My glimpse of life under communism

I was among the last generation of people whose politics were shaped by World War II and its aftermath, the long struggle between the USSR and its allies and the USA and its allies. Unsurprisingly given my youthful Friedmanite views, I was a strong anti-communist.

While I was on my student backpacking trip around Europe in late 1985 and early 1986 I decided that I had to see Berlin, the place that more than anywhere in Europe had cold war tensions built into – physically, politically, and emotionally – its daily life. So my apolitical travelling companion and I split for a few days; he went skiing and I went to check out communism first hand.

My first impression, from the East German border police, was surprisingly favourable. They boarded the train to check our travel documents, and (as I recorded in a letter back to my family in Melbourne) offered a greeting at the start and a grin at the end. By the standards of passport checkers around the world, they provided an above-average experience.

Technologically I was less impressed. While I was still on the same train, the ride became much worse due to the ‘rotten track’ (as I called it). I was bouncing from side to side. The Mercedes and BMWs I’d seen on West German roads were replaced with Trabants. But I enjoyed the countryside and eventually we made it to West Berlin.

The next morning I went on a guided tour of the city. On our journey was Potsdamer Platz, ‘once the centre of Berlin, now desolate, used by tour bus operators as the place to come and look over the wall’. We went into one of the towers that let Westerners see into the East, and as we looked into the ‘death zone’ – the large space between the main wall at the West Berlin border and the fence around populated East Berlin – quite a few people started to cry. Travelling around Europe you can see much evidence of historical cruelty, but here was a still-functioning system for killing people trying to move about their own city.

My next tour was of East Berlin. The border experience this time was less pleasant; it took us about half an hour to get through Checkpoint Charlie. An East German tour guide got on to ensure that we received the official line. An East Berlin postcard to my parents (stamps with Karl Marx on them) recorded that I was not pleased at having to walk through snow to look at the Soviet War Memorial. My general impression was of drabness – only when it’s not there do you notice how much colour advertising creates in a city – but some credit for trying to reconstruct historic buildings. Of course, we were only seeing what they wanted us to see.

The most bizarre moment occurred as we were walking back to the bus after a cafe stop (a cafe for Westerners, accepting only Deutschmarks – the communists were always short on hard currency). I must have asked the tour guide a question about East Berlin’s telecommunications tower, and she asked me if it could be seen from West Berlin. She was a Berlin tour guide, I’d been there 24 hours, and she’s asking me?? A small absurdity to add to the many much larger ones of life in a divided city.

My letters of the time were pessimistic about Berlin ever being re-united, though I did note that East Berlin’s roads, which were much wider than needed for the light traffic, would turn out to be well designed if the two Berlins ever became one again. As it turned out, they were needed.

The peaceful collapse of communism in central Europe (with the partial exception of Romania) was by far the most exciting and wonderful thing that has happened in my political life. I was over-joyed that the Berlin Wall was gone and Berliners were free to move about their city again. But I was also glad that I had seen it before it went, and had just a glimpse of life under communism.

27 thoughts on “My glimpse of life under communism

  1. “The peaceful collapse of communism in central Europe”

    Why it all happened with hardly any bloodshed (in vivid contrast to the former Yugoslavia) is a question that is yet to be satisfactorily answered.

    “the most exciting and wonderful thing that has happened in my political life”

    You might want also to think about the end of apartheid in South Africa, which in 1985-86 looked far less likely than the collapse of Soviet Communism.


  2. You might want also to think about the end of apartheid in South Africa, which in 1985-86 looked far less likely than the collapse of Soviet Communism.

    From where I was the collapse of apartheid looked very likely in 85-86. Mind you the campus of the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg might have been somewhat unique.
    The release of Mandella was very exciting too and some argued that this was only made possible by the collapse of communism.


  3. Sinclair, you must have seen something in the P.W. Botha, the President of the time, that no one else did. He was as hardline pro-apartheid as it got. He even ordered the bombing of the South African Council of Churches. A Gorbachev figure, he was not. That honour belongs to his successor F.W. de Klerk, but he didn’t become President until 1989.

    In contrast, when Andrew was in East Germany, not only was Gorby revving up glasnost and perestroika, but the acid was well and truly on the Soviet system and empire from Reagan, Walesa and the Pope, not to mention the mujahadeen in Afghanistan.


  4. In 1985-86 the South African government was so close to losing control of the country that they introduced draconian laws authorising indefinite detention without trial and sent the SADF into the townships. To my mind that suggests the regime was about to collapse. Nobody (intelligent) has ever suggested that PW was a Gorbachev, but then neither was deKlerk and Gorby himself probably never intended to destroy communism.


