December 21, 1985
Our annual letter this year will reach you late. I just returned from Europe a few days ago; Wilma is still on her way. For the past three months, we were in the GDR (East Germany). Wilma had applied for an exchange grant to Leipzig under the IREX program (which operates similarly to the Fulbright program, but with the socialist countries in Eastern Europe) to work in Leipzig on an early twentieth-century woman writer and feminist, Grete Meisel—Hess, born in Prague but active in Berlin, who was quite well known in her day but is almost totally unknown today. Wilma is interested in reconstructing the world in which she moved. She received the fellowship for a three month period from September 20 to December 20. I joined her for most of the period, interrupted only by brief trips I had to make to West Germany. We were put up in a private home in Taucha, a small town at the end of the streetcar line to Leipzig, so that we had a good opportunity to observe life in the GDR. The reception we received was truly overwhelming. Foreigners from the West are still a rarity. During our stay we met a tremendous number of people, both scholars directly related to our work and others. I also had an invitation from the Academy of Sciences in (East) Berlin and from the History Department at the Karl Marx University in Leipzig who arranged not only for normal lectures and discussions but also for meetings with scholars whom we wanted to meet elsewhere in the country. The academy and university arranged for two extensive discussions of my project which were not only very open but very useful. Both of us were invited to participate in ongoing study groups. For the first time I also had an opportunity to lecture to students in Leipzig and Jena. On previous visits I had always spoken to closed circles of scholars with few students present. At all times Wilma and I spoke very openly and critically from an outlook which, of course, differed fundamentally sharply from the established position. Particularly in front of students I contrasted the ways in which historical studies were pursued in the West, stressing the pluralism of viewpoints. There were always very lively discussions.
We met, however, other people quite apart from our scholarly contacts. On Rosh Hashanah we went to the services in East Berlin where we know the cantor very well. On Yom Kippur we went to the synagogue in Leipzig and after the fast at a communal meal met most of the miniscule congregation, which now has only 41 members – Leipzig before the Nazis had more than 17,000 Jews. The core of the congregation consists now of elderly survivors of the holocaust with very few younger persons. Many of the participants in the service were Protestants, including the superb choir, and in fact the Protestant community has in a sense adopted the Jewish congregation in Leipzig which is now barely viable. The Arbeitskreis Kirche und Judentum, which corresponds roughly to the Council of Christians and Jews here and the Gesellschait für christlich—jüdische Zusammenarbeit is very active in seeking to keep an awareness of Jewish tradition alive in the GDR. We were very much impressed by the contacts we had with people in the Protestant Church, which now, that church membership can bring with it social and economic disadvantages, contains a very committed group of people, many of whom are young. The Church has been able to maintain a sphere of freedom which is absent in other sectors of GDR life. Whatever there is of a peace movement or an environmental movement takes place within the Church. Thus the Arbeitskreis was able to hold an evening with a retired bishop who had just returned from a visit to Israel and who spoke in an open and balanced manner which contrasted with the very onesided line followed in the GDR media. There were several hundred persons in attendance. The high point of our stay was, however, the invitation we received to meet with young pacifists facing military service. This meeting, followed by an evening with parishioners in a small circle, took place in a church in a small town some distance from Leipzig.
On the human level the stay was exhilarating. We were shown tremendous hospitality and cordiality. Friendships which had existed from our previous visits were strengthened and many of our contacts will continue. We tried to spend as much time as possible in the Deutsche Bücherei (the German National Library) which was open until ten at night and incidentally is a very pleasant and in contrast to other national libraries a totally unbureaucratic place to work. But we were invited to homes on many evenings or were in the theater or at concerts. Culturally Leipzig is very much alive with music and theater in Leipzig, with almost all performances sold out well in advance but friends managed to get us tickets.
