Marquette Studies in Philosophy, No. 28, Milwaukee, 2001, ISBN: 1860644589
I am very pleased that Jan Herman Brinks's book of historical studies in the German Democratic Republic, which first appeared in German in 1992, will now be available to the English reader. Brinks's book was very timely when it appeared only two years after the collapse of the GDR. Written before 1989, when he was stationed in East Berlin with Dutch television and utilized his stay there to write this book as a dissertation for the University of Groningen, it showed how GDR party and historians had sought to reinterpret German history to legitimize their socialist dictatorship and in the process had manipulated history.
Although the focus of the book is on the ways in which GDR historians have interpretated and reinterpretated three key figures, Luther, Frederick II (!), and Bismarck, from the perspective of their place in German nation building, the translation offers in fact the only up to date history of historiography in the GDR in English. It is preceded only by Andreas Dorpalen's German History from a Marxist Perspective, written in the 1970s with very different questions in mind. Dorpalen in an excellent study surveys work in the GDR on all phases of German history from the Middle Ages to the recent past and critically assesses the contributions which these writings have made to scholarship beyond ideological lines. Brinks concentrates specifically on the question which the tension between a German national identity and a distinct GDR socialist identity played in GDR historical literature, the former viewing Germany in ethnic terms, the latter defining it in class terms. Brinks examines the contradiction in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and later in August Bebel, Wilheln Liebknecht, and Franz Mehring between an internationalism which proclaims that the workers have no fatherland and the support they gave to the unification of Germany in 1871 under Prussian hegemony. The Kaiserreich was on the one hand viewed as reactionary, on the other hand it was seen as progressive, moving in the direction of a capitalist industrial society in which the emergence of a revolutionary working class became possible. This confrontation between the "progressive" and "reactionary" aspects of the "great Germans" from Luther to Frederick II, Scharnhorst, and Bismarck marks all main line Marxist writings before 1945 and the official historiography of Eastern Germany after 1945. If I speak of "great Germans" in parentheses, I want to point out that Marxist, Marxist-Leninist, and GDR historians, despite the central role they profess to give to great social forces, nevertheless concentrate on individuals such as Luther and Bismarck.
Brinks distinguishes three phases in East German thought on the German national past between the collapse of the Reich in 1945 and the collapse of the GDR in 1989. In the years immediately after 1945, Alexander Abusch's very critical history of Germany, Der Irrweg einer Nation, written in exile during the war, was taken seriously. Abusch described the catastrophic development of Germany since the early modern period involving the failure of Germany unlike Western countries to develop democratic institutions in the process of economic modernization. This view was soon repudiated as a Misere (misery) interpretation of German history. Instead a distinction was made between "progressive" and "reactionary" strains in German history. Luther, Frederick II, and to a lesser extent Bismarck represented the "reactionary" burden of Germany, Thomas Münzer, the peasants in the Peasants War, the "Wars of Liberation" against the French, the 1848 Revolution, the working class movement afterwards the "progressive" forces on which a socialist German nation could build its historical identity. This was followed in the 1970s and 1980s by a normalization which posited a dialectical relationship between reactionary and progressive aspects of German history; Luther was no longer seen as the knave of the princes but as some one who also helped to further the "early bourgeois revolution". As his fivehundredth birthday approached in 1983, the GDR was willing to claim him as someone who despite all his faults had helped pave the way to a positive German national identity. Simlarly Frederick II and Bismarck were rehabilitated. On the surface this call for looking at all aspects of German history seemed like an opening to greater liberality; in some ways it was an attempt to use past heroes to give national legitimacy to the authoritarian GDR regime. Chauvinistic leaders of the movement for German unification in the nineteenth century such as Fichte, Jahn, and Arndt were earlier on incorporated into the progressive movement not withstanding their xenophobia and racial anti-Semitism because they helped pave the way for national unification. The critical confrontation with the illiberal German past which took place in West Germany beginning in the 1960s, which raised questions which Abusch had also voiced in the early days of East Germany, had no counterpart in the GDR in the 1970s and 1980s. It is ironic but not surprising that the conservative Siedler Verlag in West Berlin published Engelberg's Bismarck biography. Brinks is to be thanked for having reconstructed the convoluted history of historical writing and myth building in an authoritarian regime which betrayed its own ideals.
Georg G. Iggers Buffalo, NY November 1999
Among those least surprised by the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany was the author of this valuable study. As a result of an extensive series of interviews and a thorough examination of historical writing in the then German Democratic Republic (DDR), Jan Herman Brinks had previously concluded that East German historians were helping to pave the road to national unity. He arrived at this view despite the fact that their conscious intent was to strengthen the communist regime’s claim to legitimacy and to further its policy of demarcation (Abgrenzung) vis-à-vis the Federal Republic (BRD).
