The Red and the White: Report from a French Village
The Other Germans: Report from an East German Town
Ich bin Bürger der DDR und lebe in der Bundesrepublik
After Hitler: A Report on Today’s West Germans
A French sociologist is looking at the bust of Marianne, the Spirit of Republican France, in a Breton mairie. As if for the first time, Edgar Morin stares into those terrible, blind eyes and sees her as “the Cybele or Isis of a dead civilization. At the same time, I suddenly discovered the beauty of this proud virgin’s face and realized that it produced in me a state akin to faith….” Morin’s book, The Red and the White, is the summing up of a project conducted by a team of researchers on a Breton community, but it is in effect a man’s reflections upon his own society and beliefs.
The study was carried out in the bemusing, sultry years which culminated in the flash and thunder of May, 1968. Morin interrogates Marianne: What, now, remains of the red spirit of France, the Jacobin tradition which is one pole of the bipolarity of every French commune and to which Morin knows that he irrevocably belongs? The countryside of France has been undergoing since about 1950 its second great transformation, the first being the changes brought about by the Third Republic from the Eighties onward. The intensity of the two old cosmologies of red and white begins to dim. What does this mean for the legitimacy of the parties which represent these cosmologies? Morin’s interest in the white side of things is, frankly, perfunctory. He is trying to orient himself. He is asking, I think, whether Marianne consents still to appear when the Communist Party conjures her up.
“Plodémet” is in no way typical of bipolar French small towns. It is a poor commune in the Bigouden country of South Finistère; the “bourg” of Plodémet itself is a raw little place of 1,200 people living in modern houses, dull and half-deserted in winter and revived every summer by visitors and homecomers who work elsewhere. Such Breton communities “joined France” (as Morin puts it) from their own peculiar direction, and joined relatively recently. Even in Brittany, Plodémet is odd: it combines “agricultural backwardness, high scholastic standards, red politics, extraversion….”
The historical account is a fascinating one. “Plodémet became red, not because the ancien régime had become decadent but because it never developed here.” The commune is an ecological patchwork with different micro climates every few hundred yards; those in richer areas accessible to roads and markets, where noblemen had cereal fields, did become attached to the feudal system and the ancien régime and evolved into the whites of the Breton political stereotype. But the poor areas stayed “outside France.” Paganism survived in them until the Counter Reformation. Quasi-tribal communities, with little or no church organization, they were the abode of “outlaws” and “wreckers.” And it was this population—the majority—which suddenly joined France at the Revolution “when, and because, France became a republic.” Prefeudal, anticlerical, they clung to the centralizing republic whose message of enlightenment also appealed to their outlaw sense of superiority to the feudal peasant.
In the nineteenth century, a red leadership and cadre system emerged. From about 1870, the Le Bail family of notaries (guarantors of the title to land) became a dynasty of mayors, while the extraordinary group of peregrinating rural tailors acted as “secular pastors” who carried the message of republican enlightenment about the countryside until the 1920s.
Today, Plodémet still has its “Café des Droits de l’Homme,” its boat named “Amour de l’Humanité.” But the red spirit’s religion of progress, with its contempt for the past, its passion for education, and its extra verted driving of its young outward into urban careers, has reduced the old community to a husk. The small holders, self-sufficient since the Eighties, are being obliterated by the republic’s own agrarian reforms in the past twenty years. Only now does a feedback begin. Plodémet is not simply dying out or becoming a set for the summer theater. Those who have left return as summer and seasonal visitors, bringing with them new needs which Plodémet supplies: “the urban desire for a return to nature and the past, which revitalizes native values.” Those who have remained now enjoy the pure air they have been told they breathe, and no longer hack up Breton armoires for firewood.
Morin demonstrates the recent process of “urbanization and embourgeoisement” now affecting almost the whole commune except for primitive red settlements in which the poverty, fierce radicalism, and social restrictions of the past survive. Red and white begin to approach each other, both now accepting humanist and evolutionary principles, while a new color, the blue of nonideological competence and technocracy, increasingly breaks through and finds political expression—temporarily—in Gaullism. There is no longer social inequality between red and white, and the Communist Party functions as the successor to the red republicanism of the Le Bail dynasty, “an interclass party in Plodémet moving towards a bourgeois society, not the party of an excluded or marginal class.”
Just as he is too perceptive to adopt an elegiac and conservationist view of change (and too red, in the old sense), so Morin does not wring his hands over the effects of the study on the studied. The Morin team thudded into Plodémet, it seems, in a cheerfully interventionist frame of mind. They pushed the young into forming a club which flourished for a while, much perturbing the red and white adult establishments. The study itself, on publication, infuriated the whole community and to Morin’s grief accentuated tensions between neighbors.
