theologie.geschichte - Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kulturgeschichte

Gutachten und Diskussionsbeiträge zu Alexander Muschik, The GDR’s approach towards Judaism 1985-1990 - a public diplomacy campaign to prevent the decline of the East German state



A. Dustin Stalnaker and Andrew Stuart Bergerson, University of Missouri - Kansas City
B. Mario Kessler, Potsdam



A. Dustin Stalnaker and Andrew Stuart Bergerson, University of Missouri - Kansas City

Gutachten zu: Alexander Muschik The GDR’s approach towards Judaism 1985-1990 - a public diplomacy campaign to prevent the decline of the East German state


The authors of this review are not specialists in this specific field: the German Democratic Republic (DDR)’s relations with Jews domestically and internationally. Nonetheless, we feel that we can make some specific points about the article based on our understanding of the literature and modern German history in general. Given the extreme nature of the crime of Nazi genocide, relations with domestic and international Jewish communities were matters of great importance for the two states of postwar Germany. Both during and after Germany’s division, the DDR’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) drew criticism for adopting policy positions that were perceived as hostile to both its own Jewish population and the Jewish state of Israel. Alexander Muschik’s article contributes to a body of literature that criticizes this aspect of DDR policy; unfortunately we find some of his approach to be contradictory and polemical.

For most of its existence, the SED regime broadcast the state’s founding myth of antifascism on the international stage in order to justify the DDR’s existence separate from the allegedly fascist Federal Republic of Germany (BRD). Muschik demonstrates that this original antifascist tradition accorded surprisingly little attention to the victimization of the Jews, who had borne the brunt of German fascism under the National Socialist regime. By refusing to acknowledge past Jewish suffering or prioritize its redress, the SED paved the way for the perpetuation of various forms of Jewish persecution in the early postwar decades. Beginning in the mid-80s, as the DDR faced declining support from Moscow and a worsening financial and economic situation, the SED regime began to pursue policies intended to win diplomatic and economic concessions from the West as a means of averting potential domestic crisis. The author shows that the SED regime made a series of unprecedented overtures to both domestic and international Jewish communities during this period in a belated effort to live up to its claim to an antifascist tradition—now in effect redefined as a form of critical confrontation with the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Thus Muschik’s main claim is that “the SED instrumentalized ‘anti-fascism’ and ‘Judaism’ for its international public diplomacy campaign.” Ultimately, however, such diplomatic posturing proved too late to stabilize the crumbling socialist state.

The basic trajectory of this history seems accurate in itself. The questions Muschik poses, however, are defined so narrowly as to effectively undermine his study’s conclusions. Studies investigating efforts undertaken by the BRD’s Adenauer government to deal with the Nazi past have concluded that these, too, were framed to a far greater extent by political need than by moral concern.[1] It seems wrong to condemn the DDR alone for making instrumental use of Jewish policies for other political purposes when the BRD seems to have engaged in similar political games. Moreover, we do not see much difference between the BRD’s support for Israel and the DDR’s criticism of it when framed within a Cold War context. Despite admitting that the DDR was falling in line with the policies of its communist allies, Muschik seems eager to condemn the SED regime for adopting policies that were almost certainly decided, in the final analysis, on the basis of Realpolitik. The implicit judgments that arise from this unilateral condemnation lead us to suspect that the author is motivated by a pro-Western bias that does little justice to prevailing political conditions.

A similar concern arises from the way the author interprets the treatment of Jewish citizens within the DDR. The author provides ample evidence suggesting that the state stifled Jewish religious life in the early postwar decades, but this misfortune was not unique to the Jewish community. The Lutheran pastor Oskar Brüsewitz, for instance, committed suicide by self-immolation in protest of the state’s persecution of the Church. This example demonstrates that Christians suffered within the anti-religious atmosphere of the DDR as well. Gradually the SED regime pursued a détente allowing for greater integration of the Church into DDR society.[2] This obvious parallel between the Jewish and Christian cases and its contextualization in Cold War circumstances certainly opens the broader question of the legitimizing or destabilizing impact of religious elements within the DDR in both the short- and long-term. More to the point, it raises doubts in our minds as to whether the DDR’s policies were necessarily fueled by anti-Jewish (or anti-Israeli) sentiment, including attempts to ignore the Nazi past, rather than by the longstanding and well-documented anti-religious tenets of Marxism. Here we are not denying the existence of antisemitism within the DDR or its ruling party; what we question is whether such sentiment served as the driving force behind these policies. By abstracting from the broader context and not clarifying these crucial interpretive issues, Muschik seems to be engaging in a common form of DDR bashing that fails to properly balance its many facets.

We also feel that the author’s central argument suffers from a lack of coherence, particularly with regard to the crucial term antifascism. Although largely unstated, Muschik seems primarily concerned with what he considers to be an inadequate and delayed process of dealing with the Nazi past in the DDR; he seems to imply that only moves in this direction would be evidence of a shift towards true antifascism. He of course knows that Marxism-Leninism defined antifascism as the political and, at times, military struggle against imperialism which adherents understood to be the highest stage of capitalism. Yet the author uses the term antifascism in both senses[3] without clarifying which definition is being employed, when, by whom, and, above all, how this conceptual shift took place. Here, and throughout the paper, the reader would have benefitted from a deeper and more critical exploration of the primary sources themselves because—as Muschik admits regarding at least one scholar whose work he consults repeatedly—the existing secondary literature is frequently quite polemical.

