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The Production of “Official Memory” in East Germany: Old Communists and the Dilemmas of Memoir-Writing

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 December 2008

Catherine Epstein
Stanford University


In East Germany, official memory was reputedly embodied in Old Communists, those men and women who had joined the German Communist Party (KPD) before Hitler's rise to power in 1933. After 1945, the Socialist Unity Party (SED), East Germany's ruling party, exploited the tragic experiences of Old Communists during the Third Reich—exile, resistance, and concentration–camp incarceration—to foster a triumphant official memory of heroic, Communist-led antifascist struggle. Intended to legitimate the SED regime, this official memory was rehearsed in countless “lieux de mémoire,” including films, novels, school textbooks, museum exhibitions, and commemorative rituals. Concurrently, party authorities encouraged Old Communists to share their past lives with younger East Germans; in particular, they urged Old Communists to write memoirs of their participation in the antifascist struggle against Hitler.

Copyright © Conference Group for Central European History of the American Historical Association 1999

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1. For a history of Old Communists in East Germany, see Epstein, Catherine, “The Last Revolutionaries: The Old Communists of East Germany, 1945–1989,” (Ph.D. diss., Harvard Universit 1998).Google Scholar

2. Nora, Pierre, “Between Memory and History: Los lieux de mémoire,” Representations 26 (1989): 725.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3. Heym, Stefan, Collin (Frankfurt am Main, 1981), 128, 130.Google Scholar

4. Maron, Monika, Stille Zeile Sechs (Frankfurt am Main, 1993), 5960Google Scholar. Monika Maron is the stepdaughter of Karl Maron, the Old-Communist minister of the interior between 1955 and 1963.

5. The pioneering study of collective memory is Halbwachs, Maurice, On Collective Memory, ed. Coser, Lewis A. (Chicago, 1992)Google Scholar. Some of the more insightful studies of collective memory include Fentress, James and Wickham, Chris, Social Memory (Oxford, 1992)Google Scholar; John, Gillis, ed., Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton, 1994)Google Scholar; Eric, Hobsbawm and Terence, Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983)Google Scholar; Irwin-Zarecka, Iwona, Frames of Remembrance: The Dynamics of Collective Memory (New Brunswick, 1994)Google Scholar; Kammen, Michael, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York, 1991)Google Scholar; Goff, Jacques Le, History and Memory (New York, 1992)Google Scholar; Maier, Charles S., “A Surfeit of Memory? Reflections on History, Melancholy and Denial,” History and Memory 5, no. 2 (1993): 136–52Google Scholar; Maier, Charles S., The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity (Cambridge, 1988)Google Scholar; Mosse, George L., Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars (New York, 1990)Google Scholar; Nora, “Between Memory”; Rousso, Henri, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944 (Cambridge, 1991)Google Scholar; Tumarkin, Nina, The Living and the Dead: The Rise and Fall of the Cult of World War II in Russia (New York, 1994)Google Scholar; and Wachtel, Nathan, “Introduction,” History and Anthropology 2 (1986): 207–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

6. The notable exceptions are Herf, Jeffrey, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Cambridge, 1997)Google Scholar; Hosking, Geoffrey A., “Memory in a Totalitarian Society: The Case of the Soviet Union,” in Memory: History, Culture and the Mind, ed. Thomas, Butler (Oxford, 1989), 115–30Google Scholar; and Tumarkin, Living.

7. Not all autobiographies by Old Communists followed this exact schema. Some Old Communists, for example, wrote about only the Nazi era or the two heroic decades between 1930 and 1930.

In addition, some Old Communists had followed biographical trajectories that differed from the Old-Communist norm. However, these departures from the Old-Communist autobiographical norm were usually themselves formulaic and easily inserted into the Old-Communist master narrative. For example, those Old Communists of “bourgeois” origin chronicled an adolescent rebellion against the bourgeois world of their parents, coupled with their adoption of the political mores of the working class, while those Old Communists who had emigrated abroad during the Nazi years recalled how they had held up the Communist battle stanthrds on their front of the antifascist struggle.

