Ed Driscoll

They Flutter Behind You, Your Possible Pasts

It’s fascinating to read of the large minority of both Russian and German citizens who want to relieve their totalitarian past. It just seems bizarre to me that they’d want to go back.

But actually, it’s not that bizarre, all things considered.

Quick caveat: I’m one of those folks who view both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany as twin creatures of the totalitarian left. (See this article for a sense of closely the two ideologies are intertwined.) I view the political spectrum, as it proceeds from left to right, as going from totalitarianism to moderate liberalism (which in this case, I’m defining in the broadest sense of the word, running from JFK to Reagan), to libertarianism, to, finally, anarchy. As this biography of Friedrich (no relation to Salma) Hayek says:

English intellectuals–promoters of central planning–claimed socialism was the opposite of Nazism, but Hayek insisted that socialism, communism and Nazism were part of the same collectivist trend which had gathered momentum during the 20th century.

[UPDATE 8/13/05: John Lukacs’ The Hitler of History also explores these connections in detail.]

Hopefully, that will help to place these two recent stories about modern Germany into perspective.

First up, Betsy Newmark links to this Telegraph article, which describes the increasing rise in interest in Germany, 60 years after World War II ended, for material about their National Socialist past:

New titles about Hitler are flooding the bookshops to satisfy the hunger for revelations about the period in time for the 60th anniversary of the end of the 1939-45 war.

One columnist has likened the plethora of publications to a “garish circus of commemoration”.

“Sixty years ago the Third Reich perished,” wrote Jens Jessen in Die Zeit. “Now one gets the impression it is being resurrected on a daily basis.”

One new book, A Strawberry for Hitler, is based on the true story of a horticulturalist who wants to name one of the fruits after the Nazi leader.

The books are, on one level, a parable of Nazi domination of everyday life under Hitler. But their grip on today’s publishing industry sometimes seems just as tight.

From Hitler’s Berlin to Death in the Bunker, from private diaries to coffee-table books with shocking and previously unseen pictures of bombed-out German cities, the craving for new material is enormous.

I can’t help but think that the sentiments behind this Reuters piece, also about Germany, are more than a little related:

Nearly a quarter of western Germans and 12 percent of easterners want the Berlin Wall back–more than 15 years after the fall of the barrier that split Germany during the Cold War, according to a new survey.

The results of the poll, published Saturday, reflected die-hard animosities over high reunification costs lowering western standards of living and economic turmoil in the east.

The survey of 2,000 Germans by Berlin’s Free University and pollsters Forsa found 24 percent of those living in western Germany want the Wall back–double the eastern level.

In Berlin itself, 11 percent of westerners and 8 percent of easterners said “yes” when asked: “Would it be better if the Wall between East and West were still standing?.”

The Berlin Wall was breached on Nov. 9, 1989, paving the way for the unification of Communist East Germany with the West on Oct. 3, 1990. But billions of euros (dollars) spent rebuilding the east have failed to prop up the depressed region, which is plagued by high unemployment and a shrinking population.

The poll also found that 47 percent of the easterners agree with the statement that the West “acquired the east like a colony,” while 58 percent of the westerners back the statement that “easterners tend to wallow in self-pity.”

And of course, if we go even further east, a surprising amount of those who lived in the USSR long for their Soviet past.

Part of the challenge of freedom is that it involves the messy vitality of individualism. And a big part of the attraction of totalitarianism is its order. Long before he entered the Oval Office, Ronald Reagan knew the Soviet Union was a third world economy hiding behind an enormous and powerful military. It’s easy to look at millions of hulking men in black boots and assume that their force equals the sum total of a nation’s vitality. And there’s obvious order in those images (see: Riefenstahl, Leni).

They’re seductive surfaces, even though what was under them was so rotten. And its obvious that even as the former Russian, East German–and even West German people and their leaders struggle with moving forward, their dark, but ordered pasts can be an awfully attractive alternative.

Update: I love the title of this post by Arthur Chrenkoff: “Mr. Gorbachev, bring back that wall!”

Heh, as the Professor would say.