germany Archive

11 October 2009: Berlin Wall / End of the GDR links for today

I’ll be posting lots of links in the next month as we come upon the 20th anniversary of the opening of the checkpoints in Berlin on 09 November 1989. Today’s textual links concentrate on what some might consider the true anniversary date: two days ago, 09 October. This was the day in 1989 when a mass of 70,000 people successfully made their way arm-in-arm around the city of Leipzig in East Germany, singing “Wir sind das Volk” (We are the People) as they passed Stasi headquarters. No shots were fired, no blood was let. To many, this signaled the regime’s weakness and thereby spurred on continuing, ever-growing demonstrations.

I enjoy Tony Paterson’s article, “Europe’s Revolution: The pastor who brought down the Berlin Wall”, because he can insert a bit of personal perspective, having visited Leipzig that year to cover the city’s annual trade fair. His piece concerns Christian Führer, pastor of Leipzig’s Nikolai Church, which had become the famous location of the Monday prayer meetings which climaxed with the events of 09 October. Paterson:

The Monday meetings just kept growing and growing: from about 600 in late 1988 to 4,000 in September 1989.

At that point, the regime started cracking down:

“There were these terrible beatings,” recalled Führer.

That was in September. So you can imagine the tension that grew each Monday, with the participants knowing that the regime had now shown itself to be willing to use violence. Read Paterson’s article for the rest of the story.

The BBC’s Brian Hanrahan (“The Day I Outflanked the Stasi“) became very familiar with the events of 9 October 1989, having traveled there incognito to cover them. He escaped Stasi attempts to apprehend him and was later able to report what he saw on BBC television news. Read Hanrahan’s article and view the original television news segment.

I close with another great video found at YouTube. This concerns 9 November 1989 itself (not 9 October like the two articles mentioned above). I really enjoy this video for the up-close and personal footage it offers. Hundreds of East Berliners have descended upon the Bornholmer Strasse and are anxious to cross. The hesitation of the authorities is very evident here. Watch and enjoy!

One Month until 20th Anniversary of the Fall of Berlin Wall, and a nice video

One Month until 20th Anniversary of the Fall of Berlin Wall, and a nice video

Today is 9 October 2009, so that means there’s just one more month until the 20th anniversary of the opening of checkpoints along the Berlin Wall, which occurred on 9 November 1989.

This is just a short note to say I’ll probably emphasize this bit of history almost exclusively for the next month. I hope you enjoy the content. And don’t forget my Berlin Wall resources page!

Let’s start it all off with a video that I really like because it has absolutely no commentary whatsoever! It’s just clips of original material, and you all know how much I love original material! Don’t worry, there are also subtitles in English.

It’s a video produced by Deutsche Welle, Germany’s official international broadcaster. Enjoy it and see you soon!

Photo Credit

The lead photo for this article shows the Berlin Wall being built in 1961. The photo is in the public domain and available at Wikimedia Commons.

“Stasiland”, by Anna Funder

“Stasiland”, by Anna Funder

This week’s selection for Book of the Week is not written by a professional historian, but rather by an Australian journalist. So in one sense — the academic one — you might call it lighter reading, but it’s certainly heavy in the emotional sense.

Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english], DE [deutsch]) tells the stories of real people whose lives were very much defined by the existence of the Berlin Wall and the East German communist dictatorship (the GDR from here on out): not just the regime’s victims, but also its supporters and still-proud employees.

From the dates she gives, it appears Funder gathered most of her interview material while living in Germany in 1996, seven years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even now, in 2009, dealing with the recent German communist past is a very touchy issue (not to mention the National Socialist past). You can imagine how much more difficult it was in 1996 while Funder visited the country.

I believe her book is fairly unique in the depth it provides to multiple individual stories, some of which are brutally painful. Several individual autobiographies exist — I think of those that I have read, such as Fremd im eigenen Haus and Ich war Staatsfeind Nr. 1, plus one that I have in my possession and hope to read soon, Sie nahmen mir nicht nur die Freiheit –, but I’m not currently aware of any other instance where a print journalist has taken it upon him/herself to seek out and interview multiple persons affected by German communism. I stress print because there definitely are some German television documentaries dedicated to this topic.

