Tuesday, November 10, 2009

It's Morning Again in Germany -- November 10, 1989

On Friday, November 10, I woke up and turned on the TV. What was just becoming clear when I had gone to bed the night before was confirmed overnight: a big party had started just before midnight and gone on all night. The floodgates were open.  History was grinding away right in front of me. Not a shot had been fired!  After breakfast, I decided that I wanted to visit Berlin over the weekend. I'd spent the last year studying the West German system, I loved history, and this was not a moment to remain in front of the TV with events going on nearby. A true doubting Thomas, I wanted to stick my fingers in the freshly-cut holes in the wall, the fatal wounds to the communist system that would cause it to bleed to death.  I called a German friend of mine whom I had met in France. He was studying in Mannheim. I told him of my plan, and he was interested in going, too. Better yet, he had a car, and I didn't. The only problem: he had commitments until late Saturday night. The earliest that he could pick me up was shortly after midnight Sunday morning. After some hesitation, I agreed. Even a short visit was better than none. It would be an all-nighter -- two all-nighters, actually.

On my way to work in Frankfurt, I observed the Germans carefully to see if there were any signs of the momentous events that had taken place over night. In America, I would have expected signs of celebration or elation, strangers talking to one another. On the contrary, things were actually quieter than normal. One almost sensed that the people were in shock. Even at the small firm where I work, the level of excitement was much lower than I had expected among my German colleagues. I announced my intention to travel to Berlin over the weekend. My German colleagues showed little interest in my planned adventure. They did not say anything negative, but seemed surprised that a foreigner would be interested in these kinds of events. Even Frau Bloggerboy and her family seemed impressed but not overly-excited by the events.  I could feel the enthusiasm and the party in Berlin, but not in Frankfurt.

There have been several instances since I moved to Germany when I've been puzzled by the unemotional reaction of Germans to events that would cause wild excitement among other peoples. I think many educated Germans had trained themselves to maintain a high degree of self-control. I can only speculate about the deep psychological effects of living in a defeated and divided country after a shameful chapter of its history. I can understand that, after so many defeats and disappointments, Germans were not willing to drop the reserve and self-restraint that had served them well during the post-war period to allow euphoria and, possibly, excess, to get the upper hand. (This does not explain the anarchic strains of the Sixties or the RAF violence, but then I think those events also left a bitter aftertaste among many Germans.  Even some of the former activists have expressed regret over their prior behavior -- e.g., former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's prior life as a street-fighting, police-beating, leftist radical.)  On the other hand, many Germans had given up hope that Germany would ever be reunited. On the far left, some actively hoped that reunification would never take place, unless on DDR terms. Even many SPD leaders opposed the concept of reunification. Oscar Lafontaine and Gerhard Schröder both opposed reunification at the beginning. Very few people were talking about reunification on November 9 or 10. I know, however, from my study program and from my German friend in Mannheim, who was politically active, that talk of reunification was going on at the highest echelons during much of 1989, not with a timeframe in mind, but simply as a stated goal. And Helmut Kohl, the "bumbling hick" from Rheinland-Pfalz (with a doctorate in history), who had left his condescending opponents in the dust so many times, was thinking of reunification, had been thinking about it for a long time, and was wide awake and, in a very unassuming manner, considering his options.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Postscript to November 9

Before I shut my computer down for the night, I did want to refer to the strange twist of fate that had the date of the wall falling taking place on the anniversary of Kristallnacht.  As so often the case in Germany, positive memories are bittersweet, tinged with the knowledge of worse times.  Appropriately, the seven o'clock news tonight also devoted time to the commemoration of what often is referred to as the beginning of the Final Solution before switching to coverage of the 20th anniversary celebrations.

