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Has East Germany given up on the West? Collective victimhood drives it towards Russia

It's time to bury the Nineties (Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo/Getty Images)

It's time to bury the Nineties (Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo/Getty Images)


December 5, 2022   5 mins

When I started working at Berliner Zeitung two years ago, the staff were putting together a dossier on the East-German experience to commemorate the 30th anniversary of reunification. It seemed like the natural thing to do: the newspaper had been set up by the Soviets after the capitulation of Nazi Germany, and was one of East’s Germany’s few surviving serious publications.

A slew of essays had been commissioned on the trials and tribulations of the former East. Topics ranged from the crystal meth crisis in the city of Chemnitz to the widespread feeling among Easterners of being “second-class” citizens. One of my jobs was to translate this writing for an English audience.

It was fascinating work, but while it helped me better understand the predicament of those “socialised in the East”, as the Germans say, it also triggered in me some typical Besser-Wessi (know-it-all-Westerner) eye-rolling. When will these East Germans stop complaining? When will they admit that reunification has vastly improved their lives? It’s a bit of a generalisation but no matter how many billions are ploughed into their part of the country, they always seem to have something to complain about.

Since September or so, the Besser-Wessi’s counterpart, the Jammer-Ossi (Eastern whiner), has been back in the news. Every Monday, in cities and towns across Saxony, Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg, citizens have gathered to protest the government’s energy policy, the cost-of-living crisis and its support for Ukraine. Their demands include an end to the sanctions against Russia, a return to using the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and immediate talks with Russia to end the war.

Placards at these gatherings are straightforward. They read “No poverty for Biden’s war” or “Immediate Nato withdrawal from Ukraine” or, in English, “They got money for war but can’t feed the poor”. What’s striking is how the words “Putin” or “Russia” are nowhere to be seen — as if the war were entirely the doing of imperialist Uncle Sam. As if Ukraine had no right to defend itself. As if Poland, the Baltics and other eastern European nations were just puppets of an American masterplan to control the region — and had no legitimate security concerns of their own.

The protesters aren’t your traditional peaceniks. No flowers nor Birkenstocks here. Instead, they represent the far-Left and far-Right fringes, with both the Ring-wing populist Alternative fĂŒr Deutschland (AfD) and far-Left Die Linke trying to light a fire under a new rebellion on the streets.

Some Right-wing organisers hope growing anger about the war will bring together unlikely bedfellows from Left and Right under the banner of anti-Americanism. Jörg ElsĂ€sser, the publisher of far-Right German magazine Compact promoted a demonstration outside the US Consulate in Leipzig last weekend with the hashtag #Amigohome (Yank go home). Meanwhile, veteran Left-wing politician Oskar LaFontaine (a Wessi who became disillusioned by the Social Democrats) published a book titled Ami it’s time to go home: A plea for the self-assertion of Europe. For LaFontaine, Germany supplying weapons to Ukraine makes it a vassal of the United Sates. Compact, not to be outdone, has just put out a special edition titled “USA vs Germany: The 100-year war”. The previous week its cover featured LaFontaine’s wife, the popular Die Linke politician Sahra Wagenknecht, with the headline “The best chancellor for Left and Right”.

Stoking anti-Americanism probably isn’t even necessary. A more effective rallying call is the feeling that the East is suffering disproportionately from the severing of economic ties with Russia. One flashpoint is the city of Schwedt on the Polish border, where the Russian-owned PCK refinery employs 1,200 people. Sanctions on Russian oil kick in on January 1, meaning the pipeline supplying the plant has to shut down, creating a direct link between Western sanctions and potential mass layoffs. Unsurprisingly, economy Minister Robert Habeck was heckled when he visited Schwedt to talk to workers over the summer.

