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Archive for December, 2015|Monthly archive page

JOURNEY TO SADNESS: looking for the GDR in 2015

In C.Spiby on December 22, 2015 at 4:41 pm

Where Conrad journeyed into a Heart of Darkness, in September a friend and I took an excursion into sadness. Together we embarked on a foray into what might have been and what was betrayed: we went looking for the GDR/DDR in modern Berlin.

The GDR could have been an example of socialism but became instead a state racked by paranoia, a state of 90,000 Stasi agents and 175,000 Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (informers).

But I still believed in the possibility. That, at an everyday level there were elements of East German socialism which hinted at socialism as it might have been. After all, it is a fine line between Ostalgie (nostalgia for the East) and gawping at the worst of Totalitarianism. Was the GDR a workers paradise or a Stasi Hell?

Like many such binary questions, the answer is probably somewhere in between, a plurality of truths and realities. And that certainly was my experience. Nowhere was this more apparent than standing on the platform of the Wall Documentation Centre on Bernauer Strasse.


This free memorial gives an overview in words and pictures of the construction and division created by the Wall but, most strikingly, it allows you to climb to a platform to overlook a snapshot of the wall, death-strip and watch-tower exactly as it was. Un-touched, graffiti-free this living memorial is a stark symbol of the worst of the GDR’s predicament. A symbol of a state struggling with losing its workforce to the West, paranoid in its inability to keep control of its own citizens’ faith in socialism, all set against the best as in the background towers over all of Berlin the remarkable landmark of the East – the incredible Fernsehturm – or TV Tower as it is known in the West. Nearly all my guides placed the TV Tower as the most important thing to visit when in Berlin, but it is one of the very few symbols of the former East.


Too bad then, that it is now little more than a London Eye-style novelty. Constructed in the mid-to-late 1960’s it was the beacon of socialist achievement. Its lift doors open at bar and restaurant level to look out along the avenue of in front of the Brandenburg Tor (gate) – the Strasse Des 17 Juni – the symbolic avenue from the West to the centre of Berlin. And there’s nothing in the Western skyline that comes even close to matching the achievement of the TV Tower: socialism reigns supreme. And yet as I drank a Berliner Wasse with the traditional cherry juice I felt this wasn’t the East Germany as the workers knew it. Moreover today, despite its setting in Alexanderplatz the TV Towers feels almost disconnected from the GDR. And what’s more, the tourists around me didn’t seem to care about its history – the old symbol was now just a spectacle.

We stayed in the OSTEL Das DDR Design Hostel just off Paris Commune Strasse in the old East, not far from the East-Side Gallery (a long strip of the wall given over to graffiti art). SS851926

No TV, no mod-cons, just a basic 1970’s-era recreation of the GDR in each room. A portrait of Cabinet Minister Horst Sindermann keeps a watchful eye as you check-in at reception, complete with a TV playing a loop of GDR speeches and news. SS851974 SS851823The furnishings and wall-papering of each room are GDR-era and it lends a space for contemplative reflection, of simplicity and scarcity, of sacrifice and suppression, of hope and ideals. The rooms are cheap and the place unique, friendly, spare but touching if you like your travel with a sense of history and place. On the day we drove out into the country in our hired Trabant, the OSTEL provided a brown paper bag lunch at only €5 adorned with their own ‘Guten Appetit!’ label.


On the opposite side of our OSTEL’s citrus-fruit coloured building is the Volksammer (Das Design Restaurant), with the familiar GDR emblem emblazoned everywhere. A huge painting of Der Palast der Republik (my favourite building of the GDR – sadly now demolished) nestled alongside the TV tower and red flags adorns the length of one wall, and the menu is authentic GDR era cuisine. Much of which reminded me of school dinners or the food my mum made me as a boy in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Except for more fish, more pickled vegetables and, thankfully, more beer. The restaurant was a perfect partner for the OSTEL.

