Snap Elections We Have Known: 1923, 1931, 1951, 1966 and 1974 (October)… Oh yes, and 2017


I don’t suppose I’m alone in believing that Theresa May’s stated reasons for calling a snap election were both paper thin and transparently disingenuous. That is not necessarily intended as a condemnation. This is politics after all, and May has proved pretty effective at the dark arts.

Immediately after yesterday’s announcement of a 2017 general election (the joys, the joys), an old student mine (take a bow Jacob Baxter) immediately tipped a hat to 1923. And that got me thinking, what about snap general elections we have known?


And there we begin. All the elections outlined above were called at a moment of the then prime minister’s choosing, more or less. True, in 1931, it was really Baldwin rather than MacDonald who sought the ‘doctor’s mandate’, but MacDonald obeyed His Master’s Voice and went to the country. Attlee’s (mistaken) choice of October 1951 was constrained by George VI’s imminent departure on a royal tour, but it was his call. If we were to count the first 1974 election (and I’m not really inclined to, that was a gamble taken, again mistakenly by a much buffeted figure). In short, each of the were all the PM’s call, just as this one in May’s call.

In all but one case, they all have something else in common. May has gone to the country for one reason above all others: she believes that her wafer thin majority will be transformed into a comfortable majority (and quite possibly a landslide). Here, the election she might have in mind is 1966. After 13 years in opposition, Harold Wilson had got Labour across the line with a majority of just four. The 44% of the popular vote Labour won in 1964 was pretty much the same as they had won in 1959, which had seen Macmillan’s Tories win a 100 seat majority. Wilson won in 1964 primarily thanks to a Liberal resurgence and a commensurate fall in the Conservative vote. No less important was the fact that Labour won 20 seats thanks to a Liberal standing in 1964 where none had stood in 1959 (a full analysis can be read here).

A majority of four was not viable, and in March 1966 Wilson took the plunge. A small fall in the Liberal vote and a slightly larger fall in the Tory vote allowed the British electoral system to do its work and gave Wilson a majority of 96.


Wilson tried the same trick in October 1974. The February election (read about it here) had been, in effect, a score draw and Labour got the toss of the electoral system coin and were four seats ahead of the Conservatives, but short of an overall majority. Thus it was Wilson went in the October, hoping to turn that into an overall majority. He succeeded, but it was a pyrrhic victory, giving Labour a majority of just three with some extremely choppy waters ahead.

At least Wilson won. In 1950, Attlee’s Labour had seen their 1945 landslide wiped out, and (despite polling more votes than in 1945) won a majority of just five seats. Seeing this as unworkable, Attlee went to the country again in October 1951, hoping to increase that majority. 1951 is one of those textbook first-past-the –post elections (you can read about the elections of 1950 and 1951 here, and here). Attlee succeeded in one sense: Labour won 48.8% of the popular vote (the highest share in its history). However, a resurgent Conservative party won 48% (up by 5.6%), in large part thanks to a collapse in the liberal vote. That Liberal collapse, and their failure to field candidates in a number of Labour-Conservative marginals, gave Churchill his victory. Attlee had gambled, and lost.


In 1923, Baldwin gambled. And Baldwin lost. He had not gone to the country for need of a more comfortable majority, as he already had a very comfortable one. Losing 86 seats, he then lost office.

Baldwin lost two elections. However, he is unique in modern British political history, winning three landslides. And the mother of all landslides was the snap election of 1931. As I always tell my students, the 1931 election is unique in all sorts of ways. Whatever else we might say about it (and I will shortly), there was no little party politics and calculation about Baldwin’s decision to force an election on MacDonald in 1931. It would, he knew, deliver a de facto Conservative landslide.

At least there was a genuine national emergency of sorts in 1931. The Great Depression was bad enough, but a lethal combination of the end of the Gold Standard and an unbalanced budget requiring sharp cuts in spending at least gave MacDonald a pretty convincing excuse for it. In truth (with the possible exception of February 1974, and I’m not counting that), there was no compelling national emergency requiring electoral endorsement at any other time.

