DSP apologetics for East German Stalinism


History in a vacuum

Bob Gould

A system is rapidly developing in Green Left Weekly of significant political statements in a Stalinist direction presented as reviews. The reviews, very likely solicited by the DSP leadership, are usually written by younger DSP members.

I don’t know Amanda Pearson (the name is possibly a journalistic pseudonym). She may well be a pleasant person, and I don’t intend any personal attack on her, but she has written what she has written, and a critique of it necessarily becomes a kind of dialogue with her and the DSP leadership.

Pearson accuses, quite unjustly, Anna Funder, the author of the moving and important book Stasiland (about the East German secret police), of an ahistorical approach. That’s an absurdity, and Pearson relies for evidence on a book, German Unification — The Destruction of an Economy, by Hanna Behrend, that I’ve never heard of, together with pontifical apologias for Stalinism by Michael Berrell on the Green Left Weekly email discussion list, although she doesn’t name Berrell.

Amanda says at the end of her review: those who don’t study history seriously are bound to repeat it, and that applies in spades to her shallow, ahistorical analysis.

To understand the GDR it’s necessary to have an overview of German Communism and its Stalinisation, initially in the 1920s.

Ruth Fischer’s Stalin and German Communism (Stanford University Press) is not a bad place to start, and Trotsky’s “First Five Years of the Communist International” is also an important book on the early period.

The next book of importance, which is available in my shop for $15, is Trotsky’s writings on Germany, in which he describes the disastrous Third Period of German Stalinism, which directly contributed to the victory of Hitler in 1933.

The DSP leadership should study the German Communists’ Third Period practice very carefully in view of their own tendency to repeat many of the mistakes of the Third Period, which were carried out under enormous pressure from Stalin.

After Hitler’s victory, thousands of German and Austrian Communists were unfortunate enough to emigrate to the USSR. As it turned out, these Communists were far less fortunate than those who stayed in Germany under Hitler.

A much higher proportion of them were murdered by Stalin than the proportion of German Communists murdered by Hitler.

Amanda and the DSP leadership should carefully study the terrifying book, Enemies Within the Gate: The Comintern and the Stalinist Repression, 1934-39, by William J. Gates (Yale University Press, 2001), which is based on material from the Soviet archives.

The overwhelming majority of the emigre German Communists, particularly those working in the Comintern apparatus, were either murdered by Stalin or sent to the gulags.

In 1940, 300 of the survivors of this process were handed over by Stalin to the Nazis. One of these German Communists, Margarete Buber-Neumann, the widow of executed German Communist leader Heinz Neumann, survived to write a book called Under Two Dictators. She was the daughter of the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber.

The great publicist of German Communism Willi Muenzenberg, mentor of Egon Kisch, was purged by Stalin in the late 1930s and was murdered by a Stalinist agent as he was fleeing the Nazis in southern France in 1940. One of his murderers turned up in East Germany after the war as a minor Stalinist functionary. Marcus Wolf didn’t talk about that in his self-serving autobiography (Man Without a Face).

As the tide turned against the Nazis in World War II, the Stalinists in the USSR assembled a group of German Communist survivors and orphans of the purges, who went back to East Germany with the Soviet troops. People such as the courageous seamen’s underground leader Ernst Wollweber also went back to East Germany.

Two books that are of considerable importance about the German Communist resistance to Hitler are Duel for the Northland by Kurt Singer and Out of the Night, an account of the experiences of Jan Valtin (Richard Krebs).

During World War II, the courageous Communist spy ring organised by Leopold Trepper extended deep into Germany.

At the end of the war, many of the surviving Communist spies, particularly Trepper himself, were imprisoned by Stalin, in Trepper’s case for 10 years. Amanda should read Trepper’s account of that experience: The Great Game.

There are many memoirs by German Communists and socialists who survived the gulag, and Amanda should read a few of them to get a flavour of what Stalinism was really like.

