LANCELOT: It is all very difficult, Kay. When one chases after an idea for years and years, without getting the tiniest step closer, it's very depressing. Each of us has only a brief life to dispose of, and each of us puts too many hopes in this vulnerable and all-too-quickly extinguished life. More than it can bear.
KAY: What do you mean by that, Lancelot? Do you still believe in the grail?
LANCELOT: I don't know. I can't answer the question. I can't say yes or no....
ARTHUR: Lancelot, Kay: be quiet. Everything that men create suddenly comes into question, everything, every idea, every invention, every human institution. What appears sure and certain is suddenly very doubtful. But that is frightening only for an instant and in fact it will help us to get further along. It is not only an end, it's the beginning of something new; I foresaw it when I founded the realm....
LANCELOT: Arthur, do you know that the people outside don't want to hear any more about the grail and the round table? Before, they respected us... today they only laugh if they see a knight of the round table.... They no longer believe in our justice and our dream.... For the people the knights of the round table are a pile of fools, idiots and criminals....
--Christoph Hein, The Knights of the Round Table
BELIEVERS AND VICTIMS
Hein's play was written for production in early 1989, as the East German Politburo buckled down to resist the winds of reform blowing through Eastern Europe. In Hein's "comedy" of disillusion, Arthur's aging knights include remaining true believers, exhausted former believers, the defector to "Merveille," that is the Federal Republic--and, outside their circle, the son and heir for whom the king's original faith was always irrevelant. Halfway through the play, the knights admit they may never find the grail. Still, Arthur endeavors to explain, it is not the grail but the quest that is essential: "If we give up on the grail, we give up on ourselves.... We've lost the ground under our feet and we are in danger of sinking."
When did Arthur's round table finally fall to pieces? After September 10, 1989, when the Hungarian Communist regime opened its border to Austria, thus allowing vacationing East Germans to make a detour into the West behind their own sealed frontier? On October 9, 1989, when Leipzig authorities refused to turn the factory militias and armored vehicles against the crowds? A month later, on November 9, the seventy-first anniversary of the revolution that brought down the Wilhelmian Empire, when the wall was opened, and hundreds of thousands streamed into West Berlin? In retrospect, the observer can point to earlier indications of inner transformation: mounting dependence on Western credits to prop up a vulnerable economy; an independent peace movement since the early 1980s; a growing space for careful dissent; the assurance from academics one met at conferences that they were abandoning the ritual texts of Marxism and exploring the new lines of inquiry being opened in the West; the reevaluation of a German national tradition; a radically disaffected samizdat poetry in Prenzlauer Berg, the raffish Greenwich Village quarter of East Berlin; an encroaching tone of disaffected irony in literature--all testifying to the erosion of socialist conviction, to Lancelot's weariness and Arthur's fecklessness, undermining what along with Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Albania was the last European bastion of the Marxist faith.
To whom had the grail originally beckoned? What mixture of belief and force had allowed the regime to function for four decades? Certainly it required the presence of Soviet occupiers. But the system depended on more than constraint. It was based on graduated levels of commitment or at least acceptance, which of course overlapped and were fluid: a tested, steely faith from those who formed the preexisting, "old Communist" core of the ruling party; enthusiasm and hope on the part of postwar cadres; active collaboration on the part of many others, either resigned and cynical or in good faith, within the party or in a tolerated public organization; and finally acquiescence from the rest.
First on the morrow of the Second World War, thereafter at each moment when more demanding compliance was imposed, there were always non-Communists who cooperated with those who ruled the state. Why? Some were demoralized by twelve years of National Socialist brutality and did not believe they really had a choice. Some convinced themselves that the West German alternative remained a class society riddled with social injustice and was controlled by those who had worked hand in hand with the Nazis. Some consoled themselves with the persistent illusion that from within the multiparty "block," or even within the dominant "Socialist Unity" Party (SED), they might push for reforms. The incantory reassurance of "anti-fascism" and "peace," the self-importance generated by being recruited to sign an open letter or contribute a credo, the glow of virtuous companionship aroused at mass meetings, the discovery that an appropriate citation from Lenin got one's articles circulated--all worked for an ambience of collaboration. Later those who thus paid their dues might point to the accomplishments of socialism: expropriation of Junker estates, reconstruction, or broader access to education. Establishing the postwar Communist world certainly required Soviet force, but until the myth lost the last shreds of its sustaining force in the 1980s, it also rested on the capacity for rationalization. "Nothing is more inexplicable than an enthusiasm that has disappeared," the journalist Carola Stern has written in a dual memoir of her own National Socialist adolescence and the Communist resistance activities of her later companion, Heinz Zoger:
She too belonged to those children of the twentieth century, who, having come of age in the middle of the totalitarian movements of its first half, seduced by ideologies and ideologues, came to thirst for belief; who having been weaned from their own thinking allowed others to think and decide for them. "Children"--carried away by frightful and beautiful plans for transforming the world, aware of themselves as belonging to an elite and simultaneously fascinated by being part of a community, a member of a collectivity. Encased humans, deprived by a mesh of dogma and rigid structures, cynical or helpless and desperate. Such children of the century will need the rest of their lives to work through their "childhood."
