Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Eastern Promise

It is autumn 1975 and I'm listening to the Top 20. Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody is No.1 and as the final piano chord fades away, a strange motif for brass can be heard repeating itself in the background: D-D-Eb-D-C-A-Bb-G. The following week, I notice it again.

A few years later I discover that the tune is the call sign of Radio Tiranë, which shares the same frequency (247m medium wave) with BBC Radio 1.

I begin listening to Radio Tiranë and become fascinated by the strange rhetorical language, with words like proletariat, co-optivist, imperialist, presidium and enigmatic phrases like people's intellectual. Albania, I learn, is a communist country.

I start tuning in to radio stations in other communist countries, particularly Moscow and Prague. They are keen to tell me how wonderful their political systems are, but do it in such a mind-numbingly dull and humourless way, I find it hard to believe their claims. The announcers sound like robots and the stories are implausibly utopian, even to the ears of a schoolboy.

It is the beginning of an slight obsession with communist Eastern Europe that has remained with me ever since.

In 1988 I visit communist Czechslovakia and find that life there is even grimmer than expected. Shops are half empty, people are afraid to be seen talking to me and, more importantly, there only seems to be one flavour of ice cream. I plan to return to the Eastern Bloc as soon as possible, but a year later the Berlin Wall comes down. I'm very pleased, but also selfishly disappointed that an opportunity has been lost.

However I was wrong about lost opportunities. I have probably learned and understood far more about the Warsaw Pact countries since the Berlin Wall fell, thanks to a succession of excellent memoirs, films and documentaries.

Stasiland is probably the most successful book on the subject, in English at least, but I have just finished another memoir which I have enjoyed almost as much - the superb Red Love.

There is something particularly interesting about East Germany. It isn't just the fact that country existed in opposition to another Germany, with a figurative divide that became a literal one, but also that many of its citizens were committed in a way that the Czech, Poles and Hunagrians never really were.

After the Second World War, Germans were faced with two choices: amnesia or atonement. It could be argued that West Germany chose the former, while the East attempted to build a utopian society that would act as a historical counterweight to Naziism. The ruling elite of East Germany was dominated by long-standing communists, many of whom had either fled to Moscow in the 1930s or been imprisoned by the Nazis. They were committed.

As for the ordinary people in the Oosten, they were used to goose-stepping soldiers and fatuous slogans. If the new rulers could put food on the table and provide jobs, that would be enough for most.

Red Love could have simply been a well-written memoir of growing up in 1980s East Germany, but Maxim Leo wisely takes a back seat and concentrates on the remarkable stories of his grandfathers. One grandfather was a German Jewish communist who fought with the French resistance. The other was a committed Nazi who became an equally committed Stalinist. They both became nation builders in the new Germany.

Leo's parents were also committted to the ideals behind the German Democratic Republic, but had a more ambivalent attitude because they were not saddled with the emotional and political baggage of the 1930s and 40s. A Stasi file described Leo's father as "critical but sympathetic." Neither parent wanted to escape to the West.

As for Leo, like many of his peers, he felt completely disillutioned with life in East Germany. He had no respect for the elderly elite whose social experiment had clearly failed. Older generations were prepared to endure a lower standard of living, either because they believed or were too afraid. The young had nothing to lose and once Glasnost appeared, the edifice crumbled.

Reading Red Love today, I'm impressed by the bizarreness of a country where individuals are routinely designated enemies of the people, for the most spurious of reasons. How could a regime survive for so long? The Soviet tanks probably helped to focus people's minds, but there were also enough citizens who were prepared to spy on their neighbours. It was a country built on paranoia.

Thank God those days have gone. But there are still echoes of the East, whether it's a journalist being arrested in Putin's Russia, or a corporate conference in which a managing director's banal slogans are being applauded by an audience of anxious sycophants. The fight continues.

Finally, here are some photos from the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. Happy days:

I hope you'll enjoy Red Love too. If you don't, your name will be added to a file. Expect a visit from one of my collegues. Possibly Gunther.


Travellin Penguin - Pam said...

Interesting post. I was in that part of the world a couple of years ago and what a difference now. Great write up.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Interesting how politics change things. I am reading "I am Malala" -- it's definitely not what people expect. Rather it is a history of the current political situation in Pakistan, and sometimes is quite heavy going. A lot of names, etc. to keep straight. But since it was written in collaboration with a professional reporter, that probably explains it. A good book, but not an easy one. But it's good to have our horizons stretched and learn something new sometimes. Oh, and say "Hi" to Gunther.... :) xox Caorl

Steerforth said...

Pam - I went to a booksellers' conference in Prague in 1999 - just over a decade after my first visit - and couldn't believe the difference. However, the Czechs hadn't quite abandoned their notoriously surly customer service.

The difference would probably be less marked in Budapest. Even when it was communist, the shops were full of consumer goods and the atmopshere was quiet different. Sometimes I forgot that I was behind the Iron Curtain.

Carol - Gunther wants to know if you'd be prepared to keep an eye on your neighbours. They are potential enemies of the state.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Love the wall units.

Debra said...

The more things change, the more they look the same. You would be surprised to notice how much our current rampant and viral construction all over France looks so... dull, unimaginative and worthy of burned out utopia Communism...

Anonymous said...

Hello Phil,
Mother-in-law here!
Did I tell you that last time I was in Berlin I had breakfast with the politician from East Germany who was responsible for the final joining together of East and West Germany again.
A very cultured man.
Whilst we were eating, another man in the restaurant came across to our table and thanked our politician for the fact that his family are now reunited.
All absolutely fascinating.
Hope you are recovered.

Steerforth said...

Hello Anne,

I remember seeing some of your holiday snaps, including the one of you doing a certain salute in Potsdam.

I hope you're (mis)behaving yourself in Antigua. See you in Feb. x

Steerforth said...

Hello Anne,

I remember seeing some of your holiday snaps, including the one of you doing a certain salute in Potsdam.

I hope you're (mis)behaving yourself in Antigua. See you in Feb. x