An Opportunist Knocks: Wende Winners

To mark the 23rd Day of German Unity on October 3rd, below you’ll find a story of one of the winners of the Wende.  Bernd R. was a man I taught English to who had been the Director of a GDR pharmaceutical factory. During the upheavals of 1989/90, he managed the remarkable feat of saving this facility, and his own job. That, however, is only the beginning of this tale . . .

An Opportunist Knocks

In 1999, I spent one year teaching English in “the Saxon metropolis” of Leipzig and its environs. One of the reasons I wanted to live and work in eastern Germany was to try and learn about the region and its history including, of course, the peaceful revolution that had begun there in 1989. Initially I had hoped to find work in Berlin, but when that didn’t work out, I ended up in Leipzig. It quickly became clear that this was the best thing that could have happened for “Little Paris” (Goethe’s famously label for the city) had been the home to the protests which toppled the Socialist Unity Party (SED) regime and was in many ways more representative of the GDR experience than East Berlin, the capital and administrative centre of the country, would have been.

Goethe as GDR neon sign: "I praise my Leipzig, it is a small Paris" (photo: ed.)

Goethe as GDR neon sign: “I praise my Leipzig, it is a small Paris” (photo: ed.)

Teacher as the Student

By that point, ten years after the Wende (or turn as the upheavals of 1989/90 had become known), the prevailing sentiment was that people were sick of talking about the East German past, but my experiences showed me otherwise. As any teacher of a second language can tell you, the best way to engage a class is to let them speak about themselves and as we worked, my students’ (hi)stories inevitably seeped into our discussions both in the classroom and in the hallways afterwards.  After discovering that I had an interest in and knowledge of GDR history, I found that many were eager to share their experiences with me. In retrospect, I think it was my outsider status and the fact that I had some understanding of the past but wasn’t in a position to pass judgment (as many eastern Germans felt Wessis did) that made my students comfortable confiding in me. I am so grateful to them for doing so as it was these stories that helped me begin to piece together a differentiated understanding of the GDR and what life there was like there.

To my surprise, my private language school ended up giving me access to a broad spectrum of my fellow Leipzigers, not just the well-heeled as I had suspected would be the case. We had contracts with the City of Leipzig and several municipalities nearby to provide English-language instruction to groups of long-term unemployed, the so-called “losers of unification”, in order to render them more employable. These classes were big and made up of a cross-section of eastern German society with downsized blue collar workers (primarily middle-aged women who’d worked in the region’s factories) studying side-by-side with redundant SED apparatchiks and others.

On the other end of the spectrum were the private students who took one-on-one lessons. Prohibitively expensive for the average person, these courses tended to taken by “Wessis” (west Germans) who had been transferred to Leipzig by their West German companies. In these conversations, I’d often learn of their incomprehension at not only aspects of English grammar but of eastern Germany society and its residents. Occasionally, however, I’d get work with a local who had “made the curve” (as Germans would say) and was struggling to stay there.

Bernd R. – One of the Winners of Unification

The most memorable member of this latter category was Bernd R., a man in his late 40s who worked in upper management with a local pharmaceutical manufacturer. When Bernd first knocked on my classroom door, he had been taking private lessons with several of my colleagues for a few days with little result. A product of the GDR education system, he’d had no chance to learn English previously and, having reached middle age, was finding the language acquisition extremely difficult. This clearly frustrated him, but his lack of success only seemed to spur him on and he remained focused on the task at hand. When a concept caused him problems, he’d remove his glasses, rub his eyes and run his hand through his thinning hair for a moment before returning the silver frames to the bridge of his nose and giving me the signal to try again.

Abandoned after the Wende, this factory in the Leipzig district of Anger-Crottendorf was typical of the early 20th c. industrial infrastructure which still formed the backbone of the GDR's economy (photo: ed.)

Abandoned after the Wende, this factory in the Leipzig district of Anger-Crottendorf was typical of the early 20th c. industrial infrastructure which still formed the backbone of the GDR’s economy (photo: ed.)