Before condemning those who in the devastated cities of East Germany wagered on making the best of a difficult situation, we should recall the Western intellectuals who convinced themselves into supporting the same politics with far fewer external pressures. Nor were opportunism and poor judgment the only persuaders in the East. Periodic purges played their part. Unless they are caught up before a judge or investigating committee, Americans forget how destructive of ego, how designed to abase and unnerve, can be the inquisitorial experience. The humiliation of being dressed down and ostracized by former friends and colleagues; the demands for a cringing self-criticism of a stance that once was held with righteous passion; dismissal from jobs or honorific positions; outright prosecution as a betrayer of party and state--all the resources of political conformity were available to discipline any faltering of the faith. "Do you not realize," so the East Berlin SED secretary for culture would lash out at protesters against the expulsion of dissident Wolf Biermann, as late as 1976, "that your attitude was politically wrong and has harmed everything that you should hold dear and beloved?... Do you still maintain that other values are higher than party discipline?" Let the dissenter recant or exclude himself! The threat of denunciation by the party hack inserted into one's editorial board or faculty department or professional union, the party's control of travel opportunities or the education available for oneself or children, reinforced acquiescence, if not enthusiasm.
Occasionally a critical voice would express sardonic amazement at how repressive the whole system quickly became. Bertolt Brecht, who had chosen to return to East Germany, mocked the regime for losing confidence in its people after the uprising of June 17, 1953. (At the same time he wrote privately to his friend, Minister for Culture Johannes R. Becher, to condemn the demonstrators.) Twenty-three years later Reiner Kunze's The Fabulous Years conveyed the petty absurdities and search for conformity with a collection of revealing anecdotes. They resulted in his expulsion from the Writers' League. The fact that those subject to such discipline could always see their kin and former compatriots, co-heirs of a common culture and language living rich and free next door, only made the system more galling. I remember an East German friend--a historian, not made for outright defiance, but never able to kow-tow sufficiently for real promotion--telling me before East Berlin's "Red City Hall" (named for its brick, not its politics) in the mid-1970s, when West German students were still contesting the supposed repressiveness of the Bonn regime: "If they had to live here, they would walk on their knees to get to West Berlin." By the end only the East German leadership persisted in affirming the ideology gone stale; and the Soviet authorities who had sustained them in power found them tiresome.
In the beginning there had been rubble and the first stirrings of scattered opponents of Nazism emerging from an enforced silence, released from concentration camps, or returning from refuges abroad. They included the religiously motivated, former trade unionists, conservative civil servants--and Communists. Even before Hitler came to power, it had required (so members saw it) unremitting discipline to persevere as a Communist. To participate at the cutting edge of history demanded subjection to the party's historically achieved insights. It required understanding that social democracy was a betrayal of class interest as retrograde as fascist thuggery; it meant realizing that Stalin's position let him see with more acute penetration than any other political leader. These tenacious beliefs had given hundreds the courage to maintain a fragmented clandestine resistance for several years after Hitler quickly outlawed their party and arrested their leaders. Some survived the brutality of concentration camps or, like the young Erich Honecker, spent oppressive years in Brandenburg, Plotzensee, and other prisons where guillotining became routine. There were emigres returning from sojourns in New York or Mexico. Finally, there was the phalanx of German Communists suddenly flown home from their long years in Soviet exile. They had been hermetically sealed in the corridors of Moscow's Hotel Lux, had survived the lethal twists and turns of Stalin's purges, and understood the prewar and wartime agonies of the vast country he ruled only from whispers and stilted coversations. They were almost taken aback that now under Russian military supervision the moment had come to transform German society.
Some local Social Democrats and Communists in East and West Germany--their feuds suspended by common persecution--exploited the brief weeks of the Nazi collapse to establish "Antifa" committees to manage factories, administer towns, and organize social services. Their wildcat local socialism offended each of the occupying powers, who quickly dissolved them. Despite other differences, the Allied leaders and their proconsuls agreed on an orderly dismantling of the Reich, close supervision of the resumption of political life, and a distrust of independent initiatives as harbingers of nationalist revival. Among the non-Nazi political spokesmen acceptable to the occupying authorities (in this respect the four powers were in agreement) were Social Democrats, former Catholic Center leaders, and the Weimar liberals whose parties had collapsed so disastrously by the end of the 1920s. Communists had few indigenous roots in the United States zone of occupation, and although they might have prospered in the industrial regions assigned to the British, London's military and civilian authorities deeply distrusted them and encouraged their Social Democratic rivals. That left them under Russian sponsorship in the eastern zone and in Berlin where power was shared.
After the German surrender, Soviet policy (like that of the United States) remained in some flux through 1945, the top leadership uncertain about the rewards for interallied cooperation, unresolved about the risks of imposing outright domination over its own zone. As in the West, a welter of authorities contended for influence in German affairs: the Foreign Ministry, the Council of Ministers special committee on Germany and its plenipotentiaries in Germany, the military, and the occupation forces. Several priorities would remain central. A recovered Germany must not be able to gang up with the Western powers in any anti-Soviet alignment. There must be final, not just provisional four-power acceptance of the Oder-Neisse frontier between Germany and Poland. Economic objectives must be secured: in the short term, exploit the productive resources of Germany through factory removals, over the long run win a reparations agreement that secured continuing industrial and raw material deliveries--including the Wismut uranium ore from the Erzgebirge or Ore Mountains.
How these objectives were to be attained over the long haul was subject to debate and strategic modification. Soviet policy at the Potsdam Conference envisaged the eventual reemergence of a unified but hopefully compliant Germany. Through 1947 and 1948 Soviet objectives remained complex but consistent. It was doubtful that the British and Americans would allow outright Communist control of the whole country; but a recovered Germany must never join an anti-Soviet coalition or challenge the Oder-Neisse frontier settlement. Communist Party participation in a governing coalition would guarantee this cooperation just as the Soviets hoped that party collaboration in the French and Italian postwar governments would keep these states from any anti-Soviet alignment. Indeed, if the Allies did not back down on their commitment to reestablish a united centralized government, Soviet pressure might even wrest a more preponderant role for its German Communists, much as Moscow increasingly strove for from 1945 through 1947-48 in all the countries of Eastern Europe.
