Refighting the Cold War

The Cold War.  This idea is so old – and yet so new – that I don’t even have a category for it.  I mean, the USSR is so last century.  Really, it embodies pretty much everything that went off the rails from 1914 – 1989.  You want evil, the Soviets have it all.  Genocide.  Secret police.  Armed suppression.  Grey masses wearing grey clothes eating grey mush.

Let’s face it.  We do best when we can make fun of our enemies.  (It’s the main reason that the suppression of the Mohammed cartoons is so dangerous, and the main reason that the academy’s meek acquiescence in the matter is so dreadful.)  But if we find it funny it’s because we were winning, and we didn’t have to live with this crap, and if any Russians find it funny, it’s because they don’t have to live with it any more.

So why do I bring this up?  Because apparently, there are people abroad in the world who are not entirely convinced of this.  I don’t mean Putin, who was apparently plotting to re-create the Czarist Empire from the moment Hungarians started issuing visas and half the Germans under his watchful eye decamped to the West for some refreshingly non-destructive window-shopping.  I don’t mean Inner Party members or even Outer Party members.  I mean Americans, westerners, people who supposedly spent the better part of a century working to eliminate Homo Communismus from the taxonomy of living political beings, who are not entirely convinced that it was a good thing that the GDR went out of business.

I ran into one today.

I won’t recount the conversation at length, since I can’t do it justice, and you’ve heard it all before.  (If you haven’t heard it all before, a major part of your philosophical education has gone missing.  But since you’ve probably been to college, this is extremely unlikely.)  But the arguments are worth hearing on their own.

  • Oh, East Germany wasn’t free?  Well, what do you mean by free?
  • Well, no, nothing in our Bill of Rights would have been respected, but they did have a certain freedom conferred on them by their social services
  • The only reason the system never became self-supporting was because we never invested in it
  • Or because we offered the Marshall Plan with strings attached
  • Germany has re-created an internal police system every bit as invasive as the Stasi
  • 1956 was our fault, because we encouraged the Hungarians

While some may have encouraged the Hungarians, Budapest 1956 was notable for Soviet brutality, not American duplicity.  And, of course, there’s only the West to blame for the GDR’s economic failure, since only a capitalist economy had wealth that could go looking for foreign markets.

Still, to compare East and West from a purely materialistic point of view misses the point.  What good is having free health care if I get carted off to prison for making a joke about Honecker?  There’s no dignity in being a perpetual supplicant to the state for my subsistence.  Of course, even on purely materialistic terms, the East failed its citizens compared to the West.

(Some people will be tempted point to the debate here in the US now as mirroring my argument with this gentleman, but it is worth pointing out that nothing in long-time socialist Western Europe begins to approach the totalitarianism of Stalin and Brezhnev.  So while the philosophical points are similar, and the practical arguments may sound the same, East Berlin 1967 was several orders of magnitude worse than Berlin 2010.  Let’s keep things in perspective.  Helmut Schmidt was no Erich Honnecker.)

In the brilliant film, The Lives of Others, there’s a joke going around East Germany:

Erich Honnecker wakes up, and the sun is just coming up.  He leans out the window and says, “Good Morning, Sun!”  And the sun replies, “Good Morning, Erich.”

At lunchtime, Honnecker leans out the window and says, “Good afternoon, Sun!”  And the Sun replies, “Good afternoon, Chancellor!”

And in the evening, Honnecker, after a hard day at work, goes to the window and says, “Good evening, Sun!”  Silence.  He tries again, “Good evening, Sun!”  Nothing.  “What is that matter, Sun, why don’t you reply?”

And the sun says, “Screw you, I’m in the West now!”

I have to admit, I was flabbergasted to be revisiting conversations I had had innumerable times in the 80s.  To come across someone who still, after all this time, felt that East Germans were better off under the Communists than they are now.  Because surely the East Germans didn’t think so, at least not when they got a chance to make the choice.

Comments are closed.