Dr. Mária Schmidt, Director of the House of Terror, mediated a conversation with thejournalist and filmmaker David Satter about his award winning documentary Age of Delirium, which tells the story of the fall of the Soviet Union as lived and experienced by the Soviet people. The discussion followed the first public screening in Hungary of Age of Delirium at the Pushkin cinema in Budapest under the auspices of the Danube Institute on 24 October 2013.
Mária Schmidt: Some weeks ago I was in Brussels for a discussion about the planned European House of History. When the discussion turned to the collapse of Communism in 1989–90, a French colleague said that the collapse occurred because East European people wanted to have Coca Cola and McDonalds. All the West Germans, the Dutch, the Belgians, and indeed all the West Europeans present, agreed. The tendency in such discussions is always to focus on material factors. I am so grateful for your film because it deals with the moral collapse of Communism. What happened was not primarily due to empty shops, or economic failure. It was due to the moral failings of Communism and its impact on the lives, hopes and fears of ordinary people. My first question is: you saw these people before the whole system was over. Did you expect something different from what you found?
David Satter: The world changed. With the fall of Communism, the lives of people were completely transformed. Those I knew in Moscow during the Soviet period today have lives completely different from the lives that they had at that time. People who behaved heroically became normal. They stopped being heroes and they began to live normal, uneventful lives. Of course you could say that is a bad thing. Maybe we need some kind of dramatic situation to bring out the best in people, but unfortunately, my heroes were exceptions. Most people did not become better as a result of the communist system. The result of the communist system, generally speaking, was to make them worse. Or if indeed they were sincere about the communist system, it was to make them very stupid. And, I think the normality that we have now is preferable because it allows the moral development of human beings; it gives them the opportunity to live in freedom without the fear of external repression.
MSch: In Hungary, and in all the former communist countries, people thought that justice would be done. They expected that they would be able to tell their stories, and they would be treated with respect, and in many cases as heroes, not victims. Most people would say that that is not what has happened. How is it in Russia?
DS: It’s not the situation in Russia, either. Unfortunately, the fall of Communism didn’t completely purge communist habits. Many of the people who prospered under communism went on to prosper under capitalism. It’s a sad thing, but that is what happened not just in Russia, but throughout Eastern Europe. In a modern society those people who tend to do best are those most capable of manipulating the system. Nonetheless, it is important to understand that the corruption that continues to exist in the post-communist world was itself a product of the communist system, and of the moral damage that was done by communism. When people are surprised to find themselves responsible for their own behaviour – when individual moral responsibility is denied not just by the society but by the ideology – it is almost too much to expect that there will be a miraculous, moral recovery. But the point I would stress is that for the former Communist bloc, one of the most important factors in morally recovering from communism is to understand what communism was. From the point of view of the West, it is also important to understand what communism was, in order to better value and defend those things that the democratic countries of the West have in common.
MSch: I have the impression that the Western world understood what communism was about in the 1950s, in the 1960s, but began to forget what it meant from the 1970s onwards. The most shocking fact for us is that there has been no moral condemnation of communism from the western world.
DS: Well, communism is very difficult for an outsider to understand. Nazism was openly cannibalistic. It was race war, the annihilation of the inferior races by the superior one (or by those who decided that they were superior). But communism did not advertise itself as a war to the death; it did not idealise the animal world; it pretended to be humane. It used to be said that in the communist system everyone had a job, everyone had medical care; there was a pension, education, everyone was taken care of. They were taken care of at a very low level of course, but none the less they were taken care of. The price that people paid was that they lost all freedom, and they were forced to live in a world of lies. They surrendered all judgement to the authorities that controlled them totally. Every aspect of their lives was subject to supervision by an all-encompassing and all-controlling bureaucracy. Was it worth it? Well, for most people who regard being human as involving the right to express their views and the right to make moral judgements, it was not worth it.
MSch: For us, in Eastern and Central Europe who suffered under both totalitarian dictatorships, the two seem quite similar. We cannot really grasp the big differences you refer to. I think that the intellectual elites in the West were corrupted by Marxism and Leninism. After all, the political class in the Western world was well aware of what the Soviet Union was about in the 1920s and 1930s. The United States of America was not ready to have a [diplomatic] relationship with Russia until 1934. Winston Churchill sent poison gas to Russia in the Civil War. The West wanted to fight against communism. It was only in the 70s that these intellectual elites in the Western world achieved such a great influence on their societies – with the result that the criminal aspects of socialism were overlooked.
DS: I think you’re overestimating how much the people in the West knew. One reason was that the Soviet regime concealed the extent of its crimes. They did not allow any relief efforts during the 1932–1933 famine which affected the Ukraine but also the other areas in the Soviet Union. They wanted to conceal from the outside world what was going on.
So it’s not quite true that the West understood. In fact many of the cleverest people, including the most brilliant writers and intellectuals, did not understand. It was not an accident that those people who then became the leaders of the anti-Soviet and anti-communist movements in the intellectual community were persons who were first sympathetic to it: Ignazio Silone, Richard Wright, Arthur Koestler. The truth is that it was not so easy to know what was going on from the outside.
Dr Csaba Varga: My question could be crude, but I do have first editions of English and American books from the twenties to the fifties of the United States which describe everything… Everything was known.
