Bob Gould, 2003

The tragedy of German communism
Communists in concentration camps

Source: Marxmail, August 22, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

On Marxmail, Louis Proyect started a little discussion on German communists in concentration camps, which a few others have taken up. On the Green Left list in Australia, Dennis Berrell has taken up the cudgels for the political necessity of the Berlin Wall in defending “socialism” in the now-defunct GDR.

All this really requires some examination. It can’t be separated from the terrible, sad history of German communism and what happened to German communists in camps, such as the Soviet gulags and the Stalinist prisons in Madrid and Barcelona.

There’s a big literature on this question. Several books have been written on the communist underground in Dachau concentration camp, where many communist prisoners were interned, some from 1933 to 1945.

There are some romanticised orthodox Stalinist accounts of these experiences, some of which have been mentioned in the thread on Marxmail, and there are other, blacker, accounts by opposition communists, Trotskyists and anarchists who were usually ostracised by the orthodox communists in the camps and had to organise their own networks for survival.

Marguerite Buber’s book Under Two Dictators, is a representative account of the experiences of an opposition communist in Hitler’s camps (as well as Stalin’s).

One reference on Marxmail mentions International Brigade resistance in Franco’s prisons. There were other prisons in Spain, in Madrid and Barcelona, where more than 500 opposition communists, Trotskyists, anarchists, POUMists and others were locked up by the Stalinists.

A number of these prisoners were summarily executed, some were left, locked up, to the tender mercies of Franco during the chaotic days of the collapse of the Spanish Republic, and some escaped, surviving to tell the tale during the same chaotic moment of Republican collapse.

The opening of the Soviet archives since 1989 has led to a major publishing project, The Annals of Communism series, by Yale University Press, which includes about 20 extremely useful books. Two of them are The Secret World of American Communism, and The Soviet World of American Communism, collections of documents edited by Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes.

These books contain an extraordinary dossier on every North American in the International Brigades in Spain considered to be a deviationist of any sort. A number of these unfortunate brigade members ended up in the Stalinist prisons, and some were killed.

The memoir of John Cornford, the Cambridge communist poet killed in Spain, contains respectful references to expelled German opposition communists he met on the Aragon front, who ended up in the Stalinist prisons. Jorge Semprun’s books address some of these questions. Fernando Claudin’s book on the Comintern addresses the political aspect of some of these events.

Recently the Leftist Trainspotters list has had a number of articles about the British Stalinist, David Crook, who ended up in a Chinese jail many years later. He operated as a Stalinist spy in the POUM offices in Barcelona, and admitted this role to close associates before he died. The brutal events in Republican Spain, as Stalin strangled the Spanish revolution, are described in Felix Morrow’s The Civil War in Spain, and in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, among many other books.

Land and Freedom, the relatively recent film about the Spanish events by the extremely talented Trotskyist filmmaker Ken Loach, carved out a substantial liberal and left audience throughout the world, giving a dramatic cinematic insight into Stalinism in Spain.

Predictably, Stalinist relics such as Rob Gowland in the Australian Communist Party paper, The Guardian, and others like him elsewhere, were infuriated by the success of Land and Freedom.

As I point out in another post, the German communists who were handed over to Hitler in 1940 were the lucky ones, because many of them survived Hitler’s camps. Their comrades who remained in Russia were almost all killed in the gulags.

I’ve just acquired a moving biography of Mildred Harnack and her courageous German Communist husband, who as members of the Red Orchestra, were involved in the attempt to assassinate Hitler (Resisting Hitler, Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra, Shareen Blair Bysack, Oxford University Press, 2000).

This book reveals that a number of their contacts in the Soviet embassy, to whom they had been providing information, were recalled to the USSR and murdered by Stalin in the purges, included the lover of Martha Dodd, the famous communist daughter of the US ambassador to Germany, who despite this experience remained a loyal Stalinist to her death. These were bleak days.

The fate of the brave Soviet spy ring, the Red Orchestra, is of considerable interest. The man who organised the Red Orchestra initially at the Soviet end, Berzin, was also murdered by Stalin in the purges.

In his autobiography, The Great Game, the main Soviet spy, Leopold Trepper, describes how most of his associates in the network in Western Europe survived the purges by going to ground in Europe and only resuming contact with Moscow Centre after the worst frenzy of the purges had passed.

