km. A few weeks ago, it made headlines for some time when through leaked chat, email and text messages obtained by German publication Die Zeit, it was revealed that the CEO of the Axel Springer Publishing House, Mathias Döpfner, had said about East Germans: “The Ossis [East Germans] are either communists or fascists. From Kaiser Wilhelm to Hitler to Honecker, without having enjoyed US re-education in between.” Döpfner had to apologise – but he remains CEO of one of Germany’s biggest media groups.
Daniela Dahn, born in 1949 in the GDR, is a journalist, writer, and publicist. She was a civil rights activist and co-founder of the GDR opposition group Demokratischer Aufbruch (Democratic Beginning). In the following article, she exposes the hypocrisy of the public apology of Mathias Döpfner, for his outbursts against East Germans, but also the hypocrisy of the short-lived media clamour against Mathias Döpfner. West German elites have been slandering and discriminating against East Germans for more than 30 years.
It would not be worth reacting to this abysmal SMS chatter if the debate were not one of great hypocrisy.
All the outrage arises from the fact that this is about one of the most influential media bosses in the country, head and owner not only of the Springer Group, but also long-time president of the Federal Association of Digital Publishers and Newspaper Publishers.
Mathias Döpfner is now being pilloried by the media outlets of the competing Holtzbrinck Publishing Group [e. g. Die Zeit] through selective publication of more or less private communications. Not that one does not begrudge this denouncer of duty the torment. But the revelations about the mindset of the leadership in this trendy medium cannot really surprise.
Ultimately, it is precisely this content that has determined not only the internal messages at the Springer company, but often also the published ones, for decades without any major contradiction. And not only there. The debate is hypocritical because both the excitement about the accusations and the apology are implausible. To pick out only the slander I know best: that East Germans are all mentally deformed and therefore unfit for democracy was a prominent indoctrination for years.
As early as February 1990, Der Spiegel published an eight-page diatribe about the GDR education system: “Education for drill and moral cowardice”. Whereas in the autumn of 1989, as the Wall came down, the courageous political maturity of the East Germans fighting for their civil rights was praised everywhere, now one gained the impression that revolutions prefer to break out where the concentration of moral cowards is particularly high. They had all been “brainwashed”, had gone through a “permanent act of mental rape”.
East Germans have “learned
nothing that they could contribute
to a free market economy”
The unsigned article repeatedly quoted the alleged education expert Johannes Niermann, who later also made an appearance in a public hearing of the German Bundestag. In his expert opinion, he accused “the entire Intellegentia” (do spelling weakness and denunciation belong together?) of having built up a “web of lies” and attests that this had led to a “quite primitive conditioning, like animal training”.
He regrets that the GDR’s torturers were not put behind bars and instead “they continue to run free”. Niermann developed missionary zeal with an urgent recommendation: Abitur degrees (conferred by way of exams for general qualification for university entrance after 12 years of schooling) should be reduced to 10 per cent to 30 per cent of Abitur graduates in the new states of Germany. Instead, housekeeping as a compulsory subject for girls, as well as needlework, handicrafts, and other such subjects should be introduced at secondary schools. The “Berliner Zeitung” published a cartoon of Helmut Kohl, then the chancellor, in knight’s armour in front of the sign “German Federal Kohlony!” (“Kohl colony”).
The historian Arnulf Baring, a popular talk show guest, also took palpable pleasure in disparaging GDR academics in his book Deutschland, was nun? (Germany, what next?) For almost half a century they had been “dwarfed” and “ruined” by the regime. Whether someone calls himself a doctor, an engineer, or a pedagogue, “it doesn’t matter. His knowledge is completely useless over long stretches.” The West Germans could “forgive these politically and character-wise burdened people their sins”, but it would be of no use, because the East Germans “simply haven’t learned anything they could contribute to a free market economy”.
The Adorno sentence, “There is no true life in a false life” – completely decontextualised and used again and again – retroactively stamped all GDR lives as worthless. In the context of qualification for leadership positions, the interpretation was: worthless.
The narrative of good-vs.-evil and right-vs.-wrong blocked a two-way exchange. Yet the differences are only of a subtle nature; ultimately, there is probably nothing but true life in the wrong life. The molecular biologist and GDR oppositionist Jens Reich complained that in historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler’s widely renowned “Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte” (German Social History), millions of East Germans “are not portrayed as actors, but as a kind of flock of sheep”. According to this view, all the wrong choices would have to be corrected in a laborious process according to the Western model. “That is the burden of the new Federal Republic after 1990”, says Wehler.
