Standing in Line

Queue: a line or sequence of people or vehicles awaiting their turn to be attended to or to proceed. Standing in line was very common throughout East Germany, much more common than in West Germany or the United States. East Germans were trained beginning in early childhood to line up and wait patiently at public transit stops, at gas stations, outside grocery stores, butcher shops, bakeries, and bookstores, at the entrance to state-run restaurants and cafés, and at stores that had something special or unusual for sale—like much sought-after American blue jeans or wine from a Western European country. East Germans were very polite; they would form an orderly line and no one ever tried to cut in line or leap to the front. They were accustomed to awaiting their turn in line and accepted this as an inevitable part of everyday life in their country, which it assuredly was.

I have always disliked waiting in a line for anything. For that reason, I rarely dine at restaurants that do not take reservations. In my view, persons who cut in line are incredibly obnoxious and inconsiderate of others. So are those persons at the supermarket who blithely wheel their cart into the fast checkout lane with too many items in the basket. They come to the checkout point with more than the permitted number of items and pretend that everything is fine. To their credit, East Germans did not indulge in this type of rude behavior in stores or any other public setting. Everyone knew the rules and was expected to play by the rules, which meant that everyone was inconvenienced to the same extent.

The line I disliked the most in the GDR was the one that I occasionally had to negotiate at gas stations, which were few and far between and almost always crowded. I tried to fill up as often as possible at gas stations in West Berlin, even though that sometimes necessitated a special trip through Checkpoint Charlie. But that was not always possible, especially when I was travelling around parts of the GDR that were not close to Berlin. On those occasions, I had to get into a gas line at a state-owned filling station. There was usually a long line of vehicles stretching from the side of the street up to and into the station. Almost all East German automobiles had two-stroke engines that generated lots of black smoke and pollution. The noxious exhaust fumes in the air made it difficult to breathe, so drivers would turn off the engine for a while, leaving some space between vehicles, and then move forward in tandem. Some drivers of lighter cars like the Trabant would push their vehicle toward the gas pump. My Volkswagen, which had been manufactured in West Germany, would not operate on the special fuel the two- and three-cylinder East German cars used. It needed “super” gasoline, which had higher octane and could only be purchased with West German marks. An attendant would pump the gas and then take the customer’s payment, cash only. How much time did one allot for a trip to the filling station in the GDR? As I recall, I tended to allot around two hours, but it did not always take that long.

My favorite standing-in-line story is based on an experience I had in June 1978. I had returned to East Berlin in May, with the support of an IREX fellowship, to complete the gathering of materials for what eventually would become a three-volume book on GDR literature in the 1970s. My housing, provided by the Humboldt University, was a studio apartment in a low-rise building constructed after World War II. The most desirable feature of this apartment was its location in the central Mitte district of Berlin. It was just a few blocks away from Germany’s biggest and most famous public square, the iconic Alexanderplatz, and within walking distance of writer Ulrich Plenzdorf’s apartment, which I visited frequently. The Alexanderplatz has always been one of the liveliest places in Berlin, with shops of every sort and a department store, cinemas, restaurants, hotels and many tourist attractions. It was always bustling with activity, so when I had some free time I liked to go there and explore what it had to offer.

One afternoon, as I was strolling across “Alex,” as Berliners often called their favorite square, I saw off in the distance a long line of people waiting to enter a store. I could not see what type of store it was, but without hesitation I took my place at the end of the line. Everyone in that line seemed to be in a good mood and eager to chit-chat with their neighbors, which made the long wait seem shorter. I soon learned from persons standing nearby that we were making our way, at a snail’s pace, toward a wine shop. This shop had apparently received a large shipment of Portuguese red wine that was being sold to raise funds to support the Communist-aligned People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) against US-backed interventions by South Africa and Zaire in support of two pro-Western independence movements competing for power in Angola.

Before proceeding to the wine store, let me provide some background information that some readers might find helpful. Angola is a nation on the coast of southeastern Africa that the Portuguese colonized in various stages over a period of some 400 years. Following the decolonization of Portuguese Africa in the early 1970s, Portugal granted its former colony Angola independence in November 1975 and withdrew without handing over power to any movement or faction. Multiple Angolan nationalist forces began fighting among themselves to establish control over the newly liberated state. Angola became a one-party Marxist-Leninist system ruled by the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which had declared itself the government of independent Angola and become involved in a civil war. In November 1975, Cuba sent combat troops to assist the MPLA in the struggle against enemy forces. In 1976, the number of Cuban military in Angola would reach 36,000 troops. Following the withdrawal of Zaire and South Africa (March 1976), Cuban forces remained in Angola to support the MPLA government throughout the 27-year-long civil war that began in 1975, immediately after Angola became independent from Portugal, and ended in 2002. Communist East Germany, like Communist Cuba and the Soviet Union, backed the Marxist-Leninist MPLA regime. The East Germans sought ties with African states which leaned ideologically towards the Soviet Union, such as Angola, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. German reunification in 1990 brought the era of East German military and political involvement with these African nations to an end.

