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Symposium: The New Europe

New International, July 1949


Roger Martin

Journey into Sedistan

Life in Germany's Eastern Zone


From New International, Vol. XV No. 5, July 1949, pp. 146–149.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The author of this travel-description of the Russian zone is a German journalist and Socialist well acquainted with German political life, The Russian zone is popularly known as SEDISTAN in Germany, after the initials of the SED Stalinist Party. – Editor

This was the first time since 1935 that I crossed through German provinces east of the Elbe. Never before was I struck by such insistent comparisons to the Hitler regime.

The rolling stock is now in a shabby state, there is all-pervasive dirt inside the trains, and long, unscheduled stops are frequent. But the behavior of the passengers is the same as in Nazi times.

When I left Germany in 1933, and when I fled a second time in 1935, after a lengthy period of extremely nerve-wracking illegal activity, the last impression of Germany I took with me on my trip from the East clear across the country was the same as the one I had now on my trip from the Elbe to the Oder. I had forgotten much in the meantime. It came back to me only after the train had advanced a few miles into the Eastern Zone. Then, as now, everywhere, low-voiced accusations against the regime: Whisperings and mumblings in the waiting rooms. Before a conversation begins, fearful glances in all directions to make sure that none of the nearby fellow passengers looks like a spy.

I traveled around in the Russian Zone for 14 days. Not in express trains, not having papers with me. I avoided them because of the frequent identification controls, but in the local trains used by the working population. And not once, when the conversation turned to politics, did I find among the passengers anyone who defended the present rulers. Eager supporters of the regime I found only in the villas and spacious apartments of Berlin and the provinces.

Many old-time Communist Party members now live a retired life and hardly participate any more in political life. They are disgusted with the behavior of the Russians and with the line of development taken by the Communist Party in the Eastern Zone. Their place is taken by thousands of New-Communists, who belong to the various layers of the middle class and who entered the SED only after 1945-46. These are the people who, with neither doubts nor reflection, carry out the changing course of the party’s Moscow-dictated policy.

A 20 Pfennig Cut

In a small town on the Oder, right next to the new Polish frontier, the majority of the members of the SED is composed of functionaries and employees who, thanks to their party cards, hold positions they are hardly able to exercise – artisans, new settlers and small shopkeepers. Only a few workers have been drawn into the party there. An SED functionary from another small town told me that after its nationalization, all the workers in a street car construction shop left the union and the party en masse, despite threats of reprisals and that the only one to remain was the manager, a former Nazi. The reason: the 20 pfennigs an hour wage reduction ensuing from the nationalization.

I was able to observe at first hand both the preparations for May Day and the May Day parades themselves. In general, the population considers itself ordered off to the May Day celebrations, just like in Nazi times. A relative of mine, who works in a big enterprise in Adlershof in the Russian Sector, complained about the terror the work council exercises. The workers of this shop were threatened with withdrawal of the supplementary textile rations distributed by the shop if they did not participate in the May Day parade.

In the early hours of the morning of May 1 I took a train to Potsdam from Brandenburg. In my compartment were several elderly workers who were going fishing. It was very difficult to talk politics with them. They were too careful in my presence. Nonetheless, one of them stated that he had sneaked away from every May Day parade under Hitler. He had still participated in those of 1946 and 1947 half-voluntarily, but since last year he didn’t care a hoot about anything. In reply to my question whether he thought the Hitler and the Stalin regimes the same thing, he answered: “Today it’s worse.” Shortly before Magdeburg I overheard a conversation among young workers. They also were obliged to participate against their will. The so-called construction stamp, which is pasted into the work-books as proof of active participation in realizing the Two-Year Plan, was to be distributed before the parade began.

Free Meals on May Day

Other larger nationalized enterprises handed out a free and rationless meal after the celebration. Given the hunger which still prevails in the Eastern Zone, this bait is gladly swallowed. In the East in contrast to the West it was principally the youth who actively participated in the May Day celebrations. Even school classes were mobilized.

