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.