Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Oliver Kamm - 'Ostalgie'

Oliver Kamm is an infuriating but must-read writer. An unrepentant Blairite, ex investment banker and very pro EU. There's lots I disagree with, but he's smart and argues his case very rigorously.

Here he is taking a swipe at the Daily Mail. Extraordinarily and counterintuitively the Daily Mail carries an article looking back with nostalgia at life in Communist Hungary.

"If the Mail titles ever ceased publication, I should be sorry on more grounds than merely the loss of press diversity. I find it useful that a single stable should encompass so many things I deride or despise: economically illiterate anti-Europeanism; social authoritarianism; mean-spirited, sneering hostility to homosexuals; crank conspiracy theories; support for Intelligent Design; utterly bogus, unfounded scaremongering about evidence-based medical science; and so many others.

But this is a new one on me. The Mail on Sunday carries an extraordinary article entitled "Oppressive and grey? No, growing up under Nazism was the happiest time of my life" by Susanne Clark. According to Mrs Clark, a state that is typically portrayed in western media as an unrelenting tyranny was more of a rural idyll - all in all, "rather a fun place to live". She says:

"Some of my earliest memories of living at home are of the animals my parents kept on their smallholding. Rearing animals was something most people did, as well as growing vegetables. Outside Berlin and the big towns, we were a nation of Tom and Barbara Goods.

"My parents had about 50 chickens, pigs, rabbits, ducks, pigeons and geese. We kept the animals not just to feed our family but also to sell meat to our friends. We used the goose feathers to make pillows and duvets."

Mrs Clark is especially interesting in her account of membership of the Hitler Youth:

"Many in the West believed it was a crude attempt to indoctrinate the young with Nazi ideology, but being a German Maiden taught us valuable life skills such as building friendships and the importance of working for the benefit of the community. 'Together for each other' was our slogan, and that was how we were encouraged to think.

"As a German Maiden, if you performed well in your studies, communal work and school competitions, you were rewarded with a trip to a summer camp. I went every year because I took part in almost all the school activities: competitions, gymnastics, athletics, choir, shooting, literature and library work.

"On our last night at the Bund Deutscher Mädel camp we sang songs around the bonfire, such as the Hitler Youth anthem, the Fahnenlied, and other traditional songs. Our feelings were always mixed: sad at the prospect of leaving, but happy at the thought of seeing our families again. Today, even those who do not consider themselves Nazis look back at their days in the Hitler Youth with great affection."

You think I'm making this up? Well, I've changed one or two words. The author's name is Zsuzsanna, not Susanne, Clark. And instead of Nazi Germany she is writing of Communist Hungary. She was a member not of the Hitler Youth but of the Young Pioneers, where she sang about squirrels rather than banners. Excepting the reference to Berlin, everything else is as she has written it.

But my analogy is fair. The totalitarian oppression of Eastern Europe after WWII was a difference of tempo, not of type, from Nazi Germany. Mrs Clark has what I suppose we should gratefully take as the fearless free spirit to acknowledge that "Communism in Hungary had its downside", but "despite this, I believe that, taken as a whole, the positives outweighed the negatives". So let's look at some of the negatives.

The regime of János Kádár in Hungary came to be seen in the West as more liberal than the other Soviet satellite states. This was true (and even then only partially so) only in economics, not in politics. The regime was founded in terror. After the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, Kádár was installed as party chief not by the people but by the Soviet Union. He immediately became known as Hungary's Quisling.

Kádár pledged not to arrest the deposed leader Imre Nagy, who had taken refuge in the Yugoslav embassy. Tragically, Nagy believed him. Nagy decided not to seek asylum but emerged, and of course was promptly arrested. Nagy and his comrades were imprisoned in Romania for 18 months, before being sent back to Hungary in June 1958. They were given a secret trial. The inevitable verdict was guilty; the inevitable sentence was death. Nagy was buried in an unmarked grave. Many of his compatriots shared a similar fate. The regime's own figures put the number of political executions at 2,000. The true figure was many times this. Thousands were incarcerated or exiled, or simply removed from public life. Scores of thousands were deported to the Soviet Union and disappeared. Kádár broke Hungary's political life. Hungary became a state without politics.

I heard about some of this at the same time as, I guess, Mrs Clark was undergoing her healthy outdoor pursuits with the Pioneers. The Kádár terror provoked an exodus to the West. For no reason I ever understood, many Hungarians settled in Leicester, where I grew up. I got to know one of these freedom fighters, Péter Mandoki. After settling in Leicester, he had met and married a local girl. Their daughter, Anna, became and has remained ever since one of my dearest friends. After the collapse of Communism, Anna learned Hungarian, travelled to the country to meet her lost family, and eventually settled in Budapest in 1991 where she worked as an accountant. I used to go to stay with her there or we'd meet in Prague. Even with my partial knowledge and limited experience of the culture, the sense of nations emerging from a stunted, tyrannised past was palpable.

A few years ago, Anna, now having emigrated to Melbourne, sought out the equivalents of her father: Hungarian émigrés who had fled to Australia after the 1956 uprising. She interviewed them for a book that she later published. There is a passage in which one of her interviewees describes the games of a young boy of that time, playing with his toy soldiers. The soldiers in best condition are (if you can imagine it) UN forces, and those in the ugliest condition are Soviet troops. "Itt vannak ENSZek!" cries the boy: "The UN troops are here!"

