In times of the Internet, historical memory shrinks. Who remembers today that for almost half a century the United States of America represented the realm of enlightenment, truth and progress, while the other side of the Iron Curtain was ruled by arbitrariness, gulags and politically decreed lies? This contrast was inflated by mutual propaganda, certainly, but forced labor camps and those millions of people Stalin had sent to their deaths were bitter reality. There was so little doubt concerning this gruesome past that Solzhenitsyn’s accusations were read worldwide, that is even in Russia. When Gorbachev finally dared to say the truth, the collapse of the regime was inevitable.
Truth in politics works like salvation.
In Nazi Germany, prescribed political lies had been on the agenda from the very beginning of the regime. After Hitler’s seizure of power, his oldest ally Ernst Röhm and the SA militias he controlled had suddenly become inconvenient (a thorn in the side of the Reichswehr and conservative circles, whose support Hitler could not do without). The Nazis therefore invented the fake news of a planned coup. Röhm and about two hundred other citizens were murdered in a cloak-and-dagger operation. This was a foretaste of the nihilism of power that would darken Germany for more than a decade. Hitler and his henchmen assumed that lie and truth had no meaning in politics (or anywhere else for that matter). What counts, according to their credo, is power and nothing but power, for whose sake no human sacrifice would be too great.
The Liberation of Germans
from the bloody rule of Adolf Hitler was perceived as a redemption not because the Nazis had been militarily defeated. In most cases, peoples still prefer to be ruled by local villains rather than by foreign saviors – after all, the latter show them their own failure and humiliation. The sigh of relief was due to the fact that now it was possible again to recognize reality for what it is and speak the truth. Truth and lies are not mere products of power, as diehard nihilists claim. During the last years of Nazi rule, citizen were aware that the constant reports of victory were nothing but cynical lies. Moreover, many Germans had resisted decreed racial hatred at least in such a way that they opposed the ordered lie with private exceptions – the Jews known to them personally were quite different from all others! When holding to this miserable remnant of truth, Germans did not endanger their life which they would have done when resorting to open protest.
The willingness of Germans to welcome the American liberators with open arms at the end of the war was based on the fact that lie and truth were not mere creations of power. American democracy, and soon the German one too granted every citizen the right to decide for himself what he considered true or false in daily life and in politics. This was experienced as an escape from the prison of state-imposed lies.
Between 1945 until the fall of the Iron Curtain
these feelings remained largely unchallenged. It was the scientists, the thinkers, yes, and also the politicians of the West who enjoyed most credibility. As it turned out, they were trusted even in the East. After all, the walls, barbed wires and watchtowers between East and West were not built on the Western side to keep the people of Western democracies from fleeing into Stalin’s empire. They had to be built on the eastern side because so many people were pushing from there to the West. And when the Wall finally fell at the end of the 1980s, it was the heartland of the West, America, that took the whole world by storm. Jazz, jeans, the movies of Hollywood, the internet and last but not least American science and the English language started a triumphal march all over Europe and Asia.
But, as so often happens, the climax was to be
the beginning of decline. Actually, clear-sighted observers were able to see much earlier that it was stupid to maintain that darkness reigned on one side only, and light on the other. Both great powers had no qualms about wearing down or completely exhausting in constant proxy wars the countries on the fringes of their respective spheres of power. Peace in Europe was paid for with enormous suffering in Vietnam, Chile and many African states. Great powers establish order in their spheres of rule – just as each individual state does within its own borders. The Roman Empire had already proceeded in such a way. It had successfully pacified most of the ancient world, so that people could travel safely from Britain to the borders of the Persian Empire. At the same time, the peripheral areas subjugated by the center were notoriously exploited and generally treated with unabashed brutality. The privilege of Enlightenment, peace, and a freedom that included the right to describe conditions truthfully applied to the centers of power, not to the disputed peripheries.
The year 1945 marked the greatest historical break
in the history of Europe. After more than two thousand years of domination, the Old Continent had deliberately catapulted itself out of the world’s center with a civil war lasting for almost 30 years. In its place, the US and the Soviet Union had now become the leading powers. This is how things remained up to now (except that China could outstrip both great powers in the coming decade).
In other words, Europe has become so marginalized and militarily insignificant that it can no longer withstand any encroachment without outside help. In 1989 it could still appear as if Russia too had to bid farewell to its former role as a superpower. From a superficial point of view, the United States had ended the Cold War victoriously by an arms race the enemy was unable to withstand. But there were deeper reasons for the incredibly rapid disintegration of the Soviet camp. The people in the GDR (1953), in Hungary (1956), in the Czech Republic (1968) and finally in Poland (1981) had already shown that they no longer believed the promises of the communist regime. According to Soviet ideology, communism had brought paradise on earth; but Eastern people soon realized that Western nations were much better off than they were. Such evident truths could however not be openly stated – they were taboo. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, people were forced to live with state-imposed lies and had to fear being banished to Siberia for speaking the truth. Gorbachev had only given the external impetus for the dissolution of the regime. In reality, the regime had already been broken down by its own lies – hence its incredibly rapid disintegration.