During one early session, he informed me that he was a visual learner. Now technically our school’s teaching method forbade us from deviating from its conversational approach, but from time-to-time I did. This was one of those times and Bernd R. was grateful. We began to make progress and he requested that I be assigned for his remaining sessions.

While working with Bernd R. over the next few days, he told me about himself and why he was learning English. His company, it turned out, had recently been bought by a Belgian-based multinational that used English as its working language. Thanks to his management position, Bernd R. still had a seat on the company board, but its workings had become opaque to him and all he could do at these meetings was sit in silence and try to remain inconspicuous. He feared that if he didn’t learn English, his days would be numbered. This was an existential motivation few of my students had. For most, learning English was an attempt to add a line to their resumes which might impress but that would likely never be tested. For Bernd, the test was happening at every board meeting. And he was failing.

During the sessions, we spoke about his work. He had become the Director of a People’s Own Pharmaceutical Company before the age of 40. To have scaled such heights in the GDR suggested that Bernd was not only intelligent and dedicated but most certainly a loyal Party member, and not necessarily in that order. His factory produced medications for the West German market and, as a generator of hard currency, it occupied an important place in the GDR economy. As the country was rocked by the political upheavals of the fall of 1989 and the spring of 1990, the factory did not remain unscathed. When the currency union with West Germany brought the Deutschmark to the East on July 1, 1990, Bernd R. told me that he “saw the writing on the wall” and knew he had to do something. With expenses now being tallied in DM, the inefficiency built into the GDR economic order became unsupportable.

Bernd R - Bon Bon

Known colloquially as a “Bon Bon”, this is the lapel pin worn by members of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and something that Bernd R. most certainly would’ve sported on the job (photo: ed.).

Knowing his company had valid contracts with Western customers, the firm was able to generate revenue, but Bernd knew it wouldn’t last long in its current state. So, in the summer of 1990, he travelled West and found a competitor interested in investing in the plant. He then returned to the East with a letter of interest (no binding contract!) and an action plan that would see the Western firm invest 25 million DM in the facility to replace the factory’s equipment while Bernd would oversee a reduction of the workforce from 700 to 200.

Bernd R - Factory Shakespeare

Another industrial ruin in late 90s Leipzig, here in the Südvorstadt neighborhood just south of the downtown (photo: ed.).

When Bernd set about to implement the plan, the response was, as one might imagine, dramatic. The employees threatened to strike and the Ministry in East Berlin called to ask what the hell was going on. Bernd stuck to his guns, however, and while fending off the bureaucracy, watched in amazement as the plan immediately produced results. Exports to the West remained stable thanks to existing contracts, but production efficiency climbed and costs plummeted because of the dramatically smaller workforce.

As unification approached, a contract was signed with the Western investors to sell the factory and the production lines continued to hum. But Bernd’s troubles were hardly over. After October 3, 1990, the factory then came into the sights of the Treuhand, the federal government agency charged with privatizing GDR public property. The firm’s successful reorganization was deemed irrelevant by the Treuhand which wanted to include the company in its general plan for privatizing the East German pharmaceutical industry. It didn’t matter that the factory had essentially already undergone this process; as far as the Treuhand was concerned, Bernd had overstepped his authority to sell what hadn’t been his to sell. Regardless of the successful outcome of his work, there was a principle at stake and the Treuhand threatened to prosecute. “If that had happened,” Bernd told me, “I’d’ve gone to the clink.” That it didn’t come to this, was likely due to the political clout of his Western investors.

The anxiety which hung over our lessons lifted briefly as Bernd reeled off evidence of the new company’s success in the form of eight and nine figure profit and sales figure data. He was proud, but it had come at a cost. Bernd worked 14-16 hour days. “I have my first heart attack behind me,” he stated with a smile. “And, as you can imagine, I ‘m not the most loved person around,” an allusion to the public’s aversion to former Party functionaries who used their connections to make a soft landing in the turbulent post-unification period. “I know I’m hard, but I have to be if I want to survive! I had a lot of luck. I have friends – competent, intelligent – who worked in fields that just disappeared. Machine manufacturing or electronics. They didn’t have a chance. I just happened to work in an area that was competitive.”

