In East Germany in the late Sixties I happened to be present when an English visitor created a public scene, rare at that time, by challenging a pompous official on a matter of apparent state ideology. The official was a Communist Party hack (or maybe he was just trying to make a living) and he was showing a group of Western visitors through Goethe’s house in Weimar. The Englishman was a spirited old man on some kind of officially sponsored tour. I never saw him again and remembered him because at the time—Soviet and East German tanks had just rolled into Prague—even for eigners were trying to keep their mouths shut, at least in public.
Goethe’s house is a fine baroque mansion in the center of Weimar on the Frauenplan. The poet spent nearly half a century there until his death in 1832. The old Englishman and his group with their official host had been winding their way through Goethe’s stately reception rooms filled with beautiful objets and were just filing into Goethe’s spartan working room in the back of the house, with its rough wooden floor, bare walls, and simple standing desk at which he had written much of his poetry—his prose he would often dictate to two secretaries simultaneously. At this point the official announced in a solemn voice that in his visionary Part Two of Faust the great sage had actually anticipated the insights of “scientific socialism” and even the establishment of Communist East Germany, “the first free workers’ and peasant state on German soil.”
For the old Englishman this was simply too much. “Bullshit,” he cried. “Bullshit!” He was not going to listen to this nonsense for one minute longer. The others in his group stood around in embarrassed silence. The official offered to elucidate. The old man cut him short. He repeated his charge and said he was returning to his hotel. The rest continued their tour of the house. In the adjacent Goethe Museum I noticed several display cases that were expounding similar propagandistic messages. I remember one in particular which hailed Goethe as an early advocate of international disarmament since, as a minister in the government of the Duke of Weimar, he had advocated the reduction of the ducal army from some five hundred to three hundred men. But his proposed reforms were “thwarted by the reaction.”
Weimar is a small provincial town, still the administrative center of a small district, as it was in Goethe’s time. Some visitors wonder, as others must have done for almost two centuries, how the great man could bear to spend most of his long life in this dull bureaucratic nest. At different periods, Weimar was also the city of Schiller, Cranach, Herder, Liszt, Wieland, and Nietzsche—they all have their monuments, museums, and archives here. Before the Communist takeover in 1945 it was populated mostly by widows, retired bureaucrats, professors, and army officers. Harry Kessler, the great diarist of the Weimar period, complained that from such petty principalities of which there had been more than two dozen in Germany before the war, servility and obsequiousness spread like “pestilence” all over the land. “It is due to these petty principalities that Germany is the most cultured and most spineless European nation.” The Nazis won a majority here well before they seized power in the rest of Germany. They considered Schiller one of their own and made Weimar the center of a wellorchestrated political cult. Hitler liked to celebrate his birthdays here. He would visit with Nietzsche’s sister Elisabeth, a fanatical Nazi who gave him her brother’s silver-handled walking stick as a token of her admiration.
The architectural remains of twelve years of Nazi rule are visible today on the former Adolf Hitler Platz (now still Karl Marx Platz), a parade ground surrounded by massive pillars. The enormous assembly hall at its far end, built to hold two thousand people, has been masked by a less brutal façade and sliced up into storerooms; a colossal pseudo-Teutonic tower, allegedly designed by Hitler himself, stands forlorn in a bleak urban landscape otherwise dominated by the dilapidated public housing of the postwar period.
Under the Communists some industry was brought in to strengthen, as they put it, the “working-class population element.” They also appropriated Weimar and the cult of its famous citizens for propaganda purposes. If under the Nazis Schiller was heralded as “Adolf Hitler’s companion-in-arms”—dead poets can’t talk back—under the Communists he was hailed as a prophet of the workers’ paradise. Goethe’s portrait adorned East Germany’s increasingly valueless banknotes. I remember reading a speech in 1968, shortly after Soviet tanks crushed the Prague Spring, by the then East German minister of culture, who was suggesting that the Prague Spring had been inspired by Kafka’s Metamorphosis. He described the “disgusting” story of Gregor Samsa “who wakes up one morning in his bed and finds he has turned into a monstrous vermin.” The minister contrasted this “decadent” image with the shining vision of Goethe’s creative New Man in Faust. Which should be our inspiration, he asked, Samsa or Faust? Prague or Weimar?
On a return visit to Weimar, early this year, I found the city much changed. In the Goethe House and Museum all political references had disappeared. Dr. Jochen Klaus, a deputy director of the museum, told me that a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin wall, a “joint committee” formed by local opposition leaders and members of the museum staff had fired the museum director and another Party faithful, the chief librarian. The new director was a Swiss professor named Martin Birchner but he had not yet taken over. “Every fifteen years or so any museum would be in need of a thorough shake-up,” said Dr. Klaus. “This museum especially needed a shake-up,” he added. It was “morally verschleisst,” finished, worn out. Physically too it was in bad shape. Goethe’s house had been one of the showpieces of the former regime, but its precious contents had been allowed to deteriorate. Books, papers, and old furniture were worm-eaten or rotting in damp storerooms, and behind the stately façades national treasures were turning into junk.
Outside in the Frauenplan that morning the old cobblestones were torn up. A technician explained that the ancient, disintegrating telephone lines were being replaced with new coaxial cables. (The 1981 telephone directory of Weimar, a city of 63,000 inhabitants, contains nineteen pages.) Several old house fronts were being repainted. I visited the pretty court theater, where the short-lived Weimar Republic was founded in 1919, in the atmosphere, apparently, of a Sunday matinee, the audience in little boxes and circle seats of pale green silk in white frames, all cozily provincial and respectable. The unusual location had been chosen for reasons of security; Berlin was thought to be too unsafe for liberal pronouncements. The founders of the Weimar Republic also wanted to emphasize their moral link with Kultur rather than with nationalist Macht and Prussian military swagger. In the theater foyer I fell into conversation with a frail old gentleman, a retired schoolteacher, who was buying tickets for that night’s performance. “People still come here,” he said, “to search for the tragic flaw, the infection that caused the Weimar Republic to sink into the barbaric nightmare of Nazism and communism. They won’t find it in these dainty surroundings here,” he continued. “The flaw was in our Philistine readiness to unquestioningly bow to authority.”
I walked with the old man through the historic center back to one of the near outskirts where he lived. Much of the center is a pedestrian zone now, charming enough, quite colorful, and reasonably well kept, with several good bookshops and a few dozen brand-new private stores, nicely decorated, nearly all affiliated with Western chains, selling antiques, decent clothing, household goods, gourmet food, and the latest Western electronic gadgets at prices that few of the locals can afford. There is a charming old Schloss and nicely restored colorful Renaissance and Baroque mansions and picturesque narrow lanes.
But as soon as one leaves the historic core where the tourists congregate, any picturesque old charm vanishes and one finds a drab, bottomless shabbiness, the sidewalks full of potholes, roads that apparently haven’t been repaired since before the war. Grim, crumbling, dilapidated turn-of-the-century houses line the streets. Behind rusty iron rails stand spooky, half-ruined Charles Addams villas in overgrown gardens with broken stone carvings eaten pitch black by air pollution and acid rain. Several old apartment houses looked abandoned. In some, windows had been blown out of their rotted wooden frames. Roof beams had caved in. Trees grew out of the debris and the general impression was more that of Victorian streets abandoned by the raj in India than of twentieth-century Europe. There were few people about. The old man led me up a hill where the mentally deranged Nietzsche had spent his last years on the second floor of the Villa Silberblick. Dark smog hung between the church towers below and turned the sunlight a sickly brown yellow.
