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Books in Review

Under Two Despots

(July 1949)

From The New International, Vol. XV No. 5, July 1949, p. 160.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Als Gefangene bei Stalin und Hitler
by Margarete Buber-Neumann
Verlag der Zwolf, Munich, Germany; 285 pages
(published in England under title: Under Two Dictators, Gollancz).

Margarete Buber-Neumann, whose testimony at the now famous Kravchenko trial highlighted the procedure itself, has published this overwhelming account of her seven years’ imprisonment under two totalitarian systems. The book created a sensation in Germany, where its circulation is extensive, and is widely discussed today in England. Unfortunately, no American publisher has yet taken the initiative to make it available in an English translation in our country.

The merits of the book lie essentially in the fact that its author has permitted her experiences to speak for themselves. Recognizing both her abilities and her limitations, Margarete Buber-Neumann has not attempted to draw deeper sociological or psychological conclusions from her tribulations in Stalinist and Nazi concentration camps, but rather has told us her own story, in a simple and moving narrative style.

Beginning with the period of the purging of all foreign Communist elements in Russia, she takes us through the Moscow prisons, the so-called hearing and trial and her sentencing to ten years’ imprisonment in Siberia. The horrors and sufferings of life in a remote Siberian desert area are described, and then the pathetic and illusory journey back to Moscow, where, instead of freedom, she and others were turned over to the Gestapo on a bridge crossing the Bug River near Brest-Litovsk! To make sure there was no mistake, full records of her political life and association as a member of the German Communist Party were supplied by Stalin to the Gestapo!

Then began the long five-year internment in a German KZ; the notorious Ravensbrueck camp near Berlin itself. The stories, anecdotes and incidents described by the author make fascinating, if melancholy, reading. The inner relations of the camp, the disciplined Stalinist fanatics who awaited the arrival of “their” army; the struggle for retention of life itself – all this reaches its climax in her flight out of the camp before the invading Russians, toward the West and the comparative safety of the approaching American forces.

Frau Buber, as we have mentioned, narrates her story without political inference or conclusion. With the exception of one comparison, which we shall mention, the reader is left to draw his own analogies between the vastly differing terror techniques of the two systems. But in describing the trial procedures of the GPU and the Gestapo, she draws an interesting contrast:

“... many of them (the Gestapo) were brutes and bullies, comparable with the worst type of GPU men, but their methods of examination were different from those of the GPU – or perhaps I should say, rather, the object of their examination was different.

“The GPU examiners aimed from the beginning, not at finding out whether there was any factual basis for their suspicions against their prisoners, but at establishing their ‘guilt’ and securing sufficient ‘proof’ for a heavy sentence without all the preliminary bother of bringing them to trial.

“The Gestapo men, on the other hand, were still bound, if ever so loosely, to the judicial traditions of a civilized country, in which, in the ordinary way, an offender had to be charged and brought up for trial.”

The German Stalinists have, of course, launched a violent campaign to discredit her book. Their principal attack seems directed at her husband, the former German Communist Party leader, Heinz Neumann, who vanished forever in Stalin’s camps many years ago. Now it is true that Frau Buber tends to whitewash the political role of Heinz Neumann throughout the book, but this has no relevancy of course to the book’s validity. Neumann was a notorious Stalinist in his day and a faithful executor of the fatal “social fascist” policy in Germany, as is known to all. Stalin destroyed him when he became critical of indications that a rapprochement with the German Fuehrer was in the wind.

Neumann’s life ended in failure and tragedy. His wife, who seems to make up for her lack of political understanding with a fine, human quality and capacity, has told us a valuable story in the struggle against barbarism in both its fascist and Stalinist forms. Her book should be widely read and circulated.

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