Courtesy of Ymblanter/Wikimedia Commons.
Of society and resilience: the scarcities of the past, and the panic buying of today.
‘Everything is available, just not all the time, and especially not when it’s needed’, went a popular East German saying. East Germans, having to put up with an economic system that led to constant shortages, didn’t just respond with humour. They developed sensible ways of dealing with the inevitable lack of goods. Today, by contrast, the public in virtually every country hit by Covid-19 is succumbing to panic and hoarding. Thirty years after the demise of their republic, the East Germans can teach us a great deal about how to deal with shortages.
If East Germany is remembered for anything, it’s for its constant shortages of daily goods and for its humour. Indeed, the two things often went hand in hand. ‘How do you double the value of a Trabi [Trabant, the quintessential East German car]?’ went one popular joke. ‘You fill it up. How do you triple its value? You put a banana in the glove compartment’. Bananas and other exotic fruit were in constant short supply in East Germany. ‘The banana is a hope for many and a necessity for us all’, said West Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. Because East Germany so frequently lacked this necessity, international satire soon labelled it as Europe’s version of the banana republic.
At different times, coffee, high-quality chocolate and toilet paper were also in short supply. Cars – that is, the domestically manufactured Trabant and Wartburg – required years-long waiting times.
These days, though, lots of supermarkets across Europe and North America resemble East German ones: not only are they out of bananas, but they’re out of many other necessities as well. Signs at corner shops in London noting whether they have essentials or not have quickly become a common sight. In the UK, supermarkets have been pleading with their customers to ‘only buy what you need’; when that didn’t work, they introduced restrictions on key items and browsing hours exclusively for the elderly and essential workers.
Still, the panic buying persists. Clearly, this is a problem. If supermarkets and online groceries are to have a fighting chance at feeding their nations, everyone must calm down and not stockpile for fear of shortages – an act which, in itself, exacerbates the issue.
That’s where East Germans have plenty to teach us. ‘When we hear of new [coronavirus] shortages, my friends and I often tell one another, it was always like that back in the day’, said Heidi Schubert, a secondary school teacher in the town of Radebeul in Saxony. ‘And we didn’t have Netflix and not even proper television shows to distract ourselves with’. Gerhard Gabriel, a dissident pastor during East German times who was spied on by countless members of his congregation, likewise considers the shortages a source of strength today. ‘Our advantage as former citizens of the GDR [German Democratic Republic] is that we know how to get on in difficult circumstances and still retain our joy in life’, he told me.
The fundamental challenge facing liberal democracies hit by Covid-19 is their populations’ expectation that everything – from bananas to high-speed broadband – should always be available. Everything won’t be constantly available. As the virus keeps spreading and more countries impose floating quarantine requirements on cargo ships as well as passenger ones, international supply chains will be further disrupted. And Covid-19 will be followed by other contingencies. The paradox of modern life is that the more convenient it is, the more disruptive a crisis becomes.
The standard definition of resilience is the ability to withstand, adapt to and recover from adversity. That holds true whether the adversity is caused by an inept government, nature or a hostile state. Over the next three – six? nine? 12? 18? – months we’ll have to adjust ourselves to a life that’s not exactly like the life we’re used to. Constant shortages left East Germans unaffected because their mindset was to only expect the necessities: coffee, milk, bread, butter. Everything else – including the occasional banana – was a nice add-on.
Former East Germans such as Schubert and Gabriel are, in fact, weathering the storm better than many others. ‘There hasn’t been any loo roll available here for two weeks now, so I’m simply keeping old newspapers', said Schubert. ‘Back in East German times, that was a completely normal thing to do. People just made do’. They also alerted one another when a desired product had arrived in the shop.
But the constant shortages made East Germans creative too. When the two Germanies reunited, West Germany’s patent agency absorbed a massive 111,000 East German patents into its database. There were some that made beet taste like pineapple, others that turned soybeans into a paste that resembled marzipan, and many more like them that made a virtue out of necessity. (Last year some 3,000 patents were granted in the UK, a country with four times as many people as East Germany had).
A society where everything is available, where every convenience works almost all the time, is a society that breeds complacency. Covid-19 is violently shaking our societies out of that complacency. The much-ridiculed East Germans, citizens of a country that ceased to exist 30 years ago, are the unexpected masters of the situation. If we learn from their experience, Covid-19 may even leave a positive legacy in addition to its devastating one.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI)