The Other Germany

Bismarck, Urpreuße Und Reichsgründer

by Ernst Engelberg
Wolf Jobst Siedler Verlag, 839 pp., DM48

Geschichte Der DDR.

by Hermann Weber
Deutsche Taschenbuch Verlag, 540 pp., DM19.80

Und Willst Du Nicht Mein Bruder Sein…” Die DDR Heute

by Timothy Garton Ash
Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 208 pp., DM16

In 1957 and 1958, several historians in the German Democratic Republic, in a discussion of the November Revolution of 1918, described it as an aborted socialist revolution. This touched off a controversy that eventually reached the highest levels of government, leading to the intervention of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity party (SED) and a stern pronouncement by its first secretary Walter Ulbricht, who said that the definition in question was not only historically inaccurate but politically dangerous. Because no strong revolutionary class existed in 1918, Ulbricht announced, and because the rising had not been led by a revolutionary party, it was not a socialist revolution at all, and to say so might raise doubts about the indispensability of a Marxist-Leninist party (like, although he did not say this, the SED).

The incident illustrates the hazards that accompany the writing of history in the German Democratic Republic. In our own country, historians have the greatest possible latitude in their choice of subject and manner of treatment. Those among them who are writing books for public schools may, to be sure, be subjected to surveillance by state committees and private groups intent on preventing transgression of moral or religious convention and neglect of local heroes and events, but most historians go about their scholarly business without attracting the attention of anyone but their professional colleagues.

Such autonomy is unthinkable in the GDR, where historians are expected both to adhere to the principles of Marxist historiography and to be mindful of the requirements of the state and its ruling party. As scholars, they must not fall prey to relativism or impartiality, which are regarded as the enemies of objective truth. They must recognize that their work is always, as one GDR theorist has written, “part of the basic ideological struggle between materialism and idealism, between scientific and unscientific thought,” and that they must stand for the former against the latter. Thus they are required to see history as a movement of successive socioeconomic systems, as a continuous struggle of contending classes, that eventuates in the victory of the working class and the ultimate establishment of the classless society, as well as to explain the inevitability of this process, and to contribute through their work to the solution of problems that may impede its completion.

At the same time, as servants of a regime that has throughout its short existence always felt vulnerable to external pressure and possible attack, they must, as a party directive of 1962 made clear, be guided “by the political requirements of the current struggle and therefore by the decisions of the party.” In his masterly and comprehensive survey of East German historiography the late Andreas Dorpalen of Ohio State University points out that this has lent a polemical and propagandistic tone to East German historical work ever since 1945, when the first communists returned to East Germany from their exile in Moscow. The leaders of the German Communist party (KPD) and of the SED that succeeded it …

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