Commentary Magazine


Topic: Cold War museum

Remembering the Evils of Communism

An often-debated subject, especially among scholars on the right, is the discrepancy between the considered history of the crimes of Communism and those of Nazism. Both were totalitarian and evil, but there are far more victims of Communism than Nazi fascism–yet we shun one completely but make some room for the influence and ideas of the other; European governments outlaw one but not the other.

Two current debates illustrate this divide. Last month, in what appeared to be a public relations stunt to distract pro-democracy protesters in Russia from the neo-Soviet behavior of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s new culture minister touched off a national debate when he proposed–as someone does every so often there–that the state bury Vladimir Lenin’s body once and for all. The Soviet founding father currently lies in a glass coffin in Red Square. The fact that Lenin inhabits a shrine rather than be returned to the dust of the earth, where he belongs, has turned the phrase “Lenin’s tomb” into a sort of shorthand for the torn nostalgia of Russian society.

The other such debate, the subject of an interesting story in today’s Washington Post, is over whether, how, and where Germany should build a new Cold War museum. Neither society appears to have much taste for the totalitarianism that oppressed them throughout the 20th century, but the West’s victory in the Cold War cannot be so easily simplified in two countries that were divided–in Germany’s case, literally–about the issue as recently as the early 1990s. In Russia’s case, burying Lenin would be an act of tremendous psychological weight and exertion. In Germany, it is much the same:

Here at Checkpoint Charlie, where Soviet and American tanks once aimed at each other separated by 30 yards, Cold War tensions are still running high.

An international group of scholars, backed by Berlin’s center-left city government, wants to build a Cold War museum on a rubble-strewn plot of land here, arguing that one of the best-known sites of confrontation between the capitalist West and the Communist East should not be abandoned to tourist touts and vendors selling Red Army hats.

But a group of conservative politicians, seared by memories of the divided city, says the plans for the museum are overly sympathetic to the Communists. They want to go elsewhere in the city to build a museum that they say celebrates freedom….

“It’s a scandal to have hot dog stands and people in fake uniforms,” said Konrad Jarausch, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who was born in Germany and is leading the effort to build a museum at Checkpoint Charlie. “What the city needs is a museum on the same level of some of the museums that deal with the Third Reich.”

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An often-debated subject, especially among scholars on the right, is the discrepancy between the considered history of the crimes of Communism and those of Nazism. Both were totalitarian and evil, but there are far more victims of Communism than Nazi fascism–yet we shun one completely but make some room for the influence and ideas of the other; European governments outlaw one but not the other.

Two current debates illustrate this divide. Last month, in what appeared to be a public relations stunt to distract pro-democracy protesters in Russia from the neo-Soviet behavior of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s new culture minister touched off a national debate when he proposed–as someone does every so often there–that the state bury Vladimir Lenin’s body once and for all. The Soviet founding father currently lies in a glass coffin in Red Square. The fact that Lenin inhabits a shrine rather than be returned to the dust of the earth, where he belongs, has turned the phrase “Lenin’s tomb” into a sort of shorthand for the torn nostalgia of Russian society.

The other such debate, the subject of an interesting story in today’s Washington Post, is over whether, how, and where Germany should build a new Cold War museum. Neither society appears to have much taste for the totalitarianism that oppressed them throughout the 20th century, but the West’s victory in the Cold War cannot be so easily simplified in two countries that were divided–in Germany’s case, literally–about the issue as recently as the early 1990s. In Russia’s case, burying Lenin would be an act of tremendous psychological weight and exertion. In Germany, it is much the same:

Here at Checkpoint Charlie, where Soviet and American tanks once aimed at each other separated by 30 yards, Cold War tensions are still running high.

An international group of scholars, backed by Berlin’s center-left city government, wants to build a Cold War museum on a rubble-strewn plot of land here, arguing that one of the best-known sites of confrontation between the capitalist West and the Communist East should not be abandoned to tourist touts and vendors selling Red Army hats.

But a group of conservative politicians, seared by memories of the divided city, says the plans for the museum are overly sympathetic to the Communists. They want to go elsewhere in the city to build a museum that they say celebrates freedom….

“It’s a scandal to have hot dog stands and people in fake uniforms,” said Konrad Jarausch, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who was born in Germany and is leading the effort to build a museum at Checkpoint Charlie. “What the city needs is a museum on the same level of some of the museums that deal with the Third Reich.”

The site at present is a tourist destination, complete with food vendors selling–apologies in advance–“Checkpoint Curry.” It may sound insensitive, and obviously so, but it’s not all that straightforward. I recently visited the new 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero in Manhattan, and due to its park-like atmosphere and city location, it does not feel solemn, somber, or especially evocative of the magnitude of the tragedy. It has also, predictably, become a tourist destination–though that is not an entirely bad thing, as many people from all over the world pay their respects regularly.

But Professor Jarausch has made the essential point: historical crimes must be honestly reckoned with. Though this can heal a society’s old wounds in a way time alone cannot, it’s also painful. In his profoundly moving new history of the run-up to the Soviet Union’s collapse, which I reviewed for the current issue of COMMENTARY, Leon Aron tackles this with precision. I wrote:

Aron offers a fully rounded portrait of the moment when the Russian people, for the first time in nearly a century, were directed by their own modernizing regime to look in the mirror of glasnost. Mikhail Gorbachev’s administration said there was no way the country could move forward with the restructuring Gorbachev sought without first understanding its past. The problem was that “the road to self-discovery, now deemed vital to the country’s revival—indeed, her survival—was found to be full of vast gaps.” Censorship had been locked in place since 1921; secrecy had been the foundational doctrine of the empire.

That empire of secrecy and lies was Lenin’s foremost legacy. It is why fully burying that legacy may in fact require fully burying Lenin himself. Though Germany may seem farther along this road, the discussion has brought to the surface lingering resentments on both sides. The pro-democracy side wants to call Communism and its crimes heinous; but that would mean so designating the operational ideology of the East German state, and its citizens, many of whom are still alive. Unification itself was far from unanimous, and therefore solidified, rather than soothed, many an East German’s bitterness.

Are they just being sore losers? They will say they have been gracious enough in defeat, and that this is more they can say for the victors now asking to pour salt in their wounds. “Everything has its history, including history,” John Lukacs wrote. And the history of Communism is monstrous; it should be remembered this way.

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