The Guardian

The Guardian July 10, 2002


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Of memorials and memories

In last week's Culture & Life I speculated that the German 
Government's willingness to spend money restoring Soviet war memorials in 
Germany had to do with positioning Germany in the economy of the new 
Russia.

That may be part of it, but there is another slightly more sinister reason 
behind the German restoration work. I learned of it only hours after I had 
sent off my copy, and sent an amended version the next morning but it ran 
into e-mail gremlins and failed to arrive.

What I learnt was that the agreement between Russian President Putin and 
German Chancellor Schroeder was double edged. It does indeed require the 
German Government to undertake the restoration of Soviet war memorials and 
cemeteries in Germany, that's true.

But it also requires the Russian Government to restore or even establish 
brand new war cemeteries for the Nazi soldiers who fell trying to enslave 
and destroy the Russian people!

Millions of Soviet citizens were sent to concentration camps from which 
they did not return. Tens of thousands became slaves in Germany. Millions 
more were simply murdered.

In thousands of villages, the inhabitants were herded into the nearest barn 
and burned alive. The country's cultural heritage was pillaged or 
destroyed, its works of art stolen or ruthlessly vandalised.

Children, women, old men were butchered for pleasure and to terrorise the 
population into a hoped-for submission that never came. Hitler's merry boys 
left a trail of blood and horror across Russia such as has never been seen 
before or since.

Their name became synonymous with racist bestiality and savagery. And this 
horrific brown plague is to be honoured in proper war cemeteries?

Can't you just imagine the future excursions by patriotic German (and not 
only German) right-wingers to honour Germany's fallen "heroes" of the 
Eastern Front?

While I was overseas, a Czech comrade told me how more Czech people today 
are turning back to the Communists. In fact, the Czech party (the Communist 
Party of Bohemia and Moravia) has just substantially increased its seats in 
the Czech parliament.

The Government is feverishly pumping out propaganda to the effect that 
people have lost their collective memory. "Have you forgotten how bad 
things were under the Communists?" is the government's theme. "Remember how 
you had to queue to buy a banana?"

But it is not working. People have been experiencing capitalism for a 
decade now, watching their enterprises close or get sold to German 
companies who then "rationalised" and laid off masses of employees.

They are remembering how good things were by comparison under the 
Communists. "Better to stand in a queue for a banana than stand in a queue 
for unemployment relief."

But full employment and guaranteed housing is not all they remember about 
socialism. They recall the much lower crime rate, and the far greater 
emphasis on culture for everyone, especially the young.

In the former GDR they observed that life had definitely been less 
stressful under socialism. It moved at a quieter, less frenetic pace.

People were not under constant pressure to perform. No one expected them to 
drive when they could use public transport (frequent, efficient and fast 
enough).

The sense of security and well being that is induced in a society that 
looks after you from the cradle to the grave was one of the great 
intangible benefits of living under socialism.

When the counter-revolution triumphed in Eastern Europe, the people of 
those countries, even those who celebrated the loudest, did not for one 
moment think that that aspect of their lives was going to change.

They thought that they would keep their existing (socialist) way of life 
and just add plentiful consumer goods and the freedom to travel. Now, as 
someone in the former GDR pointed out to me, they are not only free to 
travel, they have to travel, if they want to find work.

Restrictions on travel were introduced in the Soviet Union to help restore 
order after the dislocation of the civil war. It helped prevent the 
wholesale migration of depressed rural populations to the equally depressed 
cities (a disastrous phenomenon seen in numerous capitalist countries).

It enabled the embattled new state to effectively tackle crises in housing 
and food, to develop socialist agriculture, without which there would be no 
socialist industry, and to plan the national economy.

It served a similar purpose after the defeat of the German invaders, and in 
the conditions of the Cold War helped to constrain subversion. The Soviet 
military administration necessarily introduced it into all the former Nazi-
occupied regions of Eastern Europe.

But no matter how necessary, understandable or even beneficial the policy 
of travel restrictions may have been, there can have been nothing more 
calculated to irritate people, or to provide imperialist agitators with an 
easily utilised stick with which to whack socialism.

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