Love, War And Other Things

Love, War And Other Things
Sasha had a strange habit. Whenever we passed by a bakery, she’d jump inside, while I waited outside. And every time, she’d come out without buying anything. One day I had to ask her, ‘you pop into those bakeries and buy nothing?’ ‘Oh, I just love the smell of the bread there.’ ‘And you just go to the bakeries for that smell, that’s all?’ ‘Yes, when I was growing up – in Dresden, East Germany – we didn’t have money to buy bread. And I used to just go inside those bakeries to enjoy the smell of fresh bread. That’s how it was like.’

A British-American historian, Tony Judt, reports in his fantastic study on postwar Europe – Postwar: A History of Europe After 1945 ­– that at the time of the unification of Germanys in 1990, ‘a quarter of all houses lacked a bath, one third has only an outdoor toilet, and more than 60 percent lacked any form of central heating.’ When the two Germanys got united, things changed. West Germany spent nearly €1.2 trillion to build schools, roads, business, and other signs of prosperity in former East Germany – the German Democratic Republic, or the GDR, as it was known. What didn’t change was the lingering impact and the memories of the Second World War, and the aftermath – the postwar days. It had nurtured a strange imagination among the individuals who lived it.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, a filmmaker from the western part of the country – Cologne – made The Lives of Others in 2006. The film resurrects the experiences of lives of artists ­– a stage actor, Christa-Maria Sieland, and her lover, Georg Dreyman, a writer ­–­­­ of living in East Germany in 1984, where every sixth person worked for the secret agencies. A lieutenant of the secret service, Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler, is deployed to spy the activities of Dreyman and his friends, who intend to smuggle an article into West Germany, since it could not be published in the GDR. Wiesler has a change of heart after he grows intimacy with the artists – the dissidents ­– while he listens to their conversations through a bugging system in their flat below, over a prolonged period. He changes his loyalties. He stops reporting their activities. When his seniors find out, he is dismissed from his service, as we see him pushing a post office cart towards the end of the movie, when the GDR has been merged into West Germany. That is the price he pays.
There is a history that is being recorded in our own hearts and minds today as we experience our life in this country – Pakistan. How shall we recall these days two decades hence? What kind of stories shall be written about our world, our lives?

The aftermath of the unification of Germanys brought other things too. The citizens of the former East Germany were given huge tax subsidies, financial support, and other social advantages by their cousins in the west. This created a cultural imbalance, as they eastern cousins felt patronised, and thus degraded. However, what the two cousins had to bear together was the scared ego due to the humiliation felt after losing the war. In terms of the male ego, many German men had to grapple with the realization that their country had been responsible for unspeakable horrors. This collective guilt and shame had a significant impact on the national psyche, challenging traditional notions of masculinity that had been tied to militarism and aggression. A national program was launched to systematically erase the memories of the postwar experiences through curricula in schools. However, not all German men responded in the same way. Some struggled with guilt and hurt egos, while others focused on rebuilding their lives and the country. Additionally, the experience of East and West Germany differed due to the ideological divide when the reunification took place in 1990.

The citizens of the Eastern Germany had to fight a twofold psychological challenge: grappling with the memories of their traumatic postwar lives, and letting go of their formerly held ideologies and values that had been nurtured as the citizens of the GDR. The East Germany was a satellite state of the USSR with a communist ideology. They had to adopt and adjust to the new social and cultural values of the (dominant) west with a capitalist and liberal ideology. It meant dealing with the prejudices and stereotypes on both sides. The children who grew up in the former GDR had a perpetual feeling of being looked at as inferiors by their cousins in the western part. For many, the childhood memories of hunger and deprivation were there to stay despite everything good awaiting in the future.

That’s what war can do ­– among other things – it complicates lives. It makes you suspect everything, including love and God – as Jean-Paul Sartre would describe the human existence in postwar Europe. The moving on is not easy with the burden of a traumatic past. History is not just facts – not just a collection of official documents and relics from the past. A greater part of history is the emotional and psychological experience that can only be recorded by the artists and writers, à la Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others or Manto’s Toba Tek Singh. In the same vein, there is a history that is being recorded in our own hearts and minds today as we experience our life in this country – Pakistan. How shall we recall these days two decades hence? What kind of stories shall be written about our world, our lives? How shall the love stories from our present sound like three decades from now? Shall another Sasha tell her lover that she grew up smelling bread in the bakeries that made her afraid of being in love?

The author holds a PhD from the University of Glasgow, UK. He hosts a political talk show on TV and appears as a political commentator in TV shows.