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European Modern History

Thirty Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall: Is Germany Still a Divided Nation?

West_and_East_Germans_at_the_Brandenburg_Gate_in_1989

In 1989, as the Berlin wall fell, Willy Brandt made the somewhat rash prediction that the two halves of Europe belong together and would now grow together. The Cold War represented a frozen dynamic in which everything was subordinated to the needs of a bipolar world order. For Germany, this had meant that the period from 1945 to 1989 also froze its own national dynamic into glacial stasis. There was movement within this stasis but it was so slow to the naked eye that it appeared that nothing could ever change. What the Cold War also did, however, was to gloss over the fact that the two halves of Europe, and with them the two halves of Germany, were not one country in some sort of suspended animation, but were historically fundamentally different anyway. East Germany was not simply a hidden bit of West Germany waiting for the wall to fall but had its own history and trajectory. Most importantly, the history of East Germany reached back much further than 1945.

Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, had always been suspicious of Prussia and areas east of the Elbe. This was a position he had taken already in the 1920s and even as early as 1918 he had argued that western Germany and France should come together in a Rhineland league as defence against the Prussian Behemoth.  Given that by 1947 the decision was made in Washington and Moscow to divide Germany not only into zones of occupation but states in themselves, it is no surprise that Adenauer became what Kurt Schumacher of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) called “Chancellor of the Allies”. Adenauer did everything he could to prevent a new unification of East and West Germany, all the while protesting that German unity was his highest priority.

It is often forgotten, for example, that Schumacher and the SPD saw the division of Germany as the division of the German working-class too. What it also did was divide the confessional make up of Germany. If Germany had been united in 1949 then Protestant voters influenced heavily by East German Protestant parties (not to mention the Nazis) would have been demographically in the majority.

The splitting of Germany meant that West Germany had a majority of Catholic voters who tended to look west to the Rhineland or south to Rome for their ideological affiliations. The East German Communist Party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), looked East and to Moscow for their ideological underpinnings. By the 1970s, when Erich Honecker took over the leadership of Party and state, the transition to an officially loyal Eastern bloc country was complete. This turn to the Soviet and the Brezhnev social contract was complemented by a re-Prussianisation of the German Democratic Republic. In that same constitution, any reference to Germany as a single nation, which had been present in the 1949 and 1968 constitutions, was removed. They even went as far as banning the words of the national anthem because they talked of German unity:

Risen up from under ruins

Turned to face the future land,

Let us serve you for the better,

Germany, united fatherland.

What is more, Johannes Becher had composed the lyrics so that they could be sung to the tune of what has become the German national anthem, composed by Haydn and Fallersleben. The state and the Party became ever more closely enmeshed and offered absolute social security, full employment (especially for women), and even the outlawing of unemployment as a concept. In return for this security came greater repression, an increased role for the Stasi in its operations against any dissent and a marginalisation of opposition forces. East Germany became a society fully infused with the rule of the Party.

The problem, as with all Soviet bloc parties, was that they had no political legitimacy. The thing that characterised East Germany under Honecker was the absolute primacy of politics over economic considerations. Buying off the working class is always an expensive business and a hyper-centralised system of political control over economic development led to intrinsic inefficiencies. The fulfilment of plans laid down by the central authorities became much more important than efficient production and distribution. Whatever the weaknesses of a market economy may be – and there are certainly many – in competition with a centrally planned system in which the primacy of politics ruled supreme, it was clear by the mid-1980s which system was stronger.

Thus, perestroika (or economic restructuring) was actually far more important than glasnost (democratic openness) and Gorbachev’s reforms were at base about making the Soviet economy more efficient and responsive to market demands. In many ways, China has had the perestroika without the glasnost, reintroducing market imperatives backed up by the absolute authority of state and Party. But East Germany too had a restructuring of the economy forced upon it by marketisation coming from the West after 1989. Almost all leading positions in the East are still occupied by West Germans and the resentments of the East are in part a response to this sense of living under “occupation”. Paradoxically, the main leaders of the populist movement in eastern Germany Gauland, Höcke et al are themselves West Germans who have shifted east in order to lead what they call the “completion of the revolution (Wende)” of 1989.

