Home > Dictatorships, our world, Politics, Repression > The Lessons of Berlin

The Lessons of Berlin

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Not far from the bunker where Hitler and his cronies, Eva Braun, Goebbbels etc. all these hideous nightmarish figures, committed suicide, not far from the German chancery, rises in the Berlin sky a wrought-iron profile of Georg Elser, the young carpenter who in 1939, foreseeing the destruction caused by the war that had just started, made an ill-fated attempt to assassinate Hitler. (Hitler didn’t die, Elser was caught and sent to Dachau where he was shot in 1945, for some reason spared until then.)

Under the avalanche of horrible news–the unconscionable tearing apart of families in the United States, the turning away on European shores of migrants fleeing impossible conditions in their own countries, the reelection of Erdogan whose unlimited new powers can truly crush the Turks and definitely do away with Ataturk’s legacy,  the resignation of Supreme Court Justice Kennedy to be replaced by who knows which Trump flunky, corrupt power-crazed strongmen coming to power in too many places we thought safe from extremism, we can only draw comfort from the “this too shall pass” thought. For me, indignant at the start of each day with the news, nothing good or consoling comes to mind as much as a recent visit to Berlin–my first, I’m ashamed to say.

I had heard of the German capital being a cosmopolitan hub of vitality with the best and newest in art and entertainment and great food. It is all that but it is more, its name linked forever to that of the most evil man that ever strode the earth –and heaven knows there is no dearth of evil men through our history– and the most monstrous regime that ever existed. But mainly, it is a perfect illustration of the finite life span of extreme, violent, repressive regimes, confirming that one day, they simply fall of their own weight.

A we know, Berlin was the capital of the extreme-right Nazi regime. After the war, it came under the purview of Allied forces, while West Germany’s government settled down in Bonn, waiting for better days. The part of Berlin under Soviet supervision gradually turned more severe until the communist regime decided to erect a wall and turned all East Germans into virtual prisoners of their state, waiting for a better day. Which came in 1989, with the fall of the Wall and, in 1990, with reunification.

But things take time. As a testimony to the dull ideology reigning supreme for 28 years, the former East Berlin today remains different in character, still stark, still heavy despite the hordes of shoppers and tourists, the full restaurants and the brand-name stores. It is there as testimony to another type of dictatorship, communism, that lasted from the separation of the city in two until the wall fell.

Both former sides demonstrate that no system based on crushing people and taking their freedom away can remain in place forever. Forcing people against their will to live under a system they despise and fear never works. These regimes always, but always, ultimately fall. The thing is, most dictators or would-be dictators such as the pathetic Trump don’t read history, or don’t read, period. And, if they ever did, they would still think this general rule doesn’t apply to them. Oh, but it does. Stalin and Mao notwithstanding, not many of these monsters and dictators die of old age in their bed.

Today, Berlin stands, capital of one of the great Western democracies, and it’s fair to say that a majority of the people living there or passing through don’t think much or at least not all the time about the fallen regimes on both sides. And the younger generations probably haven’t even heard much about those.

Some years ago, as I was moaning about the vile Islamic Republic of Iran, André Fontaine, a great French journalist editor of Le Monde, told me that it wouldn’t last forever. “Bad regimes, repressive ones,” he said, “those that crush people, their own and their neighbors, don’t last. Democracy is what has staying power. It’s like marriage: Far from perfect but with little alternative.”

Words to carve on visitors’ guides to Berlin, and perhaps to tweet to some of the worse leaders in the world today, including, or starting with, the awful Trump.

 

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