Andreas Hilger: “The Fate of Soviet Pows and Forced Laborers is Underrepresented in German Public Memory”
Associate Professor, Dr. Andreas Hilger, deputy director German Historical Institute Moscow
Der Feind im eigenen Land. Abwehrideologien und Einflussnahmen im geteilten Deutschland, Berlin (in Vorbereitung)
Internationale Geschichte von 1945 bis heute, Stuttgart (in Vorbereitung)
Sowjetisch-indische Beziehungen 1941 – 1966. Imperiale Agenda und nationale Identität in der Ära von Dekolonisierung und Kaltem Krieg, Köln 2018
„Das ist kein Gerücht, sondern echt.“ Der BND und der „Prager Frühling“ 1968, Marburg 2014 (gemeinsam mit Armin Müller)
Deutsche Kriegsgefangene in der Sowjetunion, 1941-1956. Kriegsgefangenenpolitik, Lageralltag und Erinnerung, Essen 2000
You are specializing in research regarding the fate of German POW in the Soviet detention camps. Do German people keep alive the memory about that and in which forms it has obtained? How many memoirs of former prisoners were published? How common is the Oral History approach towards that subject? What images of Russia had former prisoners created?
Yes, the history of German POW in the Soviet Union is one of my research topics, as is the history of Soviet POWs in Germany and other questions of German-Soviet relations and International history.
Today, the immediate relevance and concrete memories concerning German POWs in the USSR seem to fade away with the so-called war generation. Nevertheless, prominent public images and public “chiffres” remain. They focus on individual German experiences, on German suffering and survival. Documentaries, films, and pictures of the return of the so-called “last prisoners” in 1955 in connection with Konrad Adenauer´s visit in Moscow in that year transport an emotionalized and condensed form of general ideas about deprivation and suffering behind barbed wire, the extremely long duration of captivity, the waiting and expectations of relatives and friends at home, and the non-return of many prisoners who died in captivity. Within this master narrative, Soviet attempts to transform German POWs into “anti-fascist” activists play an important role as well.
These topoi do not ask about preconditions and reasons of the captivity, and more differentiated descriptions are rare.
Instead, in their superficial interpretation of living and working conditions of German POWs and their discussion of Soviet responsibilities, general perceptions tend to distinguish between Soviet authorities and the civil population. From time to time, they seem to claim a kind of common history of repression of both German POWs and Soviet citizens under Stalin.
This public memory in West Germany was shaped by a lot of memoirs of former POWs which were published – either as books or as articles – during the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, as well as by more or less official memorial events until the 1950s. Besides, an academic commission on the history of the German POWs during World War II produced a multi-volumes account. Since the Soviet authorities did not provide any archival material, the commission had to rely on written and oral reports of former POWs in the USSR.
During the 1960s and especially during the 1970s the topic lost its relevance for West German public discourses.
It was revived since the late 1980s, under the influence of international rapprochement and the war generation’s wish to take stock. In addition, the emerging interest in the history of everyday life (“Alltagsgeschichte”) contributed to new research questions and projects on POWs’s experiences and memories, including Oral History-approaches. Albrecht Lehmann’s publications of the 1980s constitute the most prominent examples in this field.
As far as I can see, the number of publications of private memories about the captivity in the USSR significantly increased during the late 1980s and 1990s. Surprisingly, there is no significant difference between the argumentation and narratives in corresponding publications of the 1950s and of the 1990s. And there is no significant difference between descriptions which were published in East Germany after 1990 and West German assessments of that or earlier times.
Now, with the last members of the war generation passing away, concrete memories remain more or less a family affair for children and grandchildren. There seems to be a vivid interest especially of the third generation in this part of their family history, but it is doubtful if this interest does reflect a more general – and critical - interest in German and/or international history.
All in all, the abovementioned collective images and imaginations, although “subcutaneous”, are still widespread. This was demonstrated by some newer motion pictures.
The famous German scholars Conrad Lorenz and Reinhart Koselleck were Soviet prisoners. I think it is possible to enlarge that list. Are there any specific reflections in memoirs of scholars, former POW regarding their war experience?
Yes, indeed, I would agree that a lot of German or Austrian scholars of that or the next generations had direct or indirect experiences with captivity. Nevertheless, as far as I see, one cannot speak about a specific “academic discourse” about POWs and their experiences. So, for instance, several members of the abovementioned Commission had been POWs in the USSR themselves, including its long-term head, Erich Maschke. Nevertheless, they attempted to separate their own individual recollections from their specific mandate as well as from their general scholarly work.
What traces in German memory were left by the millions of Soviet POW and so-called Ostarbaiters?
Until today, the fate of Soviet POWs and forced laborers is underrepresented in German public memory and remembrance. There is a significant number of successful and impressive local, individual and regional initiatives to establish and to maintain appropriate memorials and institutions, and to introduce the history of Soviet POWs and forced laborers in the general, public German culture and politics of remembrance on the national level – with limited success. Some years ago, the former Federal President, Joachim Gauck, in this connection coined the expression “Erinnerungsschatten” (that means “invisible” or ”hidden memory”). This characterization is still valid. In 2013, an initiative by, among others, the former director of the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst, that proposed the foundation of a central memorial in Berlin for, among others, Soviet POWs and forced laborers, met little enthusiasm and little support. By today, the initiative went nowhere.
In many Soviet families the memory about relatives, who were victims of Stalin’s repressions, was often erased, because people were afraid that such memory could be an obstacle to their children successful career. Many of current young “Stalinists” did not realize that their ancestors were repressed by Stalin. How about German family’s memory regarding their ancestors who died fighting on the Eastern front during the “War of extermination”? How do Germans keep that memory and if is common to search and visit the places where ancestors had died?