So far the positive aspects of our stay which also reflect positively on the GDR. But now to the negative aspects, which did not effect us directly, but which make life difficult for people in the GDR. At the core of these problems is the dictatorship which effects intellectual, cultural, and economic life. The dictatorship is of course an expression of the lack of freedom of action which the government has as a part of its dependence on the Soviet Union. The Soviet presence is very much in evidence throughout the GDR even if there are almost no contacts on the personal level between the Soviet garrison and the population. There is a striking contrast between the official pronouncements and what people, even those closest to the party, not only think but say in private. There is almost a complete consensus among all groups of the population with whom we spoke on domestic policy. People speak with an amazing openness and lack of fear even in public places like trains and restaurants. The bitterest complaint is about the restrictions on travel. Almost no one takes the media seriously; virtually the entire population receives its information from West German TV or radio -— and watches “Dallas.” Yet there are pressures for conformity. No open opposition is tolerated. The price of political nonconformity is professional discrimination, no access to the university or to apprenticeship, for example. You must be a Marxist, and in almost all cases a party member, to be able to teach history at the university. The one professed non—Marxist historian I know, a scholar of international renown, teaches at a very modest salary at a theological faculty financed by the church. At the same time, many historians are doing very solid scholarly work and the communication between historians in the GDR and in the Western countries has become much less polemical and increasingly productive for both sides. There is also consensus that the narrow-minded policies of government and party have resulted in economic inefficiencies and backwardness. The GDR is by no means a poor country. GDR citizens enjoy a comfortable standard of living. even if one not comparable with west Germany or the U.S. Despite the proletarian exterior, there is much in the life of at least the professional groups which reminds one of the solid middle classes in an older pre-consumerite age, particularly in their concern with classical culture, the love of books, music, and theater. The basic commodities, rent, and transportation are amazingly inexpensive; luxury goods such as automobiles, for which there is ten to fourteen-year waiting period, and color TVs are extremely expensive but many people have them. At the same time, the distribution system is erratic so that many items are often unavailable. Working morale is low because there are few incentives for initiative. The small private sector tends to be immeasurably more productive than the public one. Repair services are unreliable and often have to be lubricated with West German Marks, the second, even if inofficial, currency. The center of Leipzig has been rebuilt very tastefully; the rest of the city is drab, with facades of once elegant buildings crumbling and many houses boarded up. The pollution is terrible, intensified by the extensive mining and burning of brown coal. Any open citizens initiatives for environmental protection are out of the question. The apartments we visited behind the dirty facades were almost all attractive, the work of the tenants. On the positive side, the GDR has eliminated the pockets of poverty which we have taken so much for granted in this country – although some of the pensioners live close to the poverty line – and there is no unemployment. On foreign policy there is also a remarkable consensus, from supporters and critics of the regime, a fear of the armament race, and a particular fear of the impetus which SDI will give to this race. It is unfortunate that the regime remains so rigid. An opening towards greater civil liberties and economic pragmatism would undoubtedly strengthen the support for the state without sacrificing its socialist structure.
Like last year, this letter concentrates on travel. In spring, over the Easter vacations, we were in the Far East for the second time in a year, this time in South Korea and Taiwan where both of us lectured. This was an interesting time to be in South Korea, shortly after the elections in which the opposition did so well. On request I gave lectures on the same topics on which I had spoken in the People’s Republic of China, on trends in recent social history including the role of Marxist theory in contemporary western historical studies. The discussions in Seoul and Taegu were lively and reminded me of those I had in Beijing which too were very open. In fact the intellectual atmosphere at the universities seemed remarkably critical and invigorating considering the repressive political atmosphere. Again our hosts were wonderful. The trip itself had been organized by a professor of German social history whom we had known in Göttingen many years ago. It was good to see again the circle of Korean scholars whom we had met in Germany. Unfortunately we had only ten days in the country but these days were well planned so that we saw quite a bit. The industrial development is impressive although we were also told of the problems which accompany such rapid industrialization. From Seoul we flew to Taiwan to visit a doctoral student of mine, his wife, who is also in the doctoral program in Buffalo, and their children who had all been in Buffalo. Again the reception was overwhelming. Our short three day visit was very well planned, with one day of lectures in Taichung, where my student teaches, one seeing something of the countryside, and a final one in Taipeh where we saw the marvelous palace museum and met some of the younger Taiwanese historians. The country makes a prosperous impression. On the other hand, students and professor, we were told, felt that they had to take great care in what they said in public. I also managed to attend a community seder in Taipeh – Wilma unfortunately had a flu – which was attended by approximately 200 American and Israeli Jews.
