While perusing the books held within the bookcase in the bedroom of my childhood home, I found a book, a relic of the German Democratic Republic (GDR/DDR) I had acquired on one of various trips to that country and East Berlin years before the wall fell. The bookcase itself had floated into the nearby yard of my grandparents’ home after a particularly bad flood when I was five years old. It was a 19thcentury antique which my grandfather had lovingly restored and refinished for his first grandchild. Another inundation of memories filled me like those from a proverbial Proustian madeleine.
I loved being in the land which had been that of my maternal grandfather’s family before the two great wars; the language, the people, the food, the historical landmarks all seemed cozy and accessible, while all was simultaneously veiled with a gauzy and perturbing overlay of control. As my eye landed upon the copy of FREIHEIT und GESELLSCHAFT: Die Freiheitsauffassung im Marxismus-Leninismus (Freedom and Society: The Interpretation of Freedom in Marxism-Leninism. 1973, Dietz Verlag: Berlin) I immediately opened it to see what I had read and underlined as a young American in a land suddenly “foreign” from the understanding of Germany from the pre-WWI and WWII era I had been raised with.
In a nutshell, the pages were crammed with saccharine and verbose pedantic justification for repressing one’s individual freedoms for the good of the collective, in which, the tome postulated, one would have true freedom per dictate of the socialist nomenclature. Care was given to suggest that recommendations of the people, filtered via the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) membership, would be considered in any decisions by the collective whole.
How this seemed to be exactly what Germany had experienced earlier from the fall of the Weimar Republic until the defeat of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterparteior NSDAP).
Both parties in Germany repressed individual expression, freedom of thought, assembly, press and had a Nomenklaturawhich ran all aspects of the economy and society. Cracking a joke a la Saturday Night Live of Hitler or Honecker or any of the well-known functionaries in either system meant prison or death. How well I remembered being in an East German pub making a rather innocuous, to my Yankee mind, quip about then SED leader Erich Honecker only to witness horrified friends putting their fingers in front of their faces.
“What do you mean?” I shockingly asked. The answer was succinct -“KNAST!” (prison). Later in private the explanation became more profound, “The neighbors, co-workers, even family members spy and tell the authorities of any infractions, such as jokes, disrespect, or open expressions of discontent. They can haul anyone off.”
Academic treatises, PhD theses, articles in the most scholarly of journals have all dealt with the similarities and differences between allegedly “far right” Nazism and Socialism. Pragmatically, the terms left/right are useless. Political factions may hurl similar invectives against those with whom they disagree, but in essence both systems form a monad of totalitarianism under the guise of “freedom” in a host of incarnations. Both are anathema to the American ideal of personal and individual “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.” It was not true in the systems subordinate to German National Socialism or the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, nor can it be today. Caveat emptorif you hear such socialist collective promises, from any direction, in 2020.
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