Communists can’t make cola

The Secret Life of The Berlin Wall was gripping, but it didn’t explain anything new, like why East German coke was so bad.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

It’s very fashionable these days to say that the fall of the Berlin Wall was not a good thing. The twentieth anniversary of its demolition has not so much been an occasion for celebration as an opportunity for great swathes of people to point to the chronic failings of capitalism, to note the continued poverty that is endemic in eastern Germany, and to conclude that the Berlin Wall’s fall did not signal ‘the end of history’.

Yaa-boo sucks to you, Francis Fukuyama. Big blowing raspberries to all you neo-cons. Bet you didn’t see Islamic fundamentalism coming, eh? Or the financial crisis of 2008, or the oncoming ‘environmental catastrophe’ (which has supplanted communism as the new, re-aligned focus of demonic ‘otherness’). Where’s my Che Guevara t-shirt? Must buy that new Al Gore book…

Free-marketeers who celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall as the symbolic terminus of Stalinist-Marxism are regarded today much like Alan Davies on QI. He is the man who forever gives the obvious but incorrect answer, only to be reprimanded in a schoolmasterly way by Stephen Fry, with the aid of a loud alarm horn, that he is ‘wrong, wrong, totally wrong. That’s a complete misconception.’ ‘Actually, Alan’, Fry might say, ‘the Berlin Wall didn’t signify the end of Marxism. It signalled merely a hiatus of its historical inevitability, and was entirely in keeping with the logic of Hegel’s theory that a thesis and an antithesis must engender a synthesis. I think you’ll find… ho! ho! ho!… that the film Good Bye Lenin! proves it so.’

I’m no expert on Cold War politics, but I do remember visiting East Germany as a 12-year-old in 1986. My abiding memory is that it was horrible. I didn’t ponder at the time whether East German Stalinism had corrupted the essentially liberating ethos of Marxism, or whether the man himself would have been shocked at the authoritarian state created ‘in his name’. No, I was shocked that East German cola was so shit.

In West Berlin you could drink Coca-Cola, or Dr Pepper, or 7-Up, but once you crossed Checkpoint Charlie, everything was rubbish. Everyone in West Berlin seemed very happy, perhaps owing to the fact that it was a destination for draft-dodgers, and that it did have a beleaguered feeling to it – its burghers having a suspicion it was surrounded by malevolent forces (which it was). Or maybe it was the fact that Burger King served lager, which gave my father a rather good reason to take me and my brother there every day.

West Berlin did have a decadent atmosphere, but my childish mind preferred it to East Berlin. Everyone there looked sour and gloomy. The cars looked like they were designed for hobbits; the streets were deserted; there were Russian soldiers doing their silly goose-step march; and most men seemed to have mullets. My most abiding memory from East Berlin, apart from its dreadful cola and the Def Leppard hairstyles, was the fact that, upon heading from west to east through Checkpoint Charlie, we were told to hide our newspapers. Even a 12-year-old can appreciate that a society that hides newspapers is not quite right in the head.

This is why the BBC’s The Secret Life of The Berlin Wall (BBC Two, Saturday) seemed so resonant. It reminded you just how oppressive and awful a state East Germany was. It told us how East Germany was the economic power house in the Soviet Bloc in the 1970s (which is not saying much), how Berliners in particular came to terms with the legacy of Nazism, and how it regarded itself as a morally superior antithesis to West Germany, which was presumed to be the puppet of fascist capitalists from America. It also recounted just how appalling the Stasi were, and how good people do bad things for the ostensibly right reasons.

But we know all this. We’ve been told it a thousand times before. The Secret Life of The Berlin Wall was often gripping and very unsettling, yet totally formulaic. People digging tunnels. The Stasi. Gorbachev. Reagan. Families separated. Bearded intellectuals disillusioned by the East. Bearded intellectuals disillusioned by the West. Men being shot and dying while strangled by barbed-wire. ‘We weren’t free, but at least we had jobs.’ Troops letting protesters go through the Wall. Cheering crowds. The East German Politburo capitulating. West versus East Berlin being regarded as a generally convenient metaphor for Good against Evil.

It was a horrifying programme about a horrifying country, made just a bit more amenable by the fact that we didn’t see the Scorpions performing their Wind of Change.

The underlying problem with The Secret Life of The Berlin Wall, and most other documentary series about Germany, is that it mainly interpreted Germany in terms of its relation to other countries. Germany is the eternal Other, forever perceived by the British, the Russians, the Polish, the French and just about every other country in Europe as a recurrent ‘problem’. Germany is always perceived, or perceives itself, as a country in disjuncture, whether it be a bastard creation of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Empire, the Hohenzollerns, the Habsburgs, the Kaiser or the Fuhrer. We British always think it amusing to point out that Hitler was Austrian, but this just betrays the fact that we subconsciously think Germany is a made-up country.

Germany should be interpreted in itself. Certainly when it comes to talking about ‘The War’, or the Cold War. East German communism was not just a Russian imposition. Berlin has traditionally been a socialist city. Nazism had been given impetus by Prussian militarism, but its ideological inspiration had come from Bavarian or Austrian or Rhinelander mystics, with their various pseudo-Catholic illusions. The same country and culture which gave us Hitler, the Stasi, the Schlieffen Plan and 99 Red Balloons also gave us Beethoven, Kant, Nietzsche, Jürgen Klinsmann and Kraftwerk. And not to mention the most wonderfully romantic and silly film about Berlin and the Cold War: Good Bye Lenin!

It would be better, still, if someone could explain why the Communists couldn’t make decent cola.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio reviewer. Read his blog here.

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