The Fiftieth Anniversary of the East German Uprisings
Carrier, Peter, Contemporary Review
IT is commonly believed that the economic miracle and Western integration of the Federal Republic of Germany in the post-war period served to divert attention from war crimes and from a deep sense of social disorientation. As Germany today battles with the most challenging economic and social upheaval in its short history, are there grounds for arguing that the absence of economic stability should ensure a sobering awareness of the facts and social consequences of its recent history? Since the end of the second (communist) dictatorship in East Germany, where the quest to establish a consensual image of national history is far from complete, this question is a core concern for the Republic.
During the summer months of 2003, political, academic and media institutions in Germany have been indulging in elaborate historical commemorations on a scale that rivals Britain's energetic heritage industry. Three documentary dramas have been broadcast by the main television channels, monuments were erected in Jena and Berlin, streets renamed, local associations organised public discussion groups, history departments, think tanks and academic foundations have hosted a series of conferences and exhibitions, and five books on the subject have been published by the Gauck Authority alone (a government-financed body appointed to administrate the information dossiers compiled by the East German secret police). The object of the German heritage industry is a revolt that took place on 17 June 1953 in East Germany. Even in Germany, few people under the age of thirty-five understand the significance of this date. Yet this year's commemorations will secure for 17 June 1953 a prominent place in the Cold War commemorative calendar alongside 'the Prague Spring' of 1968 and the uprisings in Hungary and Poland in 1956, as historic landmarks in the struggle for civil liberty.
Fifth years ago, during celebrations of the Karl Marx Year in East Germany and three months after Stalin's death, 300,000 construction workers from the monumental Stalinallee building site in East Berlin--the Politburo's architectural showcase of post-war socialist reconstruction--laid down their tools and marched in protest to the House of Ministries in the Leipziger Strasse, the seat of the communist government at that time. Their appeal to reverse the government's demand for a 10 per cent increase in production in the construction and industrial sectors without a corresponding wage increase soon evolved into calls to replace the party secretary Walter Ulbricht, introduce free elections, and bring down the government of the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Protest demonstrations were registered in 560 towns throughout the German Democratic Republic. Soviet troops put down the uprising, leaving (according to official figures) 150 dead, and some 1400 protesters behind bars. The SED subsequently never regained the support of more than 40 per cent of the population, and dissenters continued to flee to the West.
Reactions in West Germany were at first hesitant, but then unambiguous. Within three days, the central Charlottenburger Chaussee in Berlin had been renamed '17 June Street' (Strasse des 17, Juni) as a memorial to the event. Two weeks later, parliament passed a law declaring 17 June as a national holiday, the 'Day of German Unity', which remained West Germany's lack-lustre version of France's Bastille celebrations until 1990. Each year on this day, British troops stationed at Smuts barracks in Spandau would polish their boots and join the Allied military parade on the 17 June Street. The entire military paraphernalia of the British, French and American troops, armoured vehicles, guns and black limousines filed solemnly down the avenue, the show culminating in ceremonial cannon fire within a hundred yards of the Wall. Memorial plaques were erected throughout the Federal Republic, streets and bridges were renamed. Clubs and associations observed a minute's silence, organised torch races, bus trips to historical sites, and distributed badges and commemorative coins. But the Day of German Unity was primarily a show of Allied resolve and a symbolic outlet for domestic political battles, neither of which appealed to a nation that had grown to regard political pomp with scepticism.
Above the heads of the witnesses and victims of the uprisings in 1953, and largely indifferent to the event itself, state representatives of the two Germanies and opposed political factions within the old Federal Republic engaged in a battle of words to establish who was responsible for the uprisings and what repercussions they would have for the legitimacy of the two German states. The SED accused 'fascist agitators' in the West of provoking the uprising. In return, the Western intelligence service or 'Gehlen Organisation' assumed that the uprising had been spurred on by Moscow in order to force the German governments towards a rapprochement and ultimate reunification.
Within the Federal Republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) claimed that the uprisings bolstered solidarity between workers on either side of the German divide and therefore formed a basis for unification. The Christian Democratic Party (CDU) under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer saw the uprisings as a confirmation of the illegitimacy of the East German regime and therefore as a prop for liberal anti-communist convictions on the basis of which Adenauer secured the integration of West Germany within the Western post-war alliance. In short, the SPD hailed the uprisings as the precursor of unification in 1990 and claimed to be the party that best represented patriotic sentiments. The CDU, by contrast, promoted the normalisation of a specially West German nationhood by reaffirming its adhesion to the West. This Cold War conflict remains unresolved to this day, as both parties now lay claim to having supported the uprising in the name of all-German unity.
