Book of the Week Archive

The “Participatory Dictatorship” – Fulbrook’s “The People’s State” (2)

The “Participatory Dictatorship” – Fulbrook’s “The People’s State” (2)

In Part One of my overview of Mary Fulbrook’s The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english] and DE [deutsch]), I emphasized Professor Fulbrook’s assertion that most histories of East Germany concentrate on the “state versus society” angle, seeing the latter wholly as a repressed body governed and repressed by the former.  As she makes clear in her introduction to the book, she believes the “state versus society” approach is unnecessarily and unnaturally limiting; a history that focuses only on the East German regime’s repression of dissent is, to some extent, ahistorical.

I also mentioned that in pursuing her newer, wider and, as she believes, more correct approach to East Germany’s history, Fulbrook appears to be at least somewhat worried that her own politics can be used against her, that she might be seen by some as downplaying the repressive elements of the dictatorship.  As I noted, she therefore goes out of her way on several occasions to remind the readers that the regime was, in fact, a repressive dictatorship.  (By the way, she makes this clear enough in another of her books concerning East Germany, Anatomy of a Dictatorship.)

Given her stance — and her own worries about how her stance might be received — I was really wondering just how far she would go in describing what we might call a “contented people” (not her phrase) in the later parts of the book where her arguments would be spelled out in greater detail.  Let’s be specific here: I was asking myself, “Am I maybe going to come away thinking that East Germany wasn’t such a bad place?”

Having now read up to the book’s conclusion — and most importantly the section with the eyebrow-raising title, “The Participatory Dictatorship” — I can say that rather than getting the sense of any kind of contentment experienced by East German citizens, I instead come away with a much greater understanding of what could be considered “coping“: how most East Germans settled into the system, became a part of it and recognized their own limitations as to what they could change about it.  So one of my overall reactions is that Professor Fulbrook probably did not need to worry too much that what she wrote would be considered a diminution of the repressive elements of East German society.  I can say with certainty that in sections such as “The Participatory Dictatorship”, I did not feel in any way that Fulbrook plays down the repressive nature of the regime.

Rather, she simply provides a very interesting and thought-provoking description of how, in fact, the “State versus Society” model hardly existed.  The State was the Society.  How’s that?

The regime did a truly remarkable job integrating the society into the state by widening — to an extraordinary degree — the group of stakeholders who had something to benefit from the state.  And I’m not just talking “benefits” in the form of health and education, but rather more in the form of making individuals feel that they are part of the state’s governance by providing them with responsibilities, no matter how pathetic (in retrospect) some of these responsibilities might seem.  Much of this was simply manipulation, but a very clever manipulation indeed.  That handful of people who truly held power at the top of the regime understood very clearly that they needed to give people a sense of (limited) power — or the appearance of power — to influence their local surroundings.

To that end, vast numbers of people were given some sort of “functionary” role.  (The notion of “functionary” is very prominent in Chapter 11.)  Fulbrook:

Implausibly large numbers — perhaps one in six of the population — were involved in one way or another in what might be called the micro-systems of power through which the GDR society worked.  This system cannot be described in terms of an extended “state” that was “doing something” to a “society” conceived of as separate from the “state”: rather it was the very way society as a whole was structured.  Life in the GDR, in just about every respect — including not only the obvious areas of the economy or the education system, but also housing and leisure — was organised in ways that were at the same time dependent on central policy decisions and on the practices of innumerable people who were active participants in the maintenance and functioning of the system on the ground.

Among them were 300,000-400,000 “key functionaries”, but then also another two million adults who

played a significant role as a functionary in one or more of the mass organizations, political parties and regional and local representative institutions such as the Stasi, the Army and the People’s Police, and the state administrative and economic apparatus.

[T]o try to call them all representatives of the “state”, rather than members of “society”, would be to make an artificial distinction that does not adequately depict the situation on the ground.[236-237]

She goes on to describe some of the “enormous number of functions” a citizen of the GDR could potentially hold. But it’s very important to note that she does not present this as some sort of ideal circumstance, as if it was “finally” a state in which “the people” could actively participant.  I found her to be describing a rather more pathetic situation, though I’m not sure she would characterize it as such.  For example, the “functionaries” would — unsurprisingly — use their functions as proof of commitment to the regime when asking (begging) for items of scarcity, such as apartments or management jobs.  A certain type of class system emerged in this “classless” society.

