Few noticed in 2015 when Seumas Milne excused the tyranny that held East Germany in its power from the Soviet Invasion in 1945 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Nearly every page reeked of a sly attempt to sweeten dictatorship and cover up the murder it inevitably brings. It was greeted with deserved indifference.
As for Milne, two-years ago he was just another columnist in a newspaper industry that is stuffed with them. He provided a niche service on the Guardian by catering for a corner of the market that yearned to hear defences of 20 th st
To stay on the Stalin side of the alliance, two years ago the publishers of Stasi State or Socialist Paradise asked Milne to provide a foreword. He was pleased to oblige. The book was ‘sober and balanced,’ he enthused. The authors, John Green and Bruni de la Motte, showed ‘great merit’.
Regrettably, East Germany was home to the Stasi, but was that really so bad? The authors Milne cheered for made a few concessions. They accepted the Stasi arrested Germans for activities ‘that were legal in the West’. Their throats cleared, they then spluttered out excuses for the surveillance state. East Germany’s punishments for dissent were ‘mild,’ they claimed. It flouted democratic norms but that is ‘in the nature of all security services’. Indeed not only was the Stasi just like ‘all security services’ it was better than other security services. For the authors assured us, the ‘Stasi was not a corrupt force in the sense that the British police were recently shown to be’.
Milne agreed. Communist East Germany had been demonised by Angela Merkel’s reunited Germany, he said. It had made denouncing the Stasi state a ‘loyalty test for modern Germans’. Milne saw through the charade. Merkel and other defenders of the West want us to forget that the communists delivered ‘social and women’s equality well ahead of its times, and greater freedom in the workplace than most employees enjoy in today’s Germany’.
The fight against propaganda requires a tireless defence of the historical record. Propagandists like Milne prosper because they know that most cannot be bothered to track down every omission and nail every half-truth. Tiring and tiresome though it may be, let us insist that East Germany did not allow ‘greater freedom in the workplace than most employees enjoy today’. It banned free trade unions. It so controlled workers, that they revolted. As Milne must know, the East Berlin workers’ uprising of 1953 against the Soviet-backed state inspired the only lines of Bertolt Brecht to have passed into modern culture:
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers' Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
As for the Stasi and its ‘mild’ punishments, there are dozens of genuine histories in English as well as German, all of which raise the same possibility: East Germans could have been the most spied on and snitched on people on earth. The German communists did not kill as many as the German fascists. But John O. Koehler in his history of the Stasi nevertheless makes a revealing comparison. The Gestapo had 40,000 officers spying on a united Nazi Germany of 80 million people: one state-employed spy for 2,000 people. The Stasi had 102,000 controlling a population of 17 million: one state-employed spy for every 166 East Germans. Add in the informers the state recruited – friends, workmates, neighbours and even children – and East Germany had one spy for every 66 citizens.
Their punishments were not ‘mild’. Millions escaped to the West before the communists built a wall to imprison their own people. (What kind of ‘ahead-of-its-time’ country does that, Milne could have profitably asked.) Once the wall was up, 825 Germans were killed trying to escape, and post-communist investigators have documented 4,444 actual and attempted killings of opponents by the East German state and 40,000 sentences for political offences.
I have my criticisms of Britain’s police and Germany’s protection of workers’ rights. But to say that the Stasi was less corrupt and that workplace protections in East Germany were superior is to engage in propaganda which is either filthy or ignorant or both.
You have to be in your 40s to remember the Soviet Union. The young voters who say they will back Corbyn this week do not know or care about the battles of the last century. Why should they dive into the past and understand what it means to defend communist terror? But Corbyn and the post-communists around him clearly do care. Milne rushed to praise a worthless apologia because Soviet communism matters to the Labour leadership. Milne is explicit. He says it is ‘crucial’ that the Labour party he and his friends lead and other social movements learn ‘the lessons of both the successes and failures’ of the Stasi state.
I don’t believe that Milne will be in Downing Street on Friday, but who knows? If the far left continues to control the opposition, however, Brecht’s question after the 1953 workers’ uprising should be asked again, but this time without the sarcasm: Would it not be easier to dissolve the Labour party and elect another one?