Even more extraordinary is the fact that it was left to a “western” journalist, Ms. Funder, to publish such a book. But enough of the meta information about Stasiland: let’s dive into it contents.

A corridor at Hohenschönhausen, a Stasi prison in Berlin.

A corridor at Hohenschönhausen, a Stasi prison in Berlin. (Credit: flickr user bruchez, see end of article.)

As already mentioned, the book tells some extraordinarily painful stories. One of the subjects, Miriam (I presume most names in the book are not real), performed what we might be tempted to call “harmless agitation” against the regime as early as 1968, the year of the “Prague Spring” in neighboring Czechoslovakia. She and a friend distributed leaflets and were caught in the act. After spending time in jail (during which she was subjected to 11 days of sleep deprivation), she decided upon her release to flee the country. She failed in her attempt at freedom, served out a one-and-a-half year sentence and was forever thereafter blacklisted, making it difficult to find employment. I don’t want to give away all of Miriam’s story here, because I would rather you read about it in the book. I will only say that the bare facts which I’ve just told you about her are only the beginning — there is worse yet to come.

Then there is Frau Paul. Hers is the story which brought me to tears. It involves her young, ill son, from whom she was separated. No details here: read the book.

Miriam and Frau Paul are a few of the victims whose stories Funder tells. Funder herself does not stand by as a disinterested observer. Not only is Stasiland not a history book, it is also not simply a journalist’s account of interviews. Funder chooses to strongly assert the first person throughout the book and to weave the individual stories together with her own. She writes about her beer consumption, her impressions of some of her co-workers, her dying mother, her own emotions and reactions to the stories she hears. This will disturb those who are looking for some kind of purely objective recitation of the deeds done to and by people in the GDR. I found her personal touch rather refreshing and noticed that I was engaging with Funder herself throughout the book, which in fact served to increase my interest.

I’ve yet to specifically mention any of her stories of those from the “other side”: those working for the GDR regime. Funder does something which rather shocks her (west) German co-workers: she puts an ad in the paper asking for former Stasi officers to call her for anonymous interviews. A handful comply. She interviews Herr Winz from Stasi counter-espionage, who gives her a copy of the Communist Manifesto as a gift. Then there is Herr Christian, who used to keep a close eye on motorists stopping at rest stops to see if they might be preparing for an illegal border crossing (there were even cameras in the gas pumps). But for shear wackiness and dedication to his old regime and his friend Erich Mielke, Herr von Schnitzler stands out as the interviewee most likely to remembered. I refer you to the book so that you may enjoy Herr von Schnitzler’s rants.

I usually like to include a quote from the books that I feature in the Book of the Week series. Here’s one I underlined as soon as I read it. It quotes Frau Paul, whom I alluded to earlier. Anna Funder remarked to her that surely a wall (the Wall) could not be resurrected. Frau Paul:

“Who would have thought that a wall could be built!” she says. “That was also impossible! And who would have thought at the end that it might ever fall! That was also impossible!”

I highly recommend Stasiland. (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english], DE [deutsch])

Photo credits:

The two photos used in this article show Hohenschönhausen prison in Berlin. They both come from flickr user bruchez, who has kindly offered them under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. The recommended attributions for these photos are as follows:

Items for the interim – Stuff I’ve seen while being too busy

It pains me that I haven’t updated GHB since last Wednesday, and I probably won’t again until the weekend.  The reason is because I got a rush job for German-to-English translation of some very, very dense and difficult German.  It concerns psychological research and it’s just simply brutal.  Here’s a single sentence to give you an idea.  Yes, this is just one sentence:

Darüber hinaus deutet Vieles darauf hin, dass in Aus- und Weiterbildungslehrgängen für Pflegepersonen (im Altenbereich) ein geringes Gewicht auf die Vermittlung von Wissen und die Förderung von Kompetenzen gelegt wird, die es Pflegepersonen ermöglichen, über explizite und implizite Momente des eigenen Wahrnehmens, Erlebens und Denkens, die ihre pflegerische Tätigkeit unmittelbar und häufig unbewusst beeinflussen, in professioneller Art und Weise zu reflektieren.