Jacob Baxter’s point was that 1923 was, in effect, a single-issue election, just as some are coming to see 2017. Baldwin’s reasons for calling that election remain elusive (I will advance, even if not necessarily believing them, a few other explanations below). There is, I think, quite a lot to say for taking him at face value. Baldwin called an election in 1923 over the issue of tariffs. Ever since Joseph Chamberlain had first put the idea forward 20 years before, tariff reform had split the Conservatives down the middle. When the ‘peasant’s revolt’ at the Carlton Club ended the Lloyd George coalition and defenestrated Austen Chamberlain, Andrew Bonar Law had made a spectacular political comeback. He capped that with a comfortable victory in the subsequent general election. In that campaign, the characteristically cautious Bonar Law had tried to take the steam out of the tariff issue, which had hurt the Conservatives electorally so badly in 1906, but again in the two elections of 1910: all three of which they had lost. In short, he promised that there would be no move by a Conservative government towards the systematic implementation of tariffs without recourse to the electorate. Baldwin believed in tariffs. Thus Baldwin went to the country.

He lost. One reading of Baldwin’s 1923 decision was an over-confidence borne of the state of the opposition. First and foremost, the Liberals were bitterly divided between the Lloyd George Liberals and the ‘Squiffites (ironically, the 1923 election saw them reunite after a fashion). Then, the new Labour party further divided that opposition. Thus it was, in 1922, that the Conservatives had a comfortable majority of 72 whilst only commanding 38.5% of the vote (they only fielded 482 candidates).

Baldwin’s gamble failed, primarily because the Liberals, who hastily reunited around the classic Liberal issue of free trade, polled just under 30% and won 158 seats. Labour polled just over 30%, and won 191 seats. The opposition were in far better fettle than Baldwin envisaged.


Baldwin’s next snap election had a very different outcome. This time, the opposition parties were in anything but fine fettle. The Liberals were in something very like their death throes. The general election of 1924 had reduced them to 40 seats. A Liberal recovery of sorts, allied to Labour winning 37% of the popular vote in 1929 had been enough to see the Conservatives lose 152 seats and leave Labour as the largest party and into (minority) government. However, by 1931, that Labour government had collapsed and Ramsay MacDonald and a few followers had formed a National Government with the Conservatives and a Liberal part now divided into the Samuelites and the Simonites. Bar Lloyd George’s family, Labour was the only opposition to the National juggernaut. And it was an opposition shorn of its credibility in the crisis that had engulfed it. As a parliamentary force, Labour was all but obliterated, reduced to 52 seats.

That had been Baldwin’s intention. The Conservatives, dressed up in National clothing, were set to be in power in what must have looked like perpetuity. In 1935, Labour almost equaled the 8 million votes they won in 1929, but this time in only winning 154 seats. Had there been a 1939 or 1940 election, the government would surely have won comfortably again.

In the era bookended by Attlee and Blair’s landslides, the Conservatives were in power more often than not. In that era, Labour won five elections: 1950, 1964, 1966 and two in 1974. Only one of those gave Labour anything like a workable majority. The elections of 1951, 1966 and October 1974 were all aimed at winning a workable majority. However, in 1951 and 1974, this can hardly be seen as cynical opportunism. Rather, both look rather like a somewhat desperate roll of the dice. In 1951 the Conservatives were in pretty good nick; in 1974, neither Labour nor the Tories were strong.

Wilson pulled it off in 1966, and that election was undoubtedly a classic moment of Wilsonian opportunism (and Harold Wilson was very good at opportunism). It was, however, taking advantage of a wrong footed rather than failing opposition. It was a majority of 96, but one actually won by narrow margins, as 1970 would show.

There is another context to some of these elections that might seem similar to the position faced by Theresa May. 1966 is a classic example. Coming into government in 1964, Wilson faced a looming economic crisis. A combination of a long-term underperforming economy and an overvalued pound had been made far worse by Reginald Maudling’s cynical ‘dash for growth’. With a sterling crisis looming, Wilson went for it.