The Red Orchestra and the other courageous Soviet spy, in Japan, Richard Sorge, gave Stalin plenty of warning about the impending Nazi attack in 1941 on the USSR, but for political reasons of over-optimism about his pact with Hitler, Stalin took no notice, with the well-known terrible consequences for the Soviet Union in the first years of the war.

At the end of the war, Trepper was whisked back to Moscow and locked in the gulags for the next 10 years, but finally was released, which enabled him to write his autobiography.

There are several useful books of autobiography by German communists who survived the gulags, such as Alex Weissberg (Conspiracy of Silence). The two volumes of autobiography, written in the 1950s by Weissberg’s ex-Communist brother-in-law Arthur Koestler, give a moving and interesting insight into communism in Weimar Germany. As Koestler says in his second volume, by the time he was writing, the overwhelming majority of people he mentioned were dead, having been killed by Hitler or Stalin, or in the war.

The German communist movement produced many brave men and women, some of whom were brilliantly adept at what they did. The most striking example was Willi Muenzenberg, a working-class German communist who became a spectacular virtuoso of complex communist united-front agitation and propaganda, particularly literary and cultural.

Muenzenberg was the brilliant organiser who orchestrated the agitation and the book exposing Hitler’s Reichstag Fire trial. This agitation forced Hitler to release the main defendant, Dimitrov, who went to the USSR and was installed by Stalin as the leader of the Comintern in the Popular Front period.

Muenzenberg managed to talk his way out of the USSR in 1938, broke with Stalinism, but was murdered by the GPU during the chaotic period of the collapse of France.

Dimitrov’s Diaries 1933-1949, published by Yale University Press, 2003, which were written with a watchful eye on his master, Stalin, contain a brutal reference to Muenzenberg, recording that Stalin asked Dimitrov if it was possible to lure this Trotskyite back to the USSR (with the implication that he would be killed). They didn’t lure him back, but they had him murdered in any case.

Another very courageous German communist undergrounder against Hitler was also a proletarian, a rough seaman, Ernst Wollweber. He was the ingenious organiser of international seafaring espionage against Hitler’s Germany, including blowing up ships in Scandinavian ports and many other courageous acts.

See the book Duel for the Northland, by Kurt Singer. Wollweber was also a kind of hero in Richard Kreb’s (Jan Valtin’s) slightly fictionalised autobiography of his experiences in the Comintern underground. (This is the book that Marxmail poster Mark Jones didn’t like and wrote a scathing comment on in an issue of Revolutionary History. Most historians of German communism, however, regard it as a reasonably accurate account in its essentials.)

Wollweber settled in the GDR after 1945 and became minister for police. At the time of the East German proletarian uprising against Stalinism in 1953, he took a stand on the side of the rebel workers and advocated dramatic liberalisation in the GDR, along with other so-called revisionists such as Ernst Ackermann. They were purged by Ulbricht and Honecker, and died in obscurity.

When the GDR was set up by the Soviet army after 1945, many surviving German communists liberated from Hitler’s camps joined emigre German communists to take part in setting up the new state. Representative figures in this development were Wolfgang Leonhard and Stefan Pollack. Lev Kopelev describes something of the atmosphere and circumstances of that time from the Soviet side, in Germany.

For his vigour in defending German workers and communists against the Stalinisation process, the Soviet military man Lev Kopelev was arrested by Soviet authorities and ended up in the gulags. He wrote a book about his experiences, called No Jail for Thought.

Wolfgang Leonhard and Stefan Pollack both became disillusioned with Stalinism during their experience as communist administrators in East Germany and Leonhard escaped to Yugoslavia, while Pollack went to West Germany.

Leonhard’s autobiography, Child of the Revolution, and Pollack’s book, Strange Land Behind Me, both contain indispensible accounts of the early development of the GDR.

Pollack and Leonhard both describe in enormous detail the conflict between the constant aspirations and struggle of surviving German communists to construct a less hierarchical, more proletarian German communism, and how this was systematically crushed by pressure from the Stalinist apparatus and in the final analysis from the Soviet army and effectively Stalin himself.

