Bachelet and Company’s Amnesia on Communist East Germany

German Democratic Republic shield hanging on the Berlin Wall. (Flickr)

By Jorge Gómez Arismendi
Español“No one has any intention of building a wall,” Walter Ulbricht, former president of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), declared in June 1961. Just two months later, construction began on the barrier that would divide Berlin, and the world, for 28 years.

Much has been said about the wall since its fall in 1989, but far less about what was hidden behind it, least of all in Chile. President Bachelet carefully avoided the issue on her visit to Germany in October. When asked about her exile in the GDR during the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990), she only noted that she appreciated German hospitality during those years.

In 1993, Erick Honecker, president of East Germany when the wall came down, fled to Santiago, Chile, having avoided prosecution on humanitarian grounds due to a terminal cancer diagnosis. The year before, the release of the archives of his secret police force, the Stasi, revealed to the world why East Germans were willing to risk their lives in an attempt to escape the socialist paradise.

The archives reveal the existence of a systematic network of repression and surveillance, including the use of tapped phone lines, intercepted mail communication, and more than 30,000 state informants. German communist leaders remained loyal to the memory of Stalin, who first brought  “the simple, ordinary, and modest people” of East Germany into “the great state machinery” of the USSR.

Under the guise of an “anti-fascist protective barrier,” the wall — and accompanying militarised borders dividing the rest of Germany in two — prevented a mass exodus of East Germans, like the 200,000 that managed to escape to the West in 1960 alone. Honecker’s orders were clear: anyone who dared to cross the border was a traitor, and was to be shot accordingly. Between 1961 and 1989, 5,075 people were able to evade watchtowers, concrete barriers, barbed wire, attack dogs, and escape to West Germany from East Berlin. 174 people died in the attempt.

Did Bachelet know that the father of current German President Joachim Gauck, with whom she met last week, was arrested and sent to Siberia in 1951 by the same communist regime that offered her protection — the same regime that she is so grateful for? Life is full of paradoxes.
In Chile, some choose not to speak of East Germany, just like their president. It makes them uncomfortable. They seem to demonstrate a selective historical memory during discussions of dictators inspired by ideologies that many of them continue to defend. These ex-socialists don’t make the same pronouncements in public that they make behind closed doors: that Chileans in East Germany knew they were under surveillance, and they now know this was a form of tyranny.

They can’t accept the fact that the regime they once considered a humane, brotherly, and egalitarian democracy produced a repressive state apparatus, rather than political and societal solidarity. It was a regime that went great lengths to shut off its citizens from the rest of the world, violating the human rights of thousands of Germans.

This double standard can only be due to a mixture of fanaticism and cynicism. Those who speak openly in support of human rights and democracy, but who simultaneously wax nostalgic about dictatorial regimes, display both discursive incoherence and intellectual dishonesty.

The Berlin Wall Documentation Center displays the facts. There is a memorial museum there as well, because, just as with the brutality of Chile’s own dictatorship, there were people who were denied a proper burial of their loved ones. The true circumstances of their deaths were only known after the Stasi archives were opened.

The Chilean left refuses to honestly discuss the regime they once enthusiastically supported. But this discussion is necessary if we want to promote democratic principles and respect for human rights in our country, as well as around the world.

As Roberto Ampuero recently said while launching his new book, Detrás del Muro (Behind the Wall), “As Chileans, we agree on the need to reject dictatorships with our hearts and minds, regardless of whether you are from the right or left.” ​

Jorge Gómez Arismendi is a journalism graduate from the University of Santo Tomas and professor of political science at the University of Chile.

Translated by Alex Clark-Youngblood. Edited by Laurie Blair.

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