''Martin Luther was a Communist. Frederick the Great was a Communist. Bismarck was a Communist,'' commented an East German dryly. Yes, Otto von Bismarck - along with the Saxon prince, August the Strong - is the latest to join the East German pantheon of rehabilitated historical heroes. The two newcomers find themselves in the illustrious company not only of Luther and Frederick, but also of such Prussians as Army reformer Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst.
In some ways the rehabilitation of Bismarck is the greatest surprise of all. The others achieved their fame well before the century of Karl Marx - and were correspondingly easier to reinterpret as general national forerunners of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).
Bismarck, however, was not only a contemporary of Marx, but also the very man who banned the Socialists and diverted workers' energies from social evolution to a nationalism that strengthened conservative capitalist rule.
No historical figure, then, one would have thought, personified more than Bismarck the conflict between nationalist and Communist values that East Germany preached for the first three decades of its existence. His policy of peace with Russia may have been praised from the beginning in East Germany, but his domestic policy was anathema.
During those 30 years, East Berlin feared that any rise in national consciousness among East Germans might harm the East German government and benefit West Germany, the stronger of the two states in population, economy, standard of living, self-confidence, and independent legitimacy. Alone among the Polish, Romanian, and other East European governments, the East German leadership felt in that period that any appeal to nationalism risked undermining its own authority.
All this changed a few years ago, when official East Germany began seeking its identity not only in international proletarianism but also in national German tradition. It had always hallowed Goethe and other literary giants. Now it began hallowing German political giants as well, and reerecting their statues on East Berlin's Unter den Linden.
No statue of Bismarck has yet materialized in East Germany. What should soon materialize, however, is the first edition of Bismarck's memoirs in the history of the German Democratic Republic, along with a full Bismarck biography.
Already the East German newspaper Junge Welt has presaged the shift in interpretation with a favorable article about Kaiser Wilhelm's famous prime minister. There Bismarck was transformed from the Despicable Junker and enemy of the working class to a ''statesman of high rank'' whose ''political accomplishments are not to be denied.''
August the Strong is less spectacular, perhaps. But he, too, is worthy of note. In February the East German Christian Democratic newspaper Neue Zeit took the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the death of this Saxon prince and Polish king to say some kind words about him.
Frederick August I was not again viewed as the exploiter of the masses, or the ruler who frittered his subjects' taxes away on women and luxury rather than building an army to repel the Swedish invaders. Instead, his Saxony was praised as a progressive, ''economically and culturally extraordinarily developed territory in the Union of the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation.''
In the beginning of the 18th century, one-third of the Saxons already lived in the freer atmosphere of the cities, the newspaper pointed out. And even those peasants who stayed on the land were freer in Saxony than in neighboring principalities, asserted Neue Zeit.
To be sure, the Saxon nobility furthered agricultural concentration. This was not seen as an early example of impoverishment of the peasantry, however, but as a necessary precondition to that early industrial manufacture that would eventually benefit all.
''Even before the Industrial Revolution, [August the Strong] presented the most progressive form of centralized work processes, with division of labor,'' noted the newspaper. In particular, he personally founded three of the 30 industries born in his reign: the famous Meissen porcelain works, and glass and weapons factories.