Germany, it seems, is in a constant process of debating its own history. In fact, there’s a word in German, historikerstreit, that means “the historians’ dispute.” It refers specifically to a debate at the end of the 1980s about the crimes of Nazi Germany, often in comparison to those of Stalin’s Soviet Union. But the word could just as easily refer to a number of other debates that have taken place among German historians – often with the interventions of historians from other countries — over the role played by average Germans during the Nazi period, the treatment of the Holocaust in popular culture, the activities of the Stasi, and so on. Although historians might naturally disagree, Germany would appear to be cursed with too much history.
There wasn’t as much visible dispute over history in East Germany. There was a Party line, and for the most part everyone followed that line publically. According to the Party’s interpretation of history, for instance, the Nazi period was a late stage of imperialist capitalism. The East German government emphasized the struggles of anti-fascist fighters and tended to de-emphasize anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and anything else that didn’t fit smoothly into the narrative of the ultimate triumph of the proletariat.
Historian Kurt Paetzold was an exception to this sanitized version of history. In the early 1980s, he published a collection of materials related to Jews in the Third Reich and then a subsequent volume on Kristallnacht. “The extent to which politics was involved in the work of historians depended on the periods, themes, and subjects these historians were engaged in,” he told me in an interview in February. “My area of study — anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and the persecution of Jews — was not put under any controls or politicized. Nobody really understood much about this subject. In some ways, though perhaps this is slightly exaggerated, I had a monopoly on this subject. There was one contentious point when talking about fascism and the rule of the Nazis: the role and behavior of the public. It is of course a difficult subject, and still today there is no satisfactory study of this.”
Nor did Kurt Paetzold shy away from addressing these difficult questions after 1989. In spring 1990, he was offering a course at Humboldt University entitled “Historical Thinking and History Teaching in the Crises of Our Time.”
But by that time, he was already anticipating the backlash within the university system and the end of his own teaching career. “It was clear to me that I could not continue teaching history as a professor at the university. When such changes happen, as history has shown, people in these positions are exchanged,” he told me. “There was a small group of young scientists and students who, after the fall of the Wall, made aggressive speeches denouncing the professors. One group called themselves ‘the independent historians,’ and they played a role in the process of the laying off the professors.”
He remains philosophical about these changes: “A historian who complains about the course of history is a fool. Secondly, for me the changes were not as grave as for my young colleagues.” He wasn’t immediately laid off. The dismissal didn’t come until the end of 1992. “There had to be a justification for this, and the easiest justification was: informal collaborator of the Stasi,” he explained. “As it became clear that there was nothing about me in the archives, I got a certificate of being clean, and I had to write a letter of resignation. After that I read, wrote books, and gave lectures. So, after my dismissal I didn’t work less than before.”
We also talked about the controversy surrounding Daniel Goldhagen’s work, the aspects of the GDR system that should have been preserved, and what he called the “hour of the minorities” in the changes that took place in 1989.
Do you remember where you where and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Of course. I was living in Berlin. I was aware beforehand that this state would collapse. The clearest sign was the utter cluelessness and helplessness of the leadership. On October 7, I was at a conference in West Germany in Bremen and was staying as a guest at a friend who was a pastor. From there, I went to Austria to do research in archives and returned to Berlin on October 18, 1989. Upon entering the apartment I told my wife the famous quote from Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.” To make a long story short, the end was no surprise to me, and it was clear to me that this end would bring about far-reaching changes for society and for my personal life. It was clear to me that I could not continue teaching history as a professor at the university. When such changes happen, as history has shown, people in these positions are exchanged.
Was there a particular moment when you were thinking that “this regime would not last”?
No, it wasn’t a moment. It was a process. And it really only became apparent in connection with the conflict with the Soviet Union, and this conflict only became noticeable in 1989. It had a backstory in the sense that Gorbachev was someone at the head of the Soviet leadership who had no concept of the crucial questions. You can tell in the speeches of Gorbachev that he was conjuring up many things but without any economic or social concepts. At the same time, it was clear that under him the Soviet Union would leave all its allies – not only the GDR – more or less to their own devises.
Did you communicate any of your doubts about the fragility of the GDR state to anybody else?
Of course with friends. I have a friend from my school days, a professor of economics, and it was clear to us since Gorbachev assumed power in 1985.
Did you observe among your students an increasing skepticism or a certain questioning of the system?
In individual cases. There had been a showing of a movie in 1989 about the crimes of Stalin, and there were discussions surrounding this. Overall, among the historians, there was no crisis situation – no crisis of thought. It just wasn’t the case. As far as I know, the students weren’t involved in any protest actions in Berlin. No, there wasn’t a new condition among the students. There was a small group of young scientists and students who, after the fall of the Wall, made aggressive speeches denouncing the professors. One group called themselves “the independent historians,” and they played a role in the process of the laying off the professors.
