Al Jones: Drifting toward East Germany?
“To the Sun, to Freedom” is set in the last days of East Berlin before the Wall opened on Nov. 9, 1989. The title remembers “Brothers, to the Sun, to Freedom,” a popular song of the German labor movement widely used by the East German Communist government.
Reviewing my proofs of a story set in the long-gone German Democratic Republic put me very much in mind of today’s so-called cancel culture.
In a socialist society, as explained not unsympathetically by my Stasi Capt. Rolf Hessel, community interests are paramount. True freedom for the individual arises only within the community and the state. “In the social necessity of all,” Rolf explains to Lutheran Pastor Peter Siefert, “not in the individual greed of each, only in satisfying the needs of all can true freedom be found.”
Those selfish individuals who will not go along are punished. Good jobs are not available. University is not available. For the truly recalcitrant, prison is definitely available.
Those under 45 years old today have no real memory of the oppressive state that the well-intentioned leaders of East Germany created in pursuit of their socialist goals. The Stasi watched everyone, all the time. To maintain control, they walled off their country. They named that wall the “Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart,” asserting that it guarded the German Democratic Republic from the evil schemes of the Western monopoly capitalists.
“It is the force that betrays you, Comrade,” Peter tells Rolf while under interrogation in East Berlin’s Hohenschönhausen Remand Prison. “The party’s greed, its lust for power, defeats its own revolution. That’s what Springsteen implied to his audience. That’s why they cheered when he spoke.”
Yes, Bruce Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love” concert in East Berlin, July 19, 1988, features in the book. YouTube the concert. “Born in the USA” is a protest song. The crowd shouts the refrain as though it means going to heaven. Before “Chimes of Freedom,” the Boss gives a speech, hoping that “someday all the barriers will be torn down.” They cheer. It’s his John F. Kennedy “I am a Berliner” moment. The young woman who comes on stage during “Dancing in the Dark” says that she has never washed the top she wore that day. But I digress.
Today’s America still bears no true resemblance to the Stalinist East German state. In these COVID-19 times, though, it has begun to drift toward some of the singular elements of a Warsaw Pact government.
Debate and discussion of important ideas is no longer tolerated. Only one answer suffices. Those who still insist on judging by merit, who prize objectivity and individual accomplishment, who question whether a climate catastrophe looms, who will not acknowledge their own role in America’s alleged systemic racism, all run the same danger: no job, no university degree, no acceptance into polite society, a life ruined for a single mistake.
A dissenting individual must suffer for the benefit of all. The safety of society requires it.
The East German Communists tolerated no political party except their own. Guided by true socialist principles, it led the people forward, cancelling any contradictory views. Such unchallenged single-party rule is in fact a hallmark of all totalitarian societies. We have even experienced it here, where single-party rule in the South thwarted the outcome of the Civil War and sustained Jim Crow for a century.
While the East German leadership meant well, it created an economic and social disaster for the country. The more people resisted, the more the party clamped down. Sustaining that police state drove it into moral bankruptcy. When the leadership faded from the scene in the most miraculous peaceful revolution of all time, it left behind social and economic ruin.
Peter’s comment about the betrayal by force reflects the viewpoint of the East German dissidents and reformers. They did not intend to bring dog-eat-dog capitalism to the East. They agitated for a reformed socialism, one with more voluntary communal spirit, less force.
When the pressure eased, the German people rejected those communal impulses. They voted for freedom as the West understood it — individual liberty, the right to speak one’s own mind in safety, not “freedom” twisted to mean enforced conformity to a defined social ideal.
As the saying goes, history never repeats, but it does rhyme. We should be on our guard that well-meaning people in our own society do not lead us down the same unproductive path.
Al Jones lives in Grass Valley.
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