'One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star'- Nietzsche
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Monthly Archives: November 2014

‘For me … the more enduring symbol of the zeitgeist was the Velvet Revolution’

Though the annus mirabilis is most often associated with the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution, both of which happened in November 1989, in fact, revolution was in the air throughout Central and Eastern Europe the entire length of that tumultuous year. 

During the first six months in Warsaw and in Budapest, the years-long push for democratic reform had reached a tipping point. In August, Hungary and Austria held snipping ceremonies to cut through the barbed wire fencing dividing their countries and held “Pan-European Picnics” at the breach, through which thousands of East bloc citizens, escaped to the West. 

In August, 2 million democracy-hungry people held hands and created a 650 kilometer long “Baltic Chain” through Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In October, many thousands of Leipzigers chanted, “Wirsind das Volk.” And in December, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were brutally executed by “the people.”

Of course, we now know that the Berlin Wall didn’t actually fall on November 9 (the bulldozing began in earnest many months later), but that, instead, it was an accidental event that could have been a scene right out of Václav Havel’s absurdist comedy The Memorandum: East Berlin GDR party boss Günter Schabowski miscommunicated a notehe’d been vouchsafed to deliver to the public, resulting in massive demands for exodus at various checkpoints, and when  Politiburo officials could not be reached for clarification of the message, terrified checkpoint guards opened the gates to relieve the pressure.

Still, the Wall (and its demise) proved to be a useful structuralist symbol of communist totalitarianism, even though, with abject irony, such walls with their barbed wire, guard dogs, gum towers and searchlights, were more recently associated with communism’s arch-enemies, the Nazis and the Holocaust.

But then when the Allies refused to cede West Berlin to the Soviets at the end of World War II, creating a kind of mini Western island-state smack dab in the middle of communist East Germany, a wall must have seemed inevitable.  Indeed, US president John F. Kennedy saw it as a necessary evil, remarking, “It’s better than World War III,” referring to the crisis that East bloc escapes to West Berlin were creating.

For me, and, I suspect, for many literate others, the more enduring symbol of the zeitgeist was the Velvet Revolution. Although the crumbling of the Wall was an appealing concrete epitaph for lost generations who’d suffered under the soul-crushing watchfulness of the communistic surveillance state, the Velvet Revolution represented the rise of a true idea out of the ashes of the inauthentic past. It was the mind-child of Václav Havel and his popular Civic Forum group.

And in fact, in keeping with Havel’s dramaturgical and philosophical background, and as a clear substitute for the notion of an intellectually impenetrable Iron Curtain, one thinks of the velvet curtain that rises on stage and opens on an unfolding human drama that binds the audience as emotional co-participants – enactors –of the passions, desires, and themes playing out before them and within them.

Of all things, the Velvet Revolution reminded me of the US Yippie Abbie Hoffman’s championing of Street Theater, his wild and humanistic notion of politics as play, imbued with natural levity and absurdity.  Like Havel, Hoffman promoted the eminence of culture, and all the better if it were surreal andcounter.

The Velvet Revolution also seemed to be an attempt to deliver on the promise of the failed Prague Spring of 1968. The Third Way: socialism with a human face. Who among the many thousands of Czechoslovakians amassed in Wenceslas Square in late November did not glisten with nostalgia for the brief glory days of 1968 when an aged Alexander Dubcek emerged with Havel to give a speech, and an aging Marta Kubisová came out on a balcony and sang the redemptive “Modlitbapro Martu” (“Prayer for Marta”)?

These old ideas of the human condition and its myriad passions were not dead after all. And yet, looking at those faces in the crowd as Dubcek spoke and Kubisová sang, there seemed to be an abundance of tragic wistfulness that was almost as moving as the reprise of a generation prior.

In 1998, the Prague Post print edition ran a special 30th anniversary remembrance of the rise and fall of the Prague Spring and its legacy, including the events of 1989. I happened to be fortunate enough to be framed with Havel and the Prague-born French historian and political scientist, Jacques Rupnik, in a remembrance of those things past. 