  5. “Gorby himself probably never intended to destroy communism”

    I imagine that Gorby, in his job interview with the Politburo in March 1985, that did not say that he intended to destroy communism.

    But he certainly facilitated it.


  6. South Africa was big too, but it was the collapse of a local tyranny, not of an empire or an ideological project that had once inspired many.


  7. Andrew, South Africa was not as big as Eastern Europe, but it was bigger than a local tyranny. It was the collapse of the idea that a country with otherwise westernised values and institutions could be run on the basis that the ruling race was superior to the ruled. Apartheid was most certainly an ideological project for its apologists outside South Africa, of whom there were many in Australia. The standard apologia included: black South Africans were objectively inferior; black South Africans were better off than blacks elsewhere in Africa; South Africa was a “bulwark” against communism; black South Africans benefited from apartheid; white South Africans were a people just like us and who could blame for taking steps to protect themselves?; and so on.


  8. S of R – Though I don’t think apartheid was an idea that inspired anyone, or was a model for any other country. My recollection was more along the lines you suggest – that the alternatives might be even worse.


  9. An inspiration? The South African apartheid regime had a lot of closet and not so closet admirers among Australian conservatives, such as Glen Sheil, National Party Senator from Queensland. From Wikipedia:

    “After the 1977 election … Glenister Sheil was to be Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. On 20 December he was sworn as a member of the Federal Executive Council, a constitutional pre-requisite for appointment as a minister. That same day, in an interview on ABC Radio, he professed his support for the South African apartheid system, which was very much at odds with the Fraser government’s position. Fraser decided not to proceed with Sheil’s appointment to the ministry, and in a very rare move he arranged for Sheil’s appointment as an Executive Councillor to be terminated (such appointments are normally for life)”


  10. the idea that a country with otherwise westernised values and institutions could be run on the basis that the ruling race was superior to the ruled.

    I think you’re giving the apartheid regime too much credit – they were just thugs.


  11. Sinclair, I will defer to your on-the-ground knowledge.

    On closet supporters, to balance my Sheil comment, I should point out that the Labor Party had some supporters of the Soviet Union in its ranks. One of them. who I knew quite well, was not just a supporter of the USSR but of Stalin. He is, today, a member of a state parliament.


  12. To be fair, they did like to pass themselves off as being intellectuals who were concerned about imposing ‘western ways on primative people’ and all that crap – but basically just thugs and bullies. The only Australian of some note that ‘supported’ apartheid that I’m aware of was Joh Bjelke-Petersen – the 1988 Joh for Canberra push was extensively covered in the South African media and it was something of a surprise when he was routed so comprehensivily. Good thing too.


  13. Of course the mention of Joh Bjelke Petersen reminds me of the other great political liberation of late 1989, the fall of the National Party regime in Queensland. Bjelke Petersen combined the mendacity of Ceasescu with the subtlety of Ulbricht.


  14. Rafe says:

    “It helps to remember that apartheid was started by a coalition of white trade unionists and racists… ”

    It also helps to remember that Rafe has very little interest in honesty and integrity. The apartheid system had its genesis in the Pass Laws and other such measures of the late 19th century enacted under British colonial rule that had nothing whatsoever to do with trade unions.

    Apartheid was supported by white capitalists who profited from cheap black labour, the white professional classes who benefited from bans on blacks engaging in professional occupations as well as white unskilled workers who were protected from direct competition with blacks.

    Many white Christain Church’s were pro-Apartheid and it is illustrative that the first Prime Minister elected explicitly under the Apartheid banner was a Christian preacher, that being Pastor Daniel Malan in 1948.

    It is simply dishonest of Rafe to single out trade unions as key architects of Apartheid.


  15. Mel:

    How is your account altogether different to what Rafe says:

    apartheid was started by a coalition of white trade unionists and racists,

    Your account of whom formed the bloc is white capitalists, white professionals, as well as unskilled workers.

    Presumably one can say there were more unskilled people than capitalists and professionals and that the social structure wasn’t upside down in a sense.

    Could you please explain your opposition to Rafe’s comment. Thanks.


