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Past in the Making

Michal Kopecek

The Anti-Fascist Myth of the German Democratic Republic and Its Decline after 1989

Ingo Loose

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1After the end of World War II the Allies and the Germans themselves had to solve the questions of how to safeguard freedom and democracy, and how to deal with the heritage and moral burden of National Socialism, the Holocaust, and an unbelievable scale of devastation throughout Europe. While the Western parts of Germany soon found encouraging support in their Western Allies, the Soviet occupied zone (SBZ) was in a much worse situation. The onset of the Cold War finally led to the foundation of two German states, based on very different political conceptions and on mutual aversion. Such foundations are usually accompanied by myths, used by political communities for the sake of self-presentation and for integration, both elements of national identity. The contents of political myths in modern history usually show very different patterns—between fairy tales and real events in history, which are interpreted in a mythical way. The main difference, however, between political myths and professional historiography is that myths often focus not on the events themselves but on their results and meaning in the (self-)perception of a country. Moreover, every myth presents itself as an authoritative, factual account. In contrast, historiography must always attempt to render its narratives plausible.

2This paper aims to outline two aspects: 1. the main stages in the rise and decline of the anti-fascist myth in the GDR; and 2. the social and mental consequences of confronting GDR citizens with Nazi inclinations after 1989—something which had not been allowed for decades. All of this is, of course, deeply embedded in the process of transformation which the communist states in Central and Eastern Europe have gone through since then and which was accompanied by historically shaped conflicts on almost all levels of social, economic and political life. However, the case of the GDR is a peculiar one, predominantly with regard to two aspects:

  1. In contrast to other countries of Eastern Central Europe, the GDR as an independent state ceased to exist with German unification in 1990. Dealing with the time period from this point on we have to speak of “the former GDR” or of “the five new federal states” (die fünf neuen Bundesländer) or simply of East Germany. This is not only a simple façon de parler but gives a double perspective on the topic (a German and an East German one)—a different perspective from those of countries that continued their existence, although un-der new political circumstances.1
  2. The example of historical revision (and I do not speak of “revisionism” now) directly concerns the role of Germany and the Germans during World War II. The GDR as a member of the Soviet Bloc always played a unique role, and not only because of its geographic and strategic location, or because of the unsolved German question. In 1949, the construction of an anti-fascist state on German soil, which presented itself as a good friend of countries which had been victims of German Nazism only a few years before, was for many people very far from convincing. Reading the relevant archival materials, one can see to what extent the so-called “eternal brotherhood” between, for instance, the GDR and Poland, was simply a hoax, and how unfriendly the countries remained to each other until the end in 1989.2
  • 3 Herfried Münkler, “Antifaschismus als Gründungsmythos der DDR. Abgrenzungsinstrument nach Westen u (...)
  • 4 See Ingo Loose, “‘Blind wie die Schlafwandler war das deutsche Volk.’ Die Debatte um die Schuld de (...)

3The basis for German anti-Fascism was the Comintern’s definition of Fascism in 1935, which went far beyond the classical characterization of Italy and Nazi Germany as fascist states, and made it possible to stigmatize almost any non-communist political orientation as “fascist.” On this very meager theoretical basis Fascism, as the most radical form of imperialistic monopoly capitalism, was—for the regime of the GDR, too—not specifically a German phenomenon, but only one stage, albeit a terrible one, in the march of history towards Communism. National Socialism was therefore not typically German, but had at least a European dimension. Fascism in Germany admittedly had been more brutal and aggressive than in Spain and Italy, but only due to the fact that the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat had already achieved a higher level in Germany. In fact, after 1945, for many Germans, who had more or less passively benefited from the Nazi regime or at least definitely did not belong to its victims, this was not an unwelcome interpretation of their own role; it released them from responsibility for the period after 1933.3 In this way, the Nazis almost immediately and entirely disappeared right after the war—first in the Soviet occupied zone and after 1949 in the GDR—and were to be found (according to the propaganda) only in the Federal Republic of Germany, where they often continued their careers without any regard to their “brown” past.4

  • 5 Wörterbuch der Geschichte, Vol. 1: A–K (Berlin [East]: Dietz, 1984): 43–46.
  • 6 Münkler, “Antifaschismus als Gründungsmythos der DDR,” pp. 91–92; Jeffrey Herf, Zweierlei Erinneru (...)
  • 7 See Dietrich Orlow, “The GDR’s failed search for a national identity, 1945–1989,” in German Studie (...)
  • 8 Raina Zimmering, Mythen in der Politik der DDR. Ein Beitrag zur Erforschung politischer Mythen [My (...)
  • 9 Jürgen Danyel, “Die Opfer- und Verfolgtenperspektive als Gründungskonsens? Zum Umgang mit der Wide (...)

