After visiting the Berlin wall, I told my companion that I could imagine how the Wall's presence must crush Berliners'…
Touristen raus. Tourists out. It was written, not on the Wall itself (which was covered along that stretch in the Kreuzberg district with other graffiti less transparent in meaning, esoteric doodlings done with some flair by adept practitioners of the metropolitan guano school), but on some kind of machine housing hard by. The directive was rhetorically inadequate for its purpose; it did no more than register distaste for intruders, and lacked the glint of menace required actually to chase anyone off. We laughed and walked on, along the Wall. (Although my host, an old friend, was not a tourist but an American diplomat assigned to the U.S. Mission in West Berlin, I assumed that the inhospitality extended to the likes of him as well.)
On this evening during the last week in May, my first night in town, Berlin was chill, gray, dank, dungeon-grim, the sky like a lid bolted shut, a misty rain falling that seemed the condensation of human misery. Viewing conditions were ideal for what we had in mind. Where the street curved, and the Wall along with it, there was a public observation platform. Such platforms stand here and there along the Wall’s length, and they are intended to serve as reviewing stands, from which Western observers may inspect the Soviet bloc’s supreme achievement: the perfection of lethal force against its own citizens.
We climbed the stairs to the platform, and looked out through the gray flickering rain at the no-man’s-land that stretched between the Wall right before us and another wall nearly one hundred yards away. Directly across from us, perhaps thirty yards off, stood the border guards’ watch-tower, its observation post covered with the coppery mirrored windows that you see in countless new office buildings, including a few in East Berlin. One of the windows was open, and we could see a guard standing inside, with his back to us. When he turned around, he stiffened with surprise at finding himself under surveillance. Yet his manner as he looked us over was casual and disdainful and certainly befitting a man who had a machine gun and who saw that we did not. I did my best to endow my own contemptuous stare with deadly firepower, but the guard was well-armored. When he turned away, it was plainly not in disquiet or shame, but out of boredom.
The impression he made on me was more striking than the one I made on him: even in perfect safety, and despite my bold look, I felt an inward cringing. The predator’s regal power of life and death was unmistakably his; although I stood beyond lawful reach of that power, I felt it all the same, and got a taste of the fear and disgust that his feral lordliness must inspire in those who have to acknowledge him as their keeper. In this elemental mastery—which is so effective because it is the sort that men tend to appreciate most readily—lay the success of the East German terror state. By the judiciously focused use of terror, the German Democratic Republic has pretty well done what it wanted most desperately to do when it built the Wall twenty-five years ago: it has convinced East Germans who in ever increasing numbers were finding their homeland uninhabitable that there is after all a crueler fate than having to live in East Germany.
Here were the true foundations of the German Democratic Republic, and they appeared to be unshakable. Shaped like a scepter with modern lines, the watchtower was not merely a perfect emblem but also the most fearsome embodiment of East German sovereignty. There are 289 of these watchtowers along the Wall; they tend to be placed within shooting distance of one another, so that the guards themselves should not be led into temptation. My friend enumerated various other standard features of the “modern boundary,” as the no-man’s-land is known to its proprietors: the contact fence on the eastern side, rigged with light and sound alarms; German shepherd dogs on patrol, to see to anyone the human sentries might happen to overlook; the trench, five meters deep, which runs down the middle of the boundary in order to inhibit the passage of any unauthorized motor vehicle, such as, say, a hijacked tank. In the sector we surveyed, I could not make out the trench, which is said to be hard to spot, and I did not see any dogs, but the modern boundary nevertheless looked simply impassable.
We stood on the observation platform for some time. I stared and stared, taking in the malevolence that the terrible landscape radiated, and as I went on staring, the place went out of mental focus for a moment, so that it seemed literally inhuman, as alien as the face of some inconceivably remote star. When this brief spell of disorientation had passed, I recognized the feeling of unearthly strangeness as one I had experienced in Dachau, where I had gone as a tourist several years ago. There, too, the familiar elements of the landscape—concrete, metal, earth, sky—had suddenly turned uncanny, unidentifiable, as though they had no place in the world I knew. These mild and fleeting episodes of cognitive disarray were, I suspect, unsuccessful escape attempts; what I was attempting to escape from was the shame I felt in these places, shame at the humanity I had in common with the men who had conceived and brought forth such abominations, and in common with the other, decent men who had failed to prevent their being brought forth.
When we climbed down from the platform, I was certain that, whatever else I might happen to see in Berlin, none of it would rival in significance what I had just seen. Here was the sight that revealed the soul of the place. As my friend and I walked on, I told him that I could imagine how the Wall’s presence must crush Berliners’ spirits under its intolerable weight, how it must be a source of relentless and crippling pain. He said that people really seemed to pay it no mind, to go about their lives as though it weren’t even there. I said I couldn’t believe it. He told me it seemed to be so, all the same.
Thus was I made acutely aware how elusive the significance of things might be for a tourist in Berlin. Touristen raus: perhaps I had been wrong to laugh at the warning that this was no place for tourists, that these awful sights were not meant for outsiders. As I reconsidered the warning, I read in it the implication that a mere visitor’s eyes necessarily lack the acuity required to see things as they are there, that long acquaintance with the peculiarities of the local atmosphere is indispensable to clear-sightedness. I had wanted not merely to see Berlin as a tourist did, but to understand it, at least to some degree, as a Berliner did. Yet I was already deep in incomprehension. Touristen raus: only a Berliner can divine the spirit of the place, the warning insisted, and, despite President Kennedy’s celebrated avowal, we are not all Berliners.
Once I had acknowledged that my view of the place would inevitably be an alien and partial one, I felt free to give in to my tourist’s bemusement with the very things that the natives ignore. Berliners might scarcely give the Wall a glance, but, if you are not a Berliner, the Wall commands your attention, and holds it. When it is in sight, it is what you look at; when it is out of sight, you wonder where it is. So even when it disappears from view for a while, perhaps for quite a while, it does so only to increase its fascination with each reappearance. It takes you by surprise again and again: you spot it just down the street or through a break in the trees; you turn a corner and hit an abrupt, inarguable dead end; you can even go for a spin in the countryside and suddenly find it on either side of the road, outlining a slender freedom peninsula at the knobby end of which, in the agreeable but precarious suburb of Steinstücken, you make a U-turn and head back toward firmer ground.
The Wall curves right around the dapper little restaurant we sought out in a dim corner of Kreuzberg one evening, and found full up. It is not always so accommodating. Buildings that straddled the frontier were knocked down, so that no one could make his escape by stepping out the back door. (One of the first to die in an escape attempt was a woman who jumped from her fourth-story East Berlin apartment into the West Berlin street below.) In one stretch the walls of a cemetery were incorporated into the Wall, and the cemetery’s gates bricked shut. East Germany’s statesmen knew just how badly their constituents wanted out.
The Wall comes up just behind the rebuilt Reichstag, tauntingly. There, in back of the visitors’ parking lot, six white crosses commemorate those who died nearby in their attempt to escape. Some of these crosses and several elsewhere along the Wall are marked Unbekannt, all that is known of those dead being their courage and their destruction. The date of the most recent murder near this site is October 1984; perhaps one of the guards we saw lounging in the watch-tower was the one who took aim and squeezed the trigger. Regulations stipulate that, once a border violator has reached the raked strip of sandy ground which begins about fifteen meters from the Wall, the guard is not to fire a warning shot.
Along this section, as in many others, the Wall itself does not mark the boundary between East and West; the actual boundary line is a few yards this side of the Wall, and signs posted along the line warn you not to cross it. Some two hundred yards down from the Reichstag, near the Brandenburg Gate, we saw a German in his early twenties stride past the warning signs and right up to the Wall. Just there the Wall is a metal fence about seven feet high rather than the usual concrete one about twelve, and the young man, irrepressibly ebullient, bounced up and down repeatedly, exhorting his companion to get a photo of him with his head over the Wall. There are doors here and there in the Wall, and East German guards have been known to step through and arrest trespassers on Eastern territory. One did not choose that moment to do so. Touristen raus.
East Berlin does not exactly encourage visitors, but it does make it easier for them to get in than for the natives to get out. I entered East Berlin with my friend by way of Checkpoint Charlie, the sole point of entry above ground—the U-bahn, or subway, being the other way in—for diplomats of the three Allied powers, the U.S., Britain, and France, that still take part in the administration of West Berlin.
On my way into East Berlin, I received an object lesson in diplomacy that illuminated the difference between the official Eastern and Western understandings of the Wall’s status. After my friend signed us in at the American border station, we proceeded to the East German border control in his car; on our way, we rolled the car windows up, although the day was warm. When the East German border guard peered through the window on the driver’s side, I showed him the cover of my passport and the photograph inside; my friend displayed instead a form of Allied identification called a flag card. According to Western protocol, our diplomats need not display their diplomatic passports, and they are encouraged not to let the East German guards touch their identification papers; this official diffidence is a precaution taken to prevent the East Germans from stamping these papers with a visa. By observing these niceties at Checkpoint Charlie, my friend upheld the Western contention that this checkpoint is not the international frontier the East claims it is but rather a mere sector crossing, an entrance to the Soviet-administered area of the city that the four Allied powers continue to oversee jointly, by virtue of their conquest of Nazi Germany.
Certain conquerors make more demanding overseers than others, of course. Soviet policy in postwar Berlin has been—as more prudent allies would have expected it to be—inveterate defiance of the London Protocol of 1944 and the Potsdam Conference of 1945, in which the Allies determined the procedure by which they would occupy and administer a defeated Germany. Germany was divided into four zones of occupation, and an Allied Control Council formed to direct the administration of the entire country; Berlin was separately and similarly divided into four sectors, and an inter-Allied Kommandatura formed to direct the administration of the entire city. The occupying forces were to work toward the establishment of a suitable German government—the government of a single Germany, with Berlin as its capital. There was, however, to be some disagreement about just what sort of government would suit Germany best.
After Soviet walkouts in the spring of 1948 threw a wrench into the workings of the Allied Control Council, the three Western Allies proceeded on their own to enact currency-reform measures for the Western-occupied zones of Germany; these measures were intended to stimulate the recovery of the German economy. In response, the Soviets, who were in no hurry to see the German economy recover, ordered a currency reform of their own for the Soviet zone and for Berlin, which happened to be surrounded by the Soviet zone and thus, the Soviets made believe, to lie within their exclusive jurisdiction. The same day, the three Western commandants on the Kommandatura declared that the currency reform for the Western-occupied zones was to include the three Western-occupied sectors of Berlin. Shortly thereafter, the Soviet Union withdrew from the Kommandatura, and began a blockade of Berlin’s Western sectors, cutting off road, rail, and water communications between Berlin and the Western-occupied zones of Germany. The Allies responded with the famous airlift—Tegel Airport, now the major commercial airport in West Berlin, was built in record time to ease the traffic at the existing airport, Tempelhof—and the Soviets removed the blockade in May 1949.