My own piece was a nostalgitation on the heady days of activism in America and how it compared to the student protest happenings in Paris and Prague during the spring and summer of 1968. Of course, many of the protests in America dating back to the Sixties have had to do with the inequities of manipulated capitalism and its violent enforcement, at home and abroad.

The violent days of ’68 in America, beginning with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, followed by brutal police bashings outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, were, incredibly, topped, just before the November presidential election, by the Henry Kissinger-facilitated subversion of the Paris Peace talks which helped assure Nixon’s victory and led to hundreds of thousands more deaths in the jungles of Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia.

The concerns have been rather somewhat different in Europe, where politics and culture have had real historical life: Europeans haven’t just made communism and socialism themes in some privileged (and ultimately meaningless) academic exercise in rhetoric – they’ve actually tried it, lived with it, understand its limits; culture has had a deeper, more common place of vision for Europeans.

It seems to me that Havel’s vision of 1968 has quite different concerns from America, as well, and even from the rest of Western Europe.  Elsewhere in the West students and others may have been responding to crises affecting the integrity of their respective democracies, whereas, simply put, in the Czechoslovakia of 1968 the concern was with stoking and keeping alive a consciousness that would lead to a sustained democratic governance. 

As Havel put it: “The interparty political struggle and political changes of that time provided the opportunity and suitable conditions for the pressure to blow the lid off.  Fear was disappearing; various taboos fell; social differences could be labeled; the media began to carry out their original mission; civic consciousness was growing.”

This fresh spring of new consciousness was eventually suppressed by occupying Warsaw Pact troops, but the fantasy of freedom can be sustaining sometimes even in the diminished capacity of hope. Nevertheless, Havel closes his piece by warning about the fragility of democracy, of the need to nourish it with difference and variegation.  “Without a diversely structured civil society – and today’s political parties tend to forget about that – our democracy will remain weak, unanchored and easily harmed.”

Jacques Rupnik picks up on this in his piece, arguing that beyond the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution whatever catalyst for bringing to fruition Havel’s 1990 vision of a terminated Cold War dividend pay-off of world peace and peaceful co-existence – a new age of humanitarianism – has been soundly rejected. 

In Paris, Rupnik notes, the student leaders of the 1968 Paris May days have now become self-satisfied establishment figures controlling media. 

“But in Prague,” he writes, “the term ‘68er’ remains a defamatory label, an indication of a moderate kind of communist danger or a doubtful utopia closely linked to the exaggerated influence of intellectuals in politics.” Where then does this place the Third Way – the median between the wretched exploitations of unbridled capitalism and the soul-sucking blandness of leveled desires?

By 1998, may people, including Havel and Rupnik could see that a period of “global civilization” was not in the Tarot cards.  Since those heady days of 1968 and 1989 that sparked perhaps the last great revolution of the old millennium, may of the macro issues that have plagued humanity in general, and Europe in particular, have returned again – collapsing nation-states, nationalism,  conspicuous consumerism that leaves one lost in the opiated dream called ‘globalization’.

The sad paradox of the Wall’s collapse was that, in the end, democracy did not win the Cold War – capitalism did, the laissez-faire variety, with its trickle down oligarchic values and anti-government rhetoric. 

Thus, at a time when Eastern Europeans  especially were looking to build fresh, true democracies – modeled largely on America’s exceptionalist system – they looked on stunned to find model Western nations pushing government away, and co-opting Havel’s notion of humanitarian interventionism in order to exploit the market-valuable natural resources of distressed peoples.

Today, many years after the disappointments Havel was already expressing in 1998, Prague seems cheap and tawdry, over-visited and service-oriented, a place for weapons conventions and for prototyping new surveillance technologies, the proposed site for American nuclear weapons and occupying forces, a virtual totalitarian state ruled, ultimately, by the Almighty Dollar. One recent poll lists the Czech Republic as having the most corrupt government in the world. Even Havel, in the end, reclaimed the castle of his class heritage and doddered through his final years.

