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Taxi story

Fri 7th Nov 2014

Reams have been written about how awful and oppressive East Germany was - a virtual slave state with Stasi surveillance informers everywhere. That image was rudely demolished in a curious way the other day.

I was in Berlin and had just met the GDR’s last prime minister, Hans Modrow, and had ordered a taxi to take me to my next destination. The taxi driver was in his late fifties maybe, with greying hair tied in a pony tail, looking rather like an ageing rocker. As one does with taxi drivers, we plunged into an intense conversation - or rather a monologue on his part - and I give it verbatim below. It may sound as if it has been scripted, but I assure you it hasn’t been.

The driver said he recognised Hans Modrow - it is now 25 years ago since he was prime minister - by his voice, because he’d heard him on several occasions in the radio. ‘He was one of the good ones’ he told me. I responded by telling him that I had lived in East Berlin during the sixties and was amazed how things had changed in the city since unification. ‘Ah, but not all for the good,’ he said. ‘I grew up in the GDR and in my teens and I was a fan of the Stones, as you can see from the sticker on my dashboard (the famous image used on several album covers of the big red tongue and lips). I used to listen to western rock music - the best music came from the west - and I was also keen to get hold of a pair of real jeans. But I realise now that you can’t live on music, jeans and fresh air! I listened regularly to RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) and every midnight they’d ring the ‘freedom bell’ and tell us that they were there to defend the dignity of the people. Ha, so much for that now! And we were told that we were all “brothers and sisters” on both sides of the Wall. That was another myth; in the GDR we used to have a real sense of solidarity and were prepared to help each other, but not anymore. If my taxi breaks down and I need help, people will say: “no I don’t want to get my hands dirty, or why don’t you ring the ADAC (German equivalent of the AA)”. In GDR times any motorist would stop and give you a hand.’

I ask him how many hours a day he works. ‘More than I would like, but it’s the only way to pay the bills. I’m one of those who has to exploit himself,’ he says with a laugh, ‘and if I’m not prepared to do it, there are others who are. Today it’s all about making a profit. They’re privatising medical services, transport and even the postal service - they should all be public services, not there for a few to make a profit. Even the postmen and women are having their wages cut and are having to work faster. If they don’t there are foreign workers willing to do the job cheaper. Yes, things have changed a lot but not all for the good.’

I can’t measure how typical or representative these comments are for former citizens of the GDR but they certainly reflect a very different reality to that portrayed in the media. Such attitudes are also underlined by a recent independent research survey which revealed that even after a decade and a half since unification, almost 50% of former GDR citizens still say that there were more good things in the GDR than bad. And that despite a relentless campaign in Germany to demonise the GDR and to equate it with nazi Germany.

It is indeed a fact that although the physical Wall in Berlin has been removed, in the lives and in the minds of those who lived here when there were two German states it is still very much present. Food for thought!

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