Friday, November 06, 2009

The Berlin Wall and Prague's haunting ghosts

The 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's end comes two years after my only visit to the former Soviet bloc.
It's not Berlin that comes first to mind. It's Prague, and the Museum of Communism. The museum is small, up a broad staircase on the second floor of a grand old building. A McDonalds is next door.
I went alone, on a bright spring day. Inside, the rooms were gloomy. The artifacts of 41 years of totalitarian communist rule were grim.
They showed how governments could easily construct a false reality, where enemies threaten and only a strong state can keep citizens safe.
But what brought tears to my eyes me were the video displays and writings in which Czechs looking back on the Prague spring of 1968. For eight months, under a reform government, change seemed possible.
Then the Soviet tanks rolled in.
For several months, people fought back, at great cost. Until the hopes were destroyed and they gave up.
The occupation lasted another 21 years, until it collapsed after the Berlin Wall came down on Nov. 9, 1989.
What was so sad?
The crushed hopes, for certain. The museum's black and white films showed protesters flooding into Prague's streets to demand freedom and democracy, defying police and army and censorship.
The fearlessness, too, and the obvious belief that an army of citizens could triumph over an army of guns and tanks.
But sadder than all that were the doubts and regrets. It was in the people's eyes as they talked about the collapse of the democracy movement.
What if, they must have wondered, we had fought a little longer, accepted more deaths, pushed back a little harder? Could that form of oppression been thrown off 20 years earlier?
There is no harder question.
Walking through the museum, I wondered how deep the scars still must be. No one who lived through the period could have escaped them.
The people who saw injustice and oppression lived with the questions about what they, and didn't do, to resist and whether they shied away from a just and important struggle. Each person had to decide if he was sensible, or scared.
A lot of people chose sensible. Some informed on neighbours or worked hard to support the Communist state. They too must have wondered about their choices.
Berlin was certainly haunting - the memorials to those killed trying to cross the wall, the preserved subway stations, closed for more than 40 years because they would have allowed East Berliners to simply step off the train and walk up into West Germany.
But the little museum in Prague was terribly sad and raised very hard questions, at least for me.
There was no character flaw in the Czech and Slovakian people or the East Germans or any of the other people who spend so long under Soviet oppression. They were not, except for their circumstances, much different from us.
As a child of the Cold War, the power of fear is easily understandable. When the warning sirens went, usually by accident, children in my Toronto suburb paused to see if the Russian a-bombs were about to fall. I pondered whether there were local targets worthy of a nuclear missile and calculated the odds that a Russian bomb aimed at Buffalo would miss land in my subdivision.
And as thousands of people gather in Berlin to celebrate the wall's fall, I wonder about the reality our states are constructing today.
Most Czech citizens, I expect, accepted the world their governments created, deferred to authority, made the best of their lives. As we do.
That is not, for a second, to compare the Soviet bloc governments and our own.
But as I emerged into the sun and walked Prague's beautiful streets, through the squares where thousands gathered, I felt both sadness and admiration. When tested, they had risked much in a bid for freedom.
Footnote: Equally haunting is a monument in Wenceslas Square in Prague, a curling cross set into on the ground. In January 1969, Jan Palach, a 20-year-old Czech history student, set himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion that crushed the Prague Spring and brought 20 more years of winter.


Bernard said...

I had a chance to be behind the Iron Curtain three times. The first time in 1979 when I was 13 and traveled with my parents to Poland. The second time in 1983 when I was 17 and traveled to Budapest and then again I was in Budapest in 1986 when I flew in on Aeroflot from Africa.

The era of the Iron Curtain was an interesting one to see as a teenager for Vancouver. To see that the police and state existed only to control the people and the population was an eye opening education. It was especially relevant to me because the Soviet Union set the stage for the family for more than 60 years.

The Soviet Bloc was something very present in the narrative of my family from 1917. Many relatives were killed by the Soviets in the Russian Civil war. My parents grew up with a constant fear of Soviet invasion during the interwar era.

This fear came true in 1939 when the Soviets invaded Estonia - specifically ethically cleansed by Stalin. In 1945 my grandfather was executed by Soviet troops. My grandmother, great grandmother and aunt were all sent to the gulag. My aunt was all alone within a few months of being imprisoned by the Soviets. She lived through 12 years in the labour camps.

My aunt has given me a first person glimpse into what the Soviet Union was like for people in the Stalin labour camps. Over my life I have asked her about her story and what she went through. While she did not actively resist the state, she accepted that death most likely her fate and she simply acted with no fear because she had accepted this. She spoke her mind but lived through the camps.

