East Germany’s Historical Memory Problems: Jacob Heilbrunn Puts the Dresden Neo-Nazis in Context


I just got off the phone with Jacob Heilbrunn from whom I received permission to post this excellent and educational article about the large neo-Nazi demonstration in Dresden this past week.
Heilbrunn deftly delineates between the two former parts of Germany and how each managed its historical memory challenges. I have seen similar tendencies in Japan, China, and other parts of the world to deny or re-write history. And this has also occurred in the U.S.
I am going to reprint the entire article, without italicization.
Here it is — from today’s Wall Street Journal:
Honecker’s Children
by Jacob Heilbrunn
16 February 2005
The Wall Street Journal Europe
The spectacle on Sunday of thousands of neo-Nazis marching to protest the 60th anniversary of the allied bombing of Dresden has left Germany’s political class reeling. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is weighing banning the far-right National Democrats, while others express concerns about an emerging sense of German victimhood about World War II.
The distress is understandable, but the upsurge in neo-Nazi activity in eastern Germany should come as no surprise. It is not simply high unemployment or the memory of the Third Reich that is the culprit, but something else that is frequently overlooked because it’s seen as impolite, especially in European socialist circles, to mention: the anti-Semitic legacy of the former East German communist dictatorship.
Unlike West Germany after the war, the totalitarian regime represented continuity, not a break, with the Nazi past. Though the East German communists based their rule on the myth of anti-fascism, they had played a key role in bringing the Nazis to power in 1933 by undermining the democratic Weimar republic. The communists even directly collaborated with the Nazis during the 1932 Berlin Transport Workers’ strike to cripple Weimar.
Yet after World War II, the communists claimed to represent a noble tradition of opposing Nazism and argued that West Germany, supposedly ruled by the same capitalists who created Hitler, was a new version of Nazism. Even as they denounced the West Germans, however, the communists drew upon leading Nazis to create the National People’s Army and the Stasi, or secret police. It was no accident that the army wore the former Wehrmacht’s field-gray. Former Nazis were used as cadres in factories, the universities, and the press. The Communist Party also was open to former Nazis. In this regard, the communists did not differ radically from the West Germans, who also tapped former Nazis to run the judiciary and military.
What did distinguish East Germany was its obstinate refusal to recognize the Holocaust. In schoolbooks and scholarly texts, the regime suppressed the truth about the murder of the Jews. Instead, it focused almost exclusively on communists who perished in the concentration camps. Memorials throughout the country were dedicated to communists, but never alluded to Jews. The same went for concentration camps; at Dachau, just outside the city of Weimar, there was no real mention of the Jews. What’s more, East Germany participated in the anti-Semitic purge trials that swept across Eastern Europe in the early 1950s and, at the same time, the Sachsenhausen concentration camp was used by the Soviets to murder tens of thousands of German POWs.
The communists also refused to acknowledge the existence of Israel. The East German government not only supported the Palestinians, but helped to harbor and train terrorists. Carlos the Jackal — his real name was Ilyich Ramirez Sanchez — and Abu Daoud, a leader of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, often traveled to East Berlin. Libya also had agents stationed in East Berlin. It was all, so the thinking went, part of the struggle against the West’s fascism, which Israel supposedly personified.
This cult of anti-fascism and sense of victimization lasted until the death throes of the regime in 1989. In Dresden, the famous Zwinger palace had an inscription denouncing the “Anglo-American bombers” — echoing Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels condemnation of “Anglo-American terror bombings.” The East German government even claimed that the western powers sought to annihilate Dresden and other cities to prevent the Soviet Union from inheriting functioning factories.
Today, the young eastern German neo-Nazis are the inheritors of the communist tradition. The National Democrats, who entered the Saxony state parliament last September, marched out of a ceremony recognizing the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp. And they assert that Germans were the true victims of World War II in places like Dresden.
A motley crew of octogenarian right-wingers like Gerhard Frey, a publisher in Munich, and Franz Schoenhuber, a former SS officer, showed up at the rally in Dresden. But they are dinosaurs from the past, while the historical lies peddled by the communists are now being regurgitated by a younger generation in eastern Germany. The current spate of demonstrations against the Holocaust offers a reminder that Nazism and communism weren’t die-hard foes, but kissing cousins.

Mr. Heilbrunn is an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times.
(end of article)
This short essay is important and may be controversial because it deals with historical amnesia in a country trying to get beyond the problems of the past. Japan struggles with some of these same kinds of unreconciled nightmares, and, as I have written previously, America shares some responsibility for Japan’s historical memory deficiencies.
If there is real hope in the standoff between the Israelis and the Palestinians, it is going to be important for the major national stakeholders, including Germany, to do a great deal to get their societies to digest historical realities. It’s not easy; not even in the U.S.
I found this useful and hope others do as well.
— Steve Clemons