Reflections in Berlin

New Individualist Review, Volume 1, Number 4, Winter 1962

THOSE AMERICANS WHO belong to the sophisticated academic circles which continue, in their hearts, to look on Communism as largely a myth invented by the John Birch Society ought to take a trip to Berlin. Here they will be able to ascertain for themselves that Communism does, indeed, exist. Hardly more perceptiveness will be required to see besides that, as a system having a claim on the sympathies of men who do not care to profit, economically or emotionally, from the servitude of others, Communism has ended in final, utter bankruptcy, a state of affairs symbolized by the wall which Ulbricht caused to be erected on August 13th of last year.

This is not to say that there was not every reason to condemn Communism before then. There were some men, stubbornly faithful to the reality-principle, who had not ceased to attack this form of totalitarianism from the very first year of the Bolshevik Revolution, when Lenin and Trotsky formed the Cheka and suppressed the Constituent Assembly, and the existence of such men is an unanswerable reproach to those others, less respectful of the facts which began emerging from Russia at a very early date, who were friendly to the Soviet regime in the 1920’s, ’30’s, and ’40’s. The Berlin Uprising of 1953 and the Hungarian Revolution three years later should have made the issue quite clear in the minds of all men of good will; it is not mere partisanship which may lead one to suspect the motives of a person who continues to support Soviet Communism after what happened in Budapest. But if anything was needed after Hungary, the events in Berlin last year have provided it. For here was realized what might have occurred to a mediocre author to put into an improbably sensationalistic novel on Communism: people were fleeing the Communist regime in such numbers that it was at last compelled to build a wall to keep them in![amazon asin=1478385472&template=*lrc ad (right)]

We must, I think, agree with von Mises, who himself asserts, somewhere in his Socialism, that there is something grandiose about the socialist idea. This is especially true of the sub-species of socialism which is Communism. For the best and most enlightened spirits with full consciousness to, so to speak, lift their society out of history; to put an end, once and for all, to all the inherited superstitions and institutionalized abuses which “weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living” and torture each generation anew—who can fail to be moved by the vision? And if one must employ means which even the old reactionaries—the Bourbons, the Romanoffs and the Hohenzollerns—would have found unacceptable? In that event—altogether probable, considering the scope of the changes aimed at—one can answer with the last words of Schiller’s Maid of Orleans: “The pain lasts but a little while; the joy is eternal.”[i]

Now, however, one can be excused for regarding the question as closed. A graphic comment on the above reasoning is provided by a photograph a reporter was clever enough to take, which may be seen at Amerika Haus, in West Berlin. It was snapped near the wall, and shows the office-building of a Communist newspaper, just over the boundary. The picture is taken at such an angle that the name of the newspaper, in big block letters on the side of the building, is framed by the barbed wire on top of the wall. The newspaper is—Neue Zeit (“New Age”). Those who, after the 13th of August, are looking for a more final condemnation of Communism can only justify their indecision by pointing to the fact that, after all, the Lord Himself has not yet come down from heaven to speak His judgment.

If you walk along Bernauer Strasse, which forms part of the boundary between the West and East Sectors, you will be able to see the nature of the threat to which the Communists responded by building their wall. Along this street there are four markers with wreaths, indicating the spots where people died, going to the extreme of jumping from the adjacent buildings in their attempt to escape to the West. One of the markers is for a German student who had been pursued across the rooftops by the Vopos (Volkspolizisten—“People’s Police”). It sounds hackneyed, but only because the facts are so outrageously obvious: one can only think, “This badly do people want to leave a Communist country!” A sad little joke which is told in the East Sector asks, “What would you do if tomorrow the wall were dismantled?” The answer is, “I’d climb the nearest tree—I don’t want to get trampled to death in the stampede to get out!”