But there was a basic contradiction inherent in Moscow's policies. Soviet control of Eastern Germany was supposed to be the bargaining chip that secured their clients' voice in reunited Germany. Instead Soviet control became so oppressive that by 1947 it dissuaded the West from unification on terms the Russians were offering. With an eye toward a Communist leverage throughout the country as a whole, the Soviet occupying authorities worked to construct in the territory they controlled a single party front that grouped all the non-Nazi groups with a key role for the German Communists. But this very policy soon confirmed Anglo-American distrust of Russian intentions and led the Western powers to insist on a decentralized all-German government and ultimately to reject the Soviet terms for unifying a German administration.
The key to Soviet formation of a single party front was absorption of the East German Social Democrats. The old SPD (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) had resisted Hitler courageously, even though its economic policies during the Depression had remained unimaginative and its leadership preoccupied by organizational concerns. All four victorious powers recognized that the SPD had a moral right to a share of postwar leadership. But would the SPD cooperate with the Communists, who during the crisis of Weimar had bitterly denounced the reformist party? In Western Germany, where the Communists were feeble and the Allies distrusted them as well, the Social Democratic answer was clearly no. But in the Soviet zone, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, where all organizational rights depended on the approval of Russian military authorities, the balance of power was reversed.
By February 1946, Berlin SPD leader Otto Grotewohl decided that he had to accede to the pressure from Soviets and Communists and take his rank and file into a new unified Marxist coalition, the Sozialistische Einheitspartei or SED, which was to become the ruling party until the end of 1989. An "iron curtain" had descended for good over the Soviet zone, Grotewohl explained to British officials in Berlin; there were no choices left. Was his distress genuine? His speeches in the aftermath of fusion were devoid of any distance: he became an enthusiastic spokesman for Marxist reunification, celebrated Soviet policy, and was elevated as head of government when the GDR was granted national status in 1949. The new SED grouped the ideologically determined Communists and those Social Democrats who either cynically accepted their subordination or hoped at least to preserve some freedom of action and keep options open from within. After all, Hitler had come to power--so the European Left believed after 1933 through the early postwar years--precisely because the two great currents of Marxism had quarreled between themselves. The political unity of the working class imposed itself as a commandment.
For Russian officials, who had survived first the cruel and capricious tests of Stalinist purges and then participated in a massive war effort, security in Germany could only mean control. If Communists were a minority, then their political resources must be leveraged. The new SED was a marvelous instrument for this end, and it in turn dominated a "unity front of anti-fascist-democratic parties"--Liberal Democrats, Christian Democrats, Peasants' League, and the National Democratic Party of Germany--whose cooperation with the SED as the so-called block parties would endure until December 1989. The original goal of the SED and its Soviet sponsors, however, was not merely to rule a separate German state. They aspired at least to parity if not preponderance within a unified Germany. By 1947, however, the impetus of the cold war conflict (in good part arising out of the very policies of communization in Poland, Romania, and Hungary!) made agreement on a single German state ever more remote. Mutual recriminations over the progressive breakdown of the complicated reparations arrangements also seemed unbridgeable. Neither side was willing finally to make the accommodations demanded by the other at the Moscow Foreign Ministers Conference in April 1947. With the announcement of the Marshall Plan six weeks later, and the exclusion of the Communists from postwar coalitions in Belgium, France, and Italy during these very months, jockeying over the German future also became intense.
In Western Germany a British-American bizonal economic organization placed Germans in administrative positions and provided for an embryonic parliament. Reconstruction of government within nine western federal states enlarged the role of the postwar parties: the independent SPD of the Western zones, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the smaller Liberal Democrats (who in the West became the Free Democratic Party), and other political fragments, some nationalist, some refugee oriented. In the Soviet zone, consolidation of the ruling party and construction of a new East German regime would procede in tandem. Within the SED, the Communist nuclei, led by Moscow trainees and reinforced by the factory cells that had struggled to continue clandestine work during the Third Reich, quickly subordinated the Social Democrats who had been persuaded to join. The wider "block" of collaborating parties was also brought to heel, as they were pressured to oust conservative and nationalist members who urged more independence from the Soviet Union or who objected to final recognition of the Oder-Neisse border. As late as October 1989, however, representatives of the smaller parties still defended their long collaboration with the SED, for reasons of history, as the Liberal Democratic leader said, "and from knowledge of the general laws of development of human society."
Despite their subjection of independent political currents in the late 1940s, the Soviets' goals seem to have remained unresolved through most of 1947. Major differences still existed within the Moscow leadership over how to respond to increasing anticommunism in the West. During 1947, German representatives in all the occupied zones still had to learn that unification was not to take place. West German and East German CDU organizations worked together and hoped for a "national representation" but found their proposals vetoed by the Allied Control Council. In October, West European Communist leaders were instructed by the Soviets that in light of the recent Marshall Plan initiatives and the exclusion of Communists from Western coalitions, a new era of confrontation with capitalism was at hand. The Soviets established a new Cominform to coordinate Communist parties East and West and to replace the earlier Comintern, which had been dissolved to facilitate the wartime coalition.