Similarly, one might feel that the October 1974 election was similar pre-emptive strike.

In both cases Wilson faced another problem: opposition within his own party, and even cabinet. Wilson’s governments were famously fractious. That made leading his first government hard enough. By 1974, however, Labour’s divisions, especially over Europe and between right and left, threatened to split the party (as it would in 1981). A working majority might have made Wilson’s task a little easier (though his 1966-70 government was hardly a paragon of unity; neither was Attlee’s second government, while we’re at it).

Even his most bitter opponent (by whom I mean Churchill) had to admit that Baldwin was a political operator par excellence (a means by which Churchill’s history writing would condemn him). One explanation for Baldwin’s decision in 1923 is that it was to forestall an attempt to rebuild a coalition with Lloyd George (who was rumoured to be toying with tariffs to that very purpose). What is certainly true is that Baldwin did not have the unalloyed support of the party’s grandees, most of who had been coalitionists and had not served under Bonar Law (hence the government’s nickname of the 2nd XI). One interpretation of 1923 sees Baldwin going for tariff reform as means of securing his control over his party.

If that was his intention, losing office hardly strengthened his position. However, after his defeat in 1929 he certainly was vulnerable. The attack came form within the broad Conservative tent over India and, once again tariffs. It was second issue that saw the immediate threat to Baldwin’s position. Baldwin had never had much time for his own Conservative press barons: in particular, for the owners the Mail and the Express. And Hell, or rather Conservative politics, had no fury like press barons scorned. In the end, Baldwin saw off the threat from their Empire Crusade, and with it that of his own right.

In that he was surely helped by the obvious failing’s of MacDonald’s Labour government. In forming a National Government, and then by winning in 1931, Baldwin had plenty of Conservatives who owed their seats and the prospect of keeping them to their leader. That majority also enabled Baldwin to isolate his own enemies within. Thus the likes of Churchill were confined to ranting on about India, Edward VIII and appeasement; the wilder shores of the right could play with Mosley or become fellow travellers of Hitler and Mussolini. Baldwin had routed them.

And, lastly, those snap elections sometimes had outcomes that were perhaps unexpected. Labour’s win in 1974 hardly had a happy outcome for them and, arguably, enabled the coming of Thatcherism. 1951 ushered in 13 years of Conservative rule. The immediate outcome of the 1923 election was the first Labour government. I suspect many Tories expected the 1931 landslide to give them a more robustly right-wing government; they got something very different.

I suspect that many Conservatives are now dreaming of a 1931-lite, and they may well get one in the form of a thumping majority offering them the opportunity to secure another long run in government, like those of the Thatcher, Macmillan and Baldwin eras. It would also give May the equivalent of MacDonald’s ‘doctor’s mandate’ (a Brexiteer’s mandate, we might call it); it would certainly give the decision to leave the European Union true democratic legitimacy having now been agreed by both parliament and by its inclusion in a general election manifesto. The issue is then how would she use it? She might use it to secure the so-called Hard Brexit some seem to so desire.

It is pretty early to judge May as a prime minister, or to make certain comparisons with Tory leaders before her (though I’m putting a few bob on some comparisons with Ted Heath, but a Ted Heath with no opposition of any worth). But, if in nothing else, she already resembles Baldwin in one way: her ability to best her enemy within and use those oh so sharp elbows (just ask the likes of Cameron, Osborne and Gove; there are, I’m sure, more to come). It is perhaps possible that she might resemble Baldwin in another sense and use the dominance a big win would secure to enable her to do what an orderly and negotiated Brexit might require, even the dreaded transitional arrangements and compromise?

Who knows? But what snap elections of yore show us is that they don’t always work, and when they do they sometimes have unexpected outcomes.