She refers to the functionaries described above as a “benign” form of participation.  That group was large enough as is, but we’ve not yet touched upon the “malign exercises of power” that could be undertaken by everyday members of society who, sadly, jumped at the opportunity.  We’re speaking here of the informal collaborators (inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or “IMs”) who worked with the Stasi, the notorious East German secret police.  Fulbrook:

By way of comparison, the Gestapo employed 7,000 officials for a total population of 66,000,000 in Nazi Germany; the Stasi employed over 91,000 full-time staff in a GDR population of about 16,400,000 in 1989. [241]

And those were simply the official employees of the Stasi.  By the 1980s there were 170,000-180,000 informal collaborators, “an average ratio of one informer to every 60 or so adults.”  Given the turnover of IMs over the years, she estimates that a half million GDR citizens were informal collaborators of the Stasi during the Honecker years.  So this was yet another and more sinister way in which society and state overlapped during the second German dictatorship.

Fulbrook’s The People’s State (UK, CA, DE [english] and DE [deutsch]) is full of interesting data such as the numbers I’ve just showed you.  I believe she makes good use of the data and, overall, I found her argument very convincing.  She need not have worried too much about her arguments being misinterpreted from a political perspective: I experienced the book as a series of very thorough empirical examinations followed up by completely plausible interpretations.

It’s dense stuff, meant (I imagine) not so much for a casual audience but rather for university study.  Nevertheless, Fulbrook’s writing is very approachable — it’s only the detail that I think might put off the casual reader.  Professor Fulbrook is very thorough!  Personally, I like that.

Happy Reading!

Bill Dawson

P.S. For a dramatic interpretation of the methods of the Stasi — the East German secret police — check out the Oscar-winning film “The Lives of Others” (also available at Amazon UK, CA and DE).  For a foreign-language film, “The Lives of Others” has an extraordinary 270+ reviews at, almost wholly positive.  Here’s part of one:

‘The Lives of Others’ is 137 minutes of the best entertainment imaginable. Ulrich Mühe is an East German who himself was the target of Stasi oversight. For this film, he was awarded Best Actor at the 2006 European Film Awards. Is there a more just triumph than that?

Photo Credit

The lead photo accompanying this blog post is from the German Federal Archives which has kindly made it available via Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license.  The photo shows participants of the Bundeskongress of the German League of Democratic Women (DFD), one of the many organizations that would have been in a position to provide “functionary” roles as described by Professor Fulbrook.

Mary Fulbrook, “The People’s State” (Review part 1)

Mary Fulbrook, “The People’s State” (Review part 1)

For me, reading Mary Fulbrook’s The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker (also at Amazon UK, CA, DE [english] and DE [deutsch]) is like an act of intellectual integrity. My normal, day-to-day inclination during conversation is to do nothing but bash East Germany, that dictatorship of communist elites that repressed its people, shot those trying to leave, sent murderous goons outside its borders to eliminate political enemies and perpetuated the lie of a successful “actual existing socialism” while running its economy into the ground.

Judging from that previous sentence, I’ll still be bashing that second German dictatorship (along with first) long after I finish Professor Fulbrook’s book.

But what I won’t do anymore is try to hide and ignore something which I already knew but which was never explained to me as well as Professor Fulbrook has done: the simple yet politically inconvenient fact that many (most?) citizens of East Germany led normal lives, did not feel threatened by the State and even participated — with some measure of satisfaction — in their own governance.

Fulbrook confronts this issue head on. She knows it’s politically charged, and she exerts herself during the book’s introduction to make sure that readers realize she is not attempting to act as an apologist for the dictatorship. She goes so far as to introduce and address the possibility that her own personal politics might be construed as having influenced the conclusions of her research.

Part of my purpose in this book is to provide an empirically founded alternative interpretation to one such highly politicised model of the GDR: that of totalitarianism. But I do this not because (as some commentators will no doubt wish to argue) I am allegedly an ‘old leftie’ nostalgically hankering after some mythical past, or yearning for a rose-tinted picture of what might have been, but rather — more mundanely — because as a professional historian and scholar with a social science background I think the totalitarian approach simply does not capture adequately the empirical realities of life in the GDR. [x]

In other words, interpreting the history of the GDR (East Germany) only from the perspective of it being a totalitarian society is not adequate: it ignores the fact that many of its own citizens did not experience it in this way.

This is not to say (and I don’t believe she means to say) that writing a complete history of the GDR can be accomplished without an emphasis on its totalitarian nature. Such an effort would be ahistorical; but so too are histories that only take the totalitarian approach:

[W]e need new ways of thinking about the interrelations between political processes and social change in the GDR than the old dualistic model of state versus society, regime versus people, can allow. [xi]

Moreover, the dualistic approach to East German history is curiously different from standard approaches to western histories:

Yet while no Western historian would seek to write the social history of a Western society solely in terms of regime policies and popular resistance, this is very much how the social history of the GDR has been conceived, particularly when added in to the general historical overviews of political developments.[11]

The book is thus also a call to action directed at historians. The complete emphasis on regime-versus-people — which has so far been the tack taken by most historians — ignores other aspects of life in the GDR which were also important in forming the society. For example, the GDR was not just a communistic state, but also a modern industrial state. Western historians have long included the modern industrial condition as a factor shaping the histories of their own societies, but somehow this angle has been largely ignored in histories of East Germany.