Moscow, however, did not immediately foreclose all alternative policies for Germany: a new Foreign Ministers Conference was to convene on Germany at London in late 1947; the SED was not yet enrolled as a Cominform party. Ostensibly to petition the four powers, the SED organized a massive "Volkskongress" in early December on behalf of unity and a "just peace." More than a quarter of the two thousand delegates traveled from the West, only to return disillusioned by the blatant pressure to endorse the "block" policies of the East. For Jacob Kaiser, Berlin trade-union leader of the Christian Democrats, the Congress was rigged, and it signaled the end of any autonomous CDU in the East. The staged convention called for national unity even as the London Foreign Ministers Conference confirmed the rupture among the four allies over the German issue. The Western powers prohibited the movement on behalf of the People's Congress from continuing in their zones, but as a would-be national forum and a propaganda device in the East, the institution served Soviet purposes. Developments in the Soviet zone might in fact preclude interallied agreement, but the Congress meanwhile claimed to be a popular movement that wanted with Soviet sponsorship to recreate national unity from the base up. A second People's Congress in March 1948 revealed an even more dominant SED presence, and now moved to elect a German People's Council, of whom one-third still claimed to represent the West.
This new Volksrat again urged German unification even as the Western allies were preparing the currency reform of June 1948, and the hitherto recalcitrant French joined their zone with the British and Americans. In response to the Western initiatives, the Soviet delegate had walked out of the Allied Control Commission in March: there was to be no further effort at unified administration. Currency reform in June, the Russians' blockade of land routes to West Berlin, and the drafting of a constitution for the Western zones under the auspices of the British, French, and Americans followed in rapid succession.
As Allied authorities and Land representatives moved to establish a provisional West German state, the East German SED continued to impose the Cominform model of Communist control. The emerging pattern included central economic planning, a "people's democracy" with its suppression of effective opposition, and, by 1950, the molding of adherents in factories or ministries or faculties into "a party of a new type." Stalin's ideological bulldog, Andrei Zhdanov, had laid down the law in September 1947, and in February 1948, the Communists took control of the Czech government from a tolerant, alas at times ingenuous coalition regime. The seizure of power in Prague and Washington's now decisive responses in terms of foreign aid and West German rehabilitation effectively consolidated the division of Europe into two spheres. Still, it was Marshall Tito's rejection of Soviet control over his undoubtedly Communist state later in 1948 that catalyzed an even more ruthless repression throughout Eastern Europe. Dissent among Communists always represented the most devious conspiratorial challenge in Stalin's eyes. His dark suspicions could only be echoed by henchmen such as Zhdanov, Molotov, and Beria, who had achieved their prominence by faithful loyalty during the frightful purges and wartime reverses. Tito's challenge unleashed a convulsive series of denunciations, party purges, and rigged trials. Although the SED was not yet a Cominform party, German Communists responded to the encroaching demands for conformity. At the SED executive's session of September 1948, convened as the Yugoslav insurrection was intensifying, SED leaders shelved their earlier concept of a specific German road to socialism. The Leninist and Stalinist model of Communist transformation was henceforth to dictate the policies and organization of the Socialist Unity Party. Grotewohl himself demanded so "unambiguous and unreserved an orientation to the East" that Stalin allegedly told him to slow down: "you German communists, like your ancestors, are Teutons." Nonetheless, Teutonic discipline tightened further. As a "party of the new type" the SED was to be controlled by its cadres; Stalin's Short History of the CPSU and his interpretation of Leninism became the holy texts; the emphasis of organizational work switched to the factory where the Communists, not former Social Democrats, were strong. In subsequent meetings of the party executive (Vorstand), a Politburo and a Zentralkomitee (ZK) were established to consolidate control. Wilhelm Pieck and Otto Grotewohl remained joint chairmen, but the dour organizational adept, Walter Ulbricht, took over as general secretary of the ZK.
For an interval in 1990, the former ZK building--drab and gray labyrinth originally constructed for the Reichsbank--served as the "Parliamentarians' House." It provided office space for the transitional, freely elected Volkskammer of the vanishing GDR, and is slated now to house the Foreign Ministry. Its facade faces obliquely across the vast Marx-Engels-Platz (for whose inspiring asphalt acreage the East Germans razed the baroque royal palace), to one of the most glorious remaining architectural legacies of Berlin: Schinkel's neoclassical "Old Museum." Even closer is Schinkel's sober neo-Gothic Friedrichswerdsche Church, a testimonial to the loving restoration work that the regime found congenial for its historical claims by the 1970s and 1980s. Within the ZK's parallel wings, long drab corridors with office after office testify (even after the portraits of Honecker were unceremoniously removed) to the mass of bureaucratic control that the apparatus eventually took in hand. Even from more compact quarters at the beginning of its long domination, the ZK supervised the transition to a satellite.
A satellite, but no longer merely a zone. With the establishment of a West German state in 1949, the Russians adopted the counterstrategy of giving statehood to their own area of control. The People's Council, emanatingfrom the Second People's Congress, worked out a constitution. Soviet-style constitutions were always formally democratic, and the new East German charter incorporated many of the innovations that the West German Basic Law also featured, including limitations on no-confidence motions and restrictions on the office of president. But the electoral system ensured that the people's choice would be safely controlled. Open, competitive elections for state and local offices had registered embarrassing results in the first postwar balloting in October 1946. Although the SED won 47.5 percent of the votes in the five safely controlled Lander of the Soviet zone, in the all-Berlin elections--held under interallied ground rules and featuring an independent SPD list--the Unity Party attracted only about a fifth of the votes. The system was amended for the Third People's Congress in 1949, when a single list grouping the block parties and professional organizations was presented to the East German electorate. As in the other countries of East Europe, elections henceforth were to involve not a contest among party alternatives, but plebiscitary approval or rejection of a unified slate and perhaps an innocuous policy aspiration. It still required considerable effort for the SED in 1949 to convince two-thirds of the eligible voters to vote yes for peace and for the list of candidates presented. The electorate must have been delighted with the progress made when it voted again, in the fall of 1950, for the first regular Volkskammer elected under the new constitution. Allegedly 98.5 percent of the voters participated, and 99.7 percent of them voted for the single list. In theory the SED claimed only one-quarter of the Chamber for its own delegation. In fact it also controlled the 30 percent of the seats granted to its subservient "mass organizations," including the Federation of German Trade Unions and the youth federation, and it dominated two new satellite parties (the National Democratic Party of Germany, NDPD, and the Democratic Peasants' Party of Germany, DBD), who were given shares of the list. Finally, the Liberal Democrats and Christian Democrats in the block found it increasingly difficult by 1950 to pursue any sort of independent course.
