But he built some beautiful autobahns

With the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany there has been a massive overkill on this subject. I wasn’t going to add to all of this but then I saw an article by Seumas Milne in this week’s Guardian, which gave an interpretation of events which had me shaking my head. I do think that Germany is a fascinating case – it’s not often in political economy that you can observe an experiment in laboratory conditions but the division of Germany after WWII is the closest we are going to get to this. Germany in 1945 was a country destroyed by six years of war. Two political and economic models were tried and the results surely leave no room for doubt.

Well for Mr. Milne they do. He chastises his opponents their refusal to acknowledge that the communist system had benefits as well as obvious costs:

The German Democratic Republic was home to the Stasi, shortages and the wall, but it was also a country of full employment, social equality, cheap housing, transport and culture, one of the best childcare systems in the world, and greater freedom in the workplace than most employees enjoy in today’s Germany.

 What an idiotic argument! No government or system does everything bad. Of course, this defence of totalitarianism is asymmetric. I don’t here anyone saying about Hitler: “Well he had the gas chambers but boy did he build some beautiful autobahns.” This hypocrisy is typical. You only have to compare the insignificant number of documentaries and films about communist atrocities compared to those about Nazi Germany and/or the Holocaust. In the article which I featured last week Murderous Idealism Paul Hollander points out a possible origin of these double standards:

The different moral responses to Nazism and communism in the West can be interpreted as a result of the perception of communist atrocities as by-products of noble intentions that were hard to realize without resorting to harsh measures. The Nazi outrages, by contrast, are perceived as unmitigated evil lacking in any lofty justification and unsupported by an attractive ideology. There is far more physical evidence and information about the Nazi mass murders, and Nazi methods of extermination were highly premeditated and repugnant, whereas many victims of communist systems died because of lethal living conditions in their places of detention. Most of the victims of communism were not killed by advanced industrial techniques.


Milne also makes reference to ostalgie, the German term referring to nostalgia for life in the former East Germany. The citizens had such a warm feeling about the place that the government built a wall to keep them in. Well I realise that it was really an anti-fascist defence barrier. Anywhere between 40,000 and 200,000 fled the DDR. Perhaps Mr Milne has access to a list of West Germans who risked their lives trying to get into this workers’ paradise. The genius of capitalism has actually found a way of exploiting this nostalgic feeling and there is a thriving trade in ersatz products from the communist years. There is so much hypocrisy about ideological symbols. We have Soviet Chic but we don’t have Pinochet T-shirts. The Hammer and Sickle is acceptable but wearing a swastika is roundly condemned – this is asymmetric outrage.

The Berlin Wall came down twenty years ago but this has not ushered in the end of history. Conflict is all around us – that is the nature of human affairs. There are no definitive answers to how society should be organised. Given human predilection for folly I wouldn’t even rule out a return of communism. Unfortunately I fear the results will be similar. Capitalism has its own problems and we will never be able to abolish crises. What will be the result of the downfall of communism? As Zhou Enlai said of the long-term consequences of the French Revolution – it’s too early to tell. I believe in the chaotic random nature of history. Events now can have unforeseen consequences. Having said that, I think you could rewind and replay the video of world history over and over again and you would still get similar disastrous results with communism. Now it seems that the great hope of communists is Hugo Chavez. Maybe the results will be different in the developing world but I won’t be holding my breath.


3 Responses to But he built some beautiful autobahns

  1. Jerry says:

    An interesting point, Martin-

    Let’s not be too cut-and-dried here. I went to East Germany twice- in 1979 or thereabouts and in late 1988. I made friends there the first time, and was visiting them the second time. Both times I was in the company of a friend who was born there but who escaped on the handlebars of his mother’s bike when he was about 8 years old, when his father was jailed as an “exploiter of the working class” (he ran a factory making printing machinery). He became a professor of marketing in London, so no Ostalgia there.

    My experience was that yes, there was a considerable lack of freedom. No, most people couldn’t easily travel to the West. No, you couldn’t say what you wanted; yes, people spied on each other. The upside (and there was an upside for many people) was, as Seamus Milne says, “full employment, social equality, cheap housing, transport and culture, one of the best childcare systems in the world, and greater freedom in the workplace than most employees enjoy in today’s Germany”. I haven’t read the article, and I think I’d query the last point, but I would add health care as another plus point. I remember talking to a girl from Jena university who pointed out that if you were poor in the West you couldn’t travel either, even if they let you… The interesting thing is that on my last visit, about ten years ago, at least two of the couples I’d met earlier had serious reservations about the “instant reunification” of the two Germanies. What they’d hoped for was a more gentle transition over a few years or so, via a Scandinavian-style social democracy.

    What they got was, as for many in the East, a dreadful shock. Sure, they were suddenly allowed to do what they wanted, say what they wanted- start their own businesses, travel, etc. The fact is most of them were psychologically unsuited to do any of those things. What they had had was security- a nanny-like, oppressive security, it’s true, but they didn’t need to worry about losing their jobs, their houses, etc. (A bit like Spain after Franco, in fact…). But now all the rich, smart, Western-educated elite came over and bought up land, houses, companies- everything the Treuhand could sell, it sold. They’d exchanged slavery to the state for slavery to the (external) private sector. My friend was offered his father’s old home in Germany for just a few thousand marks. To his credit, he didn’t take it, because he discovered that it was turned into flats after the war, and six families would have to be evicted if he did.

    So when people say “things were better under Communism” remember that for many people- especially the poor- many things were no worse. Most people adapt to the system they have. Do we seriously believe every Frenchman was a member of the maquis during the war? A large proportion of Germans were pretty much unconcerned who ran the country in the 30s. The majority of Spaniards carried on under Franco, and their lives didn’t change radically after his death. A surprising number of Cubans seem to be more or less content under Castro- perhaps they too are apprehensive about the American Dream-type alternative?

    As the new generations come through, the East/West division will fade away- but it’s going to need a couple of generations- not helped by the fact that, as I said, at least in business the Wessies often treat the Ossies with contempt, as a source for cheap labour without immigration problems… This is no defence of the old system, but nor is the new one faultless. And at least we can criticise…

  2. Douglas says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more Jerry. I’m really fed up with the recent flood of arrogant, facile, uninformed, unnuanced and quasi-celebratory articles twenty years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unfortunately, though not surprisingly, Martin’s reaction to Seumas Milne’s piece falls into that category. “Libertarianism” dressed up as a mere defence of the status quo and “whatever will be, will be”. At least a significant proportion of the electorate in the former East Germany see otherwise given their recent voting patterns.


  3. […] a couple of things about the perception of Che Guevara that tie in with  a piece I did  called But he built some beautiful autobahns, which dealt with the asymmetric outrage about communist and fascist atrocities. There is an […]

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