In a very few cases, memoirs by Old Communists published in East Germany challenged the formula of Old-Communist autobiography. See, for example, Stephan, Hermlin, Abendlicht (Leipzig, 1979).Google Scholar

8. While there is now a large literature on the SED's discourse of antifascism, very little has been written on the institutionalization of the SED's official memory of antifascist struggle. The one work that has addressed this issue at some length is Manfred, Overesch, Buchenwald und die DDR oder Die Suche nach Selbstlegitimation (Göttingen, 1995)Google Scholar. For some of the more interesting studies on the SED's antifascist rhetoric, see Jürgen, Danyel, “Die geteilte Vergangenheit: Gesellschaftliche Ausgangslagen und pohnsche Dispositionen für den Umgang mit Nationalsoziabsmus und Wider-stand in beiden deutschen Staaten nach 1949,” in Historische DDR-Forschung: Aufsätze und Studien, ed. Jurgen, Kocka (Berlin, 1993), 129–47Google Scholar; Sarah, Farmer, “Symbols That Face Two Ways: Commemorating the Victims of Nazism and Stalinism at Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen,” Representations 49 (1995): 97119Google Scholar; Antonia, Grunenberg, Antifaschismus—ein deutscher Mythos (Reinbek, 1993)Google Scholar; Herf, Divided Memory; Sigrid, Meuschel, Legitimation und Parteiherrschaft in der DDR (Frankfurt am Main, 1992), 2940Google Scholar; and Berg, Kulturamt Prenzlauer and Faschismus, Aktives Museum und Widerstand, in Berlin, , eds., Mythos Antifaschisnmus: Ein Traditionskabinett wird kommentiert (Berlin, 1992).Google Scholar

9. On Communist Kapos in Buchenwald Concentration Camp, see Lutz, Niethammer, ed., Der “gesäuberte “Antifaschismus (Berlin, 1994).Google Scholar

10. The figure of 296 Old Communists is drawn from a sample of 907 Old Communists on which my dissertation is based. See Epstein, “The Last Revolutionaries.”

11. For a complete list of memoirs published by Old Communists in East Germany between 1945 and 1989, see the bibliography in Ibid.

12. See, for example, Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED, ed., Die ersten Jahre: Erinnerungen an den Beginn der revolutionären Umgestaltungen (Berlin, 1985); and Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus beim ZK der SED, ed., Vereint sind wir alle: Erinnerungen an die Gründung der SED (Berlin, 1966).

13. Else Grossmann, “Besuch bei Max Opitz am 12.10.57 in der Präsidialkanzlei,” 12 October 1957, Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv, Zentrales Parteiarchiv, EA0001/2, 713 (hereafter cited as SAPMO-BA, ZPA).

14. Information über die Arbeitsgruppe Erinnerungen, 13 June 1962, SAPMO-BA, ZPA, IV A 2/9.07/281.

15. The phrase comes from Maier, “Surfeit.”

16. The term conies from Hosking, “Memory,” 117.

17. Tumarkin, Living, 132.

18. On Honecker's antifascist past, see Peter, Przybylski, Tatort Politbüro, 2 vols. (Berlin, 19911992), vol. 1Google Scholar, Die Akte Honecker, 48–50. For Honecker's own account, see Reinhold, Andert and Wolfgang, Herzberg, Der Sturz: Erich Honecker im Kreuzverhör (Berlin, 1990), 163–71Google Scholar; Erich, Honecker, Aus meinem Leben (Frankfurt am Main and Berlin, 1981), 91107Google Scholar; and Erich, Honecker, Moabiter Notizen (Berlin, 1994), 99100.Google Scholar

19. Büro des Politbüros, ed., Arbeitsrichtlinien für die Parteiarchive der SED (January 1987), 86.

20. Schiel, Ilse, “Zum Platz und Wesen der Erinnerungen bei der Verbreitung des marxistisch-leninistischen Geschichtsbildes: Erfahrungen und Probleme des Sammelns, Gestaltens, Wertens,” (Ph.D. diss., Institut für Marxisrnus-Leninismus beim Zentralkomitee der Sozialistischen Einheits-partei Deutschlands, 1981), 298302Google Scholar. In the GDR, the IML was an accredited degree-granting institution.

21. Ibid., 310ff.

22. Honecker, Aus meinem Leben. The English version is From My Life (Oxford, 981).

23. See SAPMO-BA, ZPA, vorl.SED 32839.

24. Ruth, Werner, Sonjas Rapport (Berlin, 1977)Google Scholar. This was translated into English as Sonya's Report (London, 1991).

25. Marianne, Lange, “Es hat sich gelohnt zu leben,” Weimarer Beiträge 25, no. 9 (1979): 87, n. 7.Google Scholar

26. My own best estimate based on publication information in the memoirs, anecdotal evidence, and Ibid., 87, n. 7.

27. Indeed, the title of Lange's study of East German memoirs was “It has been worthwhile.” Lange, “Es hat sich gelohnt.”