The problems facing eastern Germany 30 years after the fall of the Wall are multi-layered and complex:

  1. East Germany was always a different country.
  2. Socio-economic resentment against the West plays a significant role in a “what has West Germany ever done for us?“ discourse (apart from the 2 trillion Euros that has flowed from West to East).
  3. The primacy of economics over political considerations, though much weaker than in China, stands in stark contrast to SED rule.
  4. Demographic change as young people, especially women, move west has exacerbated the sense that it is region “left behind”.
  5. AfD populist voters therefore tend to be mostly male and mostly those who spent their childhood in the GDR.
  6. Ostalgie (left-wing nostalgia for the GDR) has now become Nostalgie (right-wing nostalgia for an as yet ill-defined past German nation).

In short, it is unlikely that the tensions between East and West Germany will be resolved in the near future. Germany has always been a country of uncertain borders and shifting cleavages and we may have to face the fact that the two halves of Europe are not growing back together quite as easily as Brandt hoped.

Peter Thompson is Reader Emeritus in German at the University of Sheffield specialising in the post-war history of the GDR and German unification. He founded The Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies at Sheffield in 2008, and was co-editor with Slavoj Zizek of The Privatization of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia (2013).

Cover image: West and East Germans at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 1989.

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Boris Johnson’s Favourite Stalin Story…: On the Difference between Raising Taxes and Conducting Mass Terror Campaigns

Вышибем_кулаков_из_колхозов_1930

On 6th November 2019, Boris Johnson accused the Labour Party of despising “the profit motive” so much that they would “point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks”.[1] Now, I love a good history analogy as much as the next person. This one, however, is not only way off the mark on every level but also relativizes Stalinist policies that cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives.

Johnson alleges that Corbyn leads a similar hate campaign against wealthy people and has a similar socialist conviction to Stalin, referring to Corbyn’s support for raising the income tax for the wealthiest in society. However, in drawing the connection from Corbyn to Stalin, Johnson’s invocation of Stalinist persecution could imply that while Corbyn might be talking about raising taxes for wealthy people, he is really planning something along the line of taking their land, grain, cows, and chickens, putting them on a train and dropping them in the middle of snowy Siberia without food, warm clothes, or tools – forcing them to build their own forced labour camp or die trying. Does that sound like a bit of a stretch? Let’s look more closely at the Stalinist campaign against the kulaks to explore the historical implications of Johnson’s analogy.

The violent phase of Stalin’s aforementioned “persecution of the kulaks” began in December 1929, when he announced the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class”. He started this campaign in the context of the collectivization of agriculture, i.e. the nationalization of land and cattle as well as the reorganizing of agriculture into collective and state farms. Due to the manner in which the Bolsheviks orchestrated it, this collectivization was not only part of creating a socialist economy, it was first and foremost an attempt to establish their rule in the vast Soviet countryside.

The collectivization campaign has been described as a clash of cultures between the Soviet leadership and the peasantry, bordering on civil war. In official statements, the collectivization campaign was framed as “class struggle in the countryside”. Roughly, these “classes” consisted of poor peasants, middle peasants, and kulaks. Kulaks were supposedly “rich” peasants whom the Bolsheviks stigmatized as “capitalist elements”, the “bourgeoisie of the countryside”, enemies to the socialist vision, and exploiters of the poor.

Initially, the plan had been to agitate rural communities into class struggle, so that the poorer peasants would rebel against the “kulak oppressor”. However, there were two problems: many peasants did not want collectivization (or to be ruled by the Bolsheviks), and there weren’t really any distinct “classes” in the 1930s Soviet countryside, which rendered class struggle significantly more difficult. Most of the land had already been redistributed during the Russian Revolution and Civil War around ten years earlier, so that the wealth differences in the countryside were relatively minor: a peasant could drop from “rich” to poor if their cow died.

Stalin started the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class” around the time it became clear that peasants would not go into collective farms voluntarily. This campaign allowed the authorities to break peasant resistance against the Bolshevik regime. This so-called “dekulakization” led to denunciation, violence, and chaos all over the Union. “Liquidation” meant violent expropriation, and in many cases, deportation: in total, around 2 million people (men, women, and children) were “re-settled” in their own county, and around 2-2.5 million were deported to distant regions. Most of the latter were brought to so-called special settlements, labour camp-like structures in remote and often inhospitable areas. Estimates consider that until Stalin’s death, over 500,000 “kulaks” died during deportation or banishment from cold, hunger, diseases, and hard labour.