Behind all the orchestrated enthusiasm, the unremitting pressure on the remaining enfeebled party organizations to cooperate with the hegemonic claims of the SED, and the inflated election figures, remained the police. Opponents disappeared. Consolidation of the satellite regimes rested on political sanctions. By 1947, those resisting communization in Albania, Romania, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria were being intimidated, arrested and tried, sent to prison, on to Moscow, or occasionally shot and hanged. Tito's own regime, claiming the most ardent communism as its own legacy, had already liquidated many of its political opponents in rival Resistance groups as a prolongation of its guerrilla against the Germans. Non-Communist political leaders disappeared in Soviet-occupied Poland. Once he took decisive control in 1947, the Hungarian Communist Matyas Rakosi sent the non-Communists who had prevailed at the elections a year earlier to prison or the firing squad. The Bulgarian Agrarian Party leader Nikola Petkov met the same dismal fate. Jan Masaryk, son of the founder of independent Czechoslovakia and foreign minister even through the 1948 coup, went to his death from the window of the Foreign Ministry. Within the SED, thousands of East German Social Democrats were imprisoned or purged. Almost 600 Christian Democratic Union members are known to have been arrested, some of whom died in prison, a few in Soviet labor camps.
The party dismissals and criminal trials came in waves. The first cycle targeted the non-Communists and accompanied the establishment of the satellites. Within a year or two, the new Communist masters fell upon each other and liquidated their own real or imagined rivals as Titoist conspirators. In the most spectacular of these ritual humiliations, the Communist leader Laszlo Rajk, former Hungarian foreign minister and minister of the interior, and seven other defendants went to the gallows in September 1949.
The search for spies continued through the next few years, until the gathering momentum of the rumored Doctors Plot in the Soviet Union and the "Slansky trials" in Czechoslovakia at the end of 1952 threatened to unleash an even more profound wave of terror, now profoundly anti-Jewish. This last great convulsion of Stalinism, which emerged in part from murky factional rivalries, generated a wave of accusations against alleged Zionists, Jewish doctors, and loyal Communists who had been foolish enough to think that loyalty was an objective category. Only the dictator's death in March 1953 seemed to forestall another hecatomb within the Soviet Union. Soviet advisers, however, had already compelled their Czech wards to take up the dark accusations of Zionist counterrevolutionary treason in brutal trials that resorted to drugs as well as psychological degradation to extract confessions from former loyal Communists. Twelve defendants, including Rudolf Slansky, who had been himself so cocksure of his role in the triumph of the working class, were formally sentenced to death, their ashes scattered on the icy highways outside Prague to help prevent skidding. Czechoslovakia usually won praise as the exceptional country in Eastern Europe, industrialized early on, liberal during the dismal 1930s, and the last to fall to the Communists. In fact its recurring and arbitrary purges testify as well to less attractive attributes of political culture: the pervasive recourse to concealment and role playing, disavowal and betrayal. The toll throughout this small country of 14 million may have reached many thousands.
The death of Stalin would bring some abatement of the satellites' obedient terrorism. East Germany and Poland, moreover, refrained from the most slavish compliance in bloodletting during the early 1950s. Nonetheless, political disgrace and noncapital trials shook up the cadres in these countries as well. Walter Ulbricht, whose policies initially appeared discredited by the workers uprising of June 17, 1953, managed to deflect possible blame for this first open anti-Communist revolt behind the Iron Curtain and to purge close party colleagues. June 17 came as a shock. What began as a march of construction workers through Berlin became a widespread series of strikes and angry confrontations, ending only when Soviet tanks overwhelmed defiant rock throwers. Perhaps half a million workers struck and demonstrated in East Berlin, the industrial centers of Saxony, and up to several hundred localities all told. Despite the SED's effort to depict the upheaval as a fascist putsch or the work of West German provocateurs, the movement revealed how alien and dependent on a continuing Soviet presence the regime remained. Until the disappearance of the GDR, the uprising remained an anxious memory; as their authority evaporated in 1989, Politburo members repeatedly asked whether unrest had become as serious as it had been in 1953.
The explosion in the streets culminated two years of intraparty disagreement over the pace and rigor of communization. Workers had been brought to the threshold of revolt by the accelerated "construction of socialism" that Ulbricht had announced at the Second Party Conference of the SED in July 1952. This formula promised further pressure on East Germany's non-Communists, including church members, a new wave of collectivization of land, and an increase in the so-called work norms--that is, what Western labor would call a speedup. In fact, the "construction of socialism"--now to be reiterated in countless harangues and editorials as the lofty road to progress--meant in fact more expropriation of family farms and trades, more ideological bullying, harassment of non-Communists, sniping at the church, and denunciation of doubters.
