German Ghost Border

I’ve just seen another map shared by the Twitter account, @onlmaps, which I felt compelled to discuss on here.  You can see it at this link.

As anyone who is familiar with maps of Europe between 1945 and 1989 can testify, this divide is almost exactly along the border between the former Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the communist, Soviet-puppet German Democratic Republic (East Germany).  Less than 30% of the population of former East Germany is religious, compared to an average of 60%-90% in former West Germany.  The reason for this seems fairly clear: after 12 years of Nazi rule, West Germany allowed its citizens to continue worshiping freely, whereas East Germany’s government advocated an atheist, secular agenda.  According to Wikipedia, one way it did this was by organising secular coming-of-age ceremonies to replace the Catholic equivalent, and largely discouraging church attendance in general.  As with the Polish Ghost Border, I find it incredible how long-gone borders between countries can continue to have a social and economic impact upon the territory they divided.

The main reason this divide surprised me is that I had always assumed that the Soviet-Communist governments had largely failed in bringing religious observance down.  But I’ve done some research into the former Eastern-bloc countries and the results seem to be mixed:

Country: (proportion of people who do not believe in a God)

Estonia: 71%
Ukraine: 63%
Belarus: 41%
Russia: 38%
Latvia: 21%
Czech Republic: 34%
Slovakia: 13%
Lithuania: 10%
Bulgaria: 9%
Poland: 5%
Romania: 0.2%

So actually, incredibly mixed.  Some area were successful, such as Estonia, Ukraine and Belarus.  These three countries were formerly part of the Soviet Union, yet Lithuania, also in the Soviet Union, still sees high religious observance.  Meanwhile, Poland and Romania have incredibly low rates of non-religion; I can only presume that their Cold War governments did not push an agenda of atheism.

For comparison, here’s the rates of some Western European countries:

The Netherlands: 51%
Sweden: 34%
France: 31%
Norway: 29%
Scotland: 28%*
Belgium: 27%
England and Wales: 25%
Spain: 25%
Denmark: 24%
Luxembourg: 22%
Finland: 21%
Switzerland: 20%
Italy: 15%
Portugal: 7%
Ireland: 6%

So actually, the cases of East Germany, Estonia and Ukraine aside, the Soviet-Communist governments of the Eastern Bloc don’t seem to have had that significant impact in reducing religious observance compared to the natural decline we’ve witnessed in the West.  Perhaps my original assumption was correct, and that East Germany’s government was the exception.

*This is from the 2001 census, as the results of the 2011 census for Scotland don’t seem to have been published yet.  I imagine it will be at least 30% now, considering that England and Wales lept from 15% to 25% between 2001 and 2011.  If Scotland had a similar jump, we might even see 38% of Scots claiming no religion.  It’s curious that Scotland is less religious than the rest of the UK.

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Pariah States Stick Together

Today, Panama has announced that it stopped a North Korean cargo ship passing through the Panama canal from Cuba which contained materials used in the construction of missiles under the guise of trading sugar.  The ship was suspected to have been carrying drugs when the much more sinister reality was discovered.  The need for secrecy was so imperative that apparently the crew resisted the search and the captain even attempted suicide.  Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli has said that this violates United Nations resolutions on arms trafficking.

This kind of lucrative cooperation between pariah states, hostile to many of their neighbours, is not unusual – particularly not between Communist countries (at least, the few countries which remain Communist in name; in reality all have abandoned the essential principles of Socialism and North Korea no longer even refers to Communism as its official doctrine).  To see similarities between the countries, simply look at their flags!  Both exist in a world which increasingly rejects their economic and political models and face threats from the USA.   I’ve read similar stories in the past regarding Iran and North Korea.  Of course, once you start looking at the Middle East these kinds of secret deals are everywhere: Iran and Russia to Syria; Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Libya to the Syrian opposition; Iran to Hezbollah; probably most of the countries mentioned to Hamas; etc.

Secret agreements between countries has always been a feature of international relations.  In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars there were various understandings that some great powers, most commonly Austria, would step in to prevent revolutionary uprisings and prop up Monarchies in any way possible.  Before the First World War a complex web of alliances spanned the globe.  During the Cold War the tap really opened and weapons flowed to Africa, Asia, South America – everywhere, really – in the many proxy wars between Capitalism and Communism.