The Evening News -- November 9, 1989

I had just started a new job at the beginning of October.  Mrs. Bloggerboy was still up north.  I got home shortly after 7 p.m. on November 9th and heated up something for dinner.  I sat down just in time to watch the eight o'clock news on ARD.  Shortly before seven there had been a news conference in East Berlin at which it was announced cryptically that travel restrictions from East Germany had been lifted.  When asked when the change went into effect, Guenter Schabowski answered that, as far as he knew, the change went into effect immediately.  Actually, it was supposed to go into effect the next day.  The news hit the wires at 7:05 p.m., but was not reported consistently.  Back in the day, the Germans were not good at covering breaking news.  The ARD anchorman announced that the Berlin Wall was supposed to be open.  He promised more coverage later.  I was in the middle of taking a bite of food when he made the announcement.  The news show continued as planned, and I was almost certain that I had not heard correctly.  Sure enough, though, after the regular news was over, the reports of a possible border opening continued.  Keep in mind that at this point none of the East German border guards had received orders to open the wall and no one had left the East.  Crowds were beginning to build at the border crossings in East Berlin.  At 9:20, as the crowds were starting to get impatient, the first East Germans were allowed to cross into the west at the Bornholmer Strasse and later, at one or two other crossings.  Many of the first crossers had their identity papers voided as they left with the intent that they would not be allowed back in the country.  The West German national news then reported (incorrectly) that the gates were wide open.  Thousands of East Berliners poured out of their homes to go to nearby border crossings.  Shortly thereafter, East German border guards, afraid of the potential for violence, took things into their own hands and opened the gates wide.  The guards also were letting people back in the country.  I highly recommend reading up on the events leading up to November 9, 1989, to get a feel for just how unrehearsed and fluid everything was.  It is rare to have a minute-by-minute documentation of a revolution.  The East German leadership was crumbling and in great disarray.  Had Erich Honecker had his way, there would have been corpses in the streets of East Berlin on the evening of November 9.  Fortunately, he had been removed from power in October.  Instead, thanks to a series of blunders, sly resistance, shirking of duty, incompetence, and maybe even fear of future consequences,  a joyous party was just getting started.  The main credit has to go to those brave folks who lined up at the death strips and insisted -- in the face of great uncertainty -- on being let out.  Many of those people had been engaging in demonstrations for weeks chanting "we are the people  / wir sind das Volk".

The famous botched news conference

Günter S. -- unprepared SED bureaucrat

Hajo Friedrichs, anchorman for the ARD
announced shortly after 22:00 that
the gates to the Berlin Wall were "wide open".
They weren't ... but soon would be.

Harald Jäger, the border guard at the Bornholmer Strasse
who let a few people through at ca. 9.20 and who finally
"opened the wall" after failing to receive detailed orders
after Hajo Frierichs' ARD report caused hundreds
of East Berliners to flock to his border crossing.

One might wonder why November 9 is such a big deal considering that the borders were going to open up the next day.  I think that is a fair question.  I think that, by taking things into their own hands and forcing the gates wide open in a peaceful manner, the East German people deprived the SED of a chance to control the exit process.  The people had forced change up to November 9 and they were not about to let the SED bureaucrats determine the pace of change.  They had given up on the capacity of the communist system to reform itself.  November 9 accelerated events at an incredible pace in a way that might not otherwise have occurred if everyone had waited patiently until the next day to apply for exit visas.  Reunification was on the table.  Kohl interrupted a trip in Poland to return to Germany to stay on top of events.

Berlin April 1989 -- Cold War Series

I'm rushing a bit to get up to real time, but I did want to recount my wonderful trip to Berlin in April of 1989. I was part of a study group that spent a week in Berlin. We got to talk to professors and politicians in West Berlin and were shown around the city by German escorts. We stayed just off the Ku'damm and walked and rode public transportation all over the place. We visited the Potsdamer Platz and climbed an observation platform to peek over into East Berlin and the death strips. We visited numerous museums and engaged in more than one pub crawl. The program was structured to give us plenty of free time.