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The Biltmore Program: a key moment in the origins of the State of Israel

The Extraordinary Zionist Conference at New York’s Biltmore Hotel between May 6 and May 11, 1942 comprising 600 delegates and Zionist leaders from 18 countries, was held in place of what would have been the 22nd Zionist Congress, cancelled due to WWII. Its results were resolutions known as the Biltmore Program, which represented a fundamental departure from the traditional stance of the World Zionist Organisation. It involved a virtual ‘coup d’etat’ in which the views of the president, pro-British Chaim Weizmann were eclipsed by those of David Ben-Gurion of the Jewish Agency in Palestine. Where Weizmann had advocated gradualism and the partition of Palestine between Jews and Palestinians, as well as negotiations with Britain, Ben-Gurion championed immediate statehood and the establishment of a Jewish state in all of Palestine, together with armed resistance, if necessary, to achieve Zionist goals.

The program was motivated by two things: German persecution on the one hand and the British White Paper of 1939 on the other. In resolution 2 the Program offered a ‘message of hope’ to ‘fellow Jews in the Ghettos and concentration camps of Hitler-dominated Europe’, while in resolution 6 condemned the British White Paper’s ‘cruel and indefensible… denial of sanctuary to Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution’. The British White Paper of 1939, not only limited Jewish immigration just at precisely the wrong time in world history, but proposed handing final control of Jewish immigration to an Arab community whose erstwhile leader, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, had visited Hitler in 1941, and would later aid recruitment of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar that would fight Tito in Yugoslavia.

In response to these circumstances, the Program stated that:

‘The new world order that will follow victory cannot be established on peace, justice and equality, unless the problem of Jewish homelessness is finally solved. The Conference urges that … the Jewish agency be vested with control of immigration into Palestine and with the necessary authority for up-building the country, including the development of its unoccupied and uncultivated lands; and that Palestine be established as Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world. Then and only then will the age old wrong to the Jewish people be righted.’

There was nothing overtly hostile in the program to the Arab states, though Palestinian people were not mentioned specifically. Resolution 5 welcomed ‘the economic, agricultural and national development of the Arab peoples and states… and the readiness and desire of the Jewish people for full cooperation with their Arab neighbours.’ However, the new Palestine to which it aspired was one controlled by the Jewish Commonwealth, and not by power sharing, partition or any other compromise. Moreover, resolution 7 demanded recognition of the ‘right of the Jews of Palestine to play their full part in the war effort and in the defence of their country, through a Jewish military force fighting under its own flag and under the high command of the United Nations.’

According to Ami Isseroff, the Program was ‘a crucial step in the development of the Zionist movement, which increasingly saw itself as opposed to Britain rather than a collaborator of Britain.’ While Weizman remained president of the World Zionist Organisation until Ben-Gurion took over in 1946, it was Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency in Palestine that would henceforth determine policy towards the British. There was to be peaceful co-operation with Arab neighbours, but the Yishuv had to be in control of its own destiny. As Michael Oren writes, ‘Henceforth the Zionist movement would strive for unqualified Jewish independence in Palestine, for a state with recognized borders, republican institutions, and a sovereign Army, to be attained in cooperation with America (Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, pp. 242-445).


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Berlin, Days 3 & 4, (almost) Two Weeks On

16819077_10154315495483457_2682662705685518667_oA couple of weeks on, I have finally finished my thoughts on Berlin days three and four. Well, it became a bit more than that. In part, I was thinking about why what was such a great trip, in part about why I think the city means so much.

So, this being Berlin, I’m going to begin by writing about somewhere that’s 30-odd kilometers north, and the need to confront humanity’s darkest hours.


Sachsenhausen was not a death camp, though some 100,000 died there. The Holocaust was primarily carried out further east in the wild east of the Soviet Union and in the death camps created in eastern Poland and, finally, Auschwitz. But Sachsenhausen is still a monument to the evils of Nazism, the Holocaust and man’s inhumanity to man. 100,000: that is me, or you, or ours, 100,000 times.


It was also yet another staging post on the road to mass murder and the industrialisation of death. After it was built in 1936, Sachsenhausen took over from Dachau as the centre of the SS concentration camp system. Here, the first systematic murders of the handicapped known as Aktion-T4 were carried out and experiments were carried out with mass murder by gas. The mass murder of over 11,000 Soviet POWs by shooting was also perpetrated here, primarily by what was called the neck shot. The victims of medical experiments were held and suffered there too.