I’m not really that good of a translator.  In fact, I’m not a translator in any official capacity at all.  But I accepted the job and it’s moving forward, albeit very slowly; I’m doing it during my evenings, since I have a day job.  It should be finished by Friday.

So anyway, as I said, it kills me to leave GHB so unattended.  During little breaks in the work, I have surfed around to look at stuff as always, so I just mention a few things here now.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Last week I tweeted about the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s First Person podcast series.  Since then I’ve taken the time to look around more at the rest of the USHMM’s website, and I’m very impressed with what’s available.  Just one example is their Online Exhibitions page.  Have a look at it.  If you like original source material like oral histories, interviews, documents, film footage and the like, then this is really a place for you to stop by.

Harvard Law School Library: Nuremberg Trials Project

According to the introductory page, Harvard has over a million documents related to the trials.  They don’t seem to have scanned many of them yet to make them available online, but there are some from the “Doctors’ Trials”, the trials concerning such experimentation on human subjects.  If you look at their Documents page, you get an example of how the prosecution worked with documents.  The page shows you an original German document, a typed version (still in German), another typed version (now translated to English), and a “Staff Analysis” prepared by the prosecution staff.  I found that interesting.

European Resistance Archive

This web site has several videos containing eyewitness testimony of people who resisted fascism throughout Europe.  The videos even contain English subtitles.  I’ve just watched the testimony of Ms Romana Verdel from Carinthia.  Very interesting!

That’s all for now.  GHB will be back in normal operation soon.  Bis bald!

In the Hausarchiv: Friedrichrodaer Zeitung, 28 August 1915

In the Hausarchiv: Friedrichrodaer Zeitung, 28 August 1915

Amateur history nerd that I am, I’m quite pleased to have married into a family which has retained all sorts of books, newspapers and magazines dating from about 1920 onwards. The “In the Hausarchiv” series gives an occasional look at the things I’ve come across in our own “house archive”.

I’m a day late with this week’s “In the Hausarchiv“, as I usually do it on Wednesdays. But this week we have something even older than 1920, the year which I usually indicate as being the earliest for material in the Hausarchiv. I was quite surprised when I came across this newspaper from 28 August 1915. More surprising was that it is not Austrian, but rather German, which makes it an unusual find here in our house.

The newspaper is from Friedrichroda, Germany. I was not familiar with the town, but thumbing through the newspaper made it clear that it’s famous as a Kurort, a place where one might “take the cure” thanks to its natural springs and such. Perhaps a member of my wife’s family “took the cure” in Friedrichroda in 1915 and then again in 1917, because I found a second issue of the Friedrichrodaer Zeitung dated 9 July 1917. Or perhaps someone bought these issues years later at a garage sale or flea market. Who knows.

From the historical perspective the issue is interesting because it comes from the second year of the First World War. It contains several short notes about the progress of the war, including, for example, a notice that the British vessels the “Commander Boyle” and the “Bert Boy” had been destroyed by the German navy. I found the demise of these vessels listed on the website called and it looks as though they were indeed destroyed on 23 August 1915, so five days before this issue of the Friedrichrodaer Zeitung. Only such good news about the war appears in both of these issues that I have of this particular newspaper. That’s not surprising, given the fact that war censorship was in effect — and not just in Germany.

wir_halten_durchOn the front page of the 1915 issue featured here in “In the Hausarchiv” is a poem called “Wir halten durch” (“We persevere”). I’ve placed an image of the poem here in this article. Here is a hasty, non-rhyming, non-rhythmic prose translation:

Though millions of warriors may fall on the field of battle,
Their dying lips shall murmur:
Germany, stand fast like a castle of stone,
Persevere, you courageous warriors!
O Persevere!

And though many hearts may beat in sorrow,
Every German calls out his holy oath:
Germany, stand fast like a castle of stone,
In struggle and hardship, we persevere –
We persevere!

01 September 1939: Other Quotations

01 September 1939: Other Quotations

Below is a collection of quotations concerning the German attack on Poland in September 1939. Not all quotes are from 01 September, but they reference the events that began that day.

You and your men must have plenty to do now. I just can’t grasp that people’s lives are now under constant threat from other people. I’ll never understand it, and I find it terrible. Don’t go telling me it’s for the Fatherland’s sake.