However, since the collapse of Communism this business really has begun to dry up.  The fact that an Arms Trade Treaty can pass through the UN is proof of this.  The last 20 or so years has seen this business occur largely between the small number of authoritarian, isolated countries that still remain opposed to the international consensus – usually countries particularly opposed to the USA.  Even during this period the number of such ‘rogue states’ has dwindled – 2003 saw the collapse of Hussein’s Iraq and 2011 saw Gaddafi’s Libya fall, for instance.

I’m sure the vision of many – a vision that I share – is that one day we’ll see a world of democratic, friendly countries working in harmony with one another.  This is unlikely to happen for many reasons – tensions between the mostly democratic South America and the USA is proof of this – but I do believe we can get to a stage where the more ‘rogue’ states are integrated enough with the international consensus that the need for such illicit arms transfers might become a thing of the past.  At the moment, all we can do is work towards preventing these illegal transfers of weapons (and continue cracking down upon those which are are still legal, though that’s a different issue) and edge slowly closer to this dream.

Doctor Who: Hide (Review)

Contains spoilers.

Doctor Who, series 7 continues!  We’re on episode 4 of 2013’s run, and episode 10 of series 7.  Hide, written by Neil Cross (who also wrote The Rings of Akhaten, two weeks ago) and directed by Jamie Payne, who has made his debut into the world of Doctor Who.  I have never been a great fan of ghost stories, particularly the sort where all the action is contained within one dull haunted house – which has been done so many times before – but it soon became clear this would would be quite different.

The actual ‘haunted house’ segments at the beginning were also better than I expected them to be.  The characters of Alec and Emma were more interesting than the ‘ghostbusters weirdos’ I expected, and there were some genuine frights.  The ghost in particular… Ah, that face.  Though I found the constant lightning distracting, perhaps for obvious reasons.  Hide, like last week’s Cold War, is a historical story, set in 1974 (the year Tom Baker became the Doctor, fact-fans!), though this wasn’t a very important element of the story.  It did mean a reliance on analogue photography, which gave us that great scene where the Doctor and Alec talked over developing photos.  It also made the use of candles for lighting more realistic, as this particular house may not have been inhabited for some time and therefore not had electricity installed.

The story really went up a notch (“top notch”, as the Doctor was keen on saying) when the Doctor and Clara took the TARDIS to the same location throughout history, to snap pictures of the changing ghost.  We saw the Earth at the beginning of its history, a prehistoric jungle populated with now-extinct life, the mansion in Victorian times and then the same spot at the ending of the world.  This gave the episode a much greater scope than I expected, and while scope does not always equal quality, it saved Hide from being the rehash of ghost ideas I had been expecting.  And then, the pocket universe!  Such a good idea, and incredibly well realised.  The trees, shrouded in fog and harbouring a monster, created a very creepy and claustrophobic atmosphere.  My only reservations with the plot is the theme of love, which seemed shoe-horned in at places.  I did like the ending, where the Doctor returned to the pocket universe to rescue the ‘Romeo’ creature and to reunite it with its mate, though it was rather rushed.  I know it would have completely ruined the tone and the flow of narrative, but I’d have quite liked to see two of these hideous creatures in the TARDIS!

Speaking of the TARDIS, it behaved quite oddly in this episode.  There is the continuing arc of the TARDIS’ hostility to Clara, but this verged on sarkyness at times, bizarrely.  When she addressed the TARDIS voice visual interface and it took the image of Clara herself, making that jibe about being someone Clara esteems – what was that about?  Also, it’s been commented that having a TARDIS voice interface thing, particularly when it shows bits of personality, ruins the tragic ending to The Doctor’s Wife where it was assumed the Doctor would never again be able to speak to it.  Just niggles, but still things which stuck out.