It was also the place where many important or significant prisoners were held, a kind of miniature who’s who of some those who fell foul of Nazism. Prisoners of war included Stalin’s eldest son and slew of SOE other elite British forces, including the Grand Prix Champion William Grover Williams; the famous Mad Jack Churchill was held there. Some were those who had crossed Nazi paths and lost: Paul Reynaud was prime minister of France in 1940, Kurtz Schuschnigg leader of Austria in 1938. There were domestic opponents such as Martin Niemöller, or Bismarck’s grandson (caught up in the wave of repression that followed the July Bomb Plot); others were just their relatives, such as the Crown Prince of Bavaria’s wife and children.

As the Holocaust developed, Jews were shipped east from Sachsenhausen. As Auschwitz was wound down and liberated, the Jews who survived the death marches ended up in camps like this. In that sense, as well as an organisational one, Sachsenhausen is a Holocaust site.


Like most of the old camps, it got new uses after the war. In this case, it became a Soviet Special Camp, housing what were officially Nazis and collaborators. In the way of the communist East, they soon became bolstered by political prisoners, whose crime was to oppose the new Soviet order. From 1945 until its closure in 1950, around 60,000 were imprisoned. When communism had gone the site was excavated: over 12,000 bodies were found: most had died from malnutrition and disease, and the majority were women and children, or the old.

We had already been thinking about the nature of the Soviet occupation of Germany in 1945, and the way the Red Army looted, raped and killed their way through eastern Germany. In the way of Soviet socialism, when the Sachsenhausen site was opened as a memorial, in 1961, it was to the ‘victims of fascism’; the inconvenient truth of what came after was ignored.

The totalitarianism of the eastern state, and the brutal inhumanity that accompanied it, was very much the theme of that afternoon. Hohenschoenhausen was the Stasi remand prison, out in the north east of Berlin, where political prisoners were taken upon arrest. The idea was to get them to confess, inform, and to break them. Their crimes were often ludicrously trivial: Anna Funder tells us the story of Miriam, arrested as a girl of 16, for printing leaflets with a child’s printing set. To begin with, the means of persuasion was outright brutality, whether by beating, or the use of water. By the ‘sixties that had become more psychological, but was no less effective.


In hindsight, the fragility of the communist state in the ‘eighties seems obvious, but it wasn’t easy to see that at the time. In part, that was thanks to the ubiquitous Stasi. By the end, something around one in five East Germans were in some way involved with the secret police. One effect of that was to suppress even the idea that opposition could have any effect. Which makes it all the more remarkable that there was opposition at all. In particular, the Stasi felt unable to break the churches. By the ‘eighties East Germany’s churches were the venue for meetings of those who wanted to think for themselves. In the twisted logic of communism, free thought was opposition, what Orwell labelled ‘thought crime’.


One of our guides around the prison was arrested and brought there for just that. She had, as a young woman, was a member of just such a church based group and was harassed regularly before finally being accused and imprisoned for the alleged crime of organising an opposition protest. The precious nature of the freedom of speech and freedom of association (the freedom to form or belong to free political groups and free trade unions, and the right to protest) became another leitmotif of these few days.


The following morning we went on a walking tour of the old East Berlin. We began on Karl Marx Allee, what was East Berlin’s showpiece street. Down on the platforms of Magdalenenstrasse U-Bahn station, we saw Wolfgang Frankenstein’s series of socialist realist depictions of the history of German socialism, from 1848 to the foundation of the GDR in 1949. In truth, they are rather marvellous examples of a style we might call (very late, 1986) socialist realism.


Socialist realism was term coined in the Soviet Union for the style and purpose of art demanded by the communist state. Being communism, the term socialist realism meant something very different from what it actually said. For a start, socialism meant the version of socialism officially dictated by the communist state. Thus, in Frankenstein’s works, the history of German socialism culminated in the glorious creation of the GDR; in the East, any other forms of German socialism were either co-opted into the communism of the SED (Socialist Unity Party, as the communist party styled itself) or were simply not socialism at all (thus the West’s SPD were enemies of socialism).

