Here’s a condensed version of what happened in Germany in 1989-90. The Germans in the East rose up against their authoritarian regime because they wanted freedom. Eventually they also got the German deutschmark and reunification. The cost of that economic and political reunification was shouldered almost entirely by West Germans while the benefits flowed mostly to the East Germans.
Economist Rudiger Frank has a different view of what happened in those years. He grew up in East Germany, and today lives in Austria where he focuses much of his scholarly attention on North Korea. Because he experienced reunification first-hand and because the Korean peninsula is divided much as the two Germanys once were, he has given considerable thought to what happened between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and German reunification one year later. He points out, first of all, that most people in East Germany had quite materialistic desires in 1989, even before the Wall fell.
“If I had to come up with a symbol of German unification, or of our East German revolution, it would be a yellow banana on a white flag,” he told me in an interview in April 2013 in Washington, DC. “The banana symbolically stands for tropical fruits, traveling around the world, and basically, consumerism. And that’s what, I’d say, 80% of the people in East Germany wanted. The other 20%, or maybe even less, primarily wanted freedom. Of course, those 80% also wouldn’t have minded having political freedom. Who wouldn’t? But it’s nothing that they would really have risked too much for — away from their TVs and cozy lives, which most of them had.”
It wasn’t such a surprise therefore when the first – and last – free East German elections took place in March 1990 and the majority supported Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democrats. “Freedom of travel, real money, and all the things you could buy for it – that’s what they wanted,” Frank pointed out. “And Kohl said, ‘This is what I’m going to give you.’ He was a man whom many East Germans trusted. All the other politicians, they might have had loftier political goals and more balanced approaches, but that’s not what the majority cared about. They had heard enough about dreams and ideals, about justice, equality and a land of plenty that was to come someday in the future. They wanted something real, and they wanted it now. Kohl promised to deliver exactly that. So they voted for his CDU.”
According to the conventional narrative, once Germany reunited most of the costs fell on the shoulders of those in the west and most of the benefits into the pockets of those in the east. But Frank takes issue with this picture, beginning with the huge financial transfers.
“The transfers didn’t end up all in East Germany, they rather passed through it like a boomerang,” he said. “Just think about it: what was the money used for? It was used for infrastructure projects, for building up an efficient administration, for the social security network, for investment. Now, who benefitted from all that investment? It was West German companies who expanded to the east. So that was a subsidy to West German industry. Infrastructure projects, highways, roads, telecommunication networks, who did that? West German companies, because all the East German construction companies were either bankrupt or bought up by West German competitors. It was another subsidy to West German industry.”
Even the transfer payments for social programs in the East were ultimately a huge boon for West German business. “If you give money to people who are poor, they have a tendency to spend almost all of it,” he pointed out. “They don’t save much because otherwise they wouldn’t need social benefits. And what do they spend it on? On products that they can buy in shops. And if you went to a supermarket – a West German chain, of course – in the early 1990s in East Germany, you would have had great difficulties finding East German products. Nobody wanted to have East German products. I mentioned the difficulties we had had spending hard currency on simple things like milk and bread. Even milk and bread were imported from West Germany for a while until we figured out that, oh, yeah, our bread is actually as good as the West German bread (and sometimes even better because it appealed to a more local taste). So that money went back to West German industry. And the value-added tax? The VAT went straight to the federal government.”
In the end, Frank pointed out, the German government could never have passed what amounted to a huge Keynesian subsidy measure because it would have run up against the EU strictures on budget deficits. Meanwhile, in return for European support for reunification, Germany essentially agreed to embed itself more deeply into the European Union by supporting the creation of the Euro. An overall assessment of the costs and benefits of German reunification, in other words, must take into account the larger political and economic compromises that made the expansion of the EU possible.
In addition to the topic of reunification, we talked about Frank’s time in the East German army, his gradual disillusionment with politics, and how woefully unprepared he was to go to study in North Korea in 1991.
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was serving in the navy of East Germany somewhere up north around the Baltic Sea. To be honest, I wasn’t thinking too much about the fall of the Wall. It didn’t excite me because we all saw it coming for weeks. By November 1989, it was obvious that the Wall would fall eventually; only the date was yet unknown. I had been full of excitement for a month already. For me the key moment was exactly a month before November 9. That was October 9, in my hometown of Leipzig, when roughly 100,000 people went on the street to demonstrate against the government, and nothing happened. The government didn’t intervene. I had never seen something like that before. It was unimaginable. Our idea of a demonstration was that the government organizes something, like May 1, and then you show up on the street just to show your face. And then you go home. That was a demonstration. This time it was a real one, like a political demonstration you knew from elsewhere, seen on TV. And that was shocking and exciting to me.
Then, only a week later Honecker was ousted. East Germany started having all those small and big reforms. The media suddenly became much more open and critical, and the government was talking about freedom of travel. To me it was pretty clear that the opening of our borders was coming, so the actual fall of the Wall was not such a decisive moment. The fall of the Honecker regime was.
I was in the navy at that time, and we were trying to do our own little democratization. That meant getting rid of what we thought was unnecessarily stupid stuff. Having been there for over two years, I found the whole military kind of questionable. But even if you accepted it as such, there were some extreme areas that we wanted to get rid of, and we were in the process of doing that.
What stupid stuff were you trying to get rid of?
I was in a special reconnaissance unit, and we had a really rough service. We got very little sleep, something like three hours a day in the worst case. So we tried to work on that, adjusting the time span of being on duty and extending the breaks in between. After a while we started negotiating with our officers whether we should also be allowed to watch West German television, which you could legally do at home but not in the service. We found that illogical. We were talking about getting more leave. I would get out of my barracks like six times a year, which is not very much. We wanted leave every weekend like what the military in the West had. We demanded the right to wear civilian clothes on leave, rather than our uniforms, and so forth. Minor stuff actually, but important to us.
When the demonstration took place in Leipzig, were you there at that time?
No, I was in my unit but spent hours on the phone because I wanted to know what was going on. Since I was working with all that equipment, I had no difficulty tuning into Western radio stations. Eventually East German television also reported on it, but I spent ridiculous amounts of money phoning home to figure out what was going on. I was also a little worried about my dad, who was a very honest man. A rare type, I dare say. He was a believer in Communism who thought it was a good thing, but he never really benefited a lot from it. He didn’t want to. He was one of those honest believers who after a while got stuck. To make a career, it’s bad if you truly believe in that kind of stuff. You need to be opportunistic, but my father refused to be. He got his PhD in physics and worked at the Academy of Sciences, but never got a professorship or the like. He drove a Trabant, not a Lada or Golf; and we spent our holidays on camping sites in East Germany, not in Bulgaria or Cuba. He would have had to be more active, a better networker, and in better contact with the bureaucrats, but he didn’t want that. It was a matter of principle to him.
They were usually the first people who were purged.
Well, he almost got purged. He was a platoon commander in the Kampfgruppen, which was a kind of paramilitary organization where family men with their beer bellies and glasses a few times a year would hang out in nature with their buddies for a weekend, wear uniforms, carry AK-47s, play war a little bit and have a party afterwards. Their official function was like a local militia who had to protect particular objects, usually their places of work, in case of war. Perhaps they could be compared to the National Guard in the US. But then I heard rumors that the Kampfgruppen would be ordered to support the police in controlling those anti-state demonstrations. So I was worried about what could happen. My father later told me, “Yeah, we were ordered, but I said we’re not going to use violence against our own people.” So actually, he got into trouble with the system. The consequences would have been severe, but the charges took their bureaucratic way, and before it was over, the whole state had stopped existing. So in the end there was no actual problem for him. But I was worried about that at the time. And I thought, “What if my dad with his men confronted the demonstrators?” I am very proud that he and many others refused to. Unsung heroes, I’d say.
You said that you were surprised by the government reaction to the demonstration, that this was an authentic demonstration. But when you think back on it, were you surprised that it took place in Leipzig of all places? Or was Leipzig a kind of expected place for a demonstration such as this?
