Jan Herman Brinks • Paradigms of Political Change - Luther, Frederick II, and Bismarck
The GDR on Its Way to German Unity
Brinks's book was very timely when it appeared only two years after the collapse of the GDR. Written before 1989, when he was stationed in East Berlin with Dutch television and utilized his stay there to write this book as a dissertation for the University of Groningen, it showed how GDR party and historians had sought to reinterpret German history to legitimize their socialist dictatorship and in the process had manipulated history.
Although the focus of the book is on the ways in which GDR historians have interpretated and reinterpretated three key figures, Luther, Frederick II (!), and Bismarck, from the perspective of their place in German nation building, the translation offers in fact the only up to date history of historiography in the GDR in English. It is preceded only by Andreas Dorpalen's German History from a Marxist Perspective, written in the 1970s with very different questions in mind. Dorpalen in an excellent study surveys work in the GDR on all phases of German history from the Middle Ages to the recent past and critically assesses the contributions which these writings have made to scholarship beyond ideological lines. Brinks concentrates specifically on the question which the tension between a German national identity and a distinct GDR socialist identity played in GDR historical literature, the former viewing Germany in ethnic terms, the latter defining it in class terms. Brinks examines the contradiction in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and later in August Bebel, Wilheln Liebknecht, and Franz Mehring between an internationalism which proclaims that the workers have no fatherland and the support they gave to the unification of Germany in 1871 under Prussian hegemony. The Kaiserreich was on the one hand viewed as reactionary, on the other hand it was seen as progressive, moving in the direction of a capitalist industrial society in which the emergence of a revolutionary working class became possible. This confrontation between the "progressive" and "reactionary" aspects of the "great Germans" from Luther to Frederick II, Scharnhorst, and Bismarck marks all main line Marxist writings before 1945 and the official historiography of Eastern Germany after 1945. If I speak of "great Germans" in parentheses, I want to point out that Marxist, Marxist-Leninist, and GDR historians, despite the central role they profess to give to great social forces, nevertheless concentrate on individuals such as Luther and Bismarck.
Brinks distinguishes three phases in East German thought on the German national past between the collapse of the Reich in 1945 and the collapse of the GDR in 1989. In the years immediately after 1945, Alexander Abusch's very critical history of Germany, Der Irrweg einer Nation, written in exile during the war, was taken seriously. Abusch described the catastrophic development of Germany since the early modern period involving the failure of Germany unlike Western countries to develop democratic institutions in the process of economic modernization. This view was soon repudiated as a Misere (misery) interpretation of German history. Instead a distinction was made between "progressive" and "reactionary" strains in German history. Luther, Frederick II, and to a lesser extent Bismarck represented the "reactionary" burden of Germany, Thomas Münzer, the peasants in the Peasants War, the "Wars of Liberation" against the French, the 1848 Revolution, the working class movement afterwards the "progressive" forces on which a socialist German nation could build its historical identity. This was followed in the 1970s and 1980s by a normalization which posited a dialectical relationship between reactionary and progressive aspects of German history; Luther was no longer seen as the knave of the princes but as some one who also helped to further the "early bourgeois revolution". As his fivehundredth birthday approached in 1983, the GDR was willing to claim him as someone who despite all his faults had helped pave the way to a positive German national identity. Simlarly Frederick II and Bismarck were rehabilitated. On the surface this call for looking at all aspects of German history seemed like an opening to greater liberality; in some ways it was an attempt to use past heroes to give national legitimacy to the authoritarian GDR regime. Chauvinistic leaders of the movement for German unification in the nineteenth century such as Fichte, Jahn, and Arndt were earlier on incorporated into the progressive movement not withstanding their xenophobia and racial anti-Semitism because they helped pave the way for national unification. The critical confrontation with the illiberal German past which took place in West Germany beginning in the 1960s, which raised questions which Abusch had also voiced in the early days of East Germany, had no counterpart in the GDR in the 1970s and 1980s. It is ironic but not surprising that the conservative Siedler Verlag in West Berlin published Engelberg's Bismarck biography. Brinks is to be thanked for having reconstructed the convoluted history of historical writing and myth building in an authoritarian regime which betrayed its own ideals.
Marquette Studies in Philosophy - Volume 60
Marquette University Press, Paperback, english, 354 pages