I feared Kristen Ghodsee’s Red Hangover: Legacies of 20th century Communism (2017) would be yet another dumping on the sad ending to the world’s socialist experiment, or at best a boring collection of footnotes. I was wrong. It is full of ironies, twists, incisive exposes of the venality of the whole process of ‘liberation’. And some biting Bulgarian barbs.* Oh, and women have twice as many orgasms under socialism.
Like Feffer in Aftershock, also published in 2017, Ghodsee uses her travels, studies, lectures to audiences east and west to test the waters of eastern Europe today. This fresh approach to documenting history through the eyes of both participants and sympathetic observers is more like reading a page-turner spy novel, full of often misunderstood heroes and villains, crafty confidence tricksters and lots and lots of victims. Who needs fiction? You enter the theatre of life, feel its pulse.
Sleuthing in Sofya
Ghodsee, always the researcher, saw a heap of documents in a garbage can on a trip to Bulgaria in 1997, and on an impulse started putting them in her bag. A pathetic homeless guy, clearly a drug addict, accosted her, always on the lookout for something to hawk. She told him she was CIA and he fled. Safely back at Duke University, she started perusing them.
The files were of agronomist Andreev, who rose in the 1950s to be Mr. Cucumber, responsible eventually for importing Dutch seeds and planting them in government greenhouses to feed the nation, with some for export to other socialist countries in COMECON. He had been awarded a golden badge of honour. It appeared his life was tranquil, successful, that he was a model citizen who didn’t worry about ‘profit’, though he no doubt was key to determining the production, distribution and pricing of cukes.
Andreev died bitter and forgotten, his discarded files, a sad metaphor for what happened in Bulgaria with its ‘colour revolution’ in 1989 (choose your colour). Andreev’s precious greenhouses were privatized and closed, the (profitable) land sold. 'Investment' capitalist style. Now Bulgarians import plastic-wrapped cucumbers from Turkey and Israel, courtesy of the new ‘Andreev’, though the new one will set a price to maximize profit, not to earn a golden badge of honour.
From 1990 on, such new Bulgarians ran illegal weapons to Serbs in the Bosnian war, making their first killing, then morphed into private syndicates to pillage the remains of the socialist economy. Gangs and murders proliferated.
Six Bulgarians doused themselves in gasoline and burned to death in public from February to March 2013 (one further despairing old lady in 2014). Only Tibet can compete (130 fiery suicides from 2009--15). The prices of now privatized energy and water were the sparks.The prime minister and Varna’s corrupt mayor were forced to resign. Perhaps these Bulgarian martyrs had heard about the Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set off the Arab Spring shortly before with his self-immolation, and thought they could spark a real revolution, based on the masses (as they had been taught in the old days).
The 25th anniversary in 2014 of fall of the Berlin Wall on November 29, 1989 had two faces. The drunken celebratory one at the Brandenburg Gates, featuring David Bowie’s Heroes and Beethoven’s 9th symphony as its theme songs,** Gorbachev, Walesa, and GDR dissident satirist Biermann (expelled from the GDR in 1976) singing his protest songs.
Disgruntled ossies (ex-GDRers) and fellow travellers were allowed an official counterprotest, which was shunted behind barriers near the Reichstag. Among the motley crew of all stripes, hundreds of polizei milled in full riot gear carrying plexiglas shields. The protesters complained of state video uberwacht (closed-circuit tv), which records more footage of ordinary Germans than the Stasi. They argued that German prosperity was from exploiting guest workers, that Ukraine was moving towards outright fascism.
20% of those in ex-socialist countries still have lower incomes than pre-1989. ‘Successes’ Poland, Czechia, Slovenia are slightly better off. Most are so far behind they can’t aspire to pre-1989 levels for at least 20 years. The social costs for eastern Europe have been enormous, resulting in a million deaths and still counting.
Ghodsee was puzzled that there were no celebrations in Bulgaria. “Because there was nothing to celebrate,” her friend Svetozara, said bitterly. Once an enthusiast of change, Sveta had helped reorganize local governments to be more responsive to citizens’ needs, to make legislation less bureaucratic, more transparent. “It was all a lie… worse than what we had before. Rotten from the start. 1989 was about expanding markets for western companies. They used the language of freedom and democracy, but it was all about money.”
