Why not learn from histories – for a change?

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!

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  1. tom says:

    Off topic: I see from the Irish Examiner that oil and gas have been found offshore around Cork. I hope they are aware of what a dsaster this is. They will probably be poorer as a result and their economy will flounder due to the instability of crude oil prices _ and what will they do when it runs out?

    What a national catastrophe!

  2. “Such a new beginning is surely a risk worth taking!”

    Yes, it certainly is!

    Your first lesson is particularly apt for Scotland, since the political landscape has already changed, and yet many people seem to be completely oblivious to this change, or choose to ignore it. When unionists talk of “the 300 year old union”, the implicit assertion is that it has remained static for three centuries. But it simply hasn’t – we’ve had changes to the boundaries of the UK, an empire built up and knocked down, and Scotland itself has had constant changes in governance, having been bandied around from the Scottish Secretary of State to the Lord Advocate, then to the Home Secretary, then the Secretary for Scotland and the Scottish Office, until the current situation with the devolved Scottish Government and the Scotland Office.

    The political system in Scotland has changed numerous times, just as it has throughout the world, and even once we’re independent, it will continue to evolve to suit the current situation. Independence is just another part of this evolution, and it is ridiculous that people seek to block that process.

    Great article, and you’re quite right, anyone who hasn’t seen Goodbye Lenin! already should make an effort to do so. Possibly my favourite film ever, and definitely the film that started off my obsession with foreign language films.

  3. Màrtainn says:

    Great article, and “The Lives of Others” is another good film if you haven’t seen that.

  4. Svenja Meyerricks says:

    Totally, ‘The Lives of Others’ is better for showing the pressure people were subjected to under the GDR regime, while ‘Goodbye Lenin’ deals more with the regime change – and it’s really funny! (Yes, despite being German 😛 )

    And yes, true, the political landscape changes all the time, yet I think the underlying narratives haven’t changed much. I’m glad that more and more people are beginning to question the wisdom of infinite economic growth on a finite planet, but to then say we shouldn’t focus on growth but on wellbeing instead is still a fringe view.
    The same holds for how we treat our ecological systems – it’s great to see more environmental policies and there appears to be a real shift happening, but as long as the wellbeing of the ecological systems that sustain us aren’t put at the centre of it all, we’re undermining our future livelihoods, and those of coming generations.
    And if we look at the focus on poverty – I’m just back from the Scottish Assembly for Tackling Poverty: Certainly things are happening, but in some respects they seem to be going backwards, and the focus seems to be too much on tackling poverty and less on tackling inequality. There’s an important difference between the two, and the letter is much more politically sensitive.

    I really hope we’re brave enough to start now to make the changes on the scale that’s needed.

  5. Svenja Meyerricks says:

    Oops, excuse the typos.

  6. Ron Preedy says:

    As a Scot who has lived in Germany for nearly 40 years, I find this article very thought-provoking. And encouraging. I look forward to my Scottish passport and I wear the pin depicted every day.

  7. What a fantastic article and so reminds me of a dear German friend’s story who also is from the East and has spent the last 10 years here in Glasgow.

  8. Justin Kenrick says:

    Great article Svenja – thanks!

    For me, the most useful point (in a piece full of clear thinking and real experience) is that:
    “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’?”

    What would “deep democracy” be?

    Recent research shows that those who deny climate change are overwhelmingly white, male and retired (http://grist.org/climate-change/cohort-replacement-climate-deniers-wont-change-but-they-will-die/) while – in apparent contradiction – other recent research shows that, compared to the young twenty years ago, the young today are much more concerned with getting stuff than dealing with social and environmental issues (http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-ofp-twenge.pdf). So what to make of this, and how might it connect with “deep democracy”?!

    Holding tightly to the status quo – refusing to change habits and society despite this economic system destroying our ecology and deepening inequality, and/ or desperately seeking worth through salary and gadgets – is about being unable to respond to each other and the world in a way that recognises new information, that values others lives, and that seeks solutions that are inclusive, democratic and that make for new beginnings that build on experience.

    Maybe Deep Democracy is about recognising Hesse’s point that “A magic dwells in each beginning, protecting us and helping us to live” – about recognising that we can’t sit back and hope that others (status quo, revolutionaries, technocrats, whoever) will sort things out, we need to be those new beginnings, and maybe that is the point you were making! And it sounds like the point folk were making last week in Tobermory (http://forargyll.com/2012/03/a-cresting-wave-community-land-scotland-annual-conference/).

    But what are the implications of that for the move to independence in Scotland? You see independence as a chance for autonomy and new beginnings, and I’d agree, but you also acknowledge that nationalism can be “a breeding ground for bigotry and exclusive values”. What makes it one thing, and what makes it the other? What do we need to encourage, and what do we need to guard against?

    How could this be a NEW form of independence? Real independence – “Independence Plus” – which is independence from acquiescence to a system that is destroying the planet, and is a real reaching out to other movements that are seeking to ensure that such creatures as elephants and sheep and humans, such beings as forests and oceans and top soils, and people throughout the world currently struggling against abuses of power, can live and prosper, recover and thrive, in a way that benefits each other?

    How could independence refuse to be a harking back to the nationalisms of exclusion, resentment and superiority? How could we use it to refuse to be reinstated as just another cog in the global machine of financiers’ profits? How could independence renew our ability to make ‘new beginnings’, partly through appreciating the stories that have made us, and partly through appreciating that the ‘new beginnings’ of others is as magic – and as deserving of support – as our own?