Amanda blithely talks about some 1945 constitution of the GDR legalising capitalist and Christian Democratic parties. She’s pretty careless about dates, as the GDR wasn’t set up until 1949. The main thing that happened in 1946 was the amalgamation at the point of Soviet guns of the Communist Party and the Social Democrats to form the SED (later the East German ruling party).

The fact that a couple of figleaf capitalist parties were legalised tells you absolutely nothing about the destruction of proletarian democracy in East Germany.

It’s like Stalin’s constitution of 1936-37 in the USSR, which also provided a democratic façade for Stalinism, and particularly the murder of hundreds of thousands of Communists in the purges.

There is a rich literature about the Stalinisation of East Germany in the immediate post-war years. Two Communist leaders who went back to East Germany from emigration in the USSR or Britain, and who broke with Stalinism in the 1950s wrote graphic accounts of their experiences: Strange Land Behind Me, by Stephen Pollack, and Child of the Revolution, by Wolfgang Leonhard.

Lev Kopelev, a Soviet military officer who spent 10 years in the gulag for the crime of being soft on German civilians, also wrote a memoir, No Jail for Thought. I have several of these books in my shop.

The first thing that happened was that all working-class opposition to Stalinism was ruthlessly crushed. The second major development was the total dismantling of East German industrial plant and its shipment to the USSR. Next came the constant purging, directed from East Germany, of the Communist movement in its old strongholds in West Germany to remove any critical elements.

The net result of all this was the rapid development of hostility among East German workers to the new regime and the virtual collapse of the previously strong Communist Party in West Germany. This period culminated in the 1953 German workers’ uprising in Berlin, Leipzig and other places, which was ruthlessly crushed by Russian tanks.

Ernst Wollweber, by then chief of police in East Germany, and other East German Communist leaders who to a greater or lesser extent sided with the workers’ uprisings, were later systematically purged from the Stalinist apparatus.

The building of the Berlin Wall was a political and social obscenity. The USSR’s deliberate splitting of Germany and the construction of an artificial state in the eastern part of Germany, was always a problematic venture.

It’s an interesting footnote to history that the Soviet leadership did not try a similar exercise in the Soviet zone of Austria, and quietly withdrew Soviet troops from Austria in the early 1950s.

Although there’s no definite way of knowing this, it’s very unlikely that the GDR ever had majority support among the population of East Germany. That was never tested because the elections in the GDR were all fake Stalinist arrangements of the type conducted in the USSR after Stalinisation.

The evidence for this includes the enormous resources devoted to developing the secret police, the Stasi, which developed an apparatus that spied on everyone in the country.

The other evidence of the unpopularity of the regime was the constant efforts of workers and others to escape from the GDR, and millions did so over 35 years. Very few went back.

When the wave of popular revolutions against Stalinism swept eastern Europe from 1989 to 1991, the East German masses overthrew the regime and voted overwhelmingly for German unification in the first relatively free vote since 1945

At that time, the Spartacist League conducted a bit of a campaign to preserve and defend the GDR, which went down like a lead balloon.

Is Amanda Pearson suggesting that the vote for German reunification was somehow illegitimate? It may not be what socialists desired, but surely the masses of East Germany had the right to make their own decisions, including their own mistakes.

Michael Berrell, to whom Amanda is referring when she talks about the discussion on the Green Left site, is a shameless Stalinist in relation to East Germany. He defends the Berlin Wall, and by inference he defends the right of the Stalinist bureaucracy and apparatus to do such things as suppressing the workers’ uprising of 1953.

For my part, as an anti-Stalinist socialist, I remember my excitement at watching the East German masses demolish the wall. My companion and I stayed awake that night watching as holes were punched in the wall, and we were deeply moved when the CBS commentator pointed out that the old, courageous Communist oppositionist, Stefan Heym, author of the novel Goldsborough and many other fine books, was one of the first half-dozen people to walk through the wall at the age of about 90.

I find some aspects of Amanda’s review thoroughly repellent. I spent a large part of my adult life fighting against the old Communist Party, trying to puncture the lying wish-fulfilment fantasies about life in the Stalinist states, and the alleged popularity of the Stalinist leaderships among the masses of those states.

