The Seamy Side of Freedom

What No Commie Could Know

Every oppressive power structure seduces its sufferers into believing in an oversimplified salvation.

In a totalitarian regime, the enemy to topple is clearly the regime. In capitalist societies, the poor’s unambiguous panacea is money.

These visions focus on the most acute pain of the oppressed, which we know eclipses all others. Only when the worst is lifted does the next least gentle aggravation rise to the threshold, and suffering begins anew. So East German writer Christa Wolf may be excused for getting it wrong. She feared living in freedom stripped human life of purpose.

To winkle the pith out of that shell: In Wolf’s novel Divided Heaven, the character Rita refuses to escape to West Berlin because, as Wolf has her believing, people in the land of freedom have nothing to do but eat, drink, and ride around in big cars (she skipped the ‘be merry’ part). Wolf assumed, apparently, that wiping out enemy number one vanquished enemies all, leaving people with no more meaningful pursuit than that of enjoying themselves. (“That’s a problem?” the Sybarites among us might inquire.)

If only the dangers of freedom were so simple.

To the cause of the capitalist poor who feel winning lotto would fulfill all dreams, the rich can donate cynical smiles. A world of worry lies beyond Skid Row. But let the poor dream on. Heaven 101 is so simple.


Polliwogs breach the water world to lunge for land only after development of the lungs and limbs to do so has begun. No providence embedded like mechanisms within human flesh to advance members of human societies to the next stage; they are to rot where they pine, unless they burst their confines without the apparatus needed to maneuver on the outside; they are to totter onto alien terrain, gasp in strange atmospheres, fend off foes, find their feet, come to stand, attempt balance, and only then fumble to devise the joints and digits required to establish themselves safely out of reach of the anguish that caused them to bust loose in the first place. It can take a hundred careful years; those appurtenances do not slot into any well-worn groove when the right start is made; we never know if we’re right, can only hope we’re doing better. It can all get washed away in a coup d’état. And when a new start is made, if a new start is made, it will not be by those who know how; those seasoned hides are long gone; if they wrote anything down, we will only reinterpret it anyway.

That is to say, there would have been lots for Rita to do once she got herself over the wall and into West Berlin. But Wolf did not know that because Wolf never really got out of there herself. And only within the thick of the long, arduous, highly vulnerable process of forging freedom can an informed view of liberty mature.


The fact that Wolf got it wrong about freedom doesn’t surprise me, although she had given the matter a great deal of thought. When she died December 1, 2011, she left behind a highly respected body of work that dealt with the matter as directly and responsibly as the East German government would allow. What disappoints is to learn her reaction when critics hammered her, not for writing a revealing book about the Stasi, but for failing to publish it until after the Stasi was history, that is to say, too late for the work to provide any relief to those who had suffered under that vile hand and—the part that made critics cranky—after all risk to herself had been removed. Her reaction? She got depressed, and that disappoints.

Everyone trapped in that society lived with bated breath, driven not by fear, but terror of the government. A poisonous concoction of propaganda, threat, manipulation, lies, spying, tattling, ongoing fabrication of citizen reports was at work. You knew you were being watched, but did not know which of your acquaintances—or friends?—or how many, were informing on you. Or how often. Against your will you suspected the one, then the other. You were careful to do nothing to make yourself conspicuous, loathe to offend either friend or foe, aware that giving an honest opinion about the most trivial, but unwelcome, matter could turn a bad report about you into a vindictive and dangerous recrimination. Backbiting became rampant. Pimple poppers could turn murderous. More than anything, you feared you yourself would be approached—to inform on your acquaintances, your friends, your family. The East German state could turn anyone into a spy and informant, even Christa Wolf. And it did.

In that toxic environment, heroes were rare and Wolf was not one of them. She was just one of the citizens who did her best whose best had a limit. But apparently she considered herself much more: spokesperson for her fellow citizen; the fighter standing fast; the author to sustain the spirit and guide the vision of the weaker members of that desperately oppressed population. When peer criticism exposed her as falling far short of that measure, she grew depressed, which speaks not of courage or heroism, but of vanity. About that Wolf could indeed get depressed.


What Wolf never knew was how tough life could get in the land of the free, the home of the brave. Picture it: The clearly marked enemy is gone. Every politician is your friend, legal and above board, and cares about you, and is telling the truth, and you have to sort out all those versions of truth with no sanctioned guidelines by which to label the liar, the manipulator, the powerbroker, the egoist, the creamer off the top, although that’s what they all are. The worst you can do is call them statisticians, which leaves you with the statistics to sort out anyway—if you have the time; which you don’t because you have to make a living, a lifelong hassle that the East German government very gallantly removed from the long list of things their citizens had to worry about.

A much subtler hardship of democracy requires some contemplation: the collar is gone. In a dictatorship, you’re wearing that collar. It chafes badly. It can chafe you to death, but you and the dog both know: you’re wearing that collar because you matter. When you’re free, you can tumble right off liberty cliff. No one will stop you. No one cares. You do not make a difference. That’s uncured tobacco for you to chew, my friend, if you happen to be one of those human beings who requires an audience.

Hunkering out there in the rarified air of freedom is anonymity. Wolf might indeed be tempted to slip back into her dictatorship, where form is so clearly circumscribed by opposing control. Wiggle free of that and a hideous fate awaits you. Wolf seemed to feel that, but could not have known that the nature of freedom of which we Americans are so proud so dangerously resembles a vacuum. Without the sturdy structures of mature democratic institutions—without commitments and expectations, rules and regulations, the corset all over again but of different whalebone—that vacuum can rip you apart.

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