Sophie Scholl to Fritz Hartnagel, 05 September 1939, in At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl (US, UK, CA, DE [eng], DE [deu]).

Finis Germaniae

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, upon hearing that the final order for “Operation White”, the attack on Poland, had been given by Hitler. In An Honourable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler, 1933-1945, by Anton Gill. (US, UK, CA, DE [eng])

The inhabitants are an unbelievable rabble, very many Jews and very much mixed population. A people which surely is only comfortable under the knout. The thousands of prisoners-of-war will be good for our agriculture. In Germany they will surely be useful, industrious, willing and frugal.

Claus von Stauffenberg, reporting from his service in Poland. Here we see a Stauffenberg clearly not yet committed to resistance. From Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944, p. 115.


I do not have the impression that our friends the Bolsheviks are using kid-gloves. This war is truly a scourge of God for the entire Polish upper class. They ran from us eastward. We are not letting anyone except ethnic Germans cross the Vistula westward. The Russians will likely make short work of them, since, as is well known by now, the real danger is only in the nationalistic Polish upper class who naturally feel superior to the Russians. Many of them will go to Siberia. [ibid.]

On 1 September 1939 there were no scenes of enthusiasm, no cheering crowds in Berlin like those in Munich in which Hitler had heard the news of the declaration of war twenty-five years before. When he drove to address the Reichstag at the Kroll Opera House at 10 a.m., the streets were emptier than usual. Most of those who turned to watch the line of cars accompanying the Führer stared in silence.

Allan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, p. 547. (US, UK, CA, DE [eng], DE [deu])

I am asking of no German man more than I myself was ready to do throughout four years. There will be no hardships for Germans to which I myself will not submit. My whole life belongs henceforth more than ever to my people. I am from now on just the first soldier of the German Reich. I have once more put on that coat that was the most sacred and dear to me. I will not take it off again until victory is secured, or I will not survive the outcome.

Adolf Hitler quoted in Bullock, p. 547.

Question: You believe then that Hitler did not realize in September 1939 that he had started a World War?

Albert Speer: From what I observed, I had to assume that this was not his intention. He intended to carry his plans one step further, as with Czechoslovakia.

On the other hand, there is this consideration. From the standpoint of the balance of military power, 1939 must have been the best year to start a war, better than two or three years later.

Albert Speer responding to questions under interrogation. From Richard Overy, Interrogations: The Nazi Elite in Allied Hands, 1945, p. 331.

01 September 1939: Tragedy

01 September 1939: Tragedy

It was a strange morning. Silently we stepped back from the radio that had projected a message into the room which would outlast centuries, a message that was destined to change our world totally and the life of every single one of us. A message which meant death for thousands of those who had silently listened to it, sorrow and unhappiness, desperation and threat for every one of us, and perhaps only after years and years a creative significance. It was war again, a war, more terrible and far-reaching than ever before on earth any war had been. Once more an epoch came to an end, once more a new epoch began. Silently we stood in the room that had suddenly become deathly quiet and avoided looking at each other. From outside came the unconcerned twitter of the birds, frivolous in their love and subject to the gentle breeze, and in golden luster the trees swayed as if their leaves, like lips, wished to touch one another tenderly. It was not for ancient Mother Nature to know the cares of her creatures.

Once more I wandered down to the town to have a last look at peace. It lay calmly in the noon-day sun and seemed no different to me from other days. People went their accustomed way in their usual manner. There were no signs of hurry, they did not crowd talkatively together. Their behavior had a sabbath-like quality and at a certain moment I asked myself: “Can it be that they don’t know it yet?”

I recalled our old soldiers, weary and in rags, how they had come back from the battlefield, — my beating heart felt the whole past war in the one that was beginning today and which still hid its terror from our eyes. Again I was aware that the past was done for, work achieved was in ruins, Europe, our home, to which we had dedicated ourselves had suffered a destruction that would extend far beyond our life. Something new, a new world began, but how many hells, how many purgatories had to be crossed before it could be reached!

