“Good Bye, Lenin”, Thuringia, ambiguity and the vanishing of two countries

Warning: There is a lot of blather about German politics in the following, so if that bores you just skip this post:

Today, the parliament of the East German state of Thuringia elected Bodo Ramelow of the Left Party as premier. This makes Thuringia the first German state ruled by a government (a coalition of the Left Party, the Greens and the Socialdemocratic Party SPD) headed by the Left Party. For those not up on German politics, the Left Party is the result of a fusion between the remains of the East German Communist party and disgruntled former Socialdemocrats from West Germany.

Coincidentally, this also makes Thuringia the second German state whose premier is not a member of one of the two big parties CDU/CSU and SPD, after Baden-Württemberg elected Winfried Kretschmann, a member of the Green Party, in 2011. Mostly, this is due to the current weakness of the Socialdemocratic Party, which is the result of rightward shift of the SPD in the 1990s, which reached its zenith during the Gerhard Schröder government. Plenty of SPD voters and members were disillusioned by that shift, so they turned to other parties, most notably the Green and the Left Party. Indeed, I suspect that the Left Party would never have risen beyond a small East German regional party, if not for the SPD and to a lesser degree the Green Party abandoning many of their principles during the 1990s.

Even twenty-five years after the fall of the iron curtain, several people, including the German president Joachim Gauck (who frankly should keep out of state politics, because that’s not his job), is not yet democratic enough and not yet divorced enough from its ignominous past in Communist East Germany. Of course, the very parties who complain the loudest now put former Nazis into various high level offices in post-war West Germany. It’s also telling that those who complain about a Left Party led government in Thuringia have no critical words to say about the success of the rightwing and anti-European party AfD during the same elections in Thuringia, even though the AfD is a lot more scary than the Left Party.

Besides, while one can say that parts of the Left Party still haven’t fully divorced themselves from their past yet, one cannot blame Thuringia’s new premier Bodo Ramelow for the Stasi or the deaths of many of those trying to flee East Germany, because Bodo Ramelow is actually from West Germany (born in the town of Osterholz-Scharmbeck some forty kilometers from where I live) and only came to Thuringia in 1991. Hell, in his first speech as premier of Thuringia, he even apologised to former Stasi victims. The Süddeutsche Zeitung has a good portrait of Bodo Ramelow and why he’s not your typical Left Party member. And indeed he’s probably the best choice to spearhead the Left Party’s entrance into full political respectability, if that’s what they want.

Besides, the Left Party has been involved in several coalition state governments in former East Germany and Berlin since the 1990s. One state was even governed by a premier who was very likely a former Stasi informer, though the person in question was a member of another party. And somehow the world did not end, nor was the Wall rebuilt or Socialism reintroduced. It won’t happen in Thuringia either.

Though it is a pity that with the election of Bodo Ramelow who replaces CDU premier Christine Lieberknecht, the number of German states governed by female premiers is down to three again. But then, it is remarkable that we now have three female premiers at all, considering that the first woman to ever hold the office of a state premier wasn’t elected until 1993.

Given the political context above (though he had no way of knowing that), it is rather fitting that my pal Tim Lehnerer has just published a detailed review of Good Bye, Lenin (2003), the third highest grossing German movie of all time, at his film review blog Checkpoint Telstar.

Now Good Bye, Lenin is a wonderful movie and I recommend it highly. Tim already points out that one of the things that’s so great about Good Bye, Lenin is that the film refuses to take sides and condemn either East or West Germany. Unlike some of the other so-called “ostalgia” films of the mid 2000s, Good Bye, Lenin doesn’t sugarcoat life in East Germany, but nor does it turn East Germany into the Evil Stasiland, as which it is often portrayed in more recent movies. It simply portrays East Germany as a country where people made their lives as best as they could under difficult conditions.

And I think the very fact that the movie refuses to take sides is the reason why it’s rarely seen on TV these days (after spending several years as a programming fixture around unification day). Because currently a very black and white view of Communist East Germany is en vogue and so films are preferred that reinforce that black and white view.

IMO, Good Bye, Lenin also offers the best portrayal anywhere about the very rapid changes that hit East Germany over the course of the year 1990. Because one must not forget that the time between the fall of the iron curtain and the unification was not quite eleven months. People basically had their entire lives upset in less than a year. Nor did the upset stop on Octber 3, 1990.

During past anniversaries of the fall of the iron curtain or the unification, we saw mostly East Germans telling their stories, which is only appropriate, because they bore the brunt of the changes. Hence I find it notable that for the twenty-fifth anniversary, there have been a few critical essays from a West German point-of-view published in national newspapers such as this one by Daniel Erk and this one by Christoph Schröder. Here is also an older essay by Maxim Biller, which makes a similar point, though in a much more polemic way (but then this is Maxim Biller).

All authors grew up in West Germany and all are members of a generation for which the fact that there are two German states was established reality, the way things had always been and would always be. West Germans of this generation mostly didn’t view the unification as “what belongs together will grow together”, but instead suddenly found themselves fused with a country that was totally alien, even if the people there spoke the same language. And all authors make a similar point, namely “The country in which I grew up is gone, too.”