4Moreover, the Soviet occupied zone of Germany, as the puppet government itself put it, went through a so-called “anti-fascist democratic revolution” (antifaschistisch-demokratische Umwälzung5), which implied that full de-Nazification and democratization became realities only in the Soviet-controlled territories of Germany. In that respect, the end of the war was a sort of double disruption: a disruption in time, which drew an allegedly sharp line between National Socialism and the “purified” GDR; and a geographical one, which broadened the gap between the GDR and “fascist” West Germany and strengthened the former’s self image as a democratic, anti-fascist, and therefore anti-imperialist state.6 From this double break, which functioned as a combination of conspiracy threat and denial of guilt, the GDR gained a high degree of political legitimacy which lasted throughout its existence up to 1989, especially among the intelligentsia, although the GDR’s search for its own national identity failed.7 The myth of being anti-fascist, by defining Fascism, absolving the masses and identifying the new-old enemy in the West, convinced many people (and the regime itself) that the GDR and its population belonged to the victims of Fascism and at the same time to the winning side in history, but definitely not to the perpetrators of Nazi crimes or the losers of 20thcentury history.8 When the public discourse about Nazi victims was politicized, conflicts soon arose between the regime and the victims’ organizations, which were forced to dissolve or to adapt themselves to the official interpretation of Nazism.9

  • 10 Münkler, “Antifaschismus als Gründungsmythos der DDR,” pp. 82–83; Sigrid Meuschel, Legitimation un (...)
  • 11 See Hellmut Butterweck, Verurteilt und begnadigt. Österreich und seine NS-Straftäter [Sentenced an (...)

5This political strategy received backing from such prominent writers as Anna Seghers or the Buchenwald survivor Bruno Apitz, who cultivated the picture of a significant German communist resistance movement against National Socialism. No other state in Eastern Central Europe, then, drew so much legitimization from its foundation myths as the GDR did, and in no other state was the political legitimacy and the survival of the regime so dependent on them.10 The case of postwar Austria, however, bears a certain potential for comparison, because the principle of whitewashing one’s own history by “outsourcing the evil” (“Austria—the first victim of National Socialism”) seems to be quite similar to those behind the processes in the SBZ and the early GDR.11


6In the 1970s and 1980s, the population of the German Democratic Republic was kept well-informed about life and reality in Western Europe—by West German television. For the regime in East Berlin this was a structural threat that needed to be overcome, because the Western way of life, broadcast to almost every household, pitilessly exposed the growing gap between socialist theory and real life in the GDR and paved the way for the opposition movement of the 1980s.

  • 12 Annette Simon, “Antifaschismus als Loyalitätsfalle” [Anti-fascism as a trap for loyalty], in Manfr (...)

7The process of the decline of the anti-fascist myth, then, did not begin at the end of the 1980s, but much earlier.12 There are good arguments, for instance, to support the interpretation of the erection of the so-called “antifascist security wall” (antifaschistischer Schutzwall) in August 1961, and the preceding flight of tens of thousands of skilled workers across the green border of Berlin, as proof of the weakness of the myth itself. The inevitable ruin of its legitimizing capability, however, was linked to the rise of activities which could properly be termed “opposition,” at least from the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s onwards. This inevitable process of delegitimization depended also on the generational change in the 1970s and the appearance of a political elite with no personal experience of war or Nazism.

8Nevertheless, the myth of the GDR’s anti-fascist foundation in October 1949 was not easily overcome even after 1989. Undoubtedly, the very specific perception of the German Nazi rule was at that time deeply rooted in the GDR’s self-definition (and partly self-deception) and therefore still played a decisive role in the legitimization of the regime and its adherents, but most probably also for the vast majority of the East Germans, who had long ago adopted anti-Fascism as part of their East German national identity. Therefore, anti-Fascism as part of one’s self-definition does not automatically testify to lively support of the regime. The depth and thoroughness of the ideological breakdown of 1989 may be illustrated by a passage taken from Jana Hensel’s extraordinarily successful essay (13 editions in the first two years) about the “Children of the Zone” (which means the GDR):

  • 13 Jana Hensel, Zonenkinder [Children of the Zone] (Berlin: Rowohlt, 2003), pp. 108, 110–112. Transla (...)

There is only one item that we did not discuss before or after the fall of the Berlin Wall: during the history lessons of our youth, we were all anti-fascists. Our grandparents, parents, and neighbors—everybody was anti-fascist … The brochures of the pioneer movement were full of stories about the life of Ernst Thälmann, called Teddy, and of other workers’ activists. Whenever I thought about the Second World War, we were all somehow members of the White Rose or used to meet clandestinely in the courtyard and cellars to organize resistance and to print flyers. The war did not take place in our country. The world around me had begun in 1945, previously, however, nothing worth mentioning had happened.