This conceptual slippage matters because it leaves the reader wondering the degree to which the SED regime was finally coming around to deal with the Nazi past, or more importantly, to criticize their own conceptual foundations. To our knowledge, the SED was committed to ideological orthodoxy—even to a fault. In its self-understanding, at least, the regime adhered to a sincere form of antifascism which it equated, for good or for ill, with anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. To be sure, this ideological engagement with history had the unfortunate side-effect, for which the regime can legitimately be faulted, of marginalizing the history of Jewish persecution under the Nazis. We are not excusing this ethical failure on their part. But this essay seems to imply that the recent history of Jewish suffering should have been a primary concern for any ideology called antifascism. It seems to us that the author has unfairly applied Western definitions of antifascism to the DDR as the only metric against which its actions should be measured.

The author is correct in viewing the policy shift of the late-80s as a break with certain defining principles on which the DDR was founded. But we are unclear as to the degree to which Muschik believes that this shift amounted to an admission of the errors of past policy initiatives on the part of the SED, as if the regime finally recognized that it should have been talking about the Nazi persecution of Jews all along. Especially in view of the pragmatism underlying these initiatives, amid the collapse of the DDR, this interpretation seems to us to be a rather big leap. A notable consequence of this polemical position may be that the article underestimates the destabilizing impact of the DDR’s eleventh-hour shift towards Western norms. Regardless of its motivations, by moving antifascism away from its roots in political economy towards an initiative for dealing with the Holocaust, the SED risked undermining its own commitment to ideological orthodoxy on a core issue that had defined the DDR domestically since its inception.

Had the author pursued a more balanced and contexualized approach, and had he taken more care to clarify his interpretations of these often disparate facts, the constructive aspects of this article might make a worthy contribution as a chapter within a broader work documenting Germany’s collective historical difficulties with Vergangenheitsbewältigung. As it stands, however, this essay risks engaging in a kind of “disparaging oversimplification”[4] which fails to take seriously the possibility that the SED regime was committed to its version of antifascism; that its version of antifascism had an intellectual coherence of its own; or that Jewish communists “were convinced they were serving the better German state.”[5] To remedy these faults, the author might consider evaluating the DDR in its own terms and not solely based on an external litmus test that abstracts its policies from their historical context.

[1]See Lily Gardner Feldman, The Special Relationship between West Germany and Israel (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1984), 49-82. See also Jeffrey Herf, Divided Memory: the Nazi Past in the Two Germanies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 267-300; Hannfried von Hindenburg, Demonstrating reconciliation: state and society in West German foreign policy toward Israel, 1952-1965 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2007), 46-55; and Maria Mitchell, The Origins of Christian Democracy: Politics and Confession in Modern Germany (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, forthcoming 2012). We wish to express our gratitude to Maria Mitchell for these suggestions.
[2]See Mary Fulbrook, “Co-Option and Commitment: Aspects of Relations between Church and State in the German Democratic Republic,” Social History, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Jan., 1987): 73-91. For a sociological analysis of these dynamics contemporary to the period under examination, see Robert F. Goeckel, “Church and Society in the German Democratic Republic: Changes and Developments in a State Socialist Society,” International Journal of Sociology, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Winter, 1988/1989): 210-227.
[3]Compare, for instance, the text between footnotes 4-6 and that surrounding footnote 34.
[4]See text preceding footnote 65; originally quoted from Harald Schmid, Antifaschismus und Judenverfolgung. Die Reichskristallnacht als politischer Gedenktag in der DDR (Göttingen: V&R unipress, 2004), 126.
[5]See text preceding footnote 67.

B. Mario Kessler, Potsdam

Review of Alexander Muschik: The GDR’s approach towards Judaism 1985-1990: A public diplomatic campaign to prevent the decline of the East German state

On the one hand, the essay provides the reader with useful information about several facets of the topic. This can be said about the emergence of Stalinist anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, the exploitation of Jewish East Germans for the SED policy, the position of Israel towards the two German states (particularly with regard to the claims issue), and the shift of the attitude of the SED leadership vis-à-vis Jewish life in the late 1980s.

On the other hand, the essay shows deficiencies in making historical judgments:

It is too short-sided to reduce SED anti-Fascism to a myth. It was, instead, a mixture of reality and ideology. German communists had paid a high price for the resistance against Hitler, and for the founder generation of East Germany, the anti-Fascist legacy was more than a myth. It could, for a time relatively successfully, challenge West German appeal for freedom and democracy, as long as many of the proponents of the West German cause could easily be depicted by the GDR as ex-Nazis with a democratic face.

It is true that the SED did not single out the persecution of the Jews as the cardinal crime of Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, until the period of Stalinist anti-Semitism in East Germany the SED put relatively much emphasis on this dark chapter of Germany’s recent past (see the books by Stefan Heymann, Siegbert Kahn, Nico Rost, and others). The author criticizes the SED that it did not make use of these terms “Holocaust” and “Shoa.” Nobody in the West, likewise, used these terms before the late 1970s.

The SED leadership clearly over-emphasized the political and financial strength of the so-called Jewish Lobby in the United States, but, in contrast to the author’s statement, it never had the perception that “Jew ruled the world.”

Two remarks on the terminology: In the title of the essay the term “Judaism” should be substituted by “Jews”. Regarding the return of the refugees to East Germany, one should better use the term “(attempted) re-integration”, instead of “re-assimilation.”

One addition to the facts: Erich Honecker’s negotiations with Mario Offenberg of the West Berlin branch of Adas Yisroel in 1988 should be mentioned.

One remark on the literature: The author’s statement that the positions of Kessler and Wolffsohn are, in fact, not bluntly antagonistic to each other, is interesting, but neglects striking differences between the two writers.

The reviewer would recommend considering these critical remarks before the essay should be published as final paper.


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