The curtain on the Velvet Revolution has come down.  And there is no levity lighting up the joint. There may not even be any tears left.


Though the annus mirabilis is most often associated with the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution, both of which happened in November 1989, in fact, revolution was in the air throughout Central and Eastern Europe the entire length of that tumultuous year.
During the first six months in Warsaw and in Budapest, the years-long push for democratic reform had reached a tipping point. In August, Hungary and Austria held snipping ceremonies to cut through the barbed wire fencing dividing their countries and held “Pan-European Picnics” at the breach, through which thousands of East bloc citizens, escaped to the West.
In August, 2 million democracy-hungry people held hands and created a 650 kilometer long “Baltic Chain” through Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In October, many thousands of Leipzigers chanted, “Wirsind das Volk.” And in December, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were brutally executed by “the people.”
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Ordinarily, the Amazon–Hachette battle over revenue streams is not something I would take much interest in: no matter how the fight is framed by the mainstream media, the fact remains the bottom line is all that counts for these corporate entities. But I have been drawn into the fray by happenstance, having recently received my younger brother’s memoirs of his glorious bank-robbing years, along with a request for me to edit the manuscript and see to its publication. As my brother is not a well-known figure, except in his own outlaw circles, it was clear that self-publishing was the most viable avenue to travel, and that Amazon was the best option for uploading and marketing his book. Or so I then thought.
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Thomas Jefferson famously once said, ‘If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.’ Which is to say that the free flow of information is the lifeblood of democratic policy-making, and that when it disappears or is controlled by self-interested governance, then democracy vanishes with it. Few people understand this faceoff between government and the free flow of information better than Julian Assange and his arch-enemies at Google, CEO Erich Schmidt and Google Ideas head, Jared Cohen. All three realise that the Internet represents a ‘no state’ that is a challenge to control. It’s also an opportunity to transform the world, for better or worse.

The textual delirium that Schmidt and Cohen released last year, The New Digital Age, is a blueprint for a future that is more-of-the-same, albeit even more highly fetishised.  The original name for the Schmidt-Cohen tome was Empire of the Mind, a far more fitting title. Google, the good Star Ship Entrepreneur, knows all too well that the final frontier is the space between our ears. It’s a happy digi-stim heaven where we ride together in a driverless car: a world of luxury gadgets, conspicuous consumerism, and, most importantly, an information flow that is tightly and centrally controlled in a totalitarian ‘no state’ in which you’ll be forced to participate from birth, where democracy is a digital presence and free speech is moderated like the comments section of the Guardian (psst: never criticize Israel).

What is the role of muckraking in such an environment?  Keeping in mind that in a No State environment, with governance as distant as laughter from invisible gods, investigative journalism, except for when dealing with the most banal subjects has no place, no point.  Muckraking is only valid as a watchdog in a democratic-republican system greased by informed consent. As Dylan once sang, it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.  And that’s where Julian Assange comes in.

Wikileaks notwithstanding, strictly speaking, Assange is not a  journalist (let alone a muckraker) but a ‘hacktivist’, a kind of burglar for truth, bustin’ in to sociopath vaults to retrieve the purloined People’s Jewels. While the Edward Snowden revelations have proved astonishing and invaluable, their power point presentation style tends to abstract their implications (albeit others may disagree with this perceived limitation).  By contrast, the closed and open documents released by Assange and Steven Aftergood (the operator of the Secrecy News blog, which regularly publishes, with brief commentary, the trove of crucial public interest documents the US government quietly puts into the public domain) provide clear and concrete paper trails of policy. Following them makes for a profound introduction into the often shadowy workings of government.

It is important to understand that, like it or not, we are in the middle of a Jeffersonian struggle over the future of the state.

