Monday, October 23, 2006

Mythology and imagined pasts.


We use the term 'myth' to refer, often enough, to simple falsehood. As in 'five myths about immigration' or 'demolishing the myth that Iraqis are ready to take over their own security'. In the classical usage, a myth is not merely a lie, but a structured tale involving heroic beings. In Roland Barthes Mythologies, we are - after several dozen articles on contemporary themes from politics and mass culture, from wrestling to soap adverts - given an essay that draws out some of the implications of the articles. In it, he explains that objects are not merely utilitarian or functional: there is no such thing as a car that is merely an operational device, that is resistant to cultural meanings, or a bar of soap that merely accrues pubic hair. These items, however functional, are saturated with connotations: and of course, these are produced by advertisers. This isn't simply a clever analysis of cultural artefacts, and nor is it depoliticised: for Barthes, these techniques are used to legitimise and naturalise power, they obscure what is historically produced by packaging it (the item, the situation) in a modern mythical structure. In his way, Barthes was really updating and expanding on the marxist theory of commodity fetishism and reification, showing how social relations were naturalised, how the traces of production were removed from commodities so that they appear as pristine, finished objects.

One item of historical renown is the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948-9, and the magnificent, heroic flights of fuel and food by C-54s into Tempelhof airport to break the blockade. It is described in the centrist historical literature as a straightforward attempt to starve Berlin into submission to the Soviets, which America successfully subverted. Clinton, at his oleaginous best, attended a 'remembrance ceremony' at Tempelhod airport in May 1998 and remarked that "the fate of free Berlin had hung by a thread". The visionary effort to supply a whole city by air had become "a sharing of the soul - a story that tells people never to lose faith, adversity can be conquered, prayers can be answered, hopes realised, freedom is worth standing up for." This was, perhaps, the founding myth of the Cold War: the partition of Germany inaugurating an adept strategy of containment, the application of counter-force against the totalitarian behemoth at crucial geopolitical pressure points across the world, a strategy that eventually (perhaps with some errors and maybe even unfortunate allies) paid off, and secured the world for freedom. Here you have the classical myth, with its heroes and foes, adversity and success, one that is provided by rulers in order to structure the sentimental life of the community that they hold sway over.

Revisionist historians have long debunked this tale: Carolyn Eisenberg, one of the better historians of the Cold War, has through careful and forensic research through the diplomatic archives shown that in fact the blockade was in reality a part of the process by which American leaders (often to the immense discomfort and chagrin of Western European politicians) pursued the division of Germany. That pursuit brought with it blockade, counterblockade, heightened military tensions and the threat of nuclear war. To summarise very brutally, the zonal agreement from Potsdam had divided Germany among the four powers on the Allied Control Council, and the abandonment of this quadripartite agreement would in itself undermine the West's basis for a presence in Berlin since it had been agreed that it was in the Soviet zone. But since the persistance of that division would risk prolonged Soviet involvement in the West European economy. In March 1948, the US, UK, France and other European powers agreed to allow the Western military governors to devise principles for a future West German state. Since this would deprive the Russians of access to the Ruhr and a substantial labour supply, they withdrew from the Allied Control Council and imposed restrictions on rail and highway traffic into Berlin. Stalin's advisors might have told him that this would entrench the moves toward partition, and so he relented in April of that year and began pushing for talks on currency to facilitate inter-zonal trading. He also tried to open negotiations on a number of fronts which the Truman administration took to be both a hindrance to their ends of hegemonising the European economy and also probably a means of aggravating differences among the Western states. Not having it, they pursued a West German constituent assembly which would draft a constitution - any prospect of a settlement would delay this outcome, and so the Americans found a vital problem was solved when the congressional passage of the famous European recovery programme gave them vital leverage over those states. A currency reform was initiated in the western zones, including in the former capital. Russia's military authorities responded by blocking the railroads, barges, cars and pedestrians from travelling between Berlin and the western zones. They cut off the electricity. These were callous moves, without doubt, mounted to frustrate the moves toward the partition of Europe that they opposed (and that, in fact, violated agreements at Yalta and Potsdam). The Soviets would not yield on the necessity for German unification under a quadripartite agreement, and the US would not relent on their drive toward partition. Neither the French nor the British could accept such strict parameters, but as their economies were on their knees, they were in no position to mount a serious challenge. When it was clear that the Russians would remove the blockade in the event that a multilateral forum could be convoked to discuss Germany's future, the US was alone among Western states in attempting to sabotage the agreement. Airlifts were a means of avoiding potentially damaging diplomacy. On the other hand, Marshal Sokolovsky had pledged to provide "the normal supply of essential goods" throughout, and Soviet provisions were available in West Berlin either through registration or the black market. No effort had been made to seal the west of Berlin from the east or surrounding countryside, and so tonnes of Soviet wheat and food entered the city.

Truman, seeking re-election and naively supposing that his subordinates would welcome a peaceful resolution to the crisis, actually opened up dialogue through back-channels and was promptly told to stuff it, which he did. Instead, the matter was transferred to what was hoped would be a docile security council in Leo Pavolsky's recently formed United Nations. The UNSC did not, as hoped, simply issue an unmixed condemnation of Russia, but actually tried to put the matter of Germany's future back on the negotiating table. But since the Soviets did not accept the authority of the UNSC in the matter, the US instructed its representative to await sure signs that the USSR would veto and then issue official US approval. By November of that year, the partition of Berlin was seen as the first step in the partition of Germany. The Berlin city government was disintegrating, and the US military government was encouraging the City Assembly to hold elections which would ensure that the western sectors became politically separate. Under pressure to hold off on these until the currency had been settled, the blockade lifted and the city calmed, the US could not believe their luck when pro-Russian politicians in Berlin met, proclaimed themselves the true city assembly and formed a Magistrat. Happily for the Americans, they had divided the city before the elections.