They describe the thoroughgoing transformation of the developing GDR into a completely militarised Stalinist state, which is why they eventually emigrated. The Stalinism from birth of the GDR was one of the major factors in its eventual demise.

Material conditions in East Germany improved somewhat, although they remained spectacularly behind West Germany for the whole period of the existence of the GDR, which is why many people were constantly trying to escape to West Germany.

The Sudeten German communist, Stefan Heym, emigrated to the US in the Hitler period, but returned to East Germany in the early 1950s. His novel about a strike in the US, Goldsborough, was a communist best-seller. His other novel about communist resistance in Czechoslovakia, with Julius Fucik as the hero, was also a rather romantic best-seller in communist circles.

Stefan Heym’s experiences in the GDR eventually transformed him from a romantic Stalinist into a stubborn communist dissident. During the world-historic, exciting days when the masses overthrew Stalinism in Eastern Europe, my companion and I spent night after night lying in bed glued to the television, like millions of others, watching extraordinary events such as the breaching and eventual demolition by the masses of the Berlin Wall.

We were extraordinarily moved when the first hole was made in the wall and the CNN commentator recorded the first two or three people to walk through the hole, one of whom was a white-haired 80-ish Stefan Heym. That was a pretty extraordinary moment for me. I’d never seen the man before, either in real life or on television, but I knew of him from many angles in a literary and political way.

I later saw a television interview with him, in which he stubbornly defended the idea of a reformed anti-Stalinist socialism in Germany.

The fate of communism in West Germany after 1945

The Stalinisation of German communism towards the end of the 1920s, and its origins in the previous Zinovievisation of the Comintern is comprehensively described in the book Stalin and German Communism, by Ruth Fischer, from which we have placed a small extract about Bertold Brecht on Ozleft.

The post-war history of communism in West Germany is comprehensively described in a lengthy article in the magazine Socialist History, issue 21, Red Lives (Rivers Press 2002).

This article by Till Kossler, the full title of which is A Party Blocked: West German Communists Between Weimar Legacy and East German Policy, 1945-1956, describes how the Communist Party revived rapidly in many traditional CP areas as cadres came out of the underground or Hitler’s camps and reorganised. This happened particularly in the steel and mining areas of the Ruhr. In some areas almost the whole community had a CP tradition, which had not been completely obliterated during the relatively short 12 years of Nazi rule.

In the immediate post-war elections in West Germany the CP vote got up to about 7 per cent of the electorate, concentrated in the traditional CP areas. The communists coming out the underground were in a relatively leftist mood, which they had carried over from the end period of their activities in Weimar Germany.

The very moderate Popular Front line, after 1945, had to be imposed rather brutally on the West German CP members by the SED leadership in East Berlin, who were installed by the Russians as the de facto leadership of West German communism.

Till Kossler describes, from archival documents, how the indigenous leaders of CP branches all over West Germany were purged and driven out, repeatedly, for alleged leftism in the period between 1945 and 1956, when the CP was banned in West Germany.

This process was analogous to that by which the independent spirit of the East German communists was obliterated by the Stalinisation process in the GDR.

In West Germany the ruthless crushing, from East Germany, of all independent spirits in the communist movement took place at the same time as the West German economy rapidly revived to a point of relative boom in the early 1950s. Coincident with this, working-class Germans emigrating from the East gradually spread the word about the harsh life in the GDR.

This culminated in the widespread working-class hostility in West Germany to the Soviet army’s crushing of the East German workers’ uprising in 1953. The net result of all these processes was that the vote of the Communist Party in West Germany dropped dramatically, to about 2 per cent, well below the 5 per cent threshold for representation in the Bundestag.

The successive purges of CP organisations in many of the old working-class areas of CP strength rapidly reduced the size of those organisations. Many of the purged local CP leaders and their supporters and followers eventually joined the Social Democrats, which is a fairly predictable process in that kind of situation in working class areas.

By the time it was banned in 1956 the West German CP, which had enormous membership, popular support and activity in the Weimar period and the immediate post-war period, was a shadow of its former self and had almost disappeared.

The overthrow of Stalinism in East Germany and the future of the socialist project in Germany and the world.

