East Germany, that is.
I’ve been trying to write alot lately about the people that I encountered in the place I have been facetiously calling “Bad Germany,” by which I mean of course the erstwhile soviet satellite, The German Democratic Republic or Die Deutsche Demokratische Republik. I have a strange short story making the rounds with small journals about an encounter that a fictional drug dealer has with East Germans trying to smuggle certain items out of the country. I can’t get any takers although it’s a pretty good story. The problem is I think that the GDR is a hard country to talk about in any way that is at all positive. So many bad things have been said about it, and it WAS a problematic place that only existed for a short while relatively speaking. One says East Germany and people immediately think: The Cold War, the Stasi, spies, enforced conformity, censorship and the inability to travel. Finally, we think of a population imprisoned by — guess what? — a wall!.
It concerns me though, that the GDR is being forgotten as an alternative place with anything at all of value to offer, in the triumphalist narrative of US style democracy and how great it is.*
In diesem Hinsicht (oops — I start speaking German when I think about Germany) In this context, I have been watching the tv show Counterpart with great interest. I love the weird, retro look of it, and the fact that it is situated in Berlin. I haven’t been to Berlin in years, but watching Counterpart, I want to go back. What a strange haunted place it is. The show captures the texture of East Germany for me. But what I love most about it is the way it is handling the image of a divided city and a divided world.
Just to explain: The premise of the show is that our entire reality has been split in two and reproduced through some strange accident that occurred around the same time as the Berlin Wall came down.
The origin of this split is revealed in the episode “Twin Cities,” and the ep does something really important in my view.
It situates the scientific research, the accident, and the resulting “experiment” in East Germany, and specifically in East Berlin.** The point the show is making very simply is that it is in the East and not the West where the magic and the brilliant innovation are happening. The East is not a place where research is dead and no thinking happens because there is no competition, read capitalism. Far from it. Something called “the Light Source Synchotron” misfires and creates a duplicate world, including a duplicate of the scientist himself. What happens? The scientist Yanek encounters his double coming down an opposite set of steps in investigate the accident that has happened on his side.
What do they do? Fight? Nope. They become partners in an exciting experiment and they assemble a team of doubles — matching people from either side, to study the phenomenon. All goes well, until the matter of the gift. Derrida would love this part. For him a gift is also Gift which is the German word for poison. The giving of a gift engenders loss in one reality and not in the other. From this moment, and from just two identical families, the difference begins to grow.
Things fall apart, and the collaboration becomes a competition and then dissolves into enmity.
“The experiment was perfect. It was corrupted by our pettiness,” Yanek tells the other Yanek. Marxist self-critique remains intact apparently. In another resonant moment, another scientist on the team invokes collective consciousness. Juma, who is — significantly in my view — Afro-German, argues that the collective good can win out.
Ideas of a socialist society remain, buried under a disaster — an unfulfilled possibility.
I don’t know where the show will take us, but this glimpse of a troubled, brilliant, visionary GDR is one that I admire and value.
*And now we’re currently seeing how great it isn’t. How our country is gradually — or not so gradually — turning into a place of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. I read the other day that the socialite Brooke Astor had a relative small NYC apartment, and the rich people that I knew in Manhattan had a certain healthy shame about what they had. They gave away money like mad, because apparently the tax rates were higher on the wealthy than they are now. You know you’re in trouble when you look with admiration at incredibly wealthy people and think about how modestly they live compared to now.
** The show is careful to show us that things are far from perfect in East Germany. Janek is planning on going to the West, because his son has unorthodox political beliefs and he is worried about him. The Stasi do make an unwelcome appearance with fatal results.