Historians refer to the campaign against the kulaks as the beginning of Stalinist mass terror. Even beyond such terror campaigns, however, the collectivization of agriculture caused disaster: reinforced by a series of poor harvests and grain requisition campaigns to feed the cities, the chaos caused by collectivization and “dekulakization” brought Soviet agriculture to its knees in the early 1930s. The ensuing famines caused 5-8 million deaths, especially in Ukraine, Kazakhstan (which lost a fourth to a third of its population), and the North Caucasus.

Of course, when Boris Johnson inferred there are continuities from Stalin to Corbyn and from the Bolsheviks to the Labour Party, his aim wasn’t to give us a history lesson – or else he would not have chosen an analogy between a campaign to tax wealthy people and a campaign consisting in not taxing (but expropriating and deporting) mostly not wealthy people (and causing millions of deaths). Thus, it is important to analyse such discourses to reveal the cynicism that permeates political campaigning. This analogy does not say much about Labour politics: the 2019 Labour Party has close to nothing in common with the 1930s Soviet communist leadership. However, it shows that Johnson does not really work with facts and policies in his campaign rather than with cheap shots to defame his opponent and to scare voters into thinking that Corbyn is really a secret Stalinist.

Mirjam Galley recently completed her PhD thesis ‘Builders of Communism, ‘Defective’ Children and Social Orphans: Soviet Children in Care after 1953’ at the University of Sheffield. She is currently a trainee editor for history at the academic publisher transcript Verlag. You can find Mirjam on Twitter @M_E_Galley.

Cover image:  Soviet propaganda poster ‘We will keep out Kulaks from the collectives’, 1930.

Further reading:

Sheila Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village after Collectivization (Oxford University Press, 1994).

Andrea Graziosi, The Great Soviet Peasant War: Bolsheviks and Peasants, 1918-1934 (Harvard University Press, 1996).

James Hughes, Stalinism in a Russian Province: a study of collectivization and dekulakization in Siberia (Macmillan, 1996).

Robert Kindler, Stalin’s Nomads: Soviet Power and Famine in Kazakhstan (Pittsburgh University Press, 2018).

Lynne Viola, The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Lynne Viola, V. P. Danilov, N. A. Ivnitskii, and Denis Kozlov (eds), The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside, Volume one: The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930 (Yale University Press, 2005).

[1] A “kulak“, literally meaning “fist“, was a term denoting rather wealthy or powerful members of rural communities in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union.

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Challenging Heterosexist Readings of Women’s Holocaust Testimonies

Charlotte Salomon

Some months ago my partner and I decided to put our flat on the market. Having seen the perfect house, I hurriedly began sending out emails to have our property valued. I was quickly inundated with calls from eager estate agents, desperate to clinch the sale. The first call came from a polite woman from a city centre office. “Are you the homeowner?” she asked. “No,” I responded. “The flat belongs to my partner.” “Okay, great. What’s his name?” I paused for a moment, unsure as to whether I was offended or mildly amused. “Her name is…”

As I hung up the phone, I felt troubled. Part of me had believed that, in 2019, such awkward conversations and the repeated need to ‘come out,’ were a thing of the past. I got to thinking about the countless presumptuous comments that I, as a queer woman, have been forced to engage with in my lifetime. “It’s just a phase.” “Do you have a boyfriend?” “You just haven’t met the right guy yet.” The list is inexhaustible.

More than anything, though, and transcending my personal struggles with such presumptions, I started to think about them in a historical context. As a Holocaust historian specialising in women’s experiences and representations of the Holocaust, I began to wonder how, and to what extent, heteronormativity may be responsible for global historical blind spots. Have deeply entrenched heterosexist presumptions enabled historical specificities to be overlooked? Or at the very least, have they shaped the way historians and academics have interpreted written narratives of the past? Undoubtedly so, given the fact that sexual relationships between women have long been an academic taboo, focused on only in the last four decades in the wake of the women’s movement.

If the assumption, even in the twenty-first century, is that to be straight is the norm, if queer sexualities are yet to become normalised sexual identities, then what might that tell us about decades of androcentric historical research? And how might we read history from a stance far removed from heteronormative presupposition, particularly when attempts to do so are often met with hostility, or when sexual relationships between women are often dismissed by scholars as acts of desperation?

