Monday, 4 January 2016

Replacing reality with fantasy
The gullibility of even sophisticated audiences and readers when it comes to accepting pure fiction as reality never ceases to amaze me. This is particularly so with portrayals of East-West relations and the characterisation of communists and former communist countries. The recent, much-hyped German series Deutschland 83 is no exception. Cold War clichés and the most improbably scenarios seem to be de rigueur. Such fictionalised dramatisations then take on a life of their own replacing real facts and real events in people’s memories.
The blurb for the new series, which is based on real events, promised to offer a new and different perspective. British-American author Anna Winger, co-producer of the series with her German husband, Joerg, said significantly in an interview about the film: ‘It’s important to remember that  a lot of people were happy in East Germany, It didn’t work economically, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel good to be part of it sometimes. The existence of the East made the West more humane but now, in an era of unbridled capitalism, we don’t have that balance.’ Quite promising, you might think. The series does indeed begin quite well with a family party scene in the GDR that doesn’t rely on the clichés of drab-greyness, dour East Germans and low living standards. We actually have attractive looking individuals and young people who could just as easily be from the West, listening to rock music and enjoying themselves. Even when we meet the film’s young protagonist, Martin Rauch, who is a GDR border guard, we are presented with a pleasant young man taking two West German visitors to East Berlin gently to task for buying books in the East with money exchanged illegally. He tells them to scarper, unscathed, but keeps some of their books.
Unfortunately the drama very soon begins to serve the usual stereotyped narratives. When a couple of Stasi agents visit the family home to recruit the young man to work as a mole in the West German Bundeswehr, we are presented with two hard-bitten, stony-faced men, one of whom callously breaks one of the young man’s fingers and they drug his coffee so that he can be kidnapped.
When Martin wakes up in the West, now as an unlikely agent of the Stasi, he walks into a supermarket and is mesmerised by the array of goods on the shelves. Most GDR citizens regularly watched West German TV and, even if they or their families hadn’t travelled to the West at any time, they would have been used to seeing consumer adverts and programmes that featured big cars, shopping malls and glamour. They would hardly be surprised to see it first hand.
But what makes this series very much of a missed opportunity is that the facts of the real story are just as dramatic if less fantastical.
In 1983 the world really was on the edge of a nuclear holocaust and it was a single East German counter-espionage agent who saved the day. Ronald Reagan had been elected president of the USA in 1980 and unleashed an unprecedented and hysterical campaign against the ‘Evil Empire’ as he characterised the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc allies. He, along with his close political ally, Margaret Thatcher embarked on a new and dangerous confrontational policy, surrounding himself with fanatical anti-communist warriors, like Richard Perle (the Prince of Darkness), Dick Cheney, Caspar Weinberger, Paul Wolfowitz and George Bush who were all determined to confront the Soviet Union and bring about its downfall. After years of detente, the Helsinki Accords and a general easing of tension, the world was once again plunged into a new phase confrontation that threatened to destabilize post war detente with dangerous brinkmanship.
In 1979 as part of its medium range nuclear modernisation programme NATO began deploying cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe. The first particularly destabilising Pershing missiles were deployed in West Germany in autumn 1983. Because of this provocative escalation and the reduction of launch warning time, tensions were stretched to breaking point. All the more, as the Soviet leadership was absolutely convinced that the US was seriously planning a nuclear surprise attack under the cover of carrying out military exercises.
NATO’s giant ABLE ARCHER exercise in 1983 was meant to simulate a pre-emptive attack on the Soviet Union with weapons. It would take place close to the German-German border. As tension mounted, Soviet nuclear bombers were deployed, on the tarmac at their East German airbases, engines running, waiting for the order to go. If the order had come, most likely nuclear holocaust, at least for Europe and the UK would have ensued. Recently released papers indicate that even among British military leaders Reagan’s reckless agenda aroused concerns that the Russians might take the exercise for the real thing and be provoked to take irreversible action in return.
We were spared this scenario largely due to the efforts of one man: Rainer Rupp, who at the time held a top job in NATO headquarters in Brussels, but at the same time was secretly working for the GDR’s foreign intelligence service HVA. As a student, Rainer Rupp had been active in the student protest and peace movement and was recruited by the GDR to help them monitor Western intentions. He managed to work his way up the hierarchy in NATO and had access to top level and highly secret documents. He saw his role as keeping the Soviet Union and its allies up to date on NATO strategies in order to help avoid the sort of hellish scenario that seemed to be unfolding. In an interview for the Channel 4 programme 1983: The Brink of Apocalypse, about exercise Able Archer 83, broadcast in the UK on 5 January 2008, Rupp said that he had transmitted the message that NATO was not preparing to launch a surprise nuclear attack against the USSR during the exercise to his HVA controllers. He viewed this as vital to preventing a Soviet pre-emptive strike against NATO forces. In the same program, Rupp said he was proud of the damage he did to NATO over the years of his intelligence activities. he wasn’t paid as an agent by the GDR but carried out his work out of conviction that NATO’s purpose was to undermine and in the end bring about the demise of socialism in Eastern Europe.
