15 March 1993

On the U-Bahn

A middle-aged man lurched onto the train as it stopped at Friedrichstrasse. He sat down opposite me, and mumbled something loudly in German. I gave him a blank look, reluctant to say anything. He was cuddling a large bottle of vodka, and began slowly unscrewing the cap. He spoke to me again, and I prodded XQ. She said something to him, and they ended up in conversation.

XQ explained to him that we were British, and that I didn’t speak German, only French and English. He said that he had been to England once, many years ago, and that he had forgotten the language. I could believe that, given that my last German lesson had been almost ten years ago and I’d forgotten almost everything in that time.

The man explained that he had been a soldier in the Volksarmee, the People’s Army of the DDR. When the Communist state had collapsed, he had been out of a job. After years of military life, he had been completely unprepared for the task of fending for himself. He had gone from a respected and feared member of the elite to a homeless drunk sleeping in doorways in the space of a year or two.

My first thought was that anyone who was prepared to join the People’s Army, and shoot civilians who were trying to escape to the West, probably deserved what was coming to him. On the other hand, he seemed a nice enough person. He didn’t hate foreigners, he wasn’t a Communist, he was simply an ordinary guy who had picked a career with good promotion prospects and the chance of travel. He had done his job, and his reward was to sleep on the streets.

As was often the case, my own reactions to life in the former Eastern Bloc were making me feel uneasy. It was easy for me to judge him harshly; but what would I have done under the Communist regime he had grown up in? Often I found myself laughing at how things had been in the east; the cobbled streets, the propaganda, the Trabbis, the shortages.

The idea of paying in advance and waiting twelve years for a Trabant is undeniably funny. I suspect that it was rather less funny for those who received their Trabbis just before the DDR collapsed. Next year, the Trabbi will be banned from the roads.

I have a sneaking suspicion that totalitarianism is only funny when it happens to someone else.

© mathew 2017