Thursday, June 16, 2005


Bananas: a tale of two Germanys

Part I of IV on reunified Germany

Our host Liane grew up in a small village in East Germany. She’s 30 years old now, so she was about 14-15 when Germany was reunified. Like (I gather) most Eastern Europeans who lived under communism, she has stories about the scarcity of consumer goods.

She particularly remembers bananas. The German Democratic Republic (“GDR” – East Germany) would import bananas only from Cuba, and they were a rare and cherished treat. Twice a year, s shipment of bananas would arrive in the local grocery store, and people would line up for hours to get their banana ration – one per family member.

It’s funny: hearing a story that reflects a stereotype from the past seems quaint to the point of straining credulity – like the additional fact Liane mentioned that there was only one telephone in her village when she was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Yet the stereotype comes from an underlying reality. Liane lived that reality, and her storytelling was matter-of-fact: she was clearly not exaggerating or trying to impress us. So – one banana, two times a year.

East Germans rushed headlong into reunification at the first opportunity. But the West German polity and economic powers-that-be completely dominated the process. East German institutions were swept away: many skilled East German employees were simply laid off and replaced by Westerners with purportedly superior credentials; the West German school system was imposed throughout the country; seemingly vested property rights of GDR citizens were brushed aside in favor of 50-year-old restitution claims by former owners who had long ago fled to the west. While West Germany has failed to deliver on the expected investment in infrastructure in the former GDR, West German corporations have happily extracted profits and resources from the East. East Germans earn significantly lower wages and have significantly higher unemployment than West Germans. Disgruntled East Germans express the view that the reunification was less a coming together of two halves than a conquest of the East by the West.

Obviously, the premise of reunification meant the dismantling of the communist regime, but there was an apparently heedless rush to throw out the good with the bad from GDR society. The GDR had a number of progressive laws and egalitarian social institutions -- it was apparently more progressive on women's rights than West Germany, for example -- which might have functioned well, perhaps on a state or local level, and created the kind of “labotories for social experimentation” for which the U.S. system of federalism is sometimes celebrated. Reunification ran roughshod over them.

Yet who can blame the East Germans for rushing into the embrace of their Western siblings? Could you or I so readily resist the lure of bananas and all the free-market promise wrapped in their symbolic yellow skin?


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Growing up in Leipzig, which is one of the larger cities of East Germany, I felt like in my past when reading your post. Seems like you really try to understand German mentality, and you're doing good at this :-) I wish, more Germans would try to understand the mentalities of other cultures (including the US-American)...
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