Another ‘Ostalgie Resturant’ is the Käsekönig just off Alexanderplatz (on Panoramastr.1), but the service here wasn’t quite as friendly and sitting outside on the street was a mistake as the weather turned. Neither could it boast the authentic furnishings and ornaments of the Volksammer, but the menu seemed more than appropriate. If you can’t stomach the food of 3 decades ago, don’t worry, one certainly won’t go hungry in Berlin – there’s an abundance of foreign restaurants.


With so much to do and see, more to write about than we have space here, I offer my essential things to do in Berlin if, like me, you want to sense its history, all within walking distance of each other, especially when based at the OSTEL.

SS851866(FREE) Visit the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe 2 minutes’ walk from the Brandenburg Gate, along Eberstrasse. Not only is this a moving experience (especially the poignancy of the Reichstag in view), but also it is an incredible piece of immersive sculpture. On the way you can also pay your respects to the homosexuals and gays murdered and persecuted by the Nazis (pretty much opposite), and nearer the Brandenburg Tor is the Memorial to the Sinti & Roma of Europe Murdered under the Nazi regime.SS851869SS851979

(FREE) Visit Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation centre along Bernauer Strasse; the story of Bernauer Strasse deserves an article of its own, and you can easily spend half a day immersed into the tragedy of the Wall here (do this over a visit to the East Side Gallery as that just lacks a sense of the everyday division)

SS851953Visit the Stasi Museum in the former HQ just off Ruschestrasse – highly detailed and a place of history in itself

SS851879(FREE) Visit the excellent Topography of Terror exhibition which documents the Gestapo and SS main offices, along with another intact Wall section

Stay at the OSTEL DDR Design Hostel

Eat at the Volksammer (Stasse der Paris Kommune 18b)

SS851873(FREE) Spit on the ground at the spot where Hitler spent his final hours (about 2mins walk from the memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe) – his bunker will be under your feet (deservedly just a parking lot, a small green space where dogs fittingly defecate)

(FREE) Marvel at the scale of the Soviet War Memorial in the Tiergarten, and the two Soviet T34 tanks and consider their victory over Nazism

SS851859If you can afford it, book dinner (at least 2 months reservation necessary) with a window seat at the TV Tower, otherwise settle for the bar and try a Berliner Wasse

Hire a Trabant and drive into the countryside of the former East (good luck!)

But avoid the Western view of the Wall: Checkpoint Charlie. You couldn’t find a less authentic experience in Berlin if you tried.

There is so much history to be seen, and so much to consider. But mostly I left saddened by all the focus on failure. The persecution and loss of life all weighs so heavy. Saddening too was the fact that there was little room for the debate that socialism might offer much, even if we agree the price of totalitarianism is not one worth paying. Only the DDR Museum offered some sense of everyday life, some redemption and only then in part, balanced as it was with Stasi exhibits.

My view is that, in the end, the world lost more than the toll of its victims. It lost the chance of a possibility.

This wasn’t a holiday. It was reflection, a memorial. Just as one might travel to WW1 war graves. Perhaps we ought to make such journeys in order to remember the danger in the states we elect and therefore in our consent we all carry in us the possibility of darkness or failure. In that darkness I hoped to find hope. I think it’s there, but it flickered dimly and fleetingly, supressed by Totalitarianism.


{this article formed part of a much larger research project, reflecting on the GDR}



In Guest Feature on December 22, 2015 at 4:33 pm


This year, the Woodcraft Folk are celebrating their 90th anniversary. Woodcraft was set up in 1925 by a 19-year-old called Leslie Paul, with a handful of boys in South London. It was a breakaway group from Kibbo Kift – which in turn had broken away from the Scouts after the First World War. These early leaders wanted to grow a youth movement which was not militaristic or monarchist. It would be co-educational and promote peace. It would also be run in an open and democratic way.

From the early days, the Woodcraft Folk has had strong links with the Co-operative movement. As early as summer 1925 there is a letter in the Woodcraft archive showing the Woolwich Co-op giving a grant of £5 in order that the first group could buy a tent.

