Me and Ronald Reagan

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

As a Swarthmore student, I can testify to the fact that guilt is a familiar emotion. While at Swarthmore, I feel guilty about the sex I don’t have, the papers I don’t write, the lives I don’t save, and the corporate-white-patriarchy I don’t actively rail against.

But in Berlin I’ve experienced a welcome relief from a lot of that Schuld, despite the fact that the German word for innocent, unschuldig, literally translates as “un-guilty,” and let me tell you, if as a Swarthmore student I feel more guilty than I do as a pseudo-German, something is really wrong with our campus culture. In this column I would like to tell you all about how great it is not to feel guilty about capitalism, because the whole city can be interpreted as an argument for how awesome capitalism really is in comparison to DDR-style socialism.

Here’s the thesis:

Did you know that children in the DDR used to have to take communal potty breaks where they would all sit on the same potty bench until they were all done? Neither did I, until I learned it at the DDR Museum. Then I did the “Thank-God-For-Capitalism” dance, where you hold your arms in front, turn your palms towards you, pout, and wiggle your fingers as if you are holding a large amount of money. Then shake your butt as if you were swimming in a large amount of money. (Your reading experience will be improved if you dance along.)

Individual bathroom breaks aren’t the only great thing about capitalism. Another really great thing is having multiple choices of beer in the more-than-one grocery store available to you. Being lazy, I always go to the closest grocery store, a Bioladen where everything is organic, or Bio as the Germans like to put it. Did you even know there was such a thing as Biobier?

(Brief interlude: Well, you shouldn’t be surprised, because the Germans I have met are all verrückt nach der Umwelt. All of the host families expect you to air dry your clothing, and sometimes buttons on toilets tell you how much water you’re using when you flush, and there are four different kinds of recycling bins in every subway station, and there’s organic food everywhere, and sometimes in bars you get money back if you recycle your glass bottles instead of smashing them over somebody’s head. Also people on the street will yell at you if you don’t recycle. I would call them “Environment Nazis” except for how it wouldn’t be funny.)

(Second interlude: I am not particularly environmentally hip, so bringing organic beer to parties makes me feel kind of square. But I try to make up for that by buying really cool clothing at flea markets, which would also not be possible if not for capitalism. My style idols are the kids in Berlin am Meer, which I saw in my first week here, and which is basically a movie about what The Barn would be like if it were in Berlin. Think more techno. Also less capitalism-bashing. But way more environmentalism.)

As a proud capitalist, one of my favorite kinds of tourism is walking around the former Ost and taking pictures of really capitalist things. Like this building below, which used to be the best movie theater in all of East Germany and which is now playing host to a McDonald’s convention. Toll, oder?

A real money shot would be if you could stand on the west side of the Brandenburg Gate and shoot through the columns to get a picture of the Starbucks now on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate. I tried for about three hours and all I got was this blurry thing below. But trust me when I say that those lights are the lights of freedom, democracy, and a Tall Mocha Frappuccino with extra cream.


Another great thing about capitalism is the way it finances really cool projects and then abandons them. This one time I was walking to the top of the Teufelsberg, a mountain built out of 25 million cubic tons of rubble after the Second World War, and I saw this totally 1960s complex of buildings covered in graffiti and surrounded by three layers of barbed wire.


Was ist es denn?” my companions and I wondered. “Es könnte sein, dass sie Zombies sind!” said Erin. The only problem with this theory is that zombies don’t need three layers of barbed wire.

The mystery continued to deepen when we found the following sign, proclaiming the site to be “The future location of Teufelsberg Resort… Summer 2002.” We were pretty sure that this place had not been a hotel in 2002. And it was really hard to believe that it had been built after the Cold War.


Thanks to the Internet, another great military-capitalist invention, we later discovered that it was a listening center for American spies during the Cold War, and that having a listening center in Berlin was particularly appealing because “Every direction faces east.” Then some investors tried to build a hotel there but ran out of money, and they surrounded it by a lot of barbed wire to at least sort of protect their failed investment.

So that was a pretty cool capitalist adventure, except for there’s nothing really that capitalist about running out of money. Another place where people ran out of money was basically all of East Berlin, which for the most part twenty years later still looks a lot like you would imagine East Berlin to look like, and where some people still feel the way you would expect Ossis to feel, and send punks out to beat you up as a result.

I wanted to explain to the gefährliche Typen that yes, I understand how a sudden transition to capitalism can create vicious cycles of poverty in people who had communal potty breaks when they were five, but that since they were clearly enjoying their multiple choices of hair dye and ugly nose rings, not to mention the freedom from being informed on by their neighbors for being subversive, they had no legitimate beef with me or with my former president Ronald Reagan and they could saug es.


Instead I stepped on a tram. And I took that tram all the way out to the street pictured above, where I saw a lot of buildings like those pictured below. Concrete workers’ flats. And concrete workers’ flats. And blue concrete workers’ flats! Enough for 65,000 people in all.


Then you suddenly see a wooden windmill and some sheep, and a little brick church, and it’s actually 1550 and there are peasants toiling in the fields and lords living in big houses with windows and beds and sometimes their own horses. Which I hear was actually what the DDR was like sometimes, except with more electric trams. And possibly less privacy.


Long story short, Mahrzahn was a village for a really long time. When Berlin built canals in the late 19th century, it was where all the run-off went and they continued to be farmers. I have no idea what happened in the 20th century because the museum skipped it. Then when the DDR was running out of room in East Berlin it built a bunch of workers’ flats around it, leaving it there to rot until the 1980s when they decided to restore and rebuild it as some sort of make-work-and-distract-the-people-from-the-ugly-concrete-flats project. Then they ran out of a government.

So maybe running out of money is pretty capitalist after all. Other things that are pretty capitalist (and pretty awesome) include shamelessly exploitative reality television, repackaging symbols of socialism as hip designs to put on shoulder bags (I love me some Ampelmännchen), and the Super Bowl, which I was forced to watch without the ads.

(Well, I watched it with British ads on Sky TV, and those turn out to be surprisingly morbid. My favorite was the one where two people are talking on cell phones on a split screen, the man in a car and the woman at home. Then there’s a bump on the right side and the man dies. Blood starts running out of his nose as his wife shouts “John? John? Where are you?” The final screen says: “Think.” Apparently it’s about using cell phones in cars and how it’s bad.)

Well, that’s not all I’ve got for now, but it is all I’ve got time for. I’ll leave you with a final message, one we can all agree on, although we will probably not all agree with my terrible oversimplifications of complex historical events:

Kein Sex mit Nazis (oder Kommunisten) bis nächstes mal,

Lauren Stokes

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading