Why not learn from histories – for a change? A German-Scottish perspective

Und jedem Anfang wohnt ein Zauber inne, Der uns beschützt und der uns hilft, zu leben.
Hermann Hesse

Why do I support Scottish Independence as a German citizen living in Scotland? In the middle of the Eurozone upheaval, crops and livelihoods being devastated by climate change in South East Asia and elsewhere, and neoliberalism taking its toll on unemployment figures worldwide, the independence of a relatively small country in North-West Europe doesn’t matter that much. Or does it?

During most of the years I have been living in Scotland, I have sat on the fence regarding Scottish independence. Through my cultural baggage, I used to think all nationalism was a breeding ground for bigotry and exclusive values. These are valid concerns, but they should only be the beginning, not the end of a debate about independence. I now firmly support independence and autonomy of small nations as an integral part of solutions to the crises we face as a global community.

To begin my reflections, I will ‘dig where I stand’, as Alastair McIntosh put it. I grew up in Germany, Berlin (West) to be precise, and moved to Glasgow in 2003. Without wanting to generalize, it was considered bad taste to fly the German flag until the 2006 World Cup. Two dictatorial regimes and the Third Reich’s abuse of Germanic symbolism for the psychological manipulation of the people have taken its toll. For the most part, coming to terms with this past has been a healthy and reflective process. Yet there is an often unacknowledged shadow underneath it – a precious baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. At least in Northern Germany, cultural heritage relating to folk traditions appears to be largely forgotten. A profound longing to connect to folk traditions from the past is frequently satisfied by borrowing traditions from other cultures. My parents are folk music enthusiasts, and by the age of ten I knew plenty of traditional Russian, French and Scottish dances. Up to this day I don’t know a single traditional German dance.

I recently reconnected with my grandmother’s side on the family. My grandmother grew up in Werben, a village in Saxony-Anhalt in Eastern Germany. I visited my great uncle and his wife, who still live on the small family-owned farm. Now in their mid eighties, they no longer run the farm business, but they still grow most vegetables for their own use. Many childhood memories connect me to the village. When my parents and I visited during the regime of the German “Democratic” Republic (GDR), this involved queuing at border checkpoints with bags full of Western sweets for my distant cousins. I didn’t know at the time that GDR officials prohibited my grandmother’s nephews to finish high school or pursue their preferred careers because their parents chose to maintain “West connections” (i.e. visits by our family). Countless other families were ripped apart in this way.

I haven’t been back to Werben at all since I moved to Scotland, and only in recent years I have become more interested in the intersecting stories of both my family and the dynamics in Germany at the time. What lessons do they hold that might be relevant to other places?

Lesson #1: Political systems change sometimes quite profoundly (watch ‘Goodbye Lenin’ if you haven’t yet, to see what I mean)

My great uncle’s identity is intertwined with the village history. My great aunt spent much of her childhood as a refugee and has her own story to tell. Great uncle loves talking about the time when our family owned one of the five mills in the village and local businesses were thriving. Villagers were largely self-sufficient at that time. First under fascism and then under Soviet-style communism, this autonomy was gradually undermined. The village community had its problems like any place, but people were right to be proud of it. During the fascists regime, and then during the GDR regime, people’s strong social bonds led to psychological resilience which kept the number of collaborators with the regimes’ secret police forces minuscule among village citizens. The tides of history certainly took their toll on the people, but their connection to each other and to the land that helped them to withstand the difficult times.

