April 14th 2007

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Howard's Coalition - fewer options left as election looms

EDITORIAL: The high cost of 'symbolic' politics

THE ENVIRONMENT: Bushfire victims take NSW, Vic govts to court

WATER: Details of PM's water plan - disaster for farmers

NSW STATE ELECTION: When will Liberals, Nationals ever learn?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Why young people read less / NSW's Knight with the Mournful Countenance / Journalistic hooliganism / The Easter Rising

INTELLIGENCE CORNER: Losing the war on the home front / Assessing the terrorist threat

SCHOOLS: Labor's standard threat to schools

MEDICAL SCIENCE: New developments in stem-cell science

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Australia caught between Beijing and Washington

SRI LANKA: Bloodbath looms in war-torn Sri Lanka

OPINION: An ABC of the ABC - a listener's guide


Millions squandered (letter)

Regional rail networks (letter)

Labor's Mugabe dilemma (letter)

David Hicks (letter)

Russia's Putin should not be demonised (letter)

CINEMA: Story to scare the daylights out of you - Lives of Others

BOOKS: How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

Books promotion page

Story to scare the daylights out of you - Lives of Others

by Len Phillips (reviewer)

News Weekly, April 14, 2007

Len Phillips reviews an Academy Award-winning German film, The Lives of Others, about the former East German secret police, the Stasi, and a book by Paul Hollander on why so many left-wing intellectuals refuse to hear any criticism of totalitarian regimes.

We went to see The Lives of Others because it had won the Academy Award this year for best foreign-language film. Not necessarily a good thing in itself, but at least a recommendation of a kind. But other than knowing that, and knowing that it was German, I went along with no expectations whatsoever.

The book I was just reading at the time is a new publication by Paul Hollander, The End of Commitment: Intellectuals, Revolutionaries, and Political Morality in the Twentieth Century.*

Hollander's interest has been in how it is possible, in the face of the overwhelming evidence of communism's cruelty and creation of mass misery, that some people, in spite of everything, remain wedded to the belief structures of the far left. It is the question of our times.

It is one thing to have signed on to the utopian socialist vision at the end of the 19th-century when there were no existing societies that one could observe. It was then merely theory tied to hope, but with no conflicting real world examples to demonstrate how empty such hopes in reality are.

A century later no excuses remain. Yet, for a disgracefully large segment of the population, their far-left allegiances have weakened only to a small extent, if at all.

Hollander's book is an investigation into the circumstances under which those who have been at one time in their lives far left in their political orientation eventually discard their beliefs and move towards the centre, or even to the other side.

The most astonishing part of the book's descriptions is how unwilling most of those who start out on the far left are to reject the views they took up in their youth. Whether it is a case of throwing good money after bad, nothing about actual existing socialism, whether of the Russian, Chinese or Cuban varieties, seems to cause a change of heart.

And even when such re-evaluations do occur, the process is very slow and only occasionally results in a full-scale repudiation of all that had been accepted before.

It is a chilling book. There is a fanatical personality type that appears to thrive in the kind of open society in which we live. Far left politics becomes the centre of gravity for such individuals. Without it their personalities would disintegrate. There is no letting go because there is nothing else.

The film The Lives of Others is about the Stasi, the former East German secret police.

It focuses on a single Stasi officer who is asked to investigate a particular playwright. Why? Because one of the top state officials wants the playwright arrested so that he can have his actress-girlfriend for himself.

The drama is in the astonishing tension that one must endure in a totalitarian state. Individuals of any consequence live their lives under the assumption that they are always being watched and that their homes and offices always being bugged. No one can feel safe or secure. At any moment you can be arrested and jailed.

Into this comes a man whose conscience is just being awakened, a Stasi officer who begins to sympathise with the playwright whose life he has been instructed to ruin.

The bit of background we are shown of this officer fits him out with every ounce of brutality that one would associate with such a role. He is not just an interrogator but is at the top of his field, even to the extent of training other interrogators at the Stasi college.

So we watch him turn from what he was into something else. But the whys and wherefores are not answered.

The real value and interest of the story lie in watching how the apparatus of the totalitarian state can be used to terrorise a population.

Even then I thought the film depicted a surprisingly open society - if a senior party official wanted the playwright arrested, I was surprised to find, he would apparently have had to have a genuine reason. Personally, I didn't believe that for a second.

But what I did believe was that a population under the thumb of informers and a secret police would lead lives more oppressive than anything we in the free societies of the West have ever experienced.

If you are like me, watching the story unfold will scare the daylights out of you.

- Len Phillips.

Intellectuals, Revolutionaries, and Political Morality in the Twentieth Century
by Paul Hollander
(Chicago: Ivan R. Dee),
Hardcover: 416 pages
Rec. price: AUD$58.95

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