Camping and the outdoor life was and still is an important part of the Woodcraft Folk This part of their philosophy is borrowed from the writer and naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton who was writing at the beginning of the 20th Century and set up a proto-scouting group in the USA called “Woodcraft Indians”. To show connection with the natural world, Woodcrafters then would have their own name and a “Folk” name. For example, the founder, Leslie Paul’s Folk name was “Little Otter”. From these humble beginnings, Woodcraft grew to a national organisation with links with similar Socialist and peace youth groups worldwide.


There have been several strands going on this year to mark the 90th Anniversary. There has been a heritage officer appointed who is interviewing members of all ages to create an oral history of the organisation, together with the annual gathering in September at Wales by Scout Park in the Midlands where there were workshops and meetings.

In June this year, I enjoyed the London and South East Region pageant to mark the anniversary. There were several tents to mark the different decades that the Woodcraft Folk had grown through and crafts and activities in each of those tents. I was in the 1980s tent, and ran an activity with Richard, Shona and Rowan about Greenham Common. Families came and made peace symbols to tie to our fence as women had done at Greenham There were also co-operative games such as the “Tug of Peace” and a potato and spoon race to make it vegan friendly!

Jeremy Corbyn came to cut the anniversary cake with its Woodcraft symbol on. Jeremy told us that when his children were young they had been “Woodies” and it was good to remember that there were people in the world standing up for peace.

Woodcraft’s motto is “Span the world with friendship”, an aim which is as relevant today as it was following the Great War. Happy Woodcraft – and we look forward to celebrating the centenary!


In John Wilmot, Reviews on December 22, 2015 at 4:30 pm

The Global Minotaur, by Yanis Varoufakis – with a foreword by Paul Mason. Published by Zed Books.

This is an updated edition (brought out, I suspect with the Greek financial crisis in mind) of a book first published in 2011. The author is an economist of world repute. He has taught in numerous universities in the UK and became an MP for the Syriza party in Greece. On its rise to power he was appointed Minister of Finance.
When the crisis occurred, and the Government finally bowed to pressure from the IMF, Varoufakis parted company with his party – and the deal that was imposed over his head.
Now, any book on economics poses difficulties for the lay reader – and I’m no exception. There’s the terminology used by economists for a start. And this volume, by necessity, is quite dense.
But Yanis Varoufakis writes well, and has a lively turn of phrase which helps the reader over the difficult bits. He has been described as an “opponent of austerity”, which is true – but he’s more than this. He can also be described as a critic of capitalism, noting its lurches from boom to slump – a pattern that can be traced back to its birth when it replaced the old feudal order.
Some slumps, he suggests, are major, like those of 1929 and more recently that of 2008 – capable of turning the established order on its head. But he mentions other lesser slumps – such as that of 1847 in Britain. It ended the railway boom abruptly with  stocks and shares going into a nosedive, and a consequential collapse in a number of banks.
In 1873 there was a similar crisis in the USA, again caused by a stock market collapse in railway shares. This led to a six year depression.
Fast forward to the roaring ‘twenties and we see the great crash of 1929. By the end of the year, 40 billion dollars had been wiped out on Wall Street, and banks went to the wall. In America 2,293 of them closed permanently. The crisis went global, reaching Europe like a financial plague, affecting heavy industry and the financial markets alike. The “Gold Standard”, which was meant to regulate commerce and the relationship between currencies, collapsed. Despite the good intentions of the “New Deal” in the USA, it took the Second World War to lift the economy out of slump.
At the end of  the war came the Bretton Woods talks, with the USA now the dominant economic power. With the Gold Standard now dead in the water, American economists brought in a new plan to replace it with the US dollar. The “yankee dollar” was to become the currency on which the capitalist world relied. And so it was to remain until the economic collapse of 1971.
We remember the crash of 2008, of course. Much of the population of Europe and the USA are still feeling the effects. This was another collapse caused by bankers’ greed and lack of foresight. According to Varoufakis, it saw the banking industry go into damage control mode, “desperately trying to stem the popular demand for stringent regulation of their institutions.”
Their argument was that too much regulation would “stifle financial innovation”. As if this “innovation” hadn’t already caused enough damage!  Of course we’re all aware of who’s been responsible for the crash seven years ago. In popular parlance it was the “greedy bankers”, paying themselves massive bonuses regardless of whether the economy or their own part in it warranted these pay-outs.
In Britain of course the “damage control” (sic) worked. Banks continued to operate without the regulation needed to keep them in line, and the champagne continued to flow. A few heads rolled and then it was back to business as usual. Big bonuses are still paid out regardless. And the rest of us still have to put up with conditions of austerity introduced in order (ostensibly) to deal with a crash that we were in no way responsible for.
In his final chapter (“A world without the Minotaur”), the author decides to re-evaluate his position in order to put it to the test. This chapter is an addition to the first edition of the book, published a few years earlier. And here his analysis becomes complicated!
But just to summarise a few points:  the slump of 2008 resulted in a break in America’s pattern of trade deficits, which had relied on the USA absorbing the surplus production and capital from Europe and elsewhere. To put it simply, after 2008 this inflow of capital and goods slumped. Without this global flow of capital etc., profits could no longer be maintained. Once again it was the banks and financial institutions that went down like ninepins.
As for solutions to the problem, Varoufakis comes up with no simple formula. But he does suggest that neither of the responses put into place in Europe and the USA would work.  European countries opted for austerity – or in some cases had it forced upon them. America tried “quantitative easing”, which he says failed to have any positive effect (though, as I see it,  it had less damaging impact on people’s lives than “austerity”).
In conclusion, he suggests that both governments and private capital had been guilty of a lack of self restraint in their dealings in the decade leading up to 2008.
Governments had failed to regulate financial institutions, whilst the banking and financial world had thrown caution (and sanity?) to the winds in its greed to make bigger and bigger profits.
But, as I see it, that is what it will always do unless it’s held in check. Meanwhile this book by Yanis Varoufakis is an interesting guide to both the development of a volatile capitalist system and the roots of its crises in the last century.