The notion of nation states did not develop out of any ideal of ‘the natural rights of Man’, but rather arose out of the Westphalia peace treaty of 1648, which followed the brutal 30 Years War that tore old Europe apart. Essentially, the treaty established for the first time amongst these ever-warring factions a recognition of territorial sovereignty. The follow-on principle of nationhood, so superficially significant today, is also a largely arbitrary, state-originated conception. As Debora MacKenzie points out, the concept began with the American and French revolutions, but

France, for example, was not the natural expression of a pre-existing French nation. At the revolution in 1789, half its residents did not speak French. In 1860, when Italy unified, only 2.5 per cent of residents regularly spoke standard Italian.

This model continued to take hold and develop through the Industrial Revolution, and then, just as it seemed to be the entrenched basis for regulating inter-State diplomacy and commerce, the First World War erupted and the idea of the nation-state began to implode, beginning with demise of the Ottoman and Austrian-Hungarian empires.  As Uri Avnery recently wrote in CounterPunch, though it may not be obvious at first glance, what Scotland and ISIS have in common is a rejection of artificially-assigned nation-state relationships.

We can see examples of the nation state fracturing everywhere, including in places of long-established stability. The recent northern California referendum to secede from the state is one example. Closer to home, one could argue that if Western Australia had its druthers the state would be autonomous from the Commonwealth. After all, Perth, ‘the world’s most isolated city’, with thousands of kilometres of desert separating it from the nearest major city of Adelaide, could probably make a case that it is already an autonomous city state.

New York Times op-ed last year described this emerging phenomenon of breakaways as a ‘devolution’ from nation-statehood.  Parag Khanna, a senior research fellow at the non-partisan New America Foundation, describes a 2013 report by the United States National Intelligence Council, which contains various global scenarios for 2030, based on forecasting of current trends.  Khanna argues that one projected scenario, ‘Nonstate World,’ already rings true. This scenario

imagined a planet in which urbanization, technology and capital accumulation had brought about a landscape where governments
had given up on real reforms and had subcontracted many responsibilities to outside parties, which then set up enclaves operating under their own laws … though most of us might not realize it, ‘nonstate world’ describes much of how global society already operates.

A parsing of policies of current global nation-states would suggest that austerity budgets everywhere might just be harbingers of the coming Atlas Shrugged indifference to progressive reforms and a universal re-embracing of small government virtues.

Governments everywhere in the ‘democratic’ world, from America to France to Australia, are subverting their own constitutional principles to make room for the neoliberal transnational treaties. In the most recent New Scientist, Hal Hodson has a piece titled ‘E-citizens unite: Estonia opens its digital borders,’ which details how anyone anywhere is now free to open up a bank account and start a business in Estonia and become an e-citizen of the country (though not an actual citizen). Could this be the start of a larger movement? MIT researcher John Clippinger thinks so. ‘This is the beginning of the erosion of the classic nation state hegemony,’ he writes. ‘It’s going to get whittled away from the margins.’  Perhaps more haltingly, Hodson adds,

Such e-residency, as it is known, is a step towards a world where a person’s online identity matters just as much as their offline identity; where the location of data, rather than documents, is more important.

Coincidentally enough, Ukraine has a similar plan afoot.

We are entering a world where there is government but no newspapers; where the free-flow of information is not only suppressed but, in many cases, outlawed. It is a battle with existential ramifications. Merely being a passive consumer of hand-me-down news – trusting the MSM to tell us what we need to know to be truly informed consenters – is no longer a fantasy in which citizens can afford to luxuriate. As the madcap Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman once said, ‘Democracy is not something you believe; it is something you do, and if you stop doing it, then democracy dies.’

It is axiomatic that somewhere along the line the crass pleasures of consumerism got all mixed up with the solemn duties of democracy, so that mindless voting, largely employing ‘brand’ principles, has become a bland exercise in ritual.