Queer theorists, literary critics and historians of women’s history have been attempting to answer this question since the early-1980s. In 1981 women’s studies scholar, Bonnie Zimmerman, proposed a new critical stance with which to approach written texts. This stance, she explained, ‘involves peering into the shadows, into the spaces between words, into what has been unspoken and barely imagined. It is a perilous critical adventure with results that may violate accepted norms of traditional criticism, but which may also transform our notions of literary possibility.’[1]

In the 1990s, author R. Amy Elman echoed Zimmerman’s call for oppositional reading in an exploration of lesbians and the Holocaust. Elman acknowledged that, due to a reluctance among scholars to deal with the matter of women’s sexualities, their subjects may have felt the need to ‘conform and conceal their most intriguing thoughts and intimate feelings.’ This, she argued, is partly responsible for the dearth of women’s first-person narratives of the Holocaust that include clear-cut queer content. She explained that, ‘with little evidence, we are forced to, “read between the lines.” This does not mean that one discovers lesbians where none exists. Rather, […] one is especially careful to avoid presumptions of heterosexuality. After all, assertions of heterosexuality […] have frequently furnished many gays and lesbians with protection from identification, arrest and, sometimes, even death.’[2]

Elman’s reading of Anne Frank’s diary is particularly convincing. She pointed out that Anne was initially repulsed by the notion of befriending Peter van Daan, and before going into hiding, had expressed feeling attracted to some of her girlfriends. Despite this, Elman argued, ‘her relationship to Peter has not been dismissed as an adolescent act exacerbated by dire circumstances and the absence of female companionship.’ Yet, despite this, and in spite of the approaches put forward by the likes of Zimmerman, among others, historians and scholars remain reluctant to approach women’s Holocaust testimonies by ‘“reading between the lines.”’[3]

As recently as 2015, and in a book explicitly dedicated to women’s experiences under Nazism, for example, Beverley Chalmers devoted a mere three paragraphs to lesbian love. She felt it important to note that ‘conditions in camps […] facilitated lesbianism. Fear and loneliness, friendships, and the absence of men, led to women seeking comfort from other women.’[4] Yet, this seems a bold, outdated, and particularly heterosexist claim to make.

It  may, of course, be true that some women in concentration camps engaged in same-sex relationships because of a lack of access to men. But to presume that all did so, or to read all women’s memoirs from a heterosexual standpoint, overlooks the complexity of their narratives. Might there be something a little queer in some women’s descriptions of same-sex relationships? Might some personal, sexual anxieties exist in the documented accidental glances, the curiosity to watch, or the ambiguous responses to sex between women? If they’re of no significance, why have some women included such details in their published testimonies at all? And above all, what might we miss if we refuse to acknowledge the possible existence of a queer subtext? Perhaps 2019 is the time to make heterosexist historical readings history.

Rosie Ramsden is a second year doctoral candidate in the Department of Arts, Design and Social Sciences at Northumbria University. In 2017, she was awarded a three-year studentship to conduct further research into women’s experiences and representations of the Holocaust, following the work she carried out during my MA at the University of Leeds. The working title of her doctoral thesis is ‘Women’s Holocaust Testimony: Gender, Reception, and Canon-formation.’ She interested in women’s memoir and narration, gendered recall and gendered experience, and queer histories of the Holocaust.

Bibliography

Chalmers, Beverley. Birth, Sex and Abuse. Surrey: Grosvenor House, 2015.

Elman, Amy R. ‘Lesbians and the Holocaust.’ Women and the Holocaust: Narrative and Representation, ed. by Esther Fuchs, 9 – 17. Lanham: University of America Press.

Zimmerman, Bonnie. ‘What Has Never Been: An Overview of Lesbian Feminist Literary Criticism.’ Feminist Studies, 7:3. (Autumn, 1981): 451 – 475.

Endnotes

[1] Zimmerman, ‘What Has Never Been’, 460.

[2]Elman, ‘Lesbians and the Holocaust,’ 9 – 10.

[3]Ibid., 14 – 15.

[4]Chalmers, Birth, Sex and Abuse, 187.

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Holocaust, Home and Memory in Literature

Getto_w_Międzyrzeczu_Podlaskim

The following post has been adapted from the author’s contribution to a Holocaust Memorial Day vigil, held in the Winter Garden, Sheffield City Centre on 28.01.19.

 The home, both as a place of dwelling and as a more abstract yet instinctive sense of belonging, is a frequently evoked image within Holocaust literature. Home can mean many different things to different people: it can constitute a country of origin or birth, encompass friends and family and is often central to the creation of selfhood and identity. Yet to not have a home, to be home-less, is a fear (or realisation) that can be universally related to. The act of being ‘torn from home’—this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day theme—whether a house, nation, people or a combination of all three, affected all those who experienced the Shoah to some degree. Under Nazi persecution, European Jews were dispossessed of land and property, were forced to evacuate their homes to be deported or killed, or to go into hiding. They were also physically displaced in ghettos and/or camps. Those who survived returned to homes and formerly thriving communities destroyed by war, and faced the very difficult task of re-establishing new ones.