The place had a haunted, ghostly quality. During the next few weeks, which I spent traveling through the former German Democratic Republic, I would often see even worse sights, entire blocks of abandoned houses collapsing of neglect, in the outskirts and sometimes in the very centers of major cities—visions of a socialist world literally coming apart, leaving behind it only bitter feelings and crumbling masonry. Weimar was one of the first places where I actually encountered this urban decay in the old East Germany. It came as a shock. It was as though World War II had only just now ended. I had half expected it in Dresden, which had nearly been wiped out during the last days of the war, and which I knew was still only the torso of a city, but not in Weimar, in Leipzig, Halle, Dessau, Chemnitz (the former Karl-Marx-Stadt), or even in some parts of East Berlin. “You see the results of the second destruction of Germany,” the old man with whom I had walked up the hill from the theater said. “More houses were destroyed in East Germany through neglect and decay during the Communist regime than by air bombardment in the Second World War.” The remark seemed extravagant at the time. Later on, checking it with urbanists and environmentalists in Leipzig and in Dessau, where the old Bauhaus School is running courses once more in Walter Gropius’s restored building, I was assured it was not an exaggeration.
The hilly countryside around Weimar is often called the heart of old Germany. Millions of West Germans flocked here after reunification in search of roots, relatives, history, or as some put it, “the world of yesterday,” for in these parts ancient streetcars still clank along main streets paved with cobblestones in small towns that seem to have last expanded in the Twenties. North of here rise the Kyffhauser mountains, a cradle of Teutonic myth, where Frederick Barbarossa, in his underground cave, was said to “await the call of the nation.” Half an hour’s drive to the east is the ancient university town of Jena, where Karl Marx received his doctorate and Hegel, upon seeing the victorious Napoleon ride into town, decided that this was the end of history. It’s only an hour’s drive west to Eisenach, where Johann Sebastian Bach was born and, high above the city, in the Wartburg mountains, Luther translated the Bible, heralding the Reformation and a new idiom for the German classics. For West German visitors these places, touched by the reddish brown hue of old photographs, are rediscoveries. They are stuffed with late Gothic, Baroque, and rococo structures, many in a bad state of disrepair, and crooked little streets and odd bridges, some of which like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence are lined with shops. I have heard West Germans say they never imagined how much cultural wealth there was in these historical spaces. Some insist it is impossible to understand Goethe without seeing the hilly countryside of Thuringia, or the genius of Theodor Fontane and of Caspar David Friedrich without touring the lake district of Brandenburg north of Berlin.
For East Germans, on the other hand, Weimar is not a new kind of Heimat-museum. After the first buying spree in the West, most of them discovered they could little afford the wonders of Western department stores; rents have since quadrupled and incomes, for most, have gone down. Many are still awaiting the capitalist miracle. West Germans keep telling them, a bit condescendingly perhaps, that it is not every day that a country simply ceases to exist, that an economy implodes overnight like a soufflé, and that a worldwide ideology—in many ways a religion—that for so many years held friends and foes in thrall evaporates into thin air.
A couple of years ago, the West Berlin novelist Peter Schneider coined a phrase that is often repeated these days—he said that the Wall was also running through people’s minds. When the first anniversary of reunification was celebrated in Berlin last October with noisy fireworks and speeches, Schneider noted that “the basic fact all these self-congratulating politicians refuse to admit is that Germans simply can’t stand one another.” Two social and economic systems crashed into one another and shattered cherished fantasies on both sides. East Germans lost their fantasy of the West as a consumer paradise. West Germans lost the familiar notion of a threatening East that had habitually reinforced their own egos. East Germans, grumbling about falling living standards, tell you that former Nazi bureaucrats in West Germany were guaranteed full pension rights after the war by nothing less than the Federal Constitution, but that former East German bureaucrats now receive pensions smaller by 40 percent than those paid to ex-Nazis in the West. In the West people complain that reunification costs West German taxpayers too much money.
In the flush of reunification it was thought that most material differences between East and West would be bridged within five or six years. Some enthusiasts of Unification confidently predicted that the annual costs of absorbing the East could be financed by the growth in GNP alone and without raising taxes. Taxes have been raised and now even politicians predict that the cost will be three or four times higher and the task so complicated and so heavy that it might take almost as long to get East Germany back on its feet as it took to ruin it. “Deutschland teures Vaterland!” (Germany expensive fatherland!) is how the liberal Munich daily Süddeutsche Zeitung recently headlined a report listing the many hundreds of billions of D-Marks the reunification of Germany will cost in the end. Net transfers to the East this year will amount to 180 billion D-Marks, up from 140 billion last year; much of this, according to the German Federal Bank, was spent on consumption. The demand for consumer goods in the East was 360 billion D-Marks in 1991, almost twice as high as the gross GNP. Only 72 billion went into investment.