  16. The first pass laws were introduced in 1760 to regulate the movement of slaves in the Cape but that was nothing to do with apartheid. The relevant pass laws were introduced in the 1920s, according to Wik and Bill Hutt.
    Apartheid was not in the interests of the mine owners and other capitalists because they were prevented from making the best use of coloured labour. Read the history in the link mel!
    Militant unionism appeared in the mines in the 1880s to maintain the large differential between the rates for labourers and white overseers and to ensure that the Africans remained in the former category. It was obviously in the economic interest of the mine management to permit Africans to take on more skilled and responsible work, but that was a clear threat to the white tradesmen and supervisors.


  17. “I was among the last generation of people whose politics were shaped by World War II and its aftermath, the long struggle between the USSR and its allies and the USA and its allies.” – I would say that my politics have also been shaped by it, despite my personal memories of communism being restricted to a vague memory of Warsaw Airport as were boarding the plane to leave in the 80s (I was under 3 years of age but I do remember it). You can’t be a politically minded person of Polish background without it having some sort of impact on you!


  18. Rafe – “It helps to remember that apartheid was started by a coalition of white trade unionists and racists, leading to the nearest thing to a centrally controlled economy outside the USSR.” – I’m not sure that what you’re saying is true, and haven’t read up on it, but I know you do like to attribute all the evils of the world to trade unions.

    So I thought, for balance, I would remind everybody that with communism in Eastern Europe, the dominoes started falling when a trade union was set up, and as you would know it was called Solidarnosc. And one of the main guests of honour today in Berlin is that trade union’s leader, Lech Walesa.

    In his final speech to Parliament, Kim Beazley summed up things well:
    “I recollect when I first came into this place that the walls in Eastern Europe were cracking. The Soviet empire was falling apart. What was the first indication that the Soviet empire was falling apart? Solidarity. I had a lot of Polish electors in my then constituency of Swan, and they were fascinated by what was happening with solidarity. We held rallies, sent petitions to the Soviet Embassy and the like, but what was absolutely clear was that it was a challenge that the Soviet Union could not handle. A challenge of free unions was something that a dictatorial Communist Party could not handle. That was the key to establishing democracy throughout Eastern Europe. If you undermine unions, if you undermine democracy in the workplace, then you will undermine democracy in the nation overall. First destroy the unions; then you destroy democracy.”

    So I’m sure you’ll all join me in celebrating the important role organised labour played in toppling communism 🙂 Just like I recognise the role of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher despite being of the opposite political persuasion.


  19. Krystian – Yes, indeed. I was talking about Australia – people directly connected to the former communist countries are still affected by the communist era, politically and personally.


  20. Part of what justified apartheid to whites in South Africa was keeping Communism out. When the Wall fell, that knocked away a major prop. Indeed, one could argue that the fall of the Christian Democrats in Italy, and the changes in Japanese politics, were also knock-on effects of the fall of the Wall.

    I know there is an ongoing attempt to class Racism-As-The-Ultimate-Evil, but the Holocaust was hardly typical. The sort of noxious exploitation involved in Apartheid or (even worse) slavery was more typical of its evils. Indeed, racism grew up as a justification for slavery, dispossession, political and social exclusion etc. The first anti-black, blacks-are-inferior discourse was an Arab/Muslim North African discourse to justify mass enslaving of blacks rather than converting them. (Ancient slavery did not need any such discourse because it was not subverting moral universalism, at least not for any specific ethnic or racial group.) American racism was particularly virulent to justify excluding blacks from both Christian and American Revolutionary moral universalism. Hence MLK’s “I have a dream speech” rhetorical brilliance in invoking precisely the principles and claims that American racism needed to justify defying.

    What made racism truly murderous was its conjoining with Jew-hatred, hence the Holocaust, history’s largest Pogrom.

    South African capitalists were often opponents of apartheid, particularly petty apartheid, because it made commerce more expensive. Long-time apartheid opponent Helen Suzman represented the South African equivalent of Kooyong. But much of Jim Crow was also to stop filthy capitalists caring only about the colour of people’s money and not their skin. But Voltaire made that point about commerce and social toleration in the C18th. (So silver-glutted Iberia had the same intolerant religious obscurantism as does the oil-glutted Middle East because “free wealth” means the costs of intolerance are minimised.)

    As for the peacefulness of the fall of the Soviet bloc, that seems part of the general trend towards less cruelty and violence and that none of its declared enemies actually had designs on its territory.


  21. Rafe,

    Whites in all strata of South African society feared black majority rule would mean the imposition of Communism. White capitalists obviously had a vested interest in protecting their assets from appropriation by a Communist state. It is no coincidence that Apartheid fell after the collapse of Communism in Europe.


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