I listened to a speech in a small village in the Harz. It was in the usual style. Attacks against the pro-Western German politicians and against the imperialists. The guest speaker, however, sent over from Magdeburg, aroused secret smiles when he talked about the hunger to which the German brothers in the West are subject. He stated that on the other side of the Russian Zone’s frontier, dire need and misery hold sway. But every inhabitant of this village, which is only a few miles away from the zone’s frontier, has crossed over at least once already to buy food, clothing and shoes. They know from their own experience that the difference between the Western and the Eastern Zone is as day is to night.

The working population everywhere curses the "free shops" in which food and consumption articles are sold at high prices. Even taking into consideration the fact that wages and salaries are higher in the Eastern Zone than in the West, a worker or employee is still hardly able to pay the price demanded. A cheap mass production suit costs 340 marks, low shoes 230 marks, a bicycle is offered for 800 marks. Popular wit has rebaptized these “H.O.” – (Handels Organization – trade organization) into “Hunger im Osten” – Hunger in the East.

A high functionary in the Ministry of Agriculture of Mecklenburg-Schwerin to whom I was introduced as a comrade from the West, explained in the course of our conversation that the Ministry was considering not handing out a single gram of meat to the population during the summer months, until October, in order to preserve the cattle stock. When I asked, amazed, how such a thing could be possible four years after the end of the war, he began a long lecture explaining to me how the whole countryside from Stalingrad to the Elbe had been devastated. He has already proposed in 1946 not to distribute any more meat to the population. This measure would indeed have been a rigorous one, but had it been applied, the catastrophic meat situation would no longer exist today. When I called attention to the progress the West has made in this respect, and that we are approaching the time when meat will be unrationed he replied: “Yes, that could be so, since all the livestock was driven from the East to the West.”

Such naiveté disarmed me, and I merely pointed out to him the fact that before occupation by the Red Army, the population was happy enough to have saved their lives and their most necessary belongings from the scene of battle, and that there had not been the slightest possibility of driving away the cattle. He thought that my view was true only in part, but that his own exposition was proved by the facts. (It is unnecessary to state here that the Russians drove the livestock to Russia by the tens of thousands. That is the truth. My functionary was mistaken only in the direction which the herds took.)

He took great pains to explain the agricultural to the “comrade from the West” who was all mixed up. According to his explanation, instead of nationalizing the land, new colonies of small farms were created quite consciously. A great number of peasants and farm workers from the East had to be resettled. By giving them pieces of property, the administration had won supporters and secured a foothold on the land. Added to, this was another consideration – each individual owner of a piece of land would strive to the utmost, out of purely egoistic and private capitalist motives, to obtain from anywhere at all tools and cattle. It would have been impossible for the state to supply the big estates with the necessary machinery and tool equipment, as well as cattle. But despite all the efforts of the new farmers and settlers, the tools and cattle they rounded up proved to be insufficient for individual farming. That is why farmer self-help organizations were created. By means of state funds, they were soon extended into village associations. In reply to my remark, “So they are kolkhoses?” he answered, “Yes, but the word ‘kolkhoz’ is in evil repute among the farmers and so we avoid that expression.” He explained further that machinery and tractor stations were being installed.

In the newspapers I read lengthy articles about Russia’s touching behavior in delivering tractors – up to now, a dozen in all – in order to stimulate the reconstruction of the Eastern Zone, while the imperialists were shamelessly exploiting the West. That the Russians, however, by dismantling Eastern Zone industry, had taken away the possibility for it to build its own tractors – this, understandably, was hushed up. Various means were employed which would force all farmers who were not members of the village association either to enter it or to perish on their farms. Members of the association benefited by a loosening and lowering of the rigid delivery norms for agricultural products, whereas a higher quota was set for the non-members. At distributions of fertilizers and seed, the association members received preference and the others received a poorer quality or nothing at all. If a farmer did not join the association, he soon was in no position to run his property in accordance with the orders handed out. So the administration could relieve him of his property “in the interests of feeding the population.”

