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East German Downplay of the Holocaust: The Manifestation of Soviet Occupation

Book Essay on: Max EastGermanReception, :
( : , 2010), pages.

by Max Tran
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at

About Max Tran

I am a 3rd year history and sociology double major. My primary area of interest is Cold War diplomacy.

Abstract (back to top)

Essay (back to top)

As the Western powers and the Soviet Union carved Germany into two spheres, each side took a distinctive course to “remedy” its Nazi past and the Holocaust. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, East Germany downplayed its responsibility in the Holocaust while the FRG embraced a great amount of responsibility. The Soviet Union embedded a muted narrative on the Holocaust as it forcefully attempted to implement socialist ideology in the GDR. Marxist ideology contained inherent antisemitic currents; however, the Soviet Union utilized communist ideology to further its political agenda and accommodate Cold War mobilization. Although the Third Reich crumbled after the Second World War, East German Jewry was subjected to antisemitic currents under a second form of authoritarianism. Soviet occupation molded an East German culture that exempted responsibility from the Jewish genocide during the Cold War and created resistance to the commemoration of Shoah even after the Cold War ended.

The Soviet occupation of the eastern zone of Germany naturally meant exposure to communist ideology. The Soviets applied Marxist lenses—which emphasized the socioeconomic—to the notion of antisemitism and generated anti-antisemitism. Herf highlights that the communists used a “Marxist economic reductionist” interpretation of the Jewish question: antisemitism was “above all a tool of the capitalist classes for confusing, dividing, and weakening the working class, not as an ideology with a history and an impact independent of the history of capitalism (Herf, Divided Memory: 16). The Soviet Union asserted that Jews used their alleged discrimination as a platform to receive sympathy and undermine the working class—the engine of the communist revolution. In essence, the Soviets regarded antisemitism as an opiate that essentially undermined socialist utopia. This ideological opposition to Jews created resistance for any commemoration of their genocide during the post-war period. Because Marxist ideology invoked suspicions of Jews, their claims could be dismissed as merely capitalist propaganda. The anti-antisemitic interpretation corroded the legitimacy of a Jewish genocide during the Holocaust and ultimately opened the gates to public indifference.

Soviet disregard for religion also factored into the marginalization of the Jewish genocide. According to Herf, the Soviets rationalized a communist revolution would eliminate religion and religious hatreds; therefore, there was no need to focus on the Jewish aspect of the Nazi genocide (Divided Memory, 16). The Soviets “solved” the Jewish question through the rationalization that Judaism was a needless aspect in society. The insignificance of the Jewish question allowed for the Soviets to embrace the industrial-scale murder machine by the Nazis as a phenomenon of class marginalization. Because Marxist ideology upheld class struggle above racial and religious hatred, it legitimized the placement of the Jewish genocide in the periphery of public memory.

A marginalized memory of the Jewish genocide allowed the Soviet Union to fully utilize its socialist ideology and propel its political agendas in the growing East-West struggle. Soviet propaganda portrayed the Federal Republic—a blooming bastion of capitalism—as the successor of Nazism. East German historians argued that German capitalists brought Hitler to power to prevent a communist victory—which meant communists were the first and most important victims of Nazism (Fox, 9). This argument overshadowed any notions of race or ethnicity and disacknowledged the Jewish genocide as a central aspect of the Holocaust. Emphasis on the Holocaust weakened the notion of class struggle and ultimately the strength of communist propaganda. The argument also insinuated that West Germany—which “continued” the path of capitalism—was essentially responsible for the Holocaust. This “continuity of fascism” actively “killed two birds with one stone”: one, East Germans could carry on without guilt; two, it demonized the Federal Republic and promoted that citizens of the GDR should fulfill their “duty” to help dismantle the “Fourth Reich.” Soviet occupation carved a “new path” for the GDR that generated a fundamentally callous response to the Jewish genocide and accommodated to the East German post-war period.