Even in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels themselves, Brinks begins, one can find a tension between the conflicting desiderata of German national unity and social demarcation, between the ethnic and the class (proletarian) nation. To be sure, the classical Marxist thinkers preferred the class nation – “the workers have no Fatherland” – but they also recognized that national unity was required to complete the historically progressive transformation from feudalism to capitalism. For that reason they welcomed the establishment of the German Reich in 1871 as a “revolution from above”, without thinking it necessary to revise their negative estimate of Prussia and Otto von Bismarck, contributors to the “misery” that was German history.
Revolutionary social democrats such as V.I. Lenin, August Bebel, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, and Franz Mehring adopted an even more hostile attitude toward much of German history, but like Marx and Engels they extolled a minority – revolutionary – tradition that included Thomas Müntzer and the Peasant War of 1525, the 1848 Revolution, and, later, the Russian Revolution and the abortive November 1918 Revolution. Brinks devotes the remainder of his book to the evolution of East German historiography from 1945 to 1971 and 1971 to 1987. He does not deny, indeed he asserts, that the regime’s political agenda defined the tasks of historical research and set the boundaries of professional judgment, but he maintains that one can also discern an inner logic of historiographical development. During the first period, from war’s end to Erich Honecker’s accession to power, Alexander Abusch’s Irrweg einer Nation (1947) set the initial tone; in search of the origins of National Socialism, East German historians provided variations on the “misery” theme.
Soon, however, they accepted a new assignment, that of portraying the DDR as the culmination of a limited, but real, German revolutionary tradition driven by the worker’s movement. They spoke of national unity – on socialist terms – but, especially after the erection of the Wall, they emphasized Abgrenzung, not least because they had cast West Germany in the role of heir of a reactionary tradition to which Frederick the Great, Bismarck, and Martin Luther belonged. And yet, according to Brinks, sympathy for Einheit and for a more genuinely national tradition was never wholly absent; witness the commemoration of the Reformation’s 450th anniversary in 1967.
It was, however, during the period from 1971 to 1987 that East German historiography underwent a sea change. In an attempt to sink deeper roots in Germany’s historical soil, the regime expanded the revolutionary tradition to include a “humanistic heritage” that permitted a more “differentiated” (favorable) view of Luther, Frederick the Great, Bismarck, and even “militaristic” Prussia, which, after all, had lain primarily within the confines of the DDR. The rehabilitation of Luther was particularly notable; no longer the “princes’ lackey”, the famed reformer and Bible translator was, Honecker announced in 1980, “one of the German Volk’s greatest sons” (p. 235). East German historians, in Brinks’s view, were only too glad to adopt the new line, because it corresponded to a historical outlook that had already been present, in embryonic form, in some of their work of the 1950s and 1960s.
Brinks was right to conclude, as he had by the late 1980s, that the regime’s strategy to achieve greater recognition and to rally support for a policy of Abgrenzung would backfire; by embracing so much of Germany’s heritage, East German historical writing revivified a national consciousness and encouraged new hope for national unity. As the regime should have known, and as its historians undoubtedly did know, nationalism runs deeper than socialism.
Lee Congdon James Madison University
This extremely well researched work will be welcomed by scholars concerned with historiography as a tool of political ideology in the hands of a ruling party. It presumes, of course, more than a nodding acquaintance with the “state-building” role which historians played in 19th century Prussia-Germany. The general focus is the attempt by the SED (Socialist Unity Party) which ruled the German Democratic Republic (GDR) for forty-five years, to force the story of the complex German past into a Marxist-Leninist Procrustean bed so that it could serve the long-term objectives of the party, viz. to fashion a paradigm of the history of all Germany that would be convincing for all Germans, and so make them into submissive subjects of a regime which claimed a monopoly on “truth.” The conscious use of history as an instrument of indoctrination was/is even more important to Marxist Leninist regimes that it was/is to Fascists.
Brinks, as a Dutch post-graduate student, went to East Berlin in 1986, having been invited (an extremely rare occurrence) to research this subject as part of an East German experiment in acquainting Western academics with scholarship of Real Existing Socialism. The present volume is the outcome of this experience and was the basis of his doctorate for the University of Groningen in Holland. As well, it was written for the greater part before the “October Revolution” of 1989. As such it represents an exercise that will never need to be repeated, but this systematic study of the way in which the historical discipline was manipulated in the GDR is an invaluable record in itself as an example of history as political-cultural pedagogy of a special kind that was, for a limited time, so “historically” influential.