28. Anton Ackermann to Comrade Eisler (presumably Hilde), 6 May 1963, SAPMO-BA, ZPA, NE109/3, 67.

29. Cläre Quast to an Emmi, 17 June 1970, SAPMO-BA, ZPA, EA0740/2, 162.

30. H. Schumann to Josef (Sepp) Hahn, 24 December 1958, SAPMO-BA, ZPA, NL98/5, 178.

31. Josef (Sepp) Hahn, untitled manuscript, SAPMO-BA, ZPA, NL98/5, 7.

32. Karin Hartewig briefly compares the published and unpublished versions of the memoirs by Franz Dahlem and Alexander Abusch. Hartewig, Karin, “Das ‘Gedächtnis’ der Partei: Biographische und andere Bestände im zentralen Parteiarchiv der SED in der ‘Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv’,” Jahrbuch für Historische Kommunismusforschung (1993): 312–23Google Scholar. For more on Dahlem's memoirs, see below. The 1993 edition of Erwin Geschonneck's Meine unruhigen Jahre includes passages that Geschonneck had to omit from the edition published in East Germany in 1984. Geschonneck had written more on the Soviet purges of the 1930s than East German ideologues found appropriate. See “Das Bekenntnis als Dokument” and “Urfassung des Komplexes ‘Jahre der Prüfung 1933–1939’” in Geschonneck, Erwin, Meine unruhigen Jahre, rev. ed. (Berlin, 1993), ivi, 283–311.Google Scholar

33. Emmy Koenen, “Erinnerungen,” SAPMO-BA, ZPA, EA1308/1, 181, 185–86. While some published memoirs by Old Communists, (especially those printed in the 1980s), include brief passages on the purges, these sections are vague, and rarely mention specific purge victims. See, for example, Geschonneck, Meine unruhigen Jahre, 62.

34. On the practice (or lack thereof) of veteran Communists in other Soviet-style states writing their memoirs, see Bak, Janos, “Political Biography and Memoir in Totalitarian Eastern Europe,” in Political Memoir: Essays on the Politics of Memory, ed. George, Egerton (London, 1994), 292301.Google Scholar

35. Mewis, Karl, Im Auftrag der Partei (Berlin, 1971).Google Scholar

36. Minutes of secretariat meeting, 24 April 1974, SAPMO-BA, ZPA, J IV 2/3/2146, enclosure no. 14, 150.

37. After 1989 just a very few memoir fragments were found that contained insight into the high politics of the SED regime. See Dahlem, Franz, “Franz Dahlem: Nachgelassenes. Ausgelassenes: Über einen Prozess und die Schwierigkeiten seiner richtigen Beurteilung,” Beiträge zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung 32 (1990): 1725Google Scholar; and Wollweber, Ernst, “Aus Erinnerungen: Em Porträt Walter Ulbrichts,” Beiträge zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung 32 (1990): 350–78.Google Scholar

38. Despite the decree, high-ranking functionaries such as Alexander Abusch, Franz Dahlem, Heinz Hoffmann, Erich Honecker, and Gerhard Kegel all published their memoirs, albeit under close party scrutiny.

39. Drafts of Mewis's postwar memoirs are found in SAPMO-BA, ZPA, EA1244/1–3.

40. Minutes of secretariat meeting, 16 January 1974, SAPMO-BA, ZPA, J IV 2/3/2105, 10.

41. Mewis wrote that Wehner divulged information to Swedish authorities that ultimately brought two KPD members, Arthur Emmerich and Rudolf Hallmeyer, “to the scaffold” in Germany. Mewis also alleged that in the early 1940s, “Herbert Wehner had been an agent of the British Secret Service for years.” Mewis, Im Auftrag, 315, 319.

42. Michael, Scholz, Herbert Wehner in Schweden 1941–1946 (Munich, 1995), 183–85Google Scholar. The quotation comes from a letter drafted by Kurt Vieweg to Wehner, but never actually sent.

43. A draft copy of these memoirs is found in SAPMO-BA, ZPA, EA1098/1–2. Excerpts were pubhshed in Fritz, Selbmann, “Die vereitelte Einheit,” Neue deutsche Literatur 38, no. 11 (1990): 119–38.Google Scholar

44. Ernst Diehl to Kurt Hager, 21 July 1978, SAPMO-BA, ZPA, Dienstakte Bundesarchiv Fritz Selbmann. Diehl's emphasis.

45. Günter Benser, Durchsicht des Umbruchs Fritz Selbmann:Acht Jahre und ein Tag. Bilder zur Geschichte der DDR, Verlag Neues Leben, May 1978, SAPMO-BA, ZPA, Dienstakte Bundesarchiv Fritz Selbmann.