The context of the immediate post-war period also highlighted reason for the muted Jewish narrative. During 1945, the Jews were “competitors for scarce political and emotional resources” (Herf, Divided Memory: 35). That is, the Soviet Union required the full attention of East Germans in order to effectively embed socialist propaganda and successfully carve out a socialist state. The Soviet Union redirected attention from the Jewish genocide and placed emphasis on the Great Patriotic War and Soviet suffering. During the Second World War, approximately 24 million Soviets perished and 3.3 Soviets prisoners of war died in captivity at the hands of the Nazis (Rees, 64). Because these communists died for a “just cause” they emerged above Jews in a post-war hierarchy carved out by Soviet propaganda. The Soviet Union molded a “victor’s history” that placed the Jewish genocide as an irrelevant remnant of the Third Reich.

Communist ideology also effectively dealt with the burdensome past of Nazism in East Germany. As socialist ideology became deeply embedded in the GDR, its citizens came to believe that they were not oppressors, but victims of the “capitalist” Third Reich. The Soviet Union invoked the myth that Hitler’s fascism oppressed the German citizens, thus Germans were void of responsibility for Hitler’s crimes (Berghahn, 294). In essence, the GDR was a new beginning founded on the notion of anti-fascism, and the socialist state made a clean break from its Nazi past. Any commemoration of the Jewish genocide undermined the notion that the Democratic Republic had no ties to its Nazi past. This notion also encouraged citizens of the GDR to focus on competition with the West and leave behind the “baggage” of Jewish genocide.

A clean break from the Nazi past naturally signified that the GDR did not carry any burden of guilt for the Jewish genocide. As the GDR became an officially established state in 1949, the “millions and millions of Germans who had been complicitous with the perpetrators of mass crimes” became a nation of innocent victims of American imperialism.” (Herf, Divided Memory: 110) Shoah was an unnecessary burden of guilt and did not assist the Soviets in the post-war period. Rather, the primacy of the resistance fighters eclipsed the suffering of other groups, particularly the Jews. Reparation politics thus contributed to the omission of the Holocaust from national commemoration (Ludi 445). This shift in rhetoric highlighted a growing ideological marginalization of the Jewish genocide: citizens of the GDR were told to put the Holocaust—a capitalist crime rooted in the past—behind them and dutifully overcome the Federal Republic in an economic proxy war. Due to the importance of Cold War mobilization, the Soviet Union ensured official memory was upheld in the GDR through force.

The anti-cosmopolitan campaign reinforced the association of Jews with the West—which subjected the Jewish population to systematic repression and antisemitic tropes. Jewish intellectuals and professionals were accused of ties to the West and became primary targets of the campaign (Herf, Divided Germany: 108). The Jews were labeled as a threat to the socialist solidarity of the GDR and consequently were punished for these suspicions. Party members—who primarily identified as Jewish rather than German or displayed support for Israel—faced reproach and discipline (Neumann 118). Jewish identity became a roadblock to elitism in the GDR. This perception of Jews as untrustworthy undermined the cultivation of Jewish identity and further forced Jewish issues from the public sphere. A solidified “anti-fascist German” population was ideal to stimulate competition with the West. Fox highlights that this “anti-Jewish terror accomplished three major feats: first, it dismantled GDR Jewish communities as grassroots organizations with their own political basis; second, it caused a nearly complete separation of East German Jews (as well as their communities) from Western organizations and influences; and third, the terror removed Jews from desirable positions or even society as a whole (86). In essence, this anti-Jewish terror successfully prevented Jewish political mobility and ultimately stripped them of a public voice.

