It was not all bad in East Germany

 

For those of you who are too young to remember, Germany was divided into two separate countries, West Germany and East Germany (‘DDR’), between the end of World War 2 (‘WW2’) and 1990 (when the two countries were united into one). The DDR was a socialist republic overshadowed by the USSR.

Many years after the re-unification of Germany, our German-built Bosch dish-washing machine broke down. The engineer who came to mend it, fixed it in a couple of minutes, but remained talking to us for half an hour. He had been brought up in the DDR. He wanted to explain to us that contrary to all that we might have heard about the evils of the DDR and the difficulties its citizens faced, it was not all bad. He told us that, for example, education was good, there was little or no unemployment, and there had been a great sense of camaraderie. It was very important for our engineer that we should not think ill of the former DDR.

Recently, I finished reading an excellent book about the DDR, Red Love written by Maxim Leo and published in English in 2013. Leo was born in 1970, and like our Bosch engineer, does not damn the DDR, but takes care to point out that living in that former country was not at all easy or straightforward. For anyone curious about life in the DDR, this book is very illuminating. However, there is much more to this short book than describing the DDR.

What is most fascinating in Leo’s book is his stories about his two grandfathers, both of whom lived in the DDR. One of them remembered life being reasonable during the Nazi regime. Despite his grandson’s questioning, it is not clear what he did during those terrible times. The other grandfather led an exciting and dangerous life as a member of the French resistance during WW2. His story is gripping. 

Leo’s parents are also interestingly described. They were both in favour of, or atleast not completely against, the regime in the DDR. Each of them expressed their didfferent critical views of the political system, but neither of them did so strongly that they fell out of favour with it.

The book is a very readable translation of the original German translation. It provides a fascinating insight into life in the DDR and the period that preceded it. It was a book that I found difficult to put down, a real ‘page-turner’. Some of what I read in it chimes well with what our dish washing machine engineer told us.

Gandhi to Hitler

GTO H 2

On the 24th of December 1940 Mohandas Gandhi (the ‘Mahatma’) wrote to the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. Amongst other things that he wrote in his letter, the following extracts suffice to give the gist of it:

I hope you will have the time and desire to know how a good portion of humanity who have view living under the influence of that doctrine of universal friendship view your action. We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents. But your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity, especially in the estimation of men like me who believe in universal friendliness. Such are your humiliation of Czechoslovakia, the rape of Poland and the swallowing of Denmark. I am aware that your view of life regards such spoliations as virtuous acts. But we have been taught from childhood to regard them as acts degrading humanity. Hence we cannot possibly wish success to your arms.

But ours is a unique position. We resist British Imperialism no less than Nazism. If there is a difference, it is in degree. One-fifth of the human race has been brought under the British heel by means that will not bear scrutiny. Our resistance to it does not mean harm to the British people. We seek to convert them, not to defeat them on the battle-field. Ours is an unarmed revolt against the British rule. But whether we convert them or not, we are determined to make their rule impossible by non-violent non-co-operation…

…During this season when the hearts of the peoples of Europe yearn for peace, we have suspended even our own peaceful struggle. Is it too much to ask you to make an effort for peace during a time which may mean nothing to you personally but which must mean much to the millions of Europeans whose dumb cry for peace I hear, for my ears are attended to hearing the dumb millions? I had intended to address a joint appeal to you and Signor Mussolini, whom I had the privilege of meeting when I was in Rome during my visit to England as a delegate to the Round Table Conference. I hope that he will take this as addressed to him also with the necessary changes.” (see: https://www.mkgandhi.org/letters/hitler_ltr1.htm).

I do not think that this unbelievable letter ever reached the Führer. However, it formed the basis for a film, which was on general release in India briefly.

G TO H

[Source: MensXP.com]

In 2011, an Indian film, “Gandhi to Hitler”, was put out on general release in India. One newspaper accorded it a rating of half a star out of five. We were staying in Bangalore when it was showing, and I was dying to see a film whose name juxtaposed the peace-loving Gandhi with the war-mongering Adolf Hitler.

Only one cinema was showing the film in Bangalore. It was a long way from where we were staying. We arrived for the 10 am performance and joined a long queue of school-aged children waiting at the box office of the cinema multiplex. When we reached the ticket office, I said to the ticket seller:

“Two for the Gandhi/Hitler film.”

“Not possible, sir,” came the reply.

“Why not?”

“I must sell three tickets before we can screen a film, and you are only two.”

“But,” I protested, “we have come all the way from London to see this film.”

I thought for a moment, and then said:

“Sell me three tickets, and then you can screen the film.”

The seller was happy with this. We walked over to the lift that would take us up to the cinema. While we were waiting, the ticket man came rushing up to us, waving one of the notes with which we had paid for our tickets. He had managed to find a third taker for the film and refunded our third ticket.

Apart from an usher, there were only three of us in the large auditorium. The film was so dreadful that it was quite amusing. The plot had three main strands that ran in parallel. The first was Gandhi and his followers walking endlessly around a lovely garden. One of the followers was the wife of a man, who appears in the second strand. This aspect of the plot revolved around a group of Indian soldiers who had joined the German Army but were trying to desert from it. For those who are unaware of it, some Indian soldiers did actually join the Wehrmacht during WW2, hoping that a German defeat of the British might hasten the independence of India. Throughout the film, this forlorn band of soldiers trudged through a snowy mountainous landscape that was supposed to be the Alps but looked more like the Himalayas. Somehow, quite inexplicably, the woman in India was able to correspond by letters with the soldier tramping through the ‘Alps’.

The third strand of the film, which had no obvious connection with the other two strands, was set in Hitler’s bunker in Berlin during the last days of the Third Reich. Anyone who has watched the excellent film “Downfall” (2004) would be able to see that the bunker in the Indian film is a very crude copy of that in the German film. Unlike Adolf Hitler, the man portraying him in the Indian film is a true Aryan, an Indian. Goebbels is played by a character who looks like an elegant Italian. The Indian Hitler kept forgetting which of his arms was supposed to be lame.

There was an interval half way through the film. We left the auditorium to stretch our legs. When we returned for the second half of the film, my wife and I were the only people left in the auditorium.