In addition to expanding the framework of GDR history by allowing for empirical approaches beyond the purely political, Fulbrook also came to interesting conclusions regarding the political processes themselves. She introduces the term “participatory dictatorship”, which is sure to raise the eyebrows of many a reader. The political process, she argues,

did actually involve very widespread participation of large numbers of people, for a wide variety of reasons: not always or necessarily out of genuine commitment to Marxist-Leninist ideals; nor always or necessarily as a result of being simply coerced or cowed into compliance.

In the bits that I have quoted (which extend no further than Chapter 1, though this blog entry is already too long!), I hope you can see how challenging and thought-provoking this book is, and why I’m reading it so slowly. I have yet to finish it; it will therefore remain the “Book of the Week” for some time, as I plan to write further about her evidence and the extent to which I find it convincing.

In clear text: it’s the most important book I’ve read to date on East Germany, because it’s opening up new avenues of research rather than simply reinforcing what we already know and believe about the second German dictatorship.

If you’re fast, you might even pick up The People’s State and finish before I do!

Until next time,

Bill Dawson

P.S. Not to be forgotten among these notions of normal, everyday life in East Germany are the stranger and more intrusive activities of the communist dictatorship, particularly its Ministry for State Security (the infamous Stasi).

For one dramatic interpretation of the Stasi, I recommend the award-winning film, “The Lives of Others” (2007 Academy Award: Best Foreign Language Film) (also available at Amazon UK, CA and DE). I particularly enjoyed the film because I got to see German actors whom I see day-to-day watching German television from here in neighboring Austria. It was fun to recognize these faces and see them playing in such an important and internationally acclaimed film.

Photo Credit:

The lead photo accompanying this blog post is from the German Federal Archives (via Wikimedia Commons) and shows a queue outside of a bakery in East Berlin.

“Ich war Staatsfeind Nr. 1″ by Wolfgang Welsch

“Ich war Staatsfeind Nr. 1″ by Wolfgang Welsch

I’ve chosen a German book for this week’s Book of the Week. Unfortunately, Wolfgang Welsch’s Ich War Staatsfeind Nr. 1 (I Was State’s Enemy Number 1) is not available in English. That’s really too bad because the story is pretty amazing.

Welsch was born in Berlin in 1944. His family ended up in the eastern sector after the war, and therefore later became citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany). As early as the 1960s, Welsch began to protest the regime through his poems, public readings and pamphlets. He attempted to escape the country but was apprehended. While awaiting trial, he was mistreated and tortured by agents of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Stasi). After conviction, he spent several years in the Bautzen and Brandenburg prisons.

The Federal Republic of Germany (FRG/BDR, Bundesrepublik Deutschland, West Germany) purchased Welsch’s freedom in 1971. During the 70s and 80s, he became one of the most successful Fluchthelfer — people who assisted East Germans who wished to escape the regime.

I’ll finish the story here simply by pasting in a (not particularly good) translation I did of the synopsis of Welsch’s book several years ago. This will make this post the longest, by far, here at German History Blog — so if you don’t want the nitty gritty details, let me give you the executive summary here: Welsch’s success helping people emigrate from East to West made him a target of the Stasi (though, you’ll recall, Welsch was by now a citizen of West Germany). He became a marked man and Stasi agents operating in the West made at least three attempts on his life: once by putting a bomb in his car (it detonated but injured him only slightly); once by shooting into his vehicle as he drove on a highway in the UK, and once via introducing Thallium in his food. Only after the Wall fell did it become possible to scour the Stasi files and find direct evidence of these assassination attempts. This led eventually to the trial of a former Stasi Major-General, who committed suicide in prison.

Wolfgang Welsch’s story was adapted into a German television film which first appeared on 13 April 2005 and has been shown several times since (including just a few days ago.)

If you can read German and this period of German history interests you — particularly if you are or had been under the impression that East German security services did not take part in assassinations –, then I highly recommend to you Wolfgang Welsch’s Ich war Staatsfeind Nr. 1.

Photo Credit

The lead photo for this article comes via Wikimedia from the German Federal Archives. It shows the prison at Bautzen, in which Wolfgang Welsch was interred as a political prisoner.

