June 13, 2024


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GDR: An eccentric act in the processing scene.  – Politics

GDR: An eccentric act in the processing scene. – Politics

Norbert F. Pötzl review

A book that was initially banned has now been published. It was originally supposed to be titled “Troubled Memories?” In August last year. It is published by Mitteldeutscher Verlag. In it, historian Rainer Eckert describes the historical-political debates about coming to terms with the SSU dictatorship. After Halle-based publisher Saale sent kitchen slate clues to journalists to encourage early reviews, the script quickly circulated among the actors in the reappraisal scene. Many of the people mentioned in the book have filed appeals alleging that their personal rights have been violated. Then the publisher terminated the author’s contract with Eckert, and the Federal Foundation for the Reassessment of the Dictatorship of SED withdrew the subsidy it had already granted for printing.

Now Leipzig University Press Publish the controversial workHere and there, taking into account the objections raised and presented with a Preface in which the author comments on the controversy raised by his book from his point of view. The new title “Contested Past” aptly characterizes the theme: a small group of those working to come to terms with the SED dictatorship—mostly former GDR civil rights activists, dissidents, and victims of communist rule—are at odds with each other and hostile. However, Rainer Eckert himself is part of this problem.

“An insider who’s been sidelined.”

Eckert, born in Potsdam in 1950 and politically persecuted in the GDR, chaired the Leipzig Forum of Contemporary History from 1997 to 2015. In the first chapter of his book he deals with his departure from this institution, whose form had deeply offended him. In this way, a wounded vanity became the main driver of his reckoning with people and institutions to whom he had not been well disposed. Karim Saab, once a member of the Leipzig opposition, describes Eckert as “an insider in the hopelessly divided and marginalized processing scene”.

Painful past: Portrait of Erich Honecker in the interrogation room of the Central State Security Detention Center of the GDR at the Hohenschönhausen Memorial in Berlin.

(Photo: Imago Stock and People)

Eckert does not see his merits in dealing with the GDR’s past, which are evident in the number of committees and associations of which he was a member, as they were not given sufficient recognition. Like a schoolmaster, he gives grades to other representatives, divides initiatives into “right” and “false” and rejects anything that does not meet his expectations. He does not shy away from verbal insults: his opponents are “cheeky”, “sloppy” or have only “little experience”. Eckert claims interpretive sovereignty for himself, which he denies to others, for example when he accuses Tobias Holitzer, head of the Leipzig Memorial Museum in the “round corner”, of “distinguished dog behavior” and “exclusion”. Eckert only agrees with his friend the whole time Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, a fellow East German historian, who quotes him repeatedly and approvingly. On the other hand, Kowalczuk accused the publishing house Mitteldeutscher of “the issue of ‘cancellation culture’ which was unique to the GDR’s process of coming to terms with”.

Many of those affected demanded changes to the script

Objections to the book came from, among others, former GDR dissident Uwe Schwabe, who objected to Eckert’s quotation from private correspondence without being asked. Others, such as the former head of the Berlin Hohenschönhausen Memorial, Hubertus Knappe, called for corrections, which Eckert achieved in part.

Eckert’s insults against former German runner Ines Geibel, who was a victim of government doping and spied on by state security, took a certain offense; Today she teaches as a professor at the Ernst Bosch Academy of Dramatic Art in Berlin and works as a publicist. For many East Germans, it is clearly rude because it seems particularly difficult in the German Democratic Republic, which many would like to be remembered not as a dictatorship but as a homeland.

Discussion with Ines Gebel

Undeterred, Eckert promoted envious claims about Geipel in order to sow doubts about their biography. This was also the intention of Eckert’s friend, Kowalschuk, a longtime employee of the Stasi Records Authority, who had sent a copy of the files of Stasi victims illegally circulated from Gebel to the late Green politician Werner Schulz in exchange for awarding him famous literary prizes, Gebel forcefully intervened. . . Kowalczuk resents Geibel for a critical review of his latest book, in which he casts the GDR as a victim of a hostile “takeover” (the book’s title) by the West.

Eckert refused a face-to-face interview given by Geipel. He is unapologetic, insisting that he “only summed up things” that “passed the press or were dealt with in court.” He did not base his source studies on facts – an astonishing thing for a historian. If the chapter “Ines Geipel and doping” really “doesn’t play a major role,” as Eckert claims, he could have deleted the five pages from the nearly 300-page text (without annotations). But it is clear that he is interested in supporting Kojaljuk in his campaign against Jebel.

Statements indicating the opposite are deleted

In general, Eckert fought on all fronts. Even the titles of the chapters are militaristic: the Federal Commissioner for Stasi documents moved into a “battlefield”, there were battles over the Hohenschönhausen memorial and the historical committee of the SPD executive. Battles continue in the text: “about speakers,” “against myths,” “against expert opinion,” “about the supremacy of interpretation”—and Eckert is always in the middle. Eckert pretends to be a re-evaluation historian, but discards what does not fit his concept. He cites statements with which he agrees, but withholds statements to the contrary.

The political book: Rainer Eckert: The Contested Past.  The Dictatorship of the SED in the Current Historical Politics of the Federal Republic of Germany.  Leipzig University Press, Leipzig 2023. 435 pages, €40.

Rainer Eckert: The Contested Past. The Dictatorship of the SED in the Current Historical Politics of the Federal Republic of Germany. Leipzig University Press, Leipzig 2023. 435 pages, €40.

(photo: Leipzig University Press)

Not surprisingly, there were often different points of view among East German workers. Dissenters in the GDR were never a homogeneous group. They were united only in the rejection and overcoming of the SED system, which was achieved through the peaceful revolution in the fall of 1989. After that, they parted ways again. Many worked and continue to work in parties and parliaments, promoting democratic development in united Germany. Others have become insignificant because of their strangeness, and some have also drifted into a populist or even far-right milieu.

Who has the right to interpret the past?

Eckert describes “conflicts in the German culture of remembrance” with a tendency to dogmatism, assesses the work of various memorial institutions and sites from his subjective point of view and deals with the debate on “East German elites”. Former opponents of the SED became, as Eckert positively notes, “an important shaping force in dealing with the recent past”. But, as Kowalczuk laments, “this milieu has lost a great deal of its influence and significance in recent years. Other narratives about the GDR, which is increasingly no longer being rebuilt as a dictatorship, have long dominated.”

This is precisely why Eckert’s book could have been an antithesis to the current Eckert bestseller by Katja Hoyer (“This Side of the Wall”) and Dirk Ochmann (“The East: A West German Invention”), from which the earlier pillars were used. And adherents of the SED system are happy to become. Unfortunately, the opportunity was lost.

Written by Norbert F. Putzel has, among others, biographies on Erich Honecker and Wolfgang Vogel as well as the book “Der Trohand Complex”.

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