It could have happened anywhere. Actually, there was another demonstration on October 7 in Berlin. Not of that scale but still, it attracted thousands of people. Berlin or actually any major city could have been such a place. The situation was pretty similar around the country. Perhaps cities like Dresden might have been an exception because it had no Western television for technical reasons. They were too far away, and they were in a valley. But Leipzig has always been home to independent thinkers. It was the second largest city in the former kingdom of Saxony. Leipzig traditionally was home to merchants and traders, a city of the bourgeoisie and the middle classes. The government of Saxony was in Dresden, together with the palaces and the parades and the top politicians. Over the course of a few centuries, the citizens of Leipzig developed this pride that “we never get anything for free, we work for it.” That’s also why they were focused on the arts and culture. They convinced Bach to move to Leipzig in 1723. It was a sense of civil pride. So this spirit lives on, and if you want to stretch that point really far, we could say it’s no coincidence that it was Leipzig. But frankly, it could have been Magdeburg, Erfurt, Rostock or whatever larger city we had in East Germany.
How much did your life change after the Wall came down?
More or less 100%. Let’s say 99 percent. Not because of the Wall but because of everything that came with it, the systemic transformation at lightning speed. A few things stayed the same but not many. Seriously, I think it’s very hard for an outsider to imagine how completely a life can change and what a burden that is. It’s really like being reprogrammed for just about everything, starting from what brand of toothpaste to use all the way up to: what do I do with my life, what are my options, which of my talents are useful, how can I apply or develop them, are my values still okay or should I rethink them, and what about my relationships? It was like going from birth to adulthood in six months. The older you were, the more you had to adjust, and the harder it got.
My favorite example is my little fight with a faucet. I was used to having these two little handles, a red one and a blue one for cold and hot water. Then in early 1990, I took a trip to West Germany and had a stopover at a rest station there, and there was just this one handle. I thought, “Oh, wait, I know that: it might be an infrared sensor.” We had that in an international hotel in Leipzig. And I swiped my hand under it, and nothing happened. I thought, “Darn, how do you get water out of this?” There was this handle, and I moved it left, I moved it right. It moved, but there was no water. Finally I figured out that you had to lift it. It took me something like a minute or less.
That’s not much, but now imagine a whole life consisting of these small and big things that all of a sudden are different. It’s like a thousand things a month that you have to learn from scratch. For instance, the prices, and the relationship between prices. You would buy a bun and a bottle of wine, and you would know what the prices are, that you could get a bottle of wine for 200 buns. Then all of a sudden, bread became much more expensive, wine became cheaper, and the whole price relation changed as well as the value of almost every product or service.
The currency as such changed as well. In summer 1990, we had a currency reform replacing the old East German Mark with the West German Deutschmark. A happy moment actually, but from one day to another, you realized that you were spending hard currency on very ordinary things. Before the currency union, you would have saved that valuable hard currency – if you had any – for something special, something that you couldn’t get otherwise like chrome dioxide cassettes for your Walkman or a rare spare part for your car. Deutschmarks were hard to get, and worked like a magic wand. You certainly didn’t spend them on ordinary things like staple foods. It’s funny, my wife tells me the same story, about how she almost starved for a few days after the currency reform because she wouldn’t dare spend precious Deutschmark on ordinary food.
Speaking of more far reaching decisions, I had to reorient regarding my future, what to study, and many other things. I could talk for hours about that. It was a massive transition that took place in fast motion. There was hardly time to think, and none of your peers or elders could provide useful advice since they were all in the same situation, more or less. I later read a book by a girl who was a few years younger than me, and she wrote that among the hardest things for her was to see how all those authorities around her were so helpless. She wanted to look up to her parents and teachers, but instead they needed her advice after a while because she adapted much faster. The whole society was shaken to its foundations.
How much longer did you spend in the military after the Wall fell?
Originally I was supposed to serve until August 1990. But by the end of January 1990 I got out. It was like an early release from prison. I had signed up for three years, and then as one of the reforms after October 1989 the state lowered the standard service time. So, magically I had now actually served longer than I was supposed to, and I was free to go. The military made it very clear to me that they didn’t like that I was going, but they couldn’t do anything about it. Only one or two of my peers stayed. They were promised to get a higher stipend for studying if they stayed on for the whole time. They hadn’t figured out that all the old rules were gone anyway. Of course they got no stipend at all, but how could they know. I remember how we lined up on that morning, the final day of our service, and how the officers made it clear that they regarded us as deserters. I didn’t give a damn, all I wanted was to get out of that hell. Thinking about it now, I deserved compensation. But back then, all I wanted was to be free again.
Before you went into the military, what had you thought you would do after you got out? What was your life plan?
At some point I was approached by the state authorities to see whether I would want to become a diplomat. That was when I was 14 or 15. Such an offer was very extraordinary, like winning the lottery. Because the one thing you wanted as an East German was not to be rich or have a safe job: you wanted to get out and see the world. Having a job that let you do that was just the greatest thing possible. But becoming a diplomat was not a career path you could choose. It was impossible to apply. You could only be chosen. I guess it’s because I had a talent for language, had pretty good grades at school, and was not shy. And because my dad was a good Communist, I guess that also played a role. My mom was quite active in the church though.
Then the authorities figured out that no, actually, it wasn’t going to work. They did a background check on my family, and they found that we already had a diplomat in the family. He was working for the other side – in, of all places, the permanent representative office of West Germany in East Berlin. So really on the other side. But it took them a while to figure that out. And meanwhile, I’d gotten used to the idea: hey, great, I’m going to be a diplomat and I’m going to see the world and I’m going to be important! I was only a teenager, and I admit I was ambitious.
I found out two years later more or less by accident; the notice that I had not passed the security screening somehow had not reached me. The diplomatic path was closed. I had to figure out what I wanted to do now. I couldn’t become a diplomat, so what else? Somehow my family came up with the idea of area studies. I thought, “What is the region that to me is the most interesting and the most promising?” I decided it was going to be East Asia, and, in particular, China. The old culture there fascinated me a lot, but also the fact that they were reforming their socialism at that time. This was in the mid-1980s. They were doing something, I had no idea what, but I was strongly interested. Living with open eyes in East Germany, I saw that our country didn’t function very well. It was unimaginable that we would get rid of the system, so I thought we needed to improve the system and make it work. The Chinese obviously had found a clue about how to do that. I wanted to know more.
To be allowed to enroll in area studies, first of all, I had to pass a country-wide scholastic ability test that lasted for two days. It was very restrictive. They admitted only five people per year for area studies out of a population of 17 million. So it was very competitive. I also had to “voluntarily” serve three years in the military rather than the regular 18-month period required by law. There was no way you could circumvent that, this was made very clear to me. I was told that the state put all its trust in me, giving me the privilege to do area studies, so they expected that I would show some gratitude. I thought that was the price I had to pay, so I agreed. I didn’t know what I was doing. My father hadn’t served in the military, so he couldn’t tell me how bad it was. I had no older friends who had served. So I just went.
Before you went, had you begun to study Chinese?
No, I did a course on Japanese in Leipzig, which was available for free at the Volkshochschule, a public educational institution but not a university, a place where you could just go as an ordinary citizen and take whatever courses you liked. That institution still exists in Germany as a kind of a social democratic institution. So I did some Japanese, but I wasn’t very hard working at that time. I was still a kid, having fun above all else. But I learned a few Chinese characters and a bit of grammar.
So you get out of the military in January of 1990, and you went back to Leipzig.
And you started back on that track? Because you suddenly had all these options.
