Adapting to capitalism in Germany

Amy Scott Feb 26, 2010

Adapting to capitalism in Germany

Amy Scott Feb 26, 2010


TESS VIGELAND: The financial crisis has prompted — if not forced — many of us to change our money habits. Spend less, save more! A new concept in some quarters but hardly a radical one. No, for radical financial change, try having the Berlin Wall come down in your backyard. Twenty years ago, millions of East Germans who’d lived for decades under a communist system, suddenly found themselves in a capitalist one.

Marketplace’s Amy Scott visited Germany recently and has this report.

Amy Scott: The Central Railway Station in Leipzig, Germany is one of Europe’s largest. Its three floors of modern shops and restaurants look like a mall in any wealthy European city.

At a small sausage stand, Katrin Dost serves currywurst to travelers. She says the renovated station is a far cry from what the communist German Democratic Republic used to be like.

Katrin Dost: Just now, all is new. The buildings, the streets. And so we live better. We have new cars. And so it’s very fine for us.

But for many, the adjustment wasn’t easy. Pura Kauf was living in the GDR when the Wall came down. She was raised by staunch communist parents and had grown up believing that the free enterprise system was evil.

Pura Kauf: For me, capitalism was the system that waged wars, where people were hungry, where people were unemployed, where people were homeless.

When Western goods flooded the market, Kauf remembers feeling overwhelmed by all the choices.

Kauf: It made me anxious. At first, I just couldn’t decide among 20 kinds of mustard and 20 kinds of hand lotion.

She found she had more choice in the job market, too. She had wanted to be an artist in the GDR, but didn’t have the right political connections. When the regime collapsed, Kauf found a job as an art teacher in a center for children in Berlin. She and her then boyfriend even managed to save some money.

Kauf: After awhile, each of us had saved 12,000 marks. That was an incredible amount of money for me. And people started saying, “You have to do something with it.”

So, they decided to invest the money in the new market. That’s when Kauf got a taste of the financial insecurity that comes with capitalism.

Kauf: I don’t know … two, three, four years later, the money was basically gone.

Kauf’s job is also far from certain. The city of Berlin is heavily in debt and may have to close the center where she works. Financial insecurity has left a lot of people unsatisfied with German reunification.

Jochen Staadt is a professor at the Free University of Berlin. He says in parts of eastern Germany, unemployment is twice as high as in the West. Studies have shown that many eastern Germans long for the old days, when jobs were guaranteed and the state took care of everything.

Jochen Staadt: The people were taken by their hand and brought through life. And our society is different, completely different. So these older people, a lot of them think, feel, that the old times were better.

Elke Urban singing a Young Pioneers anthem

Elke Urban does not share the nostalgia for the old days.

Elke Urban: I hate this song. I cannot hear it longer. It’s terrible!

Urban directs the School Museum in Leipzig. She’s showing me around a replica of a 1970s classroom. The song was an anthem sung by the Young Pioneers, a communist youth group. Urban says she teaches it to children to show them what life was like back then.

Urban: It was a kind of schizophrenia.

Her job in the GDR had been to teach French to schoolchildren. But because of travel restrictions, she’d never been to France.

Urban: I had to convince my pupils, this is a wonderful culture, this is a wonderful language. You have to learn it. But you have no chance to visit the land.

Eventually Urban gave up teaching. But when the Berlin Wall fell, new career opportunities poured in. Since then, she’s founded several new schools.

Urban: For me, it was a good chance, a good beginning, but maybe for a lot of people, it was too difficult to have no preparation for liberty, for freedom.

She says she’s mostly happy with how things have turned out, even though she doesn’t have enough money to own a house or invest.

Urban: It’s too late for us. We had to have the reunification 40 years before so we had a chance. But for me, it’s not a problem. I don’t want to be rich.

More important was the freedom to work in a job she likes and to travel. After all those years teaching French, Urban finally visited Paris. She says the reality was so much more interesting and beautiful than she had imagined.

In Leipzig, I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace Money.

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