The workers’ concerns are obviously justified, but it’s not as if they aren’t being heard: Olaf Scholz’s coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals has been working overtime to make sure PCK is supplied with non-Russian oil, delivered via German and Polish ports once Russian oil stops flowing. All jobs at the refinery have been guaranteed to the end of 2023. Yet despite the rescue plans, Habeck and his Green party remain objects of hate in the East. He’s blamed for allowing energy prices to soar to new heights, while the Greens are decried as hypocritical warmongers, former pacifists who have to toe the American line on supplying arms to Ukraine.

Elsewhere, anti-war sentiments have come from unexpected quarters: associations representing East German craftspeople have published open letters warning that war-driven inflation meant ordinary people could no longer afford their services. They demand an end to sanctions and a diplomatic solution to the war. Interestingly, trade associations in the West of the country — where SMEs have been equally impacted or even been bankrupted by high energy prices — have said exactly the opposite: Germany must support Ukraine until Russia is defeated.

In fact, it’s hard to pin down an economic cause for the current wave of protests. In Saxony, where the “resistance” is strongest, the jobless rate is at a near-record low of 5%. And despite the gathering clouds, the German economy is still growing. This is reflected in the Government’s new measures. In October, for instance, the minimum wage rose to €12 an hour, up from €9.82 at the beginning of 2022. Next year, jobless benefits rise by €50 per month, alongside higher housing and child benefits. Hundreds of billions are being mobilised to cap energy costs for consumers and small businesses. So claims that nothing’s being done for the little guy seem unfounded.

Rather, what really seems to be driving East-German discontent is a sense of victimhood, helplessness and anger rooted in the traumatic experiences of the Nineties, when Easterners’ fates lay entirely in the hands of Western officials, politicians and businessmen who had descended, in their view, like a pack of vultures, shutting down factories, and stripping assets, sacking teachers, professors, judges and officials with a communist past. It’s as if they woke up in a new country that devalued everything about them: their past, their identity, their work.

The “blossoming landscapes” promised by Helmut Kohl took far too long to materialise — and in many rural areas never really took root. Many no longer trust Western liberal narratives propagated by a uniform media that, in their view, dismisses concerns about immigration as racist or economic anxiety about Covid lockdowns as crazy. Perhaps that’s why conspiracy theories that go well beyond comprehensible dissatisfaction find fertile ground here. A speech by Christian Klar, an extreme Right-winger and convicted felon who organised a demo in the small city of Gera on October 3, spells out a simple, grand explanation for East Germans’ problems: “Whether it’s mass migration, climate change, corona, vaccination or the Ukraine war: everything serves a grand plan. In the wet dreams of the globalists, the cabal, we are all the bottom of the food chain.”

But will enough East Germans rebel to the point of no return, delivering extremists into positions of power? I’m sceptical. Enough voters still realise that, despite the problems, there is no alternative to an economy wedded to Western Europe and the US, or to a foreign policy in lockstep with the West. Russia might have delivered cheap fuel for Germany’s industrial economy but that can be replaced in the long run. The US accounted for €122 billion in German exports last year. Exports to Russia were a fifth of that. And American companies are investing like mad in eastern Germany. Tesla’s plant in Brandenburg, as well as a massive new Intel semiconductor factory being built in Magdeburg, will provide thousands, if not tens of thousands, of well-paid jobs.

So, call me naive, but I believe most East Germans have it better than ever. Just like the old readers of the Berliner Zeitung, the numbers of diehard Ossis are dwindling. For now, these demonstrations have remained small. Most younger people just see themselves as “German” and, for the most part, haven’t inherited the trauma caused by the collapse of East Germany. For them, closer ties to Russia make no sense. At least for the foreseeable future, the West is their only home.

***

Order your copy of UnHerd’s first print edition here. 


Maurice Frank co-founded the English magazine Exberliner and now co-writes the newsletter 20 Percent Berlin. 

mauricetfrank

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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

Meh. Very unconvincing essay. East Germans seem to be concerned about the same things as people across the west – inflation, high energy costs and distrust of the current political leadership.