Education Matters: FREE SCHOOLS GALORE!

In R.Richardson on December 22, 2015 at 4:27 pm

One of the election pledges made by David Cameron was to extend the free schools programme.

Now he has promised that 500 will open over the next five years, with 52 in this term alone.

Like academies, free schools operate outside Local Authority control and do not have to follow the National Curriculum. Gypsy Hill secondary school in South West London, which opens this term, offers a curriculum based on the Ancient Greeks’ “classical trivium”, with grammar, logic and rhetoric as the foundations of learning.

A letter in the “i” newspaper (from a teacher and parent) dubs the idea ludicrous. The Greeks’ intention, according to the letter, was that this curriculum was just for a tiny minority – those who intended a career in politics or the law.  It’s just one more example of a school going its own way free from national curriculum restraints.

no_acadmeny_HereUNIONS SPEAK OUT:
At September’s TUC conference, both Mary Boustead, of the ATL, and Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT, made speeches roundly condemning the Government’s policy on free schools and academies.

Schools have been coerced into becoming academies said Christine Blower, sometimes being approached by education “advisers” who may at the same time be working for an academy chain – a quite outrageous conflict of interest. Academy chains of course answer to their shareholders.  “Neither educational excellence nor equity will be their driving force,” said Christine Blower.

Mary Bousted drew attention to the proposed Education and Adoption Bill which would deny parents and teachers any information about the sponsor which would take over the running of their school on its conversion to an academy. Apparently the Department for Education has its own grading system for academy sponsors, but refuses to publish these on the grounds that it is against the sponsor’s “commercial interest”.


Russell Hardy (General Secretary of the National Union of Head Teachers) has pointed out the need for overall planning for the provision of new schools, particularly in view of the projected  large increase in pupil numbers. School places need to be provided where they are most needed – which is just not happening as the free schools movement is rolled out.

League tables have been part and parcel of the education scene for over twenty years now. The idea is that if schools compete with each other (rather than co-operating?)  They will improve.  The incentive to move up the ladder, so the thinking goes, will be irresistible.

Of course there’s much that goes on in the life of a school that cannot be measured by league tables, but apparently some parents see them as being of over-riding importance.