I need to jump back a bit to describe our transit to Berlin through East Germany. We travelled by train as a group with our German escorts. One of my friends in the group had a US passport that was in a bit of shambles from all his travelling. Extra pages had been added to the passport, and some of them were coming unattached. He almost did not make it past the East German border. We were held up for the better part of fifteen minutes as the rude border guard kept insisting that his passport was too damaged. Our West German escorts tried to persuade the guard to let us all pass through, but initially he was adamant that my friend shall not pass. I don't know how the conflict was finally resolved, whether the guard received approval from above or whether our escort knew which buttons to push or strings to pull, but we were allowed to pass. I think that my friend may have had to pay a small penalty in West Marks, but am not sure on that issue after all these years. The East Germans were notorious for milking the transit routes for all they could. The Autobahn between the East German border and West Berlin had very low speed limits for West German standards, and the speeds were controlled heavily and tickets handed out generously. Our border crossing proved to be even more unpleasant than the one I had experienced in Hungary in 1985. The East German border guards were rude and arrogant. We finally arrived in West Berlin at the famous Bahnhof Zoo near the Ku'damm.

It is hard to describe the feeling of being in a world-class city that is cut off from the rest of the world. Car traffic was much less than one would expect for a city the size of West Berlin. The closer you got to the wall (away from the main tourist attractions), the quieter the neighborhoods were. I can imagine that many West Berliners who lived near the wall in a quiet neighbourhood now miss the peacefulness of their western oasis in the East. What struck me the most about Berlin was the generous layout of the streets and boulevards, and the quiet. It was not what I expected from a large city.  West Berlin sat there in her quiet elegance, a testimony to times gone by when she rivaled Paris, London and New York, like some Russian countess in exile after the revolution, hoping for better times or dreaming of the past.

Occupied Berlin

The highlight of the trip was having an entire day to explore East Berlin on our own. My friend with the shabby passport and his wife decided to head deep into East Berlin with me to try to get a feel for what life was like away from the showcase center of town, with its Intershops selling luxury goods for hard currency and its handful of showcase hotels. Mrs. Bloggerboy, who was working in the West and could not accompany us, gave us instructions where we should go. We would have to take a commuter train almost to the end of the line to Friedrichshagen on the Müggelsee. A separate visa would have been needed to enter East Germany proper, but a day visa issued at the border was all that was needed to visit the broad swath of area that was included in East Berlin. My recollection is that we were required to purchase the day visa for DM 5.00 and that we further were required to exchange and spend DM 25.00 per day in East Berlin at the official exchange rate, which dramatically over-valued the East Mark. Because the three of us were Americans, we had to cross at Checkpoint Charlie. I paid my visa fee with small change at the first window, and the guard was furious that I did not pay with a bill. He threw the change into a change box and rudely issued me my visa. Fear: these people were used to ruling by instilling fear in enough people to maintain control. I was already being conditioned to behave myself while in the East. As I moved through the long, narrow corridor towards the Eastern Side of the complex, past closed office doors and rooms for detailed interrogations and searches, I felt the same feeling of claustrophobia and fear growing in my stomach that I had felt crossing into Hungary in 1985. Rationally, I knew that there was little that was likely to happen to me as long as I didn't do anything illegal, such as using the black market, but emotionally I felt extremely vulnerable.

The center of East Berlin was full and bustling. We spent some time sightseeing downtown. Around lunchtime we started looking for a restaurant where we could spend part of our DM 25. We went to look at a menu posted outside one restaurant. There was a well-dressed couple, most likely of Eastern European origin, standing next to the menu, and I accidentally brushed the man on the leg with the tip of my umbrella. The couple disappeared immediately. I hardly had time to excuse myself in German. Only afterwards did I recall the famous incident when someone from the East Block was assassinated by injecting poison using the tip of an umbrella. The term "Bulgarian Umbrella" even has its own Wikipedia entry (gives a whole new twist to the Rihanna song).  Who knows, maybe they were just trying to get away from noisy Americans. We finally had lunch at a Chinese or Vietnamese restaurant.  After lunch, we made our way to the train station and bought tickets for the commute to Friedrichshagen. Google Maps tells me that the Müggelsee is over 20 kilometers from Berlin Alexanderplatz. That fits with my recollection of a commute of at least thirty minutes. We didn't realize it when we got on the train, but we were travelling back in time. When we got off the train, we were in a small town that reeked of the past.