I am really enjoying the double act of the Doctor and Clara.  Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman just fit into the roles of Doctor and companion – staggeringly so, when you consider this was the first episode of Coleman’s to be filmed (Asylum of the Daleks aside).  Their ‘banter’ may be a bit wearisome at times, but it is also quite endearing.  They also have quite a balanced relationship; I do like Clara continuing to question the Doctor, this time wondering how he can see people as anything other than ghosts when he has the whole of time at his disposal, on top of Emma’s warning that he has ‘ice in his heart’.  This is definitely setting up for something in the finalé.  Another thing I love about Clara is that she reacts realistically.  She has seen the end of the world, and that grief, that confusion, it stays with her throughout the episode.  This is what Rose was like at the beginning of series 1 in 2005, before the character became ruined, and its very refreshing to see.  Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine were also great as Alec and Emma, playing the awkward couple-to-be realistically and with conviction.  I look forward to seeing Raine play Verity Lambert in An Adventure in Time and Space later this year.

The direction from newcomer Payne was also, generally, pretty good.  Doctor Who increasingly looks like a very expensive and well-produced show.  I’ve already mentioned the success in making this a highly atmospheric and creepy episode, and I’d also like to add that the effects in animating the creature in the forest was, well, ‘top notch’.  Some form of stop motion animation, perhaps?  This gave it a very disjointed, staggered movement, adding to the tension.

In conclusion, this was a highly enjoyable episode, one which I liked far better than I expected to.  This 2013 run of episodes, in my opinion, has been pretty consistent in quality.  I look forward to next week’s Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, which promises to certainly be interesting!

Final rating: 8/10

Doctor Who: Cold War (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

It’s strange to think that Doctor Who’s 9th episode of series 7, Cold War, is a historical episode set in the year 1983, considering that the original series of the show was actually nearing its end during that time.  30 years ago.  Feels too near to count as a historical, yet, it also feels a long time ago.  Mark Gatiss has returned to write his fifth story for the show, and has again tackled a companion’s first trip into the past – as he previously did with The Unquiet Dead (2005) for Rose and Victory of the Daleks (2010) for Amy.  Gatiss has a reputation for writing consistently decent episodes, but never anything special or that impressive, so I was curious to see how he would tackle this episode.  Returning to direct is Douglas MacKinnon, who has previously directed the The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky (2008).

Firstly, I really love the concept of being trapped on a submarine with a deadly monster.  (In fact, I actually had a similar idea myself for a spin-off/fanfiction series I wrote a couple of years, though that was with a Dalek – so I feel slightly bitter towards Gatiss for stealing it!).  A sense of claustrophobia is successfully developed; when the TARDIS disappears; the submarine is stuck; there’s nowhere to run – it’s brilliant edge-of-the-seat viewing.  In many ways, this felt a very traditional episode.  Cold War has clearly taken notes from the 1960s’ ‘base under siege’ stories, and also has a lot of similarities with the 2005 episode Dalek.  Gatiss has been criticised for, again, writing a good episode but nothing revolutionary.  Which is fine, as long as we do get the more experimental pieces from time to time.  My only criticism of the writing was that the pacing felt a bit off, at times – almost as if the plot was being stretched out to fill the time slot (unusual for Doctor Who; generally the opposite is true), though for such a small-scale story, despite the global implications, this may have actually added to the tension.

I also enjoyed how the Cold War period was realised in this episode.  From the costumes the Soviet workers wore, the stars littering the submarine (even if historically inaccurate) and the stream of references to things like America and nuclear Armageddon, the setting immediately feels convincing – I particularly liked the line which went something like, “I know telling the truth might be a foreign concept to you, sir…”  Excellent dig at Communism, there.  One thing: the actual Russian soldiers didn’t feel entirely convincing.  The lines about “Oh, we’re speaking Russian” were a bit forced, and the crew felt more British than Russian.  Not sure how that could have been improved – the crew wouldn’t necessarily need to have had Russian accents, though that might have helped.

