The Horror of Communism

Fictional characters Georg Dreyman and Christa Marie Sieland dramatize how the Communist system could swallow lives whole

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.

Hempf (center) convinces Grubitz (left) to spy on Dreyman after watching CMS star in one of Dreyman's plays

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.

Wiesler sets up a listening post in the attic of Dreyman's apartment, hearing every phone call and conversation

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.

What is the name of your soccer ball?

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.

After a fight in which Dreyman begs CMS not to go to Hempf, she leaves, stopping in the same bar Wiesler has gone to. Seeing her there he goes over and pretends to be a fan, telling her she is genuine. His words convince her not to go to Hempf again after all. "You are a good man," she says.

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.”

The destruction of the lives and relationship of CMS and Dreyman symbolize the destructive force of the Communist bureaucratic system

  1. #1 by lbwoodgate on February 16, 2012 - 04:17

    Sounds great, but reading those english subtitles can be so damn distracting. I’ll wait for the English version. Nice review though.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on February 19, 2012 - 18:32

      Du sollst Deutsch lernen! It’s worth the subtitles – my class found it very powerful even though college students are especially leery of subtitles!

  2. #3 by Kristine Hunt on February 16, 2012 - 04:38

    Funny though, from what I understand, communist/socialist Germany was pretty good for women, in terms of equal job opportunity, childcare, and education, not to mention pensions for the elderly. Switching to capitalism took away a lot of that. Not that your comments about the system being inhuman are incorrect; it’s just interesting to hear about the “good” sides to it.

    • #4 by Scott Erb on February 19, 2012 - 18:35

      Early on especially many women thought they had lost out with the change. A friend of mine in Dresden was from the West and married an East German woman. She had been foreman in a factory, child care was provided, and after the change with high unemployment women were the first to lose their jobs. She was studying to be a cosmetician and thought it an idiotic profession (she has to try to sell rich women expensive stuff that’s really the same was what is in cheap stuff). But most who felt angry about some of the changes preferred what they got to communism (especially for the sake of their children). Many thought more of what was “done right” in the old system should have been preserved. Ultimately the old Communist party bounced back under a new Democratic Socialist guise and made an impact in the East, giving voice to those concerns.

  3. #5 by Zepp Jamieson on February 16, 2012 - 04:41

    A similar point was made by — of all people — PJ O’Rourke, the right-leaning satirist, when he took a journey to East Germany. He wrote of how the system was bleak, boring, and cruel, and crushing to the spirit. I felt then, as now, that he had put his finger on what was wrong with communism. It wasn’t just the horrors of the Stalinist regime, because it pervaded all of communism, even the relatively benign regimes of Tito or Gomułka, and made it a soul-and-spirit crushing experience. It was the pervasive spying, and the unceasing demands for homogenous and completely orthodox thought and behavior.

  4. #6 by Juliano on February 16, 2012 - 15:05

    there is a hidden hand behind BOTH the brutal systems of communism and capitalism!!

  5. #7 by Ron Byrnes on February 17, 2012 - 00:13

    Great film and excellent teaching tool nicely described. I’m guessing you have excellent discussions afterwards.

  6. #8 by Alan Scott on February 18, 2012 - 13:59

    Since that system ” communist/socialist Germany was pretty good for women, in terms of equal job opportunity, childcare, and education, not to mention pensions for the elderly. ” the liberals in this country want to take us as close to it with out committing it’s crimes as possible .

    What they miss is that you cannot have one with out the other . If an evil capitalist had a brilliant idea for , I don’t know maybe an Apple computer, he would have been crushed for several reasons. First, any new technology replaces some older technology and puts people out of work .A socialist society must keep people working, so the threat has to be stopped on that basis.