You do realize it’s possible to oppose Putin and still favour an end to the war.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jim Veenbaas
Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

“Russia might have delivered cheap fuel for Germany’s industrial economy but that can be replaced in the long run.”

Lol. Lmao.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

You seem to have missed the main point. West Germans have exactly the same problems with ‘inflation, high energy costs and distrust of the current political leadership‘ as their eastern brethren, yet the easterners are doing much more complaining. Surely that difference deserves an explanation.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

It was – they are revelling in their ‘victimhood’. They would make excellent liberals.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Are East Germans complaining more? Maybe. I wasn’t convinced of it by this essay. No numbers. Very few links. That’s why the article is meh.

The author insinuates that East Germans sympathize with Russia because of their former political links. Yet some of Russia’s most strident opponents are former satellite states like Poland.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

The West Germans are clamouring for closing down functional nuclear plants for “green” energy, alphabet rights, etc.

East Germans are not complaining more, they are merely being practical instead of being politically compliant like their “civilised” West German brethren.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Totally agree. Something, something, something 
 luxury beliefs.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Totally agree. Something, something, something 
 luxury beliefs.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

It was – they are revelling in their ‘victimhood’. They would make excellent liberals.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Are East Germans complaining more? Maybe. I wasn’t convinced of it by this essay. No numbers. Very few links. That’s why the article is meh.

The author insinuates that East Germans sympathize with Russia because of their former political links. Yet some of Russia’s most strident opponents are former satellite states like Poland.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

The West Germans are clamouring for closing down functional nuclear plants for “green” energy, alphabet rights, etc.

East Germans are not complaining more, they are merely being practical instead of being politically compliant like their “civilised” West German brethren.

Terence Raggett
Terence Raggett
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Jammer-Ossi? Sounds like die Schotten

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

“Russia might have delivered cheap fuel for Germany’s industrial economy but that can be replaced in the long run.”

Lol. Lmao.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

You seem to have missed the main point. West Germans have exactly the same problems with ‘inflation, high energy costs and distrust of the current political leadership‘ as their eastern brethren, yet the easterners are doing much more complaining. Surely that difference deserves an explanation.

Terence Raggett
Terence Raggett
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Jammer-Ossi? Sounds like die Schotten

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

Meh. Very unconvincing essay. East Germans seem to be concerned about the same things as people across the west – inflation, high energy costs and distrust of the current political leadership.

You do realize it’s possible to oppose Putin and still favour an end to the war.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jim Veenbaas
Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 year ago

wow, This writer is 100% approved agenda. Neo-Con warmonger sideing, and from what he dropped a Covid Response Orthodoxy agreeer, which makes me distrust his position on everything.

I agree with them about the War – and yes, there are many conspiracy arguments that could be made which do show Biden is out to trap the EU into dependence with these insane things he is doing in Ukraine. All I am sure of is this war is nothing to do with Freedom – it is 100% Political and economic, and quite what it is about we cannot be sure.

”They demand an end to sanctions and a diplomatic solution to the war.” good Peace, this is a wicked and evil war and needs to stop.

”no longer trust Western liberal narratives propagated by a uniform media that, in their view, dismisses concerns about immigration as racist or economic anxiety about Covid lockdowns as crazy. Perhaps that’s why conspiracy theories that go well beyond comprehensible dissatisfaction find fertile ground here”

And…? These are valid theories – many are fact. How about Dr Campbell today showing German scientists Just proved the Vaccine Kills! Watch this to see proof the vaccine is the Killer – not covid. Lockdowns the killer – the response is the economic destruction of the globe… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_DdSMn55cA

”Placards at these gatherings are straightforward. They read “No poverty for Biden’s war” or “Immediate Nato withdrawal from Ukraine” or, in English, “They got money for war but can’t feed the poor”. What’s striking is how the words “Putin” or “Russia” are nowhere to be seen — as if the war were entirely the doing of imperialist Uncle Sam. As if Ukraine had no right to defend itself.”