That’s right, so many options. Too many. I found it hard to make a clear cut and start from scratch. It was like waiting at the bus stop. You arrive at the bus stop and you think, “Okay, shall I go by foot? It’s a one-hour walk. Perhaps I’d better wait for the bus. But I don’t really know when it’s going to come. Soon, hopefully.” And then you stand there and you wait for half an hour. And you think, “Shoot, I should have walked.” But what do you do? You still don’t walk because you have already waited for half an hour, you have invested 30 minutes, and the bus is going to arrive any time. Today I would call that “sunk costs.” Just imagine if you started walking and then five minutes later the bus arrived. That would be silly.
In a way that was my situation. I had spent almost three years in the military. I had passed all the examinations. I had been preparing for this for so many years. So I just couldn’t forget about the bus and walk, although I guess that’s exactly what I should have done. On the other hand, of course, the world had changed, and I had noticed that. So I knew I had to react. Tricky situation.
My reaction was a compromise between remaining at the bus stop and walking: I switched from Chinese to Korean studies. A very charismatic professor who knew me from that qualifying exam told me, “I want you for Korean studies.” That was flattering. Then she explained that my future prospects would be so fantastic. Korea now meant South Korea. South Korea in 1990 was such a dynamic country. It was developing economically and politically, and hardly anybody knew enough about its economy and politics, and I would have the chance to fill this vacuum in Germany. To me that sounded good. In hindsight, I am afraid that advice was not very realistic. How could an East German professor have known what was a smart decision in a unified, that is, West German context? But she was a very charismatic person, and I respected her a lot. I still do. We are still in touch. By the way, for many years she was the interpreter between Erich Honecker and Kim Il Sung. Whenever those two gentlemen met she would be the interpreter. She’s in all the photographs. I learned a lot about North Korea from her which later turned out to be very valuable.
But this was not what I had in mind in 1990. I did not choose Korea because of my interest in North Korea. It was the capitalist and democratic South I was interested in. A few weeks after our East German revolution, my interest in socialism dropped to zero. Why would I care about the reform of socialism? It was gone for good. I was much more interested in learning about this new world that opened itself up for me. Another reason why I dropped China was because of the crackdown in Tiananmen in June 1989. So in addition to not being interested in reform of socialism anymore, I also wasn’t particularly intrigued about what was going on in China at that time in terms of politics. So I thought, “Ok, forget about China, things have changed, I will study Korea now.” That was my limited way of reacting to the new situation. After a while, though, I figured that this was not enough, and I switched again, this time to economics and international relations. I retained an interest in Korea and East Asia, and I kept following up on that, but I focused on economics and IR.
When you got back to Leipzig, the elections were getting under way in a serious fashion in January 1990. What was your experience of that between January and March?
I experienced something very striking that had never happened to me before and also never afterwards: I completely lost my interest in politics. I guess it was a mix of frustration and fatalism. This came as a surprise to me, as I have always been a very political person. I even got into trouble with the East German government. I don’t want to emphasize that: I was certainly not a resistance fighter. I was just somebody who couldn’t keep his eyes closed, his brain working, and his big mouth shut. I noticed all those discrepancies and contradictions, and I would speak up and say, “Guys, you’re telling us this, but you’re doing that, and it doesn’t make sense.” Then I would be reprimanded, and it took me a while to learn. You get your face bruised and then you finally figure out that perhaps it would have been better to keep it to yourself. And then I did it again, only to go through the same experience. I suppose after a few more years I would have learned my lesson and become like many East Germans: adapted, cautious, careful.
Anyway, until 1989 I was a very political person, and my friends and I spent endless nights debating how to change our country, how to reform it, and so on. And then I told you about how excited I was in October when my fellow Leipzig citizens went out on the street and shouted, “We are the people, we are the people!” Like many others, I thought that we could now, finally, fix all those deficiencies of our country. Build a new state, if you like. It was a short dream. Eventually that initial movement was taken over by people who usually wouldn’t take risks but after a few weeks had figured out that it was safe to demonstrate so they also went onto the street. It became more like a Volksfest, if you like, a celebration. You could feel like you were a resistance fighter without risk of being beaten up by police or having a stain on your file. That was the first thing that put a bad taste in my mouth and dampened my political activism.
Even worse, then the demonstrators switched from shouting “we are the people” to “we are one people.” In other words, “power to the people” was changed into “we want unification.” It was obvious that that was an idea strongly promoted by West German politicians. They had very quickly established contact with local leaders in East Germany: the Christian Democrats with the Christians and the Social Democrats with more left-leaning opposition groups. They helped them set up their parallel party organizations as kind of sister organizations. Those parties even had the same names, CDU and SPD. They supplied them with know-how, they supplied them with ideas, they supplied them with money, with posters, and what not. It was crystal clear that the next election was going to be won by a party that promised unification no matter what. And this would be western-dominated.
It’s not that I opposed that so much. It wasn’t that strong a feeling. I just thought, “Okay, the chance to reform my country is gone. There’s nothing I can do. I certainly don’t want to be part of comes next. Let them just do it, I’m out of this game.” I gave up on my society and focused on myself instead. Today I would call this egoistic and irresponsible. What is fascinating is that back then I noticed that, and I disliked it, but I couldn’t help feeling that way. Perhaps we could call that a political burn-out syndrome.
So, no, the election didn’t really matter to me, and the outcome was as expected. Kohl basically said, “If you want to have the Deutschmark, you will have to accept a fast unification, and you have to vote for the Christian Democrats.” It was a very simple message. His offer was easily understood, and it was what most East Germany wanted. If I had to come up with a symbol of German unification, or of our East German revolution, it would be a yellow banana on a white flag. The banana symbolically stands for tropical fruits, traveling around the world, and basically, consumerism. And that’s what, I’d say, 80% of the people in East Germany wanted. The other 20%, or maybe even less, primarily wanted freedom. Of course, those 80% also wouldn’t have minded having political freedom. Who wouldn’t? But it’s nothing that they would really have risked too much for — away from their TVs and cozy lives, which most of them had.
Many East Germans had reached the limits of consumerism. They had cars, they had enough food, they had clothes, and they could travel. Now they wanted better cars, better food, more exotic travel destinations, and Western clothes. Those desires were created through Western television, Western visitors, hard currency stores, etc. East Germans could actually see very well that they were missing out on many things. And they wanted them. That’s why freedom of travel was such an important thing, why it was a key demand of the opposition toward the government. People also understood that freedom of travel is worth nothing if you have no real money. So they wanted to have hard currency, too. They didn’t care about the economic effects of a fast conversion and unification. Freedom of travel, real money, and all the things you could buy for it – that’s what they wanted. And Kohl said, “This is what I’m going to give you.” He was a man whom many East Germans trusted. All the other politicians, they might have had loftier political goals and more balanced approaches, but that’s not what the majority cared about. They had heard enough about dreams and ideals, about justice, equality and a land of plenty that was to come someday in the future. They wanted something real, and they wanted it now. Kohl promised to deliver exactly that. So they voted for his CDU.
You can imagine this slight disgust that I felt, mixed with some confusion and some sympathy. I also wanted to have freedom of travel, bananas, and hard currency. I think it’s important to be honest about that. But I felt sorry for the lost chances, for the real heroes, the ones who had risked a lot when they went onto the street, when it was not normal, when you did not know how the government would react, when it was just a couple hundred people and they could be beaten up by the police and put into jail and nobody would even notice. These people with those high ideals, they were really betrayed. For them, it must have been tough to see the CDU winning. I was just a little sad about a lost chance. After decades of stagnation you have all that dynamism and excitement for a couple of weeks, you know, and you think, “Wow, I’m part of something really big!” You want to contribute, you want to shape things, and you believe that you can. That was taken out of my hands — I should say “out of our hands” — by outsiders who used the opportunity, who had all the institutions, the insights, and the means to make whatever they wanted happen.