Also that May, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was founded; the founding of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) followed that October, in East Berlin. The bickering over Berlin grew more intense and more subtle. Each of the new German nations included in its constitution its exclusive claim to Berlin, and each of course wound up effectively getting half of what it claimed. According to the higher power of international law, which is entitled to override German constitutional law, the four Allied powers retained their status in Berlin as occupying forces, and they continue to do so. In order to ensure West Berlin’s protection under international law, the Western Allies suspended the Federal Republic’s constitutional claim that Berlin was one of its states; however, West Berlin did become a virtual part of the Federal Republic, just as East Berlin did of the Democratic Republic. Although each side continued to voice its claims to the other half of the city, neither was willing to press these claims with significant action. When insurrection flared in East Berlin and other East German cities in 1953, the Soviets put down the revolt, and the West did not intervene. In 1958 Khrushchev demanded that the Western Allies leave Berlin and recognize it as the capital of the GDR. But the West refused, and Khrushchev seemed to get over his crankiness.
Yet Berlin remained a profound irritation to the Soviet overlords. As Berlin continued to be an open city, with free passage between East and West, it was a costly breach in the Soviet empire’s system of fortification, which was employed as much to keep its inhabitants in as to keep invaders out. From the founding of the GDR until the erection of the Wall, three-and-a-half million East Germans—20 percent of that nation’s population—were to head West, a vast majority of them using Berlin as their exit and entryway. So severe a loss could not be tolerated. Khrushchev was compelled to reiterate his demands, in a slightly different form. In June 1961 he informed President Kennedy that the Soviet Union would sign a separate treaty with the GDR, and grant it sole sovereignty over Berlin. Kennedy replied that sovereignty over Berlin was neither the Soviet Union’s to grant nor the GDR’s to accept. Berlin, Kennedy averred, remained under the control of the four sometime Allies, and the Western Allies would not be driven out; they would stand fast in their commitment to defend the right of Berliners “to choose their way of life.”
On August 13, 1961, in order to halt “the hostile activities of the revanchist and militarist forces of Western Germany and West Berlin”—which is to say, in order to halt the flow of East Germans heading West, 16,500 of them having made their escape during the first twelve days of that month—Walter Ulbricht, the GDR chieftain, ordered that the Wall be built. The man whom he appointed to oversee its construction was Erich Honecker. The assignment was obviously a real plum. From this distinguished service of his in the public-works line, Honecker went on to become the chieftain himself. The Wall’s original incarnation was a makeshift construction of concrete posts and barbed wire; work on the Wall we know, the one built to last, began several days later.
On August 19, Vice President Lyndon Johnson gave a speech in Berlin, and reasserted America’s devotion to Berlin’s survival and “creative future,” pledging “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” On August 23, the GDR reasserted its claims to sovereignty over the western sectors of the city by opening offices in various railway stations there to issue visitors’ passes to East Berlin. The Kommandatura ordered West Berlin police to close those offices. The GDR, not to be outdone, proceeded to close East Berlin to West Berliners. When the Soviet Union tried to close East Berlin to Allied personnel as well, President Kennedy called in additional troops, and in October our tanks faced theirs across the Wall.
Neither side opened fire, of course, and things cooled down. Students from the Free University in West Berlin—which had been founded in 1948, in disgust with the ideological perversion of the once great Humboldt University in the Soviet sector—sent President Kennedy an umbrella, like the one Neville Chamberlain carried on his way to meet Hitler in Munich in 1938. The bitter gesture was certainly understandable but nevertheless uncomprehending. It was not Kennedy who had feared the rain in 1945 or in the years just after World War II, when the last real opportunity existed to secure the freedom of Berlin, and indeed of Central and Eastern Europe.
Over the course of the past twenty-five years, the city’s division has effectively become a settled issue, another loss for the West. However, diplomacy has managed to mitigate some of the harsher effects of this division, and Berliners have learned to be grateful for small triumphs. The most notable of these was the Quadripartite Agreement of 1972. It reaffirmed the legality of the Allies’ presence in Berlin; it reestablished telephone connections between the two halves of the city, which had been broken since 1952; and it made it possible for West Berliners to make day trips to East Berlin on a regular basis. (There had been a few special holiday easements of the travel prohibition in the previous years.) To a city where the Wall has divided so many families and separated so many friends, these measures were cause for rejoicing.
Yet even when the West has gained a small triumph, there is no assurance that it will keep what it has managed to get. For the West triumphs only when the East grants concessions, and the East can always take back what it has given. In a clear violation of the Quadripartite Agreement, the East Germans have raised the amount of currency visitors are required to exchange on a day trip from five marks to twenty-five. The sum exchanged is non-refundable, and the exchange rate is an extortionate one to one, or ten times the actual value of the East German mark. The number of visits has declined accordingly.
So diplomacy in Berlin is regularly employed, not only as a balm, but also as an irritant. We irritate them by holding to the rules—and, worse still, by trying to hold them to the rules—and they irritate us by simply flouting the rules when it suits them. It large part, our standing on legality amounts to a semantic fussing that leaves the facts of the matter utterly unchanged. Although the Quadripartite Agreement takes pains to avoid calling East Berlin the capital of the GDR, East Berlin serves as the capital all the same. Although the United States has an embassy in East Berlin, we do not call this our embassy in the GDR, but our embassy to the GDR in Berlin. The other NATO countries follow suit, except for Canada, which is more scrupulous still and has no embassy in or to the GDR; matters to do with the GDR are referred to the Canadian embassy in Poland.
The GDR goes about giving offense rather more robustly than we do. Last May, the East Germans sent the various embassies in West Berlin a diplomatic note which declared that there would soon be some changes made in the regulations governing passage between West and East Berlin. The note did not specify what these changes might be. The Western Allied powers, wanting to find out whether the East Germans might have any changes in mind particularly for them, sent a platoon of diplomats into the breach early one morning. Each diplomat presented either a flag card, or a diplomatic passport, or a tourist passport. This reconnaissance party entered unchallenged and returned without casualties. Soon afterward, however, the East Germans insisted that diplomats of all nations except the three Western Allied powers were now required to present passports at the frontier. Certain Western diplomats refused to do so, and they were turned back. About two weeks later, the East Germans realized that the diplomatic forces of the other Western nations were not going to give in to their demands, and they restored the legal crossing procedures. Even their offensiveness has its limits.
Another of their capers threatened to prove more successful, until very recently. It too was a trial of Western patience and resolve, and it had been concocted with uncommon ingenuity and probably a smirk. The Soviet airline, Aeroflot, and the East German one, Interflug, conducted an extensive advertising campaign in the Third World to entice people to emigrate and to seek political asylum in West Berlin. Iranians, Indians, Turks, Lebanese flew into East Berlin, received instructions on applying for political refugee status in West Berlin, and headed on over. (The three Lebanese men whom West Berlin police arrested in August on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack on American installations had entered town just this way.) The Federal Republic of Germany allows virtually anyone to apply for political asylum, and over 40,000 people have done so this year.
Processing the application of a political refugee who enters the FRG through West Berlin can take as long as four years.
The West German predicament must have been a source of delight for the Soviets and the East Germans. One of their fondest wishes is to see the West renounce its insistence that Berlin is still by law an open city. With this immigration scheme, they were doing their best to bring us around to their way of thinking—to compel us to designate the Wall an international frontier. The advantage was theirs, and they seemed to be pressing it. The West German government had already taken measures to restrict the intake of refugees when the East Germans agreed in September to put a stop to the traffic at their end; their capabilities in this respect are beyond reproach. What prompted them suddenly to become so obliging was the desire for improved trade agreements. Once again the West enjoyed a kind of triumph. Still, it is bitterly sad to think that affairs like this are the sorts of things—those that must be done to prevent utter defeat when our own chance for victory is long past, and the enemy is secure in its stronghold—that remain for our diplomatic intelligences to contend with.
There appear to be other things as well. My friend and I had penetrated about twenty yards into East Berlin when he looked at the rear-view mirror and remarked that a car full of Soviet soldiers had pulled out behind us. My friend slowed down to see if they would pass us. They did not. He speeded up. They did, too. My friend, who is not easily flustered, was getting edgy. I knew just what he meant. He drove on for a few more blocks, then said, “Here’s where we find out what kind of day we’re going to have,” and made a quick left turn. The soldiers did not follow. Perhaps their presence had been a coincidence. The day seemed to be turning out a good one.
But we had not seen the last of the screws, and our next encounter was not a coincidence. After strolling about the center of town, we returned to my friend’s car on Unter den Linden, formerly Berlin’s grandest boulevard, and found a policeman with a truncheon-like demeanor standing on the other side of the street. He was unmistakably waiting for us. “Verboten. Em-bah-zay. Em-bah-zay. Raus. Raus.” My friend nodded, although he had no idea what the problem was. We sat in the car for a time, while he consulted his map. We discussed the policeman’s interest in us, and looked over at him now and again. He was clearly a man with a vocation. He had fists that were made to smash faces and a face that was made to smash fists. And while we dawdled, his fury increased. As it did, his face grew more expressive, so that it came to look less like a blunt instrument and more like a large, ripe boil. At length my friend got his bearings, and pulled out onto the boulevard, without really looking first. Six cars swerved six different ways in their efforts to evade destruction. My friend and I glanced over at the policeman. His pustular wrath was threatening to become volcanic. He seemed about ready to vent the full reservoir of his just socialist loathing upon us, snake-bellied CIA desperadoes that we were, purveyors of mayhem to the world. We looked away, demurely, and did not look back. As we drove off, my friend assured me that even if we’d taken a direct hit broadside, our chances of survival would have been good: a number of East German automobiles have bodies that are made of particle board. He also determined that he must have unwittingly parked in a restricted area. I gathered, from the policeman’s glowering attentiveness, that it must be especially illegal to park a car with American diplomatic plates in this area, which is just up the block from the Soviet embassy.
The cars might be made of compressed sawdust, and an occasional lungful of incomparably foul auto exhaust might make you wish you were inhaling sawdust instead; nevertheless, you have to go to East Berlin to appreciate how grand the imperial city must once have been. Most of the imposing remnants of the old city are now on the wrong side of the Wall; the Soviets got the better of us in this, as in the rest of the deal. It must have been a splendid place, if not a beautiful one: there are buildings of an immensity befitting victorious titans, public squares spacious as small dukedoms, avenues intended to display the glory of parading armies in full bloom. (German military parades are forbidden in Berlin by Allied law, but they are held regularly in East Berlin, on May Day and other occasions for general rejoicing, such as major anniversaries of the Wall’s erection.) It is a city whose magnificence is a celebration of conquest; Frederick the Great, who was responsible for most of the best things, had a capital built that his army could be proud of.
The Soviets and their minions are not entirely unworthy inheritors of this capital, even if Erich Honecker does not spend his leisure composing flute sonatas, as Frederick used to do.
With their taste for the stupendous, for that crushing grandeur which overwhelms you like an avalanche, the Soviets and the East Germans have been faithful, after their fashion, to the character of the imperial city center. They were busy last spring polishing the ancient glories—the great old buildings were bristling with scaffolding—determined that their luster would outshine anything West Berlin might have to offer when the city observes its 750th anniversary next year. Communist regimes, especially the Soviet one, seem to thrive on such occasions of high ceremony. At conducting solemn festivities of self-celebration, they are surely world class. It is the rest of life at which they fail so decisively.
