When One Dictatorship Commemorated Resistance to Another

Buchenwald was one of the most infamous concentration camps in the Nazi system, the final resting place of over fifty thousand victims. But until my colleague Sam Mulberry and I went there last month on our week-long tour of Germany, I didn’t know all that much about Buchenwald — including the fact that it has two stops on the bus from Weimar. Touring the actual site proved to be a memorable experience, but our visit got off to a false start: we inadvertently got off not at the bus stop for the Buchenwald camp, but the one for the Buchenwald National Memorial erected in 1958. It’s one of the least satisfying, most cynical examples of Holocaust commemoration I’ve ever seen: one dictatorship’s tribute to those who resisted another dictatorship.

For me, the most striking feature of the museum at Buchenwald is its exhibition of art created at Buchenwald and then years later by survivors like Józef Szajna, who created this 1969 work (“Reminiscences”) in tribute to 169 Polish art school professors and students murdered at Auschwitz (Szajna himself survived Auschwitz, then a death march to Buchenwald, before being liberated)

While it was American soldiers who liberated Buchenwald — and American reporter Edward R. Murrow who made it a household word, that part of Germany was allocated to Soviet occupiers… who turned the camp into an NKVD-operated prison for both former Nazis and other kinds of anti-Communists.

In 1950 the site came under the control of the new German Democratic Republic (DDR), governed in Stalinist fashion by the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Although Soviet military officials had initially recommended turning Buchenwald into a museum, the DDR leadership decided to preserve only a few buildings, most notably the crematorium, where the body of the German Communist leader Ernst Thälmann had been incinerated after he was shot in August 1944. East German politician (and Buchenwald survivor) Robert Siewert argued that the “essence of Buchenwald Concentration Camp is not embodied in the barracks or the stone blocks” but in “the deep comradeship, the mutual help, bonded and steeled by the struggle against fascist terror, organized resistance and the deep faith in the triumph of our just cause!”

An early set of interpretive markers emphasizing Communist resistance to Nazism gave way in 1958 to a massive commemorative complex outside the camp, on the south side of the Ettersberg hill. You begin your tour of the memorial by walking down that slope, past a series of stone reliefs starkly illustrating life, death, and — significantly — resistance in the camp. Their collective theme is “triumph through death and struggle.”

In the top-left corner of this stele, you’ll find the infamous slogan that adorned the Buchenwald gate: “To each, his own”

(Oddly, I noticed no overt reference to the suffering of Jews in the memorial. The same thing almost happened at Sachsenhausen, outside Berlin, whose national memorial — erected around the same time as Buchenwald’s — only belatedly included a Jewish section in its resistance museum, after an Israeli group protested to the East German government. And, of course, there’s no hint of Stalin’s 1939 pact with Hitler that enabled World War II and then the Final Solution to commence, nor Thälmann’s decision to partner periodically with the hated Nazis to erode the position of the left-center Social Democratic Party in the late Weimar Republic.)

After completing our descent to the first of three mass graves and walking along an “Avenue of Nations” that symbolized the international struggle against Fascism, we came to a second stairway. The long climb up gradually revealed the two most significant features of the memorial: a sculpture of survivors bearing the flag of revolution and a colossal bell tower (which we could see from miles away on the afternoon train to Wittenberg).

Here, explains the present-day Buchenwald website, the visitor

was to become aware of the inmates’ “self-liberation” [i.e., not by the U.S. Army] and of the “liberated part of Germany”, i.e. the GDR, as his native country and his antifascist fatherland. He was to emerge convinced of the historical necessity of the triumph of Communism and conscious of the fact that this form of government had not yet taken hold everywhere and he must therefore remain alert and militant.

The identification with the GDR [DDR] and the eastern bloc went hand in hand with the rejection of Western Germany and the western alliance as potential successors to the SS state. Commemoration was not so much a matter of critically examining the Nazi past as it was a process of pledging one’s allegiance to the SED state.

If you had somehow missed the Cold War-era visual cues that Communism’s final victory was both now and not yet, an inscription at the base of the “Tower of Freedom” made the subtext text: “The annihilation of Nazism to its roots is our slogan; the construction of a new world of peace and freedom is our goal.”

It was hard not to think of that goal two days later, when Sam and I came to Berlin’s Bernauer Straße.

At the city’s largest Berlin Wall memorial, you can still see the remains of the “death strip” (above, with Berlin’s TV tower, another East German tribute to the superiority of Communism, in the background) where dozens of Berliners were killed for the crime of trying to escape the peace and freedom of the DDR, an officially anti-fascist German state whose brutal secret police would have been the envy of the SS and Gestapo.