Yesterday was the anniversary of the shooting of the insurgents on Tiananmen Square in 1989. It is telling that it is almost 20 years ago because Tiananmen is just a distant memory, Reaganesque in how passé it feels. I say this with bitterness and sarcasm, because it is passé only because it is inconvenient. Our America is so addicted to the fruits of the Tiananmen massacre ... the cheap DVD players and the iPods ... that we don't want to hear about it. Most Chinese almost certainly don't want to hear about it because they have adjusted to the quotidien reality of rising, albeit radically unfair, China.
The history-minded, however, cannot forget it, and must not. Let me explain by way of a rather circuitous route. I am reading about Prussia (Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947), and today's entry was the period after the events of 1848, in particular the massacres, through the stunning collapse of Austria in the little remarked-upon but critical 7-week Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Christopher Clark, the author of the aforementioned tome, does a good job of outlining the dynamics which the "paradigm-busting" 1848 events engendered and which continued to haunt German politics through at least 1918 and certainly arguably 1945. The problem with reading German history, of course, is that we all know how it comes out ... and it comes out with such drama and horror that one feels constrained to try to pick out of each event the teleological source of the end game of 1945. (As an aside, which anyone who readily wearies of arcane and self-indulgent convolution can easily skip, I have long been taken with the notion of the teleological ... the notion of end causes, which is to say those sorts of ideas that find in the result the necessary cause. So Christianity is teleological in the sense that the fanatics view all of history as being drawn toward the inevitable apocalypse, and Marxism is teleological in the sense that all events are merely pre-history, the necessary steps toward the inevitable revolution that draws them to it. Marxism's teleology was born of the 1848 events, so this little aside will have to find a little ex-post-teleological justification in that obvious event.)
Picking out the precursors of the Nazi horror is a silly exercise, but hard to avoid. The lazy just stick it all to Frederick. I think the better spot to start is the failure of the 1848 to mature. That is not to say that there are not plenty of other spots to look at ... but the enduring unresolved dichotomies of German history were brought to fruition in the inability of the revolution to take state power. Specifically, the contradiction between imperial military control and the struggle for civil government ended only in the catastrophic defeat in 1918. We know that the 1918 defeats were the necessary if not necessarily inevitable prelude to the 1933 events that led to the greatest slaughter in human history.
Unresolved contradictions don't go away. The German state that was founded in the euphoria of the crushing defeat of Austria in 1866 was founded precisely on those contradictions and they continued to play out over decades to come. The inability of the state, and the "liberals" who supported the notions of open democracy to overcome the imperial hangover kept the Junkers and conservatives in a position to lionize military primacy. When the crisis of 1914 erupted ... and it amounted to the last gasp of the dynastic politics that had kept Europe at war for centuries ... there was no political ability to resist what the imperialists thought was just another 19th-century war. It was not a 19th-century war, but rather the first inkling of how bloody the 20th century would be.
China should pay attention. The crisis in China to this day bears the scars of the unresolved contradictions of Tiananmen. The insurgents wanted nothing more than a stake in their own government. Had the power decided to accommodate them on some level ... and it is worth noting in this context that Frederick William IV did in fact accommodate his rebels for some months before the reaction took control again in November 1848 ... the contradictions might have assumed another form. But the reactionaries who run China cannot envision any accommodation that does not leave them in control. The Prussian situation in 1848 did have the beneficial effect of allowing the state to mature to the point where German unity could be achieved after the defeat of Austria. But the Chinese has given no quarter to its critics. The contradiction between economic growth and political stagnation grows more acute.
Contradictions do not dissolve. They find new, more fertile ground upon which to explode. In China, we have to look to the effects of an American economic collapse or to the effects of a Chinese environmental collapse. In such dire straits, what legitimacy do the Tiananmen murderers have? What do they have to offer to their aggrieved middle class ... more to the point, how effective will their policy of steel and boots be to the ignored rural masses and their sons and daughters who toil unrequited in the new massive cities? What flexibility will the state have; what elements from within will have the ability to rise above the paradigm and crate something new?
Things can last for a long time in the face of irresolvable contradiction. But a long time is not forever. I hesitate to suggest that the froaen dynamics from Tiananmen will result in a Nazi-esque episode ... but any review of Chinese history suggests that the unraveling of contradiction tends to be very expensive in terms of human life and happiness.
Happy Birthday, our brethren from Tiananmen.
Top photo from the web of the single moment that tells t all about Tiananmen ... a moment that the reactionaries who rule China wear as teir shame forever. Bottom photo by Arod of a Pan figure from Sanssouci, Frederick's "boys' club" in Potsdam.