A year or two before 1989 I acquired in my bookshop two glossy, illustrated art books published in large print runs by the enterprising mass-market West German art publisher Taschen. These two books were devoted to aspects of design and visual culture in the GDR. One of them was a book of reproductions of Stalinist medals, posters and other political memorabilia, which was pretty exotic and interesting because it incorporated the popular expression of Stalinist socialist-realist art, visual artefacts, etc, and gave some idea of the stereotyped, somewhat fantasised images to which the masses in this consumer-goods-scarce, relatively poor society compared with West Germany, were subjected.

The companion volume was even more interesting. It was a book of photographs of the design aspects of the material goods available to consumers in the GDR — the goods of everyday life.

The images of packaging for jam, babies’ bottles, drugs, Trabant cars, super-utilitarian radios and water heaters, archaic-looking chocolate wrappers, and a multitude of other items, had a devastating visual impact on me.

It was for all the world a bit like what a Western capitalist, US or Australian, catalogue of such goods would have looked like in about 1927. The items were relatively functional, but they were by modern standards rather primitive, and few concessions were made to attractive design.

One has to consider that these items, the stuff of material life for ordinary people, were under constant comparison by the East German masses with the imagined cornucopia of goods available across the border in West Germany, glimpses of which were seen from time to time.

This visual contrast, in fact had a substantial material base. The net living standard in East Germany, which was probably the highest in the whole eastern bloc, was lower than that in West Germany by nearly all measures.

For most of my lifetime I have supported the more or less orthodox Trotskyist position that despite the parasitic Stalinist bureaucracy the nationalised planned production set-up in Stalinist countries was inherently progressive and would eventually outdistance capitalism, and what was required was a political revolution to remove the Stalinist bureaucracy, which revolution would probably be precipitated by the rapid development of the economy, the productive forces and the working class.

I don’t reject that analysis totally. It was all right as far as it went, and as far as we could reason from what we knew, and from Trotsky’s arguments in In Defence of Marxism in 1940.

Even a number of Trotskyist currents of the state capitalist variety viewed “state capitalism” in Russia as a superior social form to private capitalism in the West.

We were all wrong in one substantial aspect of our analyses. With the best of intentions we underestimated the devastating effect of the Stalinist destruction of the cadres of the socialist movement and the working class on the productive forces.

We also underestimated the terribly destructive impact of the Stalinist totalitarian state set-up persisting over many years on the cultural level of the masses, and via that cultural level, on the production process itself.

Stalinist macro-planning, of which Trotsky had been so sensibly suspicious in The Revolution Betrayed, degenerated rapidly into a massive obstacle to the development of the productive forces.

It gradually became obvious that there was no internal force in the increasingly degenerate and deformed workers’ states that could reverse the tendency of these states to fall economically behind Western capitalism.

There’s no doubt that the increased military competition forced on the Soviet bloc by Reagan contributed to this process, but the major part of the degeneration of the productive forces in the Soviet bloc, including East Germany, was organic to the utterly degenerate nature of the Stalinist system, which flowed from the massive social impact of the Stalinist counter-revolution, worked out over time.

All serious attempts at reform of the Stalinist system in the 1950s and the 1960s were crushed, and when the definitive political revolution finally came in 1989-91 — the faction of Butenko, that is the restorationist forces entrenched within the bureaucracy, not the faction of Reiss, to use Trotsky’ s terms — triumphed.

An economic counter-revolution took place rapidly, mainly because of the degeneration of the system inherent in the Stalinist counter-revolution.

This process worked itself out most spectacularly in the overthrow of Stalinism in East Germany.

Still today, 13 years later, the eastern part of Germany remains relatively economically backward at the level of the productive forces, relative to western Germany.

In Germany there is still a working class, there is still class struggle, and there is the beginning of a radicalisation among younger generations. The need for a socialist transformation is still posed by the newly developing crises within the capitalist system.

The socialist project, however, needs to be reborn and reworked and there is an enormous amount of serious theoretical work to be done in this respect. It must be done, however, taking into account all the lessons of Stalinism in the 20th century, at both political and economic levels.

Idiot nostalgia for the dead and buried Stalinist past is absolutely no asset, ideologically, to the necessary reworking and rebuilding of the socialist project, particularly in Germany, the political location of some of the worst lessons of Stalinism in the 20th century.