Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How TV changed in East Germany

The fall of the wall is exciting. Especially for East Germany. So many things change in our lives. So do our TV programs. Overnight, we have access to all these new TV channels. Actually, there are only three new channels but that means our TV options have doubled. Finally, after 40 long years of yearning for good and entertaining TV, we have it all.

"The Wheel of Fortune" is the first show I watch on one of these new stations. It is a smash hit! I am probably more excited than when the wall came down. All this energy and passion radiates right into our living room. It is ecstatic.
"I want to buy an 'E'," demands Werner, the contestant.
Bing, bing, bing.
"I want to solve. The word is 'Wiedervereinigung' (=Reunification)." says Werner.
Wow! At that moment, I am standing on the couch, scream 'Jaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa' (which means something like 'yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeees') at the top of my lungs, and jump up and down like if Germany just had won the Soccer World Championship.

The Pfeiffers (name is changed) share my excitement for the show. Mr Pfeiffer is our Physics teacher and his wife our Math teacher. Their declared mission is to get on this show. No matter what and how long it takes. They are so serious about it that they manage to get on the show after only two months. Watching this historic moment becomes a mandatory requirement for passing both of their classes.

The show is about to start. My eyes are fixed on the TV. A spotlight randomly selects three contestants from the audience while the lights are dimmed in the studio. The beam of light dances through the audience. It stops. Rita from Düsseldorf is the first contestant. The studio is dark again. It is so quiet that you can hear the light racing from one end to the other. Then it stops again. Horst from Munich is the next lucky one. He stands up and raises his arms to a victory pose. This is the last chance for the Pfeiffers. The spotlight flickers again. I wish it would stop at Mr or Mrs Pfeiffer. But it does not. What a bummer! But there is still a chance that I see them in the audience. "There! There they are!" I cry out. One, two, three tenths of a second. There they are sitting, smiling, and clapping. It is one meaningless moment for the show, but a big moment for our little town.

The next day, the Pfeiffers arrive at school. The two superstars get off their private jet (I meant to say car), put on their sunglasses, and walk in slow motion, it seems, into the school building. People line their way left and right. Cheers, tears, applause. The Pfeiffers made it. They arrived at a pinnacle of fame.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Leipzig - the City in East Germany - is where it all begun

Source: Website of St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig

Recently, my family and I went back to Germany for a short vacation. Traditionally, we always take a trip to Leipzig. Leipzig has about 500,000 inhabitants and is situated in Saxony about 120 miles Southwest of Berlin.

Already in 1813, Leipzig played a prominent role in world history. In the Battle of the Nations (also known as the Battle of Leipzig), Napoleon suffered one of his greatest defeats which led to his downfall and marked an important turning point in history.

In October 1989, another memorable turning point in history was initiated in Leipzig. What begun with hundreds of people gathering for peace prayers in the Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church), turned into hundreds of thousands of people by the end of October 1989. Each Monday after the church service, masses of people would then march peacefully through the city of Leipzig and chant "Wir sind das Volk" or "We are the people!". Not only gathered people in Leipzig, but also in other East German cities to demonstrate against the socialist regime.

The protesters, especially those in Leipzig, walked on the fringe of a violent escalation. Security forces were alarmed and ready to intervene. Hospitals were prepared for the worst case stashing away blood for potential casualties. Luckily, the leaders in East Berlin did not give orders to end this movement with brute force.

The Monday demonstrations (known as "Montagsdemos") increased the pressure on the East German government vehemently. This internal pressure ultimately led to the Fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Why Reagan was critical for East Germany

"Tear down this wall!" At the time, I did not quite understand the significance of former US president Reagan's words. In my childlike eyes, everything was going very well in East Germany. After all, we had a good life. But his speech also raised questions in my mind: Why is he asking the Soviets to open the gate? Why did we erect this wall? How would life be like without the wall?