What the people want to leave behind is not difficult to understand. To deal with the economic sphere first, Ulbricht’s regime is in this regard a fiasco popularly and appropriately symbolized by the seven-year-old buildings on the fashionable Stalin Allee (now Karl Marx Allee) from the facades of which the tiles started a few years ago to fall off in clusters. There are continual shortages of some important food-items or others. Recently it was potatoes (!) which were in short supply; currently, fruit is almost impossible to obtain. One can, it seems, buy all the Wurst one wants; any better meat is scarce and expensive. (A West Berliner told me how once tears came to the eyes of his relatives from the East Sector, as they looked on the abundance which can be found in any neighborhood grocery in the West Sector!) Clothing is expensive and decidedly inferior to any West European goods. Shoes are said simply not to be made to be walked in for a whole day. The Communist regime seems to be most negligent of all in regard to the little “luxuries” taken for granted everywhere in the West: cigarettes are expensive and tasteless; almonds and raisins for the traditional Christmas cakes were rarely to be had this year.[amazon asin=1610160002&template=*lrc ad (right)]

The Communist regime is well aware of its failure to provide its people with anything approximating the standard of living which has now become a matter of course in Western Europe, and it tries as best it can to cover up this failure. Sometimes it succeeds. I remember reading an account in the Herald Tribune by a reporter who visited the Leipzig Fair last year, and concluded that conditions in East Germany were not as bad as some maintain: he could see for himself that the people were living better than before. That this reporter could so unthinkingly accept at face value what he saw, testifies to an astounding naivete’. In Berlin I learned from a Saxon student who had fled to the West that the sudden manipulated annual rise in the living-standard of the Leipzigers at fair-time has become a standing source of humor in East Germany. According to one joke, the Leipzigers are the most pious people in Germany—they fast from Messe to Messe.[ii]

The absence of political and intellectual freedom provides another important reason for the flight from the East Zone. The new “Socialist Legality” has either not been applied or not been of much use, if there is anything typical in the case (told me by a young lady in West Berlin and a relative of the man in question) of the Saxon who drank a bit too much at a Christmas celebration last year, began criticizing Ulbricht, and, as a consequence of the industry of an ever-alert Party member who was present, has been sentenced to five years in prison.

Most depressing of all, I found, was the climate of constant official lying under which people in the East must live.[iii] They are, for instance, expected to believe, against their own personal knowledge, that those who fled to the West only went because they were kidnapped or bribed. In the East Sector, I saw, as another example, a sign with a statement by Ulbricht to the effect that the wall was built chiefly because an invasion by the Western powers was a real possibility. (As if, even if NATO were to invade East Germany, the invasion would come from isolated West Berlin!)

The almost eerie atmosphere of dishonesty is intensified by the existence, besides such explicit lies, of what might be termed “implicit,” “institutionalized” lies. To this category belongs, for example, the continued maintenance of “other parties.” On a walk in the East Sector, I was startled to see a neon sign across the top of a building: “Christlich-Demokratische Union” (Christian-Democratic Union)—Adenauer’s party! Under this, however, was a placard the length of the building: “With the Peace Treaty for Peace and Unity of the Nation. With Socialism for the Happiness of the People.” If the Communists really expect people to be impressed by such merely paper-organizations, with empty names standing for various political parties, they are reckless speculators indeed in the gullibility of man.

In the category of implicit lies must also be counted the re-naming of the old University of Berlin “Humboldt University.” The use of the name of the greatest German theoretician of liberty by such a regime and for such an institution, seems to me to display almost as delicious a sense of irony as that which caused the Nazis to set above the gate at Auschwitz the motto, Arbeit macht frei (“Work makes one free”).

A Communist-written history of “Humboldt University” states that, under the German Communist regime, the institution has “made a new start in the spirit of Humboldt.” How much of this spirit exists in East Berlin may be gathered by a tour of the major book-stores, including those at the university. As observers have remarked before, they contain essentially only “Marx and technology.” Of the large spirit of liberal education there is not a trace. We can take as an example the philosophy section of these shops. Besides being unusually small, they offered virtually only Marxist works. I noticed, for instance, that there were no works at all of Nietzsche or Schopenhauer. A sales-girl told me, “They are no longer published in Germany.” Works of Kant were available, presumably because Engels somewhere mentions him and Fichte as “the great predecessors of Hegel and Marx.” (If only Lenin had made a casual—uninformed but favorable—reference to Nietzsche in some letter!) Existentialism and modern positivism were represented only by Marxist critiques of these philosophers. The choice under the heading “Social Science” was even more limited: in the land of Max Weber and Wilhelm Dilthey, a sociology student must evidently be satisfied with the works of Walther Ulbricht and Ho Chi Minh. So much for the Communist method of realizing the spirit of Humboldt!