Come on – sure Ukraine has a right to defend its self. The $100 Billion handed over with real time intelligence and training and NO Accounting? – this is a Proxy War, not Ukraine defending its self. USA, UK, EU – none of them have ‘Vital Interest’ in this conflict. And it will kill millions of global poor by starving – and vast numbers will be pushed from poverty to ‘Abject Poverty’ by this fertilizer, petrol, cooking oil, wheat, and on and on inflation and scarcity. It has flattened Ukraine and caused Hundreads of thousands of deaths! More Maimed. This regional conflict has been made WWIII by sanctions, Stopping SWIFT, dividing the BRICS and all the Oil Producers, and Iran, and KSA and most of the non-West world are uniting to make a new Global Reserve Currency – it is breaking the world. Likely will get a Global Depression from this WWIII….

”the German economy is still growing. This is reflected in the Government’s new measures. In October, for instance, the minimum wage rose to €12 an hour, up from €9.82 at the beginning of 2022. Next year, jobless benefits rise by €50 per month,”

OK, 1.3% GDP growth – 10% inflation, negative 8.7%. And – that growth is from printing and passing out Money – it is not from productivity, it is fake. Then an 8% increase in minimum wage in 10% inflation is a 2% wage decrease.

So how are you going to pay your mortages? Groceries? Gas bill, electric bill, rent, car payment….. This is what the insane covid responce AND this War have brought down on these people – and I agree with them.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonas Moze

You certainly earned your Rubles today.

Jeff Watkins
Jeff Watkins
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonas Moze

Absolutely spot on analysis. 100,000 young Ukranian men KIA so far, Ukraine’s economy close to collapse, president Xi to fly to the gulf states in next month to end the petrodollar monopoly, the deindustrialisation of Europe and so on. What was all this for when it could have been solved last December if the West had signed up to the Russian Security Guarantees Treaty.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonas Moze

You certainly earned your Rubles today.

Jeff Watkins
Jeff Watkins
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonas Moze

Absolutely spot on analysis. 100,000 young Ukranian men KIA so far, Ukraine’s economy close to collapse, president Xi to fly to the gulf states in next month to end the petrodollar monopoly, the deindustrialisation of Europe and so on. What was all this for when it could have been solved last December if the West had signed up to the Russian Security Guarantees Treaty.

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 year ago

wow, This writer is 100% approved agenda. Neo-Con warmonger sideing, and from what he dropped a Covid Response Orthodoxy agreeer, which makes me distrust his position on everything.

I agree with them about the War – and yes, there are many conspiracy arguments that could be made which do show Biden is out to trap the EU into dependence with these insane things he is doing in Ukraine. All I am sure of is this war is nothing to do with Freedom – it is 100% Political and economic, and quite what it is about we cannot be sure.

”They demand an end to sanctions and a diplomatic solution to the war.” good Peace, this is a wicked and evil war and needs to stop.

”no longer trust Western liberal narratives propagated by a uniform media that, in their view, dismisses concerns about immigration as racist or economic anxiety about Covid lockdowns as crazy. Perhaps that’s why conspiracy theories that go well beyond comprehensible dissatisfaction find fertile ground here”

And…? These are valid theories – many are fact. How about Dr Campbell today showing German scientists Just proved the Vaccine Kills! Watch this to see proof the vaccine is the Killer – not covid. Lockdowns the killer – the response is the economic destruction of the globe… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_DdSMn55cA

”Placards at these gatherings are straightforward. They read “No poverty for Biden’s war” or “Immediate Nato withdrawal from Ukraine” or, in English, “They got money for war but can’t feed the poor”. What’s striking is how the words “Putin” or “Russia” are nowhere to be seen — as if the war were entirely the doing of imperialist Uncle Sam. As if Ukraine had no right to defend itself.”