Richard Perle, State Secretary in the Pentagon for planning and policy, was of the opinion that a limited nuclear war against the Soviet Union could be fought and won without massive damage to the US. Back in the early 1980s the US knew that the Soviet Union had an advantage in terms of conventional weaponry as well as the large size of its armed forces and would prevail in a non-nuclear war scenario, so a pre-emptive nuclear strike was logical from this warped perspective.
In the autumn of 1983 the worst case scenario looked as if it was about to unfold. Reagan’s crusader rhetoric and his Star Wars programme, together with the decision to station Pershings in Europe had dangerously raised the stakes. The Soviet Union would now have only minutes of warning in the event of a nuclear attack. It considered that NATO’s previous policy of defence preparation had now been transformed by Reagan and his cohorts into one of waging a pre-emptive war. It had already experienced surprise invasions into its territory in the Second World War, which cost the USSR 27 million lives, and it didn’t wish to be caught out again.
ABLE ARCHER took place in that context. The planned combined NATO exercises were viewed by the Soviets as a pretext for a first strike, but they were not prepared to wait and find out. They desperately needed to know urgently if such a plan was indeed about to be put into practice. They were convinced that the exercises were a ruse to initiate a first strike.
The exercises were to be carried out under very realistic conditions, and would take place over ten days, beginning on 2 November and involve all Western European NATO members. The aim was a simulation of a co-ordinated deployment of nuclear weapons and their use. What was particularly alarming was that there were new elements in this exercise: middle-range nuclear weapons were brought onto the field for the first time and absolute radio silence was maintained; a new code format was introduced for communications. And, for the first time, leaders of all the NATO countries were intimately involved which also alerted Moscow to its unusually high political significance. Moscow also thought, wrongly, that the USA had put its troops on the highest alarm stage, DEFCON 1. In reality DEFCON 1 was only simulated during the exercise.
Convinced of an immediate US attack, the Soviet Union put its own strategic nuclear forces on red alert. The smallest mistake could have unleashed a catastrophe. Even Gorbachev later declared that the situation at the time was as dangerous as the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, but with an even greater nuclear potential.
At virtually the last minute, Rainer Rupp was able to photocopy a whole swathe of top secret documents that convinced the Russians it was indeed only an exercise, thus saving the day. Years later, at a Berlin conference on international espionage in 2005, the former CIA-head for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Milton Bearden, congratulated the former Head of East German foreign intelligence HVA, the legendary Markus Wolf, saying that thanks to his excellently placed source in NATO-HQ in Brussels peace had been saved in 1983, as he had ‘been able to calm the recipients in Moscow’ and in this way, avoid a nuclear war. Rainer Rupp, the agent who literally did save the world, was given a 12 year sentence for his troubles after the demise of the GDR and his British-born wife, also an employee at NATO HQ was also imprisoned.
That is the real story, but Deutschland 83 has used the background to create a fantasy scenario for commercial purposes. Even though the series attempts to portray daily life in the GDR with some sense of balance and doesn’t hide Reagan’s vitriolic rhetoric or the concerns of NATO generals vis a vis his dangerous policies. In the blurb to the series written by Gabriel Tate for the Guardian Guide, he writes: ‘The arms race is on and Ronald Reagan and his Russian counterpart Yuri Andropov are ramping up the rhetoric from the White House and the Kremlin. Germany is caught in the middle, split in half and subject to the whims of its effective occupiers’. The rhetoric, though, was coming solely from Reagan and the White House, not from Andropov who was acting with restraint and caution. The last things the Russian wanted was a war with the West; they had enough of their own internal political and economic problems to deal with
Coming back once more to the series, while it holds much promise, it soon relinquishes any claim it may have to historical accuracy or providing insight through creating its own fantasy world. Did the producers not have any proper consultants from the secret services to point out how ridiculous much of the story line is and how stilted the dialogue?  That East German security services could recruit a young GDR soldier against his will, drug and kidnap him, dumping him in West Germany where, within days, he will become aide de camp to one of the country’s top generals is whimsy in the extreme. The agent is given, what appears to be a cursory training and then let loose on his target. While a visiting top US general and his own chief are out to lunch, he breaks into the latter’s office and photographs secret documents left conveniently behind in an unlocked briefcase, listing all the US nuclear targets in the East. At the general’s house at a party given for the same visiting US general, he slips away from the crowd and telephones his girlfriend in the GDR from the general’s own telephone, only to be overheard by one of the general’s daughters, so has to pop a heavy sedative into her drink very quickly to render her unconscious. His GDR handler meets him and waves copies of secret documents in his face while he is in the middle of a jog at an army training camp. The improbabilities and fantasies mount as the story unfolds.