Begin excerpt of the synopsis of Ich war Staatsfeind Nr. 1 (my translation) —

Part II

After the dramatic crossing of the border in a GDR government bus, Welsch settles down in Giessen and begins to study sociology, philosophy and politics, while simultaneously preparing for his debut as an active underground facilitator for East Germans who wanted to flee. Together with a friend from his days in prison, he fetches a professor out of the GDR. The operation is planned in the Federal Republic of Germany and carried out from Athens, Greece. Welsch flies to Sofia as a courier, delivers a prepared West German passport to the refugee, gives the necessary instructions, and flies back to Athens via Bucharest, Romania. The escape is a successful “David versus Goliath” story: Wolfgang Welsch against one of the best Secret Services in the world.

Welsch is in charge of and takes part in the most daring escape missions throughout the whole of the Eastern Block. Sealed trucks, private cars, caravans, horse transporters and scheduled flights are all part of his arsenal. The route goes from East Berlin via Sofia, Bucharest and Belgrade to Vienna or Frankfurt/Main. Airline flights and diplomatic vehicles are the safest and most effective methods of extracting people from the East. Throughout this part of the book, Welsch relates these stories of liberation in detail. Highlights include a chance meeting with a CIA agent in Athens; the agent seems to know of Welsch’s activities and praises him, noting that “they” could not have done it better themselves.

In reply to a hateful article about him in an East Berlin newspaper (“Keine Chance den Menschenschmugglern” – “Don’t give the smugglers of people a chance” — horizont, 2/80), Welsch sends a telex to the MfS, mentioning not only his chances but also his successes. The Minister of State Security — the notorious Erich Mielke — is furious at this provocation and his agency forms a special task force specifically to eliminate Welsch.

Welsch’s wife at that time is arrested while attempting to aid an escape in Sofia, Bulgaria. She betrays him, the structure and planning of his organization and all the names known to her. Welsch has no suspicion of this betrayal and frees his wife from the claws of the Bulgarian Secret Service in a spectacular mission. The US Embassy in Sofia participates in this, as well as the Federal Foreign Secretary, Mr. Hans Dietrich Genscher.

During this period, Welsch battles the dictatorship not only by continuously and successfully aiding escapes, but also by publishing condemnatory articles in West German newspapers. With the help of a German political party, he sends a memorandum to the United Nations in New York to urge them against letting the GDR join the community of nations. Of course, the GDR representative at the UN receives a copy of this memorandum. The MfS Secret Police then re-double their efforts to assassinate Welsch.

Part III

For years there is a special “process” in the MfS, in which the various “tactical measures” against Welsch’s “criminal human-smuggling gang” are discussed and potential “solutions” to the problem — meaning, methods of assassination — are suggested. Around 1978, the leader of the “Central Operative Process Scorpion,” MfS Major-General Heinz Fiedler, gives the order to liquidate Welsch. MfS minister Mielke and the Central Committee of the Communist Party (SED) are informed. The murder machinery of the MfS begins to roll into action. An agent is sent to the West. His orders are to assassinate Welsch. This agent, whose cover name is “Alfons”, pretends to be a friend and succeeds in winning Welch’s confidence. “Alfons” constructs a car bomb using the explosive Semtex 1A, which he receives from the GDR Secret Service. He installs the bomb under the dashboard in Welsch’s car. While Welsch drives on the motorway, the delay-action explosive detonates, completely destroying the car. Miraculously, Welsch survives with only minor injuries.

After this failure, “Alfons” lures Welsch to London. As Welsch drives along an English motorway, a sniper is lying in wait. This time the team of General Markus Wolf, leader of the MfS’s Foreign Agent Department, is also involved in supporting the operation. In England, a NATO member state, an East German agent alongside the motorway shoots at Welsch, but misses his target by a hair’s breadth. Welsch has no idea what really happened; he thinks that some fool shot at him by chance.

After these two assassination attempts fail to achieve their objective, it is finally time for agent “Alfons” to finish the job. In 1981, he lures Welsch, his then-wife and his daughter to Israel. The MfS has placed a second agent — a female — there as well. “Alfons”, who throughout all of this has meanwhile become Welsch’s closest friend, recommends a motor home for traveling around Israel. This motor home had been specially exported from Germany to Israel for this purpose. The agents’ plan is to poison Welsch using the highly toxic heavy metal Thallium. They consider Welsch’s wife and child to be acceptable collateral victims if need be. During a break at the Red Sea, Agent “Alfons” prepares a meal in the motor home’s kitchen. He deposits ten times the deadly dose of the scentless and tasteless poison into the food. Though his wife and daughter eat very little of the meal, Welsch alone consumes almost all of the poison. After a four-day incubation period, the first symptoms become visible. Both agents find excuses to leave the Welsch family and return by detours to East Berlin. Mrs. Welsch and the child feel sick for only a short time, but Welsch himself falls into agony. He feels paralyzed, almost unable to move his legs. Finally, the family manages to fly back to Germany, where doctors at the hospital fight for his life. Seriously ill, he remains in the hospital for quite some time. He eventually recovers: another miracle.

