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July 28, 2011

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» Sachsenhausen 1: the ‘Geometry of Total Terror’

History Student Fieldtrip to Germany, July 2011 The gateway to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. Photo: Pete Driscoll As we walked through the gates of the former concentation camp Sachsenhausen on the outskirts of Berlin, under the obscene slogan `Through Work, Freedom’ … Continue reading

February 4, 2011

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» He who controls the past...

The Politics of the Past: How Germany forgot its most prominent communist leader

Norry Laporte

Over the last couple of years, Glamorgan historian Dr Norry LaPorte has been working with Hamburg curator Sabine Brunotte & Central German TV (MDR), which broadcasts to the form East Germany, to recover the forgotten past of communist leader Ernst Thälmann. Below he discusses why history – its uses and abuses – is so important to states and the politics they want their citizens to believe in.

Two decades after the end of the Cold War, an exhibition and book of short biographies dedicated to the victims of fascism in Hamburg finally includes the leader of the German Communist Party (KPD) during the troubled Weimar Republic. But why was Ernst Thälmann, one of Hamburg’s most prominent sons from the 1920s and early 1930s, forgotten until the second decade of the twenty-first century? The answer lies in the division of Germany throughout the Cold War, when it stood on the front-line of the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism.

<embed class="left" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2011/2/4/Ernst_Th%C3%A4lmann_-_Wie_er_wirklich_war_3_5_2_.flv" height="400" width="600" /></embed>

Norry LaPorte appears as historical commentator in the MDR documentary Ernst Thaelmann, Wie er wirklich war' (The real Ernst Thaelmann). In this excerpt, he consider's Thaelmann's initial response to the rise of Hitler.

In 1925 Thälmann had stood as the communist candidate in the presidential elections, bringing him to national prominence. Radicalised by the war and then the localised civil war in Germany following defeat, he joined the communist movement and rose rapidly in its ranks. From 1919 he was a municipal councillor in Hamburg and in 1924 he took up a seat in the national parliament, the Reichstag, in Berlin; in 1924 he was appointed to the Executive Committee of the Communist International, making frequent visits to Moscow, and became the chairman of the KPD the following year. It was a rapid political rise which ended just as abruptly after the Nazi ‘seizure of power’ in 1933. After almost 12 years in prison – including being tortured by the Gestapo – he was shot by the SS in Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944. To the communist Germany after 1945, he became a hero – a model antifascist who had fought against Nazism and war.

<image class="right" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2011/2/4/thaelmann_plaque.jpg" />

The politics of cold-war West Germany demanded a very different way of interpreting its recent past. The communist East Germany (GDR) was a ‘totalitarian’ state, just like the Third Reich before it. Thälmann and the German Communists had not been antifascist but merely another enemy of the first German democracy, the Weimar Republic. They had acted as Moscow’s marionettes, doing Stalin’s bidding abroad. The two Germanys had constructed two histories, one the mirror image of the other. In the East, Thälmann gave his name to the communist youth movement, the Young Pioneers, films trumpeted his heroism and leadership in the fight against fascism and even school classrooms had a corner dedicated to his memory. In the West, including his home town of Hamburg, he was dismissed as Stalin’s sidekick, a name to be expunged from the public sphere. In 1956 a street in the city taking his name was renamed ‘Budapest Street’ to indicate West German hostility to communism. Only since the mid 1990s has there been a ‘Thälmann Place’ in Hamburg, which runs a few meters along the pavement where he used to live.

But why should what to remember or forget in history be important to states and their citizens alike? One recent example is what happened in Soviet Russia during the Gorbachev period in the 1980s. Permitting historians to criticise Stalin and Stalinism led to the questioning of Lenin and Leninism and within a short period the regime collapsed amid a crisis of legitimacy. It is a lesson the Chinese have learned from. Even although communism as a political project has been abandoned in the new China of markets and consumerism, the Communist Party keeps a tight grip on how the past is remembered. Censorship ensures that the public read and hear only of a party and movement which ended the exploitation of the ‘imperialist’ Western Empires and freed the country from this bondage. To be a ‘communist’ is, therefore, to be a patriot.

Germany is proud of its long political journey to the ‘West’ – by which it means political democracy and a high level of redistribution through the welfare state – and it has good cause to be. Extreme nationalism is all but pushed out of mainstream political discourse and social inclusion is a genuine national aspiration. But the very fact that it took two decades after the end of the Cold War to remember one of Hamburg’s most famous communist politicians shows just how important history is. As George Orwell told us in his dystopian novel 1984, ‘he who controls the past controls the future’.

