A German film about the Hungarian revolt of 1956 has lessons for us today about the importance of defending democracy from a small far right minority who only see black and white.
An historical film is attracting audiences in Berlin. “The Silent Classroom” offers a fictionalized version of a remarkable protest in East Germany and the more remarkable government reaction. In 1956, thousands of Hungarians fought to free their country from Soviet domination and one-party dictatorship. A class of seniors preparing for final exams heard of the revolt from the American radio station in West Berlin, which the East German government had forbidden its citizens to listen to. Hungarians asked people in other countries to stay silent to protest Communist oppression. One student, Dietrich Garstka, told his comrades, “We’ll do that too!” In class, everyone was silent for five minutes.
The government went crazy. The Hungarian revolt of 1956 had installed a democratic socialist government before Soviet tanks crushed the uprising three weeks later. The Soviets and the other Communist governments in eastern Europe defined the revolt as counter-revolution and asserted that Western spies were behind it. The Western news media who reported the Hungarians’ program for freedom and human rights were spreading false propaganda. Students who silently honored the uprising were counter-revolutionaries, too.
Specialists interrogated the students. The Minister of Education insulted and threatened the students: unless they named the ringleaders, the whole class would not be allowed to take the exams which qualified them for university. The class displayed extraordinary solidarity and refused to give in to government pressure. They were all thrown out of school.
Garstka soon crossed the border into West Germany, which was still relatively easy in 1956, and was followed by 15 of the other 19 students in his class. They took their exams there and pursued their careers, cut off from family and friends.
The system that transformed their silence into subversion was a perfectly self-contained organism. All media were monitored and controlled. Information about internal problems, weaknesses, and injustices was propaganda, fake news designed to weaken the system, and thus counter-revolution. Anyone who taught uncomfortable facts about history or politics was labeled an accomplice of Western enemies, a hater of the system, and punished with the weight of the state. Science was not allowed to contradict political ideology.
East German communism had very different intentions and assumptions than the Nazi government which it replaced. But both systems shared this enclosed structure of self-protection, where deviation was treason, where facts were subordinated to rigid ideology, where questioning was punished by exclusion. Both saw only black and white, and jailed people who realized there was gray.
Those structures are the opposite of democracy. But the forces of arrogant ideology, of undoubting righteousness, of hatred for difference can exploit the tolerance of democratic systems to disrupt them from within. The extraordinary democracy of the German Weimar Republic in the 1920s allowed the Nazis to grow strong enough to overthrow it. Or I should say that too many people in Germany, people with power and influence, through weakness, self-interest, and political expediency, let the Nazis come to power by not opposing them strongly enough.
Now in America we saw armed men, who disdain our elected government, take over a public installation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, threaten government officials and then escape without punishment. We heard a presidential candidate encourage his supporters to beat protesters and disbelieve any news he doesn’t like. We see virtually all leading Republican politicians accept Trump’s vilification of the press, self-enrichment in office, and smearing of the judiciary.
Americans who report on these events are attacked with verbal violence. I have been called seditious, a traitor. Activists for civil rights have been called communists and anarchists, whose political activities are thus illegitimate. The whole progressive movement, whose candidate, Bernie Sanders, almost won the Democratic nomination for President, is identified as hating America. Thousands screamed that the losing candidate in the last election should be put in jail. They say that journalists who report uncomfortable information about politicians they like are spreading lies. Many people have urged this newspaper to stop publishing my articles, because they don’t like the facts I write about.
Listen to the radio, scroll around the internet, or go to rallies for the President, and you’ll find many people with these attitudes. Instead of lurking on the fringes of the American political system, these people are brought into the White House and given press credentials as if they were real journalists. The President has called journalists “sick people” who hate our country and the other party “un-American” and “treasonous”. Telling the truth and defending democracy means being bombarded with insults and threats from the small far right minority, who only see black and white.
What if they had full power in our government? What would they do with me, the traitor? Or our journalists, professors, scientists? Or you?
We must prevent that, to avoid repeating the naive complacency of other peoples who have allowed their freedoms to be taken away. Asserting your right to think and act freely can be dangerous, as the East German students realized. But they demonstrated solidarity, courage, and determination in the face of naked shameless power.
We have to do that, too.