Deconstructing Mao in Die Zeit

Since I no longer have access to Suddeutsche Zeitung‘s daily paper edition, the only German newspaper I read through cover to cover now (well, scan, then read selectively as it would take all week otherwise) is Die Zeit.  And by and large, it is a joy to read this weekly paper.  One learns that in spite of a relatively low death toll (33 soldiers) in Afghanistan, Die Zeit still anguishes, “Wie lange noch?”  (How much longer?).  One learns that Hyundai has weathered the global recession better than German car makers.  One finds that Germany had an election.  It is good to have paper allies like this, particularly when they also give huge full-page interviews to obscure Swiss composers with whom one has commisserated in futuristic halls, purely by the grace of God and French architecture, at the Bastille Opera.

So when they cover China, it is extensive and always interesting.  Particularly the October 1 celebrations, for Germans are particularly attuned, one might even say hypersenstive, to commemoration and nationalism.  And thus I had to read the following article on the propitiously-numbered page 88, the back page, of October 1 edition:

Theo Summer, “‘Lang lebe das Volk!’: Vor 60 Jahren rief Mao Tse-tung die Volksrepublik China aus.  Sein Triumph muendete in eine Schreckensherrschaft, die Millionen Chinesischen Not und Tod brachte,” Die Zeit, 1 october 2009, s. 88.

The translation of the title says it all: “Long Live the People!: 60 Years Ago Mao Declared the PRC: His Triumph Augured a Horrific Rule, Which Brought Suffering and Death to Millions of Chinese.”

So how do you really feel, Theo?

This is an immense one-page essay which recaps the totality of the Great Helmsman’s life.  Perhaps the most striking aspect of the essay is how obviously, and how deeply, it is inflected by the interpretation — and the questionable data — of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s destructive biography, Mao: The Unknown Story (2005).  This book has obviously made its way into Germany, a land already predisposed to seeking out and exposing the historical misdeeds of dictators of the past.

Sommer recaps all manner of Jung Chang’s interpretations, chief among them a death toll of 70 million on account of Mao, the description of Mao as a “mass murderer,” his plans to rule the world and have nuclear war with the USA.

Incredible!  And we wonder why the Germans so love the Dalai Lama and so detest the rule of the CCP.  Much has to do with interpretations like this.


  1. Incredible! And we wonder why the Germans so love the Dalai Lama and so detest the rule of the CCP. Much has to do with interpretations like this.
    Theo Sommer, as far as I can tell, is a conservative liberal. He won’t miss any briefing or event on German-US relations, no NATO summit, and our English teacher treated us with his contributions to American news magazines (Mr Sommer is immensely proud of his English skills, methinks, and his articles tested ours to the limit and beyond).
    I believe there are many people here in Germany who are able to combine admiration for Mao and the Dalai Lama – after all, many elders here were once wannabe Maoists, and the Dalai Lama himself not too long ago referred to himself as a communist, I seem to remember.
    But it’s also true that we should refrain from projecting our own past on China’s supposed future. When I campaigned for a political party some seven years ago (America’s looming Iraq war was grist to our mills), an impassioned elder told me that he knew “how it feels when you are bombed”. A Nazi past makes good pacifists.

    1. Thanks for the comment, JR. It is good to know all these things! It’s clear that Sommer is a fearsome writer in German, so now I will need to seek out some of his Anglophone stuff. Perhaps he is a China expert? One other thought that came to mind as driver for such writing was that of a kind of Sino-German economic rivalry, Germany just apparently having been passed for #1 exporting country in the world by the PRC, but I personally feel that Germany is confident enough not to let that cloud unduly the views of China. So while there may be some shrouded economic anxiety, it seems, from what I have seen anyway, that your analysis is more the case. That is, the German past (experiences with a couple of forms of totalitarianism in the East in particular) tinges the Chinese past and the Chinese future with a kind of malevolent cast in which the case for the PRC’s uniqueness doesn’t hold up very well. Soon I hope to do some more analysis of German views of Ai Weiwei, the dissenter as hero thing! Thanks again.

  2. Sommer isn’t exactly a China expert, more about defense and foreign policies. He’s running a personal website.
    As for the exporting “rivalry”, most Germans can probably see that a country of 1.something billion people need a bigger economy than our country. (Besides, it isn’t necessarily a blessing to depend on exports.) In many ways, what we see here is the pendulum swinging back. There was a lot of panda-hugging going on here during the past two decades or so, and I’m not unhappy that people are becoming more aware that China is, after all, a country ruled by a totalitarian party. We should only make sure that awareness doesn’t turn into hatred, or into a refusal to cooperate in fields where it makes sense to cooperate.

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