There are a lot of points in both articles that I don’t agree with. For example, I vastly prefer Angela Merkel to Helmut Kohl and am happy that the Catholic dominance of West German politics has finally been broken. And Maxim Biller’s rant about non-denominational ethics classes replacing traditional denominationally divided religious education in some East German states that are largely atheist makes no sense whatsoever, especially since Biller is Jewish and therefore wouldn’t have attended Catholic or respectively Protestant religious education at school anyway. Maybe his ethics classes (at my school a catch-all for Muslims, Jews, Atheists and anybody who didn’t want to attend religion classes) were really horrible.

However, there were also many points where I found myself nodding along. The gradual dismantling of what had been a largely functional welfare state up to 1989 angers me as well. Letting our remaining shipyards die to save East German shipyards still makes me furious. I really could have lived without another eight years of a Kohl government due to unification euphoria, too. And while I prefer Berlin to Bonn as capital of Germany (simply because Bonn was small and provincial and not really suited to being capital of anything), this whole Berlin fixation that has swept Germany and the world annoys me as well. Berlin is nice, but there’s more to Germany than Berlin.

And that flag waving nationalism during football World Cups? I hate that, too. Because when I was a teenager, cheering on your national team was okay, but flag waving and chanting “Deutschland” was totally gauche. Flags were for ships and for raising them outside public buildings on national holidays and election days. Regular people didn’t have flags and they certainly didn’t wave them. And come to think of it, the East Germans did the flag waving thing first, when West Germany won the 1990 World Cup (bits of which are also seen in Good Bye, Lenin), and it also seriously annoyed me back then to the point that I cheered for the other team (Argentina once again) in the finale just to spite the flag wavers.

I think that essays like the ones I linked above are printed at all these days (because ten years ago, they wouldn’t have been) are maybe a sign of normalisation twenty-five years after the fall of the Wall.

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4 Responses to “Good Bye, Lenin”, Thuringia, ambiguity and the vanishing of two countries

  1. Mark says:

    I do find it problematic that a German state is ruled by a party that has ties to a proven-non democratic predecessor party (if it would just be the former left wing of the SPD I would even consider voting for them). But “problematic” would not be the word I would use if the AfD would get into power. I would consider leaving the country. The good thing is that the traditional right-wing parties are losing votes to them. The bad thing is that it doesn’t make any real difference. I just don’t understand how people do not understand the simple math behind how votes shift from one party to another (in every election there is at least one party who gets the bulk of the votes of the protest voters). It doesn’t matter what the official agenda of that party is (the Euro, with a supposedly solid economic background). 90% of the voters don’t have a clue about economics, so why do they not just stop talking about the Euro, and concentrate on what the voters are really concerned about: immigrants.

    Sorry for the rant. But it’s sort of proof that you can have a problem with the Linke, without being completely blind about things that happen on the other end of the political spectrum.

    • Cora says:

      No problem. German politics is a rant-worthy subject.

      I understand that some concerns about the Linke are justified. However, the protest of the CDU/CSU folks are hypocritical, considering they foisted ex-nazis like Hans Filbinger, Karl Carstens and Kurt Georg Kiesinger onto the people, all of whom were a lot more involved in the Third Reich than West German Bodo Ramelow was ever in the DDR. In fact, I suspect it’s strategic that the Linke is putting West Germans like Ramelow and Lafontaine or younger East Germans (i.e. under 50) in the spotlight, while the old DDR cadre types like Lothar Bisky or Hans Modrow retreat into background. The only old head you still see a lot of is Gregor Gysi. Even Sahra Wagenknecht, who’s probably as Communist as you can get, doesn’t really match the stereotype of the old Communist mired in yesterday. So I think there’s a careful rebranding campaign at work there.

      I agree with you about the AfD and yes, I’d also leave. I’ve no interest in popping out three kids for the good of the country. I also find it troubling that the German mainstream media caters to the AfD, including talkshow invites, interviews and lengthy reports about press conferences. It also bothers me to hear them refered to as “rechtspopulistisch” and “rechtskonservativ” and other euphemisms. Nope, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck (replace “duck” with Nazi), why not call it what it is?

      I suspect the euroscepticism of the AfD is an attempt to make themselves seem respectable (though Hans Olaf Henekel maybe actually did believe it). Because most media reports only focus on the euroscepticism bit and totally ignore the party’s rampant xenophobia and their stone age views on gender. This is also what makes the AfD dangerous, because it means they are taken a lot more seriously than the NPD, DVU, Republikaner, etc… ever were.

      Besides, the people who hate immigrants usually hate the Euro and the European Union as well. Not for any actual economic reasons, but because they view the EU as foreign and other. I suspect they’re also the same people who get upset about English words in everyday usage.

      It also seems that a lot of people had a very emotional attachment to the old D-Mark, which I just don’t get (Who cares what the money is called, as long as buys you what you need?). But then I don’t get the rampant fear of the other at all, whether it’s immigrants, the Euro, the EU or the English language.

  2. sherwood smith says:

    Staying out of discussion of other countries’ politics (ours are stinky enough) but I want to thank you again for recommending GOOD BYE LENIN, which is indeed a wonderful film.

    • Cora says:

      You’re welcome. “Good Bye, Lenin” is indeed a wonderful film and one that deserves to be known better than it is (outside Germany, at any rate).

      As for politics, I think every country’s politics are stinky, when you look close enough.

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