In a recent article in Green Left Weekly, Iggy Kim describes the North Korean hereditary monarchy as a deformed workers state. Amanda Pearson doesn’t even bother with that formulation, she just talks about the former Stalinist states as socialist countries.

It’s a political obscenity to describe as socialism the barracks Stalinism of East Germany, with its pervasive police apparatus and its crushing of any workers’ opposition.

This approach is particularly dangerous for the refoundation of the socialist project because, outside small circles of cantankerous people, most Australians won’t have a bar of anything that smacks of Stalinism, and rightly so.

Amanda well and truly gets up my nose with her assertion that Marcus Wolf, boss of the Stasi, was some kind of closet anti-Stalinist.

He certainly presents himself that way in his autobiography, published after the collapse of Stalinism, but it would be naïve in the extreme to believe that he was any kind of liberal when he was boss of the secret police.

I’m angered by any retrospective cult of the good GDR, particularly when it comes from a group that began as a revolutionary socialist, anti-Stalinst formation. The DSP leaders should know better.

I’m stumped, however, by what the DSP leadership thinks it is achieving by training young cadres in a certain reverence for the regimes in North Korea and the late, unlamented GDR.

The old Stalinists of the CPA had a very simple approach. They believed that socialism in Australia would take a similar form to Stalinism, and to a certain extent they thought the Stalinist states were models for a socialist Australia.

Does the DSP leadership now think that the GDR, cleansed of a few aberrations, could serve as a model for socialism in Australia.

The only conclusion that I can draw is that this retrospective praise of Stalinist regimes in Green Left Weekly has the objective of creating a special, sect-like completely unusual political culture among the cadres of the DSP. The whole thing is very strange and very dangerous to the future of the socialist project.

If the old GDR is to be regarded as some kind of model for the socialist future, you can count me out of that kind of socialist project, and more significantly you can count out most of the overwhelming majority of the working class in Australia and the rest of the world as well.

It’s fairly clear that the review of Stasiland that I’ve been discussing was closely related to the visit of a leading member of the German PDS to Australia. This bloke conducted a session at the recent DSP national conference and a meeting was held for him at the Resistance centre in Sydney.

The latter meeting was rather informative. About 30 people were present. The PDS member was about 30, a full-time party functionary, and I gather president of the PDS in the state of Saxony.

I asked him several questions. He responded to my question about the PDS being in coalition governments with the Social Democrats in Berlin and Mecklenberg with a vigorous defence of those coalitions on practical grounds.

He said there were three factions in the PDS: old fundamentalists, young activists and an intermediate faction that was a bit interested in theory but also activist. He identified with the latter faction.

He said the PDS had 76,000 members, all but 5000 of them in East Germany, and the average age of its members was 68 years. He quite frankly acknowledged that it was mainly a party of pensioners with a smallish group of youth.

An older woman at the meeting questioned him sharply about the Stasi, and asked if there were any former Stasi in the PDS. He got quite irritated, saying that everywhere he went in west Germany, and anywhere in the West, he was questioned about the Stasi and he was pretty sick of it.

Nevertheless, he tried to answer the question, saying that in the 18 million people of East Germany about two million had collaborated with the Stasi, so it was almost impossible to avoid the conclusion that some of these people would now be in the PDS (a DSP member from the floor also said former Stasi would probably in all the other parties too).

When you coolly consider the statistics, the unfortunate and painful inference clearly is that many of the old pensioners who were previously members of the SED would probably have been Stasi collaborators. The raw statistics brutally suggest that.

I asked a further question to the effect that, given the cruel, bloody and harsh history of German Communism was there any project like the Memorial movement in Russia to dig into the now-open Soviet and East German archives to draw a balance sheet on the butchery of Germany Communists by Stalinism. The PDS man acknowledged that such a moral responsibility rested on the PDS, but he wasn’t aware of any activities or projects in that direction.


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