When he looks at Plodémet now, Morin sees among its inhabitants two interpretations of their sense of things. One is old and historicist and red, and he calls it the “palaeo-modern belief system.” It is the unitary view, in which enlightenment, technical progress, and social security are one and indivisible as the Republic which provides them is one and indivisible. The other, “mesomodern,” is more nominalist. It became common after about 1950. It is concerned with individual well-being and autonomy, even with the shy hedonism which the boys and girls of Plodémet now essay. Education becomes merely the means to career advancement rather than a self-justifying enlightenment, and novelty makes more impression than technology. Beyond this again, a few individuals—like the girl who is the last of the Le Bails—reject the petit-bourgeois pleasures of the mesomodern and grope in their styles of life for a new synthesis—in Bohemianism, in collecting electronic equipment or precious stones, in philosophical speculation—to replace the certainties of the red spirit.
The Red and the White is one of the studies of small communities rather indiscriminately marshaled into Pantheon’s “series of reports from villages.” This is less a consistent series than an interesting grab bag of books about places, ranging from journalism to academic analysis, which—in some cases—are first published a good few years earlier in their original languages. Morin provides a sensible lead-in here, with his talent for fitting up speculative models which can be tried on other subjects.
But at first sight the East German town of Neustadt-Glewe, the subject of Hans Axel Holm’s The Other Germans, seems flat and unrevealing territory after Plodémet. There is no generalization: Holm (whose mother comes from Neustadt) has written up from notes his conversations with its citizens and, with the exception of a very few connecting passages and an introduction to Neustadt’s vital statistics, has left their words intact, without commentary.
He talked with bureaucrats, young workers awash with beer, old ladies, collective farm workers, town officials, men with brave or sinister pasts. Instantly and powerfully, one recalls all the generalizations about German society and democracy which Rolf Dahrendorf made popular. This is Lutheran Mecklenburg, a historically submissive landscape. No Church-State struggle, no lay republican movement against the feudal-clerical nexus politicized the fathers and grandfathers of these people. Many of them display the classic German assumption that public life is “other,” that it is in itself amoral but that there is virtue in learning to serve civil authority while preserving personal and family standards. A man who moved to West Germany and then returned to manage an agricultural collective enunciates the rules for this pattern of behavior: Don’t get involved, mind your own business, don’t talk too much. “I’ll let the politicians handle politics for me. Anyone who wants to fix things up nicely for himself can do it here just as well as over there—it’s only a question of working hard.”
The quiet—rather than silent—majority in Neustadt-Glewe looks with critical detachment on the successive political systems which have ruled the town, and takes no particular responsibility for the excesses which those systems perpetrated in its name. Holm’s persistent catechisms about the past rouse little passion and almost no apologies. There was a women’s concentration camp at Neustadt, and in 1945, while Russian soldiers hunted down local girls and the Nazi “Prominenz” drowned itself in the lake, the prisoners used their last reserves of energy to sack the town. Skeletal women destroyed furniture and ripped up comfortable beds with kitchen knives. This is still remembered, with bewilderment and disapproval.
It is a cozy, oligarchic, slightly primitive community. Many lavatories are outdoors; the mayor eats daily in one of the two restaurants; the main after work amusement is coarse fishing for pike. The present, though dull, is increasingly prosperous. The escape to the West of a young man who swam along the coast with an aqualung has become a local legend, but more because of the official fuss it created than because anybody wants to follow his example. If the climate is oppressive for the nonconformist, this is social as much as political pressure: a young married man, caught in a blizzard on his way home, spends the night on the floor of a kindergarten teacher’s flat, and brings down on both of them a gathering snowball of petty punishments and sanctions which temporarily ruin both their lives. And these are the small-town rebels: the young worker who tries to kill himself, or the SS veteran who raves about “thousand-year-old princes like deaf puppeteers” who manipulate the German destiny.
But Neustadt is not just a locus of petit-bourgeois gratifications, where something between Morin’s “mesomodern” and his “white” belief systems represents what is traditional rather than what is new. Communism is present. This is the German Democratic Republic, in which the Party has now established stouter roots in public assent than anywhere else in central Europe. Here, the “red spirit” is the new, but it too attaches itself to antecedent beliefs: not to radical republicanism or antifeudal history (how rare is a “Platz der Republik” in either Germany!), but to popular respect for political movements with a total, cosmologically comprehensive approach. Neustadt is full of ardent believers, setting all their energies and optimism at the service of the “comprehensive construction of socialism.”
Older men who experienced the life of a Mecklenburg farm hand under private landlords are natural recruits; so too, as elsewhere in the GDR’s rural areas, are expelled farmers from beyond the Oder or from the Sudetenland. More impressive, though, are the qualified confessions of belief from those who have been hard hit by the new dispensation. “I believe that socialism is the only political system that’s worthy of mankind. If only it weren’t served up in such a vulgar way! I can hardly eat a piece of pastry without thinking how I’m supporting our republic’s baking industry.” Or the woman who was raped and lost her fiancé in 1945, who told Holm that “what I and my people had gone through ought to be the full price for being allowed to live in a socialist country….”
