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East Germany provides bleak ideological lesson

Volunteers and soldiers built a dam of sandbags to protect the flood-hit town of Bitterfeld, eastern Germany, in 2002. The writer says under communist rule, Bitterfeld was dubbed "Europe's dirtiest town". File picture: Darko Bandic

Volunteers and soldiers built a dam of sandbags to protect the flood-hit town of Bitterfeld, eastern Germany, in 2002. The writer says under communist rule, Bitterfeld was dubbed "Europe's dirtiest town". File picture: Darko Bandic

Published Nov 11, 2015


It is a pity that so many extreme environmentalists were in their cribs when the Berlin Wall came down, although it does to some extent excuse their ignorance of the appalling industrial pollution and environmental degradation in communist East Germany.

It can only be ignorance that supports their fantasy that only a socialist economy that bans profit and private property can save the environment and avoid alleged catastrophic climate change.

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Marxists, many of whom are now green extremists, used to say East Germany proved that communism could work. Since the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, they have been remarkably quiet. For good reason. The collapse revealed a horrific situation, one impossible in any country with a democratic government and a private economic sector. The extent of pollution defies belief.


More than a third of all East German rivers, and almost a third of all reservoirs were so polluted, they were beyond rescue. Half the lakes were dead, or dying.

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Only half the amount of domestic sewage was treated and most industrial waste was left untreated and dumped.

East German forests were badly damaged by sulphur dioxide and coal dust. In some places, air pollution was 12 times worse than in West Germany. Almost half the population breathed air that anywhere else would be called smog.

And then there was the town of Bitterfeld. It lived up to its name. When its poor state under communist rule became known, it was dubbed “Europe’s dirtiest town”. Its air and water was so filthy it horrified any western journalist that went there. A Washington Post reporter described rivers flowing red with rust, drinking-water full of heavy metals, and dead trees in the surrounding area.

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One chemical plant near the town poured almost 100 litres of mercury into the river every day. This was ten times more than amounts permitted for a large West German chemical factory.

The New York Times said Bitterfeld’s air “stings” and the water in its rivers was “syrupy”. The UK Independent reported that a local guesthouse provided gas masks for its customers.

Bad as pollution and environmental degradation was in East Germany under the communists, it was in places even worse in other parts of formerly communist eastern Europe.

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Children in parts of Poland had 500 percent more lead in their blood than children in western European cities.

In parts of Romania, horses could not work in some fields for more than three years. In the former Soviet Union, half of Moscow’s waste water was untreated. In Leningrad (St Petersburg), thousands of children had intestinal disorders from drinking contaminated water.

Leaving aside the tatty design and build of its nuclear power stations at the time, the Soviet Union’s behaviour towards whales rams home the total disregard for the environment common to communist regimes (in spite of their constitutions proclaiming the opposite).

Between 1946 and 1986 the Soviet Union slaughtered 45 000 humpback whales. It did so not because of a need for their oil, but simply because the central plan said so.

Such central economic planning, so beloved of communists, destroyed the Aral Sea by diverting two rivers that fed it. Its area is now a third of what it was and only a fifth of its water remains. Camels roam on what was once its bed.

With this kind of environmental record, it is the height of ignorance or hypocrisy for the green movement to be so anti-business, a system of creating not destroying wealth, which has shown that it is sensitive to environmental concerns and customer pressure.

As for complaining (which it is almost a hobby for environmentalists in the West) those who did so in eastern Europe did so at their peril. Criticism was akin to treason and punished accordingly. To say openly that the air was foul was to risk being accused of the sin of “bourgeois tendencies”.

Long queues

There are no property rights under communism, so what is called “the tragedy of the commons” results.

This is when no one owns anything and, therefore, no one looks after anything.

There are no consumers to choose to buy or not to buy in a communist economy. People take whatever is offered before it runs out.

There are no customer help lines, just kilometre-long queues.

It is a perfect recipe for everything to fall apart. The 40 years of communism in eastern Europe proved it.

Surely, even the most extreme environmentalists, who are fortunate to be living in a western democracy, can see that there is a lesson in this, even if they are too young to have lived through a communist ordeal themselves.

Or, has the green dogma become so much of a religion that Green socialist believers are immune to both logic and history?

* Keith Bryer is a retired communications consultant.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.


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