A Nino Cerruti pen set given to me by Bernd R. at the end of our lessons (photo: ed.).
A pen set I received from Bernd R. at the conclusion of our lessons (photo: ed.).

A pen set I received from Bernd R. at the conclusion of our lessons (photo: ed.).

In my diary from the time, I find myself reflecting on this story with a quote I’d heard the previous month in a speech given by Joachim Gauck, a Lutheran pastor who’d been a prominent figure in the citizen’s movements of the fall of 1989 and who after unification headed up the government office which administered access to the files of the East German secret police, the Stasi. While no friend of the SED regime and its followers, Gauck cautioned against blanket condemnations and an unwillingness to consider the human dimension of the decisions that led individuals to work with the regime. In his speech, he offered the observation: “As far as I know, it’s never been against the law to be an opportunist in Germany.” And this is exactly how I saw Bernd R.

I knew there were some who would’ve seen him as the embodiment of all that had gone wrong in the unification process, a former fat cat who’d manipulated the system to his own advantage. And there was certainly some truth to that. But the other side of the story was more complicated and it told of an individual faced with a difficult problem using the skills at his disposal to find a solution to a problem, not the ideal solution perhaps, but a solution. Sure, he’d condemned 500 of his workers to unemployment, but he’d saved the jobs of 200. Given the way unification unfolded under the Treuhand’s auspices and the way its privatizations tended to result in the complete closure of East German industries, this was a notable achievement. There’s also the irony that many of the same people who would condemn him for his actions were the same folks who bemoaned East Germans’ lack of entrepreneurial spirit! Then as now, I find I’m able to see Bernd R’s story from both sides and that I am in no position to judge him.

By the time I finished teaching Bernd, we had spent a lot of time together. His English was improving, and while he wasn’t going to be making presentations to the board anytime soon, it was progress. And we’d enjoyed each other’s company. I was sorry to see him go and I think the feeling was mutual as on our last day he presented me with a mirrored case that contained a set of Nino Cerruti pens, the logo of his firm emblazoned on each, and his business card.

 Bernd R - case

I’ve kept this case and sometimes wonder what became of Bernd. His company still exists and is a European leader in its branch, but who knows if my student is still on board?

Opportunists knock #2 – Another nice detail I learned from Bernd was that his daughter had been a teacher of Staatsbürgerkunde, or Civics, during GDR times. This work involved instructing East German high school students in Marxist philosophy and political economy. Teachers of this subject were often amongst the most loyal Party members and frequently called upon to offer evaluations of their students in regards to their suitability for university study. Because of the deeply ideological nature of their work, these individuals were often greatly disliked. At any rate, during one of our discussions, Bernd told me that his daughter had had no problem finding new work after the Wende. In fact, she’d essentially gone from one ruling Party to another. She’d gone to work for the Deutsche Bank.

Opportunists knock #3 – My roommate in Leipzig told me about a good friend who had parlayed work teaching Marxist-Leninism and political economy at a GDR high school into a position as a regional manager for Mercedes’ Mini division in the “new German states”! When I expressed my incredulity, he explained that Party-affiliation had rarely proven to be of negative consequence for most former SEDers in the “new Germany”, rather it was seen as an indication of a ‘can-do’ attitude. He told me that he knew of many Ossis who’d been rejected for positions because they hadn’t been in the SED, something that was understood as an indication that “they didn’t have what it takes to be successful.”

  1. Anita said:

    Your best piece so far! Really Really liked this account…

    btw: you know an ad appears at an end of this piece? A Big Farm Game ad…

    • Thanks, Anita. I appreciate the feedback and will be posting more stories about my 1999 encounters in the coming months.
      And, yes, I know that my site now features ads. This is a new policy for wordpress and I will have to pay to avoid this. Am still considering what to do . . .

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