I spent a few hours in a settlement of new farmers which is under the jurisdiction of this ministry. A relative of mine – one of the exiles from the East – owns a farm. He also has joined the association. He told me of the terrible initial difficulties before sufficient shelter and stalls, cattle and tools existed. Hunger was great at that time. Almost all the settlers, he informed me, after having been in favor of the regime at first, or at least neutral toward it, were now opposed. Reality looks different from what the functionary from the Ministry hoped for. The new farmers and settlers are not loyal supporters of the SED and its policy.

According to my relative’s statements, it is a long time since the settlers have tasted butter, although they have cows in their stalls. They receive no money, or only a small proportion, for delivery of their products. In the stores of the association, they have to pay for everything in cash. My relative, who had received 10,000 pounds of sugar instead of money in return for delivering sugar beets, was forced to send his daughter from Mecklenburg to Berlin with the sugar, to sell it there on the black market! In this way he received cash to feed and clothe his large family.

A Bitter Feud

A conversation with an old acquaintance of mine, now in a high position in the Economic Division, was most illuminating. According to him, a bitter feud has broken out recently between this Economic Administration and the party functionaries, each laying the blame on the other for the breakdown of the economy in the Eastern Zone. Several important concerns are on the verge of collapse. This also explains the willingness of the Russians and of the German party organizations not only to reintroduce trade with the West but to build it up. I objected that the newspapers stated the contrary, namely, that the capitalist economy of the West was on the verge of collapse, and that the West had begged that the blockade be lifted. Whereupon I received the answer so often given me: “You can’t tell the masses everything.” This friend openly admitted that the population rejects the rule of the SED. He told me literally: “We know quite well that when the Russians leave we shall have to go with them or it will be the end of us.” This opinion contradicts the much-touted demand for evacuation of the occupation troops.

The SED’s entire policy bears the stamp of this split between reality and political slogans. They could not even rely on the police troops, who have been trained according to Communist conception. My conversations, later on, with members of the people’s police, both inside the zone and on its borders, were to confirm this.

In the opinion of my friend, the Russians, at their entry and even later, greatly harmed the reputation of the Communist Party. And today the Russians are very skeptical and stand-offish toward the German Communists. The SED is now frantically trying to recover lost ground and is seeking pro forma to make friends with all possible bourgeois tendencies which can still find response among the population. “The party,” he said textually, “is opening its jaws wide, like a shark. Let them all come, then, when it is time, the jaws will snap shut and all these bourgeois leaders will have to march the way the party wants them to.” Our conversation took a more dramatic turn when I asked him what had happened to some friends who had languished in Buchenwald for years. Being opposed to the Stalinist policy, they had once more been arrested, months ago, and since then there had been no trace of them, A month later their families were chased from their homes. He assumed I was ignorant of all this. First he tried to justify the arrests by pointing out that these people had become enemies of the state. However, when I informed him that I knew what the facts really were, that I had already talked to the wife of one of the arrested men, and that such conditions were to be found only under the Nazi regime, he became silent and very depressed.

On the whole, he saw the reality of conditions. He did not agree with the SED policy in many things. His hatred and skepticism toward the real conditions of life in the West, however, still permit him to defend the present system loyally and devotedly, despite its many lacks and weaknesses. In spite of the fact that our political opinions were far apart, he spoken openly and freely to me about every internal party matter, and in general gave me a friendly reception. In the course of my two weeks’ trip, this was the first time I could eat my fill of good food! For this, and for the abundant provisions he gave me for my trip, I am especially grateful to him.

During the followings days I often talked to lower party functionaries. It was impossible to enter into a real political discussion with them. The most elementary basic conceptions were foreign to them. These were only fanatics who believed the directives of their SED leadership just as Seventh Day Adventists believe the revelations of the Holy Scriptures. Nonetheless, with few exceptions, even they believed that the behavior of the Russians had harmed them greatly.