Berlin Treptow-Köpenick

I was immediately reminded of all the Nineteenth Century Russian novels that I had read. Most of the buildings and houses were unpainted, and some of their grey, plastered facades still had what looked like bullet holes or shrapnel damage from the war. Unpainted wood details adorned many of the store fronts and awnings, lending a rural atmosphere to the town.  We walked down the length of the main street towards the lake, zigzagging across the street to peek into shops of interest. We stopped in a café for something to drink. A middle-aged man at another table kept looking over at us and smiling. He appeared to be fascinated with the appearance of Westerners in his neck of the woods and also seemed unthreatening. It was so obvious that he would like to talk to us that we invited him to join us. He looked quickly from left to right, smiled, and shrugged his shoulders. He did not need to say anything; we understood that it would be dangerous for him to be seen fraternizing with Westerners. After we left the café we noticed a woman carrying shopping bags that we had seen earlier in the day. I don't recall whether we had seen her in the town center, but she must have passed our way at least four times that day. By the third pass-by we were already joking that we were being followed by the "bag lady". After the fourth pass-by, all three of us felt that this was more than a coincidence. Call it paranoia.  Maybe we were overreacting, but the reaction of the man in the café was confirmation to us that indeed there was reason to be cautious.

Down towards the lake the city tapered off and light industrial uses started cropping up. These buildings looked even more desolate than the ones we saw in town. There was nothing going on at the lake, so we wandered back through side streets, stopping to visit an old cemetery with a couple of graves of famous persons. As we headed back to the train station along the main street, shortly after our fourth viewing of the bag lady, we decided to go into a grocery store to see what the food selection was like. Visiting grocery stores is a great way to familiarize yourself with a culture.  It was getting close to quitting time, and there was a lot going on in the stores. This was my first encounter with the reality of food shortages in the east (aside from the export quotas on Hungarian salami). In particular, the fruits and vegetables were few and of an extremely poor quality. I'll never forget the look of the oranges that were on display in the store. They were almost black. There was plenty of low-quality food available. Hunger in East Germany was not an issue, but the food quality was. For years after the wall came down, West Germans used to joke about the fascination of Ossies (East Germans) with fresh bananas. Well, after wandering through that grocery store, I can understand the fascination.

As a final detour during our visit to Friedrichshagen, we decided to wander into a church. The communists had a strained relationship with religion, to say the least, but religion was not forbidden, and, as we later learned, the churches became an important center for the protest movement and the Monday demonstrations that started later in the fall and came to a climax in November. We walked into the church and browsed the billboard in the lobby to try to see what was going on. I have to confess a great deal of ignorance back then about the role of churches in communist countries. I had no idea whether the priests and pastors were party members or snitches and, in spite of the Pope's important role in Poland, no idea of the potential revolutionary powers sheltered by the churches in East Germany. After a few minutes, a group came out of a room, and the leader of the group greeted us. We chatted for a minute, and she invited us to join her and her group in some sort of discussion. Looking back at this opportunity I will always kick myself for having declined the chance to talk to them. The woman seemed just a bit too eager to talk to us, at least by West German standards, making us a bit suspicious. It was late, we needed to get back into the city, and we were a bit creeped out by the reaction of the man in the café earlier, the bag lady, and by being so far from the center of town. But we should have taken her up on her offer. This time it was our turn to shrug and smile and politely decline the gambit. When I look back at this event in the perspective of the historical moment, I missed a great opportunity to get a feel for what was brewing in the East German churches. By September, though, everyone knew.

On the commuter train back into town we chatted with an elderly lady from the West who had been visiting her family. She told us of all the hardships the separation had caused her and her family and of the desolate lives that her family in the East led. During most of the trip East German policemen and soldiers were standing near us. The woman kept her voice down and we did, too. I wonder whether any of them could understand what she was telling us. Once we were back in town, we still had money to spend (i.e. that we had to spend or lose). It was getting late, but we decided to stop at a folksy restaurant not too far from Checkpoint Charley to spend our last marks. As it turned out, a group of East German union members was celebrating something in the same restaurant. After they had drunk a few rounds, one of the leaders come over to us and engaged us in a conversation. He obviously had no fear of contact with Americans. The purpose of his visit was to convince us of the benefits of the communist way of life. With his slightly slurred speech he told of his pleasant working life, the family values, the solidarity among the workers. We did not try to argue much with him. I think we might have asked a few questions and parried a few jabs. I guess you could say that we humored him for the most part. Looking back I figure that my friend and I both saw this man as a hopeless case, someone clearly in the party or on very good terms with the party with a vested interest in the status quo, and that the risks of aggravating him far outweighed the benefit of scoring a few debating points. Strange, how timid one becomes in such circumstances. We said goodbye to our restaurant neighbors, made it back through Checkpoint Charlie with no further incidents -- and no further sightings of the bag lady -- and soaked up the vibrant atmosphere of the Ku'damm as we made our way back to our hotel. The crass contrast between Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf and Friedrichshagen lingered with me for a long time.  It still lingers with me.