The meeting of Sergejewitsch Gorbatschow, the great Russian,
(today outlawed as a traitor in his homeland) with the American president Ronald Reagan was one of the great moments in recent world history. Two former enemies communicated in the same language of truth, proving to the world that there is an objective reality that unites people. Both men were aware of the gruesome madness that East and West were threatening each other with weapons of final destruction that at any time could trigger the end of humanity. Both wanted to establish a new peaceful order – and the whole world believed that this was possible indeed. The moment appeared like a release from the nightmare of potential self-annihilation.
Why does all this already seem so remote from present reality?
Why was Gorbachev, who had initially brought so much hope to his own country and to the world, later regarded rather like a traitor? Why did Russia under Putin once again become a great power armed to the teeth and a declared opponent of the West, though now without the communist creed? And yes, while we are asking these unpalatable questions, why not add an even more unpleasant one? Why is politics in the United States under Donald Trump dominated by lies just as much as in Russia under Vladimir Putin?
Apparently, after the fall of the Berlin Wall
and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, something went very wrong. Under Hitler, the Germans had brought forth a regime at least as totalitarian, bloody and cruel as Stalin’s rule. But the Americans were quick to help defeated Germany back on its feet with the Marshall Plan. We should never forget: Seldom was a defeated people treated so generously.
But what happened to Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall? Not only was Russia lying prostrate on the ground, it was deliberately pushed to the ground. The West pursued an economic policy that Russia paid for with greater economic losses and misery than those caused by the Second World War. At that time, industrial production in the Soviet Union fell by “only” 24 percent, whereas in the ten years after the fall of the Iron Curtain it fell by almost 60 percent. The nineties under Boris Yeltsin were experienced by the Russians as a period of extreme humiliation. Instead of receiving thanks for having voluntarily shaken off a dictatorship and being willing to recognize the West as a model, they were completely beaten to the ground: entire branches of industry being dismantled, their scientists poached and (with the active cooperation of Jeffrey Sachs) privatization pushed through overnight so that the country’s most important resources were sold off to a few oligarchs. At that time it was an open secret that Russia’s oil wells should be open for sale in the West so that the Russian bear could be finally brought under control.
The comet-like rise of Vladimir Putin
is unthinkable without the thoughtless humiliation of Russia by the United States. That unique wisdom in dealing with defeated Germany, which had distinguished U.S. policy after ’45, was no longer an option in the case of defeated Russia after 1989. Today we have to admit that the increasingly hostile and extraordinarily successful Russian President Vladimir Putin is a creature of misguided Western policy.
The effects of such policy are becoming increasingly evident
While political lies were undoubtedly much more deeply rooted in the East until the fall of the Wall, from then on they began to spread more and more in both camps. It had always been easy for unscrupulous power to substitute lies for truth. Even science had to submit to political arbitrariness. Anyone who openly polemicized against the Nazis’ racial theory could end up in a concentration camp; anyone who questioned Lyssenkoism under Stalin had to reckon with spending the rest of his life in a Siberian gulag.
And what about truth in our time, for example in the United States? Until the 1990s, the denial of Darwin’s theory of descendance remained limited to a small number of crackpots, such as exist at any time in any country. But since about three decades, ideologically blinded crackpots have turned into the broad movement of anti-scientific Evangelicals, without whose votes Donald Trump would not have become president. Even a despiser of the truth like the current American president does not dare to declare the Darwinian theory of descendance a fake, but otherwise he confidently disregards scientific findings (on Corona, for example). And so does Vladimir Putin when he wipes off the table as “unproven” the unanimous finding of German experts that Alexei Navalny is the victim of a political assassination attempt with the nerve poison Novichok. In Russia this denial of truth is nothing new. Regularly occurring political killings were never admitted – see Sergei Yushchenkov (shot in 2003), Yuri Shchekochichin (presumably poisoned in 2003), Paul Klebnikov (shot in 2004), Anna Politikovskaya (shot in 2006), Alexander Litvinenko (poisoned with radioactive polonium in 2006), Stanislav Markelov (shot in 2009), Natalya Estemirova (shot in 2009), Boris Nemtsov (shot in 2015), Vladimir Kara-Mursa (presumably poisoned in 2017), Sergei and Yulia Skripal (poisoned with Novichok in 2018), Pyotr Werzilov (poisoned in 2018), and finally Alexei Navalny (poisoned with Novichok in 2020).
Of course, political murders are not a Russian specialty. Both superpowers never had any qualms about having them carried out in disputed peripheral regions. The CIA looks back on a long list of sins down to the violent overthrow of democratically elected President Allende in Chile, whose only mistake had been his intention to achieve a greater degree of social justice for his own people. However, in contrast to today’s Russia under Putin, the United States had maintained elementary democratic rules within its own territory – and this privilege applied just as much to its closest allies like Germany. Unfortunately, many indications give rise to the fear that President Trump – an admirer of dictators like Kim Jung-un and autocrats like Vladimir Putin – would like to override democratic rules even within his country. What we are seeing today gives no cause for optimism: Under Putin and Trump the two nuclear superpowers Russia and the USA have become alarmingly similar to each other.
A weak Europe
is doomed to become a plaything of the superpowers. Peripheral areas are being victimized without mercy. No moral superiority – whether real or imagined – may help them, indeed it has never benefited the weak. That was the case in the time of Rome, and it has remained so until today. Europe must be strong – it must become strong if it wants to escape this fate. Angela Merkel saw this clearly when she spoke of the need for Europe to strengthen its own defense capability.