Is the burden not rather that the complete disregard of Eastern experience must undergo a correction that is still laborious today? The fact that crude defamations are now dared only in private tweets is progress, but at the same time it shows how alive and kicking they still are.
The poet Wolfgang Hilbig described the humiliations as “fornication with dependents”. For a long time, people had to accept this. And the public opposition from Western celebrities also remained negligible. Gaus, Grass, Bahr – they were rebuked for it. Anyone in the East who even dared to attack the simplifiers, as I did in my books, was accused of “Osttrotz”, eastern defiance. I filed half a dozen libel suits against the Axel Springer Group because I was sometimes put close to the Stasi, sometimes to the Nazis with adventurous speculations, in texts by the moralising house. They gladly paid the compensation to me, to which the corporation was sentenced, out of petty cash and then continued. The pleasure of attempted disciplining obviously prevailed. It was an experience of structural violence. For a long time there were no more denunciation-free spaces for East Germans. And no one ever had to apologise for it or was even asked to resign.
Nationalist sentiments fuelled –
a setback for social movements
But why was and is the very capacity for democracy of those socialised in the GDR such a provocative subject? As long as they forced their government to resign in 1989, they were praised for their nonviolence and humour even by the Springer press. But as soon as their ideas of democratisation ran the risk of also calling into question the status quo of the Federal Republic, the fun stopped.
In the liberal newspaper “taz”, Klaus Hartung praised the East German Round Table [a series of meetings during the Peaceful Revolution in East Germany in late-1989 and early-1990, during which participants were on a par with each other] and the Modrow cabinet for their clear programme of democratisation:
“In this respect, power really does emanate from the people and above all remains with them – to a degree that was and is never conceivable in the formerly free West. In the GDR democracy, the impunity of non-violent resistance is now already guaranteed, a process that will make our security laws even more embarrassing. Representative democracy, which is basically big-party rule, continues to fend off all approaches to direct democracy and control that comes from the bottom up. In the GDR, on the other hand, even the innermost sphere of repression is now subjected to democratic control from the bottom up.”
At the time, I was a member of the first independent commission of enquiry; we had the mandate to question those responsible for the assaults on demonstrators by police and state security. Even if they were unwilling and blocked, they had to answer our questions. We achieved the resignation of the Berlin police chief.
“Not only your country, East and West are in a deep crisis”, was the declaration of important voices such as Inge Aicher-Scholl, Karl Bonhoeffer, Helmut Gollwitzer, Margarethe Mitscherlich, and Heinrich Albertz. Nationalist sentiments would be deliberately fuelled to scuttle efforts for socialist democracy. Then the “social movements in our country would also suffer a severe setback”. A cosignatory, the Austrian futurologist Robert Jungk, virtually pleaded: “For God’s sake, don’t be seduced by the concepts of capitalist states. If we continue to govern and produce in the way we have done so far, we will inevitably face serious, irreparable crises.”
Had we carried along the West German Social Democrats, who adopted a new basic programme at their Berlin party congress in December 1989 in the middle of the Wende, (the historical period around German reunification)? “It is a basic historical experience that repairs to capitalism are not enough”, read the new basic programme. “A new order of economy and society is necessary”.
Invented quotations and fake luxuries
I always wanted to live in a democracy, but never in capitalism. For Mathias Döpfner and his friends in the FDP, the Free Democratic Party, this might already be a sufficiently nauseating suspicion of communism. Be that as it may, “The East Germans will never become democrats” – there is some truth in his prognosis, if one considers that many had a different idea of democracy: not just an empty phrase à la “Bild-Zeitung”, but the very big promise that was supposed to be associated with a “democratic beginning”. That was the “Streetcar Named Desire”, the final destination of longing: prosperity through a democracy that would also encompass the economy, that would have many facets, that would be democratic in terms of councils or grassroots democracy, and in any case would not be reduced to capitalist democracy fixated on private property.
