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Jürgen Henkel {*}

Between Church and Consumerism

Postcommunist Europe Twenty Years after the Turnaround


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 8/2009, P. 423-428
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In its former territory Communism has left deep traces that become still apparent even twenty years after the turnaround. There are many kinds of divisions in society. In many places the churches are the only institutions which are trusted and to which people are committed.


In a long queue before a food shop in Bucharest. An angry man steps out of the line. "I am going to kill the dictator," he says. After about an hour he returns. The curious people ask him: "Have you killed him?" - "No," he replies, "but I have secured also there a place in the queue".



Before the turnaround in Eastern Europe such political jokes as this, quoted in Richard Wagner's novel "Habseligkeiten" [Belongings], were a way better to cope with the absurdities of the Communist system, or at least to suppress them for a moment or two. It was an expression of passive resistance between East Berlin and Bucharest, of silent opposition off the record. The airs and graces of the conceited politico bigwigs and the pathetic-ideological homilies of the omnipotent as well as omnipresent party were equally the target of ridicule and scorn.

Today - 20 years after the turnaround - nobody is any longer laughing politically. In the years since then the subtle irony as means of coping with life and politics has become pure sarcasm and cynicism as means of describing the reality of life. And the political joke, too, is missing.


Double-facedness as a Survival Tactic

For decades the propaganda and the coercive system of Communism have educated and forced generations of people to lie. Everyone had at least two switchboxes in his head: the official in the public and the workplace - and one's own at home and with friends and relatives. And nobody ever knew who was really to be trusted.

The result of this brainwashing was a life in absolutely separated parallel worlds: the state-political sphere of clichés and the private world. The citizen mutated from the comrade who was delighted at the real existing socialism to the schizophrenic chameleon changing the political outer colour according to the current environment. This double-facedness was pure survival strategy.

All cultivated and practised the "double language": the one for saying the allowed things and the other to formulate honest convictions. This pair of scissors in the head was practically a matter of survival. It was a precisely adjusted inner filter the psychological mechanisms of which were determined by the fear of the omnipresent system and the will to survive.

The art of survival in everyday life in the communist system was also marked by a remarkable intellectual flexibility and personal pragmatism. It certainly prevented the orientation towards universal values and the development of alternative life plans, which were not sanctioned by the semi-official conception of life offered by the workers' and farmers' state to its national comrades. According to its own rhetoric the communist government aimed at people's emancipation from the feudal powers, such as capital and churches but led above all to a collective brainwashing and the deprivation of the right of decision. Richard Wagner describes in his stories "Ausreiseantrag. Begrüßungsgeld" [Exit Application. Welcoming Money] the perfidies and absurdities of the system between rooms of escape and dreams of escape.

In the Romanian communism besides the internal opposition only the churches and the Christian faith offered a sense of security and - in all the spoon-feeding and persecution by the system - an as regards content independent identification and value orientation. There are differences between the communist countries, which are also the result of the national characters and the social mentalities. In this respect Romania is comparable to Catholic Poland and Slovakia.

The churches offered a counter-world to the real existing socialism. Every creed as confession of faith in the Almighty God was a profession against the almighty party, every liturgy an alternative to the political para-liturgy of the rulers in parades, party conferences and marches. At the first free census in 1992 in Romania just 0.1 per cent of the population declared themselves to be atheists. About 96 percent of all citizens confess to belong to the Christian churches - after more than 50 years of Communism à la Ceausescu.

All citizens who were born and politico-ideologically socialized until about 1980 under Communism have not yet really recovered from the state-prescribed schizophrenia. This is all the more tragic for the political development of these countries, as precisely this layer of today's 30 - to 70-year-olds represents the current ruling elites - in politics and political parties, administration and economy, science and media, society and the judiciary.

The officials and leaders at all levels until 1989, but also the ordinary citizens had internalized the official view which secured them life and survival and at best even participation in the power. This propaganda rhetoric was a form of ritualised success stories, garnished with emotional appeals in the sense of slogans to see it through and to improve in performance as well as ideological identification offers for the sake of self-assurance.

