Sunday photoblogging – the end of communism

by Chris Bertram on November 8, 2009

Two photos today. My partner, Pauline Powell and I visited East Germany and West Berlin in 1984. The first picture is a shot of the Berlin Wall from the western side, and seems appropriate as tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of its fall. The second shot, taken inside the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, announces one of the prayers for peace meetings that helped to build the popular movement that would eventually contribute to the fall of the regime. (Some details of this are on the St. Nikolai Church website.)Both pictures are Pauline’s, not mine (all rights reserved etc). We believe the swords into ploughshares picture is unique on the web, though perhaps others exist as prints. As such, it is something of a historic document.

Berlin Wall

Swords into ploughshares



ingrid robeyns 11.08.09 at 12:38 pm

Great pictures, thanks for sharing them, Pauline (and Chris :-)!


Ben Alpers 11.08.09 at 3:30 pm

Thanks for the pictures!

We spent the 2007-2008 academic year in Leipzig and lived in the University’s Gästehaus on the Nikolaiplatz. The view from our windows was of St. Nikolai Church and the memorial to the movement that started there. Christian Fuehrer, the pastor who began the Friedensgebet, finally retired during our stay there, though the prayers for peace continued.


James Kroeger 11.08.09 at 4:18 pm

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, a dramatic truth was revealed to the world that Western governments and the mainstream press failed to take notice of. It was the revealed truth that the Communist leaders of the U.S.S.R. were not the evil madmen that our leaders had made them out to be.

They were never willing, in a desperate gamble, to launch a first strike against the West, simply in order that they might be able to declare themselves the winner over a devastated wasteland. They actually meant what they said when they declared at various times that peace was always their highest objective.

It was never their intention to ‘conquer the world’, to use their military power to impose a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ on the unwilling leaders of nations around the world. Their military buildup throughout the Cold War was revealed to have not been evidence of their plan to initiate a war against the West just as soon as they were able to achieve a military advantage, but was only evidence of their attempts to deter the West from finding an excuse to launch a preemptive war to effect a regime change favorable to Western leaders.

Perhaps the most important revelation was that the [Central Committee’s] communist leaders actually believed the rhetoric that they were so fond of using. No, they were not perfect or incorruptible, any more than Western political leaders are. Ultimately, however, they were not evil manipulators determined to use the raw power at their disposal to protect their privileged positions at all costs.

Gorbachev could not have carried out any of his reforms without the political support of most of the Central Committee. As a group, these people were willing to risk political implosion if that was what it would take to reduce nuclear tensions with the lunatic nut-case who was running the American government at that time.

It wasn’t that they still wanted to go ahead with their evil plans to Conquer The World but then Ronald Reagan so dispirited them with his own massive military buildup, they decided that they might as well just give up on the idea of being evil, leaving them with no choice but to be ‘good’ and give up their evil ways. Nope, none of that ever happened.

The final revelation was that Ronald Reagan and all of his fellow Cold Warriors were completely wrong about their understanding of what was going on in communist Russia and they were profoundly wrong with the prescription they embraced. They always acted on their belief that popular discontent could be stirred up (Radio Free Europe) among the masses, and that the average Russian could be motivated to rise up in an insurrection and put down their evil oppressors.

When change finally did come to Russia, it was from the top-down, not from the bottom-up. It was the ‘evil’ rulers of the USSR who put into motion the momentum for dramatic institutional change, putting most of their jobs at risk. They may have been a lot of things, but they were not evil. As a political party, the communists had, over the years, come to see themselves as public servants who were obligated to address the needs of their people. They simply were not the bad guys they were made out to be.


Chris Bertram 11.08.09 at 4:26 pm


I don’t know what you’ve been smoking, but whilst the Reaganite view of the Soviet bloc may have been seriously inaccurate, your version is no better. May I recommend Anna Funder’s Stasiland as a portrait of East Germany? The wall, and the other barriers were there for a reason you know: to keep people in. As for popular discontent: in Russia, maybe less so. But Hungary in 1956, the Prague spring, Solidarity in Poland were all examples of such. As for the ruling bureaucracies seeing themselves as “public servants”, well let’s just say that they tended to award themselves a better standard of living than the average.


James Kroeger 11.08.09 at 5:43 pm

And so what is it you’re accusing me of, Chris? Of being too lenient in my judgments of the Soviet leaders? Are you saying that you do believe that it was the intention of Brezhnev to conquer the world? At what point did I claim that the citizens of the U.S.S.R. were perfectly contented with their lot?

If you’ll re-read my comments, you might notice that I did not seek to defend the Communist leadership in Moscow from anything other than the accusation that they were Evil in the sense that they were obsessed with world conquest and indifferent to the needs of their people. Oh, and thank you for implicitly acknowledging that your recommended reading on East Germany was irrelevant to any of the points I was making re: the leadership of the U.S.S.R.