The entrance to the wine shop moved closer to us and eventually came into view. It was an exciting moment, filled with anticipation as we approached two at a time, side by side. When we reached the entrance, I and the person beside me were permitted to enter the shop. Each person in the line was able to buy two bottles of inexpensive Portuguese red wine, that was the limit. I paid for my purchase with East German marks and walked straight back to my apartment. The wine was a special treat for the East Germans, since they never were able to buy wines from Western countries in the GDR’s state-run stores. I could and did buy such wines on a regular basis, usually in West Berlin. Still, I had the feeling that my two bottles of wine from Portugal were something really special, perhaps worthy of a celebration.

From my apartment I called my friend Ulrich Plenzdorf and told him about my good fortune. My idea was to stop by his place in the evening and share the wine with him and his wife, Helga, who had kindly given me a standing invitation to have dinner with their family whenever I liked. Uli expanded on my idea right away and proposed that we invite some friends who lived nearby to join us, on short notice, for an impromptu party at 8:00 p.m. that evening. The gathering would be held in the Plenzdorfs’ apartment, which was conveniently located for everybody. Uli said he would do the inviting, so all I had to do was show up with the wine at 7:30 p.m. or so.

Helga and Uli Plenzdorf did a lot of entertaining in their spacious, tastefully appointed pre-WW II apartment, which was a gathering place for their family members and their circle of friends. The guests arrived punctually at 8:00 p.m.; East Germans, just like West Germans, were sticklers for punctuality. And in Germany no one comes to a party empty-handed. Every person or couple brought a bottle of wine, some cheese or sliced meats from a foreign country, or a cold homemade dish, all destined for the buffet table. This was typical and expected in East Germany, where the hosts would have difficulty shopping for food and assembling a buffet on their own. All of our guests were in high spirits, delighted that we had organized a festive occasion around two bottles of “solidarity with Angola wine” from Portugal, which were prominently displayed. You might want to know who the guests were. Apart from a few of Plenzdorfs’ relatives, all were friends of theirs from the GDR’s cultural sphere—writers, actors, and persons from the film industry. On this occasion, there were no West Berliners or West Germans present. That meant the guests—who knew each other well—would be able to converse freely.

Social gatherings like this one had an important function in the GDR, where the pressing and frequently disturbing issues of the day were not discussed in the newspapers, in television or radio broadcasts, in movies, or in other public news forums. Such get-togethers provided a welcome escape from the humdrum of everyday life in the GDR, which prominent writer Volker Braun famously labelled “the most boring country in the world” (“das langweiligste Land der Welt”) in his play Die Kipper (The Dumpers), 1965. There is much truth to that, I think, for it was not easy to find things to do in East Germany that were fun or entertaining. Indeed, some social thinkers have speculated that sheer boredom, along with the stifling confinement of all GDR citizens within the borders of that country, may have contributed to the notoriously high level of infidelity among East German couples. Be that as it may, the social gatherings of friends in private residences provided a sheltered environment where one could express repressed feelings, exchange ideas and views openly, release pent-up frustration and anger, and in so doing engage in a kind of group therapy that was not available elsewhere in the GDR. Conversations would focus on topics of immediate and ongoing concern to many of those present; there was no room or need for small talk so common at social gatherings and parties in West Germany.

Although the title of this piece is “Standing in Line,” it is really about the nature, function, and importance of interpersonal communication in repressive dictatorships like the GDR and the Soviet Union. While East and West Germans spoke the same language, the exact same words in that language often came to connote something very different in the two Germanys. An East German writer who had embraced communism wholeheartedly used the example of a “social obligation” (gesellschaftliche Verpflichtung) to explain this to me. “In the GDR,” he explained with an air of moral superiority, “we have socially-engaged citizens who have an obligation to contribute to society in positive ways. By contrast, a social obligation in the US or West Germany can mean that friends have invited you to a dinner or cocktail party and you now are obliged to reciprocate.” There are many things I could have said in response, but I had learned that in this sort of situation it is best to bite one’s tongue. My first rule of engagement when dealing with GDR authors was to listen and observe, rather than argue or aggravate them. This non-aggression strategy, which I utilized on numerous occasions, served me well.