The "construction of socialism" was a slogan that resonated in East Germany with more overtones than elsewhere. No other satellite had to confront the national issue; East Germany's claim to statehood was always in question, whether in 1949, 1953, or 1989. For the ruling party, perfecting socialism reasserted the national legitimacy of the GDR. Each further step toward collectivism was a further bulwark against dissolving into the Federal Republic. For the real enthusiasts, true socialism might even lead the working classes and intelligentsia living in West Germany to break with their "vassal policy" vis-a-vis the Western capitalist powers. In mid-1952, the chance to accelerate the march toward socialism appeared especially welcome because earlier that spring the Soviets had appeared to waver in their support for the three-year-old republic. The so-called Stalin note of March 1952, which had proposed reunification of a neutralized Germany on the basis of free elections, may well just have been a negotiating ploy and thus unlikely to alarm the Eastern Communists. Even so, just having on the table a Soviet offer to trade away their new state must have tested the SED's self-assurance. Whether the offer was meant as a sham to undercut progress toward West German rearmament and consolidation as a state has remained subject to politicized debate ever since. Recent treatments argue from the lack of supporting evidence in Moscow archives that the note was most likely a negotiating ploy. At the time, American policy makers and Chancellor Adenauer presented it as a Soviet tactic designed to demoralize the Bonn Republic's political consensus and arrest its progress toward integration with the West and rearmament. The long-term negotiations that just exploring the offer would involve would also unravel all the progress toward integrating the Federal Republic in the West, including its rearmament. After the West posed its own counter-conditions, in turn unacceptable to Moscow, the East German leadership had to feel relief; the interim of ambiguity lay behind them. Not only did the East Germans welcome the intensification of socialism that Stalin seemed to sanction once again, but they typically applied the new line with uncompromising zeal.
Not for the last time would they outrun their patrons' wishes. Kremlin leaders had misgivings about the ham-handed fervor with which the East Germans forged ahead. When Stalin died in early March 1953, his heirs nervously jockeyed for position within the framework of "collective leadership." Now they wanted to lower the ideological tensions and the pressure on living standards that heavy postwar investment imposed. And even the most menacing possible successor, Lavrenty Beria, who controlled the secret police, proposed exploring a deal on German reunification with the West. The Soviet Politburo seemed divided and irresolute; the representatives in Berlin were also unclear as to how to proceeed. East German colleagues once again seemed clumsy and out of step. Forced-draft socialization led to increasing numbers of East German refugees to the West, up to 100,000 by March 1953, and an East German plea for Soviet aid. By May the new Soviet leaders summoned Ulbricht and Grotewohl to Moscow to criticize the East German insistence on the introduction of collective farms, and they pressed for a "new course" that would relax the tempo of socialization.
Reversing course could not be easy. Switching from heavy to light industry promised massive unemployment; collective farms could not be left in the lurch. The party faithful would be mystified, and those workers angered by the prior months of demands and austerity would be encouraged to protest. Those within the Politburo who dissented from Ulbricht's increasing authoritarianism--among them Anton Ackermann, Fritz Dahlem, Rudolf Herrnstadt (editor of the paper Neues Deutschland), and Wilhelm Zaisser--had not publicly opposed the construction of socialism. After an uneasy Politburo meeting on June 9, in which the long-standing dissenters denounced "the Secretariat," Soviet High Commissioner Vladimir Semenov demanded immediate publication of the rollback measures. Herrnstadt feared such a rapid disavowal of party policies and pleaded for a fortnight to prepare the faithful to accept the change of course, only to be told by Semenov, "In two weeks it's possible you'll no longer have a state."
Publication of the communique of June 9, designed to mollify workers, in fact helped to undermine what control remained. On June 16, the SED meeting dissolved in dispute; on the next day massive demonstrations broke out in Berlin, Chemnitz, Gera, Halle, and elsewhere. The Russians in Berlin, Semenov and Marshall Sokolowski, were preoccupied by possible clashes with Western units as well as the demonstrations in their half of the city and, despite their use of force, still toned down the excited messages from Moscow that urged massive use of firepower and exemplary executions. Although Moscow's chief of staff, who came to Berlin in the crisis, suspected a counterrevolutionary conspiracy, the Russians were also unhappy with the clumsy East German policies that had required their intervention. Sokolowsky and Semenov urged Ulbricht's dismissal after the uprising; but for the new rulers in the Kremlin, uncertain of their own control after Stalin's death a few months earlier and wary of each other's ambitions, it was an unfavorable moment to remove Ulbricht and retroactively justify the East German demonstrations. They were preoccupied with preparation for the arrest and trial of Beria in late June; the task in East Germany was to pacify discontent gradually. There was no desire in Moscow to force a major shakeup within Berlin ranks. After submitting to a cursory self-criticism, Ulbricht stayed. Some responsibility had to be meted out, however, for what became officially designated as a fascist putsch. Although a criminal trial was avoided in favor of an internal party inquest, Herrnstadt and Zaisser were removed from their offices and vilified as alleged "capitulators" to imperialism, and as members of a pro-Beria faction.
A renewed wave of persecution followed the far more serious Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and its supression. The bloodiest reprisals claimed the Budapest rebels, preeminently the Communist leader Imre Nagy, who had sought to respond to the ebullience and navigate Hungary toward autonomy without provoking Moscow's intervention. He was executed for his failure. The crackdown also struck East German writers and intellectuals who had been in touch with the leading intellectual in the Nagy government, Georgy Lukacs. Lukacs found it necessary to submit to an abject self-criticism; his German contacts were delivered to the mercies of Hilde Benjamin, the zealously partisan SED jurist who took over as minister of justice once she helped oust her less ideologically oriented predecessor after June 17, 1953. The regime enforced orthodoxy on the forums for mild reformist ideas, the journal Sonntag and the Aufbau publishing house--a circle of reformist intellectuals inspired by the post-Stalinist thaw in East European Marxism. The literary figures were linked to Wolfgang Harich, a young Humboldt University philosopher and advocate of workers councils and of ties to the West German Social Democrats, who was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment in March 1957 for formation of a conspiratorial group hostile to the state. Two of the more seasoned editors at Aufbau, Walter Janka, who had paid his dues since the Spanish Civil War, and Gustav Just, recruited to the SED in his late twenties after wartime service, were also put on trial. Their elderly guru, Ernst Bloch, was forced into retirement, silence, and eventual exile. Another eminent intellectual who would not endorse the Writers Union condemnation of the counterrevolutionary Budapest coup, Alfred Kantorowicz, departed for the West in 1957.