No doubt the town fathers of Neustadt-Glewe, like their colleagues in Plodémet, consider that Holm has made a fool of their community in the eyes of the outside world. If so, they are wrong. Their republic remains the least known country in Europe, Albania excepted, and Holm has demonstrated its continually growing authenticity. He shows, too, the climate of genuine participation and discussion within strict limits and up to a sharply defined level, which is so characteristic of the Party’s style in the GDR. It is this feature of society in particular, and the total “red” approach to change and progress in general, which many of those who moved or fled to West Germany find that they miss. This category of remorseful West-wanderers is the subject of Miss Grunert-Bronnen’s book.
A few years ago, it would not have been thought advisable to publish a book in West Germany which suggested that some of its inhabitants who were not actually spies or wreckers might wish to live in the “Zone.” That was a matter of official rather than of public opinion. While the Bonn government insisted that most of the thousands who crossed the border into the GDR annually were “criminal elements,” ordinary West Germans already took a highly pragmatic view of inter-German conditions. Suffocating lack of freedom over there, they might say, but of course their education and medical care is better and they do look after their old people…. The remark of the East Berlin chansonnier Wolf Biermann that “I live in the better half, but suffer twice the pain” expresses something which has been part of German consciousness for years.
Miss Grunert-Bronnen’s citizens of the GDR who now live in the Federal Republic are articulate men and women, mostly of left-wing views, who came West before the sealing of the Berlin border in 1961 but who have become conscious that they have left one political home without finding another. They are talking, soberly in the main, about the profound differences between the two German societies, and there is much consistency in the nature of their regrets. Erika, who works for a publishing company, is unnerved by the lack of candor and self-criticism in the West where—she feels—even the spoken word is less committing than in the East.
Manfred, a deserter from the border guards, thinks that “over there” a genuine comradeship and solidarity existed among those who worked together. Carla, bored at school with her lessons in “Diamat” (dialectical materialism), now regrets the same openness between men and women at work. A young writer from Leipzig says: “Here, most people only think about their next beer, whereas over there in the GDR egoism has in a sense been collectivized, socialized….” A tax lawyer reflects: “In the GDR there exists a loyalty to the work-place: something is going on there which affects each individual in the way he shapes his own life. Here it’s just a job; it’s Americanized. I get into my job as I get into a suit.”
This is the voice not of an exotic minority but of the strong collectivist component which exists in most Western societies: it is the oddity of the German situation which allows it to identify itself with a particular area on the map. In an acid but penetrating summary, the novelist Uwe Johnson points out certain unadmitted psychological traits in these testimonies: the identification of the GDR (never West Germany) as a fatherland which has somehow broken its compact with its children by its exaggerations of possessive, parental authority, the mixture of resentment and guilt displayed by its (mostly middle-class) sons and daughters who feel that this tetchy but imposing Vaterland has rejected them. Convincing as far as it goes, this criticism is not dismissive. The real point here is that in East Germany the “Brigade,” the shop-floor team solemnly discussing its work problems over beer and sausage between the machines, is necessary not only to those too passive to operate outside its “benevolent half-sleep” (as one witness puts it), but also to those who demand of their working lives that they should give them a sense of contribution to a larger significance.
Jürgen Neven-Du Mont’s collection of forty-two interviews in Heidelberg, unrevealingly given the title After Hitler in the English edition, is not a very satisfactory book. At first, it seems only to convey the fact that a group which includes divorced telephone operators, young married workers, retired officials, priests, and prostitutes is going to produce a gaudy variety of views. So one would suppose. In the light of Holm’s Neustadt, however, and of those self-searching exiles from the GDR, a certain indistinct pattern does emerge from After Hitler. This is a society on which the “mesomodern” personal-autonomy ethic has actually been imposed, and which feels alarmed about it. The guided stampede away from any red ethic, and from its Fascist imitation, has gone too fast. There is almost nothing the people of Heidelberg cannot afford to do in their spare time, almost nowhere they do not visit on holiday, and yet in many of these interviews a note of self-contempt is audible. The consumer heroes are tired, and they are no longer satisfied with official encouragements to “enrichissez-vous.”
Talking in a period before the West German reconciliation with Eastern Europe and the GDR had made progress, they are disillusioned with governmental reunification policy in the past and ready to accept Europe as it is today. If they have a central worry, it is the sense of personal and national power without purpose; their reflections make West Germany sound like Samson eyeless in Gaza. In this the GDR is luckier: you may not like the train, but you know where it is going.