It was only after unification that West Germans, who had been told that East Germany had the most productive Eastern economy, discovered that industry in the East was largely obsolete, in addition to being technologically primitive and colossally destructive to the environment. When Edzard Reuter, head of Daimler Benz, returned from his first thorough tour of East German industrial installations he is reported to have said that the problems there could only be resolved by bulldozers. Many now wonder at the apparent willingness of so many governments and “experts” in the West over the years to swallow as a fact the myth of East Germany as the “eleventh” industrial world power. The one successful public relations coup of the East German regime—a regime otherwise so disreputable—was to make so many people believe in this myth. People swallowed it willingly; it confirmed common stereotypes of German discipline, efficiency, and painstaking hard work.
The privatization of East German state properties—farms, factories, mines, and service industries—continues at an uneven pace. The state-owned department stores have been taken over by Western chains and filled almost exclusively with Western goods—pushing unemployment rates in the East higher and higher until they reached levels reminiscent of 1929. Of more than 12,000 state-owned enterprises that had employed some 4.5 million workers in 1989, less than half, employing 930,000 workers, were back in private hands at the end of last year. More than 6,000 enterprises were still waiting for buyers. Roughly a thousand of the most non-competitive enterprises simply had to be closed down. Real estate can be reclaimed by the previous owners, or their heirs, if they can prove their rights to it. This is not always simple. Some records were destroyed during the war or thrown out by the Communists, who thought they would rule forever. Other records are incomplete, or contested by Jews forced by the Nazis to sell their homes and businesses to “Aryans,” for a fraction of their real value, and now want them back.
The “Aryans” who bought these properties so cheaply also want compensation. Some of the best real estate in downtown Leipzig, Dresden, and East Berlin is said to be affected by such claims and counterclaims. “We must literally unscramble the eggs,” a spokesman for the government agency in charge of privatization told me. This might take years. In the meantime, potential investors hold back and will not risk their money. Among bigger investors, however, there is less reluctance to engage in new ventures. In the Weimar area alone, Bosch Appliances and the car makers BMW and Opel are building major new plants in Eisenach.
Many companies have recently been sold to their top managers, with the result that former nomenklatura men can now be found among the new class of entrepreneurs. Factories, workshops, and stores have been given away to their managers or put on sale for the price of the real estate they occupy. I was told of a textile factory with some ninety workers in the Weimar area that has not yet found a buyer, perhaps because its only profit last year came from the sale of a spinning machine (model 1911) to an industrial museum in Munich.
Agriculture is in deep trouble too. Much of it had been collectivized and in the flush of reunification it was thought that at soon as the land returned to private hands, to the “peasants,” agriculture would flourish again. But after forty-five years of industrial state farming there seem to be no real “peasants” left. Half a million fled to the West in the Fifties and early Sixties as a direct result of collectivization; privatization is not going to bring them or their heirs back now. Only 3 percent of all East German farmworkers polled last year said they wanted to own land and become independent “peasants.” A good part of the once lush East German farmland lay fallow last year and probably will not be worked in the coming year either.
Free enterprise in East Germany by East Germans still manifests itself mainly, according to the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel, in videothèques, porno shops, kiosks, and hot dog stands. I spoke to the branch manager of a West German bank in Weimar (himself a West German) who complained of a peculiar sluggishness among people in the East. He compared this with the obsessive energy after 1945 of West Germans who had thrown themselves into work rebuilding their economy and their devastated cities. East Germans, he lamented, lacked initiative. They seem weary, he said, like people rising from a long illness.
