East Germany: An Example of Isolationism

Email Print


It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it; for let me not be understood as capable of patronizing infidelity to existing engagements. I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy.”

~ George Washington, Farewell address

Dr. Ron Paul’s message of non-interventionism in foreign affairs quite often receives the wrong interpretation by political "experts," his opponents or the Media in general. Not getting involved in other nations’ business somehow is seen as creating isolationism here in our own country. Or so they seem to think. To the contrary, it is this bully approach of political entanglements and artificial nation-building treaties that will eventually drive a country into a self-imposed isolationism with detrimental effects to its citizens. A harsh reminder should be WWII whose explosive start in 1939 was a direct result of the Versailles treaty by the victors in 1918 which left Germany isolated with a hack-up job of its natural borders. It was already vulnerable and left in the hands of a new mythological figure whose promise of renewal was to achieve long-lasting greatness through total war. The new enemy, of course, was another race, religion, and ideology whose motive is to delude their race and overtake their culture and way of life; however, the discernment of such matters was not left to the individual or to the community to decide but to the legal and political mechanism of the state. The mythical greatness of the state and its politics eventually failed them, and its security network with its bureaucracy and military power could not protect them from their fate nor could it achieve victory over what they believed to be "evil." What remained left of a country in ashes was once again under new occupational forces. In the end came a division of the nation that lasted forty years and left a third of its people trapped behind the Iron Curtain.

On October 7, 1949 the German Democratic Republic’s (DDR) one-party government, known as the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany), which the Soviets placed in power, proclaimed the most eastern territory of former Prussia as a "socialist labor and farm state." Its eventual isolationism was the result of a reverse effect by an interventionist policy of its superior organ that reigned over its occupied territories and countries: the Soviet Union. The DDR remained behind in development and growth not because of non-interventionism but because of total internal control over citizens and an economy to which it dictated every move to old, young, rich and poor, free or slave on how to buy and sell its goods and which had no private ownership. And this wasn’t just unique to the Eastern block countries. It seems to be a universal fact in history that when government assumes control over matters that should be left to individual citizens, it turns into a vehicle of destruction that only looks to its own ends.

When I was ten years old my father took me to the East German border which was not far from my former home. I looked over to the "other Germany" whose people once were my countrymen. I remember always hearing about it, but had never before seen it with my own eyes. The place looked abandoned and desolate on the other side, since no human life was allowed to come near its borders. The guards and their machine guns were the only human activity along the intimidating prison border. The fence stretched out for miles through fields and forest and divided anything that stood in its way. The guard towers and barbed wire fence gave me an eerie feeling as I’d heard stories of people trying to escape with the guards having orders to shoot anyone trying to "flee" their country. Mines and other devices were strategically planned along the fence within the East German territory. A total of 872 German people went to their deaths trying to escape from communist rule between 1961 and reunification.

I questioned what they were trying to keep out. It was obvious that the threat must be close. What didn’t immediately become apparent was that it was freedom itself that they feared. The fence made a visible protest against Western ideology and goods in reaching the minds and needs of the people in the East. In other words, they kept the “corrupting” influence of the West out. Only later did I become aware that the real purpose of the fences was to keep their citizens in — imprisoned as workers in an egalitarian society where individuals lived as slaves to the state in return for social and financial security. It was a place where personal freedom often remained an unreachable dream only a few miles away, where economic and national security became their daily torment in every sense of the word. It was a country ruled over by an oppressive government whose minions relied upon spying as a means of controlling their own people, and where its non-transparent and covert operations instilled mistrust and fear into their own neighbors and family. It was a country that saw a threat in anything outside their self-created fencesu2014threats that challenged their economic and political philosophy, while the state-controlled media deluged the citizenry with continual propaganda on the “success” of socialism. The fear of liberty drove East Germany into forty years of isolationism that missed the progress into the technological age.

The labor and farm state required workers in order to build products for job security that it could sell abroad for hard currency which was then used to support the retired populace with meager pension checks. The usefulness of the aged and retired quickly expired for the state, and many of them, now seen as useless, received passes to leave the country. But the capital of hard cash, which was in the hands of the sate, never trickled down to the general population. Its investments re-appeared in a gigantic military-industrial complex that only served the greatness of the empire and its political cast. Their homemade products remained ultimately "cheap" and undesirable for most Western standards. Their famous "Ersatz" goods lacked the quality and ingredients needed to make a long-lasting impression on any international consumer, but were adequate to pacify the people. The world market was closed to any citizens with entrepreneurial spirit who had the talents and expertise to create and build, but could not buy any goods with their worthless currency on the open market nor did they have access to such markets other than through illegal means. They had no legal right to establish their own businesses. Ron Paul understands that Trade Unions, NAFTA or the North American Union, if implemented by government intervention, are a direct assault on free trade and will yield similar results.

Ulrich Biele writes:

"An engineer who had been born and raised in the DDR told me once, engineering skills, or the lack thereof, had never been a problem there. Central planning was the main cause of disasters. There were “enough” producers of four stroke engines in the socialist world, so the Germans were limited to producing two-stroke engines. Innovative conceptions were either ignored and suppressed — or stolen and sold for Valuta to the imperialist Klassenfeind. One of the basic occupations of the Stasi, why they happened to be bored on spying out the intimate details of their citizens’ lives."