The sun shone full and strong. Homeward bound I suddenly noticed before me my own shadow as I had seen the shadow of the other war behind the actual one. During all this time it has never budged from me, that irremovable shadow, it hovers over every thought of mine by day and by night; perhaps its dark outline lies on some pages of this book, too. But, after all, shadows themselves are born of light. And only he who has experienced dawn and dusk, war and peace, ascent and decline, only he has truly lived.

From Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (US, UK, CA, DE [eng], DE [deu].)

Peter Hoffmann, “Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944″ (Book of the Week)

Peter Hoffmann, “Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944″ (Book of the Week)

The title of the book suggests it is a history of the entire Stauffenberg family, but I would say this is slightly overstated. You cannot read Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944 (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english], DE [german]) without coming away thinking the book was primarily about Claus von Stauffenberg. And that’s no complaint, for Claus von Stauffenberg is clearly the Stauffenberg about whom we want to read.

If, a few years ago, you did not know who Claus von Stauffenberg was, you most likely found out thanks to Tom Cruise. If you saw the film Valkyrie, you know Claus von Stauffenberg was a member of the military resistance against the National Socialist regime and that he attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler. That’s indeed the extent of most people’s knowledge of Stauffenberg: a pity, because his character is much richer than just that.

The assassination attempt was indeed the limit of my own knowledge of Stauffenberg prior to reading Hoffmann’s book. The most important aspect of Stauffenberg’s life of which I had been entirely ignorant was his and his brothers’ very close association with the German poet, Stefan George. Claus Stauffenberg’s brother, Berthold, was one of the two persons named by George as executors of his estate; Berthold appointed Claus as his successor in that role. Hoffmann dedicates a whole chapter and much of another to describing the Stauffenbergs’ closeness to George and continues on occasion throughout the book to allude to “The Master’s” influence on Claus. Given the the brothers’ roles as executors and the fact that Claus often took time — including during the war — to look after business concerning George’s estate, it appears that Hoffmann is not overstating this influence.

As Hoffmann continues to weave Stefan George and his influence throughout the remainder of the history, he moulds the character of Claus Stauffenberg as an aristocratic officer striving to fulfill the heroic deed which was expected of him by his membership in what George called the “Secret Germany.” According to Hoffmann’s story, it was not unusual for Stauffenberg to cite George’s poems when convincing others of the need to remove Hitler by force. When one Stauffenberg friend expressed distaste over the idea of murdering Hitler, Stauffenberg reminded her that “tens of thousands of Jews are being killed most cruelly.” He explained that the officers had to choose between “action or inaction”:

He believed that God had assigned a mission to him and he had devoted himself to it entirely. His inner calling gave him the certainty that was so convincing to others. [197]

He then quoted a George poem to this friend:

If ever this nation from her cowardly slackness
Remembers her election, her mission:

Then in the morning breeze a true emblem will flutter
The royal standard and bow itself in greeting
To the Noble – the Heroes!


Hoffmann, to his credit, does not shy away from the fact that the romantic, aristocratic Stauffenberg also supported the Nazi regime until at least 1938 and only gradually turned to resistance thereafter. (“Supported” may be saying too much: he approved of the leadership principle [Führerprinzip], re-armament and what he perceived as the renewed importance of the officer corps; but he was much too aristocratic to get his hands dirty with party politics, particularly of the “brown” sort.) He came to resist later than some other prominent officers such as Ludwig Beck, who had already resigned his commission before the start of war, and also later than other aristocrats such as Helmuth James, Count von Moltke.

I haven’t researched criticisms (if any) of Hoffmann’s books on Stauffenberg. I would imagine that if any exist then one point of dispute might be the centrality of Stefan George in the Stauffenberg biography; another might be that Hoffmann simply romanticizes his subject too much. I’m not saying that this is the case; I’m merely saying that as I read the book I had the feeling that if it could be claimed that it diverts from a “scholarly” historical approach, then it probably would be in these two ways.

Personally, I was not bothered at all. I enjoyed this book immensely and very much appreciated getting to know this fascinating historical character in such depth.