Some of East Berlin’s ugly failures take peculiarly familiar forms. The new regime’s architectural contributions to the imperial magnificence have been executed in high proletarian style: the Palace of the Republic, where the Congress of Peoples convenes, is just the kind of palace that might be envisioned by a locker-room attendant who has won the lottery. Its notions of solemn majesty derive chiefly from hotel lobbies in Miami and Las Vegas. To crown the public happiness, piped-in German rap music resounds through the enormous central hall. Such imitations of Western ways are plentiful, and tend to be so grotesque as to seem like parodies. The vast tracts of proletarian housing blocks look just like the projects, though on a more ambitious scale: in the workers’ paradise, everyone can live the way they do in American slums.
As in American slums, or for that matter in West Berlin, the contemporary urban folk art of wall painting is in vogue. The eastern face of the Wall, however, is graffiti-free. In the interest of public beautification and moral safety, graffiti are strictly state-commissioned—perhaps there is a Ministry of Public Defacement—and executed on designated sites by members of an artists’ union. On a corrugated metal fence near Hitler’s bunker, which is being excavated, jolly zig-zags in tropical fruit colors disport themselves, with the state’s approval. A mural on a similar fence around a construction site depicts the struggle of the world’s oppressed peoples for freedom and peace. Just across the street is another, taller wall, of concrete; it is there to protect the citizenry from the oppression that lurks on the other side.
Actually, to get a taste of the lurking oppression, one would have to make his way first over this wall, then across the River Spree, which is wider there than in most places, and after that over the Wall itself. This lesser wall is imposing in its own right, and it too had been made handsome for the upcoming celebration. The wall used to be a uniform dark gray, my friend observed; now each section of the wall is painted in two shades of gray, so that a rectangular frame of the dark gray encloses, and contrasts winsomely with, an interior panel of light gray. It is a sort of state-sponsored gentrification. The prison-city has been dolling itself up, and pretending it is a drawing room. It is not merely the want of a view there that has spoiled the desired effect.
The desired effect—respectability, the appearance of decency—is a difficult thing for East Berlin to achieve. It goes against the regime’s true instincts. On the western side of the Wall near the Reichstag, where graffiti abound, someone has written, in German, “Down with the Red-Nazi regime.” No insult could be more galling to the East Germans, who celebrate relentlessly the great socialist victory over fascism. Yet East Berlin’s Memorial to the Victims of Fascist Militarism is unquestionably a shrine to the might of Red-Nazism. (The Jews get no special mention there, by the way, or indeed any mention at all.)
What the new German socialists purport to abhor and to repudiate, they in fact revere and emulate. The changing of the guard at the Memorial is notorious for its vivid evocation of the Third Reich’s martial glories. The guardsmen, tall, proud, and fierce, goose-step in precise formation. Even the cut of their uniforms, the shape of their helmets, are familiar. Some of the faces, too, one has seen before. The soldier we saw directing the changing of the guard was blond and handsome and German-looking in just that way which makes Germanic blond handsomeness seem a symptom of psychopathology. He was a picture-book Nazi, his face a caricature of hate-forged ruthlessness. It was simply not possible to look at that young soldier without fear and disgust.
And it was not possible to look at one of his fellow soldiers standing guard there without pity and grief. For as I was examining his face, fixed in that severity which the task commanded, the unthinkable happened, and he broke into a smile. Following his gaze, I looked over at a young woman who was standing a few feet away from me, and it was obvious that her smile had triggered the soldier’s. At first I thought this pursed smile of hers was an ironic one, directed at the whole vicious spectacle, but then it seemed that the tightness of her smile, which made her cheeks quiver, was designed to keep her from exploding with laughter. Perhaps she was the soldier’s sweetheart or friend or sister, and one look was all that was needed to set the two of them off, like a couple of kids who glance at each other in church and immediately turn epileptic with hilarity, disgracing their parents forever. In this case, the young soldier got hold of himself; facial discipline was restored, and permanent disgrace to the fatherland was averted. Still, I had managed to spy the subversive grin, and it was touching to see.
When I read in the Chicago newspapers sometime in July about the unsuccessful attempt by a dozen East German soldiers to commandeer an empty subway train and make their way down an abandoned line into West Berlin—half of them were reported to have been killed in a firefight, the rest executed later—it was this young soldier I thought of. I knew he could not have been among them, for the attempted breakout was said to have taken place in early May, although word of it had not reached the West until two months later. And for all I know, the smiling soldier might be as devoted to his nation’s regime as the laser-eyed maniac. Still, I thought of him, his lapse into humanity, which had been heartening for a moment, then heartbreaking. Cracks may appear in the monolith, but the monolith quickly repairs itself. Escape is a rarity; brutality prevails, and its grip is iron. One especially cherishes the glimpse of humanity one gets where one least expects to see it, but the ultimate effect of such a glimpse is to make one feel all the more sharply the pathos of suffocated life.
There is a wearying sadness that a tourist in Berlin feels, the sadness of being in a former center of civilization which now—even though one-half of the city is once again an eminently civilized place—bears the indelible mark of barbarism. Worst of all is the thought that one barbaric regime has succeeded another, and that the current tyranny of the Red-Nazi regime might seem not an unjust punishment for what came before. The Thousand Year Reich lasted scarcely more than a decade, but its taint lingers, and will linger long, with an awful pungency.
The city still literally shows the scars of its Nazi past. The façades of public buildings, most notably in East Berlin, have been pocked by gunfire. Near the Pergamon Museum, the broken walls of a palatial ruin, immense and craggy, loom like icebergs. Some of these scars Berlin displays deliberately, as penance and admonition. My first night in Berlin, while we were strolling down the Kurfürstendamm, West Berlin’s Michigan or Fifth Avenue, I was amazed to see the ruin of a great cathedral. This massive shard of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which was shattered by Allied bombing, has been left standing, amid the chic stores and cafés that testify to the city’s current prosperity, in order to testify to the destructive forces unleashed by Nazism.
Elsewhere in West Berlin, some of the proudest Nazi monuments still stand unbroken: the Tempelhof airport terminal, which looks like an enormous fortress and was once the largest building in the world; the Olympic stadium, a colosseum insufficiently colossal to suit Hitler, who planned a replacement that would hold nearly a half-million spectators, a virtual city of ecstatic worshippers. From that purely imaginary wonder of the modern world one can trace the descent of the city’s current architectural showpiece, that vision perfectly realized in concrete, rather drab and hardly towering, but, like so many great works of the modern imagination, eloquent in its impenetrability. Studying such lines of descent is of course the province, not of architectural history, but of demonology. For in the face of Berlin one reads a terrible modern fable that can best be recounted in these antiquated terms; it is the story of the exorcism of one demon performed by another, which, having cleared out the premises, proceeded to make itself at home.
It is these 20th-century demons that have made Berlin, in a peculiar way, the most strikingly modern of cities. There are certainly many other cities far newer than Berlin, some indeed so new that they really have no history to speak of. Yet Berlin’s modernity is so impressive precisely because it has asserted its dominance over an ancient and storied past. The history of Berlin’s last fifty years possesses a unique overmastering forcefulness, which has utterly overwhelmed its more distant history. Berlin is the capital of modern cruelty; and as political barbarism has become the salient feature of life in this century, its inhumanity unrivaled by any earlier epoch, one can think of Berlin as peerless in its modernity.
Other cities are intimate with the two principal varieties of modern savagery—Moscow, Warsaw, Riga, Vilnius (the Jewish Vilna), Budapest, Prague—but Berlin alone has both ruled one inhuman empire and suffered as an outpost of the other. Thus the demonic presence there is of singular potency. It has nothing like this strength in the other great fascist capital, Rome—in part because Mussolini’s regime was not succeeded by another similarly monstrous; in part because the ancient Roman glory that Italian Fascism revered has remained the preeminent presence. In Rome, when you see SPQR (“The Senate and People of Rome”) embossed on a manhole cover, you think of some Caesar or other, although you might do so with a laugh; in Berlin, when you see the bear on the city’s ancient crest, you think of Stalin or Khrushchev, and you wince.
Those epochs of Berlin’s pre-Nazi history which modern barbarism has not bulldozed into oblivion, it has refashioned after its own image, so that upon examination the distant past seems to foreshadow the horrors of the 20th century. The East German regime’s sensitivity about Nazism and its reputed precursors has a grim comedy to it. Only in 1980 did it replace the equestrian statue of Frederick the Great, removed by the Soviets, atop its commanding perch at the head of Unter den Linden, very near the Memorial to the Victims of Fascist Militarism. Goose-stepping brutes in jackboots were a fitting tribute to socialist peaceableness, but the emperor on horseback, that legendary proto-fascist, was an unendurable embarrassment.
Now the regime feels differently about Frederick. A current exhibition at his magnificent palace in Potsdam, a few miles from Berlin, celebrates his achievements. He has been rehabilitated and pressed into the service of a resurgent Prussian nationalism. New lines of descent are being established for the heroes of the GDR, much as they were during World War II for the heroes of the Soviet Union, when Stalin, knowing it might be difficult to rally his subjects (whose ranks he had already decimated by means of manufactured famine, deadly slave labor, and more conventional forms of murder) around the hammer and sickle, inspired them instead by invoking the ancient military glories of Mother Russia. So now the guardsmen at the Memorial to the Victims of Fascist Militarism can think with pride of the distinguished native military tradition that they represent. A novel socialist outlook on old history has dispersed some of the ghastliness that had enveloped bygone German glories.
This ghastliness, both in its modern forms and in the old ones that have come to seem ahead of their time, haunts the visitor; it follows him everywhere. At a concert of the Berlin Philharmonic, I was diverted from the music by my curiosity about what it meant to members of the orchestra to be playing, or to members of the audience to be hearing, Mahler conducted by James Levine. At the excellent art gallery of West Berlin’s Dahlem Museum, I looked hard at Rembrandts and Holbeins, but I lingered longest over a panel of an altarpiece by a 15th-century painter I’d never heard of, Hans Multscher. As Jesus lugs his cross toward Calvary, pudgy urchins pelt him with stones or jeeringly bare their genitals, and, amid the crowd of on-lookers, some of whom are horrified but most of whom are rapt with delight, a fat hag with a hooked nose wears a grin like a scimitar. At first this anti-Semitic touch, the grinning Jewish ogress, seemed the most important thing about the painting. Yet as I looked longer, that detail acquired a different significance, and what held me was the painter’s understanding of the way in which perfectly ordinary men perform unspeakable cruelties, his matter-of-fact rendering of horrific bestiality as a common human characteristic. For the stone-throwing youths were plainly fine, stout German lads. A devout hater of Jews could certainly find in this painting the traditional iconography of his chosen loathing; yet if he were to look more carefully, he would not fail to find his own kind among the Christ-killers. The effect was masterfully achieved, and not to be forgotten.
After seeing the painting, I found myself maintaining a perverse vigilance on the city streets that day, peering keenly into the faces of passersby, with an eye out for the monstrosity latent in the ordinary Berliner. My watchfulness, however, was less fruitful than it would probably have been in a place like Dayton or Omaha. I uncovered no demonic passions shining darkly; the ordinary faces seemed to have nothing out of the ordinary to disclose. Of course I don’t know how many Berliners might have caught a glimpse of me and wondered what sort of emotional disturbance was behind that fevered look of mine, that strange searching intensity. But they are probably used to tourists.
