On the night I arrived in Berlin I got chatting to my landlady. She started explaining why her partner misses the old communist East Germany. He’s not alone, when former East Germans were polled in 2009 by German daily Der Speigel, 57% reported they thought life had been better under the communist dictatorship. You had security, you were guaranteed a job, education, healthcare and an affordable home. And for most people who kept their head down and didn’t pay attention to politics you didn’t realise anything was wrong.
Of course you were aware of individual cases of people being arrested, of state surveillance, of infringements on civic freedom – but they were all isolated incidents. Individual little dots, all justified in themselves, little dots which were never joined to paint the bigger picture of a totalitarian society. And, as long as you didn’t get involved in politics, nothing was particularly wrong, you just got on with your life.
I began wondering what would I have done. If I lived in a totalitarian surveillance society would I oppose it? Would I even notice? If Britain had slid into becoming an Orwellian nightmare would I join the dots to actually see the big picture. What would it take?
Would I realise something was wrong if we had more police surveillance cameras per person than any other country in the world? Would I realise something was wrong if it was revealed that our secret police were regularly monitoring our phone calls? Would I even realise they were a secret police or would I insist on calling them the secret services – because the thought Britain could have a secret police seems so alien?
What if UK citizens were being illegally rendered by our superpower allies and were being held without trial in detention camps? Or what if we’d knowingly allowed UK citizens to be tortured by our allies because they didn’t agree with our political system.
What if we had an electoral system so rigged our government currently only represented 24% of the electorate and the same party had been in power for 3/4 of the last century despite the fact they’d never won a majority of votes. And what if my undemocratic government started attacking the life chances of the poorest, the weakest and the most vulnerable and blamed immigrants for it, or blamed their political opponents, or blamed malign political forces in the world they couldn’t control. And what if we’d been at almost constant war for 20 years and the perpetual state of war was used as an excuse to dismantle our basic freedoms?
Would I have realised how bad things had got if one of these things happened? What about two? Surely if all of them happened I’d have realised we’d tipped over the edge? Or would it feel so horrific when the dots started to join up that I’d bury my head in the sand and declare that there was no bigger picture, just isolated incidents that all have their own explanation. None of them desirable of course – but that’s just the world we live in – and as long as I keep my head down and get on it’ll all be ok.
More of my letters from Berlin HERE.