THIS ESSAY IS A VIRTUAL UNIVERSITY SELECTION
Standing around a modernist memorial on a cool and cloudy afternoon in Berlin, you listen to a tour guide explain how and why and when and where and who the Third Reich targeted for extinction. The small crowd is still mildly coherent but tiring quickly beneath the slow drizzle of another nondescript day in the middle of Europe. You’ve been marched around town for hours now, with little to show for it but a catalog of horrors inexplicably perpetrated by your own species. Cobbled squares dedicated to book burning; long vistas where Hitler raved for the hypnotized volk; an unmarked gravel parking lot that proudly overfills der fuehrer’s vanished bunker. Even a museum dedicated to the gruesomely crude propaganda against the outcast. It’s a lot of darkness to absorb. At some point you decide you just want to sit on a barstool and have a stiff drink. A fresh Hacker-Pschorr would go down nicely. But that is a long way off.
Perhaps to pique our flagging spirits, the tour guide asks us to name the five groups that topped the Nazi list of deplorables. Somebody tosses out “Jews” with an air of heavy knowledge. The “disabled,” “gypsies,” and “homosexuals” follow in quick succession. Then a hush falls over the group. “One more,” chirps the tour guide. Finally, someone in the back says, more as a question than declaration, “Communists?” “Yes!” the tour guide replies, “Communists!” Happy that the group has proven itself not entirely illiterate, we are then asked to wander through the hulking maze of concrete slabs that is the disorienting labyrinth of the memorial, where we can contemplate the lives of the fallen. Inside the maze you become instantly lost, gazing around at tall walls, like a featureless amorality that bears down inexorably on your consciousness. Perhaps that was the point, as they rise from mere inches to fifteen feet, finally enveloping the viewer.
Later, still dizzy from maze, you are shown Checkpoint Charlie, where the Americans patrolled passage between the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG and in the capitalist west) and German Democratic Republic (GDR and in the communist east). You gaze wanly at a mythic image of poor imprisoned East Germans. There they loom in the mind’s eye. Lost behind the Iron Curtain, fated to pine for the incomparable freedoms of the West, where fortunes were won and just as quickly lost, where creativity sprung like grass in the minds of untamed youth, and where all manner of debauchery was not only possible, but probable. Indeed, imagining lurid, Hollywood-inflected scenes of daily life over the wall, you can’t help but sympathize with the poor political captives in their resource-poor redoubt: the rare meat stews, schnitzel made from cow’s udder, the pork knuckle. It’s all enough to break a man. “It must have been like living in Gaza,” says one observer. No irony is noted. You are also shown a dilapidated automobile, a singular representation of the poor quality of goods that emerged under Communist rule. Everyone has a good laugh at the comedy of the planned economy as they gaze at the Trabant, a bruised and phlegm-colored sedan with balding tires.
Elsewhere in Europe, history is being treated differently. Monuments of “totalitarian regimes” are being banished with renewed haste. After Washington helped overthrow the government and installed a gang of fascists presided over by a European technocrat, Ukraine hastily tore down some 1300 Lenin statues. Poland has sundered hundreds more. The Germans seemed a bit more tolerant of their Eastern past. There are plenty of vestiges. A large blocklike statue of Vladimir Lenin marching forward with an air of alarming determination sits just inside the glass confines of a historical art museum. The three-ton bronze monument, seeming to bear the weight of history, casts a long shadow across the marbled foyer of the space. A colossal head of Lenin was recently unearthed in a forest near Berlin and, surprisingly, was not immediately detonated. A bar in Friedrichshain, an area you are warned away from by hotel staff, is perfectly harmless and contains a ragged flag pinned to the wall, with pictures of the bearded twins of Communism’s glorious advent: the unkempt visages of Marx and Engels. There is a third face on the cloth, a grim, clean-shaven, bespectacled man, probably Erich Honecker, longtime leader of the GDR. He looks slightly out of place, too placid and refined for the wild-eyed vigor of the dynamic duo. Rasputin, perhaps, would have blended a bit better into that ruffian’s tableau. But Honecker, too, has an air of determination, if only simmering.
You get the feeling that these artifacts are happily embraced by Germans. Unlike the Nazi legacy, there seems to be less shame in the Communist history. It seems to be more of a comic interlude in a long uneven tale that swings between glory and genocide, between forest hordes and high civilization. It is not unlike the Swedes and their Vasa Museum in Stockholm. The museum commemorates a giant multi-level Swedish warship that, on launch, didn’t make it out of Stockholm Harbor before collapsing on its side for lack of ballast. The Swedes seem always in good humor about this embarrassment from their storied past.