The infamous anticosmopolitan purge of Paul Merker in 1952 reaffirmed the notion that Jewish interests and commemoration had no place in the communist sphere. It became apparent that Jewish issues would never take precedence over socialist interests during Soviet occupation. Merker—a prominent German communist—advocated reparations and placed the Jewish genocide as a central issue in the immediate post-war. In his publication, “Hitler’s Antisemitism and Us”, Merker stated that ’if all the German rivers flowed with ink, and all the German forests were made of quill pens, they would not suffice to describe the immeasurable crimes which Hitler’s fascism has committed against the Jewish people’ (Herf, East German Communists: 631). These lamentations of Jewish sufferings under the Third Reich undermined the symbolic significance of Soviet propaganda. Similar to the socialist undercurrents, Merker clearly created a distinction between political prisoners and Jews; however, Merker placed the Jews on top of the “moral hierarchy” rather than the communists.

In essence, Merker’s endeavor to rectify the Jewish genocide undermined the political legitimacy and endeavors of the GDR. Merker advocated a ‘full, equal re-integration [of the Jews] into the economic and social life of Germany in as short a time as possible’ (Herf, East German Communists: Pg. 431) This stimulated the notion that East German citizens bore guilt from their Nazi past and countered the anti-fascist dogma. The anti-fascist myth alleged that West Germany solely bore the Nazi burden of guilt as the FRG was the capitalist successor of the Third Reich. Naturally, the Soviet Union found Merker’s proposal unacceptable as it posed a detriment to Cold War mobilization. In response, Merker was denounced as a Western or Zionist propagandist, imprisoned, and blocked from any significant roles in the German communist party (Herf, East German Communists: 637). The issue of the Nazi past increasingly shifted in the direction of Cold War mobilization and undermined any honest attempt to rectify past crimes.

Although East Germany lifted its taboo on the Holocaust in 1960, the Jewish genocide was merely dug up in the Soviet sphere to push forward propaganda against the Federal Republic or the Western powers as a whole. East German historians and politicians used the trials of Nazi war criminals—such as Adolf Eichman and Hans Globke—as evidence to reinforce the notion that the Bonn republic was essentially a continuation of the Third Reich. Globke—who was the “instrumentalization” of the Holocast—served as one of Chancellor Adenauer’s closest aides in West Germany (Fox, 22). The revelation damaged the prestige of the Federal Republic and added legitimacy to East German claims of their struggle against the “Fourth Reich.” However, the GDR shortly retracted their acknowledgement of the Jewish genocide in East German texts once it lost political significance: in 1963, East German texts stated that the fascists—of which Globke was a significant member—murdered 6 million Jews, more than half of the European Jewry, in their extermination camps; by 1965, the 6 million Jews disappeared from East German texts until 1984, and in this absence, East German literature merely stated that 8 million perished in the concentration camps (Fox, 35). The Jewish genocide was conducive to East Germany in the early 1960s as the GDR attempted to maximize the value of its propaganda in its anti-FRG campaign. It was apparent that Shoah discourse merely resurfaced to empower a campaign against the Federal Republic.

The GDR also used this reemergence of the Holocaust to reassert that anti-Communism was embedded at the core of Nazi ideology. Heinz Kuhnrich—a historian hired by the East German Institute for Marxism-Leninism—stated that concentration camps “became symbols of a brutish system that had as a goal the extermination of entire peoples in order to make a profit” (Fox, 23). Kuhnrich’s interpretation placed class struggle at the core of Nazi historiography which reaffirmed that Communists were the most important victims of Nazism. This reaffirmation highlighted that the GDR strengthened its anti-fascist ideology in the public sphere at the expense of Shoah memory.

The communists strictly regulated and carved out an East German culture that downplayed the Jewish genocide. During the 1960s, the GDR ensured that any emerging literature did not undermine the status quo. The government dissolved historical research groups involved in research that was ideologically suspect and instituted further repressive measures that affected all subsequent East German writing on the Holocaust (Fox 26). East German intellectuals were only allowed to write the anti-fascist interpretation of the Holocaust. This censorship meant that burden of guilt for Nazi crimes remained with the FRG as the anti-fascist myth remained strong, and the Jewish genocide still remained peripheral to communist suffering under the Third Reich. Openly sympathetic scholars that genuinely believed in a Jewish genocide were likely “cleansed” in the anticosmopolitan purges or kept low profiles due to the purge. The communists ensured that official memory could not be challenged in either the cultural or public sphere.