Even more blatantly dishonest was the term realism. The realism in socialist realism had two meanings. The first was artistic: it looked to what we might call neo-classical forms, in opposition to the modernism and abstraction of modern artistic movements in the west. The other meaning was all too typical of the doublethink that permeated communist newspeak, as Orwell would have it. It needed to faithfully reflect the true nature of socialism. And if reality itself did not do that, then the artist should reflect true socialism rather than actual reality. We are in the realm of the art of alternative facts.

To put it another way. When millions of Soviet peasants were starving, socialist realism gave us sturdy, healthy, happy socialist peasants stood amongst an abundance of corn: like Orwell’s doublethink, communism demanded that its adherents not only told lies, but sort of believed in them.


Above Magdalenenstrasse station is the old headquarters of the Stasi. As well as keeping watch over its people, East Germany kept watch on itself. The head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke, even had a file on his head of state, Erich Honecker (who, it seems, had collaborated with the Nazis). It must have seemed to many of those, whether doing the repressing or those on the receiving end, that the GDR would go on forever. But it was there that we began to reflect on that state’s end.

In that end, the downfall of the East German state came about in part thanks to the fact that Mikhail Gorbachev refused to maintain its existence with the use of the same force that been used to suppress popular opposition in Berlin in 1953. But that was only half the story. For a start, if the Velvet Revolutions of 1989 had a slogan it was We are the People. And in a communist state, that simply slogan carried enormous weight once it rose up against the contradictions inherent in communism.

To put it simply, the GDR wasn’t merely built on lies, but it was a lie in itself. Take the name. There’s an old joke about the Holy Roman Empire: that it was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. The same joke works for the GDR.

Take the first word: German. Frankenstein’s rather brilliant late socialist work in Magdalenenstrasse station was an attempt to show that East German socialism was somehow truly German. The problem was that it wasn’t. Before it became Karl Marx Allee, East Berlin’s showcase street was Stalinallee, its statue of Stalin a gift from the Soviet youth organisation. Komsomol.


The previous day I dragged the whole group to the greatest of the three Soviet War memorials in the city, at Treptower Park. Opened in 1949, it might be thought of as a high socialist realist masterpiece. In some sense, it was very much a symbol of Soviet domination. It is also, of course, a memorial intended to remind us, and do so with no little beauty and grandeur, of the stupendous sacrifice made by the Soviet armed forces and the Soviet people in what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War. And it is a masterpiece.


But it also gives us the true nature of German communism. At its centre is the Soviet soldier, the swastika crushed” beneath his feet. The stones upon which he stands were from the wreckage of Hitler’s Reich Chancellery, as was the marble from which the freezes were carved on the paths that lead us to and from him, each telling us the story of the Great Patriotic war: one side giving us Stalin’s words engraved upon them in Russian, the other side in German.


The renaming of Stainallee, and the removal of his statue was not so much a matter of making the GDR more German, rather it belatedly reflected Soviet de-Stalinisation. The problem was, though, with Stalin ideologically gone, what to replace him with?

Arguably, it was never really resolved. By the dog days of Brezhnev, the ‘seventies, the Soviet Union lost much of what had been left of its ideological fervour and purpose, and substituted it with a Soviet, even Russian, patriotism which focused on the war as the central act of the Soviet state. Throughout the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, the GDR struggled for recognition. It was not until the coming of detente in the Cold War, and Ostpolitik in West Germany, that the eastern state gained international recognition. By the ‘eighties, the GDR was looking to assert a German identity, hence Magdalenenstrasse station or the restoration of some of imperial Berlin along Unter den Linden.

The problem was, all that did is remind people that East Germans were, in fact, Germans. When the wall was coming down, the slogan Wir sind das Volk morphed into Wir sind ein Volk (see the blog article by Ned Richardson-Little linked to below): We are the People became We are one People. When finally given self-determination, the people were emphatic: they wanted one Germany. Given its lack of a truly national identity, its attempt to create one simply exposed the first lie at the heart of the GDR: it wasn’t really German.