The home features in the work of Holocaust memoirists, in survivor testimonies, film, graphic novels, poetry and other media. In many instances, it remains an image of hope for refugees and those imprisoned and forced into slave labour in concentration camps – although, as late survivor Jean Cayrol reflects, to linger on memories and dreams of home was often detrimental to survival. In Charlotte Delbo’s short story ‘The Teddy Bear’, the uniting power of the word ‘home’ is enough to carry the author and her fellow inmates through a Christmas Eve dinner spent in a death camp, even when spoken in another language. ‘The Frenchwomen […] tried to repeat the magic words’ of their Polish inmates, Delbo writes.[1] ‘Do domou, do domou—at home.’[2]

In other accounts, the home is an irrevocably ruined construction: a traumatic reminder of a pre-war past. In her autobiography A Lesser Child, Kindertransport refugee Karen Gershon had to write about her ‘German self’ in the third person as ‘Kate’ and in her mother tongue when articulating the traumatic experience of growing up as a child in Nazi Germany, which she escaped in 1938 after Kristallnacht.

For those with families who survived, the postwar return home at least meant reuniting with loved ones. Yet repatriation was often a disillusioning process for survivors, some of whom were welcomed by racial hostility and violence as well as stolen property. Even the voyage back was itself arduous: many prisoners freed from camps were malnourished and diseased, with either no means of getting home or a lengthy journey ahead of them via rail or foot. Primo Levi’s The Truce documents the treacherous journey home across Europe from Auschwitz to Italy, which entailed further starvation, marching and work in a Russian rehabilitation camp before reaching his homeland nine months after liberation.

The alternative to these desolate realities was the adaptation of victims to new wartime lives and temporary homes – as was the case with Anne Frank and her family, who took refuge, in Amsterdam, 1933, from an increasingly hostile antisemitic climate in Germany. The hiding place of Anne Frank and her family from July 1942—an attic in the building of her father’s business—constitutes perhaps the most famous example of the home in collective Holocaust memory and literature, visited by thousands each year. Much of the global interest in the Anne Frank House owes to its authentic traces of a life that continued despite perilous political and domestic conditions. These include the displayed pages of Anne’s diary and posters of German film stars cut from magazines and plastered onto walls, which gesture toward the popular culture of the period and illustrate the interests of a ‘normal’ (albeit persecuted and later revered) teenager. The diary itself provides an intimate portrait of a home life filled with the happiness and tensions of a typical family despite limited space and the ever-present fear of their discovery.

Sites such as Auschwitz, however, represent the antithesis of home. This is exemplified by Polish survivor Tadeusz Borowski’s ironic use of the phrase ‘Auschwitz, Our Home’ as one of his short stories in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.

The luxury of being able to choose one’s home rests on their right to move. Today, this is increasingly undermined and threatened by the strictures of hard borders and tightened immigration laws. Among those who are unable to pinpoint a specific location or physical construction they call home are refugees and asylum seekers – an especially important consideration on Holocaust Memorial Day.

On July 23, 1943, Anne Frank wrote of her wish ‘to be able to move around freely’ in her own home despite her successful assimilation into a new culture, language and way of life in the Netherlands.[3] This desire deeply resonates with the kinds of discourse surrounding EU separation and an escalating global refugee crisis exacerbated by detainment and deportations. It also exposes the fact that, contrary to erroneous depictions of migrants as job-takers and exploiters of national services, many refugees long to return home to a place of familiarity, but are prevented from doing so due to circumstances beyond their control. An event often described as historically ‘unique’, this reminds us that the persecution of minorities central to the Holocaust is not confined to the past, but manifests today in the refusal of a home or place of safety within society to those targeted on the basis of race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or gender.

Emily-Rose Baker is a second-year WRoCAH funded PhD student based in the School of English at the University of Sheffield. Her research examines central-eastern European Holocaust memory and dreams in the post-communist era.

[1] Charlotte Delbo, ‘The Teddy Bear’, Auschwitz and After: Second Edition, trans. by Rosette C. Lamount (London: Yale University Press, 1995) p.164.

[2] Delbo, p.164.

[3] Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl: Definitive Edition, eds. Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler (London: Penguin, 2011) p.112.

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