Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Double Dictatorship - a review and a reflection

Ines Geipel
Doppeldiktatur - Double Dictatorship - a German neologism that has come into use since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany and the wider acceptance of the notion that Germany, within the last century, has undergone not one, but two debilitating dictatorships, one under the fascists, the other under the communists.

I just finished wading through a very difficult book, Umkämpfte Zone: Mein Brüder, der Osten und der Hass (Disputed Zone: My brother, the East, and Hatred) by Ines Geipel. Difficult for me, because it views the world through an East German lens and even when I thought I understood the references I suspected I was missing many of the complex associations. I simply did not share the experience she writes about. That, in addition to reading through the dark glass of an often inaccessible literary German.

I sought out the book after seeing Ms. Geipel on a German talk show. I was taken with the earnestness of her claim that Germans have never properly processed the damage done to their psyche from having lived through two distinct systems of mind control. Geipel seeks an explanation for how it is the right-wing AfD (Alternative for Germany) Party is enjoying such success in Germany despite two absolutist dictatorships, and attempts to link the resurgence of nationalism with the failure to learn from history. It's not an easy case to make. No psychological cause and effect is. We know that kids who bully were often bullied themselves, but can such cause and effect associations be made on a national level?

Her claim that the poison of unresolved hatreds can return to haunt us if not properly dealt with is obviously not just a German fear. I see it in America’s bitter failure to own up to its history of slavery and segregation, its patriarchal values now once again raising their ugly head in the attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade, and the tragedy of America’s inability to resist going to war to protect its corporate business interests under the guise of fostering democracy around the world.

So much for my political orientation, formed in part from working through the years of the Cold War with the Army Security Agency in Berlin, listening in on East German party cadre at work keeping their German Democratic Republic afloat. I was still in my early twenties, very wet behind the ears, and I was up against an unexpected challenge. The American military superiors I had to answer to were not the sharpest knives in the drawer and contrasted poorly with the jovial, kindly Germans I got to know through my earphones. Us against them. Us being an all-male blind obedience military, them being a small in-group of folk who took every opportunity to talk about their grandchildren and exchange birthday and anniversary congratulations. An early encounter with cognitive dissonance. And the need to see the complexity beneath the surface of things. 

Don’t misunderstand me. Living in West Berlin in the early 60s, one could not escape the contrast between East and West. The Easterners may have had the best of earnest intentions to make their homeland a better place, but I had been in East Berlin before the wall went up and I could read between the lines in the East German papers. I could see the social realism, the pretense of superiority that was supposed to be treated as fact until the actual facts could come about at some future time. And although, like most people, I chose the West over the East mostly because it was where I lived and because it had more color, and not because I was committed to an anti-communist ideology, I did understand at some level that there was something wrong with the lack of free expression in the East, with the fact that there were so many more people in uniform, so many more machine guns in sight, and the country had become a place where everybody seemed to spy endlessly on everybody else. I couldn’t readily articulate what was wrong with all this at first, but eventually it began to sink what it meant that they were shooting people trying to get across the wall for a crime with the surrealist name: “flight from the Republic.”

Hitler was able to rise to power in large part because of a fear of communism. Just as post World War II Korea was caught between the Russian and Chinese desire to spread communism on one side and American capitalism on the other, Germany in the late Weimar period was torn apart by those inspired by Karl Marx who believed that Germany, not Russia, was the ideal place to start a world communist movement, and those who espoused a racist, nationalist fascism, on the other. Four weeks after Hitler rose to power, his thugs set fire to the Reichstag. He blamed it on the Communists and used it as a pretext to claim dictatorial powers.

When Hitler was defeated and the Eastern (Russian) Zone became a communist state, the East Germans saw an opportunity to define themselves as anti-fascists, stake a claim to communist purity, and saddle the West with all the crimes of the Third Reich. The Communist “good guys” against the anti-communist “bad guys.” Instead of rooting out the fascist sentiment that permeated the East, they were able to construct a pretense that, as communists, they had been the victors in the Great Anti-Fascist War. It didn't help that the Americans had in fact effectively put an end to the denazification process, thinking such a reorientation program might get in the way of bringing the Germans around to the American way of fighting communism.

This myth of non-fascist purity is crumbling before our eyes as we watch, little by little, how nationalism in Germany is now manifesting itself to a greater degree in the East, in states like Saxony and Thuringia, than in the West. In the right-wing AfD Party and the anti-Islamic political movement known as Pegida. It is this phenomenon that Ines Geipel addresses in her story about the “Contested Zone.” “The zone,” not coincidentally, is the term Westerners used to refer to the Russian Zone, the place which became the DDR, the German Democratic Republic.

Geipel’s is a story of unfinished business. She traces the two dictatorships through her own family and particularly how the lives of her Nazi party grandfather and Stasi-connected father impacted her own and her brother’s and how they grew apart over the years. How the shame led to silence and the silence meant that the guilt would never be exposed to fresh air. In a binary world, either fascist or communist, to speak of criminal behavior in one realm was to foster it in the other. A third space was too difficult a task for most people - the choices were to take sides or to remain silent and declare oneself apolitical, which only extended the failure to come to terms with the evils of dictatorship and postponed any real kind of reconciliation.

One cannot escape the effect of adding a second dictatorship to the first. 1933 to 1998. Three generations, one on top of another having to watch what one says and where one says it. Living with the knowledge that the rug can be pulled out from under you at any given moment, without warning, where to get ahead often depends on betraying another, and objective truth must necessarily give way to a forced ideological one.

Geipel makes use of a powerful device not of her own making. Her brother’s death brings home to her all the missed opportunities to talk about the things their generation should have brought into the open. She none too subtly thus implies that all of us need to question what there is in us that provides a place for our notions of xenophobia, or white supremacy, the inclination to look away, or the willingness to believe things because they are in sync with an external inherited ideology rather than the product of an open mind and critical thinking.

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