The socialist ideology partly turned up in pseudo-religious language. The Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was fond of inventing stories about the "creation of the new man" (crearea omului nou). This is a purely biblical language. He wanted in his madness - like the other dictators, too - to create the new socialist mass-man: freed from any commitment to social entities and forces except for state and party and the economic or pre-political institutions and organizations controlled by them, the new human being should be created, living in satellite towns and thinking and doing the same.

For it the Romanian leader also developed his urbanization and village systematization programme: He wanted to raze to the ground and to abolish whole villages.



Specific resettlements of people from villages e.g. in the Moldova to Transylvanian cities like Hermannstadt / Sibiu doubled and tripled in just a few decades their population and damaged stable social structures. The villages in the poor regions got a disproportionately high proportion of elderly people, in the cities a new industrial proletariat emerged which was hardly compatible with the old residential structures developed through centuries.


The Turnaround had the Effect of a Liberating Blow

The turnaround of 1989 had at first the effect of an unexpected liberating blow. But neither the West nor the people in Eastern and South-eastern Europe were psychologically prepared for it. There was also no instruction manual for the reunification of Germany and the transformation of former Soviet bloc countries into states with market economy and liberal democracy. Within a very short time people had to adjust from a socialist state and planned economy in a totalitarian system to democracy, pluralism and market economy. Entire life plans now appeared obsolete within in a very short time. The socialist ideology crumbled. In the brain two switches had at least to be turned - the political and the economic. As political phenomena corruption and oligarchic power structures remained politically constant factors which have survived any system in Romania as well as in whole South Eastern Europe.

People enjoyed the new freedom but were not able on a short- or long-term basis to develop own political identification models in the sense of a stable conception of man that was supporting society. The enthusiasm for the revolution was primarily a collective satisfaction with a short half-life about the fall and the physical elimination of the dictator and, above all, of his even more hated wife. Immediately afterwards the "battle for a share of power and economic resources" began, as the South East Europe expert Anneli Ute Gabanyi describes the re-orientation of the previous leadership. The general public was left out in the cold.

According to the sociologist Anthony Sterbling the radical democratic change in Eastern Europe was "also and above all understood as a liberation of thought from ideological obligations and self-commitments, as a return to a common universalist language of critical discourse and to a reason tested by experience, as a new opportunity for the mind to free itself from the subjugation to power and to devote oneself only to truth."

Compared to the previous pair of scissors in the head an ideological horror vacui at first emerged. People were set back on the individual rhetoric, apart from the grossly overworked "reform"-clichés. A new culture of privacy came into being after 1989: Do-it-yourself with the new products imported from the West and barbecue on the river and in the forest instead of parades and public political farces and spectacles. The citizens won the right to privacy and private life. This is evident and is probably seen as the most important personal gain from the revolution. But this is neither politically nor economically measurable and is even a risk; because this mental Biedermeier, which is mainly fed by the saturation with the previous total politicization of life, also leads directly into the apolitical sphere.

In the past the entire reality of life both in the public and private sector was subjected to the dictate of political ideology, whereas after 1989 the new economic order became the sole standard. It serves above all those who have taken care of number one and belong to the so-called "revolution winners". And in this way e.g. in Romania a classic two-thirds society developed. The upper ten thousand partly display obscenely their nouveaux riches in a country where people are dying from curable diseases because they cannot pay for medicine and life-saving surgery.


The Coping with the Turnaround Happened according to Classes

All people over a certain age with the ability to perceive the political facts are now trying to cope - everybody in his/her own way - with the turnaround in a transformation state like Romania. Collective social and psychological behaviour patterns can nevertheless be observed, although these are unfortunately not even to some extent scientifically investigated and recorded.

