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Germany

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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