Come on – sure Ukraine has a right to defend its self. The $100 Billion handed over with real time intelligence and training and NO Accounting? – this is a Proxy War, not Ukraine defending its self. USA, UK, EU – none of them have ‘Vital Interest’ in this conflict. And it will kill millions of global poor by starving – and vast numbers will be pushed from poverty to ‘Abject Poverty’ by this fertilizer, petrol, cooking oil, wheat, and on and on inflation and scarcity. It has flattened Ukraine and caused Hundreads of thousands of deaths! More Maimed. This regional conflict has been made WWIII by sanctions, Stopping SWIFT, dividing the BRICS and all the Oil Producers, and Iran, and KSA and most of the non-West world are uniting to make a new Global Reserve Currency – it is breaking the world. Likely will get a Global Depression from this WWIII….

”the German economy is still growing. This is reflected in the Government’s new measures. In October, for instance, the minimum wage rose to €12 an hour, up from €9.82 at the beginning of 2022. Next year, jobless benefits rise by €50 per month,”

OK, 1.3% GDP growth – 10% inflation, negative 8.7%. And – that growth is from printing and passing out Money – it is not from productivity, it is fake. Then an 8% increase in minimum wage in 10% inflation is a 2% wage decrease.

So how are you going to pay your mortages? Groceries? Gas bill, electric bill, rent, car payment….. This is what the insane covid responce AND this War have brought down on these people – and I agree with them.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
1 year ago

Many Germans are as frustrated in the West as they are in the East. The whole country had so- called “go for a walk” protests (demonstrating was prohibited at the time) with 100 thousands of people against Mandated Vaccinations/LockDowns/Masking mostly in the South West and also in the East of the country. Nearly the whole German MSM and politicians denounced them as “Querdenker” and fascists.
The small Green Party (14.8% at the last election) now have two of the most important government departments in the German Government: foreign affairs and economy/energy. The big surprise/irony is that the Greens, who started as peaceniks with their anti Americanism and their fierce anti-NATO activism, are now becoming the new best friends with the Biden administration. They are now urging their former adversary to supply the Ukraine with sophisticated American weaponry as Germany was rather slack in the last 30 years investing in their own military equipment.
The Green Energy Minister is also going through some kind of conversion as he is rapidly finding out, that windmills and solar panels don’t work without the cheap Russian gas supply. So far he agreed to continue the last nuclear plants to be “on stand by” and relies mostly on coal (oh the irony again) and hoping for a miracle
.No wonder there is unease in the East, who were used to black-outs under communism, but also in the West people are truly frustrated with their huge energy bills. The author is delusional in saying that it is not so bad as the government pays a huge chunk of it from the magic money tree. Unless the German main parties, who seem to have now adopted the same kind of “green religion”, are becoming realistic and have plans, how to handle the huge energy crisis, the population will continue to drift to the fringe parties.

Last edited 1 year ago by Stephanie Surface
Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 year ago

Greens are Davos, and Davos is Pro this war. Greens are like the 60s when the Communists in UK were satellites of USSR; they do what WEF wishes.

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 year ago

Greens are Davos, and Davos is Pro this war. Greens are like the 60s when the Communists in UK were satellites of USSR; they do what WEF wishes.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
1 year ago

