A form of "creeping capitalism" is overtaking Communist East Germany as citizens there, armed with valuable western currencies, flock to special stores that specialize in consumer goods produced in West Germany and other countries.
The West German mark has in fact become the second currency of East Germany, and it is not only being used by people there to buy imported merchandise, but it is also the only money that can obtain services of various kinds.
This peculiar situation is creating a dilemma for East Germany's Communist authorities. On the one hand, they want hard currencies so that they can purchase western technology to fulfill their economic plans. At the same time, though, they are worried that the consumer explosion may undermine their socialist objectives.
The outlets for western products in East Germany are some 100 so-called Intershops, which were originally set up to provide foreigners with imported goods ranging from cigarettes and whiskey to electrical appliance and automobile accessories. These goods were available only to foreign holders of West German marks, American dollars and other solid currencies.
But agreements signed a few years ago between West and East Germany called for the movement of people between the two countries. This led to an influx of hard currency into East Germany, either because of West Germans visiting there or East Germans traveling to the West.
The East German taste for western consumer goods escalated after that, as the Communist regime allowed its citizens to watch West German television, which features commercials advertising the latest in capitalist items. The pressure that built up prompted the regime to permit all East Germans with hard currency to patronize the Intershops, whose current sales are estimated at $40 million a year.
The rush to acquire hard currency that could be spent on western consumer goods has also made it difficult in East Germany since then to hire a plumber or electrician except in exchange for West German marks. Even prostitutes in East Berlin have begun to insist on West German money.
The East German Communist leader, Erich Honecker, indicated last year that the number of new Intershops would be curtailed. There have also been some hints that East Germans might be required to register their western currencies at government banks, which would then issue them coupons as a way of controlling their consumer expenditures. So far, though, these measures have not been carried out.
Instead, the Communists have opened their own consumer stores, which sell western goods for East German marks. The weakness in this system, however, is that these specialty stores cannot compete with the Intershops because of the weakness of the East German mark.
For example, a bottle of Scotch sells for 80 East German marks in a domestic currency store, but only 13 West German marks in an Intershop. Similarly, a package of western cigarettes in an Intershop costs only one-fourth as much as it does in East German currency.
East Germans complain that they cannot afford the high prices of imported commodities available in their own money.Another gripe is that the system has spawned two kinds of privileged classes: those who have the hard currency to buy at the Intershops and those, like Communist officials, who are rich enough to patronize the other specialty stores.
THE SUCCESS of the Intershops has been a boon to West German and other foreign manufacturers, who are taking advantage of the growing East German market and its ability to pay in hard currency. Levi Strauss, for instance, sells more jeans to East Germany than to any other communist country, primarily through the Intershop network.
Inevitably, merchandise bought at the Intershops for hard currencies is resold for East German marks. This was disclosed not long ago, when it was found that East German plumbers were purchasing chrome bathroom fixtures made in West Germany and retailing them at a profit in local marks. The only fixtures made in East Germany are plastic.
On occasion, too, quality East German exports have been shipped back to East Germany for sale in the Intershops. This was discovered in the recent case of bathroom scales, which were being sold more cheaply for West German marks in their place of origin than they could have cost in East German currency.
The East German population is of course aware of these anomalies, which have led to some criticism of the Communist regime. The regime, meanwhile, recognizes that it is caught in a contradiction between its need for hard currency and its dedication to socialist principles.
But with all this, one thing is clear. The consumer revolution is stronger than the proletarian revolution in East Germany, and that phenomenon is also taking place to some degree or another in every communist society.