February 2, 2011

History Division News
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» He who controls the past…

The Politics of the Past: How Germany forgot its most prominent communist leader

Norry Laporte

Over the last couple of years, Glamorgan historian Dr Norry LaPorte has been working with Hamburg curator Sabine Brunotte & Central German TV (MDR), which broadcasts to the form East Germany, to recover the forgotten past of communist leader Ernst Thälmann. Below he discusses why history – its uses and abuses – is so important to states and the politics they want their citizens to believe in.

Two decades after the end of the Cold War, an exhibition and book of short biographies dedicated to the victims of fascism in Hamburg finally includes the leader of the German Communist Party (KPD) during the troubled Weimar Republic. But why was Ernst Thälmann, one of Hamburg’s most prominent sons from the 1920s and early 1930s, forgotten until the second decade of the twenty-first century? The answer lies in the division of Germany throughout the Cold War, when it stood on the front-line of the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism.

Norry LaPorte appears as historical commentator in the MDR documentary Ernst Thaelmann, Wie er wirklich war’ (The real Ernst Thaelmann). In this excerpt, he consider’s Thaelmann’s initial response to the rise of Hitler.

In 1925 Thälmann had stood as the communist candidate in the presidential elections, bringing him to national prominence. Radicalised by the war and then the localised civil war in Germany following defeat, he joined the communist movement and rose rapidly in its ranks. From 1919 he was a municipal councillor in Hamburg and in 1924 he took up a seat in the national parliament, the Reichstag, in Berlin; in 1924 he was appointed to the Executive Committee of the Communist International, making frequent visits to Moscow, and became the chairman of the KPD the following year. It was a rapid political rise which ended just as abruptly after the Nazi ’seizure of power’ in 1933. After almost 12 years in prison – including being tortured by the Gestapo – he was shot by the SS in Buchenwald concentration camp in 1944. To the communist Germany after 1945, he became a hero – a model antifascist who had fought against Nazism and war.

Thaelmann Memorial Plaque: Photograph

The politics of cold-war West Germany demanded a very different way of interpreting its recent past. The communist East Germany (GDR) was a ‘totalitarian’ state, just like the Third Reich before it. Thälmann and the German Communists had not been antifascist but merely another enemy of the first German democracy, the Weimar Republic. They had acted as Moscow’s marionettes, doing Stalin’s bidding abroad. The two Germanys had constructed two histories, one the mirror image of the other. In the East, Thälmann gave his name to the communist youth movement, the Young Pioneers, films trumpeted his heroism and leadership in the fight against fascism and even school classrooms had a corner dedicated to his memory. In the West, including his home town of Hamburg, he was dismissed as Stalin’s sidekick, a name to be expunged from the public sphere. In 1956 a street in the city taking his name was renamed ‘Budapest Street’ to indicate West German hostility to communism. Only since the mid 1990s has there been a ‘Thälmann Place’ in Hamburg, which runs a few meters along the pavement where he used to live.

But why should what to remember or forget in history be important to states and their citizens alike? One recent example is what happened in Soviet Russia during the Gorbachev period in the 1980s. Permitting historians to criticise Stalin and Stalinism led to the questioning of Lenin and Leninism and within a short period the regime collapsed amid a crisis of legitimacy. It is a lesson the Chinese have learned from. Even although communism as a political project has been abandoned in the new China of markets and consumerism, the Communist Party keeps a tight grip on how the past is remembered. Censorship ensures that the public read and hear only of a party and movement which ended the exploitation of the ‘imperialist’ Western Empires and freed the country from this bondage. To be a ‘communist’ is, therefore, to be a patriot.

Germany is proud of its long political journey to the ‘West’ – by which it means political democracy and a high level of redistribution through the welfare state – and it has good cause to be. Extreme nationalism is all but pushed out of mainstream political discourse and social inclusion is a genuine national aspiration. But the very fact that it took two decades after the end of the Cold War to remember one of Hamburg’s most famous communist politicians shows just how important history is. As George Orwell told us in his dystopian novel 1984, ‘he who controls the past controls the future’.

September 28, 2009

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» Politics of Memory in Germany

Remembering Ernst Thälmann: Antifascist or Stalin’s Henchman?

