The second division of Germany: On the Trust agency (Treuhand)

Wolfram Ette

When one compares the proposal submitted to the Central Round Table on February 11th 1990, concerning “the immediate formation of a Trust agency (Holding) to ensure the protection of the shareing rights of the citizens of the GDR to state-owned property” to what was to become of it a few months later in form of the “Act of privatisation and reorganisation of the property owned by the people of the GDR from the 17th of June 1990”, one’s reaction is repeatedly of shock and disbelief.

According to the draft of the Modrow-government, the formation of the Trust agency was planned as a public corporation with the aim of transforming state-owned property into something that it had nominally been all along: the actual property of the people. In some ways, this idea was more socialist than socialism itself. It would also have corresponded with the will of a large portion of GDR citizens, who in 1989 did not want an alignment with the BRD but instead opted for the path of democratic socialism. The restitution of state-owned property to the people was a utopia that had, by virtue of a collapsed political system, come into tangible proximity.

The Treuhand act erased the last notion of such an idea. It was the complete dismantlement of the palpable utopia from autumn 89, it was - had this been a revolution – the victory of the counter-revolution, with the difference that the victors weren’t the former rulers but instead those who had claimed their legal succession and enforced this claim by all possible means; political, legal, and medial.

The trauma of the Treuhand, that is, the factual devastation, in which the Treuhand sank the economy of the GDR and in some respects ruined it. It is mainly down to the Treuhand that the GDR mutated from a Soviet to a West German satrapy; that her residents one generation later still feel like second class citizens; that they feel alien in their own country; that there is almost exclusively the regulars’ table pride in the shared GDR past, cliquish, clientele, conventicle feelings, owed to the sentiment of living in a separate part of Germany which is further away from unity than the GDR ever was.

Besides the facts, there is the outrageous gradient from draft to implementation which provides a traumatic burden. It was the demolition of a utopia. Not all the trustees were interested in the pillage of the new colony, yet the system itself was criminal. It was the opposite of what the people had wanted. They wanted either democratic socialism or Rhenish capitalism, as opposed to globally unleashed market liberalism. They wanted access to the market of possibilities, and what they got was unemployment benefits, later Hartz IV, and the realisation that they couldn’t afford those possibilities. They wanted freedom of speech and of the press, and instead got a new world of media that was anchored economically and morally in the west.

There may be no other town in which an historical and arts debate on the Treuhand is more relevant as in Chemnitz. The ‚secret capital of the GDR‘ sank lower than most other communities of the country. Here worked the industrial elite, here so many patents were registered and here was pride of – as they once referred to themselves – the working people (Werktätigen). This was all historically scrapped. The disappointments run deep. During the GDR-era, Karl-Marx-Stadt was able to face other big cities at eye level. Now it is, as we all know, the ugly duckling; a former industrial metropole damaged for decades, now slowly recovering. It is a concentration of the wounds inflicted on the whole country through the reunification. Is it so surprising that these wounds, pars pro toto, opened up in this city, and that their own devaluation was handed down once more, to the refugees?

The Treuhand is, to reiterate, the economic foundation of the devaluation process that led to the second division of Germany. It therefore isn’t simply a topic chosen by the Biennale this year. It rather points to the heart of the upheavals which this country was exposed to in recent decades. The facts are being reconstructed, mistakes are being analysed and described. Alternatives are playfully explored in the counterfactual medium of art.

But what does ‚counterfactual‘ mean? In the outer reality that ship has sailed, in the inner one many elements are not yet dealt with. It is hard to shrug off this recollection. The dead do live on, and the wounds heal slowly. Time has a different rhythm. Art turns to a kind of reality that doesn’t comprise things, but rather our relationship to them. In a productive way of recollection one can change it.