(Image credit: I found the lead image for this article at Wikimedia Commons. The photo is credited to Adam Carr and is said to be in the public domain. The image shows a plaque on the wall of the inner courtyard at the “Bendlerblock”, formerly Army headquarters in Berlin, today the home of the German Resistance Memorial Center. Stauffenberg and others were shot in this courtyard on the evening of the 20th of July 1944. The plaque, translated, reads, “Here died for Germany on 20 July 1944:” and lists the officers in the resistance who were killed that night, Stauffenberg among them.)

We have several other Books of the Week.

Russia, Germany, the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the (re-)writing of History

Russia, Germany, the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the (re-)writing of History

The 70th anniversaries of the Nazi-Soviet Pact (agreed on 23 Aug 1939, signed early morning 24 Aug), the invasion by Nazi Germany of Poland (1 Sep 1939) and the invasion by Soviet Russia of Poland (17 Sep 1939), have given rise to spectacular happenings in the world of history and historians. The “spectacular” aspect of it all was kicked off when the Russian Defense Ministry published a paper denouncing the “falsification” of history committed by many historians in the West who damn the Soviets for their part in the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The publication of this paper seems to have been in line with Russian President Medvedev’s publicly-declared efforts to combat what he deems “severe, evil, and aggressive” falsifications of history. Then, earlier this month, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) released a statement which also defended the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

The Russian arguments concerning the Pact and the outbreak of war seem (to me) to go like this:

  • The Second World War began because Poland did not accede to justifiable German demands, namely the incorporation of the very German city of Danzig (Gdansk) into the Reich and transit routes — under German control — to East Prussia.
  • War between the Soviets and Nazis was inevitable, therefore Stalin had to do everything he could to put a buffer zone between the German military and the Russian border. This buffer zone would be the Baltic States and the regions of Poland which thereafter came under Soviet control.
  • The West, particularly Britain, pushed the Soviets into this position of needing to make a Pact with Germany by a) its (the West’s) failure to enter into defense agreements with the Soviets; b) by the example set in Munich regarding Czechoslovakia the year before; and c) by siding with Poland in its refusal to accede to justifiable German demands.

You can well imagine that many people in Poland are paying attention to these contemporary interpretations which make the 1939 devastation of Poland both inevitable and the fault of the devastated. On Thursday (28 Aug 2009) things went one step further, as a Russian historian branded Poland an ally of Nazi Germany between the months of March and August of 1939. This was too much for Wacław Radziwinowicz, who calls out the Russian historian, Natalia Narochnitskaya, in an article titled (sarcastically) “How we became Hitler’s allies” in the English version of Gazeta Wyborcza:

This time of the role of the recon historian was played by Natalia Narochnitskaya, member of the presidential Committee Against Historical Distortions Harmful to Russia.

Ms Narochnitskaya is a very professional force. Her day job is running the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, which for the Kremlin’s money monitors the state of democracy in the West. So she is an experienced soldier of the ideological front, baptised by fire in positions deep in enemy territory.

Yesterday, the readers of Komsomolskaya Pravda found in the tabloid an interview in which Ms Narochnitskaya exposed the historical truth, praising Stalin for ‘revising’ Hitler’s ‘timetable of war.’ According to her, Poland in 1939 between March and August secretly conspired with Hitler against the Soviet Union.

‘There are documents which prove that the date of the invasion of Poland was set on 1 March 1939. And do you know what the Poles did for the next half-year?’ asks Ms Narochnitskaya. And she answers herself, ‘The Russophobe foreign minister Józef Beck negotiated with Hitler to become his ally, offering assistance in invading Ukraine so that Poland could stretch from a sea to a sea.’ [my emphasis]

(Komsomolskaya Pravda, by the way, is described in its Wikipedia entry as belonging to Gazprom. Gazprom is the enormous Russian natural gas company controlled by the State, which occasionally uses it to influence events in Europe by threatening to cutoff natural gas supplies.)

Narochnitskaya’s interpretation of events might simply seem silly to some, but a Pole such as Radziwinowicz cannot be blamed for seeing it as sinister:

I also have no doubts that it is the state propaganda that is feeding Russians today with hatred and contempt towards Poles, just as it has previously done towards Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians or Georgians. People like Ms Narochnitskaya attack us in newspapers and TV stations where every single word is closely controlled by the Kremlin. Working in Moscow, meeting people here, I feel on my own skin how hostility towards Poles is growing.