<image title="Ernst Thälmann Monument in Halle, Saxony. Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 183-71968-0001, licenced according to http://tiny.cc/kWMwb" src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/9/28/ThaelmannHalle1960.jpg" alt="Ernst Thaelmann Monument in Halle, Saxony" />

The politics of memory may not have been an explicit theme in Sunday’s German elections. But for the Brandenburg village of Borkwalde, like the rest of the former communist east, the nationwide success of the post-communist Left Party (Die Linke) ensures that the topic will not go away.

Glamorgan’s Norry LaPorte is the author of a forthcoming biography of the leader of the German Communist Party in the 1920s and early 1930s, Ernst Thälmann. He was invited by the Left Party to give his views on the vexed question of whether German communists had been the nation’s foremost antifascists or anti-democratic Stalinists. The question had a concrete local basis. Borkwalde's memorial to Ernst Thälmann is protected under the terms of German reunification, but offers no information about his life. Should a plaque be added so that visitors can find out more about Thälmann, and if so, what should it say?

To the villagers who grew up in the communist East, this seemed a straightforward issue. In the former German Democratic Republic, they had learned that Ernst Thälmann had fought against the rise of Hitler and, rather than renounce his beliefs, had been executed on Hitler’s orders in autumn 1944 – as the Red Army advanced toward Berlin. The film shown at the beginning of the discussion – Ernst Thälmann: Leader of his Class (1955) – seemed to validate their view.

There was just one – crucial – issue. Their new neighbours, who had moved into Borkwalde from West Germany since reunification, did not share their political memory. In the old, cold-war West Germany, Thälmann symbolised the Stalinisation of the interwar communist party and the Soviet occupation of eastern Germany. They looked to another historical construction – or ‘collective memory’ – of the German past. When they spoke of Hitler's opponents, they, emphasised the quiet dissent of politicians like Konrad Adenauer, who retreated from public life during the Third Reich and returned to politics after the war as a champion of German democracy. Or they remembered the July Bomb Plot and the resistance of army officers like Claus Stauffenberg who attempted to kill Hitler and break with Nazism as the war turned against Germany.

To use an old metaphor, Glamorgan’s communism expert was on the horns of a dilemma and the bull it was attached to was charging towards him! There was only one possible answer – the ‘truth’. Neither version of the past was true. Both were the sort of ‘myths’ that all states use to forge collective identities and foster patriotism. I had to tell them that the unloved Weimar Republic was desperately short of democrats.

But, to ensure the full ‘truth’ be told – and to ensure the dilemma could run past without causing too much damage – they were reminded that Germany today is one of the world's most successful democracies.

January 28, 2009

History Division News
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» News from the classroom ... Lenin's Successor in Soviet Russia

Third Year Option: ‘The Soviet Union and Stalin, 1917-1953’

<image src="http://historydivision.weblog.glam.ac.uk/assets/2009/1/27/Stalin-Lenin-Kalinin-1919crop1.jpg" height="248px" alt="Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Mikhail Kalinin, 1919" width="720px">

One popular option among students studying modern European history at Glamorgan is Norry LaPorte’s third year module on ‘The Russian Revolutions and the Soviet Union, 1917-1953’. A typical class deals with the rise of Stalin to absolute power during the 1920s.

Many leading personalities in history have been more than historical actors. By writing memoirs and other accounts of the events they were involved in, they aim to frame the subsequent historical debate. Trotsky was famously one such figure. His eloquent writings on the power struggle to succeed Lenin, after his death in 1924, were influential in prompting generations of scholars to dismiss Stalin as a power-hungry thug with no understanding of Marxism. One man, not the new Soviet system, could be blamed for the degeneration of the evolution, from bright new dawn of the ‘red October’ to the dungeons of the secret police’s torture chambers. Then the fall of the Berlin Wall opened the way to new research which used newly available documentary sources to question seeming certainties. Historians became familiar with previously unknown aspects of Stalin, the Georgian poet and intellectual whose appeal to ‘workers from the bench’ with radical polices were as important as his manipulation of the party machine in becoming Soviet Russia’s bloody, undisputed leader. Trotsky – the writer of history – was shown to have been as politically incompetent as he was intellectually gifted.

Students studying this topic engage with contemporary accounts of how Stalin came to power, questioning them in the light of the new findings and interpretations of new literature – such as Dimitri Volkoganov’s monumental biographies of Stalin and Trotsky. There is only one problem with studying the fall of the Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet Union – how do you put the books down or walk out of the seminar room?