Censorship extended to other outlets of information—such as education. East German youth were taught that the ‘greatest and most fateful of Hitler’s war crimes was the malicious and treacherous attack on the Soviet Union’ (Herf, East German Communists: 629). Adolescents were socialized to sympathize with the communists for Nazi crimes and were only taught the Marxist interpretation of the Holocaust. This created a natural resistance to Shoah commemoration as incoming GDR citizens could not commemorate what they had no knowledge of. Media and literature merely complemented what East German youth were taught. In essence, the communists created a muted narrative of the Jewish genocide through repression of dissent.

East German memorabilia also complemented the anti-fascist myth and merely recognized communist victimhood during the Third Reich. The Buchenwald Memorial—which was constructed in the late 1950s—glorified the “struggle and suffering of the Nazis’ left-wing political opponents” (Neumann, 113). These memorials served to reinforce official memory and merely celebrated the Soviets as “just” victors. The graves in the Buchenwald memorial are linked with a road with 18 pylons—each dedicated to a nation “whose citizens were prominently represented among Buchenwald prisoners”—though there is no pylon for Israel (Neuman 113). The memorial—as well as other memorabilia—was a reflection of the East German public sphere that downplayed the Jewish genocide. Sachsenhausen—a concentration camp that was liberated by the Soviets—also became a site of communist commemoration. The memorial site featured a forty-meter obelisk that only displayed red triangles—representative of political prisoners—and the statue of a Red Army soldier with his cape over political prisoners (Fox, 71). The Sachsenhausen memorial celebrated Soviet liberation from the fascist Third Reich and reinforced the notion that the communists were the primary victims of Nazism. Soviet memorials merely highlighted the importance of political prisoners. The clear downplay of Shoah complemented the muted cultural narrative of the Jewish genocide and highlighted the legacy of Soviet occupation in the GDR.

Soviet anti-fascist dogma did not show wear in the public sphere until the 1980s. East German dissidents openly called for a revision of “antifascist orthodoxy and for an acknowledgement of the suffering of Jews” (Neumann, 120). The revision of antifascism essentially meant that the GDR had to confront the Nazi past once again—although it would be a slow and painful process. This highlighted a softening of the censorship that was overly pervasive in prior decades of the GDR. However, citizens of the GDR were exposed to a muted narrative of the Jewish narrative for over three decades. A reversal of the effects from anti-fascist propaganda would necessitate more time and a fundamental change.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the East German government finally embraced responsibility for Nazi crimes and relinquished its muted narrative. The Cold War ended abruptly and repression of the Jewish genocide no longer served any purpose to the GDR. “In April 1990, the first democratically elected Volkskammer passed a resolution that acknowledged the responsibility of all Germans for the crimes committed by Nazi Germany and asked Jewish survivors for forgiveness” (Neumann, 121). This acceptance of responsibility was a complete turnaround from the GDR under Soviet occupation; however, this shift only represented the official party line and was not indicative of public opinion. GDR citizens would have likely resisted the state admission of Nazi sin for several reasons. One, the citizens of the GDR had been “exonerated” of Nazi misdeeds for approximately four decades; two, these citizens were largely exposed to socialist ideology and may have embraced various interpretations which undermined the sincerity of the resolution: first, anti-antisemitism denoted that Jews used the alleged notion of antisemitism to gain socioeconomic resources; second, the “Marxist economic reductionist” view could downplay the acknowledgement of the Nazi past as a political move to placate and establish ties with the FRG and the West. Although the Soviet Union became non-existent, its ideology was still pernicious to commemoration of the Jewish genocide.

Despite the corrosion of antisemitic sentiments in German media outlets and official party line, anti-antisemitic beliefs remained in various pockets of the former GDR. Neumann highlights that the former GDR was more prone to neo-Nazism as attitudes of hostility and indifference towards the Jewish genocide lingered. After the reunification, Neo-Nazis attacked various sites of Jewish commemoration—such as a 1992 arson attack on the Jewish barracks in Sachsenhausen (Neumann, 136). The neo-Nazis were evidence that resistance to Jewish commemoration still existed, and the effects of Soviet occupation would not be short lived.