46. This was suggested to the author in an interview with Glückauf's son. Rolf Glückauf, interview by author, Berlin, 22 February 1995.

47. Prof. Dr. Walter Wimmer and Dr. Karlheinz Pech, Erklärung zu dem Gutachten über das Buch des Genossen Glückauf, 24 March 1977, SAPMO-BA, ZPA, vorl.SED 21978.

48. According to the IML readers' report, the information on Wehner was factually correct and found in other East German published sources. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

50. Kurt Hager to Erich Honecker, 25 May 1977, SAPMO-BA, ZPA, IV B2/2.024/119.

51. Kurella, Alfred, Unterwegs zu Lenin: Erinnerungen (Berlin, 1967).Google Scholar

52. Verlag Neues Leben to Alfred Kurella, 19 May 1967, Alfred-Kurella-Archiv, Akademie der Künste, Akte 879 (hereafter cited as AdK).

53. The Zirkel junger Sozialisten were small FDJ groups in which political schooling took place.

54. Alfred Kurella to Hans Bentzien, 25 November 1968, Alfred-Kurella-Archiv, AdK, Akte 879.

55. Barth, Bernd Rainer, Christoph, Links, Helmut, Müller-Enbergs, and Jan, Wielgohs, eds., Wer war wer in der DDR (Frankfurt, 1995), 500.Google Scholar

56. Hans, Teubner, Exilland Schweiz (Berlin, 1975).Google Scholar

57. Franz, Dahlem, Am Vorabend des Zweiten Weltkrieges, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1977).Google Scholar

58. For the allegations against Dahlem, see ‘Über die Auswertung des Beschlusses des Zentralkomitees zu den ‘Lehren aus dem Prozess gegen das Verschwörerzentrum Slansky,” in Dokumente der Sozialistischen Einheitspartei Deutschlands, vol. 4 (Berlin, 1954), 405–7.

59. Dahlem devoted pages to the exemplary political and personal character traits of Paul Merker. See Dahlem, Am Vorabend, 1:179, 260, 447ff. He also praised the political work of many other Old-Consmunist victims of the Noel-Field Mfair, including Paul Bertz, Maria Weiterer, Walter Beling, Hans Teubner, and Rudolf Feistmann.

60. Dahlem, Am Vorabend, 1:274.

61. Minutes of Secretariat meeting, 18 November 1975, SAPMO-BA, ZPA, J IV 2/3/238, 2. Some of these “parts” were published in Dahlem, “Franz Dahlem,” in 1990.

62. Günter Heyden to Kurt Hager, 11 November 1974, SAPMO-BA, ZPA, ME-Nr. 11.528. Heyden's emphasis.

63. Gutachten zum Manuskript von Franz Dahlem: Am Vorabend des Zweiten Weltkrieges (1938 bis August 1939). Parteigeschichtliche Erinnerungen, 5 November 1974, SAPMO-BA, ZPA, ME-Nr.11.528.

64. Franz Dahlem to Erich Honecker, 1 July 1975, SAPMO-BA, ZPA, ME-Nr.11.528.

65. Speech by Johannes R. Becher to the 15th Central Committee Meeting, 24–26 July 1953, SAPMO-BA, ZPA, IV 2/1/120, 132.

66. See Chapter 7 of Epstein, “The Last Revolutionaries.”

67. Gedmin, Jeffrey, The Hidden Hand: Gorbachev and the Collapse of East Germany (Washington, 1992), 5961Google Scholar; and Gerlach, Manfred, Mitverantwortlich: Als Liberaler im SED-Staat (Berlin, 1991), 233.Google Scholar

68. One kind of official GDR memory did resonate with that of much of a generation of East Germans: fighting for Hitler on the eastern front, capture by Soviet forces, and then “antifascist” reeducation in Soviet POW camps. This official memory found expression in a large group of memoirs written by former Wehrmacht generals. See Arndt, Artur, “Geschichtserlebnis als LesestoffNeue Deutsche Literatur 25, no. 5 (1976): 144–72.Google Scholar

69. Lipsitz, George, Time Passaes: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (Minneapolis, 1990), 213.Google Scholar