Total Recall

A recent article on an Australian woman’s collaboration with the Stasi reminded me of Anna Funder’s brilliant book Stasiland, not to mention visiting the “Round Corner” Stasi Museum in Leipzig in 1998.

One commenter at Mefi described its topic as “fascism”, but calling the GDR fascist just lets communism off the hook. Just because we’re seeing a resurgence in fascism in the twenty-first century doesn’t mean every crime of the twentieth can be described as fascist. The story is about the system of surveillance developed in a totalitarian communist country, and about how people can allow ideology to blind them to a country’s crimes and even make them complicit in them.

It’s legitimate to argue that the GDR continued using and even perfected many of the totalitarian tools of the Nazis, but ideologically the two states were fundamentally at odds. It’s important—and relevant to today—to contemplate how ideology can blind us to what we’re doing in its name, as it did for the woman at the heart of the New Yorker piece. She willingly left a Western life and embedded herself in a totalitarian one because she saw only its positives.

If we’re trying to make sense of, say, the invasion of Ukraine, it helps to understand the underlying mechanics and the historical context to see why each side is calling the other fascist. Russian devotees of Vladimir Putin fervently believe that they’re fighting fascism in Ukraine. They really believe that Ukraine’s Russian-speaking Jewish leader, whose great-grandparents were killed in the Holocaust, is fascist.

We have too many examples today of people willing to overlook totalitarian and authoritarian policies and actions because they’re in service of an ideology they share. At the moment, we see them used in service of the right, but the pendulum could so easily swing: a generational swing to the left might at first have all of the hopefulness of past revolutions (literal and figurative), yet end up bringing us new Stalins. The enemy is authoritarianism, whatever the ideological dressing.

16 June 2024 · Politics