Sabine H. and the Legacy of Communism

Last week the world learned of the 39-year old German, Sabine H., and how over a period of nearly two decades she killed her nine newborn babies and buried them in flower pots. People in the East-German state of Brandenburg,  where these gruesome events took place, are shocked. “We are faced with a crime the scope of which, in my memory, we have never seen in the history of the federal republic. We must ask ourselves how this unbelievable crime remained hidden all these years,” Brandenburg state interior minister Joerg Schoenbohm said in a first reaction.

The point is, however, that the state of Brandenburg did not belong to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, formerly West-Germany) at all until 1990, but to the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East-Germany), which was a communist dictatorship. A few days later Schoenbohm, a Christian-Democrat (CDU) politician who hopes to become Germany’s interior minister after next month’s elections, suggested in a second reaction that one of the causes of this horrible crime might have been the “proletarisation” of the former GDR. This statement made him the target of political indignation and he was forced to make a formal apology or resign.

Schoenbohm had opined that the compulsory collectivisation of farms 50 years ago in the largely rural state had led people to lose their sense of personal responsibility, which in turn had led to a decline of moral values in society. “This is one of the fundamental reasons for both the disregard of and the readiness to resort to violence,” he said,  blaming communism and the “deliberate proletarisation” of the country by the former SED regime. Schoenbohm was immediately criticised by the German Left Party (the “post-communist” successor to the SED), the Greens, the Socialist SPD, and the Liberal FDP, while even his own party leader Angela Merkel called him to account.

The politician was accused of “making a generalisation” and of “insulting East-Germans.” Schoenbohm has offered his apologies, stressing that it was not his intention to insult anyone. The vehement attacks on Schoenbohm, however, indicate that he has touched a very sensitive nerve. An angry Wolfgang Thierse, a socialist politician and the Speaker of the German Parliament, told the newspaper Berliner Zeitung: “I will not accept simple explanations and personal reproaches using the slogan ‘The GDR is the root of all evil.’”

A number of German academics and intellectuals, however, stress that Schoenbohm’s explanation should not be rejected out of hand.  Crime expert Christian Pfeiffer pointed out that according to official statistics the risk of being killed by their parents is three times as high for children in East-Germany as for those in West-Germany. The historian Hubertus Knabe, who researched the archives of the former East-German secret police Stasi, said Germans ought to reflect on the causes of Sabine H.’s behaviour, though he stressed that obviously not all East-Germans are child murderers.

The latter is, of course, true – just as not all Belgians are child murderers because Marc Dutroux is a Belgian – but this is not to say that decades of living under communism or socialism do not affect a people’s morality, as seems also to have been the case in Wallonia, the French-speaking socialist-dominated part of Belgium where Dutroux lived. Pfeiffer’s statistics are telling.

According to the sociologist Karl-Siegbert Rehberg, it is impossible to draw conclusions about the general attitudes of East-Germans from the Sabine H. case. Schoenbohm, however, did no such thing. Sabine H’s case, though horrendous in its scope, is not an isolated one. Over the past years there were 17 cases of child murder in East-Germany, with a total of over more than 40 victims. The situation can be compared to that of a smoker who is dying of lung cancer after having smoked two packets of cigarettes a day for 30 years, and who claims that his cancer has nothing to do with his smoking habits, ignoring the fact that thousands of heavy smokers develop lung cancer. Surely the fact that the loss of morals due to communism may have something to do with this spectacular rate of infanticide must be taken into consideration. That socialists and post-communists alike feel uncomfortable about this is understandable, but one wonders why Angela Merkel should call a party member to account for stating the obvious, namely that a regime that robs people of their sense of personal responsibility also robs society of its moral values.