    Second, our would be Steve Jobs would become independently wealthy . A Communist society can only have wealth inequality with in the State apparatus. It is okay for the party leaders to live big while the peons starve . To have anyone outside the party becoming rich, breaks down the whole state income redistribution model. Also anyone who is rich is always a threat to the Central Authority because they can use their wealth to run for office . The example is Putin jailing Russian billionaires in the former Soviet Union when they became politically active .

    Funny how the Communist system always demonized the rich . I believe they have that in common with a group of urban campers in America .

    • #9 by lbwoodgate on February 18, 2012 - 15:02

      Mr. Scott, you are engaging in gross hyperbole. Are you familiar with neo-liberals who are just as supportive of free markets as conservatives are. And those liberals who hold some perceptions outside of neo-liberalism’s economic views are still not intent on taking “us as close to [communism] with out committing it’s crimes as possible.” That’s an angry rhetorical salvo that too many on the right want to color all liberals with.

    • #10 by crystalclearcopyediting on February 18, 2012 - 17:41

      I would add that socialism and communism in a pure, theoretical state do not function as you describe them. Of course, human beings don’t function purely and theoretically, hence the abuses you mention.

      As for myself, I don’t demonize the state of being wealthy itself. There is nothing in the universe that says everything must be equal — why would that apply to humans, either? I do, however, take exception to those who manipulate the system purely for themselves at the expense of others, in any political-economic system.

      We also need to be careful throwing around words like “liberal”, “neo-liberal”, and “conservative” as they are rather slippery in their meanings, especially outside the US.

    • #11 by Scott Erb on February 19, 2012 - 18:38

      Well, Scandinavia did and still does BETTER by women, the elderly, and in job opportunities, but yet is free, prosperous and successful. So it can be done. Moreover, places like Scandinavia or throughout Europe have independently wealthy entrepreneurs. In the US American liberals are often more like European conservatives in their perspectives. There is no comparison to communism. The social democrats in Europe, even those far left, were fiercely anti-Communist, considering communism “red painted fascism.”

      • #12 by crystalclearcopyediting on February 19, 2012 - 20:18

        I always wish I could embrace the Scandinavian way, but alas… much smaller populations and homogeneity of culture (though this is changing with increased immigration) make their system not so transferable to the US.

  7. #13 by Alan Scott on February 19, 2012 - 13:29

    lbwoodgate ,

    ” Mr. Scott, you are engaging in gross hyperbole. ”

    Of course. You want me to throw spitballs while the left throws bricks.

    ” Are you familiar with neo-liberals who are just as supportive of free markets as conservatives are ”

    Actually I am not .Perhaps you are speaking of moderates who were extremely disenchanted should we say with Bush and the GOP so they swept into power Obama, Pelosi and Reid ? What’s a little Neo Socialism among friends ? That will show the Republicans how mad we are at them . We will even screw ourselves.

    Well in the midterms the country realized that you can’t get just a little socialism. Obama promised to make fixing the economy his top priority . He did not. His top priority was putting into motion structural changes to make America a European style socialist democracy . Once people come to depend on government programs you will never get them off of them.

    crystalclearcopyediting ,

    ” We also need to be careful throwing around words like “liberal”, “neo-liberal”, and “conservative” as they are rather slippery in their meanings, especially outside the US. ”

    I disagree . It reminds me of the logic that ” Liberals ” spouted when they blamed all of the harsh rhetoric from the right for the Gabrielle Giffords shooting . Basically my side should unilaterally disarm verbally for the good of the country . I have yet to see the other side temper their words.

    ” I do, however, take exception to those who manipulate the system purely for themselves at the expense of others, in any political-economic system. ”

    I actually agree. Go after the villains. But you see that is not what happens . Very few of the guilty are brought to judgment . Too many of them have ties to both parties. It is better to bash everyone on Wall Street. And that is what Obama has done. Those villains are far more valuable to Democrats outside of jail . This way everyone who is rich is guilty . Show me where I am wrong .