Few people I spoke to still call themselves Communists. Nearly everyone insisted he or she had been a dissident or at least active in the Party’s reform wing. One day I watched a television interview with Erich Honecker, the former East German ruler. If I correctly understood his convoluted explanations, he was claiming that he had often been in opposition to himself. The interview was filmed in Moscow, where Honecker has taken refuge in the Chilean embassy to escape extradiction to Germany, where he is wanted on criminal charges. Honecker continues to be in the news here. His feeble excuses, his whining complaints that he is a sick old man who only wants to live out his days with his grandchildren, his refusal to return to Germany to defend himself, his claim that he has cancer—quickly denied by the Soviet doctors who examined him—suggest a kind of spinelessness found among other deposed strongmen of Eastern Europe as well.
I wonder if there has ever been a class of absolute rulers that stepped off the stage in so miserable a style as did those of Eastern Europe. The exception seems to be Wojciech Jaruzelski of Poland. I’m told that when he was informed that he might be prosecuted for staging the military coup of 1981, Jaruzelski simply said: “I’m ready to face charges.” Solzhenitsyn used to warn us that Western leaders suffered from “a failure of nerve” and were in danger of being overpowered by the strong-willed ruthlessness of the Communists of the East; and yet the implosion of communism in the East suggests that the alleged failure of nerve occurred, if anywhere, not in the West but among the Communist elite of Eastern Europe.
A librarian in Weimar assured me there had never been Communists in Weimar, anyway. There may have been some in nearby Jena or Erfurt, but not in Weimar. Why was he being punished? His rent had gone up fourfold last year.
Throughout the East German population a kind of apathy has spread that is the subject of much speculation, a favorite topic of talk show panelists. The debilitating effects of fifty-seven years under totalitarian rule are mentioned as one possible cause. In a different vein I heard a Protestant minister say on television that God, for some unfathomable reason, had chosen to punish the East Germans much more severely than the West Germans for their crimes during World War II. It was not for mere mortals to question the divine but West Germans should be more generous in their judgment of their brethren in the East. In the West it is more likely to be pointed out that work productivity in the East is still a fraction of what it is in the West. “They want to live like Westerners but work like Easterners,” the Weimar bank manager complained. Under the old regime, he said, his employees would work no more than six hours a day and by lunchtime Thursday were preparing for the weekend. East Germans, he whispered, are simply “German-speaking Poles.”
In a recently published book the Berlin historian Arnulf Baring has urged people not to forget that communism lasted in East Germany four times longer than Nazism.* The accumulated effects of those fifty-seven years under two dictatorships are considerable, Baring claims. Unlike Nazism, communism fortunately did not leave behind it piles of corpses; nevertheless it left “a wasteland…a thoroughly devastated world.” The biggest disaster, Baring insists, is not the bankrupt economy, the pollution of natural resources, or the material decay, but rather the depletion of the human “substance” and the lack of first-rate people as a result of the mass flight of the young, the most energetic and enterprising, the best-educated people in the land during the forty-five years of Communist rule.
East German universities have also come under heavy criticism. Over the years many of the best teachers escaped to the West; it was not easy for those who remained behind to improve their scholarship or teaching. Permission to travel abroad was granted only to select “cadres,” in exchange for a readiness to spy on their colleagues for the secret police. Libraries were understocked. Kurt Biedenkopf, the current prime minister of Saxony, one of approximately two dozen West German politicians who settled in the East after reunification and have since successfully run for high public office there, told me that when he first arrived in Leipzig in 1990, the university law library did not possess a single book acquired after 1970.
In the humanities, the strong emphasis on the Russian language and on Marxism-Leninism as a philosophy has led to charges that many graduates of Eastern universities are now useless as teachers or public administrators. Perhaps the charge is too severe; critics may have too rigid a view of educated elites or may underestimate the way leaders and competent experts may emerge in free societies in response to a specific challenge. Yet it is a fact that almost a fourth of the population of East Germany fled to the West after 1949. There has probably never been another country where so many citizens voted with their feet, often braving death as they ran away from their government.