The suppression of intellectual freedom has, it would seem, become more, rather than less, pronounced in recent years. This, at least, is what is indicated by the statement published by Ernst Bloch, who, along with Peter Palitzsch (a well-known theater-director, said to have been Brecht’s favorite pupil) was one of the East German intellectuals who broke with the regime after August 13th. The case of Bloch is an especially interesting one. One of the most prominent Marxist philosophers in Europe, Bloch had resided in the United States until 1949, when he went to the University of Leipzig to direct the Institut fuer Philosophie, having previously declined an offer by the (West German) University of Frankfurtam-Main by remarking that he did not intend to become a servant of capitalism. In 1954, at the Second Congress of the National-Front, he asserted: “The peace speeches of Dulles and Adenauer only help along the war which they are planning.” He was already living in the Bundesrepublik when the setting up of the wall led him to break with the East German Communists. In a letter to the (East) German Academy of Sciences, Bloch writes:

In the first years of my connection with the University, I enjoyed unhindered freedom of speech, of writing and of teaching. In recent years this situation has increasingly changed. I was driven into isolation, was given no opportunity to teach, had my contact with students interrupted. My best students were persecuted and penalized, the possibility of published work was denied me, I was not able to publish in any periodical, and the Aufbau Press in Berlin did not fulfill its contractual obligations in regard to my work. . . . In contrast to this, universities, periodicals and my publisher in West Germany for a long time have given me an opportunity to publish and to continue unmolested the work I have done up until now. . . . At 76 years of age, I have decided not to return to Leipzig.[iv]

In spite of all this, however, there are a number of important German intellectuals still loyal to Ulbricht’s regime. To these, two West German publicists, W. Schnurre and G. Grass, addressed an open letter on August 16th of last year, calling on them to denounce the erection of the wall. I do not think that much could really have been expected from these people. The novelist Anna Seghers, for instance, who is President of the (East) German Writers’ League, and who was one of the persons addressed, had remarked at the time of the purge-trials under Stalin, when she was already a Communist, “I have succeeded in forbidding myself to reflect about that sort of thing.”[v] As it turned out, the replies of the Communist writers who chose to respond[vi] are in a way interesting. All of them passionately defended the action of “their government.” They spoke of “West German militarism,” “American imperialism,” “the hangman-society” prevailing in the West (!), the necessity of changing the nature of man. The wall, according to the Communist composer Paul Dessau, represented a desire on the part of “the people of our republic to draw a thick line of demarcation between fascist degeneration and socialist construction.” A person said to be a historian attached to the Central Committee of the SED (East German Communist Party) wrote, of West German agents in West Berlin, “They have blackmailed citizens of the German Democratic Republic into becoming secret agents, abducted children from their parents, driven young men to the Foreign Legion and young women to the white slave trade.” (No proofs are offered, no sources cited.) The Presidium of the German Writers’ League replied that, “The first space flights show us what man is capable of when he shakes off the burden of imperialism and its wars.”[vii] Not one of them in their defenses even once mentioned the fact that refugees had been streaming out of the East Zone in tens of thousands, or that this was the reason for the action of August 13th. Apparently, like Frau Seghers, these intellectuals had “successfully forbidden themselves to reflect about such things.”

The position of the East German intellectuals is not an attractive one. After life-times spent in the service of a cause they at least at one time probably considered synomous with the freedom and well-being of the masses, they are now cruelly condemned to witness the results of their years of endeavoring.

Originally, as I have indicated before, it was thought that suppression of freedom of the press, abolition of academic freedom, and the dismantling of most of the rest of the legally-protected sphere of individual autonomy were justified, because, in spite of the pain caused to one or two generations, only in this way could a society at last be created where the great masses could live decently. But those who uncritically gave in to the hope that someday, somehow it would turn out this way must face the fact that the “Workers’ and Peasants’ State” of the Soviet Zone has proved itself utterly incapable of matching the achievements of free enterprise in the Bundesrepublik. What is left now as a rationale for dictatorship? That in one or two generations—or in one or two centuries—life will be better in the East than in the West? What reasonable grounds could anyone have for supposing this? And as the Communist intellectual searches for some reason, hidden in the recesses of the holy books of Marxism-Leninism, he is alone with the thought: an unarmed man was  shot to death by the Vopos, as he attempted to swim across the Teltow Kanal into the West. As one French journalist wrote, addressing his Communist compatriots shortly after the erection of the wall: “Confess it: what weighs down on your minds, what makes you fear for the future, is that the Revolution and liberty have changed camps; is that you are for the jail-keepers and the hangmen, and that men everywhere are beginning to perceive it.”[viii]

