27 November 2012


"The party for Gorbachev dribbled on for awhile. Eventually the opportunity arose for some small talk. Here at last was my chance to clarify everything. To my astonishment, someone introduced me as 'the German Vyssotski'. My name seemed to trigger a memory - perhaps the scandal of my expulsion from the GDR more than fifteen years ago - and I was excited and happy and solemn. My heart beat in my skull, my brain was overwhelmed by a tidal wave of emotions. In such circumstances words of conversation are, anyway, only crude identification marks amid the headlong rush of protocol. How are people supposed to talk to one another, if they don't even have the time to be silent together? Which is all to say: I embarrassed myself. I said to this complete stranger a sentence which I had believed could never pass my lips again. My four words were spoken as a kind of reflex action, like a dying soldier giving a password; the thirteen letters fell from my mouth like teeth that had been knocked out. Before me stood the last torchbearer of Communist ideology. I said: 'I am a Communist.'

Years of despair and hope culminated in that moment: Gorbachev embodied all the wild thoughts and shouting matches of three decades. A film was running inside my head, beginning with my first doubts after the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 and ending with the crushing certainty that the Communist heaven on earth could be nothing but perfect hell.

But as failed Communists is our place in world history therefore as contemptible as that of our old great enemies the Nazis? Of course not! We were always better and always worse. Put more precisely: Our crimes were all the worse, because they stemmed from a better tradition. The Nazis grew out f the blood-stained stupidity of racial delusion, and they remained true to their colours. Hitler honestly promised the extermination of the Jews and held onto it. When the war was already lost, when he needed every truck and every locomotive to supply the Wehrmacht, he still requisitioned enough trains to transport the Jews to death camps. If that was not devotion to principles!

We, however, betrayed everything that we ever promised. We emerged from the humane tradition of the Enlightenment. Our intellectual fathers were the radical democrats of the French Revolution, our poets Heine and Buechner, our thinkers Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg. Communism and Social Democracy were siblings in the same historical family: but the intolerant son became a much-admired murdered and the prim sister and unloved wallflower.

It causes me the deepest sadness and it is to our everlasting shame that no one liquidated so many Communists as the Communists. Hitler murdered 64,000 German Communists. But Stalin's executioners murdered almost the whole of Lenin's Central Committee and liquidated a couple million cadres as well. The Nazis did not butcher their own people, apart from a few individual cases. And what was butchered in the Communist workers' movement was a fundamental humane tendency, which historically never existed in Fascism.

We failed. Now any kind of hope for a more just society seems to be discredited until the end of the world. Despite all that, this ruined childish hope is still close to my heart. The best and the bravest and cleverest people who created me were almost all left-wing rebels and undogmatic spirits, all of them burnt children of Communism. And when I met the last representative of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the old wounds burst open again and bled. And it was far from melodramatic, on the contrary; it was a confusingly pleasant pain.

'I am a Communist.' And see: Gorbachev responded to the stimulus like a Pavlovian dog in the Party academy. The little red bell struck, and the old ideological saliva flowed. It seemed to me as if a romantic revolutionary spasm passed through his body. He had evidently not been expecting this signal from the past here in Hamburg. Suddenly he gained a firmer grip on my hand and, looking through my eyes deep into my heart as if through reversed opera glasses, he squeezed meaningfully and tragically, communicating what we both knew very well: it doesn't matter anymore.

Am I exaggerating? No, Gorbachev's handshake was really something! It was a worker's handshake. No, wrong! Real workers shake hands without the noble proletarian emphasis, which Gorbachev had.

One often hears the claim that at the very last moment of life, all of the past rushes through the dying person's head again as a compressed, abbreviated film. I did not at all feel like dying, but I did see a speeded-up film as Gorbachev gripped my hand in a vice: a film of the death of the Communist idea. Our handshake lasted at most three seconds - but for me it became an epic to fill a whole evening.

It was a remarkable handshake; it bore no resemblance to the ones I knew from officials of the labour movement, who shake hands to show that inside they are still workers. Intellectuals who had picked up important posts in the Party or the trade unions exaggerated the proletarian manner, disguising their genteel mitts by gripping all the more resolutely. They took the hand of the unsuspecting so skillfully, that with a relatively small expenditure of energy they could still crush the victim's fingers. This hyper-proletarian trick worked especially well on women. The loyal party handshake also had a formative effect on the arts. Party artists painted monumental workers' hands, with which no real worker could compete. State actors, playing class conscious workers in Socialist Realist films, shook hands with this gusto.

The true Noble Proletarian Handshake begins long before the actual pressing of flesh. It is clearly developing as the proletarian handshaker approaches the person to be greeted. The proferred arm arm displays two indispensable components: it must be extended somewhat further than normal, and the elbow must point outwards and upwards a little. This signals the strength of the working class hidden beneath the jacket, the mighty arm and the shoulder muscles of the steelworker or miner. At the same time it's noticeable that the fingers are unusually far apart. This gesture has its origins in the fact that the reliable comrade worker is distinguished by the noble mark of primitive manual labour: his massive hands. These calloused digits have only a moment ago laid aside shovel and spanner, hammer and sickle for this greeting. Siberian frosts and the fire of the blast furnaces have hardened his skin. The delicate articulation of the finger joints has been restricted as if by a gouty stiffness. This clumsiness acquired through labour must make every heart beat faster that beats honestly on the side of working people.

By contrast, of course, the political body language of the Heil Hitler greeting was entirely appropriate to the class enemy: the slippery smooth fingers are pressed together and are slightly bent. Petty bourgeois pen-pusher's hands. The honest heavy hand of the class conscious worker does not get up to such tricks. Its vigorous grip signifies a feeling of grass-roots heartiness which is foreign to the decadent class and its intellectual parasites. All the effeminate elements hostile to the Party, the work-shy sceptics - the whole bourgeois rabble - betrayed itself by its limp body-language, even before it had uttered a single word.

At the moment of our handshake Gorbachev stiffened meaningfully. We were silent for a brief eternity. I even had the feeling that the habit of this rite of fraternal affection practised thousands of times would propel Gorbachev into giving me a fraternal kiss. Elevating my cheeks to the ranks of Erich Honecker's and Jew-hater Yasser Arafat's. Fortunately this chalice passed me by. So we stood there, two survivors by the open grave of a fixed idea. Then we went on our way."

- Wolf Biermann, Shaking Hands with the Zeigeist

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