    • #14 by crystalclearcopyediting on February 19, 2012 - 17:46

      I am saying that, for example, “liberalism” means something entirely different in Europe than it does in the US (see for a simplistic comparison). Also, it seems to me that the terms in the US don’t mean what they used to, or that those championing one side or another don’t follow the traditional precepts. For example, supposedly conservatives in the US want smaller government. Yet, many of them are more than happy to push lots of legislation regarding social issues and only want limited government involvement in the economy.

      You say “Everyone who is rich is guilty”. I agree to a large extent. And that includes those in government. Obama, and OWS etc., have “bashed” Wall Street, but in different ways. OWS etc. want Wall Street to not have undue influence on government, while Obama is entrenched in the government/financial relationship. As are Republicans. Which is also what I meant by meanings being slippery — both sides support the overall system we have and both are complicit in many perceived abuses, so what really is the difference?

      • #15 by Scott Erb on February 19, 2012 - 18:31

        Not just in Europe, in Political Science and political philosophy. I have to constantly tell students to get American political jargon out of their heads in class because as weird as it might sound to some, Reagan’s ideology was liberalism, for instance.

  8. #16 by Scott Erb on February 19, 2012 - 13:38

    Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and John McCain are all neo-liberals. Neo-liberalism is a belief in free markets, trade, and minimal government regulation on corporations and businesses. Arguably Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are also neo-liberals.

    Clearly the focus of this administration has been on the economy. It is the deepest recession since 1980 (really since 1930) and it appears we’re finally getting out of it. Also, European social democracies only exist in Scandinavia — and their tax rates are double ares, their business and corporate tax rates are lower than ours, and the people live in freedom. Germany and France have rather strong social welfare systems, but have conservative and very anti-socialist leaders. To call Obama “socialist” is to show no understanding of what the term means.

  9. #17 by Scott Erb on February 19, 2012 - 20:24

    Kristine, actually that’s pretty much the point I make when I give the Scandinavian example in class! Because of low population and certain cultural attributes, they see government as an extension of the public will rather than a bureaucracy above them and regulating them. That means that their system would not work in a country the size of the US, or with the more individualistic fearful of government culture. The point ends up being that ideological approaches to politics are always incomplete. What works in a country depends on that country’s political culture, history, size, resource attributes, level of development, etc. That’s true even for democracy – some countries couldn’t handle the kind of democratic system we have. Unfortunately most people look at politics through ideology without really understanding the important rule of culture and history.

    • #18 by crystalclearcopyediting on February 19, 2012 - 20:35

      *Patting myself on the back* LOL

      I wonder if we couldn’t look at state-level government in that way here: “an extension of the public will rather than a bureaucracy above them and regulating them”. I suppose that is the impetus behind the referendum system in states like California. Or the supposed reasoning behind Governor Christie’s veto of the gay marriage bill in New Jersey.

      I’m fascinated by looking at culture and politics together throughout history. The US certainly has a culture of individualism as well as a fear/loathing of government from its earliest days, although we’re also plenty happy taking the benefits of government programs when given. Religion is a huge issue here in a very different way than most European countries, I think. We only sort of pretend to be secular, while France takes secularity to an extreme of restricting personal freedom, and while Turkey struggles between a secular minority government and a rural religious majority.

    • #19 by lbwoodgate on February 19, 2012 - 22:45

      “Because of low population and certain cultural attributes, they see government as an extension of the public will rather than a bureaucracy above them and regulating them. That means that their system would not work in a country the size of the US, or with the more individualistic fearful of government culture.”

      That’s an excellent point Scott. I’m reading R. B. Bernstein’s “Reconsidering the Founding Fathers” and he makes this same point. In an extension to this he essentially points out that our constitution, and thus our republican form of government, is a work in process. Besides the amendment process to adapt to necessary changes we also have judicial review and what Bernstein says are the informal methods “known as custom and usage, which [flesh] out the skeleton of government authorized by the Constitution.”

  10. #20 by lbwoodgate on February 19, 2012 - 22:46

    make that “work in progress”

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