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Belinda Cooper: Revolution Redux?

I’ve been watching the news from Iran and thinking about East Germany, where in 1953, workers rose up in a popular rebellion that was rapidly and violently suppressed. Afterward, the head of the East German authors’ guild reprimanded the East German people for losing the government’s confidence. In response, poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht famously wrote, “Would it not be easier...for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?” It’s amazing how well Brecht’s words could be applied to Iran’s leaders today. The 1953 uprising failed, but in 1989 (twenty years ago this year) East Germans—along with people all over Eastern Europe—successfully took to the streets and brought down their leaders and a whole system. While living in West Berlin and working with East German dissidents in the two years leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was able to share some of the excitement of those days, so at least some of what’s happening in Iran feels familiar. Of course, Iran isn’t Eastern Europe and comparisons are facile. But dictatorial regimes share many features—not least of which is discomfort, even shock, when their citizens begin to show signs of independent thought. Condescending paternalism is a common trait of leaders who believe they know what’s best for their unruly children. Part of that shock comes from finding their own words used against them. The Iranian regime, like East Germany's government, supports its claim to power with the language of popular revolution (more credible in Iran than in Germany, where the popular revolution never actually happened, but was nevertheless part of the Soviet-imported mythology). People have grown up hearing the slogans of revolution, have watched them be perverted, sometimes even cynically have used them to get what they want, and are now learning to turn the catch-phrases around to their own purposes. In East Germany, demonstrators took up the chant “We are the people!” echoing and inverting the government’s constant invocation of the will of “the people.” In the same way, Iranian demonstrators have co-opted revolutionary slogans and behavior, like nighttime chanting from the rooftops and the color green. It’s hard for a regime to claim that protesters using its own symbols and slogans are counter-revolutionaries or traitors. And it also reflects the fact that, at least at first, most demonstrators are not trying to change the system, but to force it to adhere to its own promises. It was not until the Wall fell that the tenor of the demands of East Germany’s protesters changed, from reforming the East German system to reunification with the West (at which point, the slogan changed to “We are one people!”). For now, most Iranians aren't demanding a fundamental change of system, but the right to have their ballots counted. But the language and symbols come later. First, people have to come together.

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