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Belinda Cooper: November in Berlin

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Belinda Cooper: Letter from Berlin — Just the Usual Economic Woes, Plus Culture

At the train station near where I stay in Berlin, there’s a snack vending machine, one that I can only imagine here in Germany. In among the colorfully-packaged chocolates and chips waiting in neat lines, there’s a row of thin, yellow booklets, each one different, that you can buy for one euro. Press the button, and out comes literature—stories and poems, mainly by little-known authors, published by SuKultur, a small Berlin publishing house. Some of them are quite good. That's commuting in Berlin: You can buy a snack, or literature. Reading material was pretty important on the train this past week, because the S-Bahn (Berlin’s overground city train, a part of the German national railway system that also receives subsidies from the city government) was unusually crowded and uncomfortable—a result of an inspection that found many of the cars’ wheels in urgent need of repair and immediately took hundreds of them out of commission. They had been neglected, it seems, due to cost-cutting measures: a reduction in personnel and equipment aimed primarily at increasing the railway’s profitability. This time it wasn’t Berlin’s fault, but the city is chronically short of money and is also saving where it can. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, West Berlin was a paradox—a heavily subsidized showcase for capitalism—and it’s never quite seemed to get the hang of frugality since the subsidies ended. As the S-Bahn’s top managers were being fired, the papers were reporting that Berlin was about to increase its outlays for culture by 16 million euros (certainly a lovely commentary on priorities). I can’t speak for Frankfurt, where the stock market is, or for the industrial centers of western Germany, where plants are closing or going to government-subsidized, part-time work, but in the capital of Berlin, which has little industry to speak of and has been claiming bankruptcy for years, no one’s really talking about the economy. (A friend who has recently traveled in western Germany assures me that the situation is no different in cities like Hamburg and Munich.) There are various theories about this, but to me, it’s not too hard to explain. As we’ve all heard by now, Germany actually has a social safety net. Despite reductions in recent years, it’s still the case that no German has to go without health insurance after losing a job, people’s pensions are not privatized, and since Germans tend to rent rather than own—a result of tenant-friendly laws and good public housing—there isn’t much danger of losing your home. People are not suffering personally any more than usual, unlike Americans. The social welfare system works, so far.

Belinda Cooper: Revolution Redux?

I’ve been watching the news from Iran and thinking about East Germany, where in 1953, workers rose up in a popular rebellion that was rapidly and violently suppressed. Afterward, the head of the East German authors’ guild reprimanded the East German people for losing the government’s confidence. In response, poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht famously wrote, “Would it not be easier...for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?” It’s amazing how well Brecht’s words could be applied to Iran’s leaders today. The 1953 uprising failed, but in 1989 (twenty years ago this year) East Germans—along with people all over Eastern Europe—successfully took to the streets and brought down their leaders and a whole system. While living in West Berlin and working with East German dissidents in the two years leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was able to share some of the excitement of those days, so at least some of what’s happening in Iran feels familiar. Of course, Iran isn’t Eastern Europe and comparisons are facile. But dictatorial regimes share many features—not least of which is discomfort, even shock, when their citizens begin to show signs of independent thought. Condescending paternalism is a common trait of leaders who believe they know what’s best for their unruly children. Part of that shock comes from finding their own words used against them. The Iranian regime, like East Germany's government, supports its claim to power with the language of popular revolution (more credible in Iran than in Germany, where the popular revolution never actually happened, but was nevertheless part of the Soviet-imported mythology). People have grown up hearing the slogans of revolution, have watched them be perverted, sometimes even cynically have used them to get what they want, and are now learning to turn the catch-phrases around to their own purposes. In East Germany, demonstrators took up the chant “We are the people!” echoing and inverting the government’s constant invocation of the will of “the people.” In the same way, Iranian demonstrators have co-opted revolutionary slogans and behavior, like nighttime chanting from the rooftops and the color green. It’s hard for a regime to claim that protesters using its own symbols and slogans are counter-revolutionaries or traitors. And it also reflects the fact that, at least at first, most demonstrators are not trying to change the system, but to force it to adhere to its own promises. It was not until the Wall fell that the tenor of the demands of East Germany’s protesters changed, from reforming the East German system to reunification with the West (at which point, the slogan changed to “We are one people!”). For now, most Iranians aren't demanding a fundamental change of system, but the right to have their ballots counted. But the language and symbols come later. First, people have to come together.



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