We had many opportunists in East Germany who had paid lip service to the old system to advance. Some of them quickly adjusted to the new situation and thought, “Hey, I’m going to jump on that train, I am going to join that winning team!” Some of them are successful politicians today. Were they clever or opportunistic, did they betray the old values or were they pioneers for the new ones? This is in the eye of the beholder. In 1990, I was disappointed and frustrated. Today, I am more relaxed. This is just how people are, and how politics is. 1989/90 was like a political gold rush: short, chaotic, intense, and with long-lasting consequences. No time to think, just grab what you can and hold onto it. Or stand by with your mouth wide open and watch others doing that.
If you had been able to get out of the army, say, in late October early November, what would you have done? How would you have participated?
I certainly would have gone to the demonstrations. Perhaps I would have met people who organized something locally. I might even have joined an opposition movement or a political party, but I’m pretty sure it would have been a leftist political party, trying to make socialism, finally, work. At that point, I still had not understood that it was never going to work because it was the system that was flawed, not its implementation. I thought it was a good idea, and the old men in our leadership just didn’t know how to implement it properly. They needed to be replaced by better people, and state socialism would finally fulfill all its promises. That was wrong, as I know today.
Was there a moment when that ideal died for you?
A moment? Not quite. It was more like a process that had started actually long before unification, in the mid-1980s. It was catalyzed by my observation of the behavior of the majority of our people during the revolution. I felt a sense of disappointment, which happened somewhere around December 1989 or January 1990. I saw how the demonstrations were changing in nature, and I found that most people didn’t want me or anybody to fight for them. They wanted to be left alone, to live a good life, not more. One of the ideas of the socialist system is that the state knows what’s good for society, a community, and the people. Loyal activists would try to motivate others to join them in a fight to achieve those goals. Perhaps we could compare that to volunteerism in our societies. You believe you know what’s right, and you want others to think and act the same way. Save the whales, save a forest, or prevent the construction of a highway. It is easy to lose control and to go too far if others refuse to join you. Those lofty goals of a socialist society will not be achieved automatically; they can’t be achieved in a decentralized way. People have to be told and taught what to do, they have to be organized, and so on. An idealist sooner or later believes that it is ok to use a little bit of pressure to force people to do the right thing.
The problem is of course the definition of “a little bit.” A few centuries ago, people were tortured and burned alive in the name of God. We East Germans were denied political freedom in the name of socialism. It is the same thing, and there was hardly any sense of guilt on the side of those who were responsible.
I found out that most people don’t want to be told what’s good for them. And they don’t want others to be uninvited activists who fight for them. They want to be left alone, and I have come to respect that. That’s when my belief in an ideal kind of society died. I’m thoroughly convinced that a society that is built on the idea that people must deliberately cooperate to achieve a certain goal is doomed to fail. The only society that is really sustainable is a society that uses the things that people do automatically, by themselves, and channels that in a certain direction. That’s not a society where you have to have a political education campaign to wake up people.
It is not going to work anyway, even if you brush moral concerns aside. You will be able to wake up 20%, but the other 80%, they don’t want to be woken up. They will resist by underperforming, by pretending, by leaving. Accepting this, for me, is the foundation of real freedom. My idea of freedom is that I let other people do what they want even if it’s not what I would do and even if I think I know what would be best for them. I don’t have the right even to tell them too loudly. Of course I should share with them what I think about their values and behavior, but only if they want me to. Otherwise, just keep quiet and let them do what they want. This is freedom. If they do something that I think is completely wrong and stupid, so be it, as long as it does not affect others in a negative way. That’s tricky, I know, but in general, this is how I feel today.
So, you’ve become more libertarian in your perspective?
Absolutely, yes. Even though back then I wouldn’t have been aware of it, in a way that’s what has happened. I am a great fan of Friedrich von Hayek. The road to serfdom begins when you let others think and decide for you.
If the East German government had somehow procured enough funds to provide bananas in the GDR back in October 1989, and if they hadn’t made that mistake at that news conference on November 9, in which they prematurely opened up the Wall — in other words, if they had allowed for travel in a more organized fashion — do you think they would have survived longer?
No. Over the mountains are mountains. If they had provided bananas, people would have asked for pineapples. And if they had provided pineapples, people would have asked for kiwis. It would have been endless, and even the richest state would gave reached its limits eventually. As long as a state claims responsibility for everything, this game of demand and delivery is an endless story. You have to have a system that more or less automatically provides the people with a fair chance to get what they want, and makes it clear to them that there are limits to that which have to do with the people themselves, not some state. You want a better car? Work harder, rather than writing a petition to your government. You want a yacht? Go and speculate with real estate. If you win, good for you; if you lose all your money, it’s your fault, not the state’s. But you should be given the freedom to speculate and to win or lose. The state provides a stable environment, public goods like security and law and education, even social benefits for those who would otherwise have nothing. But that’s it.
The state is not supposed to be responsible for the distribution of all these things. The same goes for liberties like travel. I don’t think that the state has the right to grant me the permission to travel. It’s my right to travel, and nobody has the right to limit that. That’s how it should work. In socialism, no matter how benevolent the state would be, it’s still a state that reserves for itself the right to tell me what’s right or wrong, what I should do and what I should not do. So I think, no, it would not have helped to have a few more bananas and more open borders. It would perhaps have prolonged the whole thing a little bit, but people would have left East Germany and gone elsewhere, and then the system would have collapsed anyway. Plus, we had a historical window of opportunity: a very weak Soviet Union with a Mikhail Gorbachev who didn’t really know what he was doing and who completely screwed up his empire. To my benefit, of course. So I’m grateful.
You’re grateful for his imperial incompetence.
Yes, but I don’t think Russians feel the same way. Helmut Kohl did a very good job in this regard, in pulling Gorbachev to his side. I think despite, or perhaps because of his characteristics – a very conservative, stubborn, self-confident man – Kohl was the only one at that time in Germany who could have done that. That’s why, in hindsight, I think we were kind of lucky that we had Kohl. Not that I ever really liked him personally. He was not a very likeable person to me, and I did not like his political background. But he did exactly the right thing at the right time. He was ruthless, determined, almost brutal. But I think it benefitted us a lot. The British and French were very skeptical about German unification — for very good historical reasons. Kohl broke their resistance. He got along very well with the American president Bush senior at that time, which was crucial. Kohl used Bush to convince Maggie Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand that a unified Germany would not be dangerous, and he obviously was able to bribe Gorbachev into just looking the other way by offering him some economic benefits that Gorbachev needed desperately at that time because everything was collapsing back home in Russia.
In a way, we are paying the price for that right now with the European crisis. Part of the deal was that Germany would give up part of its sovereignty by joining the EU, its ultrastrong currency by joining the Euro, to invest its economic power into a common union and thereby deliberately lay down its arms, so to speak. That convinced the others. The Germans were willing to pay the price. I think it’s been worth it — it’s just that hardly anybody looks at it that way anymore. It’s now 23 years after 1990, and few people understand why we decided to form the European Union, why we agreed on a joint currency. The first Euro bills were introduced in the year 2002, but the decision was made in the early 1990s, right after German unification, and clearly in connection with this event. That’s been the same old logic that a few decades earlier led to the decision to place the European capital in Brussels, a French speaking country, and the parliament for a few weeks per year resides in the French city of Strasbourg. Both are German concessions to the very skeptical French.
People forget the historic compromises.
But I think the outcome was worth the sacrifice, and I think Kohl did the right thing in pushing so hard for a fast unification History would have been completely different if he hadn’t done it. That window of opportunity was open just for a short moment. One, two, three years later: who knows what would have happened. The Russians would have said no, and they still had four-power status in Berlin. Germany was divided, legally, thanks to World War II. Without the consent of the other countries, German unification would not have happened.
According to that, you would probably agree that it was necessary at that time to downplay the costs of reunification in order to gain West German support.
I agree. They were downplayed. German unification was a political decision, not an economic one. But I also think nobody was really aware of all the costs, not even the top leadership. And besides, I don’t really think the monetary costs were as high as everybody thinks right now.
In other words, in the long-term, there have been other trends that have compensated for the amount of money that’s been spent in cash transfers and so on.