            There is in principle nothing wrong with entertaining fiction, however wild and improbable, but when it replaces historical fact in the minds of viewers it becomes dangerously corrupting, and then has more in common with Goebbels’ methodology than Rowling's Harry Potter.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Work – pleasure or drudge?

When Britain’s last deep pit at Kellingley closed just before Christmas the men told journalists that what they would miss most would be the comradeship of their workmates. Without that, few would chose to work deep underground as a coal miner; the work is arduous, dangerous and unhealthy. What made it tolerable was the work atmosphere, the sense of belonging to a close-knit community, of solidarity and friendship.
Work, particularly the carrying out of repetitive and boring tasks, is rarely rewarding. The redeeming factor for those who undertake such work can only be an pleasant workplace atmosphere, the opportunity for interaction with colleagues and for developing workplace relationships. Increasingly in Britain, with the demise of the old manufacturing industries and the mushrooming of warehousing, call centre and service industry work, the workplace has been turned into a virtual slave plantation. Surveillance and computer technology having replaced the whip and leg-irons to give added refinement to the bosses’ total control over employees lives.
            The recent revelations of how Sports Direct and Amazon treat their workforces underline this situation. Not only have people’s lives at work been transformed into a daily nightmare, but with zero hours and minimum wages their pay does nothing to compensate.
Many big companies like Sports Direct use zero hours contracts as a matter of course. This saves them paying sick or holiday pay, offering maternity leave, making pensions contributions etc. for their 27,000 strong workforce. Monitoring of toilet breaks and sickness absence are used to pressurise workers to work non-stop and to turn up for work when they are not fit.  The final indignity is humiliating strip searches at the end of each shift. This is how Sports Direct upped its half-yearly pre-tax profit results by 25% to £187.3m in the six months to 25 October.
For Amazon workers life is no better. According to a devastating, 5,900-word expose of its working practices in eh USA by The New York Times on 15 August  2015. Working four days in a row without sleep; a woman with breast cancer being put on ‘performance-improvement plans’ together with another who had just had a stillborn child; staff routinely bursting into tears; continual monitoring; workers encouraged to turn on each other to keep their jobs. The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions, the article says.
            In Britain things are no better. The global internet retailer founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos paid only £11.9m tax in the UK last year despite sales of £5.3bn. The company treats its warehouse staff like cattle as they are driven to work harder. However, their counterparts in the US face even tougher conditions. Staff in a Pennsylvania warehouse allegedly worked in temperatures in the high 30s Celsius, as ambulances waited outside to take them away when they collapsed – and air conditioning was only fitted after newspaper reports publicised the issue.
Former office staff at the company’s headquarters in Seattle also spoke of working 80-hour weeks, getting emails from the office while on holiday or late at night, oppressive scrutiny of performance, and callous disregard for personal crises.
            These companies are not exceptions, working practice in many others is being driven relentlessly in this direction, egged on by a Tory government determined to destroy any remnant of union organisation or the possibility of workers uniting to take effective action to counter such practices.
            And it is not just in manual jobs. White collar, care and professional workers are suffering equally. Teachers and higher education academics are now routinely being given only short-term contracts and are overloaded with administrative work and longer teaching hours. Because the jobs are temporary, there is no sense of security and no long term planning can be undertaken.
            All this enormous stress in the workplace is having repercussions throughout society.  The Health and Safety Executive says that stress at work is one of the leading causes of working people being off sick.  The majority, it says, experience stress at some point during their working life. In 2014/15, it says, stress accounted for 35% of all work-related ill health cases and 43% of all working days lost. Such stress is carried over into home and family life, destroying relationships and affecting children’s performance at school. It also becomes a burden on the NHS as long-term stress can lead to a whole number of chronic physical and mental illnesses.
            Above all such jobs offer workers no hope – there is often little opportunity of breaking out into a different form of employment; in many areas of the country these are the only jobs available.
            The trade unions particularly, but also all progressive organisations, need to campaign actively not simply for higher wages, but for government regulation of all workplaces to ensure they are humane and provide job security. Rapacious exploitation should be banned just as slavery and the death penalty are banned. A civilised society can only be based on the creation of civilised jobs.