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Steve Hansen: German socialism under USSR was a failure

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Posted: Monday, September 11, 2017 11:01 am

Here’s a look at why everyone doesn’t embrace the glories of socialism.

Get ready to step into my time machine, and we’ll take a 1960s trip back to East Berlin. But first, a little history for those who are no longer taught history.

In 1945 at the end of World War II, the capital city of Germany was divided into four zones by victorious allies. These were the French, United Kingdom, American and Russian sectors. Three became known as “West Berlin” while the Russian zone was called “East Berlin.”

Although not the original intention, it was the perfect setting for an experiment in social engineering by taking a homogeneous, industrious group of people and comparing their standards of living in two very different socioeconomic systems.

At the end of the war, all of Berlin was in ruins. But after 20 years, there was a stark difference between the east and the west. The western side had flourished under economic freedom and capitalism, but the eastern side? Well, that’s another story.

By 1961, too many East Berliners had seen the reality of socialism, and thousands were fleeing to the western side. The Russian answer was not to reexamine their system of government, but simply build a wall.

However, it wasn’t constructed to keep people out. It was built to keep citizens in. Anyone who tried to escape was shot on sight. After the wall was up, a brief standoff between the East and West took place. Soon thereafter, authorized American military personnel and diplomats could once again, travel to the bizarre eastern side of the city.

And now, if you’ll step into my time machine, here’s what you would have seen in the 1960s:We enter East Berlin through what is known as “Checkpoint Charlie.”

Here’s where border guards examine our credentials. After a few minutes, we are allowed to proceed.

There is an immediate feeling of somberness once we drive down the strasse. Buildings look dull and gray. Some of them on the side streets still wear bullet holes from the war. There are no advertising lights or signs. Everything has a dark and dreary feeling.

Few cars are on the streets. Some are a handful of strange vehicles called Wartburgs, driven mostly by party officials. On rare occasions, one might see a Russian version of an old pre-war Packard called a ZIS-110.

Most cars here are little East German Trabants. They are poorly built two-cycle government creations that smoke like old chainsaws. These are quite a contrast to the thousands of modern Mercedes, Opels, Volkswagens, German Fords, along with many other makes that are seen on the Western side.

In the east, there aren’t that many people on the sidewalks. Those you see have no smiles on their faces. Some try to be polite but say little — especially to strangers. After all, one never knows who might be listening and could report any comment to state authorities perceived as contrary to official party doctrine.

Americans love consumerism, and we are shocked upon entering a government-controlled department store. The few items available on mostly empty shelves are far inferior to Western goods. You would be disowned by your wife or girlfriend if a gift came from an East German department store.

After all, with no competition or incentives to make things better, what can one expect? But as bad as these items are, lines form for a few available necessities.

Food and liquor are below the standards of America’s worst restaurants. Alcoholic beverages are better used as toilet bowel cleaners. Fresh vegetables are rare, and meat requires strong teeth to chew. While health care is an entitlement for all, it’s not readily available to the vast majority.

East German leader Walter Ulbricht’s pictures are everywhere. It’s as if he is some sort of god ruling over this strange science fiction-like domain. Of course, the average citizen in the street has no real say as to whom his or her leaders are.

But it’s getting late, and time for us to return to the Western side. There are anxious feelings about getting back to the part of the city where people actually smile, laugh and enjoy the fruits of what capitalism and competition bring.

The East German experiment ended in 1990, as the entire country, including Berlin, was reunited with the West. This is not to say the whole socialism thing was a failure. The regime actually did achieve a true egalitarian state. With the exception of party leaders and a few other favored governmental individuals, there is certainly no doubt that everyone in East Berlin lived an equally miserable and depressing life.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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