Sunday, 17 February 2008

Freedom #2

Before I start, let me set out what I'm trying to do. I've spent a lot of time trying to learn about life in the DDR. This blog isn't meant to sound like some kind of polemic, it's a thought process. So, if I'm talking rubbish, please feel free to tell me. Constructively, please.

The first interview for My DDR T-Shirt was with a researcher at the Stasi Museum, Normannenstrasse, Berlin. Steffen's English was superb. He was friendly and knowledgeable. He told me lots about the workings of the Stasi and of the former East German government. As the 'schwert und schield' (sword and shield) of the East German Communist Party, the Stasi wanted to know 'everything about everybody.'

Part of the Stasi's job was to monitor the East German population - and use the population to monitor itself. The Stasi had operatives and agents throughout East German society. There are several books on this subject, all of which are more knowledgeable than me, but Steffen told me about one example that made me think.

Sometimes, in some East German schools, some school children were asked to draw the clock from the evening TV news. I can't remember the exact details but it went something like this - the news on both East and West German TV featured a clock in the background. The East German clock had numerals around the clock face. The West German version had twelve dots around the face. It seems innocuous to ask kids to draw the clock from TV, until you realise that this exercise was used to find out which families were watching forbidden TV from the West. And these families were reported to the Stasi.

Using children to monitor the behaviour of their parents is a pretty dirty trick. It's a measure of what the DDR was like. I mean, children, honestly.

Go into any high street into any town or city in the UK. Or even any town or city in the western world. The chances are you will see a McDonald's. In most McDonald's, there's a kid's area and most McDonald's offer the space for free for birthday parties and the like. They provide free balloons and games and most of the kids will leave the party sporting some kind of hat that features that infamous logo, the McDonald golden arches.

If any readers of this blog have children (I know I have readers, or at least one - he left a comment once), you don't need me to tell you about the pressure kids are under to wear certain fashionable items. Most parents feel under intense pressure too, from the kids themselves, to buy certain brands. For example, sending your kids to school in Asda own-brand trainers or Wal Mart brand sneakers is an invitation for other children to ridicule your child. And given that no parent wants to do this, they do their best, even those on very low incomes, to buy the big brands. It's known in marketing as the 'nag factor' and companies and corporations spend millions each year to achieve it.

What's the difference? Well, one is state sponsored and one isn't. But if you change the word 'state' to 'system', you have sentence that applies both ways - using children to make parents behave in certain ways is/was system sponsored in the old East and in the West.

Another difference? Well, the Stasi used to lock people up, the nag factor doesn't. True and I accept this key difference. But on the other hand, the Stasi didn't lock up everyone who watched West German TV and at least in East Germany, parents took their own punishment, not the kids. A system that puts the child in line for the punishment (the bullying, the ridicule at school etc) is pretty harsh too.

Okay, so I'm using a clumsy mechanism but maybe you get the point. The DDR used children to make people behave in certain ways - and so do we.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder what the crime statistics difference where at the time of the East and West divide. I don’t know enough about that time period (apart from where I was when the wall came down). But it would be interesting to know if public transport ran on time and was cheap. I imagine there where no rogue traders to rip the naive off. As your blog states we are already under an oppresses regime, it’s just that at the time East Germany knew about it. My main fear is in current climates, would most of the general public want a “stronger police force”, “conscription in to the army for 18year olds”, “better run / cheaper public transport” and “safer streets”. How easy would it be for average Joe Blogs to vote for this if somebody promised it? I don’t agree with it as I like the freedom to read / listen to what I want, but I think heading down that road could be too easy.