Even as Berlin seems to activate a predilection for morbidity in the visitor, to sharpen his awareness of human beastliness and suffering, it makes him feel this rawness of the nerves to be something outlandish—and furthermore, ausländisch, literally alien. It is soon plain that being in Berlin simply does not torment Berliners as it does him. In fact they hardly seem to mind at all, and, to the visitor in his exacerbated state, this general unconcern might seem to be insensibility. As my friend had told me, Berliners do seem to live in Berlin pretty much as people do anywhere else. And they do give the appearance of being demon-free. If you were to administer a word-association test to a visitor in Berlin and to a native Berliner, asking them both what the word Grünewald meant to them, one would instinctively think of the most lurid crucifixion ever painted, and the other of the lovely belt of woodland that runs through the city.
In West Berlin, a composed and commodious urbanity flourishes. West Berlin is civilized as one fears no major American city can ever hope to be, and as even that long-time paragon of civility, London, can no longer call itself. You can stroll fearlessly at dusk along narrow paths in the thickly wooded Tiergarten, which in New York or Chicago or Rome would be a Raubtiergarten, paradise for bushwhackers and hell on anyone else. The U-bahn is not only clean and safe but downright congenial. Some aspects of this civility take some getting used to; the American tourist in particular needs reminding that certain minor acts of lawbreaking he indulges in as a matter of course are looked upon unfavorably. You don’t jaywalk or cross against the light; pedestrian legions dutifully unmoving on the streetcorner eye you scornfully if you do. You don’t bash your way into tight parking spaces; it is a Berliner’s nature to resort to law immediately upon your touching his car with your own. Such strict decorum might sound confining; in fact, it is, a bit. Still, there is a danger you might acquire a taste for this kind of thing. Neither boom boxes nor police sirens nor lunatic ravings rend the air. Indeed, you feel confident that even public lunacy would be a quiet and decorous thing there, these days; if you were actually to meet a screaming madman at large, he would probably turn out to be a visitor from New York, whom the insufferable civility had unhinged.
Public order and tranquility are the rule in West Berlin, but by no means do they rule out fun. West Berlin’s hedonism is of the standard late 20th-century sort. It is a far cry from the desperate licentiousness that one associates with the Berlin of the Weimar republic, ravenously bolting down its pleasures with a fearful relish, as at an orgy conducted in the shadow of deprivation. Nowadays, in the shadow of deprivation, West Berliners seem placidly to regard a certain regular pleasure-dosage as their due, the way people might in Malibu, for instance.
The week I was in West Berlin, it even looked a bit like Malibu. A windsurfing regatta was being held on the Wannsee, a picturesque lake that is a popular spot for weekend outings. The profusion of sailboards atop car roofs gave the city that somewhat raffish air of seagoing festivity that is the hallmark of the beach resort. A bumper sticker on a van with Berlin license plates and a sail-board on top advertised surfing holidays. Not far from the splendid house where the Nazi leadership had convened the Wannsee Conference in order to perfect the Final Solution, windsurfers now convened in order to zip joyfully across the blue waters.
Of course, this innocent sportiveness does not sweep aside the pall of demonic memory, but rather acquires a poignancy from its lingering presence. At the Olympic stadium, which is quite a tourist attraction, my friend and I felt keenly the horror of the place, this altar to the matchless strength and splendor of the Teutonic body; yet my friend also told me how he was looking forward to attending a top-drawer track meet that was going to be held there in several weeks, and I was rather sorry that I wasn’t going to be around for it. Especially in a place like this, one cannot but savor the sweetness of peaceable democratic life, with its toothsome abundance of inconsequential pleasures; however, neither can one forget, in such a place, that the great democracies’ taste for life’s sweetness has caused them more than once to recoil from its most bitter necessities, and has been responsible in no small part for the most tragic events of our terrible century.
Still, life is good in West Berlin. The pleasures that Tocqueville foresaw as rising to preeminence in democracies, those of physical well-being, are attended to devoutly there. Sport, or at least watching sport, ranks high among these pleasures; sex, or at least watching sex, presumably ranks higher still, for most people; yet neither of these, one suspects, is supreme. The key to determining the hierarchy of bodily pleasures lies in the monumental departure store KaDeWe, which devotes its entire top floor to food. This pricey cornucopia is crammed, to borrow A.J. Liebling’s delectable phrase, with lots of the best of everything. Eating well might not, on its own, be the best revenge, but it does contribute mightily to such vengeance. The cafés on the Kurfürstendamm are packed on a Friday evening. Restaurants tend to pile food high, and patrons to put it down in a pleasurable hurry. Italian restaurants are especially notable for their number and their quality. Many of them are owned and staffed by Sicilian families who are in no hurry to go back home. One Sicilian waiter proudly told us that he often serves American diplomats stationed in East Berlin, who come over in need of a good meal.
Although belly-pleasures might enjoy premier rank, the pleasures of mind and spirit are not without their place in West Berlin. The symphony and the opera are excellent. Painting, too, is said to thrive; what I regret most about my stay is that I did not have a look at some of the galleries featuring contemporary works by Berlin artists. Yet the chief intellectual and spiritual pleasures of democratic life lie, not in making or contemplating works of art, but in forming and promoting one’s opinions; and such pleasures tend to be most exquisite when one’s opinions have to do with the indecency of democracy.
Although one might expect that being foolish in the usual ways would be rather more difficult in West Berlin than elsewhere, in fact outspoken inanity is easy enough to come by. On the wall of a building that houses a bookstore in Kreuzberg, a large banner declares, in German: Peoples Need Peace. U.S. Out Of Nicaragua. A sign in the bookstore window announces that Nicaraguan coffee is sold within. There, three blocks from the Wall, persons sufficiently astute to overlook the vulgarly obvious and to peer into the very heart of the matter can gather, in an atmosphere enriched by the fragrance of this peaceable bean, to esteem the truly estimable and to loathe the truly loathsome. For decency’s sake, one feels obliged to entertain the hope that the bookstore is really a CIA cover. The odds are not good, however.
Evidence suggests that the local chapter of the irreproachably moral is seeing to it that West Berliners be made to know that their side of town is no better than the other, and that the American presence in particular be made to consider daily its dark and bloody history. The Free University has placed the Salvador Allende Memorial Dormitory directly across from the main American military compound. (The dorm got into the news earlier this year when a former resident, a so-called diplomat from Libya, was murdered in East Berlin.) Near the opera house, the injunction Nights Euroshima splashed on a wall similarly serves as reminder and warning: never again. One wonders what became of the students who sent Kennedy that umbrella; they seem positively sagacious compared with the current run of chumps.
During my stay in Berlin I chatted with Sicilian waiters, French soldiers, and French, British, and American diplomats, but I did not have a single conversation with a real Berliner—did not get the chance to hear what it is like to call Berlin home, or to explain to a native what it is like to be a tourist in his hometown. After I had been back in Chicago for several weeks, however, I got the chance to remedy this deficiency, after a fashion, when Harper’s published an essay on Berlin by the novelist Peter Schneider, “Up Against It,” on the occasion of the Wall’s 25th anniversary. Schneider’s essay addresses precisely the question that interested me the most as I went about my tourist’s business in his city: what is the difference between an outsider’s understanding of this strange place he has come to have a look at and a Berliner’s understanding of this strange place he calls home?
Touristen raus? No, but Touristen Achtung! “Does the tourist’s quasi-obligatory visit to the Wall provide him with the experience of the original?” Almost certainly not, for the Wall’s true nature is apparent only to those who, in looking upon it, do not see it at all, treat it as though it weren’t there. “Perhaps the Berliner’s refusal to take any notice of the Wall is a realistic appraisal: after twenty-five years, the Wall, like the God of the Old Testament, is in truth invisible and not named. It functions largely as a symbol of the spiritual condition that for the time being is called Wahnsinn.” Wahnsinn means madness, and Schneider explains that, during the past several years in Berlin, the word has acquired a fashionable new usage: in speaking of something as Wahnsinn, one enjoys “a special kind of pleasure accessible only to cognoscenti, some new kind of high.” Berlin is the “natural home” of this superior and pleasurable understanding, “a spiritual condition beyond good and evil,” in which one perceives with relentless clarity the madness of modern political life, a madness that Communism and democracy partake in equally.
Berlin’s status as the symbolic focus of the conflict between Communism and democracy has endowed Berliners, according to Schneider, with special powers of discernment which enable them to recognize both systems as propagators of Wahnsinn. “There is no fertile soil in Berlin for planting the idea that the social system on the other side of the Wall represents the empire of evil.” What Schneider goes on to emphasize, however, is that West Berliners are sufficiently wise to know the East is not really bad, and East Berliners sufficiently wise to know the West is really not good. It is ignorant presumption for Westerners to think that Easterners long for the freedom that democracy offers. (In any case, those rare Easterners who flee to the West find something very peculiar, and perhaps turn peculiar themselves. Schneider cites the unfortunate cases of three men he knows who, in escaping to the West, plunged themselves into degradation, perversion, or outright craziness.) The Wall, Schneider concludes, is really no longer necessary, for the enforced confinement of the past twenty-five years has succeeded in turning East Germans into living models of socialist man. If the Wall were dismantled today, it would become clear that “what has developed is not two states but two ways of life, two different value systems. Only then could a genuine contest be carried out, point for point, to determine which state has done what better. . . .”
Of course, if the Communist enterprise had been the success Schneider claims it is, the Kremlin would have already ordered the Wall taken down—would have ordered all the walls down, no doubt in a magnificent rite of triumphant exultation. For nothing would better serve the cause than the spectacle of the Eastern multitudes—so commonly thought to be held captive in their homelands, so commonly thought to ache for democratic freedom—freely spurning the West’s whorish enticements and clinging faithfully to the unexampled happiness of Marxist-Leninist domesticity. Perhaps, following this logic, the real reason the Wall stays up is the Soviet Union’s fear that if it comes down, the East would be overrun with Western emigrants clamoring that they, too, have a right to know the greatest human joys.
The Wall, however, will go on standing for a very long time. It will go on standing for the same reason it was built in the first place: the East German regime, and its Soviet masters, need it there. The Wall, and all the walls of the Soviet empire, are indispensable to the war that Soviet Communism continues to wage against its own subjects—more precisely, against the refractory humanity of its subjects, which refuses the inhuman form that Communist mastery seeks to impose on it. The very fact of the Wall’s existence proves that there is but a single matter in which the East has excelled: the conduct of war. If they weren’t superior in that, they could not have built the Wall or kept it standing; if they were superior in anything else, they would not have built it or be keeping it standing.
The obvious inanity of opinions like Schneider’s only deepens the sadness with which a tourist regards Berlin. Elsewhere, such foolishness would still be foolishness, but there intellectual failure of this order seems an act of unforgivable moral turpitude. For the cruelest thought one suffers from in Berlin—it is a thought that is forced upon one, over and over—is that our century could have been spared its most horrible sufferings had decent men only seen clearly and done in time what had to be done. There is a tradition in 20th-century democratic thought of failing to recognize the monstrosity of the monstrous, and that intellectual failure of the democracies has contributed decisively to the signal moral failure of our age, and indeed of human history: the failure of decent men to extinguish the monstrous before it could work its irremediable evil.