Perhaps the uncanny tolerance comes from the strange juxtaposition of the Second World War and the Cold War. One overlays the other. Given the contrast between the fierce mania of Hitler’s knitted brow, and the bushy-browed figurehead of Marx, it was the Cold War GDR that became the laughingstock of the modern West. A dumb misstep in German history brought on by its efforts to ape the backward designs of the Politburo.
Freedoms in the GDR
What’s most interesting about the historic depiction of East Germany is what’s missing. All one ever seems to hear of the history of the East is that its moribund economy–deprived of the glorious ingenuity of free-market capitalism–was overseen by the omnipresent and omniscient Stasi surveillance apparatus. Citizens cowered in terror at being mistaken for traitors. They trafficked their true beliefs only in samizdat. Their work lives were unbroken strings of mindless labor and rare holidays granted by a begrudging, ogreish state. But a fascinating book published in 2015 puts the lie to at least the economic aspect of this semi-official history.
Stasi State or Socialist Paradise?, by Bruni De La Motte and John Green, delivers some startling insight into the former GDR, the half of Germany that ended up on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, according to the consensus of western history. For instance, how many western history books examine the perpetual state of siege that the GDR endured in its short life? Does the idea of an economic siege ring a bell? Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Russia? Economic and political siege is Washington’s preferred method of crushing independent development models, particularly of the socialist variety. The policy was chillingly refined during the Cold War, with the GDR as a leading target. Nothing frightens western capital more than a promise to improve the public weal, which is the whole point of socialism. But what of the stories of thousands fleeing the east for the west? The authors contend they were “classic economic migrants.” They sought the higher salaries and broader range of consumer goods available in the west, which was bankrolled by Washington, which had emerged from the war in far better condition than the ravaged European continent. The GDR was forever struggling to acquire resources (the west was resource-rich, the east resource-poor) and were not helped in the least by the west’s Cold War mentality. Washington and its Atlanticist flunkies severed trade relations with the GDR, refusing the supply of raw materials desperately needed by the GDR to build its manufacturing base. De La Motte and Green show that the GDR built the Berlin Wall as a defensive measure, and that it actually reduced tensions, given Berlin’s infestation with western spies, essaying all manner of sabotage against the fledgling socialist republic.
Despite that hubristic sadism of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), the GDR made stunning social strides, all clearly documented. Citizens of the GDR had guaranteed jobs, free healthcare, and controlled rent that crested at five percent of income (versus forty to fifty percent today in the states). Gender equality and equal pay for equal work were penned into the constitution. Income disparities were monitored and kept some 17 times less unequal than in the FRG. Mixed income and mixed profession housing were more norm than exception. (One recalls with what triumphalism public-private projects heralded such progress in the 1990s, decades later.) It’s hard to believe in a cynical west, but the authors claim that GDR students saw class achievement as important as their own accomplishments, while citizens were generally encouraged to think of the good of society. The universalization of healthcare and the lack of unemployment helped keep serious mental health problems at bay, unlike the opioid crisis we’re currently experience thanks to the predictable avarice of drugmakers.
Among the best features of the GDR was the treatment of women, who could divorce their spouses if they were shown to have impeded their wives’ professional development. In the west, men owned the property and women were largely confined to the hearth, thanks to a patriarchal legal apparatus. State-run nurseries and kindergartens were established in the East, further emancipating females into the workplace and other fields of endeavor. Of course, troubles remained: the ‘commanding heights’ of the working world were still ‘manned’ by men, as it were. Yet the population enjoyed a ‘social wage’ that subsidized an enormous range of goods and activities–from food to theater tickets.
De La Motte and Green do a nice job contrasting the GDR with its western counterpart. How many westerners have been taught of the curious alliance between fascism and capitalism in West Germany? While Nazis were banned from public service in the East, they filled the halls of the West German government. A contemporary observer noted that “…the old men and those who financed Hitler have been installed once again, as governors of American capital.” (One day westerners may understand that fascism is the unfettered face of capitalism if freed of its liberal restraints.) Persecution of communists in the west was naturally de jure. Women were largely consigned to the traditional house-maker role without much forethought. Compulsory military service was quickly reintroduced, though the GDR sought permanent demilitarization of the country as a whole, among other paths to peace. One after another, the authors lay out deep contrasts with not only the FRG but, by extension, our current austerity-and-war economy.