Her (east) German friend Daniela Dahn: I always longed to live in a democracy. But not in capitalism. I had no illusions about its tendency to economic and financial crises, its power to create a social divide between the rich and poor, and its inclination to military solutions. 90% of east Germans wanted the path to better, reformed socialism; only 5% wanted the capitalist path.”***
The partying in Berlin 2014 could not last. Contradictions were reaching a boiling point. The vacuum from the collapse of socialism, combined with the rapacity of capitalism, had spawned an angry right wing populism everywhere. It seemed to have come from out of the blue.
The warnings were there, but were drowned out in the drunken orgy of anti-communism of the 1990s, which culminated in the publishing of Black Book of Communism (1997).*** This Black Book spawned Anne Applebaum’s Gulag (2004), Iron Curtain 2012), Red Famine (2017), as if to drive a stake through communism’s heart.
But all did not go according the US-German plans to put paid to communism, fulfilling Hitler’s greatest hope (arguably more important than his vow to kill all Jews). Hitler failed in his plan to destroy the communist Soviet Union. It looked like Applebaum was grabbing his torch with her white hot anti-communist diatribes, completing his work, not by military might, but by the Word. Heil Ms Applebaum!
But rushing to the finish line, the whole relay team stumbled.
Hitler = Stalin
In 2007, many Europeans (especially Germans) embraced this equivalency, unthinkable in the 1980s. In 2008, right wing eastern European politicians and intellectuals published the Prague 2008 Declaration on European Conscience and Communism, calling for an all-European understanding that many crimes committed in name of communism should be assessed as crimes against humanity in the same way Nazi crimes were assessed by the Nuremberg Tribunal.
“Wasn’t bolshevik ‘class murder’ the logical and actual predecessor to National Socialist ‘race murder?” historian Ernst Nolte asked back in 1986. He was sharply criticized for this relativism by Jurgen Habermas, but was nonetheless awarded the Kondrad Adenauer Prize in 2000. This launched a startling debate, headed by Zionists, for whom there was only one “Holocaust’. Robert Cohen’s New York Times editorial was called “Hitler apologist wins German honor”. Past imperialist gaffes (native massacres, slavery, Armenians, Ukrainians) are lesser sufferings. .
Cohen’s concern was not just semantics. He was also concerned about the ongoing rise of the far right in Europe, and Nolte was soon denounced, not as he was in fact--a neo-fascist and falsifier of history, but as--you guessed it--a Holocaust Denier. The Zionists got it right (Nolte = bad), if for the wrong reasons.
But the cat was out of the bag, and fan clubs now abound:
*the EU Euro Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism (2008+)
*the OSCE Vilnius Declaration (2009)
*the Prague Platform of European Memory and Conscience (2011).
The doyen of these anti-communist oracles is also in Prague, where the US has its HQ for the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (1994).
This confusion of Hitler and Stalin delighted neofascists, who could now point to Stalin as the real cause of all the nastiness (‘the Gulag predates Auschwitz’). They picked up Nolte’s and Applebaum’s torch and ran with it. Ukraine had a coup in 2014 with the help of its neofascists, and immediately passed laws to wipe out all public evidence of the communist past, and instead to honour ‘freedom fighters’ (fascists), omitting any pesky references to Ukrainian assistance in Hitler’s Jewish pogroms from 1941--45.
After all, the EU was legislating that our European history needed rewriting, and Ukraine was independent and could write its own history, thank you very much. They latched onto the narrative of two totalitarianims and double genocide of the 20th century, i.e., the suffering of east Europeans was a genocide, their holodomor (hunger-death), just like that of the Jews during their ‘Holocaust’.
The Zionists were not amused. They got their big guns out, presented the Seventy Years Declaration to European Parliament (2012) at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin, rejecting all attempts to obfuscate the Holocaust by diminishing its uniqueness,**** especially rejecting rewriting textbooks to promote ‘double genocide’.
The idea of Hitler = Stalin is nothing new. It goes back to 1930, used as a desperate campaign slogan by the faltering German Social Democrats, popularized by Hannah Arendt and Zbigniew Brzezinski in the 1960s, and was standard anti-communist slander during the Cold War. But it was never publicly endorsed as long as the Soviet Union was still around.
What put the Zionists on the right side?
Well, the “Holocaust’ as a generic term is a bad political precedent:
*It watered down the Jewish millenarian meme of suffering, essential to legitimate Israel’s special status as a racial state.