In any case, there is a mental vacuum caused by ideology: a universally recognized public social orientation is missing in the field of ethics and politics. The political and economic life is characterized by the fact that the weakest go to the wall. In large sections of society there is a broad and deep political lethargy, depression and frustration due to the fact that the previous rulers were often enough able, with the help of their old followers, to get the reins of power in the new system. In public opinion polls the results are therefore alarmingly low regarding the sympathy for and confidence in politics and politicians, democracy and state institutions, not to mention the turnout in the young democracy.



The fundamentally sceptical rejection of politics per se and especially of the caste of politicians who make a great deal of money at the expense of others often takes on irrational and pathological features in the post-revolutionary Romania. The Romanians are true masters of distrustful self-accusation of their own people and of their own political system. After only a few years any confidence in the new democratic institutions and politics is missing. Since the turnaround the churches, however, lead in confidence rankings with usually about 85 per cent, followed by the army with more than 70 per cent. This is also a sign of gratitude for the fact that the army during the Revolution of 1989 has fought on the side of the people against the Securitate units. To churches and army moral is conceded, more than to the media, politics and other institutions.

But these critical attitudes to democracy and the rule of law are not simply phenomena of nostalgia in order to suppress the new conditions of life. The observation of the political stage and the uncertainty about one's own standard of living are above all nurturing retrospective sentimentalities. A high degree of personal responsibility is furthermore exacted of people in the transformation states. Exactly this, however, has for 40 years not been instilled in them.


Consumerism and Materialism as a Substitute Ideology

The fact that politics serves primarily the self-enrichment of the ruling classes and the relevant economic clans behind the parties does also not promote positive attitudes towards democracy and parliamentarism. Since about eight years there is now an economic boom with growth rates of four to eight per cent per year; the country managed it to become a member of the NATO and EU. But up to now it has hardly effects on the majority of the population. Unemployment is admittedly very low, but low-wage jobs are the cause for it. Thus, average wages from 200 to 300 euros are to be compared to the cost of living in essential areas significantly higher than in Germany. Only about 300 000 employees in Romania earn a gross salary of more than 1000 euros, the National Institute of Statistics (INS) informed in Bucharest in 2008. That's six per cent of the registered workers. About 60 per cent earn wages from 149 to 447 euros - please note, with Western prices for consumer goods and gas.

The coping with the turnaround therefore starts in the head and the purse alike. It happens primarily in accordance with classes. People have looked for vicarious ideologies and satisfactions which are to fill the vacuum. But not all alternatives offer spiritual guidance.

The most visible vicarious ideologies are consumerism and materialism. There is also the greatest need to catch up in prestigious intention. After decades with the ideological ballast of "historical materialism" as a world-view in their heads, people in Romania since 1990 prefer the "real materialism." A key post-revolutionary image criterion is the visibility of economic success, namely that of the individual and no longer that of the collective. The socio-political collateral damage of this development is the vanishing of social responsibility as a societal category and standard of political development and of social competence. Individualism and selfishness have become trump; idealism and voluntary commitment are smiled at in an antagonistic way as romanticism.

Many things are subordinated to the goal economically to succeed as visibly as possible and financially to leave others behind. The economic showing off by brand identity and status symbols gets the character of a vicarious satisfaction that is felt to be free and self-determined and is to replace the deficit in spirit and sense caused by the ending of the former socialist ideology and identity. There is no reflection upon the fact to what large extent this new brand identity is a product of the media and a manipulation through advertising.

Above all, the ubiquitous advertising and movies such as series from the United States are moulding these images with identifying character. The U.S. has traditionally been a distant legend for the Romanians. This collective admiration after 1989 has historical roots. Many socio-psychological phenomena in Eastern and South-eastern Europe are influenced by historical developments. "The Americans come" - was a pious desire of the Romanians in 1944. At that time Romania had changed sides, away from Hitler's Germany. The Red Army marched into the country; the Communists started the sovietization of the country. The Romanians waited in vain for the liberation by the United States. In the awareness of the Romanians the Americans have now triumphed late. U.S. lifestyle or what one thinks it to be is "in" and promises the highest recognition.