If we can’t trust those we elect to fulfil their sworn and sacred oaths to preserve and protect their own constitution, which forms the basis of our common consent, and if the media have abrogated their duty to fully inform the public on crucial policy matters, then there is only thing to do: muckrake and leak and withhold consent.  That’s the beauty of Wikileaks (and the like) – the citizen activist can skip the MSM middle man (and most of the time it will be a man) – and read the primary documents online herself, without filters and spoon-fed interpretations. This kind of unspun access scares the poop out of the pollies. In fact, muckraking, in the context of informed citizenry, means refusing to accept the surface features of policy: dig some on your own. So muckraking is essentially an act of honing consciousness. This is not particularly radical or new. Just do it.

The recent cynical stoush created by the Australian’s media editor Sharri Markson after she went ‘undercover’ to tape some ‘biased’ journalism lectures at two Sydney universities, is stupid and self-serving for any number of reasons, including the fact that the Oz had praised journo lecturers at  UTS and UWS.  The incident seems part of the general conservative realignment of Australian curricula and a move to expel the vital critical acumen academia provides. That Markson employed a pseudo-muckraking tactic to ‘expose’ and tweak the lefties offers just one more example of how Leftist values in general have been co-opted by the nastiest factions of the Right. As one student of the Sydney programs in question responded in Crikey,

The problem with Markson’s dig is it fails to acknowledge the critical environment that universities foster, and the intellectual capacities of the people who study there. Universities foster extremes because they allow ideological debate to expand beyond the narrow remits of public discussion, and far beyond the often honed agendas on display at papers like the Oz.

But, of course, conservatives don’t want ideological debate (and never have); they want obeisance and suppressed dissent. The surveillance state represents Happy Days.

The days of dismissive conspiracy theory-bashing are over: the shit’s here.  We need to become more like the ‘productively paranoid’ Assange (as one writer trenchantly refers to him in a take-down review of The New Digital Age), and push aside the reactionary massage of his alleged and distracting personal issues to take note of his crucial message: It’s time to fight, to push back, or else prepare for some alternate way to survive a grim-looking future.  Academics and humanitarians have been pushing for the cross-curricular development of critical thinking skills, and they never have been more urgently needed.

Becoming a citizen-activist-muckraker is not an excruciating process; it doesn’t require oodles of training, as Markson and her mates suggest. It does, however, require passion for civil rights and a commitment to getting a message out to others.

One good place to start muckraking and getting all activist about is the coming Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) legislation, which represents a clear and present dangernot only to free expression on the internet, but in its sovereignty-overriding deregulatory policies. It’s scheduled for review in the US soon, and whatever happens there with the bill will probably get rubber-stamped here in Australia.  Frankly, if the TPP fails to stir the stones in your soup, probably not much will.

In Assange’s latest book, When Google Met Wikileaks, he briefly raises constructive ways around the growing totalitarian state – such as the use of mobile peer-to-peer or mesh networks that bypass a telcos. Every mobile phone comes with this built-in capacity because it communicates by radio frequency, but telcos lock the frequencies to force users to go through them. They can, however, be unlocked.  Similarly, using comprehensive encryption (on files and communication) is a good idea.  It’s also wise to employ a non-persistent operating systems on a USB stick or, better, a DVD (non-rewritable), such as TAILs – while, of course, limiting your use of Google services.

The irrepressible and not-so-radical-seeming-now John Pilger sums up the stakes and requirements best in his eloquent closing statement to his film Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror:

We need not accept any of this, if we recognize now that there are two superpowers: one is the regime in Washington, the other is public opinion – now stirring all over the world stirring, perhaps as never before. Make no mistake, it’s an epic struggle. The alternative is not just the conquest of far away countries, but the conquest of us, of our minds, our humanity and our self-respect. If we remain silent, victory over us is assured.

True that.

A picture of a fleeing soldier in 1961 helps shed light on the Cold War

The fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989 is, for many, one of those historical moments that you say of later, “I know where I was when I heard the news.” Well, I was in Boston – but the sweet mellifluous significance of the news never quite permeated the membrane of my consciousness, or maybe I just didn’t care. I vaguely remember it was early evening; Tom Brokaw beaming, his eyes all souped-up on scoop juice, and wild celebrations outside Brandenburg Gate, spontaneously jubilant dancers atop the graffiti-sprayed Wall. Totally unexpected event (because, in fact, it was accidental). 