We left Buffalo for Germany in late July. I have a sabbatical supplemented by an NEH grant, Wilma took a leave without pay after Canisius had denied her request for a sabbatical. She subsequently received a sabbatical for the following year. We rented our house to a very nice Israeli family with four children – he is spending the year as a visiting pediatrician at Children’s Hospital. Jonathan consequently had to move and found himself an apartment nearby. As usual we were picked up from the Frankfurt airport by our friends in nearby Darmstadt, where we spent our first few days in West Germany. Buffalo has had an exchange of graduate students with the Technical University of Darmstadt for the past ten years which I helped to organize and we now have quite a circle of friends and acquaintances among students who came to Buffalo on the exchange, Buffalo students who are currently there, and persons at the university with whom I have worked closely. From Darmstadt Wilma went briefly to Munich to see her publisher – her book on the Bohemian Jews is now in galleys – and to Czechoslovakia while I spent two weeks in Göttingen. We then met in West Berlin where we lived for six weeks in the very pleasant setting of the Historical Commission where l helped to prepare a symposium on German historical writing in the Weimar period.
Little has changed professionally in the lives of our children. Jeremy commutes between Detroit and Minneapolis while contributing articles on food, written with a good sense of humor and a social conscience, to two newspapers. You may have occasionally seen his articles in other newspapers throughout the country. He is now seriously considering taking a leave of absence this spring to return to Minneapolis to complete his Ph.D. Dan continues to work with the discipline committee at the Law Society of Upper Canada in Toronto. Janet again worked part time for the Ombudman’s office. Jonathan is very busy, continuing his job at the Department of Social Services for Erie County here in Buffalo but also maintaining the work with his rental property and his advertising postering.
As far as the third generation is concerned, Janet is expecting to give birth any day. We saw quite a bit of our grandchildren before we left for Europe and look forward to spending time with them next week in Toronto. Dan and Janet managed to come down here at least once a month or we met them in Toronto or half way. Sarah is already eight and very alert. Kelly, who will be two in March, is now really beginning to talk. One of the fringe benefits of Buffalo are blizzards which make for very cozy, unexpected vacations at home. Sarah visited us with her mother, Maggie, Maggie’s new husband, Rick, and their baby for a day only to be caught by a snow storm so that we spent four very nice days together. On one of the days I drove with Rick, who is a nurse, in our four-wheel drive Toyota for the Buffalo police on emergency missions. Wilma and I shall be returning to Germany on January 6. This time we shall be in Göttingen where I shall again be a guest at the Max-P1anck-Institut für Geschichte. Mail will reach us until approximately August 15 at
Georg und Wilma Iggers
D-3400 Göttingen, West Germany.
We shall have a telephone, but do not know the number yet. However, we can be reached via our good friends, the Friedrichs, who live downstairs and whose number is 055l-706299; or if you call from North America 011-49- 551-706299. From August 15 to December 15 we shall be in Buffalo, where I shall teach during the fall semester, and then both return to Germany in the middle of December for eight months, until August 15, 1987, at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research at the University of Bielefeld.
During our present stay in Buffalo, until January 5, mail will reach us c/o our friends the Heberles, 54 High Park, Buffalo NY 14226; tel.: (716)- 835-6180. Mail will also always he forwarded by the Department of History, SUNY/Buffalo, Buffalo NY 14261.
This letter will not reach you in time for the holidays. We wish you all the best for a satisfying, healthy, and peaceful 1986.
As ever, Georg and Wilma
Dec 27: Our grandchild arrived last night, a healthy 7,5 lb boy. Janet had an easy birth.