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

As a strong supporter of East-West détente, the liberal journalist Theo Sommer presents a rather positive picture of East Germany’s progress – one that emphasizes advances in material consumption and reinforces the SED-dictatorship’s image of stability.

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Twenty-two years ago, three journalists from Die Zeit detected some initial signs of change: small indications of an incipient prosperity; attempts at a new economic policy in order to end Stalin's managed economy, and to use instead the individual's own interest in improving his standard of living as a spur to progress; a strategic loosening of restrictions in the fields of art and literature; the gradual development of a separate GDR state consciousness. First signs – but the prevailing impression still remained: little is changing here. Stagnation, timidity, dull gray prevailed.

GDR, 1986: the country is worlds away from that point. Movement instead of stagnation prevails, timidity has given way to a self-confident equanimity, everywhere gray is yielding to more cheerful colors, the depressing gloom has evaporated. No more evidence of party functionaries shying away from contact with the West. No more aggressiveness in discussions, not even in the midst of controversy. No blatant agitation. Like Ernst Timm, the District Secretary of the Rostock SED, many people have said: "Back then, yes, we agitated you [West Germans]. Time has moved on, a great deal has become more real. It is easier to talk with each other when one knows the other's point of view without giving up his own."

There are still placards, banners, and propaganda banners, especially after the XIth Party Congress of the SED, but they are far fewer in number. Some are formulated in a way that flouts the rules of bourgeois grammar at the very least ("Firmly on the Course of the Main Duty"). For others, the logic doesn't seem quite right. "A World without Atomic Weapons until the End of the Century" begs the question of whether the plan is actually to replenish all of the nuclear weapons arsenals afterwards. Yet we really need not take these slogans too seriously. Citizens of the GDR let them roll off their backs, just as the average West German does with television ads. And, in official party circles, the "Bannerism" of the overzealous tends to be laughed off condescendingly: "We need transparence [Transparenz], not banners [Transparente]."

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Above all, the country seems more colorful, its people have become more cheerful (although one of the younger Zeit travelers, whose own experiences precluded a first-hand comparison of today's conditions with those of an earlier period, quickly reached the conclusion that the GDR made an "unhappy" impression). Especially since boys there can hardly be distinguished from their contemporaries in the West; the high school seniors we met in the Mecklenburg town of Bad Doberan could have been dressed exactly the same way at a school in Bad Kissingen or Bad Tölz. Young people wear Levis, t-shirts with Western logos, lots of white. A lot of these products come from capitalist countries abroad – imported according to regulations, brought over by relatives, or bought in an Intershop in exchange for West German marks (God only knows how they managed to get hold of them).

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