Like most Americans, I didn’t give much thought to Europe or Germany or any other place beyond the rather parochial limits of my immediate needs and desires. My marriage and finances were in freefall. And I’d quit my post at a daily newspaper (which I loved) over a salary dispute, and was now a newly trained claims representative for the Social Security Administration (which I detested). I was down, baby. 

But many Americans were also down, still struggling to recover from the economic damage of 1987, the record fall of the Wall Street stocks on Black Monday, thanks to the likes of true-life Gordon Geckos and their “Greed Is Good” meme, so deftly deconstructed in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street that same year.

In Boston, as elsewhere, within a couple of weeks of the Wall’s rapturous rupture, keychains with tiny chunks went on sale in the Downstairs basement of the Upstairs department store, Filene’s.  Triumphalism had set in.  When the Wall began to be disassembled in earnest a few months later, the corporates and statesmen stepped forward to get a big taste of the mortar pie.

Microsoft’s Bill Gates put up a huge slab of graffiti-sprayed wall in his art museum. GHW Bush got gifted a large sculpture of several wild horses running from a slab of wall, supposedly depicting the spirit of humanity, but it could easily have been figures of unbridled capitalism loosed, or, hell, the horses of the Apocalypse, if there is even any difference.  That seemed reason enough to forget the whole thing right there.

The general assumption was that the Wall had fallen that night due to the triumphant pincer movements of democracy and capitalism against the socialist bladder, resulting in a pressure build-up at various checkpoints until finally there came that breaking point where a disembodied voice seemed to cry out: osmosis, come to take you to the promise land. And people flooded free in high arched bourées and leapt in grand jetes toward the new Valhalla, neo-Nibelungen winking and nodding and waiting for them at desks on the other side, holding out credit applications for usurious fool’s gold. Herr Lurch shuddered to think. He’d seen this prostate problem before.

Though I had spent much of my late teens and early 20s submersed in German lit, classical music, and philosophy, my wall of ignorance was high regarding her larger historical roots and culture. Then many years later, after lots of travel and extended ventures to the Middle East, Asia and Europe, I settled in Melbourne, Australia to raise a family and began freelancing part-time, including regular contributions to the Prague Post

One day in the summer of 1998, I saw in the local paper a picture of Conrad Schumann and did a double-take.  I’d seen it a long time before in childhood and instantly recognized it.  I wrote in the Post:

“The photo captures a deserting 19-year-old East German soldier, Conrad Schumann, as he hurtles over a coil of barbed wire, discards a machine gun in mid-air, and virtually leaps from the frame out of East Berlin and into the viewer’s world of assumed freedoms. The 1961 photo quickly became a Cold War icon for the democratic world and made its way into U.S. classrooms — always cited as a self-evident expression of the human desire for freedom at all costs. And now, here was the photo again, published as a memento mori following Conrad Schumann’s apparent suicide by hanging at his home in Bavaria on June 20. This time his leap was into the abyss.”

Of course, I was saddened by the news of his demise, saddened not so much in a personal way, for I did not know Schumann, but by the death of a symbol. It was like the disillusionment of discovering a false memory. I tried to speculate on scant information about the whys and wherefores of his suicide – “Had it suddenly dawned on him that his dash to freedom had merely taken him from one bleak Orwellian world into another, wherein he found it impossible to tell, in the end, the difference between totalitarian brutes and democratic humanists?” – a futile pursuit. 

What I’ve discovered is that to get a better understanding of Schumann and his motives – for fleeing and, later, for dying – you have to first go through Walter Ulbricht, the head of the East German government from 1960-71 and the principal “architect” of the Berlin Wall. Frederick Kempe’s Berlin 1961 (2011) proved to be a revealing primer.  Ulbricht was a dummkopf to many, had a squeaky, high pitched voice, like a German Willy Whistle, and listeners were said to do double-takes when he gave speeches, turning to each other to huff, “Sag was?”