    Your article brought to life a very different ‘new beginning’ – that of Germany: the costs that had been borne by its division, and the dangers and possibilities in its reunification. Reunification was about making a larger polity, about uniting two stories and peoples who had been separate for a while. Independence here is about the opposite, about separating a single supposed politics and state into two. These are clearly different, even opposing, forms – but there is always a moment in such a process when radical change is possible.

    Whether we can seize the moment, and ensure that our children have a future at all, is – for me – the real independence question.

  9. bellacaledonia says:

    This is a really great outline of what we might mean by Deep Citizenship Justin:


  10. thom, cross says:


    I sent a piece to BC with many lessons for Scotland from the anti-imperialist struggles of the former colonies. I hope they will publish it. Though it is dedicated to Jamaica, and the many enslaved Africans who fought for their freedom and the dedicated sons and daughters who struggled through the riots and hardships of the 1930s in order to gain Independence 50 years ago, there are lessons also for Scotland. The people of Jamaica too were forced to play constitutional ‘games’ set by London but with popular success through a Referendum they found political sovereignty . But their struggle isn’t over. The haves have too much, while the have-nots in the ghettos of Kingston have too little. With the Queen still head-of-state in Jamaica, self- reliance, self-determination and self-assertion are being restrained. The de-colonization process continues while resistance to the blandishments of the giant neighbor to the North is on-going . We wish the Jamaica people well, who raised their green, gold and black saltire in August of 1962.
    Thom Cross

  11. Assja Baumgärtner says:

    I absolutely agree with your article, Svenja! Being born in Bonn and having lived in Switzerland for about 20 years and now in Scotland for another 17, I have come to the same conclusions as you. I do hope to one day finally experience, the Scottish independence. Wouldn’t it be nice, if our German and Swiss acquaintances finally would stop to refer to us (and the Welsh) as living in England?

  12. a n other Tom says:

    As well as land access, smallholdings, social, creative and productive collectives, allotments and such, as a green idyll is impossible without tools, equipment, materials, processes which are far from green, are harmful to involved operatives and incidentals and environment, near and far, even when organic in other respects, from composting to disuse of pesticides and weedkillers -people also need machinery, workshop and storage facilities at minimum cost, shortest term, in order to self-start in local businesses and services approaching equal terms of reward with capital-backed commercial ‘wage slave’ holders and establishment favourites. A flat-rate minimum per person living income, over and above which that person may earn as much as little as they like, taxation starting at say £20,000SC per annum would be necessary and desirable. A few metres strip alone of clay and rock infested half-swamp does not make a self-sustaining individual or community.

    Industry, commerce cannot accomodate multiskilled multitalented, who can switch from spade work to electronics, welding to waste water management, from throwing pots to throwing out ideas. The commercialism pigeonholes and fossilises them, locks them to monotony, constraint and frustration, people who like to do things and can do them well, instinctively seek fresh pastures after few repetitions, these people must be free to apply their skills to what and where their journey of arts take them.

    1. Wonderful last paragraph! I completely agree with you.

  13. Svenja says:

    Thank you everybody!

    I was particularly thoughtful about your comment Justin – yes, a separation is different from a reunification. But making the ‘separation’ from the union the centre piece sounds so, hm, separatist. In some ways it will be a beginning of entering new unions – or alliances – that are chosen consciously. I’m not thinking the European Union, but other countries whose political systems are more social democratic. I’m finding the Nordic Alliance movement quite interesting. Will it be enough to ‘seize the moment’ to break free from the global profiteering machine? Probably not. Fear of economic breakdowns seems to have strengthened more hardline, exclusive movements in many countries across Europe (including Germany).

    Which other, wider narratives will we belong to? Which new narratives will we create, for others to come on board? I’m really interested in that. And yes – we’ll also need the hard stuff as Tom says, but the world will be a very different one in the coming decades. I worry a lot that we won’t be able to swing things around; I suffer from ‘ecological anxiety’ as a friend put it. But I also firmly believe that we must never give up trying – and be brave and bold in doing so.

    1. biowrite says:

      Neoliberalism promotes inequality, and inequality = separation, division, lack of empathy, scapegoating, etc. (Refer to the Equality Trust website for some excellent short videos and graphs demonstrating the multiple harmful effects of inequality.) Canadian psychologist Bruce K, Alexander says that the major cause of harmful addictions is “psychosocial dislocation”, and that this is primarily caused by “hypercapitalism”.

      The UK seems inextricably ted up with neoliberalism/hypercapitalism, belly up to the multinationals. Therefore, if we are against real “separation” in society, it seems that we should be against “the Union”. Don’t let defenders of the status quo get away with glib use of the term “separation” as the pejorative equivalent of “independence”. This is an attempt to substitute the negative connotation of the word for reasoned argument, and must be challenged. (You’ll find a wee toolkit for busting neoliberal myths on my blog, incidentally.)

      In other words, if we want a fairer, more cohesive, less separated society, we must break away from the UK. We can then be a galvanising model for the rest of it (and further afield), and perhaps help to make society the world over less fragmented?

  14. bigwalt2990 says:

    History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself…..but it sure rhymes.

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