It must have been a difficult personal experience for you to go through this change at the university…
Well firstly, a historian who complains about the course of history is a fool. Secondly, for me the changes were not as grave as for my young colleagues. Socially my future path was unemployment and then retirement, so materially I had no problems. That also came about because of the connections with West Germany and the rest of the world. To give an example, for tactical reasons we started a trial before the Labor Court against our dismissal. In the morning we had the trial before the Labor Court in Berlin and on the same day I had to be at the Bodensee in the south of Germany to give a lecture before the Catholic Academy there. This is a concrete example showing that I did not have a problem of “what to do now.” The drawback for my academic work was that there wasn’t enough financial means to visit archives or libraries abroad. And today publishers require a contribution fee to publish books. For this our pensions weren’t enough. It was enough to live on but nothing extra.
In one of his books Milan Kundera says that regimes like the one in Czechoslovakia talked about controlling the future but they were really more interested in controlling the past. I was wondering if you observed that phenomenon here in your particular field of history, where the government tried to interpret that period of history in a particular way.
The extent to which politics was involved in the work of historians depended on the periods, themes, and subjects these historians were engaged in. My area of study — anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and the persecution of Jews — was not put under any controls or politicized. Nobody really understood much about this subject. In some ways, though perhaps this is slightly exaggerated, I had a monopoly on this subject. There was one contentious point when talking about fascism and the rule of the Nazis: the role and behavior of the public. It is of course a difficult subject, and still today there is no satisfactory study of this. For my colleagues dealing with the history of the workers movement in the 20th century, however, this was very different.
The book by Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, was very controversial on the role of public opinion during the Nazi period.
I have written some articles arguing against Goldhagen. The core of the problem is that he declares anti-Semitism to be a German attribute. That is something he thought up, but it’s not researched. The unsettling thing is more that the murderers of the Jews weren’t all anti-Semites. The Führer was, and the ones giving orders were. But the masses, not all of course but many of them, were just following orders. Part of the success of Goldhagen’s lectures in Germany can be explained by the fact that the people sitting across from him in the discussions were old people of my age. The audience could then say that the old guard was merely defending its claims. If one had seated researchers there of the same age as Goldhagen, the debate would have gone a lot differently.
I have one last question about that history, and then I would like to return to the period of 1989. Have you read the diaries of Victor Klemperer?
Klemperer of course wrote a book about the language of the Third Reich and then in his diaries he talked in code about the language of the “Fourth Reich.” What he meant was that many of the manipulations at the level of language by the Nazis he also observed under the GDR as well. He didn’t write about it except in his diary. I was wondering if you agreed with his comments on that issue?
In short, no. As a student, I read LTI: The Language of the Third Reich, the book that Klemperer wrote in an admirably short time after 1945. It was an extremely enlightening book. It was a sensation. What we had in the political language of the GDR was not in the literature, not in Becher or Brecht or Wolf. These were people with an extremely rich language.
In the political language, of course, there were certain fabricated, cookie-cutter wordings, but they had nothing to do with the terminology of the Nazis. It was a different kind of fabricated terminology that was also poor — in the sense of being without imagination. And there was a certain obligation within political circles to use this language. But the schools in the GDR really emphasized learning language and literature. I had a look at the schoolbooks of my grandchildren who are now going to school and it is horrible. Our students were still able to write their own work. Nowadays there are people who earn their money by bringing the work of students, even Ph.d. students, to a presentable minimum in written form. Simple things render me speechless. For example, the students in schools today don’t even learn poems anymore. I asked my granddaughter when the last time was that she had to read a poem, and she answered: “two years ago.”
Has anything of value in your opinion been preserved that was worth preserving from the time of the GDR?
I would ask how much time you have.
As much time as you would like to have.
It depends on what areas we are talking about. Let’s take, for example, the entire area of workers’ rights and labor laws, or the entire area of marriage laws. I think many people would have been happy if these laws had carried over. Or take the costs of tertiary education. The dispute happening in Munich at the moment about tuition fees wasn’t even a subject for us. There were no waiting lists at daycare centers and kindergartens. So there’s this entire social field including the unemployed and the homeless. When someone was released from prison, he would get a place to work and a small place to live. So, if you look at the lower echelons of society, then one would have to say that the GDR lived above its means, that it was morally in the positive.
You talked about what should have been preserved. Was there anything that was preserved?
I’d already told your colleague that I am too far removed to talk much about the present. This question puts me into a quandary, because I only look into pieces of the picture. There is some discussion at the moment about certain aspects about the GDR that should have been kept. But the process is not completed yet, for instance, in relation to the school system where there is some discussion among educators about continuing certain teaching practices. Otherwise I don’t see too much.