Although such views as Schneider’s stand out with eye-catching prominence against their background, they are not the prevailing views in West Berlin. A robust and sensible public voice makes itself heard above the nitwit yammering. The Wall’s presence, in its blunt viciousness, permits, even demands—or more important, one might say, demands, and even permits—a public language of uncommon candor and clarity. The public language in East Berlin, of course, is one of belligerent mendacity, based as it is upon the principle—a familiar one in Berlin—that the more audacious and magniloquent the lie, the more likely it will rule unchallenged: the Wall is the “anti-fascist barricade”; the crime of assisting East Germans to escape East Germany is dealing in “subversive slave traffic.”
In the face of such sneering falsehood, West Berlin is given to a plainspoken sternness, which is heard in the newspapers, in the speeches of public officials, sometimes even in the signs in public parks. The East-West border cuts the Glienecke Bridge, known as die Brücke der Einheit, the Unity Bridge, in half; the bridge is closed except to authorized teams of military observers who are permitted to scout enemy territory. (It was over this bridge that Anatoly Shcharansky was released to the West.) A sign on the Western side of the bridge, in a beautiful park that is favored by Sunday strollers, reads “Remember that those who named this bridge ‘The Bridge of Unity’ are also the ones who erected walls, strung barbed wire, and established death-zones to divide East from West.” It is difficult to think of an official American utterance to equal this for penetration and eloquent forthrightness, unless it is “evil empire.” West Berlin does depart now and again from this abrasive honesty, and adopts a more conciliatory tone in order to lubricate some deal or other between the two Germanys. Nevertheless, my diplomatic friend assures me, most people in West Berlin, not to mention a considerable number in East Berlin, know very well on which side of the Wall the evil empire stands.
However, it does seem that West Berliners prefer not to spend much time looking off in that direction. The observation platforms on the Western side of the Wall once numbered about 300, roughly one for every watchtower on the other side; now there are only about 100 platforms still standing. Evidently, use of the platforms fell to the point where the cost of maintaining them all could no longer be justified. It is difficult to organize a mass demonstration of political sentiments in West Berlin. To observe the Wall’s 25th anniversary, plans were made to form a human chain running the full length of the Wall, over a hundred miles, and encircling West Berlin; maybe 1,500 people turned up.
To rouse public passion as the anniversary approached, an East Berliner who had recently escaped to West Berlin told the press a remarkable getaway story: he had painted his car to resemble a Soviet military patrol car, obtained Soviet uniforms from helpful Westerners, dressed himself and a few mannequins as Soviet soldiers, and driven through Checkpoint Charlie. The story was a fake; the truth he judged insufficiently sensational to cause the desired stir. (He did succeed in turning a nice profit on the hoax, selling his story to a British television station.) The story of the twelve East German soldiers who were thwarted in their daring subway-hijack attempt was very likely a fabrication as well, my friend has told me. These storytellers must have hoped that, by injecting the populace with a strong enough dose of heroic fantasy, they could render the invisible Wall visible again.
Common sense gives one a strong suspicion as to the reason for the Wall’s invisibility to Berliners, and what I saw on my last night in Berlin confirmed the suspicion that I’d had almost from the start. That night, at the opera in West Berlin, I saw a performance of Fidelio that was one of the most moving artistic performances I have ever seen. Beethoven’s opera is a work of the rarest nobility and beauty, and the production was in every respect a fine one; but what gave the performance its truly unforgettable power was the way Beethoven’s art pierced to the very souls of the audience and bared the profound emotion that the demands of living an ordinary life in this extraordinary place customarily force out of sight.
During the finale of the first act, when the chorus of prisoners, let out into the sun for a moment, sang its superb hymn to freedom, the feeble voices of men who were all broken slowly gathering strength until they rang out clear and full and ardent, “Nur hier, nur hier ist Leben”—only here, only here is there life—the audience drank in this song with a ferocious need. Around me people wiped away tears, even choked back sobs. I, too, began to cry.
Throughout the second act, I could see in the tensed forms of those seated around me that they were clenching their griefs tightly to themselves, careful not to let them spill again. Yet the tears forced their way out once more, during the opera’s finale.
When Don Fernando announced that he had arrived to end the “Frevel Nacht,” the night of outrage that was Pizarro’s tyranny, and the chorus of prisoners now joined by townspeople sang out, “Heil sei dem Tag,” hail to the day, the house lights came on, and some time before the opera’s end, bathing the audience in freedom’s daybreak. The woman seated beside me dabbed at her eyes repeatedly, brushing her tears away as fast as they came. The shoulders of a man a couple of rows ahead shook several times, then suddenly stopped shaking. Someone behind me gave out a sigh.
What exactly these people, or any of the others there, might have been crying for, I can’t say, for their tears took in fifty years of grief, the most grievous fifty years men have ever known, when many were inhuman in the name of a purer humanity, and many others turned away in fear from the sight of their monstrosities, and even the virtue of those sufficiently strong to fight these evils was really not good enough. No doubt this Fidelio touched many personal griefs and losses; no doubt it made many people grateful that they had been spared crueler losses, deeper griefs; and no doubt, too, it made them mindful of those who had suffered the worst, under the Nazi empire of which their city had been the heart, and under the Soviet empire which now surrounded them. All these feelings, in proportions that varied from one person to the next, were bound together in the public grief, of which I now had a glimpse; and added to them was the disturbing emotion inspired by Leonore’s heroic perseverance and her ultimate triumph, an emotion oscillating between thankfulness for the sublime imagination that gave such virtue such a reward and bitterness at the crueler actuality that has massed evil upon evil against a decency slender and worn.
There is no shortage of reasons for sorrow in Berlin, but vitality will not tolerate an untiring grief. The current vigorous normality of life in West Berlin is a measure of the inhabitants’ disregard for the most striking things about the place, which happen to be the saddest and the most terrible. If the Wall is invisible to Berliners, it is not because some privileged spiritual condition beyond good and evil empowers them to see through it. Rather, it is because the Wall’s stark brutality, its patent and ever-present evil, against which they are helpless, has compelled them to find refuge in a studied blindness. To see the Wall every day of one’s life—really to see it, as clearly as if one were seeing it for the first time—would be more than most people could bear. In Berlin, to live constantly in full awareness of where you were would require nothing less than heroic fortitude. In West Berlin, such uncompromising attentiveness would be especially difficult to maintain, for diversion from it offers itself so readily, so agreeably.
No doubt there are Berliners with the strength of mind necessary for so trying a life. Apart from those few, however, perhaps it is the tourist who can best appreciate the Wall and its native city for what they really are. Perhaps it is easier for someone who is merely passing through, and for whom the history of the place is not so painful a part of himself—like an old wound never quite healed, a sharp fragment of metal still lodged somewhere in the body, delivering a jolt of pain when one makes a particular sudden movement—to make his way around boldly there, and to look without blinking at the things that those who must live in their presence prefer to pass with eyes averted.
Berlin is a place everyone ought to see, and in Berlin one would do best to begin one’s sightseeing at the Wall. There should be no real surprises there; you see nothing that you did not expect to see. Still, there is something about the sight: unless your vision is irreparably damaged, the view forces you to see clearly. Such clarity can take you far in Berlin, even if you are a mere tourist. And it is hard to think of a vacation souvenir to match in value this sort of unclouded perception.
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In the Capital of Modern Cruelty
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Their coming-and-going polka—now you see ’im, now you don’t—consumed the first 10 days of March. One week Cohn was in the driver’s seat of U.S. economic policy, steering his boss into a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code and preparing him for a huge disgorgement of taxpayer money to repair some nebulous entity called “our crumbling infrastructure.” The next week Cohn had disappeared and in his place at the president’s side Navarro suddenly materialized. With Navarro’s encouragement, the president unexpectedly announced hefty, world-wobbling tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. At first the financial markets tumbled, and nobody in Washington, including the president’s friends, seemed happy. Nobody, that is, except Navarro, whose Cheshire-cat grin quickly became unavoidable on the alphabet-soup channels of cable news. It’s the perfect place for him, front and center, trying to disentangle the conflicting strands of the president’s economic policy. Far more than Cohn, the president’s newest and most powerful economic adviser is a suitable poster boy for Trumpism, whatever that might be.
So where, the capital wondered, did this Navarro fellow come from? (The question So where did this Cohn guy go? barely lasted a news cycle.) Insiders and political obsessives dimly remembered Navarro from Trump’s presidential campaign. With Wilbur Ross, now the secretary of commerce, Navarro wrote the most articulate brief for the Trump economic plan in the months before the election, which by my reckoning occurred roughly 277 years ago. (Ross is also Navarro’s co-conspirator in pushing the steel tariffs. They’re an Odd Couple indeed: Navarro is well-coiffed and tidy and as smooth as a California anchorman, while Ross is what Barney Fife might have looked like if he’d given up his job as Mayberry’s deputy sheriff and gotten a degree in mortuary science.) The Navarro-Ross paper drew predictable skepticism from mainstream economists and their proxies in the press, particularly its eye-popping claim that Trump’s “trade policy reforms” would generate an additional $1.7 trillion in government revenue over the next 10 years.
Navarro is nominally a professor at University of California, Irvine. His ideological pedigree, like the president’s, is that of a mongrel. After a decade securing tenure by writing academic papers (“A Critical Comparison of Utility-type Ratemaking Methodologies in Oil Pipeline Regulation”), he set his attention on politics. In the 1990s, he earned the distinction of losing four political races in six years, all in San Diego or its surrounding suburbs—one for mayor, another for county supervisor, another for city council. He was a Democrat in those days, as Trump was; he campaigned against sprawl and for heavy environmental regulation. In 1996, he ran for Congress as “The Democrat Newt Gingrich Fears Most.” The TV actor Ed Asner filmed a commercial for him. This proved less helpful than hoped when his Republican opponent reminded voters that a few years earlier, Asner had been a chief fundraiser for the Communist guerrillas in El Salvador.
After that defeat, Navarro got the message and retired from politics. He returned to teaching, became an off-and-on-again Republican, and set about writing financial potboilers, mostly on investment strategies for a world increasingly unreceptive to American leadership. One of them, Death by China (2011), purported to describe the slow but inexorable sapping of American wealth and spirit through Chinese devilry. As it happened, this was Donald Trump’s favorite theme as well. From the beginning of his 40-year public career, Trump has stuck to his insistence that someone, in geo-economic terms, is bullying this great country of his. The identity of the bully has varied over time: In the 1980s, it was the Soviets who, following their cataclysmic implosion, gave way to Japan, which was replaced, after its own economic collapse, by America’s neighbors to the north and south, who have been joined, since the end of the last decade, by China. In Death by China, the man, the moment, and the message came together with perfect timing. Trump loved it.
