy of the European Union. The East Germans didn’t. So they were second-class citizens in their ability to participate in some of the work. And you could see a certain arrogance on the part of some of the Westerns that came in. Many came for very good humanitarian reasons, but some came for reasons of personal greed. But even where the motivations were good, there was just a differential there that was hard to deal with.
Do you remember any specific confrontations or tensions or miscommunications? In some sense you’re in a unique position being not German, but speaking German, and therefore you might have been privy to some interesting situations.
A lot: for instance, in the competition for European Union funds. There was a West German academic institution that was looking for funding and there was also a small non-profit entity of East and West Germans that included a couple guys who had been in the East German military. Now these are the people who made the transition peaceful. But the fact that there were some East German military people involved in this non-profit was used by the West German academic entity to question their ability to run the program. So funding went not to them but to the West German institute.
And do you know what happened to the NGO that didn’t get the funding?
It was partially successful in raising issues. It was a center for regional conversion, and it was made up of several East German projects and several West German conversion projects. It was the first international “West German-East German” non-profit, and it did help with a lot of things. But as, for instance, Domke’s position was stabilized and the government took over part of the functionality, there was less of a need for this. And it was disbanded after a while because it just couldn’t compete.
How would you assess this process of money transfer and infrastructure development in the East?
It’s been lovely. I did do a bit of traveling in East Germany before the Wall came down, and the difference is just vast. One can go to almost any town in East Germany and the infrastructure is delightful compared to what it was, and certainly also compared to a number of other places.
East Germany is a much more delightful place to live in now than before. It’s not a failed state. The Eastern bloc countries are not failed states, thanks a lot to some economic development efforts. We could have done this globally, to avoid having failed states, and to provide some hope for the kids. I had very high hopes! What we could’ve done with the money from those military budgets…
The birth rate in East Germany also dropped very precipitously right after the Wall came down, for good reasons and bad reasons. Some people said, “Let’s look at what’s happening and not have kids right yet because there’s so many exciting new things to do.” Other people were a little nervous about employment and so forth. What that meant was that the school numbers dropped, and the teachers were faced with a vast decline in the number of kids at school. The teachers decided to take a 40% wage cut in order to maintain employment for all the teachers. That was a great decision, and it meant that people also had free time to do things in addition to their work. Had there been more time-sharing of work it would have been a little easier, and you would have fewer pockets of considerable poverty.
I have a small project about an hour and a half north of Berlin: an old villa, a schloss, that a couple of people from the university had seen in the newspaper. “We don’t know what to do with this schloss,” the town said. “Help us.” They had been to Cambridge and Yale, and thought we could perhaps build a place for sabbaticals and so on in the countryside. They did this very successfully and got some culture into the countryside, in a place where the unemployment rate had been 80%. It’s now gotten to the point where the infrastructure is so good in that area that the Poles are buying up land and building their houses 20 minutes outside their workplace in Poland, in East Germany. So, it is starting to blossom a bit.
Someone told me that there was a study—and I looked on the Internet, and of course I couldn’t find it — on patterns of mobility inside Berlin that determined that people who live in West Berlin pretty much stay in West Berlin while people who in East Berlin pretty much stay in East Berlin. Have you heard of this?
That’s definitely true. Even my friends, people I consider my friends from this little NGO back in the day, for them to come to West Berlin was an adventure—and vice-versa. As an outsider, as a non-German, this was always very striking. The mobility is changing some, and some places, like Prenzlauerberg, are now very popular also from the West. Plus, some of the Turkish population, as they improve their economic situation, are moving from Kreuzberg to Charlottenberg.
If you look back to 1989-1990, and you think about your worldview at that point, has there been any major shifts in your thinking since that period?
In a way, yes. Back when I went to college, I worked for a very large company that immunized me against centralized power. So I was never a fan of Marxist/Leninist structures.
It’s funny that a large corporation immunized you against Marxist/Leninist structures!
It did, it did. It was a very large, very blue, and very centralized computer company at the time. I thought there were problems and in the long term generally dangers with highly centralized undemocratic power. I don’t like that. And authoritarian monopolized state power over a whole society can be worse. So it didn’t change my worldview to see East Germany collapse.
Back then there were many large hopes for what could happen afterwards. There was a lot of talk about cooperative security arrangements in Europe. Some of the people from the elected East German government went to the United States when East Germany still existed and were talking about the the role of NATO and other possible arrangements. Some of those alternative security arrangements did not get as quickly developed as I would have hoped.