It’s a different question to ask what survived. In the relationships between the middle-aged and aged generations, there is a certain association between people, a certain closeness and day-to-day helpfulness. I can compare it to life in the south, because I sometimes spend time in Stuttgart. There is something in the day-to-day behaviors of people to each other, but I don’t think it will last. If you ask older people, you will probably get the answer that there was a certain warmth. It has nothing to do with politics, although it was of course the result of the situation. There also weren’t as many partitions or barriers between families. For example in predominantly female workplaces, women would talk about their families, the behavior of their husbands. People were open and exchanged experiences. That was part of a past that won’t last, that cannot last.
I would like for a moment to go back to that period after the Wall fell in 1989. You said that you expected they would replace the historians and you were involved in the labor court on this case. Were there other ways you became involved in what was happening in East Germany at the time between November 1989 and the end of the GDR in October 1990?
I wasn’t immediately laid off. My dismissal was signed on December 31,1992. There had to be a justification for this, and the easiest justification was: informal collaborator of the Stasi. As it became clear that there was nothing about me in the archives, I got a certificate of being clean, and I had to write a letter of resignation. After that I read, wrote books, and gave lectures. So, after my dismissal I didn’t work less than before.
What did you think about the results of the elections in March 1990 here in the GDR?
That will be a difficult analysis for the historians one day to study. There are some puzzles, though, related to the elections. Take, for example, the results of the elections in Saxony. Saxony is a state with a long tradition of social democracy and Communism, but since then it has been voting for the Christian Democrats. How can you explain that? This is a meager answer to your question, but I have no better analysis.
One has to imagine that millions stood before a situation that they could have never dreamed of. And even though they hadn’t been promised the land of milk and honey, they were told they would very quickly reach the material standard of living of the West.
Later this situation was a bit different. One can estimate that around 30% of the older generation made material gains in this time. They built houses, had nicer cars, and were able to travel more. About one-third of the population would say that they have a better life than before. This is of course connected to the very tricky question of how people’s needs and wants come about.
In the period 1989-1990, did you think about getting involved in the new politics of the GDR and a united Germany? Also, have you had any second thoughts about the positions you held in 1989-1990, your philosophy or ideas about politics or economics or society?
Firstly, I come from a social democratic family. My parents were left-leaning social democrats. My grandfather was a miller, my father a locksmith. They were both involved in the workers’ movement. My mother and father made no concessions to the fascists, other than the fact that they had to work and make money. I knew a Jewish family from the inside, something unusual for my generation: my family had contact with them until they were deported. So, in short, the question of whether socialism is a desirable form of society was not something I asked myself in 1990. The imagination of something different was part of my family’s political tradition.
The question was, then, why did we fail with our social project? This was a project I had helped sustain with my work and activities. When today people discuss if one should even talk about Communism, I find that silly. We can’t just ignore thousands of years of history and say that “we might have talked about it in the past but not anymore.” This idea that we have arrived at the end of history is ridiculous. If there is a future in which we can give a society the name “socialist,” I don’t know. In this respect I adhere to the well-known principle: as long as it hasn’t been proved to be impossible, one can try it with modest means and without making any predictions.
As a historian, my role is to provide an analysis of the past and teach a younger generation what happened. Like a dairy farmer, I make a product: what people do with it is up to them to decide.
In terms of the second question, of course this period was a test of whether I had the right thoughts and opinions. The fundamental error was: we thought we were in a historical era and we weren’t in such an era. You know the saying “socialism always wins.” It was agreed that this was the future. Nobody thought it was remotely possible that the civil order (“bürgerliche Ordung”) — I prefer this to the term “capitalist order” — would spread across Europe and Asia. That is the overall situation. Behind it are an unlimited number of questions, for example, what influences the behavior of the public masses and what is the role of ideology in the behavior of public masses? We totally overestimated that. The role of ideology as a crucial element in the lives of people was extensively overestimated.
The Left has always been reluctant to look at the way the public at large reacted or behaved in certain ways in history. Those are some of the questions I think about differently. It will take some time until a comprehensive history of the GDR is written. The interesting question is: why couldn’t the social system and governments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union persuade people that this was a desirable way of life. In history overall, the results of a historical process is never what was expected at the outset.
For 1989/1990, it is claimed that the majority of people wanted to liquidate the GDR. But in such a crisis as we had then, the majority of the people were clueless and it was the hour of the minorities. There were masses on the streets claiming “we are the people,” but this wasn’t the majority. This minority then took things into their hands. These demonstrating masses had no social idea. This was given to them later. Over the course of the movement, the idea of wanting one’s own state was given to them. For the historian, the question is: when do these movements begin and who decides in what direction they should go? You can tell that the year 1989 has left more questions for me than answers.
Berlin, February 1, 2013