So, now I'm pretty much caught up with real time (twenty years later). Whew!  Sorry if there are typos & mistakes in this lengthy passage.  The next few days I'll relate the events of November 9, 1989, as I experienced them in Frankfurt and of my spontaneous trip to Berlin starting shortly after midnight on Sunday, November 12, returning to Frankfurt overnight, arriving on the morning of November 13 with only a few rest stops on the highway in between.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Hungarian Summers -- The Cold War Series


In the Summer of 1985, Mrs. Bloggerboy and I, freshly married, took a honeymoon trip in Europe. We rented a small car in Frankfurt and drove to Vienna and Budapest, returning to Frankfurt along the Romantic Road. Mrs. Bloggerboy's mother had a colleague at work whose mother lived in Budapest, a bit outside the center of Buda. In order to earn hard currency, she would let out a room in her apartment to visitors from Germany who paid the daughter. The daughter in Frankfurt settled up with her mother.

Hungary was one of the wealthiest communist countries and had managed to achieve a certain amount of economic independence from the Soviet Union since the dark days of 1956. This was my first trip behind the iron curtain. I had met numerous people from Eastern Europe during my travels in Western Europe, so I had been able to gain some first impressions. Nevertheless, nothing prepared me for the sinking and claustrophobic feeling of crossing the iron curtain headed east. The unfriendly guards, the car searches, the sudden drop in living standards already obvious at the border.

All in all, Budapest was a wealthy city. If it had not been for the low-quality cars and people accosting us on the street to ask if we wanted to exchange currency on the black market, I doubt we would have noticed that we were in a communist country. The restaurant food in the city was plentiful and, even on a tight budget, very inexpensive. We ate in the best restaurants in town and enjoyed our meals. The shops in town also were well stocked. Had we not had the privilege of living with an Hungarian woman in her private apartment, we might have returned from our trip convinced that things were pretty good behind the iron curtain. The apartment where we stayed cleared up any illusions that we might have had. Our host had a one bedroom apartment. Our bed was a fold-out couch in her tiny living room. The bedroom and living room were each not bigger than 15 feet by 12 feet. There was a small hallway, a small kitchen, and a small bathroom. The house was not painted on the outside. The stairwell looked as if it had not been renovated since the war. The plumbing did not work properly. Hot water was at a premium. Our host made it clear that she did not want to talk about any sensitive subjects for fear of eavesdroppers. She had registered us with the local police as visitors from the West. I think we even gave her our passports to take care of this errand. Riding the streetcar into town from the outskirts provided a quick transition from the reality of most peoples' lives to the glimmering showcase of the old city. Sitting at the Hilton on hilltop Buda overlooking Pest and the Danube, sipping on a nice glass of Hungarian red wine, one would not be inclined to reflect on the harsh circumstances nearby, the seething discontent of many people.

One evening Mrs. Bloggerboy and I were sitting in a restaurant near the Danube when I noticed a fellow in the corner in a dark suit observing us.  He looked like Andropov. We had been speaking different languages in a restaurant that catered mostly to foreigners, and I think that the switching back and forth caught his attention. Mr. Andropov kept an eye on us the whole time, and when we left the restaurant, there were footsteps behind us. I'll save the paranoid details, but I'm almost certain that we were followed home. We were not confronted or requested to provide identification, but the experience left a certain chill hanging over our visit. As a final act of defiance, we bought several Hungarian paprika salamis from our host, more than we were allowed to take out of the country, and smuggled them out in our car. The car search at the border was not thorough, just a peek in the back, but I certainly was a bit nervous. The feeling of comfort being back in the West also was hard to describe. I'm someone who occasionally lets slip with an inappropriate statement. Such behavior might cost someone a friend or two in the West, maybe even a client or a job if one is too self-indulgent.  I left Hungary with a sense of certainty that, had I been required to survive in a communist country, sooner or later I would have said something that got me into political trouble, not because I see myself as an activist, but simply because of my big mouth and occasional sarcastic, snide remarks. Freedom is like health: you rarely notice it until you have lost it. I try to make a conscious effort to enjoy having both -- while still trying not to offend people too often ;-).