Then, I became aware that we had never talked about those things. We did not know what our grandparents had done, whether they had been collaborators or in the resistance movement. We were born as a contemporary generation into a country of the past, which had extinguished questions and awful histories.13

  • 14 See Michael Tetzlaff, Ostblöckchen. Neues aus der Zone [Small Eastern Bloc. News from the zone] (F (...)

9Besides Hensel, who was born in Leipzig in 1976, several other authors have published books dealing with the psychological situation in which the Germans of the former GDR found themselves after 1989.14 This cognitive distortion in thinking about National Socialism did not vanish automatically but turned out to be a long-term issue, which makes the topic relevant not only for historians, but for sociologists and teachers as well.


10In fact, Fascism in Germany is by no means extinct; on the contrary it gained strength and spread wider after 1989 as neo-Fascism and anti-Semitism, especially in the territory of the former GDR. Discussing neo-Fascism in united Germany, I would like to raise the issue of possible links between the destruction of the myth on the one hand and the antidemocratic and anti-Semitic tendencies among the younger generation in the “five new states” in recent years on the other hand. Does historical revision—even if it is done by professional historians and based on methodological standards—commonly tend to be misused for more radical and far-right propaganda and ideology? Alternatively, is this phenomenon a peculiar heritage of the GDR’s specific and one-sided way of dealing with history? Describing the myth as a historical phenomenon is one thing; the long-term consequences for the whole of German society and especially for the Eastern territories are another far more complicated issue.

11It is striking in this context, that the word “revisionist,” used in connection with history, has a very specific meaning in German. In scholarly historiography, revision carries the neutral meaning of disproving false theses, theories, and interpretations. Within the German political far right, however, the notion means the justification of National Socialism and its crimes and is, therefore, a fundamental part of extremist thinking: the raison d’être, so to speak, of the whole movement. This re-interpretation of history is carried out by comparing Nazi crimes with those of other regimes (especially those of the Soviet Union under Stalin), by questioning German responsibility for the outbreak of World War II and for the occupation regimes throughout Europe, and even, last but not least, by the wholesale denial of the Holocaust (the “Auschwitz lie”). In addition, extremist revisionism interprets even reunited Germany not as a legitimate state, but as the artificial construction of the Allied forces. Therefore, one of the main goals of the German neo-fascist movement is territorial revisionism, which means the renegotiation of the German borders with Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, France and the Russian Federation.

  • 15 Heinrich Best and Axel Salheiser, “Shadows of the Past: National Socialist Backgrounds in East Ger (...)
  • 16 Bodo Ritscher, “Die NKWD/MWD-‘Speziallager’ in Deutschland. Anmerkungen zu einem Forschungsgegenst (...)
  • 17 Manfred Overesch, Buchenwald und die DDR oder die Suche nach Selbstlegitimation [Buchenwald and th (...)
  • 18 Wolfgang Küttler, “Auf den Inhalt kommt es an. Zum Verhältnis von Zeitgeschichtsforschung und Gesc (...)

12After 1989, for the first time many East Germans had to face the fact that after the war elder Nazis had found their livelihood in the GDR, and also that anti-Semitism and neo-Fascism were not foreign to the “first socialist state on German soil,” and that not a few of their grandparents were less “innocent” than they claimed to have been.15 Moreover, scholarship revealed that parts of the “sacred” socialist myth, which had regularly exaggerated the importance of German communist resistance after 1933, had to be rewritten and that a number of former Nazi concentration camps, geographically situated in the GDR, had served as Soviet detention camps after 1945.16 In that respect, in commemorating united Germany’s geography there were, and still are, at least two very specific objects that held a double significance for history: Buchenwald17 and Sachsenhausen, both former Nazi concentration camps and both Soviet special camps for higher and lower-ranking Nazis as well as for members of the anticommunist opposition between 1945 and 1950. A whole historiography (at least as far as it dealt with the 20th century), then, was almost entirely discredited after 1989—except for source publications and works often written by historians who already found themselves on the margins of official political approval. After 1989, critical evaluations of Partycontrolled historiography were most often negative. At present, the communist or socialist way of explaining National Socialism has definitely no lobby, and there is no prospect of this changing.18

  • 19 Hans Henning Hahn and Eva Hahn, “Mythos ‘Vertreibung,’” pp. 167–188; see also Eva Hahn’s paper in (...)
  • 20 See Konrad Weiß, “Gefahr von Rechts” [Danger from the right], in Freiheit und Öffentlichkeit. Poli (...)

