July 17, 2006
Bush in Germany: Like a Staged Communist Rally

(Crossposted at the Daily Kos.)

Dubya's visit to Germany has come and gone, and with it a week of protests and peace activism throughout the country (I have an earlier post about the planned protests and over-the-top security, and a photo album about the protest in Hamburg). The event was not much different from what we're used to seeing in the Rovian era of stylish media appearances: a speech with a TV-friendly, aesthetic background, a peculiar press conference in which Bush couldn't stop ranting about a roast pig (even in response to serious questions about the crisis in the Middle East), and as always, a hand-picked Bush-friendly crowd guaranteed to greet him enthusiastically and make him look like a popular, beloved leader. According to news reports, about 1000 hand-picked guests were invited to the outdoor photo-op, and the national news dutifully reported their friendly applause. Meanwhile, protestors were required to stay far away from the show (although Greenpeace managed to get some messages up in plain view, as they will do).

For Americans, these media-savvy appearances with selected, friendly audiences, shielded from any potential opposition, has become a familiar if annoying constant of the Bush presidency, hardly worth commenting any more. But for many citizens of former East Germany, where the visit took place, the spectacle was unnerving, since it was in many ways similar to the ways rallies of the Communist era were staged and reported by the state propaganda apparatus. As a colleague who comes from Leipzig wrote to me: "In those times they would have said, 'About 1000 deserving workers gave an enthusiastic reception to the Chairman of the CPSU.' I have to puke."

Public parades were a regular ritual in a place like East Germany, carried out every year on the May Day holiday and on October 7th, the day the country was founded, and also at various other times, for example when a foreign dignitary such as the Soviet Chairman was visiting. The "crowds" consisted of selected faithful party members, teenagers in the Free German Youth with their bright blue shirts, "deserving" workers and farmers who had won some sort of medal ("Hero of Labor", for example), anyone who could be counted on to look loyal and enthusiastic on television and in the newspaper. These people got items like flags and torches to carry to the parade, and sternly worded signs extolling something wonderful about the country or its leaders; and they marched past a grandstand where the party functionaries stood, grim old men with a smile frozen into their faces, waving back to the crowd. These events were prominently reported in state television and newspapers, the "reporters" droning on and on about the glorious achievements of the socialist state. Nothing was left to chance at these events; any attempts at protest were put down ruthlessly, usually by plainclothes policemen and state security officers mixed in the crowd, always on the lookout for any trouble.

East German dictator Erich Honecker greeting a child at the 1988 May Day parade in East Berlin.

"Dear Erich, carry on!" at the 1986 May Day parade in East Berlin

"In honor of the 21st Party Congress: HOUSEHOLD REFRIGERATOR with 3 temperature zones" at the 1985 May Day parade in East Berlin.

"Two loving sisters, Moscow and Berlin", at the 1985 May Day parade in East Berlin.

George Bush and Angela Merkel greeting hand-picked guests in Stralsund, formerly in East Germany.

The most famous staged rally in East Germany was on October 7th, 1989, to celebrate the nation's 40th anniversary. Eastern Europe was in an uproar at the time; the first non-Communist governments had been elected in Poland and Hungary, and Hungary had opened its border with Austria earlier that summer. Before long, East Germans were running over the border, and they began barricading themselves in West German embassies in Budapest, Prague, Warsaw and East Berlin, in the hopes of gaining passage to the West. Demonstrations had broken out all over the country, something almost unheard of in East Germany since a short-lived uprising in 1953. The leadership under Erich Honecker consisted entirely of old-guard Communists who formed one of the most ruthless regimes in the Eastern bloc, and they were determined beat back the rebellion. Surrounded by yes-men who fed them all the news and information they wanted to hear, they were convinced that the broad public still supported and loved them, and that the demonstrators were just "youthful rowdys" and provocateurs working for the West. So for the 40th anniversary, they invited leaders from all over the world, above all from the Communist bloc, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, to a celebration that would show the world that they were still in charge and all was well.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev greeting East German dictator Erich Honecker with the "socialist brother kiss"

Bush greeting Merkel with a smooch in Stralsund.

That day, Gorbachev stood next to Honecker in the grandstand in front of the visiting dignitaries, waving as the carefully chosen crowds marched past in a torchlight parade. I was visiting friends in a town close to the border that day, where East German state television could be received, and I'll never forget the clash of images that I saw. Gorbachev felt that the East Germans should join the reforms and was watching the parade with a skeptical look, but Honecker, convinced that his people loved him and that this was his moment of triumph, looked out into the crowd with a goofy grin. Meanwhile, syncophantic television commenters droned on and on with obituaries to the greatness of the German socialist state. When I switched over to West German TV, I saw pictures of demonstrators and police clashing all over East Germany, prepared to reject the state altogether by leaving.

Honecker resigned in a coup less than two weeks later. The Berlin Wall was opened on November 9th, 1989, and the two German states were re-unified on October 3rd, 1990. After its 40th birthday, East Germany did not survive another year.

Gorbachev and Honecker observing the parade of hand-picked marchers on the 40th anniversary of East Germany, October 1989

Bush and Merkel wave at the hand-picked crowd in Stralsund, July 2006

East German police attempting to contain protests on the 40th anniversary of East Germany, October 1989

Protestors in Stralsund, held by police far away from Bush and Merkel, July 2006. The sign says "Starting war remains a crime, we'll remember", with a play on Merkel's name

The final leg of Bush's visit was in Trinwillershagen, which had served as a model village in East Germany, and was one of Honecker's favored destinations. Honecker was a passionate hunter, and liked to shoot boar -- the "pig" that Bush was so excited about at the press conference.

The pig that Bush couldn't shut up about; a favored hunting prey for former East German dictator Erich Honecker

Bush's controlled appearances with friendly audiences has long been criticized as being unworthy of a democratic leader, who is too cowardly to risk a confrontation with dissenters. But it's become so commonplace that we hardly pay attention any more. Let us never forget what these staged events are: propaganda spectacles with tried-and-true techniques that have been regularly employed by the most authoritarian regimes in history.

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