I'm glad I had a chance to experience Hungary before things really started to heat up in the East. After Poland, Hungary played a central role in the collapse of the iron curtain. Eastern Germans and other Eastern Europeans had been trying to sneak to the West through Hungary for many years. Unable to cross from East Germany because of the death strips and the strictly-enforced orders to shoot, and unable to vacation in free countries, many East Germans would obtain visas to vacation in Hungary and attempt to cross the border into Austria. By 1989 the slow leak at the Hungarian border had turned into a hemorrhage of sorts.

In May 1989, Hungary began dismantling much of its border with Austria. The Hungarian border guards also had orders to shoot, but they generally refused to follow those orders. On August 19, 1989, over six hundred East Germans crossed into Austria at a border crossing that had been opened up for a "friendship picnic" to celebrate easing of restriction in travel between Austria and Hungary. That event is now celebrated as the great "Pan-European Picnic".  The East Germans were not the intended beneficiaries of the celebration, but the Hungarians turned a blind eye to what was going on. In the following weeks thousands of East Germans sought refuge in Hungary. Some of them were holed up in the West German embassy, some in camps that were set up for them. On September 10, against strong protest from East Germany, Hungary allowed an estimated 7,000 East Germans to leave for freedom via Austria. The Hungarian decision contravened Warsaw Pact agreements, and it was THE seminal act of defiance that paved the way for the fall of the Berlin Wall. Germans owe an eternal debt of gratitude to the Hungarians for having had the courage to defy Warsaw Pact rules. In early October, Gorbachev appeared with Erich Honecker in East Berlin to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the DDR and issued a thinly-veiled warning to him that life punishes those who resist change. Meanwhile, Honecker was issuing orders to the East German military to prepare for a "Chinese Solution" to the popular uprising.

Memorial to 1989 at the Hungary - Austria Border

Friday, November 6, 2009

Beginning of the End -- Cold War Series

Boy, I really have been meandering.  I still have several posts left before the anniversary on Monday.

I spent a year in France from 1981 to 1982. Shortly before school started in the fall of 1981, I headed into the Pyrenees for a bit of hiking. I’ll never forget my shock at the train station when I asked how to get to my destination using the train. “Not Possible” was the answer (add the inimitable French shrug). I then reformed my question in passable French to include bus travel. “Not Possible”. (This reminds me of the famous New England refrain “you can’t get there from here”.) Instead of reacting with pique and cancelling my trip, I hope readers can imagine the feeling of pure joy that overcame me to be in a highly-civilized country but still be able to get off the beaten track. I bought a ticket to “Possible” and decided to figure out the rest after I got there. Of course, I could have rented a car and been at my destination in an hour or two, but that was not an option for me back then. Instead, I rode for part of the journey in an ancient train that included a third class compartment with unpainted wooden benches. I don’t know whether they still sold third class passage back then, but I could imagine that car filled with peasants headed back and forth between the Pyrenees and the market towns in the foothills, eating their packed meals in the train. I think I took a bus for another part of the way. The rest of my trek was on foot or by hitchhiking along two-lane roads through increasingly smaller towns and villages and up into the Pyrenees. I found a space in a dorm-style hostel near my hiking destination in one of the last villages. I was in heaven and thought I was going to be alone.

