GHDI logo

A Western Observer on East German Passive Resistance (1982)

A Western observer describes the lack of work-ethic in the GDR, where all performance incentives were missing. While perilous for the East German economy, the citizens’ disinterest in work served as a form of silent protest against a rotten system in which active engagement was not worth one’s while.

print version     return to document list previous document      next document

page 1 of 2

At the entrance to the restaurant a sign reads: "Please wait, you will be seated." In front of the sign are the customers, who are disciplined about forming a line. Behind the sign lies a completely empty restaurant. Nobody comes along to seat the customers. No guest dares to sit down at a table; he wouldn't be served. For years this has been the custom in the GDR. When the signs were recently removed, the customers remained standing at the entrance, feeling uncertain and waiting for a sign from the staff. A well-worn habit. The citizen knows that he can't force another worker to provide a service. He himself would not be prepared to do this. The prevailing unwritten law is that it's not the customer but the working man who is king. In the preamble to the "Labor Law Code," it says: "Out of the burden of unfree labor for parasitic exploiters emerged the free labor of workers for themselves and for society." This is taken at its word. Free labor is first for myself, second for society. Although many are unfamiliar with the text of this law, everybody acts according to this interpretation.

The waiter lets the tables stay empty, places (for no reason at all) a "reserved" sign on some of them, serves slowly and sullenly. The next day he's attending briskly to the customers, serving them obligingly and cheerfully. In the first instance he's not in the mood for customers. He finds it more important to chat with the girl from the kitchen staff, to go over the latest soccer results with his colleagues, or to read the paper. In the second instance the waiter is in the mood for customers. It pleases him to demonstrate how well has mastered his craft. His personal well-being is more important to him than tips.

The case of the waiter is exemplary. It applies to the entire country. At the vegetable co-op there's a sign saying "Closed for receiving goods" – the salesladies have gone to get hold of some boots at Salamander*. The line is getting longer at the supermarket cash register – the saleslady is discussing her favorite song with her girlfriend. At the housing office, all office doors are locked during official visiting hours; there is resounding laughter behind one of the doors, a colleague's birthday is being celebrated. Everywhere the motto is: what's private comes before catastrophe. When a customer complains, there are rarely consequences for those who've been criticized. The angry citizen is assured that the authorities have "evaluated his criticism in the collective.” Normally, the evaluation is limited to a single sentence: "Don't push it, Wilhelm!" No boss is going to pick a fight with a member of his staff over trifles like this. If he dares to do so, he can be sure that the admonished worker will give notice right away. When a customer complains, it usually has consequences for himself. He had better not be seen around that place, because he's tried "to make mincemeat out of" one of his own kind. This is a high form of insult, for which the punishment is contempt. In a bicycle shop in Halle, a saleslady refused on principle to sell anything from the storage room for years. She didn't feel like going back there, where she might have even had to climb a ladder. If items weren't on hand in the sales room, then they weren't available. This hardly astonished the customers; they're accustomed to not getting the simplest things. After two years, it dawned on HO-Zentral** that inventories were excessive and sales low. The saleslady was fired on the spot – a rare occurrence in the GDR.

* Salamander: a West German shoe store chain – trans.
** Handelsorganisation-Zentral: the headquarters of the GDR "trade organization" – trans.

first page < previous   |   next > last page