In teaching Comparative Politics its hard to know how to explain how Communism functioned. On the one hand, it’s easy to paint it as an economic failure. Centralized bureaucratic planning created stagnation, inefficiency and lack of response to real demand. Incentives within the system were not to rock the boat, not to improvise or show initiative, and thus economic dynamism and creativity were thwarted.
One can also explain the political control of totalitarianism: the “grand bargain” whereby citizens were promised shelter, food, health care, education and a job in exchange for going along with the system and following the rules. But explained that way some students say “why is that so bad?” Less stress, security that one will have life’s needs taken care of, and only at the cost of not being political, well, for many people that sounds like a decent deal.
The real failure of communism, however, was neither political nor economic, it was the system’s inhumanity. I’m not talking about Stalin’s horrific crimes killing 20 million people, or Mao’s misguided economic policies that killed over 30 million. I’m not talking either about Pol Pot’s genocidal ideology that led to the Cambodian killing fields. I’m talking about the mundane evil of ‘real existing socialism’ in the former East bloc even after the purges and mass killings had ceased.
People weren’t taken and shot, and most weren’t even held in prison. Instead government repression alongside a system that bred dependency took a tool on the psyche and spirit of its citizens. It’s hardly surprising that alcoholism rates skyrocketed and depression grew. It was a system that worked against the human spirit with heart numbing bureaucratic control. It was a system where you could have your basic needs met and appear to be living in relative comfort and still be suffering in the soul.
I’ve finally found a method to communicate that aspect of the communist system: to show the film The Lives of Others, or Das Leben der Anderen, a German film set in East Berlin in 1984. The plot is basic (spoiler alert!) A Communist big wig – a government Minister named Hemph, has a crush on aging actress Christa Marie Sieland (CMS). She’s in a loving relationship with the famous author/playwrite Georg Dreyman.
Dreyman is a successful writer who remains in the government’s favor but yet has appeal in the West. He does this by knowing the rules and being sure to stay away from political themes. He knows to say the right things to government elites and when to keep his mouth shut. Even as his colleagues chide him for refusing to take a stand, he thinks it foolish to risk everything just to make political statements. He wants to write, not rock the boat.
When Sieland is being routinely raped by Minister Hempf and his director friend Jerska is blacklisted and ultimately kills himself, Dreyman confronts the reality that he is living in an evil system and has to speak out.
Meanwhile, Hempf has employed the Stasi — the East German secret police — to find dirt on Dreyman so he can be arrested and Hempf would have CMS to himself. Here we see the Communist bureaucracy. Anton Grubitz is a high ranking Stasi official who is clearly motivated only by his desire for upward mobility. He’s eager to give Hempf what he wants and puts his best man, Gerd Wiesler, on the case.
Wiesler is a committed Communist. He is a Stasi agent because he has high ideals and believes he’s protecting socialism and the state. Yet as he investigates Dreyman, he becomes conflicted. He starts by hating the “arrogant artist” types who thumb their nose at the state. But he cannot ignore the hypocrisy of Hempf wanting to use the state police to simply get rid of a rival, his friend’s lack of concern for anything but his ambition, and the way in which the state’s intrusion into the lives of this couple is destroying what he comes to recognize as a true committed love.
Much of the film is about Wiesler’s inner conflict. At one point you sense he’s changing when a boy follows him into the elevator and asks, “are you really with Stasi.” When asked if he knows what Stasi is, the boy says “my dad says it’s bad men who put people in prison.” Wiesler instinctively responds “what is the name of…” but then stops. “Your ball.” He doesn’t have the heart to go after this boy’s dad any more.
Ultimately Wiesler switches sides. He starts protecting Dreyman just as Dreyman makes a stand against the system. Dreyman writes an article to smuggle to Der Spiegel magazine in the West about high suicide rates in East Germany. CMS is arrested when she finally resists Hempf, who has been supplying her with illegal drugs (which she takes in part because of how his affections torture her). She is forced to implicate Dreyman and betray her love.
Despite efforts by Wiesler to protect them, wracked by guilt she purposefully steps in front of an on coming truck to kill herself. Weisler has removed the implicating information but Grubitz realizes he must have aided Dreyman and demotes him. Dreyman is left broken, CMS is dead, and the system plods on.
A plot summary cannot do justice to how well this film illustrates the pervasive corruption and immorality of the internal system, how it could turn good honest people into those who betray their friends and lovers and ultimately find their own lives destroyed. It isn’t always as dramatic as portrayed here, but the film encapsulates the human horror of communism.
Yet the film ends with an upside. German unification and the fall of communism comes. Wiesler finds work delivering mail. The Stasi files are open to the public and Dreyman goes to his, shocked to find that Stasi had been watching him. He reads Weisler’s reports and is amazed to find that Wiesler — known as agent HGW XX/7 in the report — started covering for them and not reporting his real activities.
Inspired to write, he publishes a new novel, “Sonata for a Good Man,” named after a sheet music for a sonata given to him by Jerska, the director who had committed suicide. Wiesler sees an advertisement for the book and goes into the store and reads the dedication: “To agent HGW XX/7” He purchases the book and when asked if he wants it gift wrapped he says no. “It’s for me.”