DS: Yes, you are right, the truth was there for someone who wanted to find it. But it was not obvious. Generally speaking, people who were motivated to look for those firsthand accounts, for those truthful analyses, were able to get a more or less truthful picture.
But there were two problems. First of all, it required a commitment, a desire to find the truth, and to pursue it with complete impartiality. Frankly you don’t find that in very many societies. Second, maybe more important, it would have required a better society. The idea of Nazism simply did not have the universal appeal that communism had. It had appeal to Germans under the circumstances of the time, because of the crisis of German society and the demagogic skills of Adolf Hitler. An idea that was insane and barbaric was adopted by millions of people. Not that the Germans of that time were somehow different from other people. The problem is that the average individual living his life is not able to resist the power of the organised mass.
The evil of Nazism is obvious, easy to condemn, and generally known – in part because Germany lost the war and the death camps were opened up. A lot is still hidden in the former communist world about its atrocities and crimes. More to the point, however, the ideology of communism seemed to many people to have good intentions, which is something you could never say about Nazism.
Gyula Kodolányi: Don’t you think that there is ametaphysical and a theological problem also? Both Nazism and communism created evil in ways and to extents which are inconceivable for normal people. Satan appearedonstageinthe 20th century. Even in the case of Auschwitz very few people knew about it, and very few people believed it until two Slovakian inmates managed to escape, and spread their reports through diplomatic channels. Wasn’t it the same with communism?
DS: First, on Auschwitz, this was wartime. Even for people living in Hungary or in other countries not yet affected by the machine of extermination, it was hard to believe that such a thing was actually taking place. They didn’t believe it until they were forced to believe it in many cases.
On the fundamental question, however, what is it that connects these two systems, Nazism and communism? It’s basically the idealisation of a man-made political goal which is then treated as a transcendent absolute. When Lenin gave his speech to the Komsomol explaining communist morality, he said we do not believe in any transcendent source of morality, nor in any abstract morality, nor in any permanent standard of right and wrong. For us, morality is defined exclusively in terms of the interests of the proletariat. All Hitler did was to change the source of morality. Instead of being the working class, it became the interests of the master race. But morality by its very nature has to be transcendent. The meaning of metaphysics is the conviction on the part of people that there is a source of legitimacy that is “over and above” them.
MSch: In my understanding, those people who lived under communist rule never accepted its beautiful prospects and its nice ideology. We were just not willing to live under communist rule because it was based on lies, fear, and terror. That’s why we began to fight against it in 1956. And that was also true for ordinary men and women in the Western world. Those who respond to “appealing” aspects of communist ideology were university professors. The problem is that in Western Europe most intellectuals, like those in American universities, are just not willing to acknowledge what we have all known since 1917 and what has been confirmed from the very highest levels of the communist party, from Khrushchev, by the works of Solzhenitsyn, by the Polish and other undergrounds. These Western intellectuals are just not ready to understand this, not because the reality of communism is so difficult to understand, but because they lied also.
Audience Question: What is the chance of the European Union condemning Communism as a crime against humanity? Why is it so reluctant to do it?
MSch: It is very difficult to achieve this admission. The Left parties are in the majority, and the parties on the Right – the European People’s Party for instance – are not very brave at all in ideological matters. But we will achieve this.
John O’Sullivan: I remember the euphoria a lot of us felt at the collapse of Communism. It was a wonderful moment, I was living in New York at the time, but even there I felt that we were moving to a better world. I didn’t think it was possible, particularly when the ruins of the controlled economy were revealed in these countries, for those ideas to make a comeback. I may be overly pessimistic, but I see signs that some of these ideas are coming back into fashion in the form of an aggressive socialism? Why have people unlearned the lessons of such a recent past?
DS: Admittedly one thing we have learned from Communism is that an economy run by a government bureaucracy is inefficient, irrational and unsuited to meeting people’s needs. So people often say that there is a family resemblance between totalitarian communism on the one hand, and what’s often called social democracy where there is a highly developed welfare state on the other. But that’s a mistake. The mass killing that took place under both communism and Nazism was not the result of the desire to give everybody free medical care.
Many people sympathised with communism. At the time for this very reason. They made that mistake, but from the Left direction. In fact, communism and social democracy have nothing in common.
But what existed in the Soviet Union, and what existed in Nazi Germany are two varieties of the same moral phenomenon. They were the result of adopting a pseudo religion based on politics. That’s the key.
The real moral issue is whether we’re going to permit a triumph of a political religion which arrogates to itself the right to wipe out millions of people. This is the problem we have today with Islamist extremism.
Audience Question: Mária, you began our discussion tonight with a story about a Western European historian thinking that Central and Eastern Europe rebelled against communism because the people in the region wanted Coca Cola, McDonald’s burgers, and more branded Western goods. Would he have been surprised at this film?
MSch: Yes, and I think that’s why this film is so important. It said that it was not so important for them to be able to drink Coca-Cola, and to eat McDonald’s. We wanted to be free. We wanted to be independent. It seems that some people in Western Europe have nothing but money on their mind. That is a sad commentary on their outlook. And it distorts their view of how we lived and suffered under socialism.