Should East German Symbols Be Banned Like The Nazi Swastika?

After a wave of nostalgia for the Communist regime of East Germany, debate is opened in Germany about whether Communism was as bad as Nazism.

Selling all things GDR near Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie
Selling all things GDR near Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie
Richard Herzinger

BERLIN - The march to the Soviet War Memorial in Berlin’s Treptower Park on May 9 – Soviet Victory Day – by German Democratic Republic (East Germany, GDR) diehards wearing Stasi Guards Regiment and National People’s Army (NVA) uniforms scared the German public.

Now voices both within the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) are increasingly calling for a law to prohibit the public display of Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (the East German Communist Party, SED) symbols.

Volker Kauder, chief CDU whip in the federal parliament, said he thought that the “macabre” demonstration of Communist nostalgia was a provocation against democracy and that he and his party were open to changing the law.

Whether this makes any sense or not is subject to differing views. One of the salient features of democracy is that it should be able to tolerate even extreme points of view and respect the right of people who hold them to freedom of expression.

Any attempt to limit this freedom brings with it the question as to just where the line should be drawn between the use of symbols representing certain positions as political statements and the ironic use of them in, say, art or satire.

But if an initiative to change the law brings with it the long overdue conversation about our way of dealing with our SED past, it is to be welcomed. Intensive social debate about this is urgently needed in view of the progressive watering down of the facts of history. The more years go by, the more the GDR seems like a mere curiosity and not what it really was: a malignant totalitarian dictatorship that only retreated – with relatively little noise or violence – from the stage of history because the Soviet Union, whose vassal it was from the outset, stopped backing it.

Countless films harking back to supposedly harmless daily life in the GDR; a cult of the cute little Trabi (Trabant car manufactured in East Germany); veterans’ gatherings; and the big business of selling insignia, caps and other GDR military items to tourists on the streets of Berlin, have taken the bite out of memories of this dictatorship and the threats it posed. There is even a whole comedy genre now that presents the severely repressive system as more or less harmless, led by a pack of amusingly inept idiots.

What’s more: in recent years, propagandists in Die Linke (“The Left,” a democratic socialist party considered to be far-left) circles have succeeded in anchoring among broad segments of the German public the myth that at its core the GDR was “antifascist.” This gives members of The Left the glib line – with regard to the possible prohibition of exhibiting GDR symbols – that the GDR regime and the Nazi regime are being unfairly put in the same basket when in fact the GDR was not as “bad.” Display of Nazi symbolism, such as the is prohibited in Germany.

However: to forbid the symbols of the second totalitarian dictatorship on German soil along with those of the far worse first one by no means suggests that both systems are being or should be placed on the same footing. If banning GDR symbols is out of the question because Nazi barbarity preceded the GDR dictatorship the result would be a kind of license for their uninhibited exhibition.

By the “same footing” logic, the justified concern – which is not to water down the incomparable horror of the Nazi extermination system – is thus morphed into its opposite: “lesser” forms of dictatorship are little more than a venial sin.

The “same footing” reproach has become a propaganda tool, and even some liberal circles significantly play down the repressiveness of the Communist system in the context of 20th century totalitarian systems.

In the last few years, articles in some respected liberal German publications presented the suggestive insinuation that whoever espoused the theory of totalitarianism was questioning the singularity of the Holocaust – and these arguments to all intents and purposes went uncontested. In view of the crystal-clear position on the singularity of the Nazi slaughter of Jews of a classic source on the origins and elements of totalitarianism – Hannah Arendt – that is a distressing lie.

Historical revisionism

One of the biggest and most enduring propaganda lies of the Communist state apparatus was the legend of their "antifascist" origins. The truth of the matter is that the GDR’s Marxist-Leninist ideology made any real processing of National Socialism impossible.

That the GDR leadership trained militantly anti-Semitic secret services like the Syrian one, and covered and supported Palestinian terrorists – thus contributing to the murder of yet more Jews – is just one of the realities that has not become firmly cemented in contemporary Germans’ historical consciousness.

It should also not be forgotten that the symbols of East German Communism don’t only stand for the crimes that the SED dictatorship itself was responsible for but also for the whole system of world Communism of which it was an active part, and that produced around 100 million victims.

The reputation of Communism is presently being heavily spiffed up thanks mainly to the systematic falsification of history in Vladimir Putin’s Russia that few appear to find offensive, much less alarming.

On May 9, Putin announced from the tribune at the Kremlin’s Victory Day celebration that the Soviet Union had freed Europe from the yoke of National Socialism. In other words, the Soviet Union alone did this. It is true that the people of the Soviet Union suffered more than any other from Nazi extermination policies and shed the most blood in fighting back. Without the indestructible fighting power of the Red Army an Allied victory over Hitler’s Germany would not have been possible.

What Putin’s heroic, re-Sovietized version of history left out, however, is that from 1939 until the summer of 1941 the Soviet Union was allied with Germany and helped it by providing it with cheap commodities supplies that kept the German war machine going.

The Soviets were not disturbed by the fact that the persecution and murder of Jews had already begun with the Polish campaign. On the contrary: as per the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Soviet Union annexed eastern Poland, cut off paths of retreat for the Polish Army fighting Hitler, and perpetrated the Katyn massacre that killed some 25,000 Poles -- among them military and police officers and members of the Polish intelligentsia.

Meanwhile during this period German Communists obediently stopped agitating against the Nazis although that didn’t stop Stalin from extraditing exiled German Communists back to Germany. The Communists only re-discovered their “anti-fascism” when the Soviet Union was invaded by Germany, which had been its ally.

Another fact is that the Red Army would not have been able to keep up their fighting power without generous arms deliveries from the Americans. But all these uncomfortable realities are now suddenly supposed to vanish into the obscurantism of the Communist anti-fascist myth along with the fact that – while, yes, the Soviet Union did chase Hitler’s forces out of eastern Europe – the East European people were not freed as a result: they had to go on living for nearly 50 more years under another totalitarian dictatorship.

Putin’s adjustments of history, delivered in the interests of fueling renewed dreams of Russia as a major world power, are showing results: according to a recent poll, 50% of Russians have a positive image of Stalin. No other Russian leader rates as high. And the new winds from Moscow are encouraging nostalgia for Communism in Germany. Reason enough not to take the kind of audacity shown on May 9 in Berlin too lightly.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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