I really recommend you read the complete text of Radziwinowicz’s column. In the meantime, however, I want to bring up another event that added to the spectacular nature of these historical debates. On 20 August 2009, a group of over 130 German historians issued a declaration which ties together the 1939 and 1989 anniversaries being commemorated this year. (1989 references the Fall of the Berlin Wall.) The declaration openly blames Germany for the start of the war, but does not mince words when it comes to its assessment of the Soviet impact on Europe in the following years. It describes the Hitler-Stalin Pact as “ruinous” and does not grant the Soviets any kind of excuse based on, for example, the idea of the inevitability of war with Germany. Instead, the Pact “divid[ed] up the Baltic states, Poland, Finland and Romania between the two totalitarian dictatorships.” And both dictatorships’ invasions of Poland are mentioned in the same breath: “The attack on Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939 marked the beginning of an unprecedented war of conquest and extermination…” The historians rightfully follow-up by emphasizing’s Germany’s guilt during the war, but they then emphasize the Soviets’ post-war dicatorships:

After Europe and Germany had been liberated from the Nazis/National Socialism, people in all the countries of Europe were hoping for a future in freedom and democracy. But these hopes were bitterly disappointed for many. The Soviet Union enforced new dictatorial regimes in the central and eastern European countries and in part of Germany – all of which had been weakened by the War and by Nazi rule – with devastating consequences for the societies, the economy and culture, and for countless people who were persecuted as political opponents or lost their lives because they stood in the way of those in power. Thus, the Germans not only bear a heavy responsibility for the extermination of European Jews, the persecution and murder of Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, the disabled, people stigmatized as anti-social or political dissidents, and for the millions upon millions of people who were victims of the War. We are painfully aware that if Germany had not started the Second World War, there would have been neither the Communist dictatorships in central and eastern Europe, nor the partition of the continent and of Germany.

Extraordinary stuff, and I have to believe that the recent Russian revisionism played a role in getting these historians together for this declaration. An article in the Scotsman claims as much by stating that the German intellectuals “signed a declaration calling on Russia to condemn the ‘ill-fated pact’.” I don’t know if the author of that article refers to the same declaration. I don’t find anything in the declaration I’ve quoted above which directly calls on Russia to issue condemnations. But I can see why one might interpret that.

It’s worth considering Russia’s reasons for this revisionism. I think James Rodgers’ piece at the BBC, titled “Russia acts against ‘false’ history”, states the reasons rather well:

The country sees its victory over Hitler’s forces as the greatest moment of the 20th Century.

The war is sometimes discussed in the news media as if it were a recent event, not increasingly distant history.

Any attempt to tarnish the glory of that triumph is seen as a deliberate attempt to make Russia look bad.

That’s only a part of his explanation; I recommend you read the article in full.

As with most historical revisionism, the Russian position does not spring from pure fantasy. Historians such as Ms Narochnitskaya need to reference actual, documented evidence or they will simply be laughed off and ignored as kooks. Narochnitskaya, as we saw above, highlights what she considers Polish complicity with Nazi Germany. The Poles and the Germans did, in fact, sign a non-aggression treaty, an event which Stalin most likely looked upon with disfavor. Here’s Alan Bullock in Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (Amazon UK):

Yet the first country with which Hitler had signed a Pact of Non-Aggression had been Poland, and for five years he treated Poland in the friendliest fashion, despite the unpopularity of such a policy in Germany. [p. 491 of 2005 Penguin paperback]

There were indeed direct talks between Nazi Germany and Jozef Beck’s Poland during 1939, a fact which Narochnitskaya is quite pleased to use to her and Russia’s advantage. And it’s probably true that Beck listened to German ideas of a pact explicitly aimed at the Soviets; Beck — and Poland — had every reason to fear both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. But the fact is that Beck rebuffed the Nazis.