It was well known among Western observers that the GDR historians were at pains simultaneously to provide a historical justification for the separate identity of the GDR and then to re-interpret the course of German history to fit into the party dialectic which required that remote figures of the German past be re-assessed as forerunners of a united socialist Germany. Certainly, all history is political, but some is more so than others. Indeed, adapting Clausewitz’ famous dictum that war was the continuation of politics by other means, Brinks has demonstrated how the historiography in the GDR was the continuation of politics with historical means. (p.309) History had a legitimizing and socially integrating function to perform on behalf of the State, and in the German form of Real Existing Socialism this was accompanied by special problems.
The task confronted by the GDR historians was indeed a daunting one. Germany was the classical fatherland of historians in the 19th century. Ranke, and after him the notoriously nationalistic Prussian school, had set the ground rules for the writing of “statist” and national history. They had defined what the German nation was and how it had evolved, especially from the time of the Reformation. The latter cataclysm in central Europe had set the stage for the rise of Protestant Prussia whose God-given destiny it was to unite the Germanic principalities apart from Roman Catholic Austria. It was essentially a very conservative and emphatically dynasty-oriented history which focused on the nation-building heroes of the past. This way of understanding Prussian-German history became paradigmatic and was deeply rooted in the psyche of not only the German bourgeoisie. The GDR historians were from 1945 onwards committed to restructuring the paradigm to conform to the requirements of the ruling ideology of Marxist – Leninism. Their task was parallel to that of theologians in a theocracy. But in real sense, as handmaids of the State, had been functioning in very much the same way as the old nationalistic Prussian school did on behalf of the Hohenzollern dynasty, only post-1945 the ruling class had changed.
In the process of re-structuring the paradigm, it was necessary also for the GDR historians to revise what the forerunners, viz. the Marxist Klassiker, so-called, had written about German history. Marx and Engels themselves had studied the Reformation, Luther and the “state-building personalities”, in particular of Friedrich II and later Bismarck, the herald and achiever of German unity respectively. The great Social Democrat historian, Franz Mehring, and after him the thinkers of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany from 1918/19) also had to be investigated for their interpretations of both the heroes of the past and the actual achievement of unity under Bismarck. All these had a uniformly negative view, though the Peasants’ War might be accorded a positive function. And following Marx, they could at least endorse the “progressive” achievement of German unity under Bismarck because it intensified the class struggle etc. etc. and thus advanced the cause of the international proletariat in the long term.
According to Brinks the GDR historians followed a zig-zag course of re-interpreting the legacy of the monarchist-capitalist past for its relevance to the socialist present, oscillating between preaching all German unity on the one hand and concentrating on the legitimizing of the separate existence of the GDR on the other. This change of emphasis was conditioned by the unstable climate of the Cold War. For example, when relations with the West became strained, the emphasis was on the legitimacy of the GDR. This state was the outcome of all the positive revolutionary and humanistic efforts of the German past reaching back to the Peasants War of 1525. The Federal Republic on the other hand was the outcome of all the negative aspects of Prussian German militarism and capitalism. It was indeed remarkable how the historiographical direction could be altered in order to satisfy the “party line” at a given time. As Brinks observes:
The image of Prussia in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties was dominated by the totally negative view (Misere-Sicht) of the Klassiker (Marx & Engels) and Mehring, and committed to the thesis of the two lines of development of German history. (i.e. the one issuing in the creation of the GDR and the other, negative line, issuing in the Federal Republic). Prussian raison d’ etat and the ruling class stood against the national and social interests of the people. Prussia constituted an anti-tradition which resulted in the formation of the Federal Republic. This line was intensified as a consequence of the marked efforts at legitimization (of the GDR) from 1966 and the revival of interest in Prussia on the West German side. In all works then on Prussian history (in the GDR) there was a sharp polemic against West German historiography.
What Brinks has succeeded brilliantly in demonstrating beyond the fact that history was instrumentalised as a political-pedagogic weapon, a misuse of history not confined tot totalitarian countries, is how the Marxist-Leninist principle of partisanship (Parteilichkeit) operated in the hands of the GDR practitioners. It was this which distinguished them most from their western colleagues. History was interpreted solely in the interests of promoting the present and future advantage of the party, i.e. the revolutionary elite of the most progressive force in the historical process, viz. the proletariat. In short, historians, as Walter Ulbricht very early in the history of the GDR instructed them, had to take their cue from the party leadership who had pioneered the way to the present and who had the vision to pioneer the way to the future.
Recent events, have, of course, proved how bankrupt the principle of partisanship was. It certainly could not pioneer the way to the future. Many a good historian in the GDR toed the party line, but only outwardly. The younger ones who survived the collapse of communism are still there, but now happily researching in a pluralist environment. In providing such a detached and scholarly insight into the intellectual world of Real Existing Socialism Brinks has performed a unique service to the discipline, both in the West and in the East, and it is one which only an informed outsider could have achieved.
By John A. Moses in the Australian Journal for Politics and History, Vol 40, No2, 1994