Yes. The transfers didn’t end up all in East Germany, they rather passed through it like a boomerang. Just think about it: what was the money used for? It was used for infrastructure projects, for building up an efficient administration, for the social security network, for investment. Now, who benefitted from all that investment? It was West German companies who expanded to the east. So that was a subsidy to West German industry. Infrastructure projects, highways, roads, telecommunication networks, who did that? West German companies, because all the East German construction companies were either bankrupt or bought up by West German competitors. It was another subsidy to West German industry.
Social security? OK, this went directly to East Germans. But if you give money to people who are poor, they have a tendency to spend almost all of it. They don’t save much because otherwise they wouldn’t need social benefits. And what do they spend it on? On products that they can buy in shops. And if you went to a supermarket – a West German chain, of course – in the early 1990s in East Germany, you would have had great difficulties finding East German products. Nobody wanted to have East German products. I mentioned the difficulties we had had spending hard currency on simple things like milk and bread. Even milk and bread were imported from West Germany for a while until we figured out that, oh, yeah, our bread is actually as good as the West German bread (and sometimes even better because it appealed to a more local taste). So that money went back to West German industry. And the value-added tax? The VAT went straight to the federal government.
Now do the math. How much of all that really remained in East Germany? The story of the huge transfer is only partially true. In a way, it was a major but very well hidden Keynesian subsidy measure that never ever would have passed the scrutiny of the EU unless, of course, it had been disguised as a big West German sacrifice as part of German unification.
That’s a good point. If you go back to that period of time between March, the first elections, and October, the reunification, was there anything that should have been done differently in your perspective?
Theoretically, of course, yes. But practically? No, I don’t think so. All this “what if” talk makes very little sense. There are many debates about what went wrong. There was a very appropriate discussion about the exchange rate of the East German to the West German currency, but would East Germans have accepted anything but 1:1? No. There was a discussion about some provisions in the unification treaty about property rights: should there be restitution or compensation? The decision was made in favor of restitution, which created a lot of frustration. Imagine the previous owners of some real estate left the country 40 years ago. Meanwhile, somebody else built a house on that land or, even worse, the state built a factory on three pieces of land. After unification, what to do? Should the old owners be compensated by the state and the current owners maintain their ownership? Or should the old owners get their property back, no matter what?
The decision in favor of the latter option, restitution, created many problems. It created a lot of discontent among East Germans because they felt they had legally bought something from the state, and now all of a sudden they were told that the state had stolen that property from somebody else, so their purchase was illegal. They had to move out of their houses because the old owner was coming back. But the old owners were often seen as people who had left the country more or less voluntarily to live a better life. And they did in fact live a better life. And now they come back to reclaim their property. That was regarded as unfair. But the alternative? Who would have determined the value for compensation? Who would have paid for it? And wouldn’t a denial of restitution legalized the expropriation that had taken place after 1949? These are tough questions.
Of course, if you understand a market economy, you know that without well-established property rights nothing’s going to work. One way or another, property rights had to be established – quickly. People only buy and sell and invest and maintain if they can trust that actually you’re the legal owner of something. And if a building stands on a disputed property, it will not be renovated and nobody will invest. Over time it will crumble and lose its value. The actual restitution processes were very complicated — in my family’s case, it took about 10 years for us to get back a house that my grand-grandmother was forced to sell to the state in the 1960s. All the documents had to be checked. And then new documents appeared. Or other people showed up who also claimed that it was their house, and then that claim had to be checked. And that was happening a thousand-fold in each city.
What about the people who were previously in your house?
They were tenants, and their right to live in our house was guaranteed by German law. The city of Leipzig was the owner, and this was our problem. The city learned that we had reclaimed our property. So, of course, it didn’t really invest much into the house since the bureaucrats knew they would have to give it up eventually anyway. When we finally got the house back, it was really in a bad condition. We could not have afforded the renovation and thus sold it at a price that was about a tenth of what the price would have been right after unification.
What happened to those people? The people who had been in the house previously?
That I don’t know. They had a legal tenant contract when they rented the apartment. So I think they could legally stay there. Meanwhile, the house has been renovated by the new owner, so now it’s definitely more expensive than it used to be. But the neighborhood just deteriorated. So, in a way, we were lucky that we got rid of that property. Most of the old tenants have meanwhile moved elsewhere, I guess. My grandmother, who had become a tenant in her mother’s house, had moved out a decade before unification.
What about the privatization process or the dispensation of the industries in East Germany?
As you know, a trust agency had been founded, the so-called Treuhand. Its job was basically the conversion of state ownership into private property, the privatization of East Germany. That is another interesting topic because East Germany was the richest country of the socialist camp. At the end of the day, it was still Germany, despite 40 years of socialism. And we all thought that it was a valuable country. Officially, all the state property was the people’s property. So we thought, “Since we are 17 million people, the 17 millionth part of land, houses, factories, equipment, patents, money in the state bank… is mine, right? So, when they sell it all off, I will get my share.” How naive.
At the end of the day, the Treuhand lost money instead of making a profit. The details fill dozens of books. I haven’t witnessed any of those stories myself, so this is just from hearsay and the media which were full of that stuff in the early 1990s. East German enterprises were very often sold way below the market price. Enterprises were sold to western competitors who just wanted to make sure that there was no new competition coming up against them. They pretended to be investors, but all they wanted to do was prevent others from taking over that company and producing a competitive product. The “Wild East,” as we called it. Sometimes enterprises were bought by honest investors who wanted to invest but were not aware of the desperate state of everything. The machinery was run down, the products were not up to date, and the markets were gone. Finding new markets meant that you were going into somebody else’s territory and you had to be better. East German companies, with a few exceptions, were happy if they could be on an equal footing, but certainly not better.
Could you see an alternative to that? Obviously, one of the arguments in China is that the state-owned enterprises, even if they’re not efficient or produce any needed goods, kept people employed, and it is cheaper to have them employed in the state-owned enterprises than deal with them as a social welfare situation.
In a way, it would have been the politically smarter decision. Economically, it might have cost the same. And, of course, people appreciate receiving a salary much more than social benefits. So, there’s a point to that. And we do have examples of a more controlled, slower process. In West Germany, the coal and steel industry suffered a lot, and has been downgraded step by step in a way that I think was less disruptive than it was in East Germany. At the end of the day, the result would have been the same. But an industry created to operate in a different environment all of a sudden becomes unsustainable if you change the rules. The magnitude of the structural change was massive. I don’t know how realistic it would have been to have a managed transition in East Germany. Desirable, yes of course. But doable?
What we know from transformation and transition in other countries, it actually seems to be better to have a lot of pain for a short period of time than a little pain for a prolonged period. So this kind of “big bang” approach, even it was enormously painful, was over after a few years. It wasn’t endless. In hindsight, it’s difficult to argue what would have been better. I think all solutions would have had their negative aspects. But that was our solution. We know about its shortcomings. But here we are now. From my perspective, things are really ok in Germany now. Unemployment goes down, the dust settles. Some regions win, others lose. This is life. If I look at the experience and the current status of other former socialist countries, things in East Germany could have been much, much worse. Some people, some generations in East Germany were luckier than others, this is true. I think those in their 40s and 50s around 1990 were the biggest losers. My generation, early 20s or younger, were the winners.
What about social relations between east and west? When you were coming out of the army, what did you anticipate would be the relationship at an interpersonal level between East and West Germany, and what did it turn out?
I didn’t really care much about that. Of course I was curious, but it wasn’t like this great enthusiasm to finally see my lost brothers and sisters on the other side of the fence. I was born in East Germany; that was my homeland. To me, West Germany was another country, a foreign country, and I didn’t really think differently about interpersonal relations between East and West Germans compared to my relations with Swiss or Austrians. West Germany was just another country where people speak the same language, more or less.