If the G was a bit of a fib, the D was a whopper. Lenin gave the world communist democracy in the form of democratic centralism. Just down the road from Karl Marx Allee is Platz der Vereinten Nationen (United Nations Platz); before the wall came down, it was Leninplatz. In 1970, it was formally graced with a 19 metre high statue of Lenin. The size of the statue was a pretty neat illustration of the size of the lie it stood for. De-Stalinisation saw communism return to its veneration of Lenin, the supposed good communist whose democratic path was distorted by Stalinist dictatorship.

What utter rot that was. For Lenin, Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat was, in fact, just a dictatorship; democratic centralism was based upon the idea of that dictatorship being in the hands of a communist elite, who in turn obeyed their leadership (by which Lenin meant himself). Just as communism was imposed upon East Germany by the USSR, communism imposed itself upon its people. Nominally, Germany was not a one party state. Similarly its dominant party called itself the Socialist Unity Party: all socialists, not just communists, uniting as equals. It was all a pack of lies: some socialists were more equal than others. In truth (yes, that awkward word), doublethink was never more triumphant than when their communist masters decided to stick the D into the GDR.

Sticking with Orwell, when I last visited Berlin, I met a man who had been imprisoned for being in possession of, amongst other items, a copy of Animal Farm. It is great book, but its great ending got one thing wrong as far as East Germany was concerned. When the animals looked from pig to man and man to pig, they couldn’t tell the difference. When the people of the GDR finally got their rights most of them could quite easily tell the difference between a faux-democratic pig like Egon Krenz and Helmut Kohl.

It is tempting to think that a regime that was built on lies was in part undone by the truth about which they pretended to adhere to. In 1975, with the exception of the ultra-communist Albania, all the communist states of Europe signed up to the Helsinki Agreement. At the time, because the Helsinki Accords agreed to respect the integrity of Europe’s borders as were (thus, including East Germany) it was regarded as a diplomatic triumph for the Soviet Union. Instead, it would quickly provide ammunition to communism’s dissidents.

Article 9 saw all the signatories agree to self-determination for all the peoples of Europe: East Germany was borne of its denial. Similarly, in Article 8 the GDR agreed to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief; in reality, of course, it did nothing of the sort. Helsinki was, thus, the public statement of a lie, but one which gave right thinking men and women a mirror to hold up to that fact. Whilst the might of the Soviet Union kept the lid on the lie could be maintained. When the lid came off, the lie came crashing down.

In the true spirit of doublethink, doubtless some die hard communists somehow believed in some strange version of communist democracy, believed the lie. Others, like Gorbachev, perhaps looked to create it. Honecker and Mielke never came close.

If the D was a whopper, the R in the GDR was at least a half-truth in that, technically, East Germany was a republic. Except that, as the great historian of the Cold War, John Lewis Gaddis, would have it, the GDR was in practice part of an empire: the Soviet empire. To be fair, Gaddis also has it that the west was also part of an American empire. There, however, the similarity stops.

America ran its empire by mutual agreement and consent, at least in Europe anyway. The states of Western Europe were free states: under de Gaulle, France pulled out of some of its obligations to NATO with impunity. In the East, as East Germans, Hungarians, Czechs or Poles could tell you, any attempt to break free of the Warsaw Pact was met by Soviet force whether directly, or at one remove. The Red Empire, and it’s Red Tsars, ruled.


It is tempting to believe that the pack of lies that was the GDR was, in part, a cause of its downfall. Over the 40 years of the state’s existence that the old men were celebrating in 1989, those old men had done a lot of lying to the world, to their people and to themselves. If the young protestors of the Lutheran churches or the unlistenable punks railing against whatever was available to rail against really were the agents and spies of a decadent west, then the rest of the good people of East Germany were not. Or to put in Orwellian terms again: in a state where four legs good two legs bad was its defining mantra, those who were down on their knees looked mighty like four legged animals. When, in 1989, the kneeling rose to their feet, I suspect those who had made their careers behind the walls of the Stasi headquarters got one hell of a shock. Reality bit.