As medical experts tell Welsch that such lethal doses of poison cannot be eaten by chance, he immediately suspects the Secret Police of the GDR. After the fall of the Wall, he begins to search his files in the “Gauck department”, the agency setup to be the custodian of MfS files. He then begins searching for the assassins, an effort which takes him to England, Greece and as far as Argentina, but to no avail. One day he reads a book on the work of Eastern secret services. The book’s description of the methods employed by these Services confirms his suspicion that the attempts to murder him must have been organized by the MfS. Despite meticulously collected evidence and leads, nobody wants to believe him. Both journalists and legal authorities think that his assumption is crazy. Forty years of communist propaganda show their influence on the judgment of the West German intelligentsia. Everyone rejects his assertion that the GDR was in the business of political assassination. He files three criminal complaints, but nothing happens. Only one important news magazine in Hamburg believes him. Three journalists take interest in the case and begin their investigations. Eventually they are joined by a special investigative task force of the Berlin State Attorney’s office, constituted specifically to investigate the crimes of the former GDR. Evidence supporting Welsch’s suspicions begins to accumulate. In the meantime, Welsch himself has left Germany to live in Costa Rica after receiving further death threats.

The perpetrators of the assaults, and the MfS officials who approved them, are found and arrested. Major-General Fiedler, the head of “Operation Scorpion”, hangs himself in a Berlin prison cell. At a sensational trial, the assassin “Alfons” and his co-conspirators plead guilty. “Alfons” is sentenced to several years of prison. Another of the perpetrators dies of cancer.

End excerpt of the synopsis of Ich war Staatsfeind Nr. 1 (my translation) —

“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:

“Denying the Holocaust”, by Deborah Lipstadt (Book of the Week)

“Denying the Holocaust”, by Deborah Lipstadt (Book of the Week)

In the dedication which begins Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [eng]), Deborah Lipstadt includes this passage from Deuteronomy 32:7:

Remember the days of yore; learn the lessons of the generation that came before you.

One of the themes of her book which struck me the most is the blatant disregard of eyewitness testimony — most especially Holocaust survivors — by those who deny or minimize the Holocaust. With that sad fact in mind, I find the rest of that passage of Deuteronomy, the part she did not include, poignant and relevant:

Remember the days of yore; learn the lessons of the generation that came before you. Ask your father, and he will tell you; your elders, and they will inform you. [my emphasis]

One of Lipstadt’s examples of fathers and elders being ignored can be seen in this passage concerning evidence of the gas chambers:

Deniers, led by [Robert] Faurisson, repeatedly call for “one proof… one single proof” of the existence of homicidal gas chambers. They dismiss the reliability of all human testimony, whether it came from the SS, surviving inmates, or Sonderkommando members. They do so despite the fact that regarding the general details of the gassings, the testimony of all the parties tends to corroborate each other. [from the Appendix, p. 225 of the 1994 Plume printing.]

The Robert Faurisson whom she mentions is one of a cast of the more prominent characters whose Holocaust denial or minimization she discusses. Lipstadt generally follows a chronological approach, beginning even before the Holocaust itself: from Chapter Two, “Antecedents”:

The deniers consider themselves heirs of a group of influential American historians who were deeply disturbed by American involvement in World War I. [31]

To Lipstadt, those earlier so-called revisionists were unlike their Holocaust-denying followers in the sense that the post-World War I group consisted largely of serious historians engaging in serious research. One of them, however, became the bridge between that first generation of revisionists and the later group that assaulted the memory of the Holocaust: Harry Elmer Barnes. Barnes therefore plays a prominent role in Chapter Four, “The First Stirrings of Denial in America.” After Barnes, Lipstadt discusses several others at length, amongst them Austin J. App — who, for example, argued that the Germans clearly did not exterminate Jews since, after all, “every Jew who survived the German occupation is proof of this” [93] –, Arthur Butz, and those associated with the Institute for Historical Review.

Lipstadt also dedicates entire chapters to the “Gas Chamber Controversy” (chapter nine) and “The Battle for the Campus” (chapter ten.) The latter, as you might guess, examines efforts by various groups to promote Holocaust “revisionism” on college campuses. She then ends with an interesting Appendix, wherein she takes on three of the most common Holocaust denial arguments:

  • The Nazis would not have used Zyklon-B: it would have been far too dangerous for their own personnel to handle. Therefore traces of it found at Auschwitz can be explained only as having been used for decontamination of morgues rather than for homicidal purposes.
  • There is no documentary proof of the existence of gas chambers.
  • The Diary of Anne Frank was not written until after the war, and not by a young girl named Anne Frank.