As it turned out, my dorm neighbors were a group of young students at the university where I was going to be studying and, even more remarkably, several of us ended up as neighbors in the same university dorm. They were engaged in a retreat of sorts. They were members of the French Communist Party ("PCF"), a couple of years younger than I. Their party had formed a coalition earlier in 1981 with newly-elected President Mitterand’s Socialists, and the atmosphere on the left in France was one of excitement and anticipation. Contrary to expectations, my neighors took an immediate interest in this strange American who was well off the beaten trail and who spoke French. We ended up going out together that night, sitting in one of the only bars in the village, drinking local wine to which they introduced me, and smoking intolerably strong French cigarettes. Later, my British drinking buddies at the university affectionately referred to Gauloise cigarettes as "Galoshes" because of the burnt rubber taste. The French students sang a few songs together, and then we headed back to the dorm. I really liked these kids, and, in spite of our later political disagreements, they remained some of the most decent French people whom I had the pleasure of meeting during my time there. Class consciousness played a big role in France back then. I found many of the French students who came from upper middle class backgrounds or who were going to be pursuing professional careers to be extremely narrow-minded and socially conservative. On the other hand, the spirit of egalitarianism that remains one of American society’s strengths seemed to be alive and well among my communist dorm neighbors. They clearly were not racist and went out of their way to get along with muslim and African students who often either isolated themselves or were isolated by French society.

The Solidarity movement in Poland was on a confrontation course with the powers that be in the East Block during my fall semester in France, climaxing in a crackdown, the imposition of martial law and the imprisonment of Lech Walesa right before Christmas. Events in Europe seem so far away when one is in America. Here, the crackdown was going on right next door. The PCF had a long tradition of supporting the Soviet / Stalinist line, and the crackdown in Poland was no exception. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the PCF supported the decision. As you can imagine, the crackdown was the topic of lively discussion in our dorm. The main leader of the student PCF group roomed next door to me. He never gave an inch on the topic. At one point earlier that fall I had tried to lend him a book on Vietnam that we had used in a university course. It certainly was critical of the US role in Vietnam. My neighbour declined, telling me that he only read books by communist authors. Some of the friends in this closely-knit group began to distance themselves from the hard line of the PCF. You could almost hear their worldviews crumbling. Solidarity was the first free labor union in the Eastern Block, and its workers were being repressed by the so-called workers' party.

Watching the exciting rise of Solidarity and its subsequent repression from my perch in France caused a paradigm shift for me, bringing events behind the iron curtain into much sharper focus. I had been involved with Amnesty International on and off during my undergrad days, so I was not naïve about the lack of freedom in many places around the world. Nevertheless, I think it would be safe to say that the Amnesty work that I did was focused more on South Africa and the dictatorships in South America than in communist countries. I don't know whether this had to do with an attempt to assign work to groups that were perceived to have more leverage or influence in a particular country. During my spring semester I worked with an Amnesty group in France that had been assigned the case of an activist who was in and out of prison in East Germany. We even tried calling her at her home several times. That was the first time that I had spent a fair bit of time reading the country reports of the Eastern Block countries and learning more details of how repression was carried out. It was not as brutal as in Argentina or El Salvador, but I could not imagine what it would be like to live under such circumstances. Reagan was President back then. I spent inordinate amounts of time during my year in France arguing with European students about politics. I never voted for Reagan, but that did not stop European students from giving me a hard time about America's role in the world. I sometimes found myself trying to explain US foreign policy even though I certainly could not be described as a cold warrior type. I think a lot of European students who witnessed the attempt to crush Solidarity became more circumspect, but then a lot of people on the left managed to look away in 1953, 1956, and 1968. Some of my PCF acquaintances looked away. Others did not.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


I stayed up past my bedtime last night to watch Julian Schnabel's debut film Basquiat.  It was well worth the drowsiness this morning.  Aside from the lead actor Jeffrey Wright's excellent performance, David Bowie gave a fascinating portrayal of Andy Warhol.  All debates about the accuracy of the portrayals aside, or of Schnabel's motives in those portrayals, I  was drawn into Basquiat's world.  I thought Schnabel did a great job of portraying the dreamlike state that he interpreted as Basquiat's source of creativity.  He certainly shows enough to an attentive viewer to let us know that Basquiat had his dark sides.  This was the first Schnabel film that I've seen, and I look forward to seeing his later works.

Untitled Work from 1984

Picture from Wikimedia Commons.