13As in other countries of Eastern Central Europe, German scholarly and public revisionism since 1989 means to do far more than merely fill the gaps left by earlier official propaganda and historiography. Maybe the most serious “collateral damage” of the years following 1989 was the Germans’ growing interest in their own contemporary history and identity, expressed in the widely accepted slogan: “What was not communist, Stalinist, or Soviet, cannot be so evil—not even National Socialism.” The flight and expulsion of the Germans from the East during the last months of the war and the first postwar years stand now in the center of the Germans’ interest in history. Günter Grass’ novel Im Krebsgang (2002) in particular led to an unholy debate on whether guilt and suffering can be compared or even equated.19 The belief that the Nazis had committed crimes on an incredible scale could be queried, especially in East Germany, as part of former communist propaganda, and thus hugely exaggerated or even untrue. If socialism and anti-Fascism were identical, then Fascism was automatically equal to criticism of socialism, which was blamed for all the problems of everyday life.20 Sociologists may wonder to what extent teachers of history, freshly and hastily imported from the West, played their part in the failure of historical “reorientation” after 1989. The sharp and immediate caesura was regarded by many pupils as a deliberate paradigm shift on the whole issue. History as a topic was, then, part of the same “game” in life, in which the East Germans felt themselves once again subject to the “supervision” and propaganda of the historical winner. Having learnt a pragmatic approach to everyday life before 1989, many Germans retained it afterwards, regarding every political narrative, including historical narrative, as highly relative or even irrelevant. This approach became (and most probably remains) a good basis for the spread of right-wing and extremist ideas, especially among the disillusioned younger generation.

14On the other hand, since 1989, the anti-fascist ideal has often been upheld by those who had been higher officials or politicians in the former GDR. This is why the problem of growing neo-Fascism did not seem to be so acute during the 1990s, because former party officials in power in the political structures of the Eastern states held on to their ideals and often ignored or downplayed warnings that harm could still be expected from the Nazi past. Moreover, with the growing temporal distance from 1989 many East Germans developed a certain nostalgic sentiment for the “good old socialist days” (“Eastalgia,” in German “Ostalgie”), mainly based upon economic terms (e. g., specific foodstuffs and other products “Made in the GDR”) and the conviction that the “real GDR” would definitely not return. With regard to these advocates of previous times (of course, not all “ostalgics” are adherents of the old regime), one may say that anti-Fascism now serves as a sort of exculpation strategy. Ostensibly, they agreed to serve the totalitarian regime in order to avoid something worse. Among their supporters there were also Western left-wing intellectuals who were upset by the loss of what they had had by promoting the positive aspects of the GDR in the West. Many writers and artists from the GDR, too, now argue that their support and sympathy for the Eastern “democratic Germany” was part of their anti-fascist heritage, which had been summed up immediately after the War in the slogan: “Never again!” There is no reason to doubt that many Germans honestly tried to draw consequences from the past. However, the associations of Nazi victims in West Germany never gained a political voice but were mostly ignored, especially in the strictly conservative 1950s. It was the expellees who succeeded in promoting themselves at all levels of political representation. However, the great self-deception of the left in West Germany after the 1960s was that common anti-Fascism paved the way for sympathy for the GDR, or rather for a utopian picture of the GDR, which all too often had little in common with reality and underestimated the totalitarian character of the regime. Moreover, this seriously disturbed the activities organized by several groups of Nazi victims, who have been very often perceived as leftist or pro-communist.

15One may argue, therefore, that the ideologically distorted way of talking and thinking about National Socialism in the GDR later hampered democratic traditions from taking root and flourishing among the rightwing subgroups of the East German population and thus prevented the consolidation of social stability throughout the country. For many politicians and for scholars of politics, too, the starting point of the fight against neo-Nazism is therefore the popular, but scarcely proven hypothesis, that it might be sufficient to tell the people the whole truth about Nazi crimes to turn them into convinced democrats and to condemn the right-wing parties to total insignificance. The thesis of a strong link between knowledge of the past and democracy is, of course, not intended to serve as a monocausal explanation for all the misfortunes of the East after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nevertheless, the extreme right and neo-fascist movement undoubtedly gained strength because at least part of the population did not benefit economically from the unification process. The political parties from the West, hastily imported into the five new states, as well as the post-SED party named the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) did not provide proper answers to the uncertainties and conflicts after 1990. Many people then voted for the extreme right because everything that was not communist seemed to be a real alternative or, at least, offered an opportunity for protest.

  • 21 Richard Stöss, Rechtsextremismus im Wandel [Changing right-wing extremism] (Berlin: Friedrich-Eber (...)

16It is undoubtedly very difficult to find empirically reliable proof of a link between social shortcomings, political orientations, and the need for simple historical narratives and idols. However, it can hardly be denied that such a link exists. The figures about the extremist evolution in East Germany are far from ambiguous.21 Since the second half of the 1990s, the center of the German neo-fascist movement has been located in East Germany, with a widening organizational structure and with everimproving results in local and federal elections. Since then, the East Germans have been far more prone to vote for extremist parties than their Western co-nationals. Or to put it another way, the openly declared sympathy of the neo-fascists for the Nazi movement no longer scares people away from voting for such a party but has sometimes even become an additional reason.