Their production lines also lacked the efficiency to deliver goods in a timely manner to their own citizens who were paying in DDR-Mark. It took an average citizen twelve to fifteen years before he was able to buy his first state-manufactured car, the Trabant. The two-cycled engine car with the sound of a lawn mower is now heralded as a piece of Eastern nostalgia, and yet the price of this car took almost an entire life savings before a family was able to afford it. A low-performance car, the standard edition of a Trabant carried a hefty price tag of over 12,000 DDR-Mark. A Trabant 601 S could be purchased for as little as 6,000 DeutschMarks in 1980, chump change in the West. But the sole reason for the Trabi’s not conquering the Western streets was its poor quality and lack of comfort.

Foreign companies on the other hand could order whatever goods they wanted — and received payment in Valuta (local expression for the West German Mark and other interchangeable currencies) — with no delay at all. Several companies had specialized in buying DDR goods for Valuta and had them delivered to DDR clients and even managed to gain some profit out of that. Some of these companies were covert operations of secret services of both blocks, and some were privately owned companies.

A country so controlled by its own political and social interventionism under the distant guidance of Moscow may look good on paper when one considers that everyone had a job and that prices for basic goods remained constant in relation to their pre-war status. All basic needs like groceries, energy, rent, and public transportation never had any price increases. The average monthly income was around 1,290 DDR-Mark in 1990. That’s an increase of 1,025 DDR-Mark within a 40-year time span. Yet their resources were "limited" — a word often used to explain their shortages. There was, however, no shortage of fiat money or labor. The consequences were a huge black market for whatever product or commodity imaginable and a culture of bricolage. Despite all the fiat money that was in circulation and in bank accounts, one still could not buy what wasn’t there. Empty shelves greeted the East Germans in every shop or store where only common comrades were allowed to buy goods using their DDR-Mark. It is interesting to note here that any fiat money is an inflated and worthless currency that requires a well-armed military and industrial power to protect its existence. It is not backed up with any real value such as gold, but rather through a banking system that is entirely dependent on the state as it is customary in most military dictatorships such as it was in the Soviet Union.

However, abundance greeted patrons of Intershops along the highways that were well traveled by foreigners. In theses shops the East German Mark would not be accepted, but hard foreign currency was welcome. Visitors, mostly traveling on business or family visitor’s passes, could buy merchandise well below the production cost. From caviar to cameras or (good) black and white film, construction materials, cars, and even hunting or competition guns of outstanding quality, especially Drillings from Suhl. Customers could order items and have them mailed directly to a location in the West. These shops were off limits to the East Germans. And of course there was a lot of illicit trade under scrutiny of the Stasi, a trap in order to further the absolute control of the state. Many foreign tourists were recruited for intelligence work in the West as a tradeoff for a long prison term.

DeutschMarks and Dollars could move things instantaneously. Corruption was the logical consequence of shortages. Anyone who owned “blue tiles,” as one hundred DeutschMark bills were called in Eastern Germany, could bypass official channels and get whatever he wanted — and Stasi scrutiny as a bonus. This was one of the factors which led to the fact that one third of the entire population had been filed as in active service to the secret services. Many groups of “regime critics” consisted solely of spies from different departments, be it “Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung,”"Staatssicherheit” or military intelligenceu2014all busily filing reports about each other.

My mother once recalled a trip to East Berlin, which she took by bus. As the bus reached the border control, she felt as an immediate suspect of high treason. Since Westerners liked smuggling in sausages, jam, butter or bread or any other little luxury items for their relatives, my mother and the rest of the passengers had to get out of the bus and leave their personal possessions behind. In order to give meaning to their authority and most likely make an impression of their post, they spent impregnable moments staring at the passport and the passenger’s face, as if trying to find the slightest differences between a 5-year old picture and the actual person. After passing through the unfriendly border control, each visitor is required to make the daily currency exchange of 20 DeutschMark to DDR-Mark. East German money was worthless outside East Germany, and it was difficult to spend the money within the country as well. There were no shops or restaurants in which one could spend it. She ended up not spending most of it. It was a criminal cycle that excluded the citizen in order for the state to feed itself.

Such was life in an isolated land that became a satellite state of the Soviet Empire after its military occupation in 1945. The red flag of sickle and hammer ruled over a vast territory of smaller nations with different religions, cultures and languages. The Soviet communists not only corrupted the rule of law of their own nation, but eliminated it and replaced it with a corrupt system that destroyed the culture and human decency in the satellite nations. The state became the provider, decider and executer. Like hostages, they were captives in their own country who were not allowed to build personal or business relationships with anyone outside their designated zone. The oppressive existence crippled the spirit of an entire generation. Seventeen years after reunification, East Germans still struggle with trusting in those principals of liberty that require personal responsibility for individual achievement.

Tyranny then spawns hatred toward those who impose their ways on others. When this imposition comes through government-orchestrated coups, financial aid to support other countries’ military actions, or economic sanctions, the consequences of such actions rarely benefit the citizens. In most cases, it is the citizen who is then called to shed his blood for the self-serving decisions made by his own government. Often this bailout is accompanied by shameful slogans that tell the soldier it is his patriotic duty to once more redeem his government from the consequences of its own idiotic mistakes.

With all the centuries of such government meddling in the life of people, we should be enjoying everlasting world peace by now. However, so far none of this has happened. And it never will as long as elected or imposed governments isolate men’s peaceful relations from one another to establish themselves as the deciders over human life.

Sabine Barnhart [send her mail] is a native German who moved to the US in 1980 and lives in Fort Worth, Texas. Ulrich Biele [send him mail] is a consultant in Munich, Germany.

Sabine Barnhart Archives

Email Print