The movie Good Bye Lenin! tells the story of a woman from East Berlin, Christiane Kerner, who falls into a coma just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and wakes up again just before Reunification. She thus misses out on all the crucial historical events that take place in the meantime, and is completely unaware of them when she wakes up. As far as she is concerned, the Berlin Wall still stands, the hammer-and-compass banner still blows over the Palace of the Republic, the Young Pioneers still sing songs about the glory of socialism, and the government still boasts about the over-fulfilment of the latest Five-Year-Plan.
And her son Alex decides to keep it that way.
He fears that his mother, a staunch socialist, would be greatly upset about the loss of “her” GDR, and wants to wait until she is ready for it. The family pretends that everything is as it was before.
Since Mrs Kerner cannot go outside, this is initially easy enough. But as snippets of reality intrude (for example, a Coca Cola advert that Mrs Kerner can see from her window), Alex needs to find ways of explaining them. This makes his plot more complicated.
When Mrs Kerner tells them that she wants to watch the news, this creates a problem. If they switched on the TV, she would immediately notice that something smells fishy. So Alex starts filming his own video tapes, imitating the format of the Aktuelle Kamera (the GDR’s newscast), and plays them to his mother.
This turns out to be a game changer. Alex’s self-made “fake news” gives him control over the narrative. He does not just reanimate the GDR as it actually was. He changes it. He turns it into the kind of country that he would have wanted it to be. Alex’s fictitious GDR becomes a more open, relaxed, and liberal country than the real GDR ever was. Or, to use the words that Alex puts into the mouth of one of his fictitious statesmen:
“We know that our country is not perfect. But the ideals we believe in continue to inspire large numbers of people all around the world. Maybe we have sometimes lost sight of them. But we have recollected ourselves. Socialism – that doesn’t mean walling yourself in. Socialism means approaching our fellow man. […] I have therefore decided to open up the borders of the GDR.”
It would be wrong to say that Good Bye Lenin! romanticises the GDR. It doesn’t. It is quite negative – which is to say, truthful – in its portrayal of the GDR as it actually was. I suspect Seumas Milne would not like it.It shows the police brutality. It alludes to how the system wore people down if they did not toe the party line. And it does give a glimpse of how far the East was behind the West, in terms of living standards. But the movie’s underlying assumption is that the GDR was founded on noble ideals, and that it could have been a completely different country.
What is remarkable is how little Alex needs to change in order to transform a repressive, economically unsuccessful police state into a thriving, open society. All it takes is a bit of soul-searching, a return to the ideals of an imagined ‘golden age’, the removal of a few hardliners at the top, ‘better people’ in charge – and the job is done. In this view, there is nothing inherent in socialism that makes it prone to authoritarianism and economic failure. There is no particular reason why the GDR turned out the way it did. Its elites had simply ‘lost sight’ of their ideals, a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ Christmas Carol. They would need an overnight visit from the ghosts of Marx, Engels and Rosa Luxemburg, and all would be well.
If this is all so easy, though, one wonders why nobody ever gets it right. There have been more two dozen attempts to build a socialist society. No matter where they started from, and despite all the differences between them, ultimately, they all ended up in a similar place. It is not for a lack of trying.
But the idea that we just need to try it one more time, and that all it takes is a few minor tweaks, does not go away. We might dub it the Goodbye Lenin Delusion. It is a delusion, because it was not a coincidence that the GDR (not to mention other socialist countries; the GDR was very far from being the worst example) was the way it was. Authoritarianism and economic failure are in the very DNA of socialism. They are features, not bugs – irrespective of the motives of its proponents. It is not enough to put ‘nicer people’ in charge, or to add attributes like ‘socialism with a human face’ or ‘21st-century socialism’. Socialism is beyond repair.
But the idea that it could easily be repaired, and that we are just one attempt away from working out how, continues to haunt us. A year before the movie was released, a survey found that 82% of East Germans agreed with the statement that “socialism is a good idea, which has just been badly implemented [in the GDR]”. Thus, Alex’s alternate GDR will have seemed plausible to many viewers. Judging from recent surveys, it would also seem plausible to most Brits.
We can see examples of the Goodbye Lenin Delusion in the writings of prominent New York Times and Guardian journalists, and in the work of some of the world’s most prominent intellectuals. We can see it in the way Venezuelamania has given way to Venezuelamnesia so quickly.
The Goodbye Lenin Delusion is all around us. Just like there is something in the DNA of socialism that makes it prone to authoritarianism and economic failure, there also seems to be something in our DNAthat means that we just cannot bring ourselves to give up on it.