The Great Terror

by Michael Potemra

It’s understandably hard for a lot of young people to appreciate the existential threat Americans faced during the Cold War. In the era after 9/11, we have been bracing ourselves for the next attempt by barbarians living in caves to jerry-rig some device with windshield wipers and Krazy Glue to kill a few thousand civilians (and our policies to prevent them from actually doing so have largely succeeded, for more than a decade, over two dramatically different U.S. administrations). But while it’s just (barely) possible to imagine today’s terrorists winning outright, and plunging the developed world into a new Dark Ages of Islamic theocracy, few if any sane people are betting on that. The Cold War was different: We were facing an enemy that we knew had enough weapons of mass destruction to annihilate us, and that we knew was committed to replacing us as the dominant world power. Every marginal change in capabilities, for offense or defense, on either side raised the risk of global catastrophe. Indeed, global catastrophe would have been possible even by mischance. It was an era in which there appeared to be no exit from a deadly situation in which evil forces ruled half the world, and were considered by many even in the West not as an atavistic throwback but as the incarnation of modernity and the wave of the future. (On the left, there was some sympathy for them as “progressives in a hurry”; on the right — as with the great Whittaker Chambers — there was fear that they were indeed going to be the winning side.)

All of which is to say that it was an existentially desperate time — a time in which a good man might think he had no alternative to setting himself on fire as the ultimate act of protest against the victory of injustice. The new movie Burning Bush — which opens today at the Film Forum in New York — begins with the self-immolation of Czech dissident Jan Palach in 1969, and tells the story of how his family subsequently sued the Communist government for slandering him. It’s basically a courtroom drama, but with this twist: We know that the real verdict on the Communist regime would come not at the end of this particular trial, but decades later.

So it’s the film’s great achievement to create a sense of immediacy about characters in a truly desperate situation: Palach killed himself in protest against the Soviet invasion of 1968, which snuffed out Czechoslovakia’s experiment with “socialism with a human face.” The good guys were decisively defeated, by Soviet tanks and by Czech and Slovak hardline Communists; and they will not defeat the totalitarian regime by suing a lying government minister. But it’s when you can’t “win” — when all you have is the truth — that hanging on to the truth is most essential. The second half of this movie packs a huge emotional wallop, in making precisely this point.

Jan Palach’s family, friends, and supporters did not bring down the Evil Empire. But their efforts proved that the truth can live even in the most dispiriting of circumstances. When you say “No” to human-rights abuses and other forms of injustice, what you are saying is: Someday. Someday it will be different. The human-rights abusers may have power, but they will never have the truth.

A few especially brave people are capable of saying “No” consistently. Most of us are not like that. We might find the courage to say “No” at one point, and then duck our heads down a few hours later as we are threatened with the consequences. But to reflect on the miraculous events of 1989 to 1991 is a great antidote to despair.

I recommend this powerful and well-acted film to anyone who wants to know what the Cold War really felt like — and to be inspired by some people who didn’t give up, in its darkest days.


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