Reagan gave that speech on June, 12 1987 in front of the Brandenburg Gate. He addressed former Soviet leader General Secretary Gorbachev with his famous words "Tear down this wall!" Whether or not to use this sentence in the speech was controversial because it bore the risk of offending the Soviets and further increase tensions between the East and the West. Reagan decided to include the sentence. And with it, his speech made history.

Some people doubt that Reagan's speech had an actual impact on subsequent historical events. I personally believe, that his speech made a huge difference. It raised some very critical questions in the minds of the East Germans and gave hope to those opposing the totalitarian system. It brilliantly captured the zeitgeist and made America's position and support for a unified Germany very clear. Until today, it remains an important milestone and event in the German history. 

Fast forward to 1:55 min to listen to these famous words: "Tear down this wall!":

Click here for the complete transcript of the speech. Learn more about the speech on Wikipedia.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why Socialism failed in East Germany

In my personal studies about Positive Psychology, I came across a very good explanation in Tal Ben-Shahar's book "The Pursuit of PERFECT". The key to answer the question why socialism did fail lies in an assumption about human nature. Capitalism has a constrained vision of human nature. Capitalists believe that human nature and in particular everyone's self-interest cannot be changed. It is better to accept this fact and leverage people's self-interest for the common good. Utopianism assumes that human nature is unconstrained and therefore can be changed. Basic human instincts can be altered and self-interest can be replaced by altruism. Eventually, one could create a society made up of superhuman beings being in control of their human nature.
Socialism was founded on a wrong assumption. People did not change their human nature. We, in East Germany, maintained our self-interest. On higher political levels this led to misappropriation of resources and in everyday life self-interest decided about the allocation of consumer goods. In the end, it was also self-interest or human nature that led to the Change. See also previous posts about the drivers for change (Freedom and Material Desire).


Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Role of Music in East Germany

As in every country, music played an important role in East Germany. German classics were an important part of East and West German culture. Unlike the West, however, the East also used music to help internalize the socialist body of thought from a very young age. Ideology combined with music made socialism somewhat more fun and accessible to children. Most of the melodies were quite catchy and made the ideological message even stronger, more compelling, and stick better. In this post, I want to introduce a very popular song. So popular that Erich Honecker (former head of East Germany) even wanted this song to be played at his funeral. Its name is "The Little Trumpeter" ("Der kleine Trompeter"). Everyone in primary school had to learn this song by heart. The story is about a cheerful, good, and loved man, the Trumpeter, who is shot during a peaceful event. The song is very sad and one really feels like having lost someone very dear. The Little Trumpeter is based on a real story in which a member of the "Rote Frontkaempferbund" (paramilitary organization of the KPD, the German Communist Party) is shot by a policeman during a rally of the KPD in 1925. 

  1. Von all unsern Kameraden, war keiner so lieb und gut, wie unser kleiner Trompeter, ein lustiges Rotgardistenblut.
  2. Wir saßen so fröhlich beisammen, in einer so stürmischen Nacht; mit seinen Freiheitsliedern, hat er uns so glücklich gemacht.
  3. Da kam eine feindliche Kugel, bei einem so fröhlichen Spiel, mit einem so seligen Lächeln, unser kleiner Trompeter, er fiel.
  4. Da nahmen wir Hacke und Spaten, und gruben ihm morgens ein Grab; Und die ihn am liebsten hatten, die senkten ihn stille hinab.
  5. Schlaf wohl, du kleiner Trompeter, wir waren dir alle so gut. Schlaf wohl du kleiner Trompeter, du lustiges Rotgardistenblut.

English (my own translation):
  1. Of all our comrades, nobody was as nice and as good, like our Little Trumpeter, a cheerful Red Guardsman's blood.
  2. We sat so joyous together, in a so stormy night; with his songs of freedom, he made us happy.
  3. There came an inimical bullet, during a joyous game, with a blessedly smile, our Little Trumpeter, he fell.
  4. So we took hoe and spade, and dug him a grave in the morning; And those who loved him most lowered him silently.
  5. Sleep well, you Little Trumpeter, we were all so close to you. Sleep well you Little Trumpeter, you cheerful Red Guardsman's blood.