I won’t give away the evidence that Lipstadt compiles against each of these claims; read the book! It’s almost embarrassing for me to even mention the claims. Lipstadt herself recognizes that publication of such arguments touches a nerve:

I do so with some reluctance, lest it appear that I believe that serious consideration must be given to these people’s claims. I do, however, believe that even a cursory perusal of the relevant sections of these documents will demonstrate the deceitful quality of the deniers’ claims.

The fact is, most of us studied the Holocaust not to amass an intellectual arsenal against its deniers, but rather simply to learn about it and to learn from it. We don’t study it expecting to need to prove its existence. When someone comes along with plausible-sounding arguments denying or minimizing the Holocaust, we are not prepared to answer. This means we either come away thinking, “That guy was a nutcase,” or we come away with a seed of doubt successfully planted in our heads. So while it is no doubt distasteful to grant the deniers’ arguments something resembling an intellectual debate, it is nevertheless a good thing we have people like Deborah Lipstadt to take on this depressing task and produce books such as Denying the Holocaust (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [eng]).

(Photo credit: The lead photo in this blog post shows the entry to Auschwitz and belongs to flickr user “One from RM”. / CC BY 2.0.)

Stefan Zweig, “The World of Yesterday” (Book of the Week)

Stefan Zweig, “The World of Yesterday” (Book of the Week)

Some autobiographies manage to go beyond the subject’s own life and capture the very essence of an entire epoch. I consider The World of Yesterday (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [eng], DE [deu]) at the top of any list of such autobiographies. I have certainly never read another that made me feel so connected to the times in which the author lived.

Given the turmoil which the world saw during the span of Stefan Zweig’s life (1881-1942), we can say that he witnessed not just one but a handful of epochs. His generation “was loaded down with a burden of fate as was hardly any other in the course of history,” enduring as it did both World Wars. Zweig and his wife chose to no longer endure their fate as stateless, homeless refugees after he finished this book; they ended their lives together in Brazil in 1942 after sending off the manuscript to the publishers in New York.

Zweig was born into what he calls the “World of Security”, the late Habsburg era during which one could theoretically plan out one’s life in the finest of detail. Each knew his position in that society. Families had budgets, incomes were pre-determined, everything was insured, risks were frowned upon. School — a topic to which he devotes an entire chapter — consisted of curricula so finely tuned that instructors could get through a year without learning the names of their students; they merely needed to repeat what they had done the previous year, and the year before that … with such consistency that they could do it with their heads down, practically avoiding the faces of individual pupils.

Events would later prove just how fragile the security and confidence of that era were. The trauma of the First World War, followed by massive inflation and the unsteady inter-war years, and then the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of war in 1939 … Zweig experienced all of this, and, at the risk of sounding elitist, he did so not just as any ordinary person, but as an “international” intellectual with close friends in many of those countries which, ostensibly, would become “enemies”. His pan-European outlook, which permeates the book, provides a perspective on the events of that time which is quite different than, say, the perspective of a statesman or a general.

Most importantly, Zweig pens his memoir as the same able storyteller who told so many other excellent stories, such as Beware of Pity, Letter from an Unknown Woman and The Invisible Collection, to name just the few that I have read.

Given that I present a “Book of the Week” each week, I’ve got to be careful to not get into the habit of saying the following: You really must read this book. Please indulge me as I say it this week, because if there is any one book that I would recommend which covers the period from a personal perspective, it would be this one. I’ll let The New Republic have the last word:

It is not so much a memoir of a life as it is the memento of an age, and the author seems, in his own phrase, to be the narrator at an illustrated lecture. The illustrations are provided by time, but his choice is brilliant and the narration is evocative. [From the back cover of the University of Nebraska Press edition of the book.]

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.

Richard Overy, “Interrrogations: The Nazi Elite in Allied Hands, 1945″

Richard Overy, “Interrrogations: The Nazi Elite in Allied Hands, 1945″

Interrogations (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english]) includes partial transcripts from the interrogations held at Nuremberg or locations relevant to similar trials such as the “Doctors’ Trial”. The following people appear in the book either as having been interrogated or having submitted an affidavit or other type of testimony:

Overy begins the book with a 200 page introduction that provides context for the transcripts and recalls some of their highlights. 300 pages of transcripts then follow. Some of the transcripts are not from interrogations, but rather from secret tapings of conversations between prisoners.

As you would imagine, it all makes for fascinating reading. I read the book a few years and marked a few passages. I’ll share a few of those now.

