Global crisis sends east Germans flocking to Marx

BERLIN Thu Oct 16, 2008 1:48pm EDT

1 of 2. Two women relax on a bench during sunny weather in front of the Marx-Engels monument in Berlin, March 13, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann

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BERLIN (Reuters) - Two decades after the Berlin Wall fell, communism's founding father Karl Marx is back in vogue in eastern Germany -- thanks to the global financial crisis.

His 1867 critical analysis of capitalism, "Das Kapital," has risen from the publishing graveyard to become an improbable best-seller for academic publisher Karl-Dietz-Verlag.

"Everyone thought there would never ever again be any demand for 'Das Kapital'," managing director Joern Schuetrumpf told Reuters after selling 1,500 copies so far this year, triple the number sold in all of 2007 and a 100-fold increase since 1990.

"Even bankers and managers are now reading 'Das Kapital' to try to understand what they've been doing to us. Marx is definitely 'in' right now," Schuetrumpf said.

The revival of Marx's treatise reflects a broader rejection of capitalism by many in eastern Germany, a communist country until 1989 and now racked by high unemployment and poverty.

A month of intense financial turmoil has toppled banks in the United States and forced a series of government bailouts in Germany and elsewhere, reinforcing anti-capitalist sentiment.

Chancellor Angela Merkel -- herself an easterner -- unveiled a 500 billion euro financial rescue package this week, a move decried as a reward for irresponsible bankers.

A recent survey found 52 percent of eastern Germans believe the free market economy is "unsuitable" and 43 percent said they wanted socialism rather than capitalism, findings confirmed in interviews with dozens of ordinary easterners.

"We read about the 'horrors of capitalism' in school. They really got that right. Karl Marx was spot on," said Thomas Pivitt, a 46-year-old IT worker from east Berlin.

"I had a pretty good life before the Wall fell," he added. "No one worried about money because money didn't really matter. You had a job even if you didn't want one. The communist idea wasn't all that bad."

CAPITALISM EVEN WORSE

Unemployment in the former communist east is 14 percent, double western levels, and wages are significantly lower. Millions of jobs were lost after reunification. Many eastern factories were bought by western competitors and shut down.

"I thought communism was s ---- but capitalism is even worse," said Hermann Haibel, a 76-year old retired blacksmith, who was strolling near Alexanderplatz in the heart of old East Berlin.

"The free market is brutal. The capitalist wants to squeeze out more, more, more," he said.

Free market hopes were high in the east when Chancellor Helmut Kohl promised "flourishing landscapes."

But while some areas on the outskirts of Berlin, in Leipzig and along the Baltic shore are thriving, much of the rest suffers from depopulation and high unemployment.

The opposition Left party, which traces its roots to Erich Honecker's SED party, has capitalized on the frustration and become the east's most popular party with support of 30 percent.

"I don't think capitalism is the right system for us," said Monika Weber, a 46-year-old city clerk.

"The distribution of wealth is unfair. We're seeing that now. The little people like me are going to have to pay for this financial mess with higher taxes because of greedy bankers."

Like many other east Germans, Ralf Wulff said he was delighted about the fall of the Berlin Wall and to see capitalism replace communism. But the euphoria was ephemeral.

"It took just a few weeks to realize what the free market economy was all about," said Wulff. "It's rampant materialism and exploitation. Human beings get lost. We didn't have the material comforts but communism still had a lot going for it."

But not everyone condemned capitalism. Astrid Gerber was a master tailor in East Berlin before her company was shut down.

"It was my dream job," said Gerber, 42. She was unemployed for seven years, then opened up a newsstand but gave it up after her family disintegrated due to her 90-hour work week.

"Capitalism has its advantages but so does communism," she said. "I can't say one is better than the other."

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