East Germany did face up to its Nazi past

By Bruni de la Motte (THE GUARDIAN, 29/03/07):

It is a truism that history is invariably written by the victors, but that shouldn’t stop individuals like me protesting when the truth is so clearly distorted. I read too often recently about how the communists in eastern Europe repressed knowledge of the iniquities of Hitler and Nazism. Recent Guardian articles have stated: “… in communist East Germany which did little to expose its Nazi past” (Hitler’s honour lives on in G8 summit town, March 12); and “Due to the communist regime’s suppression of history and its encouragement of anti-semitism, few Poles were aware …” (I’m no hero, says woman who saved 2,500 ghetto children, March 15).

I was born and grew up in the German Democratic Republic. Our schoolbooks dealt extensively with the Nazi period and what it did to the German nation and most of Europe. During the course of their schooling, all pupils were taken at least once to a concentration camp, where a former inmate would explain in graphic detail what took place. All concentration camps in the former GDR were maintained as commemorative places, “so that no one should forget”. The government itself included a good proportion of those, including Jews, who had been forced to flee Hitler fascism or who had been interred.

The allies’ post-war Potsdam agreement laid down the vital need to prosecute Nazi war criminals and de-Nazify the country. In the east, thousands of new teachers had to be found overnight, as those tainted by the Nazi ideology were not suitable to teach a new postwar generation, and this resulted in schools having under-trained and inadequate teaching staff for some years; all lawyers were replaced too.

Although the Nuremberg trials set the scene with the trial and convicion of the 24 top leaders, after the onset of the cold war the west did not carry through the spirit of Potsdam. In West Germany thousands of leading Nazi army officers, judges who had sent Jews and leftists to their deaths, doctors who’d experimented on concentration camp victims, politicians and others, were left unscathed and continued in their professions. They received generous pensions on retirement, whereas those who opposed the Nazis and had been imprisoned or in concentration camps received no pensions for these periods as “they hadn’t paid their contributions”. In the GDR the “victims of fascism” received extra pensions and other privileges in recognition of their suffering.

General Bastian, who later became a Green MP in the Bundestag, was forced out of the army after revealing that Nazi ideology was rife in the postwar Bundeswehr. In East Germany, on the other hand, all top Nazis were put on trial or fled to the west before they could be caught; and the government produced its famous Brown Book, with a list of leading Nazis who were still “on the run”.

Little is said about the fact that Reinhard Gehlen, Hitler’s chief of intelligence, became the head of West German counter-espionage after the war, or that Hans Globke, a leading Nazi lawyer, became a top minister in Adenauer’s postwar government.

The crimes of the communist regimes are well known, but the demonisation of communism and the distortion of history have surely more to do with the vitality of the utopian ideas which communism still represents, rather than an attempt to report historical truths?