To fly from Prague to West Berlin you have to fly to East Berlin and then take a bus through the Eastern Zone. The imbecility of arrangements of this kind tells one a lot about the politics of East-West relations, those of mutually interacting persecution mania. To go directly from East to West Germany is to experience at first hand the contrast between the absurdity of the East and the absurdity of the West. The total humorlessness of both Germanies sharpens the comedy.
The day on which I traveled on an airplane of the DDR, the German Democratic Republic, happened to be one peculiarly rich in the annals of self-parody, Walter Ulbricht’s seventy-fifth birthday. The newspapers distributed to us by the blond air hostess were stuffed with articles emulating the exercises in totalitarian oratory written by Auden and Isherwood in their socially conscious plays of the Thirties. As a connoisseur of a style which has remained unaltered through the Hitler and Stalin eras to the present day, I particularly enjoyed an article entitled “At All Times an Ear Open to All” in Der Morgen, written by “Party-Friend Otto Krauss,” which opened:
I am often asked, does the President of the State Council, Walter Ulbricht, know exactly how things look from “down below”? Yes, he does know exactly, more profoundly, than those who ask the question could ever realize. He doesn’t rely on information with which he’s provided; instead, he seizes on every opportunity to find out what particularly concerns women and men citizens, old as well as young. When he visits a factory he doesn’t just talk with the inspectors and engineers, oh no, he slips off into the yard and gets a conversation going with the work folk there, asks each about his particular job, listens to his opinions about The Plan, finds out how much he earns, what he does in his spare time, and keeps an ear open for his grouses and grumbles. He seeks out the comrade peasants in field and stall, and asks them what they think the advantages and the disadvantages of the new machinery….
In another article we are informed of the great importance comrade-friend Ulbricht attaches to art and culture. The names of his favorite paintings in a local collection are: Wilhelm Schmied’s Mansfelder Landscape, Haral Hakenbeck’s Peter in the Park, Walter Womacka’s On the Beach, and Paul Michaelin’s The Head Girl.
The unconscious self-parody corresponding to this in the Western Press was the report of a statement made in court by Chancellor Kiesinger that he had not heard of what went on in the Nazi concentration camps till 1945.
WEST BERLIN, having nothing to show except the obvious is a displayed self-parody: the Berlin of Isherwood’s landlady in Sally Bowles subsidized by Washington and Bonn. At the opera I attended a performance of Salome where a large part of the audience seemed to consist of Fraülein Schroeders, with hair set in the manner of the Midwest, but colored…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.