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Confronting History in the GDR

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Germany, it seems, is in a constant process of debating its own history. In fact, there's a word in German, historikerstreit, that means "the historians' dispute." It refers specifically to a debate at the end of the 1980s about the crimes of Nazi Germany, often in comparison to those of Stalin's Soviet Union. But the word could just as easily refer to a number of other debates that have taken place among German historians -- often with the interventions of historians from other countries -- over the role played by average Germans during the Nazi period, the treatment of the Holocaust in popular culture, the activities of the Stasi, and so on. Although historians might naturally disagree, Germany would appear to be cursed with too much history.

There wasn't as much visible dispute over history in East Germany. There was a Party line, and for the most part everyone followed that line publicly. According to the Party's interpretation of history, for instance, the Nazi period was a late stage of imperialist capitalism. The East German government emphasized the struggles of anti-fascist fighters and tended to de-emphasize anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and anything else that didn't fit smoothly into the narrative of the ultimate triumph of the proletariat.

Historian Kurt Paetzold was an exception to this sanitized version of history. In the early 1980s, he published a collection of materials related to Jews in the Third Reich and then a subsequent volume on Kristallnacht. "The extent to which politics was involved in the work of historians depended on the periods, themes, and subjects these historians were engaged in," he told me in an interview in February. "My area of study -- anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and the persecution of Jews -- was not put under any controls or politicized. Nobody really understood much about this subject. In some ways, though perhaps this is slightly exaggerated, I had a monopoly on this subject. There was one contentious point when talking about fascism and the rule of the Nazis: the role and behavior of the public. It is of course a difficult subject, and still today there is no satisfactory study of this."

Nor did Kurt Paetzold shy away from addressing these difficult questions after 1989. In spring 1990, he was offering a course at Humboldt University entitled "Historical Thinking and History Teaching in the Crises of Our Time."

But by that time, he was already anticipating the backlash within the university system and the end of his own teaching career. "It was clear to me that I could not continue teaching history as a professor at the university. When such changes happen, as history has shown, people in these positions are exchanged," he told me. "There was a small group of young scientists and students who, after the fall of the Wall, made aggressive speeches denouncing the professors. One group called themselves 'the independent historians,' and they played a role in the process of the laying off the professors."

He remains philosophical about these changes: "A historian who complains about the course of history is a fool. Secondly, for me the changes were not as grave as for my young colleagues." He wasn't immediately laid off. The dismissal didn't come until the end of 1992. "There had to be a justification for this, and the easiest justification was: informal collaborator of the Stasi," he explained. "As it became clear that there was nothing about me in the archives, I got a certificate of being clean, and I had to write a letter of resignation. After that I read, wrote books, and gave lectures. So, after my dismissal I didn't work less than before."

We also talked about the controversy surrounding Daniel Goldhagen's work, the aspects of the GDR system that should have been preserved, and what he called the "hour of the minorities" in the changes that took place in 1989.

The Interview

Do you remember where you where and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

Of course. I was living in Berlin. I was aware beforehand that this state would collapse. The clearest sign was the utter cluelessness and helplessness of the leadership. On October 7, I was at a conference in West Germany in Bremen and was staying as a guest at a friend who was a pastor. From there, I went to Austria to do research in archives and returned to Berlin on Oct. 18, 1989. Upon entering the apartment I told my wife the famous quote from Dante's Divine Comedy: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter." To make a long story short, the end was no surprise to me, and it was clear to me that this end would bring about far-reaching changes for society and for my personal life. It was clear to me that I could not continue teaching history as a professor at the university. When such changes happen, as history has shown, people in these positions are exchanged.

Was there a particular moment when you were thinking that "this regime would not last"?

No, it wasn't a moment. It was a process. And it really only became apparent in connection with the conflict with the Soviet Union, and this conflict only became noticeable in 1989. It had a backstory in the sense that Gorbachev was someone at the head of the Soviet leadership who had no concept of the crucial questions. You can tell in the speeches of Gorbachev that he was conjuring up many things but without any economic or social concepts. At the same time, it was clear that under him the Soviet Union would leave all its allies -- not only the GDR -- more or less to their own devices.

Did you communicate any of your doubts about the fragility of the GDR state to anybody else?

Of course with friends. I have a friend from my school days, a professor of economics, and it was clear to us since Gorbachev assumed power in 1985.

Did you observe among your students an increasing skepticism or a certain questioning of the system?

In individual cases. There had been a showing of a movie in 1989 about the crimes of Stalin, and there were discussions surrounding this. Overall, among the historians, there was no crisis situation -- no crisis of thought. It just wasn't the case. As far as I know, the students weren't involved in any protest actions in Berlin. No, there wasn't a new condition among the students. There was a small group of young scientists and students who, after the fall of the Wall, made aggressive speeches denouncing the professors. One group called themselves "the independent historians," and they played a role in the process of the laying off the professors.

It must have been a difficult personal experience for you to go through this change at the university...

Well firstly, a historian who complains about the course of history is a fool. Secondly, for me the changes were not as grave as for my young colleagues. Socially my future path was unemployment and then retirement, so materially I had no problems. That also came about because of the connections with West Germany and the rest of the world. To give an example, for tactical reasons we started a trial before the Labor Court against our dismissal. In the morning we had the trial before the Labor Court in Berlin and on the same day I had to be at the Bodensee in the south of Germany to give a lecture before the Catholic Academy there. This is a concrete example showing that I did not have a problem of "what to do now." The drawback for my academic work was that there wasn't enough financial means to visit archives or libraries abroad. And today publishers require a contribution fee to publish books. For this our pensions weren't enough. It was enough to live on but nothing extra.

In one of his books Milan Kundera says that regimes like the one in Czechoslovakia talked about controlling the future but they were really more interested in controlling the past. I was wondering if you observed that phenomenon here in your particular field of history, where the government tried to interpret that period of history in a particular way.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.