A Birthday Party without Guests

A Birthday Party without Guests

Dear readers of my blog,

perhaps you all know the saying that who defends him- or herself accuses him- or herself. So I am not going to explain away my silence in these parts. Soon the Wildean reasons will be given in terms of a report on what is going on at Bologna University at the moment. Since I regret not to be able to be there on the occasion of the foundation of the new Italian Society of Oscar Wilde and all that that entails, including the presentation of a new translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray by the translator, Sara Pini, I limit myself to introducing a piece of prose to you that I needed to write following the great non-event in Germany last Monday.

A Birthday Party without Guests

Reading Harold Pinters play The Birthday Party when a young man of twenty-two, I noticed an acerbity of tone and bitterness of language as a whole that rang familiar, while I felt unable to say why it had such a family touch or even sting.

Much too immersed in study craze at the time and led by a professor who never unveiled his inner self to us until his coming out in the 1990s – when I had long since left his circle – I did not manage to connect the atmosphere emanating from the words on the page to many similar moments of family life I had experienced myself. It was only much later again when I talked to more and more people about our respective family lives that it dawned on me that birthday parties in the inner circle more often than became occasions when taboos otherwise slavishly kept suddenly were broken, when people normally tongue-tied to say the least about their inner lives no longer held back.

While my memory is pretty exact in terms of much I have witnessed I fail to recall having watched any TV images of the 40th birthday parade celebrating the socialist régime of GDR on 7th October 1989.

It was a Saturday, as an Internet research on the events of that date shows me. Actually, I spend the day sitting in a minibus “controlling” the change of drivers every two hours on our 24-hour trip back to Westphalia from Rome. The day before, the tiniest majority possible in a group of eight, four ayes versus three noes plus one abstention, that is, had been in favour of doing in one go what a week before everybody had been agreed to interrupt even twice by spending Saturday night in the Bavarian Alps and Sunday night at Assisi in a hostel run by Franciscans monks and nuns.

So we neither followed the official events of the day in East Berlin, nor did we find out about the further progress of the upheaval east of the Berlin Wall.

The atmosphere to say the least was on the brink of boiling over when the next morning after stopping over at one of the drivers homes in Siegerland two members of the majority let on their principal reason to vote for that drastic measure had been their wish to put their feet under their respective mothers tables for a last Sunday lunch before university would resume classes on Monday. I simply said, “Oh having the majority does not mean you are also always reasonable.” This earned me lasting contempt, and in the general mood of democracy winning over socialism I may have been misunderstood as someone doubting the majority rule as such.

Trained even then as I still am in the complicated German electoral system but also aware of how differently such matters are dealt with in other European countries such as France, Great Britain and Italy, I had no chance then to explain that respecting a large minority is perhaps more helpful to re-establish unity than paying lip-service to the majority that is a clear but an overwhelming one.

The group of eight never became friends again in the months and years ahead we would still live in the same residence hall. Most I have not met for almost thirty years. All the same, the time spent on the way to, in, and from Rome has become an important piece in the mosaics of my life since the journey began on the day, thirty years ago, when Foreign Secretary Hans-Dietrich Genscher was unable to finish his first sentence on the balcony of the German Embassy in Prague, trying to tell the thousands of emigrants that they would be able to board a train for West Germany the same evening.

As a group, we witnessed TV images in our Alpine hostel before watching a film based on Graham Greene
’s novel Monsignor Quixote taking us back into Spain under Franco. I was aware of the parallels between the film and the situation in the GDR but even then this was not a majority topic in the group so I let it pass.

A twelve-month later, the 41st anniversary of the GDR did not take place, or, all had been done not to have to celebrate this date since it was on Wednesday, 3rd October 1990, that the German re-unification had become official. As of that date, there was only one German state, so whoever may have wanted to celebrate would no longer have had any occasion to do so. Less so even than a loved one whose birthday is often commemorated GDR had so quickly been superseded that barring a few diehards who clinked glasses in secret – perhaps for having cleverly survived the cleansing process – there was no-one who even gave a public speech that day.

Much has changed since then. Still if you sought to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the GDR you would have all the uphill work of preparing any other party, finding a venue, issuing written invitations, cooking a meal, baking a cake, and preparing activities, perhaps a treasure hunt for missing GDR mementoes in one of the former functionaries private garden.

All this would have to be done more or less according to the principle that everyone is in the know, while there is no public word being said about it. The weather was great today, cold but sunny, the first of the few who had agreed to come despite its being the autumn recess rang up at ten to say there was an illness in the family. The seventy-year-old having lived in inner exile for thirty years could not complain, things had been against him or her from the start, so he or she started to admire the decorations and to look forward to having a truly savoury lunch of genuine fish and GDR fries. When the house had also been decorated outside with only the flag missing, neighbours started to congratulate, while the wait for the only other guests seemed interminable. It is another version of Samuel Becketts play Waiting for Godot, set in a different time and in another historical context.

As almost foreseen, these guests never materialized, just as in the big picture the only commemorations of the other German state officially talked about relate the GDR to the year 1989, which saw also the beginning of its end.

Leer, 7 October 2019

P.S. Interestingly, the headlines about this anniversary making it to the front page of our local daily concern politicians in East Germany back-biting each other about how to talk of GDR. There are those who avoid to mention that its régime was one of many injustices, one built on the rocks of informing on one’s comrades rather than on human rights. Others, however, who insist on this record do not reach the hearts of the people either since they appear to take away from those that care for it the homeliness that living in the GDR may have meant for everyone who toed the line.

Leer, 10 October 2019


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