Friday, August 05, 2005

East German "Proletarianisation" Blamed for Deaths of Nine Babies - Schoenbohm's Election Polemics

Jörg Schoenbohm, Interior Minister of Brandenburg for the centrist CDU party, has commented on the case of an east German mother who killed nine of her babies without her neighbours having noticed anything amiss.

"I believe," he said, "that communist party-enforced proletarisation is one of the significant causes of moral dereliction (Verwahrlosung) and violent tendencies."

"In a totalitarian system," he added later, as if trying to dilute the toxicity of his charge, "the spreading of shared values (Wertevermittlung) was a low priority. It was best not to be too involved in other people's lives."

On one level, it is outrageous cheek of Herr Schönbohm to suggest that the communist system - whatever its undoubted evils - brutalised its citizens to this extent, driving them to infanticide and other extremes of violence and moral dereliction - and that its violent, brutish citizenry was spawned out of its policies of "proletarianisation". This is mere sophomoric tendentiousness. What is worse is that Herr Schoenbohm deprecates personal responsibility for the murders, whilst implying, equally absurdly, that the very background of eastern Germans somehow compels them to commit desperate, horrific crimes. Leave aside the implications of such a sweeping moral conclusion for other societies in which, say, schoolchildren gun down dozens of their schoolfriends, or the dementedly paternalistic assumption that any society is a direct cause of any crime committed within it - his suggestion is untenable, almost irresponsible - and won't prove a vote-winner for the CDU.

At the same time, Herr Schoenbohm has stuck his finger into a sensitive spot. It isn't so much that eastern Germans might be offended by his remarks - such assertions are unlikely to come as a complete surprise to anyone anywhere, after all, and, coming from a politician, one would have to be morbidly sensitive to take them personally or to find offence in them. It is more that Germany hasn't yet found a way of speaking about the topic of its own division in a comfortable way.

That's why much of the political media class has rejected Herr Schönbohm's remarks out of hand. One of the favourite terms of dismissal is that his remarks are of Stammtisch-Niveau - saloon-bar-level politics. This always strikes the blog as a strange and telling term of contempt - most citizens, after all, even those never actually found in saloon-bars, do tend to get to grips with politics most intensely, if at all, in saloon-bar type arguments.

We love to reduce the most subtle political calculations to the crassest of simplifications - and will make up our minds - even vote - on that basis. So Herr Schoenbohm is doing good to introduce simplistic saloon-bar ideas to the realm of "high politics", if only to give the high politicians a taste of what he thinks the voters are talking about. That he seriously misunderestimates your average saloon-bar pundit's intelligence is by the bye.

As to the matter of his remarks - they are confined to the general, rather than to the specifics - always regrettable, in the blog's view, as discussion becomes confined to abstractions. It's hard to accept that a communist society is necessarily worse, in terms of good neighborliness, than a capitalist one, if that is what Herr Schönbohm is driving at. One has read of too many western pensioners, after a long unnoticed absence, discovered as dusty forgotten cadavers, half-gnawed away by rats.

Did the active de-Christianisation and totalitarianism of East Germany's communist period worsen conditions conducive to "good neighborliness" more ruthlessly than passive secularisation did in the west? Who knows? It's an academic question: interesting, but less interesting than the specificity of this single, striking case. Aside from that, it remains a staple preconception that daily life in east Germany, although repressed, had a human level of mutual support and warmth that was lost in the west.

Everyone seems to be agreed that "good neighborliness" has been on the decline across both east and west (in the UK and USA too) for the past 50 years or so. Many folks will quibble whether Christianity even had anything to do with it in the first place. There's still so much to be learned about what happened in the two Germanies between 1945-89, and the findings will be subject to much more polemical agitation by the likes of Herr Schönbohm before any can gain common acceptance, even for saloon-bar usage.

In light of which, we say "Cheers!" to Jörg Schoenbohm and his attempt to get a debate started, even if he has been somewhat crass. Looking at the fate of similar "debates" in Germany over the past year (the inane Kapitalismusdebatte springs to mind), it is unlikely to shift prejudices or create any new insights, much more likely to entrench everyone's existing ones.

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