How does daemonization affect the sector?

The history politics of the victors

Wolfgang Wippermann writes about the demonization of the GDR

By Kai Köhler

Discussed books / references

Comparisons between the Nazi regime and the governments of the socialist countries have a long history. Sometimes they are legitimized in response to critical inquiries that a comparison ultimately does not mean equation - but in the end it almost always comes down to asserting structural or moral parallels. It doesn't change much that the GDR is neither responsible for a world war nor genocide. The assertion of the writer and civil rights activist Jürgen Fuchs that the Stasi was responsible for “Auschwitz in the souls” is just a particularly unsuccessful metaphor for a widespread error.

The Berlin historian Wolfgang Wippermann has already dealt with such comparisons in numerous publications and has now presented a clear, simply written book that is introductory and also takes into account the latest developments. In doing so, he focuses less on the justification of comparison or equation - but that is also not necessary. A few short comments are enough to convincingly explain the essential differences between the “Third Reich” and the GDR. The more interesting is the question of why the parallelization between the two systems can still play such a large role in the public discussion.

First, Wippermann traces the boom of the totalitarian doctrine during the Cold War. He rejects the more common expression “totalitarianism theory” because it is less a scientific approach than a political battlefield. That may be a bit too precise - in the social sciences the two cannot always be separated. But it becomes clear enough that the explanatory value of the totalitarianism doctrine is to be assessed as low as the political power which it promoted in the West was great.

Around 1970 the approach lost its importance. For one thing, it didn't quite fit into the policy of détente. On the other hand, the rigid typological approach to explain the nature of a rule by defining certain characteristics failed because of the unmistakable de-Stalinization of the socialist countries. “Extremism” then prevailed as a polemical replacement term. The scheme that the extremes of left and right would jointly threaten the basic liberal order was illustrated using the Weimar Republic, which was allegedly destroyed jointly by the Nazis and communists. In an instructive digression, Wippermann explains that there can be no question of this. The two “extremes” actually pursued completely different goals and fought one another. The NSDAP then came to power in a coalition with bourgeois forces, legitimized by the conservative Reich President Paul von Hindenburg. Wippermann correctly states that the Weimar Republic was not dismantled from the right and left, but from above and from the center of society.

But facts have only a secondary meaning in the propaganda struggle. The greater part of Wippermann's book is devoted to the renaissance of the totalitarian doctrine since the end of the GDR. The author in no way turns out to be a sympathizer of the lost system. On the contrary, he legitimizes his criticism of the GDR, in explicit opposition to any Ostalgie, with the superfluous assertion that in the GDR “terror basically gripped everyone and almost everywhere”. Now this is a demonization of what has been a rather negligent regime in the end, which is far exaggerating. The GDR was without a doubt a dictatorship; but it was a dictatorship that, especially in its final years, left a lot of leeway for a private sphere untouched by “terror”. If you want to analyze its final phase, then the keyword: "Terror everywhere" is less suitable, but rather "the lost belief in success".

Mostly, however, Wippermann does not demonize the GDR, which he obviously does not like, but shows how its remains became the object of the winners of 1989/90. The psychogram of fanatical accusers such as Joachim Gauck and Hubertus Knabe is just as readable as the analysis of the “Research Association SED State”, which ideologues, previously unaffected by any knowledge of the GDR, were able to enforce at the Free University of Berlin at the expense of proven researchers with political support.

Nowhere was it about analyzing the history of the GDR on the basis of scientific standards. Rather, the aim was indictment and conviction. The Bundestag Enquêtekommission to come to terms with the GDR past, in which the scientific approach was sacrificed to a one-sided history policy, corresponded to the archival dubious and politically denunciating handling of Gauck files.

Wippermann's conclusion is correspondingly gloomy. The GDR is demonized by the comparison with the Nazi dictatorship - and at the same time the latter is played down. That “demonizing the GDR and relativizing the Third Reich are two sides of the same historical-political revisionism” seems illogical - to the extent that the “Third Reich” is relativized, it is no longer suitable for demonizing, or so one should at least think. But propaganda doesn't work according to the rules of logic. Either one or the other can work in emotional suggestion.

But contrary to Wippermann's pessimistic conclusion, the question arises whether it works and whether it works through this connection. Another discourse, which Wippermann mentions only briefly, is probably more important for the relativization of the “Third Reich”: that the Germans are defined as one group of victims among many and that the undoubted suffering that the bombing war and expulsion from the former German East meant, exploited historically and politically become. The demonization of the GDR also encounters resistance: Wippermann knows how to report a thoroughly skeptical GDR research that does not require crude comparisons. Only this is less publicly present. With the debate about the Soviet special camps on the site of former Nazi concentration camps, Wippermann also presents a sector in which international victims' associations were able to prevent the worst. In Buchenwald, to a certain extent also in Sachsenhausen, the Allied camps after 1945, which incidentally were set up on the initiative of the US, are remembered without a primitive equation between the mass murder of the Nazis and later victims of hunger and cold.

Perhaps the success of the totalitarianism and extremism doctrines is even more questionable. The same people who reject extremes of faith from the right and left alike can identify a film like “Good Bye Lenin” and would rightly reject an apparent equivalent “Good bye Hitler” with outrage. This shows the limited range of doctrines that do not relate to any reality: Even those who have memorized today's state doctrine know that any comparison of Nazi crimes with other acts is misleading. To be in a "SED successor party" discriminates its members incomparably less than membership in an "NSDAP successor party" would, and rightly so. Wippermann shows how wrong the doctrine of totalitarianism is and how attempts are made to enforce it; that is valuable. How successful it is in practice - in view of a capitalism that is now making its non-functioning clear - remains to be examined more closely.