An article in the “i” by Chris Blackhurst describes the lengths that some parents go to, to get their child into the school of their choice, often moving house or buying a second home in the catchment area. Another aspect of the emphasis placed on league tables was highlighted by the paper’s education editor, Richard Garner. Schools are using community languages such as Polish or Urdu, to gain top-grade GCSE results for native speakers and thus boost their rankings.

In fact for a pupil who is fluent in his/her home language, it might well be more beneficial to study another language altogether – but that might not help the school in its league table placing!

I hadn’t heard much about Jeremy Corbyn’s policies on education, but on his website there is quite a lot of information.

Corbyn would seek to place academies and free schools back under LEA control and would end the charitable status of public schools. Tuition fees would be scrapped and replaced with grants (just like the good old days!). There would be funding for adult skills’ training throughout life, and Corbyn would also seek to establish universal affordable childcare.
Incidentally, on Jeremy Corbyn’s website, too, is his ten-point “Standing to Deliver” plan, which he first outlined in Scotland in August. It’s well worth reading.



In Dinosaur on December 22, 2015 at 4:24 pm


Jeremy Corbyn: first impressions
The result of the long drawn-out Labour leadership elections was finally announced around mid day on Saturday September 12th. My first sighting of the news was from an email from the Labour Party general secretary, Ian McNicol, This was closely followed by the news announced on Radio 4.
Yes, I was delighted by the result – including the size of Jeremy’s majority (he polled some 59 per cent). In so many ways his victory represented a new, and encouraging, mood that’s building up in the country – and has struck the Labour leadership like a tsunami.
It’s a mood reflected in the reaction to Cameron’s mealy-mouthed response to the refugee crisis (another tsunami for those involved in the pitiful trek of abused humanity seeking sanctuary from a world that had turned vicious and violent).  It’s a growing antidote to the uncaring society that the Tories have been creating.  And it’s a rejection of the Westminster bubble in which much of the Labour leadership resides. These residents  seem unable to see beyond the boundaries of their cosy little world.
Jeremy Corbyn has become a symbol of the rejection of the ingrained world of Westminster whose inmates have reacted with sound and fury to his election as leader of the Labour Party. After all, the Labour leadership had changed the rules to try to ensure that this didn’t happen. Corbyn was seen as the rank outsider, simply there to show how tolerant the Labour’s parliamentary leadership could be. He was expected to trail in, bottom of the poll – and business as usual could then be resumed.
There was a failure to understand that there was a groundswell that saw the political world in a different way. There was a growing number of people who wanted it to make a difference – and they rallied around Corbyn.  We saw them at his rallies, and recognised and welcomed the mood.
If politics is to have any impact (let alone relevance) it has to have vision. After years of bleak Tory rule, and anodyne opposition there’s been a growing need in people for something better. Something more meaningful. Those with eyes to see saw it in the dramatic rise in the Green Party’s vote in the last election – and, perhaps the near wipe-out of the traditional Westminster parties in Scotland.
The writing was already on the wall, for those who could recognise it (though I must confess that I’ve only done so in retrospect).
What will happen next I can’t foresee. But if it’s really to go forward, the Labour Party has to recognise this sea change. It has to understand that there’s no going back. “Blairism” and its phoney invention, “New Labour” is now dead in the water and its dwindling band of adherents have become irrelevant to the Party today. But, to date, there’s no sign that they’re prepared to accept the fact. Already there’s talk of plots to unseat Labour’s leader – thus flying in the face of the party membership. Which of course gives rise to the question, whose party is it?
Things won’t be easy for Corbyn. There’s a lot of rancour still, with members of the former Labour leadership declaring that they will no longer contemplate serving in any Shadow Cabinet. That’s up to them – provided of course that this bitterness doesn’t turn into downright opposition, or even sabotage.
As for Jeremy Corbyn himself, we hope we can look forward to a refreshing new approach. Of course he’s not without his flaws but he does have a sense of purpose lacking in too many politicians.
As leader of a major political party whose Parliamentary representatives are by no means united behind him, he will no doubt have to make some compromises (though not, I hope, on such matters as Trident!). His role for the next few years is to built a united and, above all, an effective opposition.