Of course, the true focus for Cold War was the return of an Ice Warrior, who were last featured in an episode as far back as 1974 in The Monster of Peladon.  After a 39 year hiatus they’re back and, unlike previous returns such as the Cybermen and the Silurians, have remained very loyal to the original designs.  The scales, the hissing voice – it’s all there!  I lament the loss of the clamp-like hands, but that’s a minor detail.  My first impression was how wonderfully well lit Skaldak, the Ice Warrior, was in every scene, particularly once he had crawled out of the suit.  Tiny flickers on the side of the screen as he ran down corridors were also very effective.  I wasn’t completely convinced by his final CGI appearance outside of the armour, however – the edges and proportions just didn’t feel that real.  But I appreciated seeing an Ice Warrior outside of his armour – a first for the show – nonetheless.  Gatiss did a good job of briefly explaining their history; in fact, he did a better job than most previous writers for them.  Though I don’t find the idea of a mighty Martian Empire existing 5,000 years ago all that realistic but, I suppose, who cares?

Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman were perfect as the Doctor and Clara, as I have come to expect.  Coleman is very nicely fitting into the role, now, and Matt Smith still surprises me three years into the role.  Most of the crew members were well acted; David Warner as the 80s pop fan Professor Grisenko particularly stood out to me.

Overall, this was a very decent episode.  The Cold War submarine setting was used to its maximum potential, and the return of an Ice Warrior was by no means underwhelming.  Perhaps Cold War was a rehash of successful Doctor Who ideas, but they are successful precisely because they work.  This may not be remembered in the future as the greatest episode, but for now it has achieved its aims rather well.

Final rating: 7.5/10

A History of Communism: From Idealism to Tyranny

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The idea of Communism means many things to many people, and has evolved considerably since it was first developed by Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto of 1848.  Marx saw Communism as a solution to the mass poverty and class structure which the capitalist system had created.  Most significantly, and this is where he parted from various socialist and liberal ideas, Marx believed the implementation of Communism had to be revolutionary.

I’m not an expert on his beliefs, and I’ll confess I’ve never read The Communist Manifesto – though it’s definitely high on my list of books to read.  However, I believe he advocated a state which would possess supreme power over the people in order to liberate the workers from extreme poverty and their ‘bourgeoisie’, upper class rulers.  To do this it would be necessary, if not desirable, to create a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which would, in essence, follow the idea of a ‘benign dictator’.  Communism would not follow immediately, but this dictatorship would work towards the world revolution and eventually develop a stateless, classless world.  This is what Marx perceived to be true Communism.

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A depiction of revolutionary chaos in Berlin.

However, despite being formed in the euphoric hope of the doomed 1848 Revolutions, Marx’s ideas gained little traction during his lifetime.  He died in 1883 with the cause making little headway, though Marx maintained his belief that socialism was an inevitable stage in human development.  As the Europeans carved up Africa and created alliances, the ideas of Communism must have seemed fanatical.

Then, in the worldwide chaos caused by the First World War, everything changed.  In February 1917 the Russian monarchy collapsed after centuries of power in a complex series of events which, I will again admit, I have not deeply studied.  As German and Austrian soldiers advanced further and further into Russian territory, the people and soldiers protested and mutinied in what became a mass uprising against Tsar Nicholas II, who was forced to abdicate.  This was not a Communist revolution; Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Communist party, lived in exile and returned upon hearing the news.  It was in a second revolution during October 1917 when the Communists took advantage of the power vacuum which followed Tsar rule and seized power in a coup.  Not, as future Russian propaganda would have you believe, in a united empowerment of the proletariat demanding Communist rule.

Lenin worked to introduce Marx’s ideas and established a Dictatorship of the Proletariat – with himself as chairman, of course.  A bloody civil war ensued, as the Communists (‘reds’) fought European-backed reactionary forces (‘whites’), resulting in a red victory.  The formation of the Soviet Union was complete, and the world’s first Communist State entered the world stage.  Half of Europe had been set ablaze during the First World War – in addition to the Russian Empire, the war saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the German Empire.  Dozens of new states were created and in this revolutionary chaos thrived many short-lived Communist governments, but as the dust settled Russia stood the only country in which Communists had managed to keep their grip on power.  (There was also a Communist government in Mongolia, which achieved independence with the help of the ‘Reds’ during the Russian Civil War, though this had very little influence).

