Dresden, East Germany
"What are the Poles really after?" "Why ever do young West Berliners smash windows on Kurfurstendamm?" "How can Americans not have gun control?"
East Germans are puzzled by the strange undisciplined world outside their borders, if an American can judge from the recurring questions in random conversations here.
The Poles are puzzling because they don't work "diligently" to produce the food and goods they need, yet they expect their allies to keep bailing them out. Before East Germany closed the Polish Border, the Poles used to flock to this city 50 miles from the frontier and buy out East German meat and clothes and spices until there was little left for Dresdners themselves.
But then when East Germans went over to buy things that were in better supply in Poland, the Poles would be surly and cheat them, East Germans complain. One worker cited the examples of friends who were given counterfeit zlotys or shoddy goods by black marketeers. One acquiantance, he said, bought an electric drill and tested it satisfactorily in Poland, then smuggled it home in a box of mushrooms -- only to discover when he plugged it in the motor wouldn't even turn over.
Now, the East German continued, Polish shoppers don't flood East German stores.But cloth and even durable goods are nowhere to be found; they are probably all being sent to Poland in the government's economic aid. Besides, prices are going up all the time.
A machinist, an engineer, a widow, and various working-class youths of unknown occupations all echoed this unflattering view of the Poles. They knew little about events in Poland -- "first our press didn't say anything, then it talked about counterrevolution" -- but they all thought economic issues were paramount. They thought too that the Polish workers were themselves to blame for the "Polish economy" -- a phrase that in German has long meant any kind of incompetent disaster.
"They have strikes. Good," shrugged one young worker who should himself have already been at work but was whiling away the morning hours with buddies in a pub. "But they need to produce first." His expressed opinion (if not his practice) repeated a domestic theme that has been stressed by the East German Communist Party ever since economic growth and individual living standards decelerated to a crawl here in the late 1970s.
The widow did blame the Polish troubles on "unfit heads" who had been running Poland. She thought that in any case "Poles are difficult to govern" -- and she voiced some concern in hoping that everything would end well.But for her too the heart of the Polish problem is economic.
She thought that the Polish Army would have to be mobilized to harvest crops, and that everyone would simply have to buckle down and work.
Among the people I talked to, even those who were no fans of the East German system couldn't quite grasp it when I suggested that the basic issue in Poland wasn't economic at all, but rather individual human dignity. Nor could they understand why the West was helping Poland out with so many new loans.
Implicitly they are aware that their country has the highest standard of living in the entire Soviet bloc. They have no desire to jeopardize their position by some foolhardy imitation of the Poles. At the same time they dismiss the likelihood of any Warsaw Pact invasion of Poland. The Soviet Union and east Germany have shown too much "solidarity" with the Poles and helped them out too much for that, they thought.
The West German youth demonstrations of this year, some of them violent, elicit no more comprehension from the man in the street here than do the Polish strikes. One grandmother who had just visited West Berlin to get a kitchen slicer for her husband's birthday (as a pensioner she can travel to the West, and relatives there solved her lack of Western currency by purchasing the slicer for her) thought the West Berlin squatters and demonstrators were "perverse." she added, "When you have too much [prosperity] it's not good."
The engineer agreed, and feared that West Germany might "destroy itself through too much democracy."
In similar vein a worker thought West German youths had it too easy. "They should just send them [demonstrators] to the GDR [the German Democratic Republic , East Germany]. Here we have to struggle for everything, whether it's ham to cement or whatever. They're building three new nuclear plants in the GDR. But there couldn't be any protest like Brokdorf [near Hamburg, where more than 50, 000 antinuclear demonstrators gathered in March]. Here they would just send t hem to labor for two years -- hard labor."