The reunification of 1990 did not stop this great exodus. The “human” destruction in the East is worse than the material destruction, Baring claims in his book. The only cure, he insists, would be a vast attempt by the West to “recolonize” the East—much as Silesia, East Prussia, and the Baltic countries had been colonized in the Middle Ages by the Knights of the Germanic Order. So far no significant move by Westerners into the new federated Länder of the East is taking place. For every Westerner who went East in 1991 an estimated seven Easterners (more than 200,000) migrated in the opposite direction. A few thousand Western administrators, public prosecutors, judges, accountants, sales representatives, and public relations men have settled in the East on Western salaries that are, on the average, 65 percent higher than those paid to East Germans. Like diplomats serving in East Africa, they receive additional bonuses for working in a hardship post (although some of the most prominent are working for nothing). The material benefits are not enough to induce them to stay permanently. Few have brought their families to the East; there is an enormous shortage of apartments that meet Western standards, and the few Western-style apartments available often rent for more than similar ones in Hamburg. Nor are most schools of a kind Westerners would send their children to. There are few services. The telephones—if you can get one—do not work as they should, faxes arrive garbled, roads are full of potholes, and trains move at half the speed of those in the West because of antiquated tracks.
Some West German officials working in the East commute daily by air; the special air force planes that fly them in and out five days a week are dubbed Beamtenbomber. Others stay in makeshift bachelor quarters during the week and fly or drive home for the weekend. In Leipzig, after work hours, the Westerners can be seen gathered together in special pubs much like colonial officials overseas. There are many complaints of “colonialism in one’s own country.” According to a recent report in the Sächsische Zeitung, in the local government of Saxony, one of the new federal Länder in the East, 10 out of 14 secretaries of state are Westerners, as are 34 out of 45 heads of departments and 114 out of 163 Referatsleiter (heads of specialized sections).
It is only a ten-minute ride by car from Goethe’s house in Weimar to the former concentration camp of Buchenwald on the wooded Ettersberg overlooking the city from the northwest. The nearness of the two sites has often been commented upon. Of the quarter million imprisoned at Buchenwald, 56,000 were murdered or died of hunger and disease. Goethe liked to take walks on the Ettersberg and to rest under an old oak. He told Eckermann, “Hier fühlt man sich gross und frei” (“Here one feels great and free”).
The oak’s stump is still pointed out to visitors inside the old concentration camp. Lampshades of human skin were manufactured here to please an SS woman, Ilse Koch. The horror of Buchenwald is accentuated by the natural beauty of its surroundings. Thuringia is known as “the green heart of Germany.” When it is not under a cloud of air pollution, it is a bucolic land of soft rolling hills, forests, beeches, apple trees, and wildflowers. Letters preserved in the Buchenwald archive show that during the mid-1930s several Thuringian cities fiercely competed to have the government set up the Buchenwald concentration camp within their municipal jurisdiction. Weimar won the race because the local Nazi strongman had a direct line to Hitler. The Weimar population was fully aware of what was happening on the Ettersberg. Prisoners were marched up to the camp on foot from the Weimar railroad station, while SS men urged them on with whips and blows and dogs on long leashes. The old gatehouse to the concentration camp still stands with its cynical motto in castiron letters: TO EACH HIS OWN (a counterpart to the inscription on the gate of Auschwitz, WORK MAKES FREE).
Immediately behind the gate is the Appelplatz where the prisoners often stood in the mud an entire night at freezing temperatures six hundred feet above the city of Goethe, Schiller, Herder, Wieland, Lizst, and Nietzsche, as drunken SS men shouted obscenities at them from inside the gatehouse. The barracks have been torn down. Where they once stood there is now a great, bare, windswept cemented void. On its edge a small brick building with a high chimney still stands. Inside is a white paneled room. Prisoners were told to face the wall in order to have their height measured by a wooden rod. Instead they were shot in the neck. Also on view is a collection of scalpels and other instruments used by Dr. Mengele and his colleagues to carry out their experiments on living inmates. Next door was the crematorium. Outside the camp perimeter the Communist regime built a high belltower and eighteen pseudo-pharaonic commemorative pylons, one for each nation whose citizens were imprisoned at Buchenwald. Elaborate ceremonies were held here each year on the anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald. The ceremonies were designed to underline the regime’s legitimacy by propagating an officially ordained “antifascism” that made “monopoly capitalism” in general and West Germany in particular responsible for Nazism and its crimes. East Germans were thus exonerated of all historic responsibility for what happened. The official rhetoric almost made it appear that East Germany had been an occupied country during the war, with an effective Communist underground resistance movement, centered partly in Buchenwald itself.