Traveling into the world of the 'enemy' and seeing the hell that people had to endure, how could my family not be thankful for being able to escape?

I also had a chance to travel to the former East Germany several times from 1990 to 1992. What I saw there was a country were every aspect of civil society had been destroyed. A place where there was no trust in the any institution and being corrupt was a badge of honour.

I saw more hope in Prague when I was there in the same period, somehow not having a "West Czechoslovakia" meant the country had to look inward for strength.

In 1995 I had the chance to go to Estonia. In 1939 Estonia had been the most advanced country in the world. 50 years of the Soviets and the Nazis had pushed the country into a developing nation status. But because they had been invaded and absorbed into the Soviet Union, the whole Soviet era for the Estonians was one synonymous with Russian domination of the country.

The Estonians embraced everything that was not Soviet or Russian. They managed to build the structures of civil society and gain almost universal respect for them in a very short time.

1989 to 1992 was monumental for the world. The elation I felt when the wall opened, when the Estonian flag was raised over Pikk Hermann, when the Baltic human chain happened, are beyond description.

The end of communism has been the biggest expansion of new democracies in human history. Those democracies needed help in building the civil society and no one person did more towards than George Soros with his Open Society Foundation. N person deserves to lauded more in this world than George Soros for all that he has done. It is a shame that he has not been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Anonymous said...

While you are waxing about countries getting Democracy we are watching it die here in BC one step at a time.Our disfunctional premier boasts about our Vets dying for freedom but does nothing to help seniors. Just his usual lip service . Listen to his crap on NW's audio vault. What a hippocrite as he legislates the paramedics back to work.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, Anon 9:14 ... because I, too, kept wondering as I read von Schulmann's memories: doesn't he recognize the danger signs right here today in Beautiful BC?

If he can't recognize the stunning erosion of freedom and dignity ongoing in BC the past few years, well, this explains a lot, doesn't it?

Like it's OK if guys in Armani suits corrupt society; it's when the worker-bees start shouting about justice, a fair media, housing, employment, protection of the environment and basic civil rights that it becomes not OK.

As I recall 19th and 20th century political history lessons, that's when The Suits call in CSIS, the CIA, the Stazi, and the fancy hand-held aural or taser weaponry ... or as a last resort, the arms and armament dealers to sort things out. That's how adversarial politics works: continual squabbling even to the point of wars.

In the long run, Planet Earth is the final battlefield where, if we're lucky, the suits and the workers will discover that we're all in this together.

Will we, by then, become capable of maintaining peace? Right now, the world leaders seem more interested in extracting more resources (to the point of extinction), rushing them to markets faster and faster, and eliminating workers wherever possible. That's war by other means.

But doesn't that set the stage perfectly for the violent overthrow of current regimes willing to do things like that? Regimes which boast of doing things like that?

Bernard said...

The premier offered the people of the province a chance to chose a new voting system, it was unfortunately soundly defeated in May. We had a chance for a stronger democracy, but this did not happen as the people did not choose it.

As to the erosion of democracy in BC, I am not sure what there is that can be pointed to.

We have a free press and freedom of speech. Yes there are some limitations to free speech at Olympic venues. On the other hand, it has never been easier to get your message out than now. The monolithic corporate media is weaker than ever before and much less political than in the past. We are living in the most open free speech of human history and BC is very much at the front.

We have elections in BC set up in such a way that the third parties with the most money can not buy the election. Political parties are also limited in spending.

The Liberal caucus is one of the few in Canada federally or provincially that allows members to vote against the party line and to speak against the government.

The operations of the Premier's office are about as open as similar positions are almost other democracies.

The current government has also been one of the most amazing records of any BC government of getting agreements with public sector workers, the paramedics are the one case where they did not.

I am looking around for any erosion of freedom in BC in the last generation and there are very few I can see that have happened. The legislature now has some doors that are locked and you need a pass to enter and airports have more restrictions.

Meanwhile in the last generation there has been a huge shift in BC in public participation in developments. The public has more chances to comment and offer input into proposed developments than ever before. You can no longer build a dam and evict people to flood their homes as was done in the 1960s.

One example of the inclusive approach to public input is the Environmental Assessment process in BC.

We have more bodies overseeing aspects of government than ever before, though there are a few more we could use.

There is more that could be done to make government more open in BC, but that is the case with almost anywhere.

To ever suggest any level of moral equivalence between what was Communist eastern Europe and BC is simply an act of complete fantasy.