I believe that there was some discussion in the Clinton White House very early on to have a quick first U.S.-Russian summit in Vancouver. An alternative suggestion was to make a big deal of the first post Cold War summit in Potsdam — where the 1945 conference there marked the end of World War II in Europe but set the division of Germany and the development of the Cold War — and to have the French and the British and and the Russians and all sorts of other folks come together and celebrate the end of the Cold War and promote expanded ways of cooperation and common security But that did not occur. In the transition to German unification there had been considerable pressure to get East Germany, and all the eastern European countries, into NATO as quickly as possible – to expand NATO and make it permanent even “after” the Cold War. I think more emphasis should have been placed on developing a pro-active, positive European foreign policy.
Looking at the “long arc of history,” however, I am pleased at the change initiated by President John F. Kennedy and West Berlin Mayor Willy Brandt in moving beyond “cold war” confrontation to communication. Willy Brandt received the Nobel Peace Prize for that. His politics helped to get the paranoia down, and so then, peacefully, the Wall too. And recently the European Union too was , for profound historical reasons, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Making love not war is not always easy, and can take a long time. But it is certainly more fun.
Berlin, February 7, 2013
The Interview (1990)
I finally managed to reach David MacBryde, an American working in Berlin on peace issues for the progressive Berhof Foundation for Conflict Research. With money provided by Bosch (sparkplugs) and Volkswagen, the foundation will be carrying out a 4-5 year project on Disarmament Dynamics which will include six separate projects: “Out of Operations of NATO,” “Women and the Military,” “West Europeanization of Armaments and Security Policy,” “The Migration of German Scientists and Technicians in the Soviet Union,” “Problems of the Establishment of a Future Chemical Weapons Convention,” and “Guide to Sources on Peace Research in Berlin Libraries.” MacBryde noted that they are also looking at northern operations relative to the South, the cultural aspects driving the arms race, the public service component, and a liaison role with the East German peace and conflict resolution people. They would like to gain access to East German military information before Bonn gets a hold of it and classifies it. This information could further a study on Warsaw Pact military strategies in the recent past.
We talked about the state of conversion projects in the East. A pilot project has been developed for Berlin-Potsdam. An Institute of Conversion was founded in Dresden in June but has been ignored by Bonn. There has been talk of institutionalizing the Helsinki Process with some federal funding with a center in Berlin. A GDR conversion law was drafted with help from Seymour Melman but it did not make through the Volkskammer (perhaps because Bonn ordered it trashed). Now, the same people are working on a city-state project on the issue.
No one knows whether East German laws passed by the Volkskammer will have any legality, even on the Lander level. A key question remains what will happen to the previous military land in the GDR. An agreement was signed recently turning over a lot of former East German military lands to the Ministry of Labor for the construction of vocational training and unemployment offices. Peace groups are trying to get some of this land for NGO use. His group in Berlin, for instance, is aiming for the Allied Control building.
We turned to other East German issues. Anyone over 55 in the East German army was released, with 6 month pay and small pensions. The West German army will take, on 2 years probation, some of the careerists. Everyone else will go back into civilian life. Accent was the name of a group in the East German foreign ministry coordinating actions on North-South issues. It had planned on 1-2 years of activity – like most other East German governmental structures. They managed to complete several activities, including sending East German military trucks filled with emergency aid to Africa. They were also setting up some international city-to-city projects.
MacBryde was frustrated that little had been done on the question of military bases in West Germany. Although some protests had been organized on a local level, no competent infrastructure had been built to deal with conversion. 109 bases were on the US list for closing but Bonn wants the use for federal purposes. Neither the SPD nor the Greens have made a political issue out of this. The SPD is particularly demoralized, by the growth in nationalism, the state of culture. New Forum has joined some electoral coalition with the Greens, while the Greens have pushed the women’s movement into the PDS camp. One particularly significant victory for East German politicians – perhaps the only one – was preventing the West German abortion law from passing over into the GDR.
The state of the peace movement was in general a demoralizing subject. MacBryde and other activists had planned a September 1 event, the Peaceful European House which had gathered the largest and broadest signature list since the early 1980s. The turnout, however, was dreadful. After all the turmoil in this part of the world, demonstrations were not terribly functional. MacBryde was “heartbroken” that from the fall of the Wall to October unification there was not one peace-related event of international scale either in Berlin or elsewhere in the two Germanies. At the moment, people are simply worrying about economic deterioration.