These recurrent paroxysms--each attended by denunciations, extracted confessions, betrayal of friends, and harsh sentences--must themselves be set in a longer context. From the mid-1930s, with the opening of the Soviet purges, until the early 1960s, political trials testified to the ideological confrontations of the century. On the surface, they were manifestly absurd: men and women who had devoted their lives to socialism or the revolution were led to confess they had been wreckers or spies. Others had to acknowledge how mistaken and misguided they had been. Some were persuaded or constrained to denounce those who had been their political friends. At the least they remained silent as their comrades were abased and imprisoned. Show trials, moreover, were just the tip of the iceberg; even as the defendants suffered in public, thousands of others were dismissed or disgraced or imprisoned. The Soviet purges of the 1930s swallowed up millions of victims. In Germany, the National Socialist People's Court would denounce those compatriots who doubted the outcome of the war and, when real conspirators were delivered to its mercies, would decree their brutal execution, including hanging by piano wire. In France, the Vichy regime decided to try Leon Blum as the symbol of all the evils democracy had allegedly inflicted on France. Only the evident absurdity of the accusation that he was responsible in 1936 for the 1940 defeat (which had brought his accusers to power!) led them to suspend the procedings. Mussolini, reestablished as puppet dictator of the north of Italy by his German rescuers in late 1943, was compelled to try and execute those who had voted for his removal and had not fled in time (including his own son-in-law). In the gloomy aftermath of the Spanish Civil War Franco's courts consigned thousands of defeated opponents to prison and firing squads.
Political trials did not come to an end with the defeat of fascism. The Resistance forces, too, united in the demand that postwar purges must cleanse their land of collaborators. The victorious allies agreed that National Socialist leaders must be publicly tried. And if we are to understand this wave of political justice in its entirety, we must also take account of the quasi-judicial investigations unleashed in the United States by Joseph McCarthy, the purge of the U.S. State Department, and the trials of Smith Act attorneys. Of course, there were crucial differences in the nature of the charges, the judicial procedures resorted to, and the punishments meted out. Nonetheless, as the cold war moved toward its climax during the period of the Korean War, McCarthyism and the final sears of Stalin's rule, all these exercises shared some parallel objectives. They were intended to inhibit dissent, to narrow the limits of political discussion, and, by ritualized confrontations under oath and confession, to dramatize the conflict between the faction ruling in the name of public virtue and its ubiquitous enemies. Not since the French Revolution had the courtroom been so exploited to demonstrate who should rule. There were some atavistic postscripts in the 1960s. A Spanish military tribunal imposed a death sentence on a Communist organizer in April 1963 for the invented crime of "continuing rebellion." The Greek junta that seized power during 1967 mobilized the courts against its foes. Czechoslovak Communists would imprison or rusticate those who had been active in the Prague Spring. By and large, however, a great cycle of judicial violence in Europe was ending. When capital sentences resumed they were imposed by the clandestine terrorists of the 1970s.
East German judges contributed a continually shabby but relatively unsanguinary chapter to the history of twentieth-century political justice. After 1951 the Politburo required that all GDR judges sacrifice their judicial "chastity" and sit on criminal as well as civil cases. Even before she succeeded to the Ministry of Justice, Benjamin utilized her control of its personnel division to appoint SED members as judges and, above all, as prosecutors. The worst of the East German trials took place in the 1950s, echoing the moves against Zionists, and sweeping up Communists who had spent the Hitler years outside Russia. Except for the executions in the aftermath of June 17 (of which the Soviets imposed eighteen within a few days and the East Germans later carried out two), capital punishment was largely avoided. Still, for a while, over 50,000 political prisoners, or about 1 of every 200 adults, must have been in prison or internment camps. Criminal procedures were used widely to suppress peasant resistance to collectivization. In October 1956, Grotewohl claimed to have released over 21,000 political prisoners (many of whom went West), but admitted 26,000 were still detained. The aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution at the end of October 1956 had important ramifications in the GDR. Khrushchev might have denounced Stalin at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in July; but he had also sent tanks and soldiers to restore orthodoxy in Budapest. Ulbricht was anxious to exploit the opportunity to cut short the percolating ideas for "national" communism that had motivated Polish and Hungarian reformers. Such concepts might help Warsaw and Budapest Communists stand up to Moscow, but East Germany was a precarious national entity. Its reform-minded Marxists wanted more intensive relations with West German Social Democrats and thus appeared to threaten the regime. Wolfgang Harich's "crime" consisted preeminently of arguing for an all-German socialist initiative. He and his friends had to confront trumped-up accusations, the studied silence of friends, and the hardship of arduous imprisonment. "Put simply," one of those persecuted, Walter Janka, has written, "it might be said that we argued about the forms of socialist democracy in order to free it from the concept of `proletarian dictatorship,'" which had become a burden.
