Why East Germans shrug off events in Poland
Rostock, East Germany
"The Poles come here and strip the stores of everything," complained one Rostock construction worker. He couldn't have cared less about the Polish experiment with independent trade unions.
"Maybe the Poles asked for too much freedom," worried one lingering vacationer in this Baltic Sea resort area 100 miles from one of the Baltic strongholds of the Polish strikes. He symphatized with the aims of the Polish workers, but he figured that either "our great friends" (the Russians) would put an end to the Polish experiment, or else the Polish government itself would whittle away bit by bit what it had granted the workers.
"Yes, everybody has been paying a lot of attention to Poland," said one newspaper reader sardonically. "Everybody is either in the Army or in reserves." He feared a possible call-up for a Warsaw Pact invasion of Poland or for military pressure on Poland.
Together these comments in this old Hanseatic seaport so close to Poland indicate that there is little danger that East German workers will be inflamed by the Polish worker's heady successes.
The harping in the East German press about "anti-socialist elements" in Poland might seem to suggest a more serious official concern about a Polish impact on East Germany. So might East German party and state chief Erich Honecker's sudden freeze on rescheduling the postponed East-West German summit any time before late next year.
But Western observers interpret the oblique attacks on the Polish settlement in the East German (and Czech) press more as a Soviet assignment than as an East German initiative. The days when a hard-line East German party chief Walter Ulbricht pressed the Kremlin to invade a liberalizing Czechoslovakia are over.
Moreover, the current emphasis of the East German trade unions on "socialist competition" and "voluntary" raising of production goals by workers reflects confidence in the discipline of East German workers. If there are any fears of restiveness, the socialist competition campaign would have been postponed to a less sensitive time. Yet the campaign proceeds. Almost typically, one Rostock shop-window sign among the slogans lauding the coming Warsaw Pact manuevers in the area read: "the fruit and vegetable collective . . . Through ambitious competition goals, supports the policy of our party."
The reasons for the lack of resonance to the Polish changes in the Soviet Union's most important Eastern European ally lie in the relative East German prosperity, cynicism, the export of potential troublemakers to the West, and the frequent mutual personal dislike between Poles and East Germans.
Thus, the East Germans know that they get better wages and have a higher standard of living than the Poles. In Rostock and other areas near the Polish border they see this every weekend when the Poles flock here to buy meat, sausage, shirts, and other consumer goods. They are often contemptuous of the "Polish eceonomy," an old German slang for a sloppy eceonomy that is more often uttered by East than by West Germans these days.
Furthermore, the East German economy has the benefit not only of Germanic work habits in the population, but also of non-tariff trade links with West Germany. These give East Germany free access to the Western European Common Market. And the constant flow of West German deutschmarks and jeans -- Levi pants and jackets are practically the uniform of youth -- from West Germans to East German relatives and friends insures a much wider spread of consumer goods in the East German than in the Polish population.
This means that one particular element that helped fuel the Polish strikes -- resentment of the party elite's privileged access to hard-currency shops -- is totally missing in East Germany. Here, peculiarly, many party functionaries have less access to the hard- currency shops than the general public because of the ideological ban on Western contacts (and thus receipt of Western currency) by party members.
Moreover, the Lech Walesas and Jacek Kurons of East Germany who might be spurred by the Polish events to seek their own liberalization have been largely exported to West Germany. They leave in the periodic exchanges of East German political prisoners for Western commodities, in the 5,000 per year "family reunification" program -- or in the trickle of East Germans who flee their country over the more relaxed Hungarian- Austrian border.
Polish-East German antagonisms also reinforce the relative lack of grievances and death of ringleaders for any worker unrest in East Germany. While the East Germans regard themselves as superior to Poles in efficiency themselves as morally superior to the East Germans.
The Poles tend to view the East Germans as embodying the vices of the old Prussians, who dismembered Poland, and of the Nazis, who occupied Poland. they frequently see East German acquiscence in communist authoritarianism as a repetition of the old German acquiescence in Nazi authoritarianism. And they have notedthe contrast between West German acceptance of a moral responsibility for the Nazi past and East German denial of any connection with that past.
With such attitudes there is little natural exchange of ideas and influences between the two countries.