Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

East Germany rehabilitates old heroes

By Piero BenetazzoSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 14, 1983

East Berlin

In East Germany, 1983 is officially the year of Richard Wagner and Martin Luther. Locked up in the antisocialist attic for more than three decades, those native sons have been hastily dusted off by the government of Erich Honecker and placed in the gallery of the founding fathers of the German Democratic Republic.

Skip to next paragraph

The man who put German romanticism to music ''must no longer be considered either an anti-Semite or precursor of Nazism,'' Deputy Culture Minister Martin Meyer has proclaimed. ''On the contrary, there is a specific anticapitalist thrust in his works.''

Signs of an anticapitalist and anti-imperialist attitude have suddenly also been discovered in the actions of Martin Luther. His role in suppressing a peasant revolt has been cast aside, and the leader of the Protestant Reformation will be officially honored as ''a great revolutionary'' in a solemn ceremony in November. Numerous foreign heads of state will attend.

The ceremony will mark the climax of a loudly trumpeted process of rediscovery and rehabilitation of German historic roots that has already transformed East Berlin's main road, Unter den Linden, into a gallery of statues and monuments. One of the first put back in his saddle was Frederick II, emperor of Prussia, whose statue had been gathering dust for 30 years in a Potsdam courtyard. The gallery gets more crowded as, for the first time, every historical anniversary is meticulously observed.

Prussian warlords have also returned to their pedestals. At first condemned as militarists, they are now glorified as national heroes for their ''wars of liberation'' against Napoleon. Official ideology has often been stretched to embrace a long-forgotten past, as in the case of Karl von Clausewitz, the theoretician of war, on whom has been bestowed ideological dignity for his alliance with the Russian czar against Napoleon.

As historian Gerhard Foster has asserted, von Clausewitz reinforced ''a comradeship in arms which the East German and Soviet armed forces have raised to the highest level.''

The contortions of the official doctrine underscore its essential goal: The East German government claims the heredity of Prussian culture and traditions on behalf of an old but newly rehabilitated nationalism.

Horst Bartel, director of the Historical Institute in the Academy of Sciences , has even said that ''Hitler should be described as a fascist rather than a national socialist, because all Germans are nationalists.''

But in East-bloc countries, historical memory has always followed the pace set by ideology; and each nation's identity is often at odds with the socialist model imposed from abroad, as historian Francois Feyto has written.

East Germany - the showcase of communism, the East-West dividing line, and the country that had to build a wall to reinforce its internal stability - is now grappling with the problem of reconciling ideology with national identity. That problem has already led to serious crises in other Warsaw Pact countries.

The Prussian renaissance coincides with the most serious stagnation of East Germany's cultural life. The intellectuals' revolt against the government's decision to expel dissident songwriter Wolf Biermann in 1976 signaled the end of a long ''entente cordiale'' (cordial understanding between the government and intellectuals), which had produced the most stimulating cultural debate in a communist country. Centered on playwright Bertolt Brecht's ''Berliner Ensemble, '' the intellectual ferment had been encouraged by the regime in order ''to give the nation a strong cultural content to offset the fragility of its borders,'' an East German writer has observed.

But as soon as the intellectuals tried to apply their relative freedom of speech to the political sphere, government cracked down. The Brechtian and post-Brechtian generations have been disbanded. Many of the most prestigious intellectuals have emigrated to the West, and those who have remained have reached a gentleman's agreement with the government: freedom to move and publish in the West in exchange for a low political profile, while the Communist Party no longer issues detailed directives on cultural activities.

The new emphasis on the symbols of Prussian nationalism is seen by many observers as an effort to fill the gap left by a stifled cultural debate. The pledge made by Walter Ulbricht, the chairman of East Germany's first Council of State, that his people would have written ''the third book of Faust,'' has been forgotten. The pursuit of legitimacy and social consensus is now based on a search for things past.

The need to regenerate consensus and legitimization appears to be an urgent task. For the first time in East German history, economic difficulties (for example, foreign debts of $13 billion absorb 25 percent of exports) have suddenly lowered the East bloc's highest standard of living. Meanwhile, the only autonomous peace movement in the East is gaining momentum and posing a new and unpredictable threat to the regime's stability.