Russians Also Poisoned My Friend's Great-Grandma (And other lessons learned in Germany)
If you’ve visited Berlin on vacation, you might think Germany is all hipster coffee shops and fingerless gloves (these are called stulpen and I love them). But go outside the city, and you’ll learn Germany isn’t one big liberal love fest welcoming immigrants with open arms.
As of February, the Berlin Wall has been down longer than it had been up, but the country still has its divisions, and the Soviet legacy I saw while celebrating Easter with my friend’s family — who are the kindest, and most tolerant people you’ll meet — surprised me.
To start, of everyone I met in the northeastern state of Brandenburg, only my 30-something friend (who I’ll call ‘Emma’ because Germans are obsessed with privacy) speaks English. Her sister and their friends, also in their 30s, learned Russian as a second language and I think I’m the first American they’ve ever met.
Emma’s grandmother was 18 when the war ended. I felt awkward asking her questions about this time, but after hinting my interest over tea in her kitchen, she happily shared post-war memories. I don’t think I’d ever heard the German perspective from someone who wasn’t a nazi or concentration camp survivor. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a live, first-person account of anyone from that time. Emma translated her grandmother’s words:
When the Russians were coming, she and everyone in her village packed into a train, destination unknown, to avoid being raped and/or burned alive in their houses. Her mother nearly died after the Russians poisoned the water. 26 million Russians, more than half civilians, died fighting the nazis once Hitler betrayed their alliance. They wanted blood.
Now I know what you may be thinking, “Serves those Germans right after murdering millions of innocent people.” After seeing images of skeletal Holocaust victims the day before, at first I struggled to find compassion for these Germans who suddenly found themselves on a crowded train. We all like to imagine we’d be different from them. We’d be the ones risking our lives to save others. The heroes. But most of us are average people just trying to live our lives.
After returning to her hometown, Emma’s grandmother lived in a stable and worked at a bakery, getting paid in bread. It’s funny the things people remember. She said that toilets really confused the Russians. They used them for sinks and put fish in them. When a fish disappeared down the drain, the soldiers shot the toilet to try to catch it. This story made me laugh, and she laughed. She is a jolly grandmother who does not seem as traumatized as I felt for her. These stories happened so long ago they must feel like they belong to someone else. Or maybe it feels like it happened yesterday. Or both.
After the Allies defeated the nazis, the world wanted to prevent the Germans from going on another murderous rampage, so the country was divided into East and West. The Soviets controlled the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and France, Great Britain, and the U.S. controlled the Federal Republic of Germany in the West.
In brief, the western side of Germany was a capitalistic success, enjoying wirtschaftswunder, “the economic miracle” propelled by reconstruction money from the Marshall Plan, the introduction of the Deutsche Mark, and stationed U.S. soldiers spending cash. To prevent the spread of capitalism and more East Germans escaping to the West, during the Cold War, the Soviets put up the Berlin Wall. The wall came down in 1989 and Germany reunified in 1990.
Since then, the German government has spent nearly $2 trillion (you read that right) to help the ex-communist areas develop, which they quickly did in the 1990s. But despite the incredible financial investment, eastern Germany is still a lot less wealthy than its western side. Wages and productivity are lower, unemployment higher. And most of Germany’s large companies are in the west.
In Emma’s town, people don’t seem to have any ill will toward the Soviets who occupied them. In fact, Emma’s grandmother claims that having Russians run things had no impact on their life. If anything, she says, they brought order to the chaos and helped get their lives back to normal.
So it seems that after the initial post-war rape and pillaging, the East Germans accepted their fate and got on with it, and many of the older people here are nostalgic for that life. Even my friend, who was a child when the Berlin Wall came down, denies they ever had communism, but rather socialism. Despite the Stasi (secret police) forcing people to spy on their neighbors; her family members waiting in food lines; and her parents being denied opportunities because they were Catholic. For outsiders, this is hard to wrap our heads around.