In this section, Albert Speer speaks of Adolf Hitler’s belief in his own destiny, particularly in light of the attempts on his life, all of which he escaped:

Out of innumerable isolated incidents, he had pieced together a firm conviction that his whole career, with its many unfavorable events and setbacks, was predestined by providence to take him to the goal which it had set him. In all difficult situations and decisions this belief of his served as a primary argument. The more his overworked condition caused him to lose his original gift of detaching himself in his thinking from the pressure of current events, and the more he was cornered by the course of events, the more emphasis he would place on this argument of his ‘predestined fate’.

The incomprehensible fact that he escaped injury on the 20 July [1944] gave him new foundation for this belief. Dr Goebbels’ press campaign about Frederick the Great and the course of the Seven Years War confirmed him in this belief and gave it a new incentive. Towards the end he even saw in Roosevelt’s unexpected death a parallel to Frederick the Great’s history; – the Empress Elizabeth had died shortly before the end of the Seven Years War, thus rescuing Frederick the Great out of a seemingly hopeless situation.

It is true that he cited this parallel in his first moment of elation on receipt of the news. [p. 235-6 of 2002 Penguin Paperback]

Speer again, on Hitler fancying himself a military leader:

His [Hitler’s] reaction to 20 July was indicative of the high opinion he had of himself as a military leader. He stressed the fact that the occurrence on 20 July historically justified him in his military decisions, in spite of the fact that during the last few years he had nothing but setbacks. These, however, he ascribed to the continuous treachery and intentional misinterpretation of his orders.

He issued an order that all the daily conferences on the situation should be taken down in shorthand verbatim, as he wanted to prove to posterity that he had always judged the position currently and given the right orders. Actually these documents are devastating for him and his entourage. [246]

Hermann Goering on Hitler, dead or alive, and the whereabouts of Martin Bormann:

Question: Do you think the Fuehrer is dead?

Goering: Absolutely, no doubt about it.

Question: What makes you think so?

Goering: Well, this is quite out of the question. We always knew the Fuehrer would kill himself if things were coming to an end. We always knew that. There is not the least doubt about it.

Question: Well, was there any understanding or agreement to that effect?

Goering: Yes, he said this only too clearly and too explicitly to different people, and we all knew about this exactly.

Question: What about Bormann?

Goering: (Throwing his hands into the air) If I had my say in it, I hope he is frying in Hell, but I don’t know about it… [311-312]

From a taped conversation between Ernst von Gottstein, identified as Hauptbauleiter OT, Gauamtsleiter für Technik, Gau Kärnten (Carinthia in today’s Austria) and Eugen Horak, identified as “Interpreter in Gruppe VI/C of the RSHA”, RHSA being the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, or the Reich Main Security Office:

Horak: I was present in Vienna when they were loading up people for one of those mass evacuations. Hundreds were crammed into wagons, which normally took a couple of cows. And they were thoroughly beaten up as well. I went up to a young SS man and asked if the beating up was really necessary. He laughed and said they were only scum anyway. You know the whole thing was so unnecessary and one could well have got along without it … what was the purpose of all that beating up? I have nothing at all against the gas chambers. A time can come when it is useful to the race to eliminate certain elements. Extermination is one thing, but there is no need to torture your victims beforehand. [372]

I found that particular passage particularly brutal and offensive. And that’s what makes this book useful as a selection of original sources: I think it’s important to be able to read the actual thoughts of the very real people who were part of this regime, no matter how ugly those thoughts may be.

(Photo credit: the lead graphic for this article is a combination of four photos found at Wikimedia Commons and described as being in the public domain because they are photos from the Federal Government of the United States. From left to right, the photos are of the following persons: Hermann Goering, Wilhelm Keitel, Alfred Jodl, Arthur Seyss-Inquart.)

Mary Fulbrook, “Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR 1949-1989″

Mary Fulbrook, “Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR 1949-1989″

By her own telling, Prof. Dr. Mary Fulbrook (University College London) conceived of the idea of writing a GDR history already in the early 1980s. I’m sure at the time she thought of some of the inherent difficulties in telling the story of a society that was, relative to the West, rather closed.

Then came 1989 and the years thereafter, when an explosion of material became available. I would guess that the sudden mountains of documents were rather daunting to specialists in German history. But Fulbrook waded through them and came out with this excellent history in 1995.

The book is divided into three sections: “The Contours of Domination”, wherein the party and state security apparatus are discussed, as well as extra-party organizations or communities (Church, labor union, academia etc.) that helped maintain control in areas where the party did not reach; “Patterns of Popular Compliance and Constraint”, where the opinions of the general populace are taken into consideration, as well as some of the Party’s strategies to mould its citizens; and “Challenges to Domination”, which begins with the June 1953 uprising and recounts some other more minor instances of uprising, then leading in to the 1980s, when the dissent took root, became more open and eventually led (as one factor) to the downfall of the regime.