It’s not clear that he read it, however. Trump is a visual learner, as the educational theorists used to say. He will retain more from Fox and Friends as he constructs his hair in the morning than from a half day buried in a stack of white papers from the Department of Labor. When Navarro decided to make a movie of the book, directed by himself, Trump attended a screening and lustily endorsed it. You can see why. Navarro’s use of animation is spare but compelling; the most vivid image shows a dagger of Asiatic design plunging (up to the hilt and beyond!) into the heart of a two-dimensional map of the U.S., causing the country’s blood to spray wildly across the screen, then seep in rivulets around the world. It’s Wes Cravenomics.
Most of the movie, however, is taken up by talking heads. Nearly everyone of these heads is attached to a left-wing Democrat, a socialist, or, in a couple of instances, an anarchist from the Occupy movement. Watched today, Death by China is a reminder of how lonely—how marginal—the anti-China obsession has been. This is not to its discredit; yesterday’s fringe often becomes today’s mainstream, just as today’s consensus is often disproved by the events of tomorrow. Not so long ago, for instance, the establishment catechism declared that economic liberalization and the prosperity it created led inexorably to political liberalization; from free markets, we were told, came free societies. In the last generation, China has put this fantasy to rest. Only the willfully ignorant would deny that the behavior of the Chinese government, at home and abroad, is the work of swine. Even so, the past three presidents have seen China only as a subject for scolding, never retaliation.
And this brings us to another mystery of Trumpism, as Navarro embodies it. Retaliation against China and its bullying trade practices is exactly what Trump has promised as both candidate and president. More than a year into his presidency, with his tariffs on steel and aluminum, he has struck against the bullies at last, just as he vowed to do. And the bullies, we discover, are mostly our friends—Germans, Brazilians, South Koreans, and other partners who sell us their aluminum and steel for less than we can make it ourselves. Accounting for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports, the Chinese are barely scratched in the president’s first great foray in protectionism.
In announcing the tariffs, Trump cited Chinese “dumping,” as if out of habit. Yet Navarro himself seems at a loss to explain why he and his boss have chosen to go after our friends instead of our preeminent adversary in world trade. “China is in many ways the root of the problem for all countries of the world in aluminum and steel,” he told CNN the day after the tariffs were announced. Really? How’s that? “The bigger picture is, China has tremendous overcapacity in both aluminum and steel. So what they do is, they flood the world market, and this trickles down to our shores, and to other countries.”
If that wasn’t confusing enough, we had only to wait three days. By then Navarro was telling other interviewers, “This has nothing to do with China, directly or indirectly.”
This is not the first time Trumpism has shown signs of incoherence. With Peter Navarro at the president’s side, and with Gary Cohn a fading memory, it is unlikely to be the last.
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Review of 'Political Tribes' By Amy Chua
Amy Chua has an explanation for what ails us at home and abroad: Elites keep ignoring the primacy of tribalism both in the United States and elsewhere and so are blindsided every time people act in accordance with their group instinct. In Political Tribes, she offers a survey of tribal dynamics around the globe and renders judgments about the ways in which the United States has serially misread us-and-them conflicts. In the book’s final chapters, Chua, a Yale University law professor best known for her parenting polemic Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, focuses on the clashing group instincts that now threaten to sunder the American body politic.
As Chua sees it, “our blindness to political tribalism abroad reflects America at both its best and worst.” Because the United States is a nation made up of diverse immigrant populations—a “supergroup”—Americans can sometimes underestimate how hard it is for people in other countries to set aside their religious or ethnic ties and find common national purpose. That’s American ignorance in its most optimistic and benevolent form. But then there’s the more noxious variety: “In some cases, like Vietnam,” she writes, “ethnically blind racism has been part of our obliviousness.”
During the Vietnam War, Chua notes, the United States failed to distinguish between the ethnically homogeneous Vietnamese majority and the Chinese minority who were targets of mass resentment. In Vietnam, national identity was built largely on historical accounts of the courageous heroes who had been repelling Chinese invaders since 111 b.c.e., when China first conquered its neighbor to the south. This defining antipathy toward the Chinese was exacerbated by the fact that Vietnam’s Chinese minority was on average far wealthier and more politically powerful than the ethnic Vietnamese masses. “Yet astonishingly,” writes Chua, “U.S. foreign policy makers during the Cold War were so oblivious to Vietnamese history that they thought Vietnam was China’s pawn—merely ‘a stalking horse for Beijing in Southeast Asia.’”
Throughout the book, Chua captures tribal conflicts in clear and engrossing prose. But as a guide to foreign policy, one gets the sense that her emphasis on tribal ties might not be able to do all the work she expects of it. The first hint comes in her Vietnam analysis. If American ignorance of Chinese–Vietnam tensions is to blame for our having fought and lost the war, what would a better understanding of such things have yielded? She gets to that, sort of. “Could we have supported Ho [Chi Minh] against the French, capitalizing on Vietnam’s historical hostility toward China to keep the Vietnamese within our sphere of influence?” Chua asks. “We’ll never know. Somehow we never saw or took seriously the enmity between Vietnam and China.” It’s hard to see the U.S.’s backing a mass-murdering Communist against a putatively democratic ally as anything but a surreal thought experiment, let alone a lost opportunity.
On Afghanistan, Chua is correct about a number of things. There are indeed long-simmering tensions between Pashtuns, Punjabs, and other tribes in the region. The U.S. did pay insufficient attention to Afghanistan in the decade leading up to 9/11. The Taliban did play on Pashtun aspirations to fuel their rise. But how, exactly, are we to understand our failures in Afghanistan as resulting from ignorance of tribal relations? The Taliban went on to forge a protective agreement with al-Qaeda that had little if anything to do with tribal ties. And it was that relationship that had tragic consequences for the United States.
Not only was Osama bin Laden not Pashtun; he was an Arab millionaire, and his terrorist organization was made up of jihadists from all around the world. If anything, it was Bin Laden’s trans-tribal movement that the U.S. should have been focused on. The Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance was based on pooling resources against perceived common threats, compatible (but not identical) religious notions, and large cash payments from Bin Laden. No American understanding of tribal relations could have interfered with that.
And while an ambitious tribe-savvy counterinsurgency strategy might have gone a long way in helping the U.S.’s war effort, there has never been broad public support for such a commitment. Ultimately, our problems in Afghanistan have less to do with neglecting tribal politics and more to do with general neglect.
In Chua’s chapter on the Iraq War, however, her paradigm aligns more closely with the facts. “Could we have done better if we hadn’t been so blind to tribal politics in Iraq?” she asks. “There’s very good evidence that the answer is yes.” Here Chua offers a concise account of the U.S.’s successful 2007 troop surge. “While the additional U.S. soldiers—sent primarily to Baghdad and Al Anbar Province—were of course a critical factor,” she writes, “the surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by a 180-degree shift in our approach to the local population.”
Chua goes into colorful detail about then colonel H.R. McMaster’s efforts to educate American troops in local Iraqi customs and his decision to position them among the local population in Tal Afar. This won the trust of Iraqis who were forthcoming with critical intelligence. She also covers the work of Col. Sean MacFarland who forged relationships with Sunni sheikhs. Those sheikhs, in turn, convinced their tribespeople to work with U.S. forces and function as a local police force. Finally, Chua explains how Gen. David Petraeus combined the work of McMaster and MacFarland and achieved the miraculous in pacifying Baghdad. In spite of U.S. gains—and the successful navigation of tribes—there was little American popular will to keep Iraq on course and, over the next few years, the country inevitably unraveled.I n writing about life in the United States, Chua is on firmer ground altogether, and her diagnostic powers are impressive. “It turns out that in America, there’s a chasm between the tribal identities of the country’s haves and have-nots,” she writes, “a chasm of the same kind wreaking political havoc in many developing and non-Western countries.” In the U.S., however, there’s a crucial difference to this dynamic, and Chua puts her finger right on it: “In America, it’s the progressive elites who have taken it upon themselves to expose the American Dream as false. This is their form of tribalism.”
She backs up this contention with statistics. Some of the most interesting revelations have to do with the Occupy movement. In actual fact, those who gathered in cities across the country to protest systemic inequality in 2012 were “disproportionately affluent.” In fact, “more than half had incomes of $75,000 or more.” Occupy faded away, as she notes, because it “attracted so few members from the many disadvantaged groups it purported to be fighting for.” Chua puts things in perspective: “Imagine if the suffragette movement hadn’t included large numbers of women, or if the civil-rights movement included very few African Americans, or if the gay-rights movement included very few gays.” America’s poorer classes, for their part, are “deeply patriotic, even if they feel they’re losing the country to distant elites who know nothing about them.”
Chua is perceptive on both the inhabitants of Trump Country and the elites who disdain them. She takes American attitudes toward professional wrestling as emblematic of the split between those who support Donald Trump and those who detest him. Trump is a bona fide hero in the world of pro wrestling; he has participated in “bouts” and was actually inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013. What WWE fans get from watching wrestling they also get from watching Trump—“showmanship and symbols,” a world held together by enticing false storylines, and, ultimately, “something playfully spectacular.” Those on the academic left, on the other hand, “are fascinated, even obsessed in a horrified way, with the ‘phenomenology’ of watching professional wrestling.” In the book’s most arresting line, Chua writes that “there is now so little interaction, commonality, and intermarriage between rural/heartland/working-class whites and urban/coastal whites that the difference between them is practically what social scientists would consider an ‘ethnic difference.’”
Of course, there’s much today dividing America along racial lines as well. While Americans of color still contend with the legacy of institutional intolerance, “it is simply a fact that ‘diversity’ policies at the most select American universities and in some sectors of the economy have had a disparate adverse impact on whites.” So, both blacks and whites (and most everyone else) feel threatened to some degree. This has sharpened the edge of identity politics on the left and right. In Chua’s reading, these tribal differences will not actually break the country apart. But, she believes, they could fundamentally and irreversibly change “who we are.”
Political Tribes, however, is no doomsday prediction. Despite our clannish resentments, Chua sees, in her daily interactions, people’s willingness to form bonds beyond those of their in-group and a relaxing of tribal ties. What’s needed is for haves and have-nots, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives to enjoy more meaningful exposure to one another. This pat prescription would come across as criminally sappy if not for the genuinely loving and patriotic way in which Chua writes about our responsibilities as a “supergroup.” “It’s not enough that we view one another as fellow human beings,” she says, “we need to view one another as fellow Americans.” Americans as a higher ontological category than human beings—there’s poetry in that. And a healthy bit of tribalism, too.
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Then again, you know what happens when you assume.
“Here is my prediction,” Kristof wrote. “The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning writer, will be released from prison.”
True, Kristof conceded, “I may be wrong entirely.” But, he went on, “my hunch on this return to China, my old home, is that change is coming.”
Five years later, the Chinese economy, while large, is saddled with debt. Analysts and government officials are worried about its real-estate bubble. Despite harsh controls, capital continues to flee China. Nor has there been “some political easing.” On the contrary, repression has worsened. The Great Firewall blocks freedom of speech and inquiry, human-rights advocates are jailed, and the provinces resemble surveillance states out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Mao rests comfortably in his mausoleum. Not only did Liu Xiaobo remain a prisoner, he was also denied medical treatment when he contracted cancer, and he died in captivity in 2017.
