This week’s post will continue examining a number of items which once belonged to Benno and Christel B., two Party loyalists from the socialist city of Hoyerswerda. Last week’s post parsed the the life of Christel B., a task made possible thanks largely to a short biography which she submitted in 1972 to some sort of Party office. This document provided considerable detail on Christel’s activities up to 1972, however, my collection of materials unfortunately sheds little light on her life after this point.
In the case of Christel’s husband Benno, the situation is reversed. It is his early years which remain opaque, while a collection papers from his time working at Hoyerswerda’s Combine “Black Pump” as both a functionary of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and a senior member of his plant’s Combat Group give a fairly clear sense of his life from 1959 onwards.
Benno B.’s Early Years: What We Know, What We Can Surmise
Included in the materials I acquired on Benno and Christel B. were a number of evaluations done of Benno by various Party bodies between 1965 and 1982. These documents include details on Benno’s background and form the basis of the biography which I piece together here.
The only information that can be gleaned about Benno B.’s life before the end of World War II is that he was born in Liepe District Angersmünde “to a family of workers” (Evaluation by Party Secretary Zirz from Jan. 16, 1967, pg 1.) on July 14, 1921, an area just to the north of the Bad Freienwalde/ Eberswalde area from where his future spouse, Christel, was raised. The various documents contain no information on his youth which is not that surprising, but they are also silent on his activities during World War II. This strikes me as remarkable since It Benno B. would have been a healthy young man of fighting age during the period and it seems unimaginable that he could have escaped being mobilized into the German Wehrmacht for at least some of this time.
This omission could be explained in a couple of ways. First, the De-Nazification process in the Soviet Zone was done rather rapidly and wrapped up by the spring of 1948, making the Soviet Military Government “the first of the occupation powers to draw a line under the De-Nazification process” (pg. 82, Roter Stern über Deutschland, Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk and Stefan Wolle: Berlin, Ch. Links Verlag, 2001). With this process behind it, the practice of GDR authorities was to downplay the cooperation or collaboration with the Nazi authorities of those who had been cleared or labelled “nominal supporters” of the regime as would likely have been the case with Benno.
Another reason this period is glossed over in all the reports may lie in the same evaluation referenced above which states that Benno B. “has been a member of our Party since September 1945” (Evaluation of Jan. 16, 1967, pg. 1). The use of the term “our Party” here is telling since the SED was only founded in April 1946 after a forced merger of the Communist (KP) and Social Democratic (SPD) Parties in the Soviet Zone of Occupation. In the years which followed the founding, the former Communists in the SED, supported by the Soviet occupying power, moved to reorganize the SED into a Leninist-styled “Party of a new type” which meant instituting a clear hierarchy in which decision-making power was concentrated at the top with lower levels empowered only to carry out those orders given to them from above. This process was used to marginalize members with SPD background and fostered the creation of an inner-party culture and worldview that reflected the views of former members of the KP and their Soviet overseers. So, when Party Secretary Zirz makes mention of Benno having had membership in “our Party” in September 1945, one can reasonably assume that he is referring to the Communist Party of Germany and that the mention of this attests to Benno B’s high-level of political reliability and perhaps explains why no mention of possible Third Reich military activities is made in his evaluations.
The first evidence as to Benno B’s post-war occupation is found in an evaluation of Benno done in December 1965 as part of an application made by his work colleagues to have him receive an award (Application by H. Stakelies, Organizer of “Mechanik” Group on Dec. 13, 1965, pg. 1). In this, the author relates that Benno B. worked as “a labourer with the Red Army from the end of the war until 1947.” The wording used here gives clear no indication whether Benno was an employee of the Red Army or if he was carrying out forced labour for it, a fate common to many of the 3,3 million German soldiers taken prisoner by Soviet forces during WW II. I would suggest that the ambiguity of the phrasing here and the lack of detail in the report should not be taken to understand that this information was not known, but might be a function of one of two other factors. First, it could reflect the general desire to downplay the Nazi period particularly as it related to the biography of a loyal Party servant (see above). Second, I would suggest that the neutral choice of wording might also reflect an attempt by its author, SED member Stakelies, to avoid trouble by steering clear of any content which might call into question his loyalty towards the Soviet Union.
Benno B. Goes On Patrol: Working for the People’s Police and at the BorderAfter working for the Red Army for almost two years, Benno joined the newly-formed People’s Police on January 15, 1947, work which he seems to have carried out in the Eberswalde/Bad Freienwalde area. After an indeterminate period of time, he then moved to the Border Police, a job which would have seen him patrolling the East German border with Poland. During this period, the Oder-Neisse border saw its share of activity with some GDR citizens attempting to cross it in order to escape the country and Benno would have carried out his duties as per protocols laid out by the Soviet Occupation Authorities. These required Border Officers to use their weapon to stop individuals attempting to carry out “Verrat” (“Treason”), the term used at the time to describe the act committed by those fleeing the country (in 1957, this was changed to “Republikflucht” or “Flight from the Republic”). In any event, through his work in the Border Police, Benno B. implemented a border regime which Kowalczuk and Wolle argue had as its logical consequence the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 (Roter Stern, pg. 91).
The creation of a functioning, reliable (politically and otherwise) police force was a priority of both the Soviets and the SED. To attract men to this work, policemen were offered higher rates of pay, better access to foodstuffs, the complete uniform as well as longer holidays (Roter Stern, pg. 92.) and, even if Benno B. had enjoyed relatively good treatment from the Red Army, it is not difficult to imagine that the conditions offered by the People’s Police would have been represented a marked material improvement. Also, given the Soviet Occupiers’ central role in overseeing the formation of the Police, it is also possible that Benno, as an SED member, was identified by them as a good candidate for this work and that they actively recruited him for this work.
Benno and Christel B. at the Crossroads
Benno B.’s appears to have had a relatively unremarkable career in the police services. My collection contains little from these early years except for the original copy of the certificate issued by the District Court of Bad Freienwalde in March 1951 which confirms that he had himself removed from the rolls of the Lutheran Church the previous fall, a move which would have been necessary for him to stay in his work with the People’s Police (see above). In his ten years in the Police Services, he did manage to ascend to the rank of lieutenant, one step from the bottom of the hierarchy, and was awarded the “Service Medal of the Border Police in Bronze” (see below). but by 1957, it seems that Benno B. saw his work with the Border Police as a dead-end and took steps to move on. In that year Benno received, an honourable discharge from the force after which he shuttled between three unidentified People’s Own factories in Bad Freienwalde for the next two years or so.
By early 1959, Benno B. and his new wife Christel were ready to take a leap and start their lives anew away from their Heimat region. LIke many other young East Germans at the time, the couple decided to start their lives over in the pioneer town of Hoyerswerda, the GDR’s second socialist city and home to the Combine “Black Pump”, a gigantic brown coal processing facility located in the southeast of the country. Once there, life changed significantly for Benno B. and this will be the focus of next week’s post.