Retrospectively, both parties won the battle of ideas: Germany is today both united and bound to Western values. But in reality, the distinct political prerogatives of each of the German nation-states had, over a period of forty-four years, driven a wedge between the social and historical self-understanding of people either side of the Wall. The effects of division are still felt today, even among the burgeoning post-socialist generation.
Is the civil war fought over 17 June 1953 and its interpretations, and the long-term effects of social division, now destined to be defused? Spearheading the campaign to promote 17 June as a day of all-German national pride are the veterans themselves. In 1999, their lobby persuaded the local Berlin government to build a national monument to 17 June in praise of the heroism of the workers. During summer 2003, the veterans' public appearances and speeches at exhibitions and solemn ceremonies on the historical sites aimed to purge the events of political distortion, revealing them in their true light: as spontaneous autonomous protests against the increase of production norms.
However factual and authentic veterans and witnesses strive to be in their countless interviews, web sites and conference appearances, retroactive expediency invariably compromises their statements. 'Who', asks the historian Hans-Ernst Mittig, 'will benefit from the prestige of the rebels? [ ... ] Only the rebels themselves? All former citizens of the GDR? All Germans?' Fourteen years after unification, the ideological parameters of Germany's Cold War continue to crystalise in the war over the interpretation of 17 June 1953. The event is further obscured by comparisons to other failed, though exemplary, revolutions in German history: Frankfurt in 1848, Weimar in 1919, and the assassination attempt against Hitler on 20 July 1944. 17 June 1953 certainly undermined the legitimacy of the East German regime and thus contains in spirit the seeds of revolution. This conflict pitted workers against the workers' state, the Western against the Eastern government, one party against another, and followed a classic pattern of revolt, repression and restoration. Moreover, successive governments in Germany since 1989 have supposed that 17 June 1953 marked the founding moment of national sovereignty and of the new federal constitution of 1990. Historians are attempting to tone down perceptions of this day as a celebration of national heroics, placing emphasis instead on the political principles that it illustrates: civil disobedience, and civil society born of anti-dictatorial resistance.
According to the actor Sebastian Koch, who plays the leading role in one of the documentary dramas about 17 June 1953, 'This is the first time that the Germans can look back and tell stories about their country. Something that the French are so good at doing'. Thus 17 June 1953, like the nationwide success of films such as Sonnenallee (1999) and Good Bye Lenin (2003), provides a platform for the symbolic re-evaluation, if not rehabilitation, of cultural, moral and political values that were eclipsed after the annexation of the German Democratic Republic in 1990. The myth of 17 June 1953 evokes events and personalities of the GDR that had been written out of public memory after 1990, and writes them back into the public memory of all German citizens. Public perceptions of dictatorships traditionally register extremes. Members of the secret police or the civil rights movement, for example, have both won a place in history. But neither of these groups have bearing on the majority of citizens in either the former GDR or the new Federal Republic. Franziska Augstein, daughter of the founder of the Spiegel magazine Rudolf Augstein, supports Koch by applauding the symbolic power of the present commemorations: '17 June is one of the few concessions that the unified Germany makes to the self-understanding of East German people'. As an American magazine says in an enthusiastic review of the largest exhibition of East German Art at the New National Gallery in Berlin, such a wide-ranging display should give all Germans a better understanding of the East and allow 'some old ghosts to rest' (Time magazine, 11 August, 2003).
Another exhibition organised by eye-witnesses and local historians now lends a human face to the official commemorations: original flysheets, posters, private photographs and statements of both victors and victims of the violence demonstrate some of the ambiguities of 17 June otherwise obscured by the public commemorations. Edith Glaser, a resident of a flat in C-Block North since 1954, recalls how 'many residents were party members, though not all of them. But whoever was not in the party was rather ostracised. Various people who received Care parcels (from relatives in the West) had to move out'.