Sad as is the personal case of these writers, however, we ought never to forget the great responsibility which, as intellectuals, they bore, and which they have acquitted quite poorly indeed. What I mean is this: the French worker who supports Communism in the vague belief that they will reduce the price of his daily bottle of wine, betrays nothing; he literally “knows not what he does.” More rectitude was perhaps not to be expected from the Vopo who today murders an unarmed man fleeing to freedom: twenty-five years ago, this same Vopo would have marched with the SA and beaten old Jews in the street. That is the nature of the animal. But if the intellectuals themselves permit freedom to be destroyed—including the right to emigrate and the right to read Nietzsche—who will there be to defend it? Our French worker, or this Vopo? Freedom, especially intellectual freedom, is the immediate, urgent business of a very few people in the world. Although in the long-run freedom benefits all, almost everyone is prepared to jeer at concern with it as “ivory-tower,” and to infringe it at the slightest supposed inconvenience to other interests. It is the duty of the intellectual, who should be more far-seeing than others and less liable to the shoddy emotions which are used to drown all regard for it, to guard freedom. This duty Communist intellectuals, particularly, have shamelessly betrayed.

It is, of course, difficult to defend uncompromisingly the abstract moral law against the pretexts employed by the existing powers in the world to justify their crimes; to be as uncompromising in this regard as, say, Acton was in the last century, or, to choose a contemporary American writer, as Dwight MacDonald has had the merit of being. Most intellectuals do not have the fortitude to bear the tensions such a position entails. How much easier to indulge the dream that someday “history will absolve us,”[ix] to submit one’s self to some Cause, especially one having something as grand as the Red Army, or the Awakening Nations (or the United States Air Force!) behind it, and, in a sort of moral Popular Front, to refrain from criticizing the wrongs committed in the name of this Cause. If one is fortunate enough to be able to summon the self-discipline which the Masters call for, then perhaps one can even “successfully forbid one’s self to reflect” on such wrongs.

This has been the sad, sad treason of the intellectuals for decades now. It has contributed to the enslavement of the East Germans. As a look around in America today shows, it is still at work, leading intellectuals to applaud the enslavement of the Cubans, to excuse even that of the Chinese, to apologize for any immorality Power chooses to commit anywhere in the world in the name of “the masses.”

For whose future enslavement, I wonder, is it even now preparing the way?

[i] “Kurz ist der Schmerz und ewig ist die Freude.”

[ii] Messe meaning both “mass” and “fast.”

[iii] This has, of course, frequently been noted and discussed by writers on Communism. For the case of Hungary, for instance, see George Mikas, The Hungarian Revolution (London, 1957).

[iv] Bloch’s statement is reprinted in full in Die Mauer, oder Der 13. August, edited by Hans Werner Richter (Hamburg, 1961), pp. 140-141. Because of Bloch’s change of camps, there has been a tendency among some writers to consider him a “hero,” and to hint that now we in the West may begin to feel the discomfort of having such an “outspoken and fearless heretic” in our midst. It should be kept in mind that, as his letter makes quite clear, Bloch only left East Germany because he was personally beginning to have difficulties in freely expressing himself. In good left-Marxist form, he had never been much troubled by the Communist suppression of his philosophical opponents.

[v] Quoted by Walter Karsch, in ibid., p. 106.

[vi] As reprinted in ibid., pp. 66-90.

[vii] Do Newton and Einstein prove then “what man is capable of under capitalism”? Fortunately for these Communist intellectuals, they are assured that none of their colleagues will rise to point out the blunder.

[viii] Henri A. Sabarthez, in Rivarol, August 24, 1961.

[ix] History Will Absolve Me is the characteristic title of a collection of writings of Fidel Castro on sale at some American college book-stores a few months ago. Compare, from a Nazi “Folk-Book”: “And even if they condemn us a thousand times over, the goddess of the eternal court of History will smile, tear up the accusation of the prosecution and the judgment of their court, for she acquits us . . .” Quoted in Das Dritte Reich: Ansprung und Wirklichkeit, by Hermann Glaser (Freiburg, 1961).