Many Germans are as frustrated in the West as they are in the East. The whole country had so- called “go for a walk” protests (demonstrating was prohibited at the time) with 100 thousands of people against Mandated Vaccinations/LockDowns/Masking mostly in the South West and also in the East of the country. Nearly the whole German MSM and politicians denounced them as “Querdenker” and fascists.
The small Green Party (14.8% at the last election) now have two of the most important government departments in the German Government: foreign affairs and economy/energy. The big surprise/irony is that the Greens, who started as peaceniks with their anti Americanism and their fierce anti-NATO activism, are now becoming the new best friends with the Biden administration. They are now urging their former adversary to supply the Ukraine with sophisticated American weaponry as Germany was rather slack in the last 30 years investing in their own military equipment.
The Green Energy Minister is also going through some kind of conversion as he is rapidly finding out, that windmills and solar panels don’t work without the cheap Russian gas supply. So far he agreed to continue the last nuclear plants to be “on stand by” and relies mostly on coal (oh the irony again) and hoping for a miracle
.No wonder there is unease in the East, who were used to black-outs under communism, but also in the West people are truly frustrated with their huge energy bills. The author is delusional in saying that it is not so bad as the government pays a huge chunk of it from the magic money tree. Unless the German main parties, who seem to have now adopted the same kind of “green religion”, are becoming realistic and have plans, how to handle the huge energy crisis, the population will continue to drift to the fringe parties.

Last edited 1 year ago by Stephanie Surface
Greta Hirschman
Greta Hirschman
1 year ago

German exports to the United States are certainly more important than exports to Russia. On the other hand, one third of Germany’s energy consumption came from Russia, not from the US. Germany needs energy to manufacture all the machinery, vehicles and pharmaceutical products exported to the US and to other countries.
Two years after German reunification, industrial production in the east had plummeted by 73 percent from 1989 levels. That might turned Ossies very sensitive to Western promises.

Greta Hirschman
Greta Hirschman
1 year ago

German exports to the United States are certainly more important than exports to Russia. On the other hand, one third of Germany’s energy consumption came from Russia, not from the US. Germany needs energy to manufacture all the machinery, vehicles and pharmaceutical products exported to the US and to other countries.
Two years after German reunification, industrial production in the east had plummeted by 73 percent from 1989 levels. That might turned Ossies very sensitive to Western promises.

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

It seems like all the political posturings, the meetings of the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasburg, economies changing to the Euro, Ursula’s regular vaccine briefings, French concern about their farmers, climate change scenarios, the Scotch (and Welsh) wanting to join Europe – everything.. Everything stops in the first cold week of winter.

People do not want change. They want to support the Ukraine as long as their own lives are not affected.

As an afterthought, last week I went shopping to the big city. The Christmas lights were great. All the shops were booming with doors wide open to attract customers. It was beautifully warm in the shops. There was no need for them to watch their energy usage – they just put the prices up.

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

It seems like all the political posturings, the meetings of the European Parliament in Brussels and Strasburg, economies changing to the Euro, Ursula’s regular vaccine briefings, French concern about their farmers, climate change scenarios, the Scotch (and Welsh) wanting to join Europe – everything.. Everything stops in the first cold week of winter.

People do not want change. They want to support the Ukraine as long as their own lives are not affected.

As an afterthought, last week I went shopping to the big city. The Christmas lights were great. All the shops were booming with doors wide open to attract customers. It was beautifully warm in the shops. There was no need for them to watch their energy usage – they just put the prices up.

Bob Smalser
Bob Smalser
1 year ago

Thuringians were certainly victims in my day, spending literally years looking at them through binoculars above Fulda. No paint on the houses, few household utilities and private automobiles, and farmers walking to their fields with hoes on their shoulders. Tell me again how good it was.

Andrew Watson
Andrew Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Bob Smalser

It sounds rather bucolic. I would miss that.

Andrew Watson
Andrew Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Bob Smalser

It sounds rather bucolic. I would miss that.

Bob Smalser
Bob Smalser
1 year ago

Thuringians were certainly victims in my day, spending literally years looking at them through binoculars above Fulda. No paint on the houses, few household utilities and private automobiles, and farmers walking to their fields with hoes on their shoulders. Tell me again how good it was.

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

C

Last edited 1 year ago by Chris W
Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

Chris, I admire your brevity, something I never could manage, although another half a dozen letters may have helped to make your point clearer.

Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

Chris, I admire your brevity, something I never could manage, although another half a dozen letters may have helped to make your point clearer.

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

C

Last edited 1 year ago by Chris W