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A Liberal Western Journalist Praises the Progress of the GDR (1986)

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People over there, who don't have Liberty with a capital L, enjoy the smaller liberties their state guarantees them. Even this could be seen, in a preliminary way, back in 1964: "They live out their modest interests and hopes, and have their hobbyhorses. Once again, the private sphere serves as a place of refuge where one can escape the reach of politics, the same with private life. Education and training also offer a type of refuge." Since then, these tendencies have become even stronger. Günter Gaus, Bonn's first Permanent Representative in the GDR, coined the term "niche society" to describe this. The niche, according to his definition, is "the preferred space in which people there leave everything – politicians, planners, propagandists, the collective, the grand objective, the cultural heritage – behind . . . and spend time with family and friends watering the flowers, washing the car, playing cards, talking, celebrating special occasions. And thinking about how, and with whose help, they can secure and organize what's needed, so that the niche becomes even more livable."

It's no different with us; why should it be? And Gaus is right: a certain distance from the state shapes life within the niches, but they exist inside socialism, not outside socialism. Niches are not the breeding ground of opposition. In fact, the Party, the social organizations, and the factories do a lot to make people's niche existence possible in the first place. Stamp collecting, ornamental fish breeding, hunting, and fishing – everywhere there are groups and circles, clubs and organizations. Sports of every kind are pursued. More than 4 million GDR citizens (one quarter of the population!) earned a sports badge in 1986.

The favorite niche for people over there, however, is their own "dacha." This might be a garden plot with a pergola, an old farmhouse in the country, or a hut in the forest. Although the word "dacha" comes from the Russian, the thing itself does not. (In Thuringia, people of small means always had their "watering places," a small garden, a meadow patch, a little corner of the woods.) The Party has nothing against this. "Why shouldn't a man have a dacha," asked Kurt Hager. "A certain part of your public sees something totally anti-socialist in this. I see something completely natural in it."

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