So the Soviet Union stood alone.  Lenin died in 1924 and, after a struggle for power, Joseph Stalin became leader.  This struggle fractured a split in the Communist Party, as two sides formed led by Stalin and a man called Leon Trotsky.  Trotsky believed that socialist policies could not work alone in Russia, that Marx’s doctrine clearly stated a worldwide revolutionary was necessary to create Communism.  Stalin, in contrast, was throughout his life an extreme paranoiac and believed the Soviet Union vulnerable against its capitalist enemies, so felt the focus should be on building defences.  Stalin won and Trotsky was sent into exile, eventually to be assassinated on Stalin’s command in 1940.

Stalin’s Soviet Union saw unprecedented industrial, technological and demographic development.  The Soviet Union became the first state to lead an organised Industrial Revolution, in which the country worked by ‘Five Year Plans’ to determine the focus of development.  This led to a much faster development than the random and uncontrolled forces of capitalism which had driven development elsewhere in the world.

More significantly, in my opinion, Stalin’s rule marked the transition between idealism and tyranny in Communist belief.  This need not have happened.  Stalin’s paranoia led to the creation of a totalitarian state and a cult of personality, in which human rights were non-existent and a level of devotion close to worship was expected for the Communist Party and for Stalin himself.

The rise of Communism coincided with the rise of Fascism in Europe during the 1920s and 30s.  Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and many other countries fell to the sway of Fascist leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini, imposing vast military rule upon their people and creating similar cults of personalities for the leaders.  It is said that if you could get Hitler and Stalin, bitter enemies, in a room together and avoid talk of economics, they would find much in common.  The creation of such brutal Fascist regimes created parallels with Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, with many critics labeling the Soviet Union as a Fascist regime itself.  There is certainly a strong argument for this claim.  Though not on the scale of The Holocaust, Stalin’s purges of anyone he perceived a threat led to the executions of millions of people.

This was how Communism would be defined during the second half of the century.  Once again it took a world war to make Communism a reality in many countries.  After the fall of Nazi Germany, Europe was carved up between the Allies and the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union set up a series of puppet states making up the Eastern block, comprised of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania.  To the east, Communists in China had won a bloody civil war after Japanese defeat in the Second World War, and the Korean War split Korea into two states, the north of which became ruled by a Communist government.  Communist also began spreading to the French colonies of southeast Asia, which would lead to the famous Vietnam War.

This spread of Communism led to a ‘Cold War’ forming between the liberal, capitalist forces of ‘The West’ headed by the USA, and the tyrannical, Communist forces of ‘The East’ headed by the Soviet Union.

Communism at its greatest extent in 1983.

The middle classes and landowners in capitalist countries were terrified of a Communist takeover, fearing land repossessions and reprisals, perhaps even threats to their lives.  And so a global war of power spheres, espionage, technological advancement and fear would define the 20th century; a war in every aspect besides the fighting.

And then, suddenly, Communism collapsed.  There are too many reasons for this collapse to go into in this blog, particularly as my understanding will be very limited.  I think the most significant factor was an economic crisis which brought the entire fragile system crashing down.  The Eastern block crumbled, ironically, during mass revolutions, and the Soviet Union split into a series of successor states not long afterwards.  Other than a handful of Communist States which survived in Asia, mostly reliant on China’s growing influence, and also Cuba, Communism has died a swift death.  Even these countries are increasingly accepting capitalism as a road to success.  Occasionally a Communist party will join a coalition government in some small country somewhere in the world, but as a major political force it is utterly spent.

So what are my thoughts on Communism?  If I had lived during the turmoil of the 20s following the First World War, in a period marked by extreme poverty, I would undoubtedly have been a Communist.  However as the totalitarian nature of Communist states became clearer, the Liberal within me must reject Communism.  It is an incredible idea, but human history has shown that whenever an individual is given power, however benevolent the reason, they will become corrupted.  Very often Communist states have exacerbated the poverty they were created to solve, while well-fed dictators think only of war and power.  Left-leaning institutions such as the welfare state have proven an effective means of lifting the majority out of poverty without imposing the extremes of Communism and this, I believe, is the path we ought to continue to follow.  Think of it as a diluted, safer form of Communism, achieving the same goals without the idealistic insanity.