As for Xi Jinping, he turned out not to be a reformer but a dictator. Steadily, under the guise of anti-corruption campaigns, Xi decimated alternative centers of power within the Communist Party. He built up a cult of personality around “Xi Jinping thought” and his “Chinese dream” of economic, cultural, and military strength. His preeminence was highlighted in October 2017 when the Politburo declined to name his successor. Then, in March of this year, the Chinese abolished the term limits that have guaranteed rotation in office since the death of Mao. Xi reigns supreme.
Bizarrely, this latest development seems to have come as a surprise to the American press. The headline of Emily Rauhala’s Washington Post article read: “China proposes removal of two-term limit, potentially paving way for President Xi Jinping to stay on.” Potentially? Xi’s accession to emperor-like status, wrote Julie Bogen of Vox, “could destabilize decades of progress toward democracy and instead move China even further toward authoritarianism.” Could? Bogen did not specify which “decades of progress toward democracy” she was talking about, but that is probably because, since 1989, there haven’t been any.
Xi’s assumption of dictatorial powers should not have shocked anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to recent Chinese history. The Chinese government, until last month a collective dictatorship, has exercised despotic control over its people since the very founding of the state in 1949. And yet the insatiable desire among media to incorporate news events into a preestablished storyline led reporters to cover the party announcement as a sudden reversal. Why? Because only then would the latest decision of an increasingly embattled and belligerent Chinese leadership fit into the prefabricated narrative that says we are living in an authoritarian moment.
For example, one article in the February 26, 2018, New York Times was headlined, “With Xi’s Power Grab, China Joins New Era of Strongmen.” CNN’s James Griffiths wrote, “While Chinese politics is not remotely democratic in the traditional sense, there are certain checks and balances within the Party system itself, with reformers and conservatives seeing their power and influence waxing and waning over time.” Checks and balances, reformers and conservatives—why, they are just like us, only within the context of a one-party state that ruthlessly brooks no dissent.
Now, we do happen to live in an era when democracy and autocracy are at odds. But China is not joining the “authoritarian trend.” It helped create and promote the trend. Next year, China’s “era of strongmen” will enter its seventh decade. The fundamental nature of the Communist regime in Beijing has not changed during this time.
My suspicion is that journalists were taken aback by Xi’s revelation of his true nature because they, like most Western elites, have bought into the myth of China’s “peaceful rise.” For decades, Americans have been told that China’s economic development and participation in international organizations and markets would lead inevitably to its political liberalization. What James Mann calls “the China fantasy” manifested itself in the leadership of both major political parties and in the pronouncements of the chattering class across the ideological spectrum.
Indeed, not only was the soothing scenario of China as a “responsible stakeholder” on the glide path to democracy widespread, but media figures also admonished Americans for not living up to Chinese standards. “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks,” Tom Friedman conceded in an infamous 2009 column. “But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.” For instance, Friedman went on, “it is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power, and wind power.” The following year, during an episode of Meet the Press, Friedman admitted, “I have fantasized—don’t get me wrong—but what if we could just be China for a day?” Just think of all the electric cars the government could force us to buy.
This attitude toward Chinese Communism as a public-policy exemplar became still more pronounced after Donald Trump was elected president on an “America First” agenda. China’s theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, harassment and exploitation of Western companies, currency manipulation, mercantilist subsidies and tariffs, chronic pollution, military buildup, and interference in democratic politics and university life did not prevent it from proclaiming itself the defender of globalization and environmentalism.
When Xi visited the Davos World Economic Forum last year, the Economist noted the “fawning reception” that greeted him. The speech he delivered, pledging to uphold the international order that had facilitated his nation’s rise as well as his own, received excellent reviews. On January 15, 2017, Fareed Zakaria said, “In an America-first world, China is filling the vacuum.” A few days later, Charlie Rose told his CBS audience, “It’s almost like China is saying, ‘we are the champions of globalization, not the United States.’” And on January 30, 2017, the New York Times quoted a “Berlin-based private equity fund manager,” who said, “We heard a Chinese president becoming leader of the free world.”
The chorus of praise for China grew louder last spring when Trump announced American withdrawal from an international climate accord. In April 2017, Rick Stengel said on cable television that China is becoming “the global leader on the environment.” On June 8, a CBS reporter said that Xi is “now viewed as the world’s leader on climate change.” On June 19, 2017, on Bloomberg news, Dana Hull said, “China is the leader on climate change, especially when it comes to autos.” Also that month, one NBC anchor asked Senator Mike Lee of Utah, “Are you concerned at all that China may be seen as sort of the global leader when it comes to bringing countries together, more so than the United States?”
Last I checked, Xi Jinping’s China has not excelled at “bringing countries together,” unless—like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam—those countries are allying with the United States to balance against China. What instead should concern Senator Lee, and all of us, is an American media filled with people suckered by foreign propaganda that happens to coincide with their political preferences, and who are unable to make elementary distinctions between tyrannical governments and consensual ones.
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Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them
rom the time of antiquity until the Enlightenment, trade and the pursuit of wealth were considered sinful. “In the city that is most finely governed,” Aristotle wrote, “the citizens should not live a vulgar or a merchant’s way of life, for this sort of way of life is ignoble and contrary to virtue.”1 In Plato’s vision of an ideal society (the Republic) the ruling “guardians” would own no property to avoid tearing “the city in pieces by differing about ‘mine’ and ‘not mine.’” He added that “all that relates to retail trade, and merchandise, and the keeping of taverns, is denounced and numbered among dishonourable things.” Only noncitizens would be allowed to indulge in commerce. A citizen who defies the natural order and becomes a merchant should be thrown in jail for “shaming his family.”
At his website humanprogress.org, Marian L. Tupy quotes D.C. Earl of the University of Leeds, who wrote that in Ancient Rome, “all trade was stigmatized as undignified … the word mercator [merchant] appears as almost a term of abuse.” Cicero noted in the first century b.c.e. that retail commerce is sordidus (vile) because merchants “would not make any profit unless they lied constantly.”
Early Christianity expanded this point of view. Jesus himself was clearly hostile to the pursuit of riches. “For where your treasure is,” he proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, “there will your heart be also.” And of course he insisted that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Catholic Church incorporated this view into its teachings for centuries, holding that economics was zero-sum. “The Fathers of the Church adhered to the classical assumption that since the material wealth of humanity was more or less fixed, the gain of some could only come at a loss to others,” the economic historian Jerry Muller explains in his book The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought. As St. Augustine put it, “Si unus non perdit, alter non acquirit”—“If one does not lose, the other does not gain.”
The most evil form of wealth accumulation was the use of money to make money—usury. Lending money at interest was unnatural, in this view, and therefore invidious. “While expertise in exchange is justly blamed since it is not according to nature but involves taking from others,” Aristotle insisted, “usury is most reasonably hated because one’s possessions derive from money itself and not from that for which it was supplied.” In the Christian tradition, the only noble labor was physical labor, and so earning wealth from the manipulation of money was seen as inherently ignoble.
In the somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period, Thomas Aquinas helped make private property and commerce more acceptable, but he did not fundamentally break with the Aristotelian view that trade was suspect and the pursuit of wealth was sinful. The merchant’s life was in conflict with the teachings of Christianity if it led to pride or avarice. “Echoing Aristotle,” Muller writes, “Aquinas reasserted that justice in the distribution of material goods was fulfilled when someone received in proportion to his status, office, and function within the institutions of an existing, structured community. Hence Aquinas decried as covetousness the accumulation of wealth to improve one’s place in the social order.”
In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness. Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”2 The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.
Early Protestantism did not reject these views. It amplified them.3 Martin Luther despised commerce. “There is on earth no greater enemy of man, after the Devil, than a gripe-money and usurer, for he wants to be God over all men…. Usury is a great, huge monster, like a werewolf …. And since we break on the wheel and behead highwaymen, murderers, and housebreakers, how much more ought we to break on the wheel and kill … hunt down, curse, and behead all usurers!”4
It should therefore come as no surprise that Luther’s views of Jews, the living manifestation of usury in the medieval mind, were just as immodest. In his 1543 treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, he offers a seven-point plan on how to deal with them:
- “First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools .…This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- “Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- “Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- “Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb… ”
- “Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside … ”
- “Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them … ”
- “Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow.… But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country … ”
Luther agitated against the Jews throughout Europe, condemning local officials for insufficient anti-Semitism (a word that did not exist at the time and a sentiment that was not necessarily linked to more modern biological racism). His demonization of the Jews was derived from more than anti-capitalism. But his belief that the Jewish spirit of commerce was corrupting of Christianity was nonetheless central to his indictment. He sermonized again and again that it must be cleansed from Christendom, either through conversion, annihilation, or expulsion.
Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.
The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.
Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource. Slavery and wage-labor were different forms of the same exploitation because both involved extracting the common resource. In fact, while Marx despised slavery, he thought wage-labor was only a tiny improvement because wage-labor reduced costs for capitalists in that they were not required to feed or clothe wage laborers.
Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity. As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:
To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.
In his book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, Jonathan Sperber suggests that “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the nineteenth century and projected them into the future, than as a surefooted and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”5
Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”
In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.
As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”
This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism. “Within the tribe there is as yet no difference between rights and duties,” Engels writes in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. “The question whether participation in public affairs, in blood revenge or atonement, is a right or a duty, does not exist for the Indian; it would seem to him just as absurd as the question whether it was a right or a duty to sleep, eat, or hunt. A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible.”
For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe. “Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist,” Marx writes. “Money degrades all the gods of man—and turns them into commodities. Money is the universal self-established value of all things. It has, therefore, robbed the whole world—both the world of men and nature—of its specific value. Money is the estranged essence of man’s work and man’s existence, and this alien essence dominates him, and he worships it.”
Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview.
The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:
Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.
Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.
What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]
The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value. Worse, the Jews considered themselves to be outside the organic social order, Marx complained, but then again that is what capitalism encourages—individual independence from the body politic and the selfish (in Marx’s mind) pursuit of individual success or happiness. For Marx, individualism was a kind of heresy because it meant violating the sacred bond of the community. Private property empowered individuals to live as individuals “without regard to other men,” as Marx put it.
This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:
The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]
He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]
In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]
In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”6 Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”7
For Marx, capital and the Jew are different faces of the same monster: “The capitalist knows that all commodities—however shabby they may look or bad they may smell—are in faith and in fact money, internally circumcised Jews, and in addition magical means by which to make more money out of money.”
Marx’s writing, particularly on surplus value, is drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric: “Capital is dead labor which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has bought from him.” The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat.
Marx writes how the extension of the workday into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labor,” resulting in the fact that “the vampire will not let go ‘while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited.’” As Mark Neocleous of Brunel University documents in his brilliant essay, “The Political Economy of the Dead: Marx’s Vampires,” the images of blood and bloodsucking capital in Das Kapital are even more prominent motifs: “Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood. Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking,’ while U.S. capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children.’ The appropriation of labor is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism,’ while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital.’”
Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word. “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”
In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.
Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.