I didn’t come close to painting a sanguine picture of life in Communist Russia, but for some reason you chose to feel threatened by my criticism of popular Cold Warrior fantasies.

Why is that Chris?


Jacob Christensen 11.08.09 at 5:47 pm

My immediate impression was: Holy cows, you were able to get a shot of that banner without the friendly GDR police intervening at some point?

And then the stupid (?) question: Have you written about your experiences in GDR in 1984 somewhere?


James Kroeger 11.08.09 at 5:48 pm


As for the ruling bureaucracies seeing themselves as “public servants”, well let’s just say that they tended to award themselves a better standard of living than the average.

Hmm… I think maybe I need for you to spell out the point you are trying to make here. Is it that I should have realized that politicians who see themselves as ‘public servants’ in non-communist countries would never tend to award themselves a better standard of living than the average?


Chris Bertram 11.08.09 at 6:16 pm

Jacob, I have written about it intermittently on blogs over the years. Including in this post:


alex 11.08.09 at 6:33 pm

A bit of Judaean People’s Front/People’s Front of Judaea action going on here between James and Chris?


jeremy 11.08.09 at 6:43 pm

first, the invention of “matthijs krul,” the statistician from maoist hell, and now “james kroeger,” the eighth-grader assigned with the unfortunate task of defending soviet bureaucracy in debate club. i wouldn’t say it’s nearly as convincing (by eighth grade, you at least acknowledge the basic contours of the debate at hand, no?), but still oh so amusing! i’m eagerly awaiting a national-review-style apologia for the jim-crow south, or perhaps a neocon homily — “three cheers for war and empire!”

this is why i love crooked timber. you’ve got the expert opinion in the posts, and then the (intermittent) expert satire in the comments. the deliberate contrast is nothing short of expert.


jeremy 11.08.09 at 6:52 pm

on a serious note, alex, i think the differences between james and chris transcend the trivial, unless you believe the differences between social democracy and soviet bureaucracy are trivial.


Chris Bertram 11.08.09 at 7:01 pm

Back then, many of us hoped that the Eastern working class would, given the choice, reject both Soviet-style dictatorship and western capitalism, in favour of a combination of democracy and collective ownership with self-management (or “autogestion” as the French had it). That was clearly wishful thinking, but capitalism didn’t quite live up to the advertising.


Henri Vieuxtemps 11.08.09 at 7:15 pm

Come on, isn’t it a fact that what happened in 1989 (the Soviets peacefully letting go of their empire) was a truly amazing and hopeful development. If that’s what 3’s point is, it’s a fair point.


Jacob Christensen 11.08.09 at 7:23 pm

@8: THX


alex 11.08.09 at 7:34 pm

I have no doubt that Chris is a serious person, but he’s in a Monty Python sketch here, unless he pulls out sharpish. Never argue with a man holding a dead parrot.


Jim Harrison 11.08.09 at 7:43 pm

The Soviet Union in the 1980s was rather like the Ottoman Empire in the 1880s, the sick old man of Europe. That’s what’s always struck me as funny about the Reagan bit about the Evil Empire. The American right always talked about the Russians as if their regime and its leaders had an eternal essence that never changed from Lenin to Gorby. I still recall Irving Kristol’s bitter disappointment when the quiet demise of the Great Enemy didn’t involve a satisfyingly gory apocalypse. Reality was an unfamiliar concept to anybody who could look at Brezhnev and see a fiery revolutionary instead of Abe Vagoda in a fur hat.

It’s going to be a long, long time before we arrive at an understanding of the Soviet era and its ending that contains more objective history and sociology than ideological reflex.


JoB 11.08.09 at 8:12 pm

You know: it’s all fine & well that it turned out the way it turned out. But I recently saw footage of the mass demonstrations just before the great crumbling. Thousands which were marching, chanting ‘Wir sind das Volk’. Damned man, out of context that was the scariest shit I saw for a long time. Kind of put things in context for me: I sure hope that we Westerners never ever have to march in mass demonstrations again.


Chris Bertram 11.08.09 at 11:00 pm

I have absolutely no idea what Alex imagines me to be thinking.


Matt 11.08.09 at 11:15 pm

Back then, many of us hoped that the Eastern working class would, given the choice, reject both Soviet-style dictatorship and western capitalism, in favour of a combination of democracy and collective ownership with self-management

I can’t say much about most of Eastern Europe, and I don’t know for sure about “collective ownership with self-management”, but I do know that many people in Russia hoped to have options other than the ones they were actually given in the early 90’s. (Whether these were real options, given both the situation of the country and the outside pressures, I can’t say, but I do know that quite a lot of people hoped for something other than what they got in the end.) As for me, I wish that Yavlinsky would have had more luck in getting his proposals put into law, both in 1990 and in the later 9o’s.


