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Tailoring Truth: Politicizing the Past and Negotiating Memory in East Germany, 1945-1990

Jon Berndt Olsen
Copyright Date: 2015
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 276
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  • Book Info
    Tailoring Truth
    Book Description:

    By looking at state-sponsored memory projects, such as memorials, commemorations, and historical museums, this book reveals that the East German communist regime obsessively monitored and attempted to control public representations of the past to legitimize its rule. It demonstrates that the regime's approach to memory politics was not stagnant, but rather evolved over time to meet different demands and potential threats to its legitimacy. Ultimately the party found it increasingly difficult to control the public portrayal of the past, and some dissidents were able to turn the party's memory politics against the state to challenge its claims of moral authority.

    eISBN: 978-1-78238-572-1
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-ix)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. x-xii)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Introduction. Tailoring Truth in East Germany
    (pp. 1-17)

    The visual prominence of memorials to the heroes of communism and the German working class might strike a tourist traveling through contemporary eastern Germany as out of place so long after the collapse of the communist regime that built them. The colossal monument dedicated to the memory of former communist leader Ernst Thälmann still resides in the Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg. Similarly, a large park and statue ensemble in the main government district in Berlin commemorate Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Each January, thousands gather at the Socialists’ Cemetery in Berlin to honor the memory of Rosa Luxemburg and...

  7. Chapter One Mobilizing Memory in the Soviet Occupation Zone
    (pp. 18-50)

    Like a tailor with his scissors, needle, and thread, the political leaders of what became East German sought to shape, trim, add, and cut out pieces of a society’s collective memory. Collective memory is one of many threads that weave through the metaphoric cloth that is a nation. In most democratic nations, the collective memory is the subject of great debate and contestation. The level of debate within a totalitarian state, however, is often severely restricted. Yet political leaders in East Germany still saw great value in influencing collective memory and hoped in the immediate postwar era that this would...

  8. Chapter Two The Politics of State Memory
    (pp. 51-101)

    The division of Germany into two states in 1949 resulted in a stepped-up effort by the SED to expand and deepen its political and cultural legitimacy. Political legitimacy continued to focus on material concerns of the postwar period—maintaining a safe and steady food supply, housing, employment, and the like. The cultural legitimacy and historical continuity in which the SED had previously invested now needed to be directed toward the legitimacy of the new East German state. The rationale for the division of the German nation into two states needed bolstering and the SED wanted to continue the process of...

  9. Chapter Three Emotional Bonds
    (pp. 102-136)

    The SED memory-work projects during the formative years of the immediate postwar era and the period immediately following the founding of East Germany set the stage for projects it would tackle in the 1960s and 1970s. The process of shaping the memory landscape was not finished. The East German government continued to invest considerable resources into expanding the number of memorial sites as well as reshaping existing institutions of cultural memory. Beginning in the 1960s, the GDR also faced a new generation of youth who had lived entirely under SED rule and were now coming of political age. Unlike previous...

  10. Chapter Four Broadening the Historical Roots of the State Narrative
    (pp. 137-182)

    East Germany’s relationship with the past entered a period of expansion and change during the late 1970s and early 1980s. West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s 1969 declaration of two German states in one nation prompted the GDR to switch from the stated goal of unifying Germany to embracing a separate East German nation. This had an important influence on the selection of figures from the broader German past that the state now decided to celebrate. This sense of national independence was bolstered by the signing of the Basic Treaty with West Germany in 1971, the formal acceptance of both Germanys...

  11. Chapter Five The Collapse of State-Imposed Memory Culture
    (pp. 183-212)

    Since the inception of the GDR in 1949, the SED had claimed a monopoly of power over society. It used a wide variety of tactics, ranging from the overt use of force by the secret police to more nuanced attempts to employ propaganda to maintain its hold over the citizens of East Germany. The various shifts in memory politics pursued by state and party functionaries that have been covered thus far ran primarily parallel to these tactics and complemented the party’s overarching policies aimed at maintaining control. As we have seen, the party asserted such control by deciding how memorial...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 213-237)

    On 3 October 1989—a few days before East Germany’s fortieth anniversary celebrations—SED General Secretary Erich Honecker hosted a gala event dedicated to the heroes of antifascism. Among the 400 invited guests were members of the wartime antifascist resistance movement, party members from the SED’s founding generation, and all of the current top-ranking SED leadership and government officials.¹ Guests attending the gala event were treated to a lunch and a cultural program that included singing, musical, and dance performances that contained a mixture of classical and folk songs and ended with the singing of the “Internationale.” Erich Honecker offered...

  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 238-253)
  14. Index
    (pp. 254-262)