No so-called communist country exists in the world today. They are authoritarian ‘communist-in-name-only’.
“A communist is someone who’s read Marx; an anti-communist is someone who’s understood it”.
New Delhi: There’s something remarkable about the way our memories link an important historical event with the place where we heard of it. Senior readers may remember where they were on 15 August 1947. Younger readers will probably know where they were on 21 May 1991, the day Rajiv Gandhi was murdered. I recall exactly where I was when I heard of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 56 years ago. I also know where I was when the Berlin Wall came down on 9 November 1989. I was there.
As a member of a UK delegation, I arrived in West Berlin in the afternoon of Thursday 9 November 1989 for routine discussions with our West German counterparts, who had flown there from the West German capital, Bonn. Having checked into our hotel, we proceeded to the usual evening reception to meet and greet our allies. After an hour or so, numbers began to thin as our hosts made their apologies and left. To our astonishment, news was spreading that the East Berliners were pouring through the breached Berlin Wall, perhaps the most iconic symbol of the Cold War, just a few hundred meters away. The world order was changing.
Following the end of the Second World War, the Yalta and Potsdam agreements split the city of Berlin in two, even though it was located entirely within the Soviet half of Germany, about 100 miles from the western border. The Soviets occupied the eastern half, the Allies the western. The huge difference in economic growth between capitalist West Germany and the communist East soon resulted in a massive migration of nearly 3 million East to West by Germans seeking a better future. On the night of 12 August 1961 the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev, gave the East German communist government permission to stop the flow of emigrants by closing its border for good. The infamous Berlin Wall was built.
With pure cynicism the communist government claimed the Wall was necessary to stop a “fascist invasion” of East Germany, even though there is no record of anyone ever trying to move West to East. Instead, at least 171 people were killed trying to get over, under or around the wall East to West. From 1961, until the wall came down, more than 5,000 East Germans, including some 600 border guards, managed to cross the border by jumping out of windows adjacent to the wall, climbing over barbed wire, flying in hot air balloons, crawling through the sewers or driving through the unfortified parts of the wall at high speeds. Such was their desperation to flee communism.
Travelling into East Berlin, you could see why. Everything was drab and grey. While West Berlin was full of bright lights, fur coats and Mercedes cars, the natural signs of capitalism, in the East everyone seemed to be dressed in grey, a colour which matched their faces. Dull grey is the common colour of communism. The only cars on the roads in East Berlin were Trabants, built from plastic with an engine hardly bigger than a lawn mower.
The next few days in Berlin were surreal. All meetings were cancelled and I strolled the streets with my mouth open so wide in amazement that my chin almost scraped the pavement. I witnessed the grey East Berliners mixing freely with the colourful Westerners for the first time along the elegant Kurfurstendamm, the most famous avenue in Berlin. This was something which many thought could never happen in their lifetime. I saw parents from East Berlin showing their children bananas, which they stroked in amazement. They had only ever seen bananas in picture books. On the roads, the Trabants spewed out thick smoke through the exhausts as they mixed with the Mercedes. Donkeys mixing with racehorses.
Trabants were a metaphor for communism. Inefficient and antiquated. They were loud, slow, poorly designed and badly built. The 25 hp engine, which took 21 seconds to reach the maximum speed of 60 miles per hour, was two-stroke and oil had to be added manually to the fuel tank. There was no fuel pump. The fuel tank was above the engine so fuel could reach the carburettor by gravity, increasing the risk of fire in front-end accidents. The production of the Trabant was a state monopoly. Under communism in the Soviet Union and its satellites, everything was a state monopoly, resulting in huge waiting lists for low-quality products and long queues in the shops. Anyone wishing to purchase a Trabant, commonly described as a “spark plug with a roof” because of its diminutive size, had to wait at least 10 years before being successful.
The night of 9 November 1989 was the grand finale of an extraordinary year, commonly called the “Year of Revolutions”. It signified the end of communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe. During the 44 years following the end of WW2, communism had been supported by large forces of Soviet occupation in each Eastern European country. Attempts by the Hungarians in 1956 and the Czechs in 1968 to throw off the shackles of communism had been brutally quashed by Soviet tanks. It was only when the more liberal Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, realising the failure of communism, experimented with his Perestroika (reconstruction) and Glasnost (openness), that the door of freedom opened slightly. A full-blown revolutionary wave started in Poland in June 1989, which quickly spread to Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Romania and East Germany later that year. Gorbachev refused to use the garrisoned Soviet troops to quell the popular demonstrations, which therefore continued unabated. A certain KGB Lt Col Vladimir Putin, stationed in Dresden about 100 kilometres from Berlin, was flabbergasted when the large detachment of Soviet troops garrisoned just a short distance from his headquarters were confined to barracks during the East German uprising. He has never forgiven Gorbachev for this.
So what was the legacy of communism in Europe? Eastern Europe was only part of a world-wide era of communism, a Marxist-Leninist system of government which covered a third of the world’s population in 1985. Purists would argue that few, if any, countries lived up to the ideals of communism, instead creating their own authoritarian systems. Critics would often recite the joke that “A communist is someone who’s read Marx; an anti-communist is someone who’s understood it”.
Supporters of communism frequently point to China as a successful example of the ideology. But China is not a communist country. This year there were over 300 billionaires in China, second only to the US. So much for the “equality” heralded by communism. With an authoritarian “President-for-life”, Xi Jinping, and huge wealth disparity throughout the country, China leans more towards fascism than communism. Karl Marx would not recognise any so-called communist country in the world today. They are authoritarian “communist-in-name-only”.
People react to authoritarian governments, demanding instead a more liberal capitalism, which produces the goods and services they desire. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in Berlin before 1989, where the comparison between the two systems, capitalism and communism, divided by a wall, provided a stark contrast. The wall was the only thing which retained communism and when it collapsed, so did communism.