And this longing was contagious. At the Protestant Theological Faculty of the University of Tübingen, a resolution was passed: “It is time for a fundamental critique of capitalism”, it read. And the SPD proposed a Round Table for Bonn as well. Six weeks before the People’s Parliament election in the GDR in March 1990, polls there still predicted an absolute majority for it. Anke Martini, SPD comrade, thought that the East Germans were already closer to the necessary answers “than we Westerners, who are so little used to questioning our system”. Bündnis 90 (Alliance 90) (a political alliance of citizens movements an oppositional groups in the GDR) takes up the biggest taboo, demanding a referendum on the preservation of the people’s property.
This was a dicey situation for the ruling Christian Democrats. Here one began to ask systemic questions. The CDU could turn the tide only if it bangs the kettledrum loudly. The GDR media, which to everyone’s amazement had quickly emancipated themselves from censorship and whose stations achieved higher viewing figures than those of the West, were nevertheless still no match for the fictitious cock-and-bull stories of the gutter press. For the first time, they being experienced how a manipulative apparatus nourished by private media can turn a majority opinion into its opposite in a very short time, as I have verified in detail in the book Tamtam und Tabu (Ballyhoo and taboo). One strategy was to stir up the people’s anger by accusing GDR politicians, not only in “Bild” but also in Der Spiegel and elsewhere, of having amassed luxury goods at state expense, from diamonds to Jaguars – pure fake news. Der Spiegel rejoiced that these reports caused a furore in the GDR, were photocopied thousands of times, posted in companies and became “popular reading”.
Even more effective, however, was the second strategy, which caused panic through the sudden assertion by Kohl’s closest adviser in the Chancellery, Horst Teltschik, that the collapse of the GDR economy was imminent, meaning total insolvency in just a few days. For this nonsense to be believed, “Bild” claimed that the chairman of the East German CDU, Lothar de Maizière, had confirmed this. Western media do not mention de Maizière’s denial that he is not aware of such a thing. Instead, Der Spiegel also puts freely invented verbatim quotations into the mouth of Minister President Hans Modrow: “We are at the end. Our money will last until the middle of the year”. Only then did Kohl decide to prepare for monetary union immediately, “at any price”. “Bild” sums it up populistically: The GDR’s economy is on a drip feed; it needs the transfusion of the Deutschmark. The “Alliance for Germany”, founded by the West Chancellor for the East German elections, goes to work.
Shocked and frightened, GDR voters accepted the promise of the D-mark as a messiah. They only gradually realised that they had succumbed to a new “web of lies” and that any idea of reform could now be bought off. And most West Germans still believe the widespread reading that their once-brothers and sisters wanted nothing more than to live as quickly as possible like the Westerners live. Even though referenda could just barely be prevented, the first representative poll after the election proved something else: Virtually everyone was in favour of unity, but 83 per cent still rejected a quick and unconditional accession. They wanted to have an influence on how unity would be achieved as equal partners. Not only little traffic cops and sandmen were to be preserved from the GDR, but 68 per cent spoke out in favour of the core substance – the people’s property.
A meaningless apology,
many open balance sheets
Privatisation in the East became a public, billion-dollar grave that still burdens today’s budget, while tax-free private wealth often doubled – a trillion-dollar grave. Ludwig Ehrhard knew the rule of his system: “Only property guarantees personal security and intellectual independence”. Where there is no having, there is no saying.
Democracy means limiting power. But parliaments have largely ceded their power to the governance, the governance has ceded power to the EU Commission, which has ceded power to the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. And the voter is supposed to cast his vote and feel like Hans in Luck. He looks up in the air and asks himself what choice he actually has if no one limits the hidden ruling power, that of capital? Christian Führer, legendary pastor of Leipzig’s Nikolai Church, wanted to revive the Monday demonstrations he founded: “Actually, the second part of the revolution is still to come. The market economy is basically violent. The dictatorship of the ideology has been replaced by the dictatorship of capital.”
Today, East Germans have given up the habit of such subversive tones, also due to a largely fulfilled promise of consumption. The former left opposition party, Die Linke, no longer dismantles power relations, but rather itself. And it leaves the protest to the right. Press products such as those of Mathias Döpfner have contributed to flattening and depoliticisation. With a majority shaped by the mainstream, grassroots democracy is to be largely robbed of its meaning. So it is not difficult to apologise to the Easterners who have become tame and to pretend that they in the West now want to honour the Easterner’s life time achievements.
But which ones? Their merits in having tried out alternatives? Today, no one asks about this balance any more. But the balance remains open and not just between East and West. •
First published: Berliner Zeitung of 20 April 2023
(Translation Current Concerns)
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