In Germany we have strong regional identities. As you know, Germany was unified only in 1871. Before that, we had dozens of independent kingdoms and fiefdoms. We still have those strong regional identities, and we don’t even speak exactly the same language. People feel like Prussians, Saxons, or Bavarians. In fact, openly feeling like a German is a bit problematic as it is often associated with being a Neo-Nazi. In addition, I had known West Germans before. We had friends and relatives over there, and they visited us, so that was fine. No, I wasn’t expecting anything.
Later I ended up working in West Germany, which was interesting because I learned that they really did not care about East Germany at all. They were even less interested than I was. I think a lot of West Germans still haven’t visited East Germany even once. I looked at them with an open and friendly mind, but also saw them as people with a different regional and historical background, not as my lost brothers and sisters. I guess that’s been very different for the older generation that had experienced a united Germany and then national division. But to me, West Germans were German-speaking foreigners.
So how did you feel in October 1990?
Not so happy. This I remember. I certainly didn’t celebrate, which in hindsight wasn’t fair. I guess part of the reason was fear, confusion, and insecurity about the future. Most of the enthusiasm had vanished, and what remained was a growing insight that things would now get really tough, and that most of us were ill-equipped to turn that challenge into an opportunity. But what still makes me very unhappy about October 3 is that it’s October 3. What the hell happened on October 3? Nothing. Why didn’t they choose October 9, the day of that demonstration in Leipzig? I understand that they did not choose the day of the Berlin Wall opening on November 9 because that’s the day of the Jewish pogrom under the Nazis. Or that’s perhaps even a made-up argument, who knows. I suspect that in 1990, the time of triumph and victory in the Cold War, the West German government didn’t want to choose a date for the celebration of German unification that would be associated with something the East Germans had done. They had lost, their system had been defeated. Inconveniently, it was the East Germans who had demonstrated against their government; it was the East Germans who had forced their government to take down the Wall. But I have the feeling that the last thing the Kohl government wanted to do was to honor that. They wanted to honor themselves, their contributions, so they chose October 3, which to me is completely meaningless.
October 3,1990 was celebrated as a triumph of the West over the East, which, to be honest, it was. But why should I join those celebrations? The West had won because it was superior, economically and politically and even ideologically. I definitely appreciate that. In hindsight, despite all occasional nostalgia, I’m really happy that socialist East Germany is gone, and I don’t want it back. But most East Germans have not been involved in building the new, unified Germany. Nobody asked them, nobody asked us. So, unification is kind of a gift that we have received, and I’m grateful for it, but that’s it. Some people are bitterer and feel it was imposed upon them, that they were colonized. I would definitely not go that far myself, but I can understand why somebody would feel like that.
Do you feel that the East German contributions have been–and when I say contributions, I mean demonstrations and bringing down the government–have been honored in any other way since that time?
Lately yes. But it took a while. There’s an interesting book about the literature on German unification that analyzes who wrote about it, how that research was funded, and so on. The book concludes that this topic, unification, is now not hot anymore. So all those people who are very well connected politically, who know how to get funding, they don’t do research on unification. They moved into other areas that are currently in vogue. Now, finally, you do have some more or less — as much as it is possible when you talk about history — objective and balanced and neutral research. But it really took a while. So I’d say the contributions of East Germans are more honored, are more objectively described, and are less ideologically interpreted – now, a quarter of a century after the fact. The 1990s have been very different.
Right after unification, the focus of the public debate in the media was on two issues. The first was the Wall, the shooters, and the people who got shot there. All this was very tragic, and the discussion had to take place. But reducing all those 40 years of East Germany to just the roughly 800 killings at the border – this is not appropriate. It ignores so many other things, good things, and bad things. And it provides a simplified view. I also strongly empathized with the shooters because they were conscripts. They had undergone the same training that I went through, and they were as young as I was. Soldiers are typically young, for a reason. They didn’t know what to do when someone tried to climb the Wall right in front of them. They had their orders, and so they shot. And then after 1990 they were held responsible, whereas those who had issued the orders went free for lack of evidence of a legal framework. So they caught the small guys, and the big guys they let go. That left a bad feeling.
The other thing was the Stasi, the NSA of East Germany, which was doing pretty much what your NSA is doing, like spying on people and trying to figure out who does what – in the name of state security, of course. The means justify the ends; does that sound familiar? An old argument, and as wrong today as it always was. Okay, the GDR didn’t fight terrorism. But it fought antisocialism, which, in a way, was the same basic idea. The Stasi fought anti-state actions. So they believed they did the right thing. This very often became ugly.
By the way, I never heard the word Stasi as often as I did after unification. Before that, and I can only speak about myself and my own family, it just wasn’t a topic. We wouldn’t sit together in a safe house in the evening and whisper, fearing that the Stasi would listen. We didn’t give a damn. We would sit in a public place and complain about the state. No tall men in leather coats would knock on our door the next morning at 4 am and take us away and torture us. The Stasi was around, obviously, and they were very active, and they were tracking us, and they were spying on us, sure. But it wasn’t really a constant presence. But perhaps I was just too young or simply lucky.
When I think about what really made me angry when I lived in East Germany, it was more the bureaucratic pestering — those little apparatchiks using their power as they saw fit. They had a lot of flexibility to make decisions in your favor or against you. If they were in a bad mood, they would say no, although they could have said yes. This is what I found most annoying: all those stupid rules that made no sense, and those who went even further to make things harder than they should have been – by their own decision, not because of a state order. You felt so helpless, so angry, so frustrated. And you could do nothing. Now I’m fine, I made my peace with the past. But it really took a while.
In the 1990s, I was frustrated by what I think was an utterly incomplete resolution of the issues of our past. There were issues. For example, I was sent to the military for three years. So far, so bad, but I was sent all the way up to the coast, although I could have been placed in a unit near or in my hometown. This would have made my life so much easier. But somebody decided otherwise. Meanwhile, they sent young conscripts from the coast down to Leipzig. Who did that? Why did they do it? Could they be punished for it? If you wanted to travel to, say, West Germany, which was possible, somebody made a decision whether you could go or not. Who did that? Based on what? Would they have been able to decide otherwise? If they hadn’t, why? I have no idea.
Once I was almost kicked out of high school because the teacher thought that I was an anti-state element, simply because I asked what I thought were reasonable questions. She taught us that it was a crime that the Nazis persecuted the Communists. I asked why that was a crime, since our state, too, persecuted its opponents. I argued that the crime was in the way they were persecuted, not in the persecution as such.
The teacher could have just looked the other way or even tried to answer my questions, for God’s sake. And I was clearly pro-state at that time! So I was really annoyed when they thought I was an anti-state element. So what happened to those people? Why did nobody check their record? If they had kicked me out of high school, it would have been the end of my life.
I expected that some kind of discussion and punishment and justice and clarification would happen after 1990 – but no, nothing happened. Just the border guards and the Stasi.
How did you prevent getting kicked out?
Oh, I was just lucky and also, in a crazy way, brave. That lady, who was the school’s Party Secretary and my history teacher, had, for a month, collected all the things that I’d said during class and written them down. I didn’t notice, of course, stupid as I was. And then the other day I was called into our headmaster’s office. He and two of my teachers were sitting there and they confronted me: “This is what you said on October 1, and this is what you said on October 20” and so on. I was totally shocked. Obviously somebody had been keeping track of what I was saying during class. Luckily, she misquoted me on one occasion. She quoted me as saying, “The people of the GDR do not support the Party.” I don’t know where I got that courage from, it must have been sheer desperation. I was 17 years old at the time, but I still remember the day very vividly. I replied, “This is not what I said. I said that not everybody is behind the Party, and not everybody is fully behind it. And I have 17 witnesses who can confirm that.” So I turned it around by saying, “Someone is making a false statement, and I insist that we follow up on that.”