17All the transition problems mentioned turned out to be a “brown curse” in the new states. I would like to give only three examples:

  1. Just before the inauguration of the FIFA World Cup in Germany in 2006, the former speaker of the German government, Uwe-Karsten Heye, published an announcement in which he advised foreign travelers not to enter so-called no-go areas in the states, for instance, of Brandenburg and Saxony in order to avoid being attacked or even killed. Although Heye’s announcement was criticized by politicians as an exaggeration, he was only revealing an open secret, and it is no accident that similar warnings can already be found in American tourist guides.22
  2. In Mecklenburg–West Pomerania (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) in the local elections of 17 September 2006, the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) won 7.3 percent and six seats in the local Schwerin parliament. In some districts, more than 10 or even 15 percent of the electorate voted for the NPD, which turned out to be a magnet for protest votes (it is also true that in the parliament of Saxony the NPD deputies turned out to be totally incompetent and prone to every sort of scandal).23
  3. In the first eight months of 2006 the number of crimes (often involving violence) committed by neo-Nazis in Germany increased dramatically by more than 20 percent in comparison with 2005, reaching nearly 8,000 cases altogether. From 2004 to 2005 the number of neo-fascist crimes increased from 12,000 to almost 16,000, of which 958 cases (a rise of almost 25 percent) led to (sometimes severe) injuries.24 Xenophobic, anti-Semitic and neo-fascist attacks have reached an openness and level of aggression which remind the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Charlotte Knobloch, of the situation after 1933. Knobloch recently warned that these tendencies should be seen not as “regrettable single cases,” but as a very frightening phenomenon. 25True, in 2007 Germany has spent 24 million euros on educational programs against neo-Fascism. However, one may wonder whether the successful defeat of neo-Nazism depends only on how much money the state pumps into such programs.

18Analysts wonder whether the NPD has won most of its votes through its policy of historical purification, directed not only against the heritage of the GDR, but also against the anti-fascist consensus in the Federal Re-public of Germany. Provocations such as open admiration for Adolf Hitler, his deputy Rudolf Hess, and other Nazi villains do not detract from, but, on the contrary, only add to the popularity of the NPD. There is most probably no other issue where the German tradition of acknowledging guilt and political and ethical liability can be hit so directly as by stirring up pseudo-historical discussions (for example the question of whether the Allied bombing of the city of Dresden in February 1945 can be called a “Bombing Holocaust” because of its lack of military necessity).

19In targeting the political establishment, the neo-fascist groups are also targeting its historical conventions. If the establishment is unable to pro-vide enough work, stability, and social security, its political and historical background is not worth mentioning either. For the far-right revisionists, history definitely has no meaning for its own sake, but serves only as a means for delegitimizing the enemy and winning the support of the discontented. No wonder, then, that all these groups are supported mostly by deeply dissatisfied and disorientated people. This tendency has turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The neo-Nazis frighten tourists as well as investors from abroad, who spend their money rather in Bavaria, for instance, than in Brandenburg or Mecklenburg, whose economies largely depend on tourism. The far-right parties’ popularity stems from their simplistic answers to complex questions, and since they are not in power, they can promise whatever they want. Unemployment in the East, then, creates a new wave of voters for the NPD. To its strength may contribute the fact that their strategy for dealing with the Nazi past has more than one parallel with the GDR’s—by blaming only a small group of criminals (capitalists after 1945, some Nazi super-villains like Himmler and Goebbels after 1989)—Himmler might have been a “bad guy,” but in Germany at that time there was order and obedience, and Hitler at least initiated the building of the German autobahns.


20As I have already pointed out, the case of the GDR is only one peculiar example of the transformation process which the Central European countries went through during the 1990s. In addition, anti-Fascism and its long-term echoes are only one topic within a whole transformation process that permeated and influenced almost every aspect of everyday life in the countries of the former Soviet bloc. The basic question is, to what extent concerns with the past adds anything to political legitimization and in which way revisions of tabooed historical issues affect this legitimization. However, this theoretical approach also has its limitations, for it is already a subject of lively discussion in Western democracies. How much legitimacy is needed for political systems to remain stable? The thesis, then, that the GDR’s bankruptcy was closely linked to a total loss of legitimacy, definitely has much plausibility, but the problem of how to ex-plain a population’s behavior remains. The problem of how to overcome the historical myths that lay at the basis of state foundations in Eastern Europe after the end of World War II is a common one, not limited to the GDR. The fact is that this issue is not only an inspiring source of discussion among historians, but has long-term consequences and repercussions for the whole of German society and for that of the rest of Eastern Central Europe.

21It is doubtful whether the specific concept of anti-Fascism, as it was used and understood in the GDR, can be an area for comparison with other countries of the former Soviet bloc, which suffered from Nazi occupation, while the GDR emerged from the “land of the perpetrators.” The cleansing function that anti-Fascism had in Germany after the Second World War, was in other countries of the former Soviet bloc rather linked, if it came up at all, with the issue of collaboration, and therefore played a much smaller role than anti-Fascism in the GDR and in the whole of Germany.