The 1950s, so these intellectuals learned, was not a favorable moment for discussion of socialist theory or workers councils or any alternatives to Stalinist orthodoxy. The fact that Janka's one-time patron, Johannes R. Becher, the regime's poet laureate, author of its national anthem, and minister of culture, joined in the denunciation of Janka's alleged counterrevolutionary conspiracies came as a bitter lesson: "his love of truth as a politician causes me difficulties," Janka has written with studied understatement.
The following two decades were also not to be terribly favorable for intellectuals. If freezing jail cells and isolation no longer formed part of the repertory of suppression, denunciation of skeptics and dissenters, and attacks by Ulbricht or his rising lieutenant, Erich Honecker, remained withering. Modern literature, with its implicit abandonment of a socially constructive view of collective progress, aroused unrelenting suspicion despite repeated pleas for its assimilation. Joyce, Proust, and Kafka were formalist and decadent, narcissistic exponents of a late bourgeois civilization. Through the 1960s the GDR leadership resisted as socialists elsewhere began coming to terms with modernism. After a decade of ostracism following the Prague Spring, Kafka was republished in the late 1970s and became a staple after his 1983 centennial. Nonetheless, affirmation remained the order of the day. The skepticism of Wolf Biermann, Christa Wolf, and other intellectuals who retreated from bouyant affirmation drew dark warnings, ostracism, prison, or expulsion. After all Germany had "real existing socialism."
REAL EXISTING SOCIALISM
Postwar Germans--whether under Honecker in the 1970s or under Kohl since unification--have taken satisfaction in having a "normal" country. Normalcy in the East was expressed by the smug formula of "real existing socialism." Achieving or enforcing real existing socialism in turn required the Wall, but it took the GDR a dozen years to complete its frontier by closing off East Berlin. This brutal but effective step--so crucial to stabilizing the regime--required Soviet support, and Moscow did not quickly resolve on so conclusive an approach to the GDR's continuing vulnerability. What brought the Soviets to accept the Wall?
Soviet German policy was a high stake in the Kremlin's own intraparty politics. Although control of East Germany became in effect the Soviets' prize from World War II, Russian policy makers recognized how dependent, the GDR was upon their support. At times they asked whether more might be gained by trading the entity than by propping it up. Up to 1948, Moscow policy makers probably hoped to arrange reunification on terms that would give German Communists major if not exclusive voice in the politics of a united Germany. Even a neutral Germany would preclude the rapid emergence under Marshall Plan auspices of a solidly anti-Communist Western Europe. The Moscow and London Foreign Ministers Conferences, however, seemed to foreclose the possibility: America and Britain were unwilling to accept the degree of Communist influence unification would require. Of course, once the superpowers had encouraged the native German forces that could govern their respective affiliated states, it was hard to cut the ground from under their clients' feet. When responding to Soviet notes, the Western powers could hardly simply disavow Adenauer and the Germans who wanted a staunchly Western-oriented democracy. If it suited their purposes, the Soviets would probably have written off their SED clients, but Moscow too was reluctant simply to do away with them: East, as well as West, the weaker party could exert leverage over its stronger patron. Such is the dynamic of alliance structures.
For a while Soviet policy seemed to hover between a final choice, perhaps a result of interagency dispute in Moscow. In 1947, the military government (SMAG) encouraged the SED to spearhead a movement for all German unity--calculating perhaps that West German opinion would be won over even if the nascent parties were reluctant. At the same time SMAG encouraged the SED to consolidate decisive authority within the Russian zone through a series of repressive crackdowns that were hardly likely to win sympathy from Western onlookers. In 1952 came the Stalin note proposing a demilitarized but unified Germany. Rebuffed by the West, however (probably as they really expected), the Soviets and SED went on to emphasize the consolidation of socialism in the German Democratic Republic.
Developments throughout the 1950s locked the Russians into reinforcing East Germany's national status. Beria's proposals to negotiate for German unity served as a means of discrediting the feared NKVD leader after Stalin's death. Nonetheless, once Beria was safely buried, the Soviet leadership seemed prepared to play a new German card, if only to forestall West German entry into NATO. In 1954 and 1955, however, the Soviets and the Western powers could not overcome what became their fundamental and repeated disagreement: Moscow argued that progress on unification required West German negotiations with the East German state; the Western powers countered that unification would require free all-German elections that would presumably sweep the East German state away. Confederation of the two Germanies, or dissolution of the East? The two approaches contended as late as early 1990 when unification was imminent. The difference could certainly not be overcome during the cold war, and by 1955 each Germany was locked into an alliance system. Following final French veto of the European Defense Community, West Germany was admitted to NATO, while East Germany became part of the new Warsaw Pact. With Bonn's adhesion to NATO in 1955 and the threatening Polish and Hungarian uprisings in 1956, Soviet policy renounced its interim experimentalism.
Paradoxically, uncertainties within the Soviet bloc strengthened the Soviet commitment to the East German state. Any notion of trading it for neutralization of a united Germany became far too adventurous for even the reformist Khrushchev, once the Polish and Hungarian upheavals shook Eastern Europe in 1956, especially as he sought to cement relations with his military establishment. Khrushchev wanted to stabilize the Eastern bloc, reinforce its East German bulwark, and confirm Western acceptance of the status quo. Treated by the West as a pariah regime, denied any legitimacy by the Bonn government, the GDR must gain a recognized status as a real state. As Anastas Mikoyan argued in June 1957, "If we do not strengthen the regime inside East Germany then our army will be surrounded by fire. And we maintain half a million troops there. And what does the loss of East Germany mean? We know what it means."
Frustration at the failure to prod the Western allies, including the Federal Republic, to negotiate cold war issues directly with East Germany, likewise
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