No, as far as I can see there were not and are not any similar challenges or processes. In Germany, since 1945/1949 the federal states take care of cemeteries in Germany, and the German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, founded already in 1919) take care of cemeteries abroad. Incidentally, it keeps identifying new gravesites at former battle grounds. Besides, the Volksbund also organizes visits to cemeteries and memorials. In general, these visits are considered to constitute a private affair without political meaning or consequences or without a clear impact on public memory.
The collective memory concerning the war of annihilation raises other and broader questions. Here, discussions and arguments about the well-known “Wehrmacht-Ausstellung” (Wehrmacht exhibition) in the 1990s demonstrated the German problems of coming to terms with the past. The process revealed rifts between generations, the broad range of historical understandings and approaches, and different levels of intellectual and emotional readiness or ability to deal with German crimes and responsibility.
Today, obviously, the German atmosphere for remembrance and corresponding discussions is changing. Both social consensus as well as academic findings about the German past are more openly challenged.
In accordance with Yalta agreements of 1944 million of Germans were deported from the territories of current Russia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and former Yugoslavia. During those deportations local authorities and common people committed a lot of brutal crimes against their former German neighbors: robberies, rapes and even murder. How does the memory about that tragedy circulate in the current time? Does it exist in the public space or it is exclusively limited by the family framework? How influential is nostalgia of the German society regarding Eastern Prussia, Silesia, Pomerania, Sudetenland and other territories where Germans were the ethnic majority until the end of the Second World War? How active are “the communities of memory” of deported people and their heirs.
From my point of view, the memories about flight and expulsion demonstrate similar tendencies as the memory about POWs. They are becoming more private, the existing organizations and pressure groups lost members, public profile, and influence, and after the opening of borders in Europe nostalgia has lost its political explosiveness. Certainly, there are always exceptions to this development. The abovementioned changes in today’s Germany’s political and cultural atmosphere might influence this complex as well.
After the war politics of Denazification took place in both parts – the GDR and the FRG - of split Germany. What was the difference between those processes? Does it still affect the current political situation when far-rights are more popular in the Eastern regions of unified Germany?
In both parts of Germany, the denazification endeavors were complicated, long-term processes with shifting emphasizes, changing accentuations, and contested scopes. Thus, a detailed discussion of similarities and, above all, differences between the concrete denazification both by Allied powers and by West and East German authorities would need at least one monograph. To put it very schematically: Soviet and East German schemes used denazification as an instrument of Sovietization of East Germany. The Western Allies/West Germans understood denazification as an indispensable part of the establishment of capitalist-democratic structures with a conservative-elitist bias. But, I repeat: this is a very brief and very simplistic summary.
In view of the multiple changes in post-war German developments in East and West after 1945 - from important changes of governments in Bonn in the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s up to unification, or given the SED’s twisted domestic and national politics -, it is impossible to isolate and determine exclusive long-term repercussions and consequences of the former denazification-decisions and approaches.
It would be interesting to analyze corresponding interdependencies between changing political frameworks, current domestic and international affairs, social and economic dynamics, and generational transitions. Today, observers seem to link current political developments in Germany and the rise of the right and far-right more to experiences in unified Germany and less to traditions and dispositions from divided Germany, although long-term traditions and mentalities which were left intact by concrete denazification politics and afterwards might serve as background.
All in all, political discussions tend to use or misuse different versions of the history of World War II and of the Third Reich for current argumentation, while our historical knowledge does not necessarily inform these political interpretations.
Could you tell a few words how current German historiography treats such important subjects as the War of Extermination on East, the Plan Ost and the so-called Hunger plan?
This is, once again, a very broad – and interesting – question. Current German historiography still identifies and tries to fill important gaps in these interrelated research fields: This applies to, among others, the problem of concrete relation between the Hunger plan and the fate of Soviet POWs in German captivity; the relationship between ideology and military considerations in German warfare; the Wehrmacht and occupation and retreat after 1942, the concrete life and conditions under German occupation for different groups, questions of collaboration, cooperation, and resistance, and others. All in all, serious research does not doubt the high importance of ideology for the Wehrmacht, its strategy and conduct of war, the close relationship between Wehrmacht and Nazism in Germany, and the direct participation of the Wehrmacht in mass and war crimes on an unprecedented scale.
The German Historical Institute in Moscow, where you work, has digitalized a big massive of German documents from the Russian archives regarding the Second World War. Could you provide some examples how those documents will influence our knowledge about that war?
The ongoing digitalization of these documents initiates new research efforts in several fields. Currently, the GHI has started two new research projects on the basis of the mentioned collections. One will enhance our knowledge about the history of retreat of the Wehrmacht in 1944/45, the other will reconstruct the history of the archival collections of German documents in Soviet archives. Both projects will significantly contribute to our understanding of important aspects of World War II: the dynamics of ideology and warfare, and the post-war construction and production of memory, collections, and historical knowledge under specific conditions of Cold War and domestic processes.
You have participated in some projects regarding the history of Holocaust, including joint projects with the Russian researcher Pavel Polian. Could you tell about those projects?
Our joint project focused on the history of captivity, repatriation and rehabilitation of Soviet POWs in German hands, and the history of Jewish POWs constitutes one important dimension of this general topic. We attempted to present an overview about the most central aspects of the general history of Soviet POWs (like living conditions, the so-called Kommissarbefehl and “Aussonderungen”, forced labor, female POWs, nationalities, collaboration and resistance; repatriation and filtration processes, and others) by using documents and reports from, above all, Russian and German as well as from British, U.S., and Swiss archives. The several hundred documents were published in 2012 in German language. This year, we hope for funding for a translation.