Lost Religions: Forgotten Winds From The East

Watching ‘The Lives of Others’ brought to mind a visit I managed to make to the former East Germany last year. The visit involved one of those odd little loops of coincidence life seems to have such a panting fondness for, but then, maybe it’s just that I’ve started to meet myself on the way back, as it were.

I had been in Berlin as a most callow youth just a couple of weeks before the Wall came down. I was back as the official nation geared up for a celebration of the 25th anniversary of that event and the consequent extinction of the GDR, the former East Germany, call it what you will.

At a radio station in the beautiful city of Halle (a neglected pearl of Germania, believe me), I had a conversation with a man who had lived over half his life in the GDR. He presents a show on Halle’s Radio Corax called ‘News From A Damaged World.’ He wasn’t overly enamoured of the present set up, but then, not too many of the Germans I met in Halle were.

Most seem to have accepted what they all refer to as “the change” with a certain degree of fatalism. Now that all the slogans about freedom have mouldered away, people have had time to realize that no political story is as ever as simple as politicians (and indeed most of the media) would like us to believe.

Goetz (I do hope I’m spelling his name correctly) described life in the final years of the GDR, roughly the same era in which ‘The Lives of Others’ is set. His view was that the entire country had become suffused – not with a righteous clamour for freedom – but with a kind of all embracing boredom, a sort of ennui that seeped into every pore of life.

People just couldn’t be arsed. They had long ago stopped believing in things, and even the inertia of post-belief had begun to sputter and give out. You don’t have to love or believe in a regime in order to be an active participant in its version of reality. You might even hate it, but the act of hatred makes you a participant.

What matters is that it matters to you, but if it stops mattering, if those great grey structures you were taught to fear as  a child suddenly seem made of paper, then that might go a long way towards explaining the spontaneous collapse of a country to which, in theory at least, 17 Million people had given their allegiance.

Listening to Goetz, I couldn’t help being reminded of the 1980’s in Ireland, of how I and people like me were being disgorged from a school system which didn’t seem to believe in anything into a future which seemed weirdly devoid of possibility.

Catholic Ireland was sputtering to a conclusion. It would take Ireland’s Cultural Cosa Nostra another 25 years to notice, of course – they’re not exactly the quickest – but a crucial energy in people’s souls, the willingness to take it all somehow seriously, had bled away in the night.

Everything, from the monotonous drone of priests into bad microphones (I will never understand why, when they got rid of the Latin Mass, the Irish Church never trained its priests how to speak, how to hold an audience. Were they too afraid of what they might say?) to the slack jawed cant of politicians, began to seem like some form of arcane dance, a bubble warping away from the reality of peoples’ lives at lightspeed.

Belief in anything has, believe it or not, never counted for much in Ireland, but even the illusion of belief had begun to melt. There was nothing to replace it, no civic code – however vague – such as had been left behind by Christian Churches in England or Germany for example.

Like anything else, the story of the GDR and why it foundered is a great deal more complex than we are led to believe. Only on my visit to Halle did I discover that it actually had a great deal to do with oil.

Apparently, during the oil crisis of the mid-1970’s, the Soviet Union discovered that the East Germans had been acquiring extra oil by doing deals on the side with other countries. The extra oil helped fuel an economy that (here’s another thing you won’t be told today) was actually pretty dynamic.

The Russians decided to respond by starving the East Germans of oil, because you couldn’t have those pesky Germans stealing a march on the rest of Socialism. The consequences seem to have been fairly terminal. An export driven economy needs lots of energy. Without it, things began to stagnate.

How do I know this? As part of the same trip, I visited a museum in a place called Halle Neustadt. Halle Neustadt itself is a fascinating notion, a kind of mad experiment in social engineering.

Basically, the communist regime built an entire new city from scratch to one side of the ancient city of Halle. The idea was to provide housing and other fully integrated facilities for workers at a nearby chemical complex.

Many of the buildings, including a weird structure of narrow apartment blocks known as ‘The Slices,’ are now derelict. Some, including what is thought to be the longest apartment building in the world, still function as home to thousands.

Anyway, inside the Halle Neustadt museum is a room dedicated to artefacts produced inside the old GDR. Walking around it produced possibly the very last sensation I could have expected. Like the astronaut at the end of ‘2001,’ I had stumbled into something that defied all my senses by seeming absolutely familiar.

I recognized almost everything: kettles, a popular kind of portable typewriter, lamps, irons, even a type of phone. I had walked casually through a wormhole into my own past. All these goods had been present in the Ireland of the 1970’s, of my early childhood.

I’ve since realized that ‘Auf Deutsch Bitte,’ a kind of teach yourself German manual purchased by my parents (don’t ask) was actually produced in East Germany. It even had a picture of ‘Der Slices’ in it.

Our Government didn’t tell people at the time, but Ireland obviously imported a great deal of stuff from the GDR in the 1970’s, and if we did, it’s likely others did as well. The creases of Commie irons may well have been all over your clothes.

Scarcity of oil probably affected the ability of the GDR to continue producing exports, and it’s highly likely that the EU – the greatest protectionist racket ever devised – had something to do with it as well.

Funny how stuff is never, ever as simple as we think.

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