22Moreover, as we have seen, anti-Fascism was also employed in West Germany, both as a founding principle for the state and as a basis for ideological attacks on the “Nazi-like” totalitarian regime in the GDR. Anti-Fascism was available for use and misuse in both the FRG and the GDR; the difference lay in the way it was defined and also in the fact that in the FRG, where freedom of opinion and speech prevailed, the concept of anti-Fascism was open to change.

  • 26 See Wolfgang Templin, “NRD i RFN. Aneksja zamiast zjednoczenia” [GDR and FRG. Annexation instead o (...)

23The extraordinarily large number of publications dealing with the history of the GDR may give the illusion that there is or might be something like a common historical perspective throughout reunited Germany about what happened before 1989 and what has happened since; and about the long-term heritage of the GDR, and its contribution, for instance, to a reunited Germany history. Was it the democratic unification of the two parts that had always belonged to each other, or the annexation of the weak East by the rich and arrogant West?26 Despite the ever-improving factographical basis, the unified if not petrified vision of the past that the GDR historians have left us with remains part of today’s discourse. The failure to create a single version of Fascism or anti-Fascism leads us to the question of the importance of anti-Fascism in post-1989 East Germany— on a long-term scale as well as in comparison with the whole transformation process, which contains much more difficult and painful problems to be solved. Blaming the former GDR for all the social and political shortcomings that are still apparent, over 15 years after German unification, has become an exculpation strategy in politics. One may wonder, then, for how long neo-Fascism will continue to be explained by pre-1989 education and propaganda.

  • 27 Bernd Kauffmann, and Basil Kerski, eds., Antisemitismus und Erinnerungskulturen im postkommunistis (...)

24Thinking over the history of Nazism (the “Geschichtsaufarbeitung”) in Germany had and still has a strong influence on views of history in general, although the aftermath of the GDR (for example, the ousting of former members of the Staatssicherheit), touches more people, and more directly, than the aftermath of National Socialism did some decades ago. One of the main obstacles to building a new cohesive national identity has turned out to be the Holocaust. The former communist regime had severe problems, to say the least, in coming to terms with the increasingly central position of the Holocaust in the framework of a common European culture of commemoration.27 Before 1989, for the East Germans there had actually not been any Holocaust, because the exterminated European Jews had been covered by the term “victims of Fascism.” Now, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East Germans who were inclined to feel like victims of history have found themselves confronted by a competing group that undoubtedly went through a much more brutal experience than the Germans themselves. What is more, some commentators interpreted the GDR as the logical—and therefore justified—result of the Nazi crimes against mankind, as if the East Germans had to pay for the entire German nation. In that respect, one may argue, it is little wonder that anti-Semitism has spread rapidly throughout all sectors of society in the new states. Similar reactions, however, can be observed in the states of the “old” Federal Re-public Germany, so this state of affairs is not entirely characteristic of the former GDR.

25A compromise between independent historiography on the one hand, and some kind of enlightening historical education on the other is and will remain problematic. Historiography as a human science should always try to reduce ideological impetus to a minimum, but it is also clear that history will remain subject to political interpretation, if not instrumentalization. Anti-Fascism in the GDR and its repercussions may serve as a good example of how easily historiography can lose its last vestige of objectivity and become a self-service institution for every sort of political intention.


1 For a broader context see Konrad Jarausch, Die Umkehr. Deutsche Wandlungen 1945–1995 [Turning Back. German changes 1945–1995] (Munich: DVA, 2004), pp. 243–316.

2 See Burkhard Olschowsky, “Die staatlichen Beziehungen zwischen der DDR und Polen” [International relations between the GDR and Poland], in Zwangsverordnete Freundschaft? Die Beziehungen zwischen der DDR und Polen 1949–1990 [Decreed friendship? Relations between the GDR and Poland, 1949–1990], Basil Kerski, Andrzej Kotula and Kazimierz Wóycicki, eds. (Osnabrück: Fibre, 2003), pp. 41–58; Mieczysław Tomala. “Eine Bilanz der offiziellen Beziehungen zwischen der DDR und Polen” [An account of official relations between the GDR and Poland], ibid., pp. 59–79.

3 Herfried Münkler, “Antifaschismus als Gründungsmythos der DDR. Abgrenzungsinstrument nach Westen und Herrschaftsmittel nach innen” [Anti-fascism as a founding myth of the GDR. Instrument of separation towards the West and instrument of power inside], in Der missbrauchte Antifaschismus. DDR-Staatsdoktrin und Lebenslüge der deutschen Linken [The abused anti-Fascism. State doctrine of the GDR and the existential lie of the German Left], Manfred Agethen, Eckhard Jesse and Ehrhart Neubert, eds., (Freiburg–Basel–Vienna: Herder, 2002), pp. 79–99, here 84.

