• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Young in Berlin

To fly from Prague to West Berlin you have to fly to East Berlin and then take a bus through the Eastern Zone. The imbecility of arrangements of this kind tells one a lot about the politics of East-West relations, those of mutually interacting persecution mania. To go directly from East to West Germany is to experience at first hand the contrast between the absurdity of the East and the absurdity of the West. The total humorlessness of both Germanies sharpens the comedy.

The day on which I traveled on an airplane of the DDR, the German Democratic Republic, happened to be one peculiarly rich in the annals of self-parody, Walter Ulbricht’s seventy-fifth birthday. The newspapers distributed to us by the blond air hostess were stuffed with articles emulating the exercises in totalitarian oratory written by Auden and Isherwood in their socially conscious plays of the Thirties. As a connoisseur of a style which has remained unaltered through the Hitler and Stalin eras to the present day, I particularly enjoyed an article entitled “At All Times an Ear Open to All” in Der Morgen, written by “Party-Friend Otto Krauss,” which opened:

I am often asked, does the President of the State Council, Walter Ulbricht, know exactly how things look from “down below”? Yes, he does know exactly, more profoundly, than those who ask the question could ever realize. He doesn’t rely on information with which he’s provided; instead, he seizes on every opportunity to find out what particularly concerns women and men citizens, old as well as young. When he visits a factory he doesn’t just talk with the inspectors and engineers, oh no, he slips off into the yard and gets a conversation going with the work folk there, asks each about his particular job, listens to his opinions about The Plan, finds out how much he earns, what he does in his spare time, and keeps an ear open for his grouses and grumbles. He seeks out the comrade peasants in field and stall, and asks them what they think the advantages and the disadvantages of the new machinery….

In another article we are informed of the great importance comrade-friend Ulbricht attaches to art and culture. The names of his favorite paintings in a local collection are: Wilhelm Schmied’s Mansfelder Landscape, Haral Hakenbeck’s Peter in the Park, Walter Womacka’s On the Beach, and Paul Michaelin’s The Head Girl.

The unconscious self-parody corresponding to this in the Western Press was the report of a statement made in court by Chancellor Kiesinger that he had not heard of what went on in the Nazi concentration camps till 1945.

WEST BERLIN, having nothing to show except the obvious is a displayed self-parody: the Berlin of Isherwood’s landlady in Sally Bowles subsidized by Washington and Bonn. At the opera I attended a performance of Salome where a large part of the audience seemed to consist of Fraülein Schroeders, with hair set in the manner of the Midwest, but colored a rich salmon pink, and attired in purple or green dresses bought from the garishly lit stores of the Tauenzienstrasse.

Most of the people who parade in the Kurfürstendamm seem to be over fifty, though there is a chic under-thirty set. Inside the sandwich is spread a thick jam of prostitutes of both sexes.

It is true of course that Berlin always had plenty of faces like sawn logs showing the grain and texture of the wood. It has always been a city in which the psychology of the inhabitants was worn like hearts on sleeves. Up to a certain time this made it attractive, the least hypocritical, at any rate, of cities. But today there is the dreadful false artificiality of people being there for political and strategic rather than simply human reasons: though there do remain some echt Berliners who would stay there under any regime. The Angst of Berlin is more noticeable today than it was ten years ago. Before the Wall was built, it seemed to have a rationale: to receive all those refugees escaping into freedom. But today it seems to represent nothing so much as the immense weight of all the money and politics put into it transformed into steel and concrete and automobiles and movies and clothing, all glittering in the harsh artificial light. In its geographical situation, cut off from the West, and not belonging to the East either, Berlin resembles a foreign organ like a heart transplanted into a body which, left with its original heart, would have quickly died. A constant stream of blood transfusions, in the form of money and privileges and visits from cultural organizers, is necessary to keep this pump going….

IN CONTRAST to the blatant prosperity overlaying an anxious emptiness which is the tone of the city, the Free University, in the attractive suburb of Dahlem, from which there have risen such trouble and protest, seemed, in late June, astonishingly calm. The students—many of them foreigners—walking along paths under trees, carrying books under their arms, seemed like pre-Columbian (I refer to the historic events connected with the University of that name) students on an American campus. The bureau of the ASTA students’ association (Allgemeiner Studentenausschuss), in a pleasant house, with its efficient inhabitants and neatly stacked files, gave a very different impression from the chaos of the Press Bureau in the Sorbonne.