Dr. Minorka 11.09.09 at 12:26 am

@12: Speaking about Hungary: The situation is rather” interesting”. Capitalism is extremely unpopular, just we have no socialists.


Down and Out of Sài Gòn 11.09.09 at 2:47 am

The sad thing about the fall of the Soviet Union was that millions died anyway. It just didn’t turn out to be the nasty civil war that many people predicted (except in outlying areas like Chechnya). Instead, it was due to increased drug use and alcoholism, which was due to the collapse of the economic system, but aggravated by Yeltsin’s and Gaidar’s shock therapy.


alex 11.09.09 at 8:30 am

The Fall of the Soviet Union – just one big excluded middle fallacy.


Walt 11.09.09 at 9:32 am

Chris, I think Alex means you’re a serious person arguing with a silly person.


Natilo Paennim 11.09.09 at 10:57 pm

I’m confused about why we have to think any one thing about “the Soviet leadership”. Do we conflate Reagan and Goldwater? Or Carter and Ted Kennedy? To be sure, some of the nomenklatura in the USSR were cunning indeed — just look at the way that many of them surfed the waves of crisis to their advantage. And equally, some of them were much more like modern-day Bobchinskys and Dobchinskys. And some of them were probably the selfless public servants that James imagines. Not everyone is a cynic, after all.
Try as they might have though, it’s hard to imagine how they could’ve kept it all going much longer than they did, assuming that many of them wanted to. The historical weight of Stalin’s crimes (we’ll leave Kronstadt and Makhno out of it for the nonce), the internal pressures of the never-resolved nationalities question, the costs of the doomed Afghanistan adventure, and frankly the understandable, if not strictly virtuous, desire for a late-20th century, first world standard of living on the part of much of the population, were a lot to deal with.
Maybe if they’d started the counter-revolution 5 years earlier like the PRC did, they could’ve come out of it with at least a veneer of soc1al/sm to pay lip-service to, but they moved too slowly. That’s the way the печенье crumbles.


engels 11.10.09 at 12:30 am

‘[T]his development of productive forces … is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with want the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would begin again…’ (Marx, The German Ideology)


Jim Harrison 11.10.09 at 1:17 am

The Neoconservatives have nothing but contempt for Gorbachev because they figured that they could have piloted the USSR through the storm by the application of enough blood and iron. Of course, Neoconservatism, which is pretty much fascism for Jews, is heavy on the triumph of the will and light on the political economy so its adherents aren’t much interested in hearing about deep-seated structural problems and the nationality question. To be honest, I don’t know if a sufficiently ruthless leader could have crushed the nationalists and reformers. Would the cost in lives and suffering have been any greater than what Lenin and Stalin inflicted? Doubtless the question is moot since the sorry bunch of old drunks who tried to pull off the coup were certainly not up to the game, for which we can all be thankful.


engels 11.10.09 at 4:14 am

Thomas Friedman rises to the occasion:

The most important difference between 11/9 and 9/11 is “people power.” Germans showed the world how good ideas about expanding human freedom — amplified by people power — can bring down a wall and an entire autocratic power structure, without a shot. There is now a Dunkin’ Donuts on Paris Square adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, where all that people power was concentrated. Normally, I am horrified by American fast-food brands near iconic sites, but in the case of this once open sore between East and West, I find it something of a balm. The war over Europe is indeed over. People power won. We can stand down — pass the donuts.


novakant 11.10.09 at 4:34 am

I have written about it intermittently on blogs over the years. Including in this post:

You might want to reconsider this statement:

“There were not, as far as I could tell, widespread disappearances, torture or any of that stuff.”

since it shows a worrying lack of knowledge of the subject matter. Of course there was widespread torture in the GDR, the whole Stasi system was built on torturing large parts of the citizenry psychologically and physical torture was the norm in GDR prisons right up until 1989.


novakant 11.10.09 at 7:10 am

And of course the Stasi was famous for their skill in abducting and disappearing people.


Chris Bertram 11.10.09 at 8:59 am

Novakant, I recommended Anna Funder’s _Stasiland_ in comment #4 above. Since, in the sentence you quote, I’m reporting my impressions in 1984, it isn’t clear what you think I should reconsider. Are you saying that I should report now that my beliefs then were as they would have been if I had been better informed? Presumably not.


novakant 11.10.09 at 1:16 pm

Whatever – we could engage in a drawn-out back and forth now about your week in the GDR 25 years ago and the way you subsequently referred to it, but frankly it would be a waste of both our time.


Henri Vieuxtemps 11.11.09 at 8:34 pm

Back then, many of us hoped that the Eastern working class would, given the choice, reject both Soviet-style dictatorship and western capitalism…

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