4 See Ingo Loose, “‘Blind wie die Schlafwandler war das deutsche Volk.’ Die Debatte um die Schuld der Deutschen in der Korrespondenz zwischen Hermann Broch und Volkmar von Zühlsdorff 1945 bis 1949.” [“As blind as sleepwalkers were the Germans.” The debate on the Germans’ guilt in the correspondence between Hermann Broch and Volkmar von Zühlsdorff 1945–1949], in Zeitschrift für Germanistik [new series] 15, No. 3 (2005): 592–609, especially 597, 602–604.

5 Wörterbuch der Geschichte, Vol. 1: A–K (Berlin [East]: Dietz, 1984): 43–46.

6 Münkler, “Antifaschismus als Gründungsmythos der DDR,” pp. 91–92; Jeffrey Herf, Zweierlei Erinnerung. Die NS-Vergangenheit im geteilten Deutschland [Different memories. The Nazi past in divided Germany] (Berlin: Propyläen, 1998); Annette Leo, “Keine gemeinsame Erinnerung. Geschichtsbewusstsein in Ost und West,” [No common memory. Sense of history in East and West] in Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte No. B 0–41/2003 (29 September 2003): 27–32.

7 See Dietrich Orlow, “The GDR’s failed search for a national identity, 1945–1989,” in German Studies Review 29, Vol. 3 (2006): 537–558.

8 Raina Zimmering, Mythen in der Politik der DDR. Ein Beitrag zur Erforschung politischer Mythen [Myths in politics of the GDR. A contribution to research on political myths] (Opladen: Leske & Budrich, 2000).

9 Jürgen Danyel, “Die Opfer- und Verfolgtenperspektive als Gründungskonsens? Zum Umgang mit der Widerstandstradition und der Schuldfrage in der DDR” [The perspective of victims of persecution as a founding consensus? On dealing with resistance tradition and the question of guilt in the GDR], in Die geteilte Vergangenheit. Zum Umgang mit Nationalsozialismus und Widerstand in beiden deutschen Staaten [Divided past. Dealing with National Socialism and resistance in both German states], Jürgen Danyel, ed. (Berlin: Akademie, 1995), pp. 31–46.

10 Münkler, “Antifaschismus als Gründungsmythos der DDR,” pp. 82–83; Sigrid Meuschel, Legitimation und Parteiherrschaft in der DDR. Zum Paradox von Stabilität und Revolution in der DDR 1945–1989 [Legitimacy and party rule in the GDR. On the aradox of stability and revolution in the GDR 1945–1989] (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1992); Olaf Groehler, “Verfolgten- und Opfergruppen im Spannungsfeld der politischen Auseinandersetzungen in der Sowjetischen Besatzungszone und in der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik” [The victims’ associations in the area of political conflicts in the Soviet Occupation Zone and the German Democratic Republic] in Jürgen Danyel, ed., Die geteilte Vergangenheit, pp. 17–30, especially 17–18.

11 See Hellmut Butterweck, Verurteilt und begnadigt. Österreich und seine NS-Straftäter [Sentenced and reprieved. Austria and its Nazi criminals] (Vienna: Czernin, 2003); Heinz P. Wassermann, Naziland Österreich? Studien zu Antisemitismus, Nation und Nationalsozialismus im öffentlichen Meinungsbild [Nazi land Austria? Studies on anti- Semitism, nation and National Socialism in public opinion] (Innsbruck: Studien-Verlag, 2002).

12 Annette Simon, “Antifaschismus als Loyalitätsfalle” [Anti-fascism as a trap for loyalty], in Manfred Agethen, Eckhard Jesse and Ehrhart Neubert, eds., Der missbrauchte Antifaschismus, pp. 145–154, here 150.

13 Jana Hensel, Zonenkinder [Children of the Zone] (Berlin: Rowohlt, 2003), pp. 108, 110–112. Translation by the author.

14 See Michael Tetzlaff, Ostblöckchen. Neues aus der Zone [Small Eastern Bloc. News from the zone] (Frankfurt/M.: Schöffling, 2004); Internationale Erich-Fromm-Gesellschaft, ed., Die Charaktermauer. Zur Psychoanalyse des Gesellschafts-Charakters in Ost- und Westdeutschland [The character wall. On the psychoanalysis of societal character in East and West Germany] (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1995); Brigitte Rauschenbach, ed., Erinnern, Wiederholen, Durcharbeiten. Zur Psycho-Analyse deutscher Wenden [Remembering, repeating, working through. On the psychoanalysis of German changes] (Berlin: Aufbau, 1992).

15 Heinrich Best and Axel Salheiser, “Shadows of the Past: National Socialist Backgrounds in East German Industrial Research,” in German Studies Review 29, Vol. 3 (2006): 589–602.