Two status symbols characterize the life of the turnaround winners in Romania: the own villa and the cross-country vehicle - both as large as possible. The percentage of them is in the mean time in Romania higher than in Germany. In 2008 Romania had with regard to the overall population the highest rate of newly registered SUVs of the brand Porsche Cayenne. Wide sectors of the population in turn contribute to the triumph of the brand icons of the West:



Coca-Cola and McDonald's are regarded as highly symbolic pars pro toto for the colourful glitter world of the West, with which all somehow identify. Everybody can afford it. In the general awareness it signals the belonging to the West - more than democracy, freedom of expression and EU membership. All of that is in principle supported and approved of, but it does not mould the post-communist and post-revolutionary identity. It is shaped by Fast Food and Coca Cola.

Democracy and EU standards are borne in the awareness that they are necessary for the transformation. If, however, administrative experts, journalists and politicians use the terms "reform" or "European standards" then these are already negative and empty phrases of a political rhetoric, comparable to the ideological slogans before 1989.


The Renaissance of Religion is Palpable

The religious awakening takes a completely different direction of coping with the turnaround. The religious life is flourishing. Church and Christian faith promise, in contrast to the goods of consumerism, answers to the question of meaning and values. Those who do not only ask about the value of things but the values of life find in Romania the way to the churches.

Until 1989 the churches were seen as a counter-world to the atheistic communism, today they are a counter-world to the ugly face of egoism, neo-capitalism and materialism, which also in Romania appears in all the brutality and banality. As is well known, already after the turnaround in East and Southeast Europe Pope John Paul II, who was well versed in socio-ethical matters, has with the same sharpness criticized the neoliberalism and the Wild West capitalism in the transformation countries and worldwide as he did with the atheist socialism and totalitarian communism before 1989.

The churches' offer of meaning is then in Romania - unlike Germany - quite reasonably seen and looked for as an offer communicated by the institutional church. Romania is today a country where churches are not closed but where new churches are built. The renaissance of religion is palpably and covers broad sections of the population. Since the turnaround the Orthodox Church has built 1000 new churches in the country. In 1989 there were only about 120 monasteries with about 450 monks and nuns, whereas today 600 monasteries with 8000 monks and nuns exist again. The Catholics, too, are building new churches. The religious life [Ordensleben] is flourishing. In monasteries as that of the Franciscans in Roman in Moldova there are at present more than 200 novices. This religious awakening may in the next few years find a slightly lower level. But today the churches in Romania conspicuously have a positive role in society and produce identity; there is no getting away from that.



Until 1989 the church was a haven of refuge in times of fear and collective traumata, whereas in the period of transformation with all its radical changes and uncertainties it has been a force stabilizing society.

After 1989 in Romania - as in other transformation countries, too - very different existential forms of coping with the turnaround emerged, from consumerism to the revival of the churches, from retreat into the private sphere to new brainwashing by the media. A scientific analysis of these trends and attitudes by psychology is an urgent desideratum. The time is ripe for it.


    {*} Jürgen Henkel, Dr. theol., (born in 1970) is pastor of the Protestant-Lutheran Church in Bavaria and publicist. From 2003 to 2008 he was head of the Evangelische Akademie Siebenbürgen (EAS) in Sibiu. He is at present pastor in Erkersreuth near Selb in Upper Franconia. His book "Neue Brücken oder neue Hürden? Eine Bilanz der Dritten Europäischen Ökumenischen Versammlung 2007" [New Bridges or New Hurdles? The Results of the Third European Ecumenical Assembly 2007]" appeared in 2008 in the LIT-publishing house. In preparation: "Coca Cola und Ikonen. 20 Jahre Wende von der kommunistischen Ideologie zur konsumistischen Idiotie" [Coca-Cola and Icons. 20 Years Turnaround. From Communist Ideology to Consumerist Idiocy].


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