In the late 1940s, it was by no means certain that Joseph Stalin’s careful calculus of the Soviet Union’s best interests in regards to their German zone of occupation (SBZ) would result in the establishment of a client state. However, once Stalin had decided to proceed down this path and allow the Soviets’ allies in the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in East Berlin to found the German Democratic Republic, Soviet support served as the bedrock guaranteeing the existence of the “Workers and Peasants state”.
For the GDR’s leadership cadre this close alignment to the Soviet Union was something to be welcomed. Practically all of these individuals had been inspired to join the Communist movement by the Great October Revolution of 1917 and many had spent the twelve years of Nazi rule taking refuge in the Soviet Union. The result of these experiences was an ideological and emotional bond with the Soviet Union that ran very deep. The vast majority of East German citizens, however, were not as positively predisposed towards the Soviet Union as their leaders, a fact that posed a significant challenge to both the GDR and Soviet authorities.
It was against this backdrop that in 1949 the Soviet Military Administration in Germany approved the founding of the Society for German-Soviet Friendship (Gesellschaft für Deutsch-Sowjetische Freundschaft (DSF)), an organization mandated to foster a deeper knowledge of and appreciation for Soviet culture and history among East Germans.
Perspective is Everything: The Gap Between the Rulers and the Ruled
For an insight into the chasm between the East German leadership and the general populace in regards to their attitudes towards the Soviet Union in the postwar period and the early years of the GDR, it is interesting to turn to a 1989 book by Markus Wolf. Then a GDR insider par excellence as the recently retired head of the Stasi’s foreign espionage operations. Wolf’s book Die Troika tells the true story of three young boys whose lives are dramatically shaped by their experiences during their Moscow exile in the 1930s. While hardly a stylistic masterpiece, the book does convey the depth of allegiance to Communism and the Soviet Union that took root in many Germans exiled there at this time. In one passage, Wolf portrays the connection as follows:
We began reading the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin at an early age and their ideas came to life for us in that country which was to
become our beloved second home (Heimat in German – ed.). We love it, its people are, and remain our friends, we have learned about
and love its culture.”
(Markus Wolf, Die Troika (Düsseldorf: Claasen, 1989), pg. 23.)
For one of the three boys at the centre of Wolf’s narrative, his younger brother Konrad, this upbringing combines with his experiences as a Red Army officer during World War II to create an unshakable commitment to the Communist cause. After being discharged from the Soviet Army in late 1946, Konrad finds a position with the House of Soviet Culture in East Berlin where he, as Markus puts it, “works tirelessly to counter anti-Soviet sentiment, both old and new”. Concretely, this means that Konrad is doing the sort of work which the DSF will carry out in later years: organizing cultural events with Soviet-friendly content for German audiences. While these performances are successful, Markus notes that much is left to be done: “The Nazi past is by no means history. Rejection and mistrust (among the populace – ed.) can be seen and heard everywhere.” (Markus Wolf, Die Troika (Düsseldorf: Claasen, 1989), pg. 57)
“East is Bad”
Now the widespread rejection of the Soviet Union among Germans was well known to me, however, a recent interaction with my friend Herbert H underscored the depth of this feeling.
Herbert is a retired Lutheran minister and also a trained psychotherapist. Born in 1944, he grew up in post-war West Germany, moved to Canada in the late 1970s and has lived here since. I mentioned this blog to Herbert in passing at one point and some time later he shared that he had initially been confused by my interest in this chapter of German history because, as he stated, “in my mind, East is bad.” Intrigued, I asked him what he meant by this and was surprised when he confessed to often having a strong visceral reaction to the word “East” whenever he encounters it, for instance on a directional sign in the subway here in Toronto. Fascinated but now a bit confused myself, I asked him to elaborate and he shared these reflections:
My father was an officer with the Wehrmacht (German army – ed.) in Paris, he was a doctor. Before that, he served in the Polish campaign.
I grew up after the war and my home town, Hanover, was located 100 km from the border to the GDR. Everything on the other side of the border was bad, really bad, because the Russians were there and Russians had a bad reputation.
I remember playing in the war ruins of the bombed out city. This was strictly forbidden, but we did it anyway. The first apartment we lived in after the war was missing the wall that faced the street; there was just a wooden plank where this had been.
As children we overheard conversations that the adults had and they often talked about my father’s three younger siblings.
One brother died at Stalingrad, the other brother never came back from the war. One of my earliest childhood dreams referred to him: In it, a VW beetle pulled up in front of my grandmother’s house and upon seeing the car I called out, ‘Uncle Theodor is back’.
The third sibling, father’s sister, was in a Russian labour camp during my childhood. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Russians moved to occupy Iran. My aunt was working there as a missionary at the time and the Soviets arrested her and she spent the next 14 years in a Russian labour camp. I remember when she came back in 1955 vividly: my dad and uncle picked her up and she had no shoes, her feet were wrapped in rags! But the amazing thing was that she never had one bad word about the Russians, not one bad word!
So for me the word ‘East’ connects all these memories from my the childhood: the war, using the ruins as a playground, our damaged apartment, and the fate of my father’s siblings.