The story goes on, and the book is worth at least a cursory review. Particularly as so few left-liberal politicians today–actually, none–are willing to speak of the achievements of the GDR. Chances are strong they, too, have been propagandized into near intellectual sterility when it comes to communism. After all, we’ve endured a century’s worth of anti-socialist propaganda after socialist candidates performed well in successive elections early last century. But we should be able to recognize the economic performance of places like the USSR, China, Venezuela, and the GDR without dismissing the entire project because of its particular political failures. The fact that this is precisely what we do–condemning any positive talk about socialist countries–tells you that the antagonism is dishonest at best.
A Press Policy of Internalized Bias
The myriad facts and figures that have come to light since the fall of the Berlin Wall have altered the perception of history for those willing to challenge their prefabricated belief systems. Only with this fuller range of insights at hand can one even begin to understand the contrary narratives of the Cold War. And books such as the one noted above make even more sense when dropped into the context of today’s imperialism. Economic siege continues to debilitate socialist nations and others that fall afoul of the Washington Consensus. The tactical repertoire of the Cold War lives on. And yet the same dynamic that taught a false historical narrative about socialist history is still at work in today’s mainstream press.
In the same way, you hear next to nothing about the human cost of U.S. sanctions on Venezuela. Tens of thousands are said to have died as a result of Washington’s vile sanctions regime. A ship with 25,000 tons of soy products bound for Caracas was halted in the Panama Canal at Washington’s behest. Likewise, the legitimacy of the sitting government is happily derided as a “regime” and “authoritarian” by the liberal standard, NPR. The once free-for-all character of social media, too, has been hampered by federal pressure in the wake of the Russiagate fraud. Google has been outed as a prejudicial monopoly, and progressive news outlets find their traffic collapsing across the channel matrix. The Brazilian Lava Jato fiasco of recent years has largely been used to ruin the Partido Do Trabalhadores, or PT, the workers party led by Lula Ignacio Lula Da Silva and Dilma Rousseff. The Intercept has uncovered some damning evidence the Brazilian right has used the scandal as a tool to roll back progressive policy and unseat the PT from power. Many on the left suspected as much, but rarely the mainstream. All the while, the western media turned a blind eye to what was an obvious constitutional coup d’état against Rousseff and frame-up against Lula, instead taking the rightwing party line that it was a gravely important impeachment and necessary criminal prosecution.
It is the same elsewhere. Hong Kong is ablaze. Venezuelan streets are thousands-strong with Bolivarians. Gilets Jaunes crowd the cobbled avenues of French capitals. Hondurans are rattling their neoliberal conman. Yet we hear only about the flour-pure pleas of innocent Asians whose petrol bombs bear the stamp of democracy, but not of a Latin demos chanting to loose the chains of imperial sanctions. Only those uprisings that can be suitably cloaked in free-market groupthink are cast in the spotlight.
As with the GDR, extant realties are detached from their causes. The tactics of our plutocracy are obvious: create a dire situation on the ground in the target country, broadcast it endlessly through a supplicant media, and blame the political and economic system of that nation for the chaos, never mentioning how it was engineered. In other words, blame socialism (and Latin caudillos, if relevant). The ceaseless vitriol from triumphalist free-marketeers mercilessly mock the “bus driver” kingpin of Caracas, Nicolás Maduro, whose ham-fisted economic wits have driven a “once-wealthy” nation into penury and hunger. Little of this is accurate. It is deliberate misdirection in favor of continued plutocratic exploitation. It happens daily in our mainstream papers.
How easily is cause obscured, effect misprovenanced. How cleverly we sheeple are led over the cliff. But the truth is plain enough: Donald Trump is the outcome of capitalism, which necessarily delivers vast income inequality, which permits regulatory capture and encourages congressional venality, which leads in due course to the pitiless autocracy at the federal level which we already experience at the corporate level. Because of this, those contesting this model must be silenced, on the ground and through the airwaves. So, if you’re thrifting the markets of western ideology for a suitable model of prosperity and freedom, you’d do well to sidestep the carnival barkers of neoliberalism. They talk a good game, but they don’t underwrite their products. Caveat emptor.
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