The Nature of Dictatorships

Last June, I linked an article by Mario Vargas Llosa about dictatorship and what it does to the human spirit. In the current National Review (4/7), Jay Nordlinger has an article which touches on the same theme.

Nordlinger’s piece is about Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, maker of the film The Lives of Others. (If you haven’t yet seen it, you should.) Florian himself spent his early childhood in the U.S., with his family returning to Germany (West Berlin) when he was eight. His personal knowledge of Communism was based on family visits to East Germany and to his two-year visit to Russia in the early 1990s.

The leading actor in the film, on the other hand, had a very personal knowledge of Communist totalitarianism. Ulrich Muehe was an East German, and, while still in high school, he had already been identified as a promising actor.

From the NR article:

Muehe had the fate of being an East German, and the Stasi had its eye on him from the moment he left high school: They knew he would be a big star. During his military service (obligatory), they made him serve as a sniper at the Berlin Wall. He was under orders to shoot whoever tried to cross from east to west. If he failed, he would never be allowed to work as an actor. He would have to be a manual laborer to the end of his days.

So there was Muehe, 18 years old, sitting in the towers, with this incredible burden on his shoulders. The only thing worse than not being an actor would be shooting someone. Muehe developed stomach ulcers, and one day he collapsed on duty, bleeding from the mouth. Doctors had to take out three-quarters of his stomach. But, fortunately, no one tried to cross. Still, the Stasi never stopped warning him to toe the political line, through all the years of his acting. He kept his counsel–until just before the Wall came down, when he gave a big, pro-freedom speech in East Berlin’s Alexanderplatz.

(cross-posted at Photon Courier)

5 thoughts on “The Nature of Dictatorships”

  1. Authoritarian regimes control most of population by control over their day to day lives. People who raise a fuss find that they or their friends and family suddenly lose jobs, housing, education etc. Just to get by people toe the line.

    That is one reason why government encroachment on all areas of our material lives poises such a long term threat. How free can a person really be if their housing, transportation, medical care etc all controlled by the state?

    Even in the mildest case, they find themselves forced to vote for certain politicians for fear of losing their government benefits. For example, how many socially conservative seniors must abandon their principles vote for socially liberal politicians solely because they fear losing their social security benefits? People with private resources don’t have to make that choice.

    Once person becomes dependent on the state for their basic needs, they become a subject not a citizen.

  2. I rented that movie as soon as it came out and also thought it was very, very good. Much like the movie about Cuba by Andy Garcia, The Lost City. If you watch the story unfold, it is not really about the Stasi character, but the writer and the actress he ends up observing obsessively.

    Favorites of the regime, the two lovers are slowly destroyed, both artistically and morally, by the endless, remorseless demands that they support and cooperate with the regime in any way they are asked to do so.

    Contrary to the constant refrain of the collectivists in the media and academia, it is not the “soulless commercialism” of the west that alienates and destroys both personality and artistic talents, but the ruthless repression of a state which demands that there be no element of anyone’s life that is beyond their control.

    I agree wholeheatedly with Shannon’s analysis above, but I was caught more by the spiralling destruction of the other two characters than the predicament of the Stasi agent. I saw him as more of a plot device to observe the collapse of the world of the state pampered artist/ collaborator when he or she realizes, too late, that they no longer stand for anything at all, but are merely slaves of whoever is holding the whip.

    It is not just that the state might control this or that aspect of life, but the insatiable nature of power—it is a black hole, always hungry, always feeding, never satisfied that this much control is enough. In the end, such a system guarantees that only the most ruthless and psychopathic personalities will end up at the top, as history amply demonstrates.

    Absolute power that corrupts absolutely only rewards those who are corrupted, and rewards to the highest degree the most fundamentally flawed—one who desires power above all other considerations, even his own humanity, or that of anyone else.

    The danger of collectivism has always been so much more than a few rules or some new taxes. It is poisonous to the very essence of humanity itself. It demands the forfeit of one’s very mind and soul.

    As with the Aztecs on their sacred pyramid, collectivism demands an endless stream of human sacrifices, the “men without chests” described many years ago so eloquently by C. S. Lewis.

    That is what this movie is about.

  3. I agree with Shannon when he writes:
    “Once person becomes dependent on the state for their basic needs, they become a subject not a citizen.”
    Many artists, writers, poets, film makers and the like receive recognition and funding for their “works” from leftist government in Latin American and other continents, it becomes a shortcut to fame and financial stability (of sorts) allowing them to make a name of themselves while they applaud and defend tyrants and totalitarian and populist regimes. Not only artists succumb to these treats from these regimes and abandon their principles, many people who end up working for the state, because their companies were nationalized by these regimes, also succumb and even cast their votes in favor of tyrants for fear of losing their financial stability or income to support their families.
    That’s the trick of collectivism, once you depend on the state, you belong to the state, your sould included.
    On the other hand, I’ve never read C.S. Lewis, but I don’t think the Aztecs were a collectivist society at all, they indeed committed human sacrifices to please their gods and to gain favor from them (how many people they sacrificed and how often they did that is still a matter of discussion by many archeologists), yet other societies, like the Spanish and most European societies for example, also regularly committed human sacrifices in the name of religion, yes, they did not have pyramids and did not open the chest of their victims in the same fashion, yet their priests and religious authorities brutally and atrociously tortured men and women, breaking their bones and amputating parts of their bodies, and burned them by the thousands in pyres simply because they prayed to a different god.

  4. DWMF-thanks for the link-well put.In 1968 during my grand tour of Europe,I was privileged to go behind the Iron Curtain. The first thing that struck you was the smell of lignite-I remember it as the Evil Empire smell. Less definable was the drabness,unrelenting,unbroken;the absence of things worth buying in the shops,the absence of palatable food. I have never seen anyplace so depressing since.
    I had seen the future,and it didn’t work.
    Even in 2001 former E.Germany still had a somewhat drab feel to it.

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