Cement, lime and other important construction materials are lacking for the building of homes. The Russians, however, in every town and village, set up pompous monuments in honor of Stalin and his army. Grandiose soldiers’ cemeteries, in part installed in municipal park grounds, with cemented graves, testify to the conqueror’s might. From my numerous conversations, I think I can conclude that the Russians are slowly drawing away from their “protégés.” They are realizing that the Eastern Zone is no Poland, no Hungary, no Rumania, no Czechoslovakia. Time and again I was assured that the Russians were very angry because of the political failures of the SED.

The declaration of an NKVD officer to one of the leaders of the VVN is also typical. This functionary had been waiting three-fourths of a year for someone to replace him in the leadership of the VVN, so that he could go to a sanatorium to cure his TB. When nothing was done in his matter, he expressed himself in strong terms, saying, for instance, that he was sick and tired of the whole rubbish. For this he was called to the NKVD. When he drew attention to his sickness, which he had contracted during his 12 years’ internment in a concentration camp, and mentioned that he would simply collapse within a few months if he were not brought soon to a sanatorium, the examining officer answered him as follows: “In Russia a whole generation of us has died of TB.” “What he meant was,” the VVN leader told me, “you also can just go ahead and die too.” [1]

Countless cases of corruption were reported to me, but these, of course, flourish in every kind of system, except that with us they are dragged before the floodlight of public opinion.

The people’s police, who have strict orders to execute a most thorough control of baggage at railroad stations in order to confiscate hoarded goods, carry this out very unwillingly. Almost every city inhabitant, for instance, takes the train out into the country to buy or exchange a few pounds of potatoes. Potatoes are not unrationed, as in the Western Zone. The daily ration per person is 200 grams (2/5 of a pound). In particular the poorer section of the population carry 20 to 40 pounds of potatoes in their knapsacks. This of course is forbidden. Several members of the people’s police told me that they certainly would not take anything away from the poor people, despite the fact that they themselves receive a portion of the confiscated goods. The big shots should police in their stead, if they wanted to!

I was able to observe the behavior of the people’s police during a baggage inspection at the railroad station of a Berlin suburb. As hundreds of travelers, most of them heavily loaded down, changed from a train coming from the countryside to a suburban one, four of them were singled out and made to stand at a distance. While the policemen were busy with them, all the others passed through the gates unmolested. I could see from the train platform higher up how these four people closed their suitcases and knapsacks up again and passed through the gates in their turn, although they had hoarded goods with them. Thus the police had done their duty and still evaded the order.

At the border I entered into a lengthy conversation with, a young member of the people’s police, who had not finished his apprenticeship as carpenter when he was called to the war. While in a Russian prisoner’s camp, he let himself be inscribed for an educational course, where he was given an elementary dose of Marxist-Leninist doctrine. It was only at the school itself that he and his comrades learnt that they had been selected to play the role of police functionaries in Germany. He would much rather have completed the apprenticeship in his trade, where he had only one more year to go.

He told me they had orders to aim to shoot immediately at everyone passing the frontier who did not halt at command. He and his comrades, however, had no intention of doing that – they preferred looking the other way. You had to be careful of the Russians, he told me, for they shoot immediately, even without previous warning. He also, like many others, had completely false conceptions about life in the Western Zone, and was very glad to hear news about the West and the rest of the world. After presenting him with a can of sardines in oil in token of my gratitude, I was able to cross the border unmolested. I was terribly glad to be back again in the West!

I can state without exaggeration that free elections would give the SED less than 20 per cent of the votes.



1. Both the NKVD official and the VVN leader used the German word “verrecken,” usually employed only in connection with animals. When applied to humans, it has a distinctive nuance. One of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic slogans, often shouted in the streets at Jewish passers-by, was: “Juda, verrecke!” (Translator’s note)

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