 He’d had his scrapes with Nazis in the pre-war years, maybe killed a couple, before finding himself exiled  in Prague in the ’30s, and, in 1968,  showed his gratitude for the Bohemian hospitality by applauding vigorously when the Soviets rolled in tanks to crush the Prague Spring. Ulbricht, the “idiot,” had helped bring about the mass exodus to the west with his industrialization policies that neglected consumers and left them jealous of their Western compatriots.

Nevertheless, for most of the post-war years leading up to 1961, East Germans had relative freedom to travel abroad to Hungary, which had fewer restrictions, and locally were able to hop on a train and commute to West Berlin without much worry.  The economy was bad, but probably no worse than many of the countries suffering under austerity measures today. 

However, under Ulbricht’s too-long leadership, East Germans lost hope and were more and more drawn by the allure of the strong and ever-growing West German economy.  According to Kempe, in the 1950s up to 60 percent of the 1.2 million Germans who “escaped” to the West did so by simply traveling to West Berlin, where they were protected by Allied occupying forces.

By 1961 that figure had risen to 90 percent and a panicky Ulbricht, whose “scientific” economics were as popular and workable as the practice of eugenics on angels, decided the best thing to do was turn East Berlin into a concentration camp.  Attack dogs were ordered, searchlight towers were erected, guards were given shoot-to-kill orders, and, eerily, though East German trains still ran through West Berlin, they no longer stopped and the line was filled with ghost stations.

But in August 1961, just as they began rolling out the barbed wire and unloading the mortar blocks in preparation for the wall construction, there stood Conrad Schumann at the border, West Berliners just yards away urging him to leap before it was too late, and so, impulsively, he leapt. (An excellent account of this moment and others in Schumann’s life can be found here.). Schumann missed out on witnessing possibly the most dangerous moment in civilization’s fragile history — one more fraught than even the Cuban Missile Crisis to come a year later—  the confrontation at Checkpoint Charlie.

The atmosphere is captured brilliantly by Frederick Kempe.   He writes that American General Lucius Clay, who had overseen the Berlin airlift of 1948-49 and was now assigned a command position in the city, was determined to knock down the newly formed walls with tanks. Kempe writes:

“Undaunted by the damp, dangerous night, Berliners gathered on the narrow side streets opening up onto Checkpoint Charlie.  The next morning’s newspapers would estimate their numbers at about five hundred, a considerable crowd considering that they might have been witnesses to the first shots of a thermonuclear war. After six days of escalating tensions, American M48 Patton and Soviet T-54 tanks were facing off just a stone’s throw from one another–ten on each side, with roughly two dozen more in nearby reserve.

Reuters correspondent Adam Kellett-Long, who rushed to Checkpoint Charlie to file the first report on the showdown, worried as he monitored an anxious African American soldier manning the machine gun atop one of the tanks.  “If his hand shook any harder, I feared his gun would go off and he would have started World War III,” Kellett-Long thought to himself.

After the Wall went up tensions remained ratcheted up for decades.

Depending on who you want to believe, life in East Berlin became much like that represented in the film, The Lives of Others, tightly controlled movements, suppressed expression, and all-pervasive, privacy-eroding surveillance.  As one early scene in the film suggests, the communist overseers (eavesdroppers), actually felt a sense of ideological betrayal at the mass exodus of citizens to the West and their failure to understand the essential humanity embedded in their totalitarianism. Naturally, in the post-Assange/Snowden era, there are some valuable lessons to be gleaned from this quality film.

But maybe it wasn’t any drearier than other places you might have been in America.  Drive quickly through the heart of Erie, Pennsylvania some time, if you want a special taste of urban blight, or, if sadistic governance is your cup of TNT, check out Detroit, where they’re cutting off water supplies, and gentrification has broken-hearted humans fleeing from their homes like a stampede of bewildered beasts. 