[Hitler’s openness to negotiations with Poland] was not altered after Beck’s reply to Hitler in his speech to the Polish Diet on 5 May [1939]. Rejecting Hitler’s account of the negotiations between Poland and Germany and reaffirming Poland’s determination not to agree to the German demands, Beck spoke of ‘various other hints made by representatives of the Reich Government which extended much further than the subjects of discussion. I reserve the right to return to this matter if necessary.’ This covert reference to suggestions of a joint German-Polish front against Russia, and Beck’s declaration that peace could be bought too dearly, if it was at the price of national honour, did not, however, stir Hitler to reply. [Bullock 505]

Beck himself made the cover of TIME Magazine’s March 6, 1939 issue. The accompanying TIME article about Jozef Beck makes for very interesting historical reading, considering it is only a matter of months before the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the start of the War. TIME plays up Beck’s wheeling and dealing ways. We see a Beck who is willing to discuss matters with any European government. He visits Hitler at Berchtesgaden but also reaffirms non-aggression with the Soviets. He even discusses territorial and colonial ambitions with the Italians, as shown in this rather unflattering bit:

Some diplomatic correspondents even reported that Italy was ready to cut Poland in for some of France’s colonies, probably Madagascar, where anti-Semitic Poland might send some of her 3,200,000 Jews, which she wants no more than Germany wants hers. [p. 2 of the TIME article]

On the one hand, the TIME article emphasizes Poland’s precarious position between its giant neighbors; on the other hand, the article does not exactly present the Poles as victims. Beck comes across as a rather cynical realist.

But surely we can’t compare Beck’s cynicism with Stalin’s. By Bullock’s telling, it was actually Stalin who insisted on the “Secret Protocols” that were attached to the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement:

The pact itself presented no difficulties: Hitler had already accepted Molotov’s draft. But the Russians had added a postscript to the text: ‘The present pact shall be valid only if a special protocol is signed simultaneously covering the points in which the High Contracting Parties are interested in the field of foreign policy.’

To put it in crude terms, the Soviet Government did not propose to sign until it learned what its share of the spoils was going to be, and how Eastern Europe was to be parceled up. It was to complete this process of horse-trading that Ribbentrop was now to fly to Moscow. [524-525]

The evening appears to have been passed in the most cordial atmosphere. When toasts were drunk, ‘Herr Stalin spontaneously proposed a toast to the Führer: “I know how much the German nation loves its Führer; I should therefore like to drink his health.”‘ [530]

Bullock is quoting the German minutes of the discussion, which appear in the archives of the German Foreign Ministry. Presumably Ms Narochnitskaya also relies on such archives when she points out proof of Polish talks with Germany during 1939. Does she place equal emphasis on revelations such as these?

(Image credit: The lead image for this article is a blown-up portion of an image of the secret protocols attached to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The image was found at Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain. The German title reads “Geheimes Zusatzprotokoll” [“Secret additional protocol”].)

A footnote to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

stalin_ribbentropToday marks the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact or the Hitler-Stalin Pact.

From an old blog that I used to run, I have the following anecdote concerning Molotov and Leopold Figl, the Austrian statesman.  I wrote the blog entry six years ago, in 2003, and based it on an article that I’d read that day in the Austrian daily, Kurier.  Unfortunately I don’t have the original anymore, so I’m trusting my translation from back then.  Here is the excerpt:

An article concerning the [Moscow] Declaration includes portions of an interview with an Austrian who was present in 1955 during talks — again in Moscow — concerning Austria’s return to independence. This man, Ludwig Steiner, was present when Leopold Figl, who, as Foreign Minister, was part of the Austrian delegation, spoke privately to Russian foreign minister Molotov. Figl had been in a concentration camp from the time of the annexation of Austria in 1938 all the way until the end of the war in 1945. He said to Molotov on that day in 1955,

“Your name has always made an impression on me. Most of all it made an impression on me when we in the concentration camp had to assemble in the yard at five o’clock in the morning. It was cold and we had to stand there for hours. Suddenly your voice came over the loudspeaker. That was when you had concluded the pact with Hitler-Germany [Hitler-Stalin pact, 1939].”


Considering that this Austrian delegation of 1955 was in Moscow and that the future of their state was very much at the mercy of the Soviets, this was quite a gutsy thing to say. Steiner, the Austrian who witnessed this, said that he immediately thought “the world was going under,” that Figl’s honesty would ruin Austria’s chances to quickly attain true statehood. But, says Steiner, “Molotov simply said ‘Da, Da’ and turned away.”