Martin Rauch is 24 year old East German Border Guard pulled from obscurity by his Stasi agent aunt. He is sent to West Germany on an undercover mission to infiltrate NATO, becoming PA to a top Bundewher General. Thrown in at the deep end loyalties are tested as his alter ego Moritz Stamm is exposed to the different life, and love on offer in the West.
This is an absolutely top drawer drama and is the stand out offering amongst a plethora of first rate foreign telly which includes Scandi dramas, “Occupied” (Sky Arts) and “Trapped” (BBC4), the French thriller, “Spin” and from Stateside we have, “The People Vs O.J. Simpson” (BBC2) plus season 6 of the peerless Zombie Apocalypse existential feast that is, “The Walking Dead” (Fox). Multi channel and multi platform TV means you have to serve up belting productions to ensure viewing figures are strong. This has led not to a race to the bottom but quite the opposite when you think the choices of viewing we had back in the day.
The early 1980’s were a scary time as the threat of nuclear war hung over Europe and we were led to believe by the Reagan Administration that the Soviet Evil Empire could and would strike at anytime. Subsequent revelations in the wake of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc showed a Soviet leadership gripped by the fear of an American first strike as part of a limited exchange confined to the European Theatre.
This came to a head in November 1983 when a full scale NATO exercise put the Soviets on the highest level prior to war. According to a 2008 documentary, “1983 The Brink of Apocalypse” only the quick thinking of a Soviet officer prevented a full scale nuclear launch by the Warsaw Pact. Spooked by NATO’s aforementioned “Able Archer” wargame, the observation of a series of flashes across the Midwestern United States by a Soviet satellite convinced some in a Situation Room that Reagan had launched the much anticipated first strike. Luckily Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov of Soviet High Command realised that the flares were the result of dawn sun striking cloud and we all lived to see another day. Former US Vice President Henry Wallace constantly warned that paranoia and mistrust of the Soviet Union would one day lead to conflict with the USSR as a coda to World War 2. His reward was to be kicked off the Democratic ticket at the 1944 convention in favour of the hawkish Harry S. Truman.
As Moritz, Martin finds life in the West very different and his first encounter with a full supermarket provokes awe and wonder at the produce on offer. Unless you lived there it’s very difficult to make value judgements about what life was like in either the GDR or the West. People in the 1980’s thought I was off my trolley to actually go and study at University in Northern Ireland due to conflict there. But I defy anyone to have enjoyed a better University experience where I met my wife and made some of the closest remaining friendships of my life. I knew a couple of people who were born and raised in the GDR through work. Both surprised me by saying they regretted the demise of the People’s State. What they had wanted in 1989 was a loosening of the shackles and more access to consumer goods and nascent technology.
This somewhat disconcerting view (seen through the prism of the rapacious propaganda of the time) was confirmed in 2008 when a survey conducted by German newspaper Der Spiegel found that 57% of former East German residents agreed with the statement, “The GDR had more good points than bad”. One point constantly raised by critics is that the GDR was plagued by the surveillance cult of the Stasi. A fair point and one explored in the Oscar winning film, “The Lives of Others” (2006). But this must be borne in the context of our obsession with CCTV as the panacea for all ills, plus Mrs. May’s (and New Labour’s) obsession with reading our texts and emails plus viewing which websites we like. (Cats or porn if you believe the stats). Lack of opportunity to travel is another factor cited in relation to the GDR. But how many of our chronically low paid workers or those on zero hours contracts have access to travel in the UK today?
Reading Frederick Taylor’s biography of the Berlin Wall (2009) and Mary Fullbrook’s more academic tome, “The People’s State” (2005) what becomes clear (and both writers are not in the GDR camp at all) is that East Germany kept pace economically with the West but suffered more than most from the early 1970’s oil shock as it was wholly reliant on Soviet supply which became punitively expensive. The USSR was unable to recover and this impinged far more on their Warsaw Pact allies that parallel problems the West may have faced within the EEC and NATO.
According to Fullbrook the GDR did lot’s of things really well including pre school care, health and especially state run clubs for any activity you care to name. Until the economic problems in the 1970’s housing was cheap and of very high quality. Access was universal. People felt cared for and connected to each other, and the state. Indeed D83 writer Anna Winger commented to the Guardian, “It’s important to remember that a lot of people were happy in East Germany,” It didn’t work economically, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel good to be part of it sometimes. The existence of the East made the West more humane but now, in an era of unbridled capitalism, we don’t have that balance.”
But ultimately the GDR, along with the Soviet Union failed because the workers were not trusted with their own destiny; central control continued when after a period it should have been ceded to local workers committees, and the resultant paranoia, which is common to such centralised governments won the day. The USSR in particular became a grotesque distortion of what Marx, Lenin and Trotsky had in mind; a constantly evolving system which seeks to care for and empower the working class to find their own solutions.
D83 is a cracking ride through this era replete with the Green upsurge in the West as they looked for solutions to their crisis of capitalism, and the taught nature of the story as Martin spies on his NATO top brass bosses keeps you hooked. There are rumours on the show’s Wikipedia page of D86, and even D89 which would look at the fall of the Berlin Wall but such claims are hard to verify with lead actor Jonas Nay being coy when pressed by Channel Four News’ Matt Frei on the possibilities.
Fingers crossed that series two becomes a reality. This is a great show.
As an aside I have been delving back into Kraftwerk’s back catalogue once again. I bought much of their output from a second hand record shop on Newland Ave (whose name escapes me). They are the sort of band you don’t listen to for five years, but once you touch base it’s a good three months of solid playing time. A 2013 documentary broadcast on BBC 4 last week is a reminder of just what a great, and influential band the Düsseldorf outfit are.