Another alternative view of East Berlin in the years of the Wall was posted at the CounterPunch website recently.  In “The Berlin Wall: Another Cold War Myth,” William Blum suggests an extraordinarily high degree of Western economic espionage in East Germany, as spies and saboteurs exploited the free-flow of traffic between the two Berlins. Blum writes that East Germany was entirely de-Nazified, as you’d expect from staunch communists led by Ulbricht.

On the other hand, “in West Germany  for more than a decade after the war, the highest government positions in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches contained numerous former and ‘former’ Nazis.” Blum sagely cites the post-unification proverb: “Everything the Communists said about Communism was a lie, but everything they said about capitalism turned out to be the truth.”

The lip-doodling debate over what really brought down the Wall continues, of course. Some say it was the work of Reagan – all that tough talk he remembered from his wartime training film days paying off (or maybe he was bequeathing to Bush one of his back-up October Surprises to make up for handing him that lethal ‘voodoo economics’ doll). 

Others point to the ghoulish Hungarians, who flaunted their own free-access to the West, while enticing Easties to freedom picnics from whence they would scatter like deeply disturbed ants to safe houses in the West. Personally, I’m moved by the Bruce Springsteen Theory.  The Boss and his E Street Band performed in Berlin in 1988, the first live concert there by a Western rock group, and while Bruce said he wasn’t there to preach politics, I doubt that there was a dry eye in the house when he sang “Hungry Heart” and a cover of Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.”

But in America, though there was a great sense of relief, public response to the Wall’s fall was rather restrained by comparison. Coming out of an era of industrial mergers, union-bashing, high unemployment and recession, most Americans did not see the correlation of the European events to their own lives.

Thus, in 1991, when Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN, opened a speech on the Cold War’s demise with, “We won!” Americans accepted her words at face value, but there were no parades down Main Street, U.S.A. For many, capitalism during the Cold War era, had not made America “a kinder, gentler” place.

They did not hear her simple exclamation for what it was – the starting pistol at a gold rush for industrialists, who saw the Wall’s fall as a symbol of capitalism’s moral rectitude and a mandate for gleeful expansion. No doubt, it’s an expansion intent on accomplishing what Ghengis Khan couldn’t: reaching, breaching, and crumbling the Great Wall into keychains for the Western masses, while the corporates and NGOs haul away their neo-structuralist art installations to discuss at loud soirees, all spiced up with Übermensch™ cologne.

And, who knows, one day you may be returning from a picnic at Ulbricht’s grave, (fittingly he died while attending a World Festival of Youth and Students ), where you found his tomb fit with a wall-like slab, and you are standing there alone on the dim U-Bahnhof platform of Heinrich-Heine-Strasse, when you hear a chorus of escapee ghosts wailing the poet’s lines, “Du armeErde, deineSchmerzenkennich!” 

On and on it goes and ends, “Die Säulen brechen, Erd’ und Himmel stürzen / Zusammen, und esherrscht die alte Nacht.”

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.


The fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989 is, for many, one of those historical moments that you say of later, “I know where I was when I heard the news.” Well, I was in Boston – but the sweet mellifluous significance of the news never quite permeated the membrane of my consciousness, or maybe I just didn’t care. I vaguely remember it was early evening; Tom Brokaw beaming, his eyes all souped-up on scoop juice, and wild celebrations outside Brandenburg Gate, spontaneously jubilant dancers atop the graffiti-sprayed Wall. Totally unexpected event (because, in fact, it was accidental).
Like most Americans, I didn’t give much thought to Europe or Germany or any other place beyond the rather parochial limits of my immediate needs and desires. My marriage and finances were in freefall. And I’d quit my post at a daily newspaper (which I loved) over a salary dispute, and was now a newly trained claims representative for the Social Security Administration (which I detested). I was down, baby.
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