“Even if you don’t like the system, it shapes you, it becomes part of you. How could it not?” Helmut Holter, the education minister for the eastern state of Thuringia, reflects in a recent New York Times article. As the Times notes, When people marched against a crumbling communist system in 1989, many people did not want democracy, “They wanted prosperity and authority.”
When communism collapsed, so did inefficient factories. And efficient ones. As The Guardian notes, west German industrialists bought factories in the east and deliberately ran them into the ground to kill competition. Millions of people lost jobs, not just factory workers but also researchers, teachers, and other professionals.
Symbols of life under the Soviet Union remain in Emma’s town. Communist buildings. Public art celebrating the working people. Even the cemetery has a section for Soviet soldiers.
The town is small and aging, with the young folk moving west to improve their job prospects. In fact, Emma’s childhood school closed because there aren’t enough kids to attend.
In September, the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party won 20.5% of the vote in former East Germany, infuriating those who don’t support the anti-immigrant, anti-EU party. As with Trump and Brexit and France’s National Front, talking heads and academics theorize that those who voted for the AfD don’t necessarily support the party, but they’re angry at being left behind and, in this case, want to stick it to arrogant western Germans.
“The AfD is especially popular among east German men. Because they are the losers of reunification,” says Cathrin Schaer, an editor with Handelsblatt Global. “Many of them had full-time, government-secured jobs before 1989. Many east German women went west and the eastern males have also apparently had to deal with a lack of potential wives. Some analysts even blamed feminism for making those unfortunate eastern chaps feel less manly.”
“From their days behind the Iron Curtain, they are still carrying the baggage of political expectations that today cannot be fulfilled,” says Stefan Berg in Der Spiegel. “The hate is probably also the result of jealousy for the chancellor’s personal devotion to the refugees.” Angela Merkel grew up in East Germany and worked as a physicist in the GDR. But some view her as a traitor who cares more for immigrants than those in the east.
But eastern Germany is not all ex-nazis, resentment, and communist spies. Everyone I met was quietly pleasant. Warm even. Though I did laugh out loud when my friend greeted the brother she hadn’t seen in six months with a handshake.
Here, they don’t go to restaurants or bars to hang out, but rather share a beer in the garden — a beer garden, if you will. “How do you meet new people if you’re just hanging out in your yard?” I asked. Emma said there are special events, such as the Easter Fire, a tradition the GDR once squashed, but that the people have since brought back.
Another tradition that’s making a comeback: the Sorbs mischievously moving people’s lawn ornaments and outdoor furniture the night before Easter. Here, the Sorbs are considered the original Germans, Western Slavic people who moved to the area 1,500 years ago and who still wear traditional dress, but who are part of modern society. They have their own language and are a protected minority.
Even though Emma’s family lives in the middle of nowhere, they’re only a short drive from a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a massive public park that extends into Poland. Prince Hermann von Puckler-Muskau created Muskauer Park in the 1800s and dedicated his life to traveling the world to seek out ideas to develop his garden back home.
An interesting aside, after years of renovating bombed-out Muskauer Park, its New Castle opened to the public in 2008 and is now one of the oddest museums I’ve ever been to. They portray its former prince as a hypersensitive jerk who played pranks on people and asked his wife for a divorce after blowing all her money on his landscaping dreams. The museum also has an indoor ride, which seems like a baffling waste of taxpayers’ money.
Emma’s grandmother used to cross the bridges in these gardens all the time when all the territory belonged to Germany. Due to post-war border shifts, the gardens now span Germany and Poland. Of course, throughout history, borders and dynasties shifted all over the place.
It’s amazing what people can live through and how fast things can change. Decades before Germany reunited, the West set up a federal agency to help its people learn from and reckon with its pastso they don’t fall prey to another totalitarian regime. But we’re always repeating our past, aren’t we? After seeing the latest World War II film, we all say, “Never again.” But genocide and ethnic cleansing has not stopped. We still elect populist blowhards and use immigrants and other countries as scapegoats.
But little by little, we move in the right direction. And as crazy as the world feels now, as I look around at buildings that were bombed to hell in our grandparents’ lifetime, I think, “Things could be worse.” This gives me faith in the resiliency of this world.