The first of those two days ended with what turned out to be a genuinely uplifting experience, a visit to the Reichstag. But in many ways, the story of that building begins with what has been the more usual stuff of Berlin’s modern history. The old Imperial facade began its life as part of the Wilhelmine Reichstag: that is, as a sop to a facade. Imperial Germany’s parliament was to parliamentary politics what the D in the GDR was to democracy. It wasn’t until 1916 that its final touch was added when Wilhelm II unveiled the inscription atop its entrance: to the German people. In one sense it was accurate: Wilhelm’s government was certainly sticking to the German people in the form of what was rapidly becoming a military dictatorship.


When it became the home of German democracy, it seems somehow fitting that it’s birth happened elsewhere, that the Weimar democracy never fitted its Berlin home and that it last rites were read in an opera house. When, on the night of the 27th February 1933, it was found ablaze, the subsequent Reichstag Fire Decree heralded the end of German democracy and the start of the Nazi dictatorship.

Where that dictatorship left its people was well enough summed up if we think of Sachsenhausen, Treptower, the Reichstag itself and where we ended the second of these two days. Gesundbrunnen is a pretty undistinguished station in a pretty nondescript northern suburb. But underneath lies an old and never completed underground bunker system that, by the war, served as an air raid shelter for ordinary Berliners. They needed it. For two long years the RAF and the USAF pounded the city. In two short months in 1945 the Red Army finished the job.


Famously, two Russian soldiers mounted the Reichstag and flew the red flag. And then, what was left of the Reichstag was left to rot. Had Wily Brandt not addressed the western city, and the world, from its front in the Berlin Blockade, and turned that facade into a symbol of freedom, it might well have shared the fate of much of the city and been turned to rubble. Instead, as the Berlin Wall was erected beside it, it stood as a relic of Germanys past in a Berlin cruelly divided in its present.

And the people spoke, and the people’s elected representatives took the plunge. Berlin would be the capital of the reunited Germany, and the old Reichstag building the home of the Federal Republic’s Bundestag. To me, the building is, like the Germany recreated at the same time, a triumph.

You can see that Germany in the building. First and foremost, it acknowledges its past. The Wilhelmine farce is there in the Wilhelmine facade. The Weimar tragedy is there in the remains of the fire damaged she’ll left in 1933, and the memorial to the members of the Reichstag the Nazis murdered that is outside. The war is there in the shell, and the Russian soldiers’ graffiti left intact on its walls. The Cold War is there in the memory of the wall that ran beside it, and the memorials to those who tried to escape their eastern prison that run by the water.


And then there is the triumph of democracy, finally. The building gives us that symbolically, with Richard Roger’s open glass dome rising around and above with its magnificent views of the city in all its histories. But inside, two things struck me. One was the return of the old eagle symbol, though as our guide acknowledged it does look rather more like a fat chicken. In that sense, it symbolises a Germany bent on both acknowledging, confronting and, where possible, resolving its history. But most of all, what really gladdened my heart was the way the guide took through just how the building makes the messy business of democracy possible.

We finished that first night by heading off the Brandenburg Gate for some nighttime photos, before popping back to hit the scruffy cafes, fast food joints and supermarkets of Fredrichshain. The old eastern suburb was buzzing, as it is on a Saturday, with Berliners looking for a good time. Back at the Brandenburg gate, I thought again of Hannah Arendt Strasse, just round the corner, and Hannah Arendt. In the age of alternative facts her assertion of the primacy of fact as the first defence against totalitarianism seemed more important than ever. In an age in which the liberal values of the west and democracy seem under assault from those who wish them ill, that visit to what was once the story of German democracy’s failure, and is now at the very heart of the democratic Europe I love, gladdened my heart.

And, I’ll echo JFK, speaking when I was but a babe. I, too, am proud to say with free people all over the world, Ich bin ein Berliner. And, now more than ever, we need to say that. There, that’s why I love the city.




Filed under Germany archive, The History of War, Trips