Friday, November 06, 2009
This piece of mine, on the human cost of the political changes in eastern Europe in 1989, appears in the Morning Star.
Make 1989 the year you visit the GDR, the brochure of Berolina Travel proclaimed. So that's what my university friend Rob and I decided to do.
Neither of us were card-carrying members of the Young Communist League, but neither were we anti-communist cold war warriors. We were just two young people keen to find out for ourselves what life was really like behind the so-called Iron Curtain.
Twenty years on, the memories of my trip to the German Democratic Republic are still extremely vivid. We travelled to East Germany by rail via Frankfurt. The contrast between Frankfurt and Erfurt, the first city we arrived at over the border, could not have been more striking.
There was the lack of neon and the refreshing absence of advertising. Everything seemed less frenetic - the pace of life was much slower.
The GDR was getting ready to celebrate its 40th birthday. The country had come a long way since its foundation from the ruins of World War II, as John Green has described in recent Morning Star articles.
We had been conditioned to expect a very poor country, but were surprised to see that most people were better dressed than back home in Britain and that the shops, far from being empty, were well-stocked. It was nice to see main streets not dominated by chain stores - and not a Mcdonald's in sight.
Instead of Western fast-food chains serving unhealthy junk food, the GDR, in common with other socialist countries, was full of publicly owned self-service restaurants where ordinary people could eat good hearty fare at affordable prices in a communal atmosphere.
I remember going to one restaurant in Magdeburg and chatting to a young married couple sitting on the same table. We got on so well that we exchanged addresses after just half an hour together.
Contrary to its usual depiction in the West as a grey, unwelcoming place, I found the GDR to be one of the friendliest places I had ever visited. The best thing about it was the people - kind, friendly and extremely helpful. Interesting, well-read and well-educated people who always looked you in the eye and didn't want to cheat you.
I experienced the same thing on my other visit to a European communist country, Yugoslavia, also in 1989. I stayed in a small guest house close to Lake Bohinj. The owner was a committed communist and strong supporter of the partisans. Each evening he would invite the guests to sit, eat and drink with him and he would tell stories of how the partisans defeated the nazis in WWII.
He told all the guests to feel as if they were at home. He even washed his guest's dirty laundry for no extra charge. He not only advocated socialism, he lived a socialist life - helping others for no monetary reward. He was one of the kindest men I have ever met in my life and I remembered thinking there and then that a system that can produce such warm-hearted and generous people surely must have something going for it.
Not long after my visit to the GDR, the Berlin Wall came down. People I had spoken to in the GDR said that their main criticism of the government was the restriction on foreign travel. But, as the recent BBC documentary series The Lost World Of Communism showed, there was no desire, even among those who did take part in street demonstrations in the autumn of 1989, for a wholesale dismantling of the socialist system. What many people had wanted was a less authoritarian form of socialism - no-one was calling for mass privatisation and the introduction of Thatcherism.
In the mid-1990s I returned to eastern Europe to live and work in Hungary. After four years of harsh economic reforms the Hungarian people had just voted into power the Hungarian Socialist Party. But the hopes of the voters for a government which would retain the best aspects of the communist system were to be dashed. Capital had no intention of allowing any vestiges of socialism to survive in eastern Europe.
Under pressure from Western financial institutions prime minister Gyula Horn, who had earlier attacked the idea of energy privatisation, changed tack. He appointed a fanatically neoliberal economics professor called Lajos Bokros to introduce an austerity package.
While in Britain Thatcherite media commentators enthused over the eastern European countries' transition to a "free market economy," I witnessed at first hand the pain that such policies were causing to ordinary people.
Pensioners who had lived relatively well under the old regime were now having to go from shop to shop to try to save a crucial few forints as prices of basic foodstuffs rocketed. People who had never experienced unemployment under communism, when it did not exist, were forced on to the scrapheap as their factories closed. Beggars - almost non-existent during communism - appeared once again on Budapest's streets.
Yet as harsh as conditions were in Hungary in 1995, they are even worse today.
With the economy shrinking by 7.5 per cent in the second quarter this year and unemployment up to 10 per cent, it's hardly surprising that, according to a recent poll, just one in five Hungarians believe their country has changed for the better since 1989.
It's a similar story of economic hardship across the region, yet the rise in poverty in eastern Europe since 1989 is seldom mentioned by neoliberal commentators in the West when they pen their articles celebrating the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the "liberation" of the people from communism.
Twenty years on from the historic events of 1989 it is clear that what occurred was not so much a liberation but a colonisation. For while ordinary people have seen their living standards plummet and have lost many of the things they once took for granted, such as secure employment, affordable gas and electricity prices, cheap public transport and good-quality education and health care, the giants of Western capital have enjoyed a financial bonanza.
In Hungary alone, over £97 billion of publicly owned assets were sold off in the period 1990-2007, many to Western multinationals.
There was no office of Goldman Sachs in Budapest in 1989. There is now.
There were no Tescos in Hungary in 1989. There are now over 100.
And there was no Coca-Cola for sale when I visited the GDR. The Coca-Cola corporation now dominates the soft drinks market throughout the region.
So if you watched multimillionaire pop-star Bono perform last night in the MTV concert in Berlin to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall, remember that it's capital - and not the ordinary people of eastern Europe - that's been the main beneficiary of the political changes of 20 years ago.
Never in the history of the world has the fall of a single wall proved quite so profitable.