The manager of the ASTA office, See-fried Fronius, an attractive young refugee from Romania, arranged for me to meet some of the representatives of that organization at the same time as the editor of the International Student Conference magazine called The Student was interviewing them. It was a pleasant meeting in the airy house of rooms full of tables and filing cabinets. It was an atmosphere strangely contrasting with the revolutionary views, and, indeed, the events, discussed.

This conversation bore out a remark Dr. Ekkehart Krippendoff had made to me that the German students are stronger on theory than the others. Their views were more clearly formulated and directed toward their aims regarding the University and society than those of the students at Columbia or the Sorbonne. Apart from the mere fact of their being Germans, a reason for this may be that Western Germany is, after all, the result of the fusion of various interests and theories, political and economic, a “structure” put together, and equally to be analyzed and pulled apart, if ever there was one. For various reasons the Free University seems a microcosm of that society: an organization put together partly from theory (to have a really democratic institution this time!) partly from barely concealed political motive (the Western allies’ anticommunism spear-headed in Berlin).

It is hardly surprising then that the students of the SDS (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund—not the American variety) and of ASTA should scarcely differentiate between the University and Western Germany beyond it. They regarded the political actions which took up so much of their time at the University as, in fact, their education. One girl carried this idea rather far, I thought. She said: “We want to teach political science through experience of politics. As we did, for instance, when we attacked the Springer newspaper offices” (more about this later). She seemed extravagant, but the others made better sense. “We want to break down the traditional concept of the University. To do so, we have to define the social function of the University, and make it into a forum where democracy is discussed and practiced. We want to change individual learning into collective learning. We want students and teachers to work together to make a new structure. Students should participate in the administration of the University.” I objected: “Do you really mean that you want to participate, or to control the University?” A boy answered: “We want no decisions to be taken either against the wishes of the students or against those of the professors. We want participation, not dictatorship, in deciding on lectures, seminars and research projects.”

The editor of The Student asked whether there was a form of society which they thought of as their ideal. “There’s none in the East or the West. China and Cuba interest us but we don’t regard them as models for a democratic or socialist society in highly industrialized countries.” They admired Castro because he had made a revolution that has not become bureaucratized. And Che, of course. One of the young men added: “We think that the example of Cuba might nevertheless have some influence on the industrialized countries. For that reason we are interested in the development of the Third World. We think that changes will take place in the Third World which will affect the Industrialized societies.” They were not as strongly against the Consumer Society as American and French students (some of them). But “We object to a society in which all values derive from the market. Another and perhaps the main objection to the Consumer Society is that it exists by exploiting the Third World.”

I asked how they thought revolution would come about and they said they thought the problem was to “democratize isolated institutions.” The first phase of revolution was to make factories and universities work on a democratic basis. The next problem would be to coordinate in a central parliament or council these separate bases. The structure of the new society would be Direct Democracy projected from these bases. This is the Structure, and when you have the Structure then the rest will follow.

I asked whether they didn’t think that a generation of students succeeding them might not object to the administrative load that their generation, if it succeeded in bringing about its reforms, would impose on them. They answered that the reforms would result in there being a different kind of student who did not want to go back to the past. And the answer to another question was on similar lines: “How can you be sure that the Revolution you want wouldn’t end in bureaucracy and dictatorship?” The answer was, essentially, that the new Structure would alter the people living in it. They won’t fall into Stalinist traps. Also, as a lank young man with long hair and wearing spectacles, remarked, letting himself down into a chair, it is just as much a mistake to assume that future history will follow the pattern of contemporary history as to think that the past was like us. And he talked intelligently about the Middle Ages, the Greeks and the Romans.

PARADOXICALLY, when these students discussed what they wanted the university to be, they were not, in regard to the Freie Universität, being entirely revolutionary. They were perhaps going back to the ideas which were in the minds of some of those who originated it. And they were remembering legends of what it had been like in the early Fifties, when there was cooperation between faculty and students.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print