At the same time, a Western counterblockade was affecting the eastern zones, depriving factories of coal and steel. The Soviets were deeply unpopular, and not only because of the blockade: they had in their brief time controlling the eastern zones diminished their support among communists and socialists. Soviet occupation policy as exercised through a previously exiled KPD leadership, had been to rebuild Germany as a capitalist democratic country, viewing the German working class as too imbued with Nazi ideology and in need of retraining in the habits of democracy. (Such was the political argument: the more likely reality is that Stalin was pitching for respectability and international integration, as he had during the Spanish Civil War, for instance). The savagery of Nazi policies may be partially responsible for the racist view expressed by Stalin that the Germans were "savages" who hated "the creative work of human beings". Whatever the case, the patronising view of Germany as unready for socialism was used to legitimise an interim goal of creating capitalist democracy under Red Army tutelage, which turned out to involve the 'Stalinisation' of the east, which not only meant political dictatorship but also the intensified exploitation of the German working class. Soviet occupation policy had thus alienated not only the passive population who were suspicious of left-wing politics, and not only those who were still loyal to the fallen Nazi regime, but also the communists, socialists and active anti-fascists of all stripes who were supposed to comprised the Militant Bloc for German democracy (which would complete the 'tasks' of 1848).

Perhaps the worry of losing influence in what they hoped would be a prosperous and unified German economy was behind it, but there can be no doubt that the USSR was ready for compromise and the US was not: Stalin had accepted in late December 1948 a UN offer to implement a currency plan in the divided city in return for a lifted blockade, but since the US refused to support it, it failed at the first hurdle. The team of UN economists who had devised the deal pegged the blame squarely on the West, although the UNSC did not publish the report. Since that plan had failed, the UN was no longer a realistic part of resolving the issue. The trouble was that the UN had shown that support for partition among Western states was precarious at best, and even an offer of discussions about Germany's future would risk the US losing the principle of a divided Europe. The prospect of armed confrontation, though not desired, was apparently preferable to the dangers inherent in a negotiated settlement. Knowing that at some point their own supplies might not be adequate, they were aware that they might have to fight or leave. B-29 bombers were transported to Europe as a deterrent, to present the possibility that nuclear weapons might be used (a different version of the B-29 had bombed Hiroshima), and thereby prevent any menace to the airlifts. The Defense Department was anxious to be able to invoke the nuclear threat when it wanted, and pressured Truman to remove the bomb from civilian custody. Truman, whatever else can be said about him, was wise to be wary of those bastards in the uniforms - the Army Secretary complained that it made no sense to spend all the money on the damned things and not even threaten to use them in the middle of a crisis. Yet, his National Security Council had concluded that "in the event of hostilities" they military should be prepared to use all "appropriate means", including atomic weapons. Truman later assented, saying that if necessary, he would permit their use. However, in pursuing such a strategy, it would be necessary to be able to implement threats effectively, and to make counterattacks either impossible or unwise. Hence, an imperative for a much more lethal stockpile of nukes. At the same time, the militarisation of Europe under America's 'protective' hegemony was the only way to obtain their desired West German state. Since European leaders were terrified of a reconstituted, and independent Germany, the US offered NATO as a means of containing Germany and warding off the Soviets. It was only through this agreement that West Germany was founded in April 1949. The blockade, such as it was, was finished, and yet because of policies pursued by both superpowers, the contours of the future Cold War were established.

No evidence has emerged that Stalin expected to run the societies he occupied for very long or that he wished for the partition of Europe. However, given the US policy of preferring a partitioned Germany and therefore a divided Europe, the Soviets would make do with controlling their lot behind the 'iron curtain', and the US developed the 'national security' policy that involved the aggressive pursuit of superior nuclear capability and which precipitated a costly and destructive arms race. The Berlin crisis, decisive as it was, was handled in the main by figures from the military and diplomatic establishments, not by elected representatives. The mythological depiction of this sequence of events, along with the hysteria about the Korean war, facilitated the embedding of the doctrine of NSC-68, and the elevation of the undemocratic executive organ, the National Security Council. As Melvyn Leffler wrote (upsetting the smug post-revisionist 'consensus' of Lewis Gaddis), this was a logical outcome of the war planning by the US elite itself: many of the considerations involved did not directly involve the Soviet Union (preserving hegemony in Latin America and control of the Panama Canal, for instance), but the development of a positive balance of power for the US in Eurasia did. The US, he noted, was not particularly worried about Soviet military power, so much as the possibility that the turmoil across Europe would result in a political order that excluded or diminished American influence (communism, socialism, anything like that). As early as 1943, they had concluded that they should have a ring of outlying bases surrounding the Western hemisphere, and in 1945 they were already worried about the political assimilation of an area including the Ruhr Rhineland industrial complex. Private intelligence assessments depicted the USSR as being militarily degraded and inefficient, and economically insecure. It was an advantageous situation for the US, provided they could mobilise populations and leaders behind their tutelage. Hence, the narrative of 'totalitarianism' and an 'evil empire'. Ironically, the US was far more expansionist and militarily aggressive, and as Moshe Lewin writes, the post-Stalin Soviet Union, while in no way a workers' state, was nowhere near as repressive as it had been and in fact nowhere near as repressive as many of the regimes that America was to end up supporting. I don't highlight this to exculpate the Stalinist regime, for the liberalisation of the polity was, as in Western capitalist societies, partly effected to make the society more efficient and productive, and therefore more competitive. Rather, it is - as with everything else raised here - simply to disrupt the regnant banality of the triumphalist Cold War narrative that is being disinterred in order that we might reconcile ourselves to perpetual war again.