Politics of Memory in Germany

Remembering Ernst Thälmann: Antifascist or Stalin’s Henchman?

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, the attempt of army officers around Claus von Stauffenberg 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.

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