But of course the UN troops were not there. They never came. Those who hoped in vain for the UN's arrival, however, can now find in the Mail on Sunday the gratuitous insult from Mrs Clark that theirs are "the perspectives of wealthy emigrés or anti-communist dissidents with an axe to grind". It seems redundant, so I hope it will not appear ungracious, to add that Mrs Clark, who has been hawking her experiences in the Young Pioneers for some years, is an awesomely silly woman to whom history has never happened."


Andy said...

Oliver Kamm and Peter Hitchens are at war for my political soul! I posted Kamm's thoughts on East Berlin above. Here's Peter Hitchens' more rueful musing on the fall of the Berlin Wall:

"Actually I am tired of all this fake joy. When the Berlin Wall went up, the 'Free West' did precisely nothing, just as it had done precisely nothing when the Red Army put down the East Berlin workers' revolt of June 1953, precisely nothing when the Red Army crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956, and just as it would do nothing when the Warsaw Pact invaded what was then Czechoslovakia in 1968. It would later do precious little when the Polish state moved against Solidarity in the early 1980s. In fact, apart from some brave freelance activity by a few committed conservatives, notably Roger Scruton (of whom more later), nobody really did very much at all to give practical aid to the forces of liberty in the Soviet sphere of influence. Speeches about ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ and ‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down that wall’, were just rhetoric for home consumption.

Why was the piety a fake? Why is our joy at reunification largely synthetic (while that in Germany is real, but accompanied by severe mixed feelings)? Because the Cold War was largely about our accepting Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, in return for peace, stability and prosperity on our side of the fence. Who, of those millions who benefited from this deal, can say he would personally have opted instead for frequent war and everlasting tension, given the choice? We supported change over there only when the Kremlin gave us permission to do so. West Germany was actually rather annoyed by the Polish wave of revolt because at one stage it threatened their curious tango with East Germany, a forgotten era when East German leaders were welcomed in Bonn with all the panoply accorded to normal heads of government, huge subsidies flowed quietly eastwards into the puppet state, and political dissidents were bought for hard cash, straight out of East German prisons.

This was the same era when Western leftists often made excuses for East Germany. Jonathan Steele's book Socialism with a German Face is worth obtaining for an insight into this era. Mr Steele is, in my view, a fine and courageous foreign correspondent, whose professionalism and bravery I witnessed and admired when we were both working in the old USSR. And I think he was expressing the honest feelings of many western leftists when he wrote that book. I'd even agree with them, that there were admirable aspects of East German society, as many former East Germans will now tell you. The trouble is that the price paid for them was much too high, and that the East German system, which is well described in the book Stasiland and the film The Lives of Others, was cruel, often to the point of being actively murderous, intrusive, corrupt, wholly dishonest and power-worshipping.

Well, there are lots of governments like that, and ours is slowly but alarmingly turning in that direction. Would that have happened if the Cold War had continued to keep the domestic left out of political office, and if the warning of the real existing Big Brother state over there had continued to exist? I wonder. I have often thought that the best solution for East Germany would have been for it to be taken over by Disney, and run as a vast theme park in which people could see the otherwise unbelievable operation of socialism in action. I saw East Germany at first hand, and even I find it difficult to believe what I know to be true. How will the next generation learn from this awful mistake? They won't credit that it actually happened."

Read the rest of the article here

JP said...

Best reunification quote: It's like the Beatles coming together again — let's hope they don't go on a world tour.

Actually today must have been quite a day to be in Berlin. I remember a woman, an Ossi hairdresser, telling me story of 20 years ago from her point of view. She went to bed early on Nov 9th, missed the news, and went to work the next day as normal. She couldn't work out where the hell everybody - staff and customers - were. Eventually she left the shop and asked around. "Where is everyone?". She finally got the jaw-dropping, utterly unthinkable answer: "they're in the West". That's how quickly it all happened.

Andy said...

Great comment JP. The hairdresser's story is incredible.

dan said...

My nomination for best German reunification quote: "I view this in much the same way I view a possible Dean Martin - Jerry Lewis reconciliation: I never really enjoyed their work, and I'm not sure I need to see any of their new stuff.” Dennis Miller.

Andy said...

Interesting article in the Independent on another aspect of life in East Berlin before the wall fell:

"More than 2,000 Germans are still searching for family members lost as a result of the forced adoption policies instigated by Margot Honecker. The widow of Erich Honecker, the East German dictator who ordered the building of the Berlin Wall, lives in exile in South America on a German state pension. And 20 years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain she remains unrepentant. In a rare interview recently the 82-year-old insisted that people "lived good lives" under the regime headed by her husband."

Hat tip Oliver Kamm

JP said...

Great quote, Dan!

Re: Andy's latest. I've spoken to a lot of Ossi's about "how good/bad was it under the Commies?". To summarise an obviously complex answer: if you went along with things, were at the very least apolitical, you could have a decent life (I think living standards in the GDR in the 70s were comparable with the UK). But god forbid you should show a spark of individuality beyond what the system allowed.

An example that always touched me of how abnormal that society could be was that, right up to the end (so late 80's), you had to get a licence from the authorities to do any photocopying(!!!). Think about that...

Andy said...

"An example that always touched me of how abnormal that society could be was that, right up to the end (so late 80's), you had to get a licence from the authorities to do any photocopying(!!!). Think about that..." JP

That is mad, but I was shocked that right here in the UK mum's sharing the school runs or family friends babysitting might also need to get a license. It's a long way from the Stasis but the Authoritarian creep taking place before our eyes is disturbing nonetheless.

JP said...

Totally agree, I was just reading about it:

The ISA: the great child protection racket
The Sunday Times
November 8, 2009

Will the British rise up, I wonder?