The Soviet occupation of GDR undoubtedly planted apathetic and guilt-free attitudes towards the Jewish genocide. Once again, another authoritarian government had furthered its political agenda at the expense of the Jewish population—although this atrocity takes a backseat to Shoah in public discourse and memory. The GDR blocked any commemoration to the Jewish genocide through its exclusion in East German culture: it was impossible to remember the Jewish genocide if the atrocity was not discussed or taught. The FRG placed a cloak of collective amnesia on the Jewish genocide for approximately 25 years to mobilize politically; however, this method was not feasible in the GDR as citizens could not forget what they did not know. Although the two German states have reunified, the acceptance of Nazi sin has not been entirely cohesive. Only time will tell if the German state can completely deal with its burdensome past.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)

Book Reviews

  • Daniela Berghahn,

    “Post-1990 Screen Memories: How East and West German Cinema Remembers the Third Reich and the Holocaust.” German Life and Letters (2006): 294-308. Web. 27 Feb 2010.

    Berghahn examines the contribution of feature German films to the memory discourse in both the FRG and the GDR. The 100 “anti-fascist” films generated over four decades were consistent with socialist ideology and consequently reinforced the Soviet interpretation of the Third Reich.

  • Thomas Fox,

    State Memory. New York: Camden House, 1999. Print

    Fox presents the East German view of the Holocaust during Soviet occupation and investigates how the Soviet Union molded an anti-fascist framework in the GDR. His investigation of socialist ideology affected East German culture contributed to my understanding of how GDR citizens were socialized.

  • Jeffrey Herf,

    Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys. 1997. Harvard University Press. Print

    Herf explores the workings of past beliefs and political interests on and how each German state has recalled the Nazi past. The author provides an overview of the East German course under Soviet occupation and extensively investigates the political and public sphere.

  • Jeffrey Herf,

    “East German Communists and the Jewish Question: The Case of Paul Merker.” Journal of Contemporary History (SAGE) (1994): 629-661. Web. 27 Feb 2010.

    In this article, Herf highlights how the treatment of Paul Merker reflected the repression of the Jewish genocide in East Germany. Merker, a prominent KPD member, advocated reparations for the Jewish community and placed the Jewish question as a central issue in the post-war GDR. In response, Merker was disciplined and politically silenced—a characteristic that defined the Jewish genocide in East Germany.

  • Ludi Regula,

    “The Vectors of Postwar Victim Reparations: Relief, Redress and Memory Politics.” Journal of Contemporary History (SAGE) (2006):421-450. Web. 27 Feb 2010

    Ludi discusses the diminished reparations of Jews in the GDR for the purposes of propaganda. The Soviets endeavored to display active resistance against fascism, and Jews were seen as passive victims. Resistance fighters eclipsed in Jews in public memory and in reparations.

Books and Articles

  • Klaus Neumann,

    Shifting Memories: The Nazi Past in the New Germany. 2000. University of Michigan Press. Print.

    Neumann explores how public memory has played out in the GDR and FRG prior to the reunification. The author highlights how the Soviet Union molded a socialist-oriented public memory to further its political agenda. Neumann also discusses how the shift from Soviet occupation to reunification has altered public memory.

  • Laurence Rees ,

    Auschwitz. 2005. Public Affairs. Print

    Rees investigates the inner workings of Auschwitz—the most notorious death camp and discusses how the imprisonment of Soviet POWs transformed concentration camps into an effective death machines. Left-wing political prisoners also suffered a great deal under the Third Reich. The Soviet Union would highlight these points in the GDR and overshadow the Jewish aspect of the Holocaust.

Relevant Websites

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Max Tran on 3/23/10; last updated: 11/21/10
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