The Rise of Communist Nostalgia

Do east Germans regret the fall of the Berlin Wall?


The fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago was one of the most exhilarating events of the 20th Century. No one could fail to be moved by the joy of people who tore down a loathed monument to tyranny. Today, when all that remains of the Wall is a few sections preserved as historical artifacts and graffiti-stained chunks sold in souvenir shops, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe remains a glorious moment but also, in some ways, a bittersweet one.

There are widespread reports that for many eastern Germans, liberation has turned to disillusionment. The British daily, The Guardian, marked the anniversary with an article by an ex-East German academic lamenting the demise of the communist state—which, she asserted, offered "social and gender equality, full employment and lack of existential fears."

But are these lamentations for a lost workers' paradise anything more than the griping of hardcore ideologues or members of the old communist elites who resent the loss of their own privilege? In a recent Pew Research Center poll, only 16 percent of people living in former East Germany took a negative attitude toward German unification; a positive view was taken by 81 percent, though it should be noted that only 31 percent chose the "very positive" option. Moreover, nearly two-thirds—63 percent—say that unification has made their lives better. That's hardly evidence of communist nostalgia.

Yet other findings show a more nuanced picture. In a poll last July, only eight percent of eastern Germans said that the "German Democratic Republic" (as East Germany was officially known) had mostly "good sides" and a better life than today's unified Germany. However, an additional 49 percent agreed that "the GDR had more good sides than bad sides; there were some problems, but life was good there."

According to an analysis in the German magazine Spiegel, what drives this rose-colored view—shared by many young people who barely remember life under communism—is a peculiar sense of pride and humiliation. Many eastern Germans see communist East Germany, for better or worse, as their home or their parents' home, and its history as their legacy. While critical of the communist state's suppression of freedom, they chafe at the idea that it was an illegitimate regime and that the West was their savior. It's the same syndrome that causes many Russians today to whitewash the Soviet past.

There is similar ambivalence in other Eastern-bloc countries included in the Pew poll. Support for the change from state socialism to a market economy hovers barely above 50 percent not only in Russia but in Hungary, Bulgaria and Lithuania, and stands at just 36 percent in Ukraine; in all these countries, pro-capitalist attitudes have declined sharply since 1991. (The highest rates of approval for the transition to capitalism are found in Eastern Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland, at 82 percent, 79 percent and 71 percent respectively.)

Most startling, attitudes toward the adoption of a multiparty system follows a similar pattern: multiparty democracy is now favored by just 55 percent of Hungarian and Lithuanian respondents and an abysmal 30 percent of Ukrainians.

This is not, as some on the left think, an indictment of capitalist democracy and a vindication of socialism. It is noteworthy that support for markets and democracy is strongest in countries that have made the greatest strides toward the market economy. Partly, as well, the problem is generational, with older people most likely to favor the old order. Nonetheless, far too many countries on the road to freedom have found themselves mired in corruption, mismanagement, graft and political turmoil.

Twenty years ago, the revolt against communism was about as black-and-white an issue as it gets: the human desire for freedom, opportunity, and a good life pitted against a tyranny that erected a wall in the middle of a city to keep people from escaping, and killed those who tried anyway. (Whether a regime makes prisoners of its own citizens is a good litmus test of whether it deserves to exist.) Today, the liberated countries face hard questions of how to build a good society, and shades of gray abound. Meanwhile, the main adversary of Western democracy is no longer communism but radical Islamist terrorism. It is, in some ways, a far more complex conflict that involves an amorphous, diffuse and unpredictable enemy, as well as questions of religious and cultural identity and debates about drawing the line between legitimate religion and religion-based totalitarian ideology. In some ways, the Cold War seems simple by comparison.

Communist nostalgia is overrated. But, recalling the fall of the Berlin Wall, one does feel nostalgia for a time when one could celebrate an uncomplicated victory of good over evil.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.