It is an old conservative habit—one I’ve been guilty of myself—of looking around society and politics, finding things we don’t like or disagree with, and then running through an old trunk of Marxist bric-a-brac to spruce up our objections. It is undeniably true that the influence of Marx, particularly in the academy, remains staggering. Moreover, his indirect influence is as hard to measure as it is extensive. How many novels, plays, and movies have been shaped by Marx or informed by people shaped by Marx? It’s unknowable.
And yet, this is overdone. The truth is that Marx’s ideas were sticky for several reasons. First, they conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory.
There’s ample reason—with ample research to back it up—to believe that there is a natural and universal human appetite for conspiracy theories. It is a by-product of our adapted ability to detect patterns, particularly patterns that may help us anticipate a threat—and, as Mark van Vugt has written, “the biggest threat facing humans throughout history has been other people, particularly when they teamed up against you.”8
To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses. Marx himself was an avid conspiracy theorist, as so many brilliant bohemian misfits tend to be, believing that the English deliberately orchestrated the Irish potato famine to “carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords.” He even argued that the Crimean War was a kind of false-flag operation to hide the true nature of Russian-English collusion.
Contemporary political figures on the left and the right routinely employ the language of exploitation and conspiracy. They do so not because they’ve internalized Marx, but because of their own internal psychological architecture. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi, the talented left-wing writer, describes Goldman Sachs (the subject of quite a few conspiracy theories) thus:
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
Marx would be jealous that he didn’t think of the phrase “the great vampire squid.”
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has occasionally traded in the same kind of language, even evoking some ancient anti-Semitic tropes. “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special-interest friends, and her donors,” Trump said in one campaign speech. “This election will determine if we are a free nation or whether we have only the illusion of democracy, but are in fact controlled by a small handful of global special interests rigging the system, and our system is rigged.” He added: “Our corrupt political establishment, that is the greatest power behind the efforts at radical globalization and the disenfranchisement of working people. Their financial resources are virtually unlimited, their political resources are unlimited, their media resources are unmatched.”
A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”
The 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin argued that Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire had stripped the transcendent from its central place in human affairs. God had been dethroned and “We the People”—and our things—had taken His place. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Voegelin writes, “the contents of the world will become new gods; when the symbols of transcendent religiosity are banned, new symbols develop from the inner-worldly language of science to take their place.”9
The religious views of the Romantic writers and artists Marx was raised on (and whom he had once hoped to emulate) ran the gamut from atheism to heartfelt devotion, but they shared an anger and frustration with the way the new order had banished the richness of faith from the land. “Now we have got the freedom of believing in public nothing but what can be rationally demonstrated,” the writer Johann Heinrich Merck complained. “They have deprived religion of all its sensuous elements, that is, of all its relish. They have carved it up into its parts and reduced it to a skeleton without color and light…. And now it’s put in a jar and nobody wants to taste it.”10
When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.
For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.11 The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all along. They don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.
1 Muller, Jerry Z.. The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Western Thought (p. 5). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Muller, Jerry Z. Capitalism and the Jews (pp. 23-24). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Luther’s economic thought, reflected in his “Long Sermon on Usury of 1520” and his tract On Trade and Usury of 1524, was hostile to commerce in general and to international trade in particular, and stricter than the canonists in its condemnation of moneylending. Muller, Jerry Z.. Capitalism and the Jews (p. 26). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
4 Quoted approvingly in Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. “Capitalist Production.” Capital: Critical Analysis of Production, Volume II. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, trans. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey, & Co. 1887. p. 604
5 Sperber, Jonathan. “Introduction.” Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. New York: Liverwright Publishing Corporation. 2013. xiii.
6 McCloskey, Deirdre. Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 142
7 Johnson, Paul. Intellectuals (Kindle Locations 1325-1326). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
8 See also: Sunstain, Cass R. and Vermeule, Adrian. “Syposium on Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures.” The Journal of Political Philosophy: Volume 17, Number 2, 2009, pp. 202-227. http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Sunstein-Conspiracy-Theories-2009.pdf
9 Think of the story of the Golden Calf. Moses departs for Mt. Sinai to talk with God and receive the Ten Commandments. No sooner had he left did the Israelites switch their allegiance to false idol, the Golden Calf, treating a worldly inanimate object as their deity. So it is with modern man. Hence, Voegelin’s quip that for the Marxist “Christ the Redeemer is replaced by the steam engine as the promise of the realm to come.”
10 Blanning, Tim. The Romantic Revolution: A History (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 34) (Kindle Locations 445-450). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
11 Marx: “Along with the constant decrease in the number of capitalist magnates, who usurp and monopolize all the advantages of this process of transformation, the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation grows; but with this there also grows the revolt of the working class, a class constantly increasing in numbers, and trained, united and organized by the very mechanism of the capitalist process of production.”
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Review of 'Realism and Democracy' By Elliott Abrams
Then, in 1966, Syrian Baathists—believers in a different transnational unite-all-the-Arabs ideology—overthrew the government in Damascus and lent their support to Palestinian guerrillas in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank to attack Israel. Later that year, a Jordanian-linked counter-coup in Syria failed, and the key figures behind it fled to Jordan. Then, on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967, Jordan’s King Hussein signed a mutual-defense pact with Egypt, agreeing to deploy Iraqi troops on Jordanian soil and effectively giving Nasser command and control over Jordan’s own armed forces.
This is just a snapshot of the havoc wreaked on the Middle East by the conceit of pan-Arabism. This history is worth recalling when reading Elliott Abrams’s idealistic yet clearheaded Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring. One of the book’s key insights is the importance of legitimacy for regimes that rule “not nation-states” but rather “Sykes-Picot states”—the colonial heirlooms of Britain and France created in the wake of the two world wars. At times, these states barely seem to acknowledge, let alone respect, their own sovereignty.
When the spirit of revolution hit the Arab world in 2010, the states with external legitimacy—monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait—survived. Regimes that ruled merely by brute force—Egypt, Yemen, Libya—didn’t. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has only held on thanks to the intervention of Iran and Russia, and it is difficult to argue that there is any such thing as “Syria” anymore. What this all proved was that the “stability” of Arab dictatorships, a central conceit of U.S. foreign policy, was in many cases an illusion.
That is the first hard lesson in pan-Arabism from Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The second is this: The extremists who filled the power vacuums in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other countries led Western analysts to believe that there was an “Islamic exceptionalism” at play that demonstrated Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. Abrams effectively debunks this by showing that the real culprit stymieing the spread of liberty in the Middle East was not Islam but pan-Arabism, which stems from secular roots. He notes one study showing that, in the 30 years between 1973 and 2003, “a non-Arab Muslim-majority country was almost 20 times more likely to be ‘electorally competitive’ than an Arab-majority Muslim country.”
Abrams is thus an optimist on the subject of Islam and democracy—which is heartening, considering his experience and expertise. He worked for legendary cold-warrior Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and served as an assistant secretary of state for human rights under Ronald Reagan and later as George W. Bush’s deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy. Realism and Democracy is about U.S. policy and the Arab world—but it is also about the nature of participatory politics itself. Its theme is: Ideas have consequences. And what sets Abrams’s book apart is its concrete policy recommendations to put flesh on the bones of those ideas, and bring them to life.
The dreary disintegration of the Arab Spring saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a year was displaced in a military coup. Syria’s civil war has seen about 400,000 killed and millions displaced. Into the vacuum stepped numerous Islamist terror groups. The fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya has resulted in total state collapse. Yemen’s civil war bleeds on.
Stability in authoritarian states with little or no legitimacy is a fiction. Communist police states were likely to fall, and the longer they took to do so, the longer the opposition sat in a balled-up rage. That, Abrams notes, is precisely what happened in Egypt. Mubarak’s repression gave the Muslim Brotherhood an advantage once the playing field opened up: The group had decades of organizing under its belt, a coherent raison d’être, and a track record of providing health and education services where the state lagged. No other parties or opposition groups had anything resembling this kind of coordination.
Abrams trenchantly concludes from this that “tyranny in the Arab world is dangerous and should itself be viewed as a form of political extremism that is likely to feed other forms.” Yet even this extremism can be tempered by power, he suggests. In a democracy, Islamist parties will have to compromise and moderate or be voted out. In Tunisia, electorally successful Islamists chose the former, and it stands as a rare success story.
Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood took a different path in Egypt, with parlous results. Its government began pulling up the ladder behind it, closing avenues of political resistance and civic participation. Hamas did the same after winning Palestinian elections in 2006. Abrams thinks that the odds of such a bait-and-switch can be reduced. He quotes the academic Stephen R. Grand, who calls for all political parties “to take an oath of allegiance to the state, to respect the outcome of democratic elections, to abide by the rules of the constitution, and to forswear violence.” If they keep their word, they will open up the political space for non-Islamist parties to get in the game. If they don’t—well, let the Egyptian coup stand as a warning.
Abrams, to his credit, does not avoid the Mesopotamian elephant in the room. The Iraq War has become Exhibit A in the dangers of democracy promotion. This is understandable, but it is misguided. The Bush administration made the decision to decapitate the regime of Saddam Hussein based on national-security calculations, mainly the fear of weapons of mass destruction. Once the decapitation had occurred, the administration could hardly have been expected to replace Saddam with another strongman whose depravities would this time be on America’s conscience. Critics of the war reverse the order here and paint a false portrait.
Here is where Abrams’s book stands out: He provides, in the last two chapters, an accounting of the weaknesses in U.S. policy, including mistakes made by the administration he served, and a series of concrete proposals to show that democracy promotion can be effective without the use of force.
One mistake, according to Abrams, is America’s favoring of civil-society groups over political parties. These groups do much good, generally have strong English-language skills, and are less likely to be tied to the government or ancien régime. But those are also strikes against them. Abrams relates a story told by former U.S. diplomat Princeton Lyman about Nelson Mandela. Nigerian activists asked the South African freedom fighter to support an oil embargo against their own government. Mandela declined because, Lyman says, there was as yet no serious, organized political opposition party: “What Mandela was saying to the Nigerian activists is that, in the absence of political movements dedicated not just to democracy but also to governing when the opportunity arises, social, civic, and economic pressures against tyranny will not suffice.” Without properly focused democracy promotion, other tools to punish repressive regimes will be off the table.
Egypt offers a good example of another principle: Backsliding must be punished. The Bush administration’s pressure on Mubarak over his treatment of opposition figures changed regime behavior in 2005. Yet by the end of Bush’s second term, the pressure had let up and Mubarak’s misbehavior continued, with no consequences from either Bush or his successor, Barack Obama, until it was too late.
That, in turn, leads to another of Abrams’s recommendations: “American diplomacy can be effective only when it is clear that the president and secretary of state are behind whatever diplomatic moves or statements an official in Washington or a U.S. ambassador is making.” This is good advice for the current Oval Office occupant and his advisers. President Trump’s supporters advise critics of his dismissive attitude toward human-rights violations to focus on what the president does, not what he says. But Trump’s refusal to take a hard line against Vladimir Putin and his recent praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s move to become president for life undermine lower-level officials’ attempts to encourage reform.
There won’t be democracy without democrats. Pro-democracy education, Abrams advises, can teach freedom-seekers to speak the ennobling language of liberty, which is the crucial first step toward building a culture that prizes it. And in the process, we might do some ennobling ourselves.