16 Bodo Ritscher, “Die NKWD/MWD-‘Speziallager’ in Deutschland. Anmerkungen zu einem Forschungsgegenstand” [NKWD/MWD special camps in Germany. Some comments on a subject of research] in Jürgen Danyel, ed., Die geteilte Vergangenheit, pp. 163–179.

17 Manfred Overesch, Buchenwald und die DDR oder die Suche nach Selbstlegitimation [Buchenwald and the GDR or the search for self-legitimization] (Göttingen: Vanden hoeck & Ruprecht, 1995); Manfred Agethen, “Gedenkstätten und antifaschistische Erinnerungskultur in der DDR” [Memorials and anti-fascist commemoration culture in the GDR] in Manfred Agethen, Eckhard Jesse and Ehrhart Neubert, eds., Der missbrauchte Antifaschismus, pp. 128–144; Annette Leo, “‘Stimme und Faust der Nation…’— Thälmann-Kult kontra Antifaschismus” [‘Voice and fist of the nation…’—the Thälmann cult versus anti-Fascism], in Jürgen Danyel, ed., Die geteilte Vergangenheit, pp. 205–211, especially 208–209.

18 Wolfgang Küttler, “Auf den Inhalt kommt es an. Zum Verhältnis von Zeitgeschichtsforschung und Geschichtsdiskurs im neuvereinigten Deutschland” [The content matters. On the relationship between research on contemporary history and historical discourse in reunited Germany], in Jürgen Danyel, ed., Die geteilte Vergangenheit, pp. 143–149, here 147–148.

19 Hans Henning Hahn and Eva Hahn, “Mythos ‘Vertreibung,’” pp. 167–188; see also Eva Hahn’s paper in this volume; Günter Grass, Im Krebsgang [Crab walk] (Göttingen: Steidl, 2002); Hubert Orłowski, Przemoc—tabu—trauma ofiar: Wokół najnowszej powieści Güntera Grassa [Violence—taboo—trauma of the victims: On the latest novel of Günter Grass] (Poznań: Instytut Zachodni, 2002).

20 See Konrad Weiß, “Gefahr von Rechts” [Danger from the right], in Freiheit und Öffentlichkeit. Politischer Samisdat in der DDR 1985–1989 [Freedom and the public sphere. Political samizdat in the GDR, 1985–1989], Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, ed., (Berlin: Robert-Havemann-Gesellschaft, 2002), pp. 356–357.

21 Richard Stöss, Rechtsextremismus im Wandel [Changing right-wing extremism] (Berlin: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 2005), pp. 109–123.

22 “Zu Gast bei Freunden?” [A time to make friends?], Süddeutsche Zeitung (May 20, 2006); Ludwig Greven, “Brandenburg meiden” [Avoiding Brandenburg], Die Zeit online (; accessed on 5 January 2007).

23 Sandra Pingel-Schliemann and Karl-Georg Ohse. “Der Wahlerfolg der NPD in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern” [Election success of the NPD in Mecklenburg–West Pomerania], in Deutschland Archiv 39, No. 6 (June 2006): 968–972.

24 Federal Ministry of the Interior, ed., Verfassungsschutzbericht 2005 (Berlin: 2006), pp. 33–40; see “Verfassungsschutzbericht heizt Debatte um ‘No-Go-Areas’ an” [Report of the German Verfassungsschutz for 2005 heats the debate on no-go areas] (,,2028520,00.htm, accessed on 5 January


25 “Rechtsextremismus. Knobloch sieht Parallelen zur Nazi-Zeit” [Right-wing extremism. Knobloch sees parallels to the Nazi era] ( rechtsextremismus_nid_37979.htm, accessed on 5 January 2007).

26 See Wolfgang Templin, “NRD i RFN. Aneksja zamiast zjednoczenia” [GDR and FRG. Annexation instead of unification], Gazeta Wyborcza (4 October 2006), p. 22.

27 Bernd Kauffmann, and Basil Kerski, eds., Antisemitismus und Erinnerungskulturen im postkommunistischen Europa [Anti-Semitism and cultures of commemoration in postcommunist Europe] (Osnabrück: Fibre, 2006); for Poland, see Michael C. Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead. Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997); Jonathan Huener, Auschwitz. Poland and the Politics of Commemoration, 1945–1979 (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2003).


Ingo Loose studied contemporary history and Slavonic languages in Hamburg, Warsaw, Moscow and Berlin. He is a lecturer in the department of Contemporary History, Humboldt University of Berlin. His fields of interest are contemporary Polish history and the history of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe; in 2005 he received the Prix de la Fondation Auschwitz—Jacques Rozenberg, Brussels. His recent publications include “Credit Banks and the Holocaust in the Generalgouvernement, 1939– 1945,” in: Yad Vashem Studies 34 (2006), pp. 177–218; Credits for Nazi Crimes. German credit banks in Poland and the looting of the Polish and Jewish population, 1939–1945 (Munich: 2007) (forthcoming).

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