Saturday, April 9, 2011

Buchenwald in Red: Antifascist Propaganda in the GDR

Buchenwald Memorial by Fritz Cremer 1958. Photo: Wikipedia.

Founded upon the ashes of Hitler’s Third Reich in the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany, the German Democratic Republic (1949-1989) called itself an "antifascist" state. Much of its antifascist culture came from the many communist and social democratic survivors of Buchenwald concentration camp. The former camp became an antifascist Mecca, and a major focus of antifascist education in East Germany.

Antifascist banner at liberated Buchenwald. It is written as a rhyme but it translates into English as, "We anti-fascists want to go home to eradicate the Nazi criminals."
Video of Buchenwald taken recently showing what remains, and photos and bare ground and remains of buildings that were destroyed by the GDR in 1952.

Antifascism was the ideological and moral backbone of the German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany). Its antifascism, however, was a complex, double-edged sword: it was an ideological tool needed for both a national identity and its anti-Western Cold War rhetoric, as well as a way to exonerate East Germans from guilt or responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis. Employing the concept of “Zero Hour” (Stunde Null), East Germans created a new identity based upon a clean break with the past and a complete rejection of Nazism. According to Alan Nothnagle, however, it was an antifascist "myth" that was developed and cultivated for 40 years.

The first monument to commemorate Buchenwald, constructed by the survivors themselves, in 1945.
Listen to the "Buchenwald-Lied" (The Buchenwald Song).

"Antifascist Myth" in GDR?

He writes that, "The 'antifascist myth' claims that the GDR was the direct product of a popular anti-Nazi resistance struggle carried out with tragic loss of life under the leadership of the KPD [Communist party of Germany]. The SED [Socialist Unity Party], as successor to the KPD, was a thoroughly antifascist party whose credentials in the German resistance movement provided it with the legitimacy it needed to assume the leadership of German society. Antifascism legitimated the GDR's leaders and their policies."

Antifascism was real and many people suffered under the Nazis. And yes, there was a resistance movement, but it was deep underground and not a popular mass movement. The reality is that the GDR was not founded by resistance fighters, but by the exiled KPD leadership who were living comfortably in Stalin's shadow in Moscow.

One view of antifascism is presented by Benita Blessing, who writes, “[East] German antifascism … as a political, ideological, and educational program, was an ongoing process of rebuilding the German nation and national consciousness around a new political and cultural idea.”

The antifascist education of the FDJ (Free German Youth, the official GDR youth movement) included visits to Buchenwald. This visit was in 1969.
A concrete example of antifascism is that between 1945 and 1950 Soviet and East German officials carried out a rigorous de-Nazification program. Thousands of suspected war criminals and Nazi sympathizers found themselves in prisons and former concentration camps. Additionally in the Soviet Zone, survivors of Nazi brutality visited schools to share their experiences with students.

Liberated Buchenwald prisoners demonstrate to Gen. Eisenhower the torture methods used against them.

Holocaust "disappears" from the history of the GDR

Ironically, fighting anti-Semitism, a major ideological theme of Nazism, was not part of the development of the antifascist GDR. Anti-Semitism, however, became taboo: dangerous and illegal to practice, but also left out of the history and cultural development of East Germany. Jews in the GDR began to fade from history: unique elements of the Holocaust disappeared and Jews were lumped together with other persecuted minorities as “victims of fascism.” Claudia Koonz explains why: “In the East, politicians rallied against Nazi terror and analyzed it within a Marxist-Leninist scheme that had no place for genocide.” The East German dictatorship destroyed Communist memories of past solidarity with the Jews, as well as support of Jewish Holocaust survivors. Herf writes that “at one time, solidarity with the Jews had something to do with the fight against Nazi Germany."

Jewish survivors of Buchenwald attend Passover services in camp in 1945.

Anetta Kahane writes, "the Jews as a specific group of victims disappeared....For example, whereas the first monument set up in Buchenwald by the former inmates themselves explicitly mentions Jews among the victims, neither the word 'Jewish' nor any reference to Jewish inmates is to be found in the East German monument."