Lesson #2: Changes aren’t always for the better, at least not entirely

Under the GDR regime, mills and small-scale farms were turned into big collectives called LPG’s – Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaften. After the Soviet Union collapsed, these were handed back to the farmers. The new, unified Germany was perhaps not as “unified” as it made itself out to be – rather, it presented an absorption and dissociation from the political and economic climate, firmly dissociated itself from old socialist values and clung to Western ideals of the free market. Today – twenty-two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall – there are no mills left and most of the small-scale farms have been sold. Young people are moving to the cities to search for work – often in Western Germany, where wages are still higher on average than in the former Eastern federal states. The formerly close-knit fabric of the village has been almost completely undermined – a typical 21st century scenario in rural areas under neoliberalism.
While the GDR regime had a detrimental effect on people’s freedom and autonomy, employment levels were around a hundred per cent. Today, around 12.8% of people in Saxony-Anhalt are unemployed; young people under 20 are hit the hardest.
Shaking his head in disbelief, my great uncle pointed out that the cobblestones on a recently paved road had been shipped in from China. Globalisation and outsourcing of labour has a detrimental effect on communities, and that’s not even taking into account the exploitation happening at the other end in the places at the receiving end of the outsourcing.

Lesson #3: Why can’t we learn from our histories and keep the good bits?

Of course, regime changes are not the same as independence referendums. My somewhat radical proposal would be: Let’s do away with the -isms, and replace them with values around the wellbeing of all people here and elsewhere, and the ecosystems we depend on for our survival.
Our places are porous and subject to ideological political and economic forces. As a result, many challenges faced by rural and urban communities worldwide follow patterns with often similar consequences. This holds not only for our social systems, but also for our bioregions. The GDR for one had a rather appalling social and ecological track record – perhaps the fate of nature and people are closely intertwined. Let’s tell each other the stories of community resilience in the face of injustice and wider political challenges, of ways in which people have managed to co-exist with the land without undermining their future capacities to survive and thrive, and let them help to shape our present practices.

Compared to Germany, Scotland has at least one big advantage: The stories people tell each other about their past often have a flavour of a frequently rewritten, yet largely unbroken cultural heritage. A mythopoetic connection to the land is sung in songs, danced at ceilidhs and celebrated at community festivals. Yet they only come to flesh where people are given real opportunities to thrive, where the connection to the land is based on relationships of subsistence and sustainable give-and-take. In a climate in which there are few jobs and a resulting growing dependency on crumbling social support systems, there is currently very little to fall back on. If my great uncle lived in Scotland, his smallholding would likely be subject to landownership structures which at its worst might be termed a form of neo-feudalism. The levels of inequality across the country are deeply disturbing and have built up over centuries, from Highland clearances to shipyard closures in Glasgow and elsewhere. Worse still, these inequalities appear to be self-perpetuating on multiple levels. The stigma around poverty is seen as a major psychological barrier to improving people’s sense of well-being. People have fallen by the wayside of economical decisions and systemic injustices which have widened the gap between rich and poor.

Projects like the Galgael in Glasgow have made the link to empower people in some of the most socially excluded areas to connect to their cultural heritage for psychological empowerment. Many local groups do great work on small budgets to provide training through volunteer projects and growing projects – in recent years they have been supported by the Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund. Yet such efforts would need to be scaled up massively to even make a dent in, say, supermarket monopolies that maintain dependencies on global markets. We need more community gardens (preferably not on sites earmarked for development), allotment sites, and volunteer projects where people can develop skills and confidence and take pride in their area. Yet we also need the hard stuff – employment and training that could open up in the urgently needed transition to a green, low-carbon economy, as well as good quality housing provision, and localised, sustainable food and energy systems. An immense amount of local knowledge is being generated through participation in community matters – why not learn lessons from these for more democratic participation, a sort of ‘deep democracy’?

‘A magic dwells in each beginning, protecting us and helping us to live’, as the opening quote by Hesse translates. In an independent Scotland, we’d have the unique opportunity to make a fresh start. A leap into the unknown can seem daunting, but there’s no need to reinvent every single cog in the system. Protection comes from learning from the old and integrating it with future-proofing the land and its people – building on local heritage and re-shaping the political system based upon traditional Scottish social democratic values of social equity, environmental sustainability and local autonomies. An independent Scotland that is also interdependent could increase its resilience to the ongoing global economic and environmental crises. Such a new beginning is surely a risk worth taking!