Explain Communism to us!

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in former Czechoslovakia the Slovak author Tomáš Ulej asks in his gloss: “How and when will you finally explain communism to us?” When the ‘Iron Curtain’ broke down Tomáš Ulej was two years old. Today he exercises his running trainings on the former death strip between Slovakia and Austria near Bratislava in his free time.

As an Austrian I experienced the ‘Iron Curtain’ from the other side in the 1970s and 1980s. For us young Viennese it was the border to nothingness at that time. We did not know the countries beyond this border. Nobody came from there and nobody went there. As a result Vienna inevitably became the ‘end of the world’ in those times of the ‘Cold War’ between East and West. Politically this was the end of the Western world. So we Austrians directed our eyes to that place, in that opposite direction, to the West. At least this world was accessible to us.

This division of Europe across its heart was the most hurting experience of political reality for us young people in the center of our continent. It was so painful for us that we tabooed it, did not talk about it and took it for granted. Only when we politically revolted as teenagers our parents answered: “Go over there!” This meant the countries beyond the death strip and thus stopped any further discussion.

All the more joyful was the end of this division with its climax, the ‘fall of the Berlin Wall’. That ‘opening of the east’ apparently came out of the nothing. This corresponded to the truth, because behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ there was nothing at all – at least for the overwhelming majority of us. The nothing had risen and had become visible. And this nothing was one thing above all: monotonous, poor and gray. “Communism was ruined by its bad taste,” Vaclav Havel once said afterwards.

A few years later I got to know Hans Maršalek. Hans Maršalek had been one of the three former inmates of the Mauthausen concentration camp whom we portrayed in the course of our documentation “Herbstspaziergang” (“Autumn walk”). At the time of National Socialism he had been arrested as a Viennese resistance fighter with Czech roots and was deported to Mauthausen. He succeeded to organize the resistance even in the concentration camp and could save people’s lives. After the liberation from National Socialism he became a Communist.

In the course of the filming of our work I asked him for the reason for this with a good portion of scepticism. For we certainly knew Communism had led to Stalin at its peak and to Brezhnev afterwards. He answered almost impatiently: “But I did not become a Communist because of Brezhnev! Or because of Stalin!” And then he told almost with tears in his eyes how he had seen that Communists were willingly sacrificing themselves in the concentration camp just to save others.

Communism was the dream of an ideal world. Its purpose was to realize this world in ours. Its price was prison and death. It had all these qualities in common with National Socialism. However, the end of these two totalitarian regimes in Europe was fundamentally different. The downfall of National Socialism was largely murderous while the downfall of communism was largely peaceful. This had already been grounded in the idea. National Socialism oppressed and killed mainly other peoples, communism oppressed and killed mainly its own.

Hans Maršalek survived both of the systems. He died in Vienna long after the opening of the Iron Curtain in old age. He remained a highly political person until the very end of his life. And he also remained a Communist, a member of the Communist Party of Austria. In real politics however, for quite a long time he had already also voted for others.