How gun control worked in the old East Germany
The Palace of the Republic, the seat of the People's Chamber, in Berlin when it was capital of the German Democratic Republic. After the GDR went out of existence the building was torn down and replaced by a memorial to the old Prussian royal family. | Wikipedia (CC)

BERLIN – My brother-in-law Werner was a passionate hunter. Until his early death he lived in East Germany, called the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or DDR (in English GDR), which disappeared 28 years ago. I lived there, too, for many years, and it was there that my brother-in-law took me with him on a few hunting trips. I made clear that I did not at all like the idea of shooting a deer, a gracefully beautiful animal. As for the wild boars, hardly beautiful creatures to any eyes but those of their mates and offspring,  I didn’t like the idea of shooting them either. I went along partly out of curiosity, partly for the chance to do some bird-watching while he was watching for prey.

Werner had an amazingly sharp eye for distant grazers, he was skilled with his gun, but also with words as he tried to convince me that hunting, despite its death and blood, was a necessity. With no natural enemies (until recent years when some wolves were re-introduced) an overgrown deer population would bite and ruin acres of young woodland, and the very fecund wild hogs can ruin many potato fields. Their numbers had to be kept in check by humans, he insisted. This did not justify excited hobby hunters banging away at all that moved but, he claimed, did justify a strictly planned improvement of animal ranks.

I suspect that even this rationale would anger vegetarians and vegans, and I will not argue. But the interesting aspect for me was a system which many would see as a restriction of freedom, typical for such a Communist-run state. Weapons and ammunition were strictly controlled. Rifles, though privately owned, were locked up at the hunting clubs, usually connected with the forest rangers’ home and station. To get licenses as club members, hunters had to attend classes and pass exams on identifying wild life, avoiding unnecessary cruelty or neglect, shooting ability – and a few old traditional rites for hunters, once restricted to nobility or men of wealth.

The rifles could be picked up and returned on an agreed-upon calendar, which governed which animals in which seasons were OK for hunting and which were not: ill animals, yes, for example, but no does with fawns or wild sows with offspring. The rules were strict; every bullet had to be accounted for, whether a hit or a miss!

Corresponding rules were in force for shooting clubs. Schooling and licenses were required, weapons were kept not at home but at the clubs, ammunition was apportioned and had to be accounted for.

Yes, these were indeed restrictions on freedom, and most likely had an explanation not only in terms of forestry or sports but also politically, with no unauthorized weapons in possibly rebellious hands.

This recalls, in reverse, the reasons why some Americans oppose any controls or limitations even on assault weapons, which are certainly not bought for hunting or sport or to protect against robbers. When some NRA fans raise posters proclaiming that “AR-15’s EMPOWER the people” we can easily guess what kind of people are meant and what kind of power. No, guns are not only for stags, pheasants or shooting range targets and for people in official uniforms.

The strict weapons laws for Werner’s hunting, undoubtedly a restriction of his freedoms (of course a Second Amendment was lacking) also meant that there were virtually no shooting deaths and never a single mass shooting, in schools or anywhere else – not even, as it turned out, in the course of regime change, which occurred in 1989-1990 without any bloodshed.

Were the rules far too stringent? My hunting enthusiast brother-in-law never complained to me about restrictions on his hunting rights (whose rules now no longer apply). He was, by the way, a teacher, who never dreamed of having a gun in a classroom. And his death, before he was 65, was not due to any hunting or weapons mishap but rather, almost conclusively, to his addiction to cigarettes, whose use was completely uncontrolled. Being no hunter, sport shooter or smoker, and no longer in a school, I can reserve judgment in these matters.


CONTRIBUTOR

Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled the U.S. in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive and became a freelance journalist and author. One of his books is available in English: “Crossing the River. A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany” (2003, University of Massachusetts Press).

 

Comments

comments

MOST POPULAR