It’s easy for works of history to be too dry for (shall we say) common consumption, particularly those histories that are more "scholarly" than "popular", as is the case with this book. One device that can bring the reader in early — “hook him”, so to speak — is to start off with a good human-interest story. Fulbrook does precisely this by opening the book as follows:

On Wednesday, 21 September 1961, Sieglinde M., a sixth-form pupil in Anklam, Neubrandenburg, came to school wearing a black pullover. For this, she was expelled from school and forced to ‘work in production.’

And not just poor Sieglinde, but her entire class. They were protesting the new law requiring service in the National People’s Army. This incident — one which we who were raised in western democracies would consider trivial, harmless and maybe even a little bit silly — raised alarms at the highest levels of the GDR government.

When reading the book for the first time, I considered this opening story to be important because I believe there are many intelligent people out there — particularly now, in 2009 — who attempt to minimize the dictatorial nature of the regime. (Of course, the title alone, Anatomy of a Dictatorship, had already gone quite far in assuring me that Professor Fulbrook was not one to do so!)

She begins chapter two, “Structures and Mentalities of Power”, with this rather clear statement:

The GDR was a repressive state. It was a dictatorship.

Yet she hardly takes a purely moralistic approach, which is no doubt tempting to people such as myself. But of course she is that much better as a historian by not dedicating every sentence to a black and white interpretation of the GDR. As she explains, that would be ahistorical. It would be counter-factual, because the truth of the matter is that many in the GDR did not see their own dictatorship in such black-and-white moralistic terms. In all honesty I find that truth to be somewhat painful, just as it depresses me that many who live in the eastern states of Germany today are actually longing for some kind of return to the GDR. But facts are facts, and Professor Fulbrook reports them, as well she should.

I actually read the book several years ago, and I notice now that I had turned down corners of several pages where I found passages to underline. I’ll submit just one of them here for your consideration. She’s talking about the massive amount of information the Stasi retained about people. Computer technology in the east was behind, therefore everything was kept on paper and cards:

And, as [Erich] Mielke is alleged to have commented, cards and paper have the edge over computers when there is a power failure — an important consideration under actually existing socialism. [p. 49]

Am I mistaken in finding a subtle bit of humor there? I think she’s poking a bit of fun at the regime by pointing out a weakness, in this case the very real problem of power failures, while labeling the regime with the moniker they themselves enjoyed: "real existing socialism" (real existierender Sozialismus).

Later she adds:

In retrospect, the childlike proliferation of codes and secrets, the guidelines and procedures, and the files of trivial observations couched in the self-important jargon of bureaucracy, could on occasion almost appear quite comic, were it not so tragic for those whose lives and careers were blighted in the process. [pp 49-50]

If you the history of the East German Communist Dictatorship interests you, you will undoubtedly enjoy Anatomy of a Dictatorship. (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english])

(Photo is mine, available under the Creative Commons license. For details please see the photo’s page at Flickr.)

“Auschwitz” by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt

“Auschwitz” by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt

Auschwitz (Amazon US, UK, DE [english], DE [german]) is probably my favorite of the history-related books I’ve read so far in 2009.   Young Stalin (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english], DE [german]) comes in a close second, but it’s off-topic in this blog!

I first discovered Auschwitz because one of its authors, Robert Jan Van Pelt, testified on behalf of Deborah Lipstadt in the libel suit brought against her by David Irving.  I read Lipstadt’s History on Trial (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english]), in which she mentions Van Pelt on several occasions.  I found the description of his testimony concerning architectural evidence at Auschwitz to be very interesting and thought I’d follow up by reading the book he co-authored with Dwork.

The book begins by sketching Auschwitz as an “ordinary town with an ordinary 700-year-old history.”  The town was established as German (“Auschwitz”) but had long periods of being Polish (“Oswiecim”).  Even at its German founding it was in the close vicinity of several Polish towns.  It was, in other words, a border town, a fact which played a very important role in its future.   After the total polonification of the area, Germany made several turns towards the East (1700s, 1800s); though Germans tended to see these movements as returns towards an East that was naturally theirs.

I’m close to embarking on an overly-detailed look at the book, but I’ll stop now (well, soon) and simply say “read it” if you are at all interested in that part of history.  As a non-professional, I’m not in any position to critique or formally review the book, so I can only tell you what I particularly liked about it: the inclusion of some early history of Auschwitz/Oswiecim; the portions of its National Socialist history that pre-dated its use as a concentration camp (we immediately — and rightly — think “concentration camp” and “gas” when hearing Auschwitz mentioned, so it was interesting to read about the pre-concentration camp days it spent under the National Socialists), the fascinating detail of the architectural record and the evidence it provides as to how Auschwitz was actually used.

Highly recommended (of course, since it’s a Book of the Week!)

(Photo credit: flickr user One from RM. / CC BY 2.0.)