The “court” figured the situation could get dirty very quickly. We did have rule of law in East Germany, although it was limited. Luckily the headmaster of my school was a reasonable man. He had to make a call in that meeting because the accusation against me had been made. He couldn’t just ignore it because then he would have been in trouble. But he seized that opportunity offered by the misquote and really smartly mediated the whole thing. In the end, I was told to watch my mouth and not to question the leading role of the Party again. I said okay, I won’t. And everyone was happy. But this could have turned out very, very bad for me. I could have been kicked out of school, I would never have had a chance to study at a university, and my career would have been over before it started. Who was that woman who was ready to do that to me? What for? And, to be sure, this is just a very minor affair compared to what happened to others and the tip of a big, dirty iceberg.
I want to switch for the last set of questions to your experiences in North Korea and how that has stimulated you, perhaps, to think back on your experience in East Germany. When did you first visit North Korea?
In October 1991. One year after German unification.
And were you going there as a student?
Yes, I went there as part of a group of six students who studied Korean studies at the time. There was an old exchange agreement between Humboldt University in East Berlin and Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang. Thanks to the legal way in which Germany was unified, that agreement remained valid after unification. The professor I talked about earlier, she had a good contact in the North Korean embassy. She said to him, “I have six students that I want to send over. Here’s the agreement, so what do you say?” And somehow they made it happen. The unified German government paid for it, and so we went — on October 7, which would have been the 42nd anniversary of East Germany.
You said earlier that you’d decided that you didn’t care any more about Communism, that you’d focus on South Korea. So why did you end up in the North?
It was just the first opportunity to go to Korea, and I didn’t have much money back then. Since somebody paid for my ticket and for my living expenses there, I thought, “How bad can it be? I lived in the Soviet Union as a kid for five years. I lived in East Germany until the age of 21. I know socialism. Let’s go there.” The primary purpose was to learn the Korean language and to see Korea. That’s why I went.
You were not prepared, based on your experience.
Oh, I was so unprepared. Which is, in a way, a complaint I harbor against my teachers back in Berlin. They should have prepared us much better. They had been to North Korea, they knew how it was like. Seriously, I was completely shocked. I think I would have been shocked had I traveled there as an East German before 1989. But the whole thing was exacerbated by the fact that it was now two years into de facto unification. I was right in the middle of figuring out what the hell had been going on for the last two decades of my life — the built-in flaws of that socialist system and the price we were now paying for it. I was beginning to appreciate the benefits of the new system and all the opportunities. Despite all the complaints I had, I realized how lucky I was.
And suddenly, there in Pyongyang I was back to a time I’d actually never experienced — back to Stalinism, in a way. That’s how it felt. It was also a bad time of the year, from October through February. That’s when any country in the northern hemisphere is gray and dull. These are not the most fun colors. And North Korea, which wasn’t a very colorful country anyway, was particularly gray and dull at that time. And there wasn’t much to do. It was a very boring place for a foreigner. You couldn’t hang out with people. You couldn’t go shopping. You couldn’t do what you normally do as a student in order to get in touch with locals. It was frustrating professionally as well. I was there to learn the language. And I achieved very little progress during that time because the only people I could interact with were my teachers. I could have done that in Berlin. Actually we had a North Korean language teacher in Berlin until 1992 or 1993, which is also strange since they didn’t send all of them back immediately.
And were you able to wander around the city at all?
In Pyongyang we could walk around more or less freely. But there was a natural limit to that because we could only walk. No bicycles, no cars for us. You don’t walk for 20 or 30 miles a day, not if you’re a student and you have to study. Our radius of operation was kind of limited around our dorm. There wasn’t much to see anyway. You couldn’t go inside any building except for museums, but even that you had to arrange beforehand. We ended up going to the German representative office — they didn’t have an embassy any longer — and drinking large quantities of alcohol each night.
So you obviously had some second thoughts about the decision to go there?
Yes, I was convinced it was a bad idea. I thought the country was going to collapse very soon. That seemed very obvious. Number one, all the other socialist countries were collapsing. Most had collapsed already. Others were still in the process. Number two, the North Korean economy was in such bad shape. It was clear that it would never survive more than two or three more months. Obviously I was wrong. But I was not entirely wrong since the famine took place a little later.
And I knew nothing about that country. I knew nothing about its system. I didn’t know how it worked. Being there, I started learning about that. Interaction was limited, as I said, but there was some. And if you live there, you’re immersed in it and it’s not like reading about it. You get a feel for the whole thing. In hindsight, I think that a few people that we talked to were even genuine. If everybody runs away from you, and then all of a sudden somebody approaches you and wants to talk, you instantly become slightly suspicious and think, “That’s a set up. They sent me this person.” But perhaps that’s not been the case for all my contacts. And our teachers, since they couldn’t run away and they were very intelligent and educated people, they were very interesting partners for conversations.
So, yes, I think I learned a lot. I just didn’t think it would be useful because I thought it was a dying country so why should I learn too much about it? I did learn because I couldn’t help it. But I didn’t work hard for it — it just happened. And now in hindsight, of course, it has been a great lesson because it gives me a foundation for understanding the system a little more deeply than many other people. It also serves as a benchmark for what’s going on right now. If I look at North Korea today, I do not compare it to Washington or Vienna. I compare it to the North Korea I saw 22 years ago. Those are almost two different countries, and that is significant. There are so many changes both in external things that are visible but also in behavior and intangible things: it’s really breathtaking.
When you went over in 1991 and subsequently, did you feel that because you had been in the Soviet Union and grown up in East Germany that it sensitized you in certain ways? Were there ways that you understood North Korean society that your West German counterparts simply didn’t get?
To begin with, they only let former East German students in. Although we were legally now unified Germany, the few West German students could not get a visa. The North Koreans wanted to make sure that they let in only fellow socialists. That was a mistake because that’s not what we were anymore. Perhaps my frustration was even bigger because I understood what the system was doing to its people much better than somebody who hadn’t experienced that himself. Some things reminded me of what I thought I had known from East Germany. But that didn’t mean that my sympathy was bigger. Perhaps even the contrary. But yes, I believe that seeing North Korea with the eyes of somebody who grew up in a socialist system makes a very big difference. I do not only see how North Korea differs from capitalist countries, I also see how it differs from other socialist countries. And some of the things I experienced there were quite familiar.
What were some of the similarities between East Germany and North Korea?
Propaganda. A stubborn sticking to rules without questioning them. A certain atmosphere of dullness. A certain group orientation, like people walking in groups but also doing things in groups. The sense that everything had to be organized, and very little individual freedom to do whatever you want. Stereotypical sentences and images, lip service. A few fanatics. And of course the individual response to such an environment, the coping mechanisms. Often, you need to read between the lines. It was very clear that the person you were listening to didn’t really mean what he was saying, but he would never ever deviate from the official line. It requires a lot of patience to deal with that. If you know that somebody is basically bullshitting you, it can get very annoying after a while. And in a way, I felt helpless because I knew if I told them to stop talking nonsense, it wouldn’t do any good because that’s what you had to do in that system. Telling a man to stop lying or withholding information or repeating empty phrases would just increase his pain. If an intelligent person has to tell you stupid things, he wants you to accept that.
Because ultimately it’s a shameful thing to be doing.
It’s a shameful thing, but there’s nothing else you could do. You don’t want to be observed not behaving properly. Who knows who’s watching and reporting?
Perhaps if you had been able to get together in the pub afterwards in Pyongyang.
There was no such thing as a pub to mingle with the locals. We as foreigners could go to the Koryo Hotel. We could go to the Diplomat’s Club. That’s about it. And you wouldn’t meet ordinary North Koreans there.
As you look at the divided Korea today, what lessons from German unification would you say are salient today for the two Koreas? And would you say that your own personal experience coming out of East Germany would provide any different nuance in your recommendations, compared to, say, someone like Helmut Kohl?
To begin with, the major lesson is: you never know. To be honest, if you would have told me in August 1989 that a year from now East Germany would be gone, I would have thought that you were kind of nuts. And there I was an insider, having lived in that country, speaking the language, having access to all the information you could get. So I wouldn’t really dare to make any prediction about what’s going to happen in North Korea. Unification can happen any time. That’s the one important lesson I’ve learned. You can’t plan it. You can’t predict it.