*Anti-Zionists already use the term (or at least, genocide) to refer to the treatment of Palestinians by Israelis leaders, and who knows where that could lead?
*Oh yes, it would cut into the still ongoing reparations that Israel gets from the Holocaust (meaning ritual burnt offering).
They were less concerned about the flawed view of the 20th century such a simplistic comparison of fascism and communism makes. The Lithuanian foreign minister inadvertently made this point in protest against 8 Lithuanian MPs who signed the declaration rejecting Hitler = Stalin: “It is not possible to find differences between Hitler and Stalin except in their moustaches (Hitler’s was shorter).”
Many fascists could now be rehabilitated, slipping their names in with the innocents. It’s better for the new eastern regimes to have citizens focus on the crimes of communism against domestic populations, to downplay past alliances with Nazi Germany, not to mention their (worse) post-communist suffering.
They’re not keen on having to include Hitler in the discourse, though they are his heirs in their nationalist right wing revolt against liberalism, but they know enough to keep from thinking aloud any ‘Hitler thoughts’ they may have other than his hatred for communism. A bit of a worry for the Zionists. Should they drop the ‘Holocaust’ claim of uniqueness and join the broad movement against the new fascism? Or try to have the best of both worlds, a pact with the devil?
To given them their due, the Zionists might also be honouring their parents and grandparents, most of whom were probably communists, Israel having been largely settled at its beginnings by idealistic Russians and east Europeans. Stalin’s socialism and cruelty was not alien to their worldview. Despite what anti-communist analysts insist, Stalin was not an enemy of the Jews.^ Intelligent Zionists see this. Hitler was not Stalin.
Long live TINA!
Capitalism is destroying democracy. The world stands on a precipice in a post-democratic age. Robert Reich writes in “How capitalism is killing democracy” that free markets were never intended to look after the common good. That’s the job of democracy. Capitalism weakens democracy because companies lobby, bribe, seek laws for competitive advantage. Ghodsee’s German friend Daniel Dahn and 90% of east Germans saw that in 1989 before the invasion/ liberation.
Ghodsee’s whirlwind tour of the seamy side of neoliberalism leaves us with only one conclusion: There Is No Alternative. But it’s not Thatcher’s neoliberalism. Neoliberal capitalism is bankrupt-- the migrant crisis from imperialism redux, growing wealth inequality, environment crisis... The current forms of democracy are so broken they are useless. It’s back to the socialist drawing board.
But beware: The far right nationalists see this and will abandon democracy first. They will be supported by the elites, as history shows.^^ We erase communism from history at our own peril. Can we start again from scratch? No. But we can pick up where we left off.
*Q: What was the worst thing about communism? A: What came after.
**But the Wall anthem Heroes (1977) is misinterpreted. Bowie, who was living in exotic West Berlin at the time, insisted it is really just about illicit lovers meeting near the Wall so no one would be watching but east German guards. ‘We kissed, as though nothing could fall. We can beat them forever and ever, then we can be heroes, just for one day.’ The wall represented a disapproving society. Heroism comes in all shapes and sizes. Now, more evoking of nostalgia for the good old days than protesting communism.
***Daniela Dahn, “The legacy of democratic awakening--20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Johns Hopkins University, 2010. https://www.revleft.space/vb/threads/142041-legacy-democratic-awakening
****With a sequel The Black Book of Communism has not said everything (2002), focussing on eastern Europe. Editor Courtois claims 100m deaths, but J. Arch Getty argues that more than half of 100m worldwide deaths that Courtois attributes to communism were from famine and war. The 1930s famine in Ukraine, the holodomor, was from stupidity and incompetence, not a hatred of Ukrainians.
*****A position first publicly asserted in 1967.
^The so-called doctors' plot was blatant revenge by Stalin against what he thought were his communist Jewish allies in Israel. Initially the Zionists had played both sides against the other in the budding Cold War. Soviet support was essential both for official recognition by the UN and for military support. But the Zionists always intended to insert Israel in the heart of the US empire. Once they had trounced the Arabs, they thumbed their collective noses at Stalin--at the expense of the Soviet Jews who were not Zionists (much like they despised non-Zionist European Jews in the 1930s--40s).
^^Germany 1930, dozens of right wing coups from 1930s on, culminating in Egypt 2013 and Ukraine 2014.