Herbert’s experiences caused me to think. If Herbert continues to carry aspects of the traumas visited upon his family in and by the Soviet Union, imagine the power such experiences would have had in shaping the attitudes of the adult members of his family (and others like them) in the years after the war. Add to this the effects of twelve years of Nazi anti-Bolshevik propaganda and one begins to get some insight into the factors that shaped many Germans’ opinions towards, and perceptions of, the Soviet Union at this this time.
In the Soviet zone of occupation, experiences such as those above would have been further reinforced by the fact that many residing there would have lived through the Soviet advance through the eastern part of Germany in the war’s final stage. In addition to causing considerable death and destruction, we also know that many German women and girls suffered sexual violence at the hands of Soviet soldiers. While the numbers here are impossible to determine, the number of victims has been estimated to as been as high as 2 million (Barbara Johr: Die Ereignisse in Zahlen. In: Barbara Johr and Helke Sander: BeFreier und Befreite: Krieg, Vergewaltigungen, Kinder. Die Zeit des Nationalsozialismus. Frankfurt am Main 2005, S. 48 und 54 f). Indeed, American historian Norman Naimark argues in his 1995 book The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945–1949 (Cambridge (Massachusetts): The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995), that these experiences had a lasting effect on the people of East Germany: “From the founding of GDR through to the present, the social psychology of men and women in the Soviet zone has been shaped by the crimes perpetrated in the early days of occupation.” (pg. 133)
Against such a backdrop, it is easy to see how the notion of a Society of German-Soviet Friendship would not have been warmly embraced by many East Germans.
* I want to make clear here that I do not wish to downplay the atrocities committed by the Germans on
Soviet citizens in the context of Operation Barbarossa. Indeed these barbaric acts of German violence
and cruelty should be understood as a necessary precursor to those later perpetrated by Soviet soldiers.
“To Learn from the Soviet people is to learn to win”: The DSF in Practice
Both the East German and Soviet authorities in the GDR saw in the DSF as a key tool for building up a positive image of the Soviet Union and its peoples and reconciling East Germans to the new order. The organization had considerable resources put at its disposal for fulfilling this task including “Houses of the DSF” in each East German district centre where the group hosted cultural events featuring Soviet performers or Soviet-themed presentations. Sporting events featuring Soviet athletes were another favourite vehicle for the DSF in getting its message out. The group also oversaw many programs designed to speak to young people. These included organizing Soviet pen pals for East German school classes and coordinating summer camp experiences for both Soviet and East German children in the other country. From time to time, particularly on important political holidays such as May Day or the Day of Liberation, Soviet troops stationed in the GDR would take part in commemorative ceremonies featuring the DSF, but such interactions were typically few and far between. The DSF also had thousands of local chapters and each of its many members would have belonged to one of these. Such groups carried out their own activities as well, such as theatre visits to watch the work of a Russian playwright or to the opera to hear a Soviet singer.
While some East Germans were unenthusiastic about the DSF and its aims, in the early years of the GDR many others embraced the organization and its programming. I would argue that there were a number of reasons behind this interest. First, during the Reconstruction Years, there was a genuine curiosity and even enthusiasm for the Soviet Union which many saw as a legitimate point of orientation for the new state. Second, the amount of entertainment options on offer in 1950s East German cities and towns would have been meagre; often DSF events were the most attractive, or even only, game in town. Finally, I think there was a clear psychological element at play. As the above poster makes clear, East German officials were keen to argue that to stand with the Soviet Union was to stand on the side of the winners of history, and it’s important to recognize how attractive this position would have been for many East Germans at that time. The mechanism at play here was quite simple: identification with the Soviet Union allowed people, some consciously others not, to distance themselves psychologically from their culpability in the crimes of the National Socialist era. Attending events like those described above or taking out membership in the DSF would have all been acts that reinforced this distancing of oneself from the past.
As time passed, the number of East Germans with memberships in the DSF continued to grow, even long after the Soviet Union had ceased to hold any fascination for the vast majority of GDR citizens. To understand the reason for this trend, one needs to look at political developments in the GDR post-1970. After Erich Honecker’s assumption of the East German leadership in 1971, the tacit equation put forward by the Party was that it would raise East Germans’ standard of living but in return they would be asked to more openly demonstrate their loyalty to the socialist project. This could be done in a variety of ways, but most typically it meant participating in the activities of the country’s “mass organizations”. These included, among others, the official youth organization the Free German Youth, the paramilitary Combat Groups of the Working Class, the Trade Union Federation as well as the DSF. And indeed, membership in the DSF rose from 3.5 to 6.4 million between 1970 and 1988.
This growth, however, did not result in a rejuvenation of the organization as many members existed only on paper and did not take active part in DSF activities. For these people, membership in the DSF was essentially an alibi, something to point to when Party officials pressed for proof of their social engagement. In the mid- to late 80s, the DSF did see an increase in members who joined the group for political reasons, albeit not of the sort which would have been approved by Party bosses: East Germans enthusiastic for Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost reform attempts joined the organization to support these developments in the Soviet Union and to signal their objection to their own government’s reluctance to follow suit.
Not surprisingly, the DSF was not long for this world after the GDR’s demise. By November 1991, it counted only 20,000 (!) members and it ceased operations just over one year later on December 31, 1992.