I also learned that at the end of the day, it’s power that counts. All those lofty ideas about how you should perhaps do it: it’s very nice to have those ideas. But after all, the one who’s got the power will decide what to do, and that’s it. I don’t waste my time creating overly elaborate and detailed policy proposals because it’s pointless. It’s just a waste of paper and ink. Unification in Korea will be completely different from Germany, because both, or actually the four countries, differ substantially. This means that drawing direct lessons is very, very hard. The process will be painful for North Koreans, definitely. It might be painful for the South Koreans, as well. And perhaps nobody should tell them. Because at the end of the day it will be a great blessing for both sides. It’s like going to a dentist. He will fix your tooth. But it’s going to hurt first, and you don’t really want to be prepared for that in too much detail.
But the question is: will it be just a filling, or is it going to be a serious root canal?
Filling or root canal? That depends on the way in which unification proceeds, and that’s a big unknown. Anything is possible, from a gradual transformation of North Korea into an equal to a unification by absorption along the German lines. Obviously, the effects of such different scenarios will deviate substantially.
I do have lots of recommendations. They are just not very realistic because you don’t know how unification will proceed. Who will start it? Will it be based on a top-down initiative, or will it be a bottom-up approach like in East Germany? How will the external forces react? Will the international community perhaps interfere and form a joint body? Or will it all be left to the South Koreans? Will the North Koreans determine the process? What government will be in place at that time in South Korea, what will be the economic situation in South Korea, how far will North Korea have proceeded on its way toward marketization when unification happens? How will the Chinese act? It’s all so unpredictable.
Of course, we know that if at the moment of unification the South Koreans are still richer and, therefore, more powerful, they will surely give the North Koreans a hard time. The North Koreans will feel colonized, and yes, of course, there will be domestic unrest. And if democracy is brought to North Korea they will form political parties that reflect that unhappiness. Since there are proportionately twice as many North Koreans than East Germans that discontent will have much more of an impact on electoral politics in a unified Korea. This is all clear. Yes, it’s going to cost money. And yes, it will weaken unified Korea in the short term vis a vis its potential external competitors and adversaries. And yes, in the long run unification will be beneficial because the economies are complementary: the north has all the resources as well as direct access to China. Other countries would give their left arm for that. The south has the money and the knowhow. Sounds like a perfect match. But there is also a nuclear problem in Korea that we didn’t have in Germany, so how are we going to deal with that? Will those nuclear weapons become the possession of unified Korea? Or will they be handed over to the IAEA or an international body that will dispose of them? Who knows? It’s very, very hard to look into the future. Too many unknowns.
Based on how these things turn out, you can develop recommendations. Also, this is now 2013. We have the Internet, we have social media, we have mobile phones. Back then in Germany there was nothing like this. We went through computerization all together in the early 1990s. The North Koreans really have to learn a lot. But they are doing it. They are making their own tablet computers, and some have their mobile phones. But they don’t yet have the Internet. Many don’t even have a computer. So even in terms of the weaker part catching up, it will be a different challenge.
I was talking to somebody in Germany about North and South Korea and the reunification process. I pointed out that the economic gap was much larger between the two Koreas than it was between the two Germanys. But he said, no, the most important thing is really the education level, and what the North Korean level of education is. Ultimately, he said, the only thing that mattered with East Germany was the educational level.
That depends on how you define education. Our formal education level was very high. We did not have the 1968 movement, which softened education in the West and made it more flexible so that kids could choose their subjects – and drop those where they were weak. In East Germany, you couldn’t choose. Even if you didn’t like chemistry, you had to do it. We had to learn math and physics and biology, all that kind of stuff. Our education was very universal, and it was of high quality. In fact, the education system was quite competitive — just remember those 5 out of 17 million who would be admitted into area studies. So our education was not too bad. But when it comes to softer kinds of education, like social skills, self-promotion, presentation, competing against others, dealing with the state, the system – this is a different story. And of course knowledge about the rest of the world. Here, I’d say, East Germans were definitely much better off than the North Koreans.
Again, I can’t overemphasize that we Germans entered the computer age together. The West Germans didn’t have an edge over us in that. We take it for granted today, but learning how to work with an operating system, with a word processor, and going through the development of Windows from 1 point something to 3.1 and now eight point whatever, that’s important. There is no gap between East and West Germany here. The Internet, e-mail, all that stuff, we all learned that together. The North Koreans do have computers but not everybody has one. And how they use them is slightly different, so that’s going to be a big problem compared to the degree of computer and IT literacy in South Korea.
It’s been 23 years since 1990. How much has your worldview changed, in terms of your basic assumptions about how the world works, about politics, about economics?
Isn’t there a saying that if you haven’t been a liberal in your youth, you haven’t lived your life, and if you haven’t become a conservative later on you haven’t learned much? My views have changed, that’s for sure. But I find it hard to say how much of that is simply related to getting older, and what is due to living under a capitalist system since 1990. I’m now more than twice as old as I was back then. I really don’t know what part of me is pre-1990 and which part is post-1990. And as a scholar I am aware of all the problems with oral history, that memory somehow develops, and you think that’s what you remember, but most likely it’s not exactly that. And especially the stories that you keep telling over and over: they develop too.
So you remember the stories but you don’t necessarily remember the original event.
I do remember the original event, but my interpretation changes, and I certainly add things that I consider more relevant and leave out others. The truth can have many facets.
Regarding how I changed, I think I have become more cynical. That was something that had already started in East Germany but it has become stronger. I do not expect too much from people. I like people for what they are with all their weaknesses and accept them as they are. It’s just that if I help somebody, I don’t expect to be paid back. I don’t even expect gratitude. I’m not so easily disappointed anymore, because my expectations are rather low. I respect people but at the same time am not very optimistic about their virtues.
We could perhaps construct a link between this and the fact that I grew up in a society that was very idealistic, and that many of those ideals had been betrayed. Talking about my worldview, I do not believe that a socialist system, in that sense, is sustainable. I admire people who have those ideals about justice and equality, but frankly I think they are naive. I am for equal opportunity, not for equal distribution. I think I appreciate this kind of freedom more than people who have been born with it, which is why I’m so enormously unhappy about what’s going on in the United States at this moment with all the infringement of civil rights in the name of the fight against terrorism. Yes, the state will always come up with a good explanation, but that’s what the state has done in East Germany, too. The end does not justify any means.
I’m still not overly interested in participating in the political process. I’m not an activist. I was ready to be one when it was risky, and when I thought I knew what was right and wrong. And now when it’s less risky, I kind of don’t want to do it anymore because I don’t really know what to fight against. And I am very hesitant to fight for anything, perhaps because my idealism has been so badly disappointed once. I’m not completely apolitical. I’m a political person, of course I am. But it doesn’t go as far as wanting to join a political party or running for an office or even launching a campaign or so.
I’m not aspiring to save the world anymore. Perhaps the world doesn’t want to be saved anyway. What I’m going to do is focus on the area that I can influence: my family, the department that I’m heading. I’m trying to do the right thing. I’m trying to be a good teacher for my students. I’m trying to be good father for my son. I’m trying to be a good husband to my wife. I’m trying to be a good colleague, a good boss at my department. I’m trying to be a good scholar. And all that’s hard enough. Sometimes I’m more successful, sometimes less. But it’s worth investing all my energy into. Which means, of course, that I’m leaving the field of big politics to others.
Intellectually, it’s all clear that such behavior is risky and even wrong. Leaving the political stage to others is also a form of action. But emotionally I haven’t somehow recovered my interest in being more active. Perhaps that’s just a matter of my changing character or my age. Or maybe it is an outcome of that history of mine. It’s hard to tell.
Washington, DC, June 15, 2013