Why are these commemorations being staged now, and why are they so intense? The stories and concessions to which Koch and Augstein refer are perhaps the first steps towards the integration of a lost generation into the 'normalised' national identity to which Chancellor Gerhard Schroder fondly refers in times of crisis. Schroder is acutely aware that the failure to integrate those whose knowledge and skills were rendered superfluous by the change of regime in 1990, incites marginalisation, the creation of splinter parties on the right and the populism to which the recently deceased Jurgen Mollemann appealed so effectively. But is heritage a panacea for political and economic strife? Can the ideals of a failed revolution that took place fifty years ago compensate for the domestic upheavals taking place today in the wake of the government's so-called Agenda 2010, designed to streamline the welfare state, rise to the challenge of economic globalisation and keep the economy in line with EU stipulations? Deregulation, the privatisation of public services, the liberalisation of markets, tax cuts for higher wage earners, the introduction of student fees, the tripling of costs for employers to appoint apprentices, and an increase in VAT, are all being enforced at a faster pace than in the UK during the 1980s. Unemployment stands at 10 per cent, at 20 per cent locally in Berlin and in the former eastern Lander--the very regions in which the legendary uprisings of 1953 occurred and are being celebrated this year. A real revolution in the post-war German consensus is taking place, while the media encourage citizens to cherish a failed revolution that took place 50 years ago, and which involved 10 per cent of the population of the GDR, of whom many are already dead.
In contrast to most Central and Eastern European countries, the transition to a market economy in East Germany was rapid. But the social cost of this process has still to be met, since the political and economic assimilation of East Germany divested East Germans of a sense of self-determination. In the face of growing post-socialist cynicism in eastern Germany today, the guardians of the memory of 17 June 1953 clearly hope that the fiftieth anniversary commemorations, and in particular public debate over the heritage of the Cold War period, will secure not diversion, but a critical sense of historical self-awareness.
Peter Carrier is the author of Holocaust Monuments and National Memory Cultures in France and Germany (Berghahn, forthcoming).
Art Notes on Paradise
There are only two pictures of Paradise in the twenty works now gathered under that name at the National Gallery, and those two are of the earthly Paradise of the Book of Genesis. To extend the term to all beautiful or joyful scenes is loose, confusing hyperbole, no doubt derived from the search for a popular title for a travelling exhibition. The landscape by Claude and the Souvenir by Corot deserve unbounded praise, but they do not depict Paradise; still less does the angst-ridden, fog-swaddled winter landscape by Friedrich, though the grass has started to break through the snow. The paintings which do depict Paradise are both by Netherlanders: Joachim Wtewael of Utrecht and the Elder Jan Brueghel's Studio in Antwerp.
The Shipley Gallery in Gateshead is lucky to own its rare and masterly 1614 panel of Adam and Eve by Wtewael, worn and darkened though it is in places. A blurred float of blonde hair drifts across the dusky rotundity of Eve's torso as she hands the apple, ruddy as their Dutch faces, to Adam. Her expression is of curiosity tinged by foreboding. Adam accepts the fruit with unquestioning confidence as he presses his ribcage whence Eve, as part of him, sprang. His face, several times replicated in Wtewael's pictures, may be that of the artist himself.
The creatures around them, from the frog to the contemplative, owlish, white-masked wildcat, are all at peace. The wildcat takes no heed of the nearby rabbit. Wtewael's Paradise Garden is far from exotic. For his Adam and Eve no 'unwieldy elephant, to make them mirth, wreathed his lithe proboscis'. The immediate representation of such details as the wrinkled creases of the hands and toes of Adam and Eve, the spines of the frog, the tousled wool of the cattle and the matted hair of the goat, is lovingly exact. Opposite the gargoylish serpent, a goldfinch (a traditional emblem of Jesus) chirps its dissent on a leafy branch.
The Garden of Eden (Victoria and Albert Museum) of about six years later, by 'Velvet Brueghel' and his collaborators, is less homely. Instead of Wtewael's goldfinch, there are brightly painted toucans and parrots, a hornbill and a penguin. A long-maned and graceful white horse, its hoof raised, reviews its white equine thoughts. Rather than harmony there is some sportive dissonance. Dogs snap at a hissing swan. Leopard cubs tussle with each other. A monkey vainly chatters at a dozing fluffy cat up a tree. The cat ignores such impertinence. In the Mannerist tradition, the main subjects, Adam and Eve, are hidden in the distance, in a vine-covered glade entered through appleboughs and eglantine.
Paradise is at the Sunley Rooms at the National Gallery until 28 September. Admission is free. (D.B.)…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Fiftieth Anniversary of the East German Uprisings. Contributors: Carrier, Peter - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 283. Issue: 1652 Publication date: September 2003. Page number: 143+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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