The former SS storehouse now serves as a museum. Traces of the old Communist rhetoric can still be found in the museum but a large sign promises visitors that the wall labels and the exhibits, which under the Communists said relatively little about Jews, are now “under review” by the new administration headed by a West German historian. The old electric fence still runs across the bleak treeless slope. Behind it, several mass graves were found soon after the collapse of the Communist regime in 1990. They contained the remains of inmates of a Soviet concentration camp that was set up here in 1945 and continued to operate until 1950. The discovery created a stir and provoked new debates on which was worse, Auschwitz or the Gulag, Buchenwald under the Nazis or Buchenwald under the Communists. Two official commemorative sites have since been established at Buchenwald, one at the foot of the high belltower for victims of Nazism and another next to the wooden crosses marking the newly discovered tombs. Perhaps to avoid being dragged into this characteristically German debate, President Mitterrand on a visit to Buchenwald in 1990 laid his wreath at neither place but rather at the gatehouse with its cynical inscription.
Most of those imprisoned in the Soviet concentration camp of Buchenwald were suspected Nazi militants, but among them were also social democrats and other liberal opponents of the Communist regime. In West Berlin I recently talked to the sixty-eight-year-old Robert Zeiler, who was twice interned in the Buchenwald concentration camp, once by the Nazis in 1944 for being “half Jewish” and again, in 1946, by Soviet security officers, for being a social democrat and an alleged American spy. Zeiler says that when he was finally released from Buchenwald in 1948 and reached West Berlin nobody wanted to hear about the Soviet camp. “They wanted to hear only about Nazi criminals.”
The existence of a Soviet concentration camp at Buchenwald was well known in the West at least since the mid-Fifties. From the early Sixties on, when Zeiler first told his story on radio and television, the fact was widely publicized and the many East Germans who watched West German television would have heard of it. In East Germany any mention of the Soviet camp was officially taboo. “I first heard the hard facts about it in December 1989,” Dr. Gisela Seidel, an East German historian who has worked at the Buchenwald museum since the mid-Seventies, told me. I told Dr. Seidel that I found this hard to believe. She quickly replied that she must have heard it as a rumor before and suppressed the memory. “It was too dangerous a thing to remember,” she said.
Midway on the road back from Buchenwald to Weimar I drove past a large Soviet army base. Young soldiers were lolling behind a gate. The country that sent them out here has ceased to exist, but some 250,000 still linger behind high fences in camps all over East Germany. They are rarely seen outside. The gate here was shut and guarded. Another gate, half a mile down the road, was open. I drove in and passed some barracks. They seemed in a state of complete disarray. Inside one of the barracks the floor was littered with papers. Wooden crates lay about half-packed with what looked like blankets. No one was to be seen. The grounds were covered with garbage, old tires, abandoned cars, rusty gun shells, plastic barrels, a partially dismantled armored troop carrier, and several darkly shining little lakes of spilled oil or fuel floating on rain water. According to the Soviet-German treaty on the withdrawal of Soviet troops from East Germany, the Germans will pay the Soviets the full market value of their vacated installations; the Soviets are obliged to compensate Germany for any ecological damage they may have caused over the years. This damage, according to the German press, is considerable. The Russians have recently countered German claims with claims of their own for damages caused by the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
About two hundred yards beyond the Russian camp down the main road an old truck with Polish number plates was parked on a siding. Two young men were offering used, surplus, or maybe stolen Soviet equipment for sale to passing motorists. Army mess tins, sweaters, and compasses were on display and second-hand overcoats and dress uniforms, complete with rank insignia and medals, officers’ caps and sturdy boots made of a special leather, guaranteed to withstand hours of immersion in water. They were a Russian specialty, said one of the young men, who spoke a broken German. A couple of passing motorists had stopped and were fingering the merchandise. It was the end-of-season sale of an empire.
April 23, 1992