Communists and Social Democrats in Buchenwald

What makes Buchenwald unique among Nazi concentration camps is that many political prisoners--primarily Communists and Social Democrats--were imprisoned there and survived. This fact greatly influenced the reconstruction and interpretation of the Buchenwald camp history since its liberation in 1945, as well as the overall development of the GDR until its collapse in 1989.

A resolution passed by the Secretariat of the SED on October 9, 1950, stated that, "On the basis of preparations carried out by former was decided that the entire [Buchenwald] camp, along with all of its barracks, was to be torn down." What was to remain standing? The crematorium, the entrance gate building, and the eastern and western watchtowers.

This is what Buchenwald looked like before a good part of it was destroyed by the GDR.

It appears that the combination of preservation and obliteration of Buchenwald was to support the theme of "triumph through death and struggle." A former inmate, however, felt compelled to defend the demolition in 1952: "The essence of Buchenwald concentration camp is not embodied in the barracks and the stone blocks...The essence was the deep terror, organized resistance, and the deep faith in the triumph of our just cause!"

Ernst Thaellman, leader of the KPD, was killed in Buchenwald in 1944.

What was to be evoked at Buchenwald was an impression of merciless desolation and inhospitably. The "conscious defeat of fascist horror" under the leadership of the Communist party was presented. To that end, the memorial grounds were covered with a series of informational plaques that summarized the Communist resistance and international solidarity under the leadership of the KPD.

The dedication ceremony of the Nationale Mahn- und Gedenkstaette Buchenwald (National Buchenwald Memorial) took place in September of 1958. Passing through an archaistic gate led to a stairway leading down a hill. The visitor walked down to the burial places of the dead, passing relief steles that fit the theme of "triumph through death and struggle."

This section, the "Avenue of the Nations," honors the dead of each nation who perished at Buchenwald.
The visitor walked past mass graves surrounded by three Romanesque ring walls. The walk down the hill and burial ground represented the "Night of Fascism." Next was the "Avenue of the Nations" which represented international militant solidarity. Ascending the "Stairway to Freedom" led to the sculpture of the liberated inmates and the "Tower of Freedom." At this point, the visitor learned about the "self-liberation" of the inmates.

There were three lessons taught at Buchenwald: 1) Fascism and monopoly capitalism were solely responsible for Nazi war crimes; 2) the German working class, led by the KPD and aided by the Soviets, had heroically resisted Nazi rule; and 3) this "heritage set the stage for the GDR's unflagging battle against international capitalism..."

A Russian prisoner identifies a Buchenwald guard.

Nothnagle describes the larger-than-life Fritz Cremer sculpture, which was crafted in socialist realism style (see the top photo): "...a man raises his rifle symbolizing the self-liberation. One falls in the struggle, some stand helplessly in despair... Most significantly of all, a small boy stands bravely at the far right end, symbolizing the new antifascist generation. Above the entire ensemble waves the banner of the working class."

All of that changed with the opening of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the GDR in 1989. Thus the antifascist "theme park" of the communists was re-conceived and restructured in order to tell the entire story of Buchenwald.

Here are the different triangle patches that prisoners wore at Buchenwald.

Blessing, Benita. The Antifascist Classroom: Denazification in Soviet-occupied Germany, 1945-1949. Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2006.

Brothers, Eric. “Heroes or Victims? The Role and Antifascist Culture of Jews in the German Democratic Republic.” European Judaism. Vol. 25, No. 2, Autumn 1992. Issue 49. Pergamon Press Ltd. (London).

Herf, Jeffrey. “East German Communists and the Jewish Question: The Case of Paul Merker.” Fourth Alios Mertes Memorial Lecture 1994. German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C. Occasional Paper No. 11.

Koonz, Claudia. “Between Memory and Oblivion: Concentration Camps in German Memory.” Gillis, John R., Editor. Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity. Princeton University Press, 1996.

Nothnagle, Alan L. Building the East German Myth: Historical Mythology and Youth Propaganda in the German Democratic Republic. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1999.

Copyright (C) Eric Brothers 2011. All Rights Reserved.

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