Symbols of Power in Rituals of Violence: The Personality Cult and Iconoclasm on the Soviet Empire's Periphery (East Germany, 1945-61)

By Tikhomirov, Alexey | Kritika, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview
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Symbols of Power in Rituals of Violence: The Personality Cult and Iconoclasm on the Soviet Empire's Periphery (East Germany, 1945-61)


Tikhomirov, Alexey, Kritika


It all turned into a movement on the city streets. In a short time, all the banners and posters on the public buildings and peoples' enterprises were removed. As each poster bearing a slogan proclaiming honor to the Soviet Union and German-Polish friendship was torn off, the crowd cheered wildly. This is also just how all the buildings housing state institutions and schools were cleansed of the portraits of Stalin, Lenin, Pieck, Grotewohl, and Ulbricht. The busts of the leaders were smashed to pieces on the street-bridge and ground into the dirt. In the schools, Russian-language textbooks were ripped up and set on fire. Finally, the SED's regional House of Correction was stormed and taken. The windows and doors were forced open; and in a matter of a few minutes, the rebels threw portraits, the busts of Stalin, the flags and volumes of Marxist-Leninist classics onto the street and then set them on fire in the squares. (1)

The 17 June 1953 uprising was the first widespread protest on the outskirts of the Soviet empire, and it unfolded throughout East Germany as a ritual of overt popular violence against the dictatorship. (2) The symbols of the personality cult--the monuments, busts, portraits, posters, and works written by the leaders--were the main targets of the social aggression that had been unleashed. Storming the East German Bastilles--the party houses and buildings belonging to the mass organizations, the jails and houses of preliminary detention that were the dictatorship's bastions of discipline and repression--also became a component of the scenario for overthrowing the regime's icons. The population engaged in ritual acts--such as setting on fire, damaging, and destroying the objects of the personality cult--to demonstrate its distance from the ideology of the "worker-peasant state" and its desire to free itself from the chains of dictatorship (Figure 1). However, these types of overt struggle in Soviet-style societies were the exception, not the rule. The harsh rules governing rhetoric and behavior that the dictatorship imposed forced the population to look for indirect methods to articulate its needs and expectations, criticisms and disappointments by using the means that daily life offered.

Secularization, which intensified during the French Revolution, led to the formation of a new sacral center of power--the birth of the "modern personality cult." (3) It also promoted the transfer of premodern rituals of violence to the sphere of the political and transformed the gestures of religious iconoclasm, turning them into a way to carry out political struggle. (4) Modern iconoclastic acts are spontaneous, unsanctioned incidents of individual or collective violence inflicted on symbols of power and the official iconography by those who want to delegitimize, harm, or cleanse the symbolic body of the leader, which personifies the power regime as a whole. (5) In what follows, the term "iconoclasm" is used in the narrow sense of the destruction of "political icons"--portraits and other visual representations of the leader. More broadly, I use iconoclasm to refer to rituals of violence: the common practices of substitution, destruction, and rebellion against objects belonging to the rhetoric of power that delineated the hierarchy of power relations. (6) Thus iconoclasm confirms the heavy symbolic and conceptual weight of the personality cult's objects, demonstrating the intensity with which the population received these objects and the power with which they were invested as symbols of the regime.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

In this article I analyze how personality cults that were constructed by propaganda influenced public symbolism and everyday life in Soviet-style societies. East Germany is an ideal case study for an examination of the possibilities and limitations of the workings of the personality cult. Sovietization after World War II turned this territory into a borderland of the Soviet empire and an ideological front line in the Cold War.

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