Helen Andrews is having a lively time defending foreign authoritarians. In 2017, she waxed nostalgic for Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, denouncing the white liberals who were “slavering to hoist barricades from the word ‘go.’” In 2021 she directed her fervor toward a “benevolent autocrat”—Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, prime minister of Portugal. Now, in a review of the historian Katja Hoyer’s controversial new book, East Germany, Beyond the Wall: A History of East Germany in Compact, Andrews holds up for our inspection her latest object of fascination, Erich Honecker’s German Democratic Republic.
Andrews, an astute and agile polemicist, makes it clear that her object isn’t so much to praise East Germany as to hold it up as a viable alternative to imperialistic Western liberalism. Andrews, you could say, is anti-anti-East Germany. Not for her meaningless shibboleths about democracy and freedom and liberty.
Instead, she faithfully exhumes ancient Western leftwing defenses of the East bloc to prettify its record. For a start, she suggests that East Germany was a victim of Western perfidy, assigning culpability for the regime’s woeful inability to produce a decent amount of consumer goods to West Germany’s denial of diplomatic recognition to it. The truth is that East Germany relied on hundreds of millions in loans from Bonn to survive, not to mention its unsavory practice of selling dissidents and other hostages to West Germany for cash on the barrel. One East German friend remarked to me that he knew the demise of the regime was looming in the 1980s when it even sold cobblestones from roads to the West.
Anyway, the true economic problem wasn’t that the West was interfering with an otherwise sound East German economy. It was communism. The Soviet model, which relied on the collectivization of agriculture and industrial state planning, was an unmitigated disaster. Whether it was Poland or Albania, communism created the very immiseration of the workers that Marx blamed on capitalism.
Indeed, as someone who visited East Germany a number of times and participated in a seminar at the Humboldt University in East Berlin for a few weeks, I can only marvel at Andrews’ insouciance about what it was actually like to live in real existing socialism. There were no books, other than classic German novels, to read. There was little fresh food. There were few automobiles—the waiting list for a Trabant or Wartburg was almost twenty years. What did exist was an omnipresent state security service, coupled with a border zone several kilometers deep and filled with landmines, guard dogs, and automatic shooting devices. East Germany, in other words, was a national prison.
Yet Andrews asserts that the pervasive surveillance was “an annoyance at most for the average person.” How does she know? The fact is that East Germans were terrified to talk to each other in public even on the subway or the tram. The most that Andrews can concede is that “human rights is the soundest basis for condemning East Germany. Surely, we need no greater proof than the fact that they had to build a wall to keep people in.”
Andrews states that we can “afford to be magnanimous in evaluating our former enemies.” Why? There is nothing to evaluate about East Germany’s conduct and everything to expose about its terrible crimes, including conducting anti-Semitic purge trials in the early 1950s, as the historian Jeffrey Herf has copiously documented. Would she espouse this lofty stance toward Nazism? Hitler, after all, built roadways, restored order, and got the economy humming again. She goes on to declare that “some people” want East Germany back. Yes, they do. Just as some people in West Germany wanted Nazism back after World War II.
The truth is that Andrews doesn’t really appear to be very much interested in the plight of East Germany. It serves as a prop for her wider assault on liberal triumphalism about victory in the Cold War. She states that the “strength of modern liberalism lies in its ability to dismiss all alternatives, past and present, left and right, as unthinkable.” This notion, that totalitarianism might represent a possible utopian future, truly is the triumph of hope over experience. The French historian Francois Furet called totalitarianism’s demise the end of an illusion. For Andrews, however, it seems to remain a vibrant one.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.
Image: Karolis Kavolelis/Shutterstock.