Documents on the History of the Communist Movement in Germany

Reviewed by Gerd

DOKUMENTE ZUR GESCHICHTE DER KOMMUNISTISCHEN BEWEGUNG IN DEUTSCHLAND [Documents on the History of the Communist Movement in Germany] Reihe 1945/1946, 6 vols. Edited by Günter Benser and Hans-Joachim Krusch, K.G. Saur Verlag, Munich 1993-1997.

The documents published in these volumes are deposited in the Central Archive of the German Communist Party (KPD), which is now located in the Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massen- organisationen der DDR (SAPMO) in Berlin. The volumes cover the central body of party documents from July 1945 to April 1946, i.e., from the KPD's return to legality in Germany after World War 2 until the merger with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the Soviet Occupation Zone to form the Socialist Unity Party (SED).

The documents include: vol. 1) minutes of decisions taken in the 68 meetings held by the Secretariat of the Central Committee during that period, including various hitherto unpublished annexes, e.g., reports on the situation of the KPD in the British, American, and French Occupation Zones; vol. 2) minutes of the extended meetings held by the Secretariat of the Central Committee from July 1945 to February 1946; vol. 3) minutes of several concurrent KPD national conferences (Reichsberatung) 8-9 January 1946; vol. 4) minutes of the party conference of 2-3 March 1946; and vol. 5) stenographic protocol of the 15th Party Congress (19-20 April 1946) and of earlier conferences on economic problems and on cultural issues. The sixth volume contains the indexes, an analytic table of contents, and a chronological list of documents, minutes and protocols additionally broken down, thus facilitating the location of the relevant pages in the first five volumes. In practice this works well. Furthermore, there are indexes of the approximately 1750 individuals and the 1200 geographical references, corrections of errors (relatively few in number), and four maps of the KPD's party precincts in 1945 and 1946.

In addition to the documents of the national bodies of the party, there is also regionally significant material in the form of reports by local area organizations, as well as some supplementary material from the personal archive of the party chairman, Wilhelm Pieck, including notes taken by him during and after conversations with various persons, and at a number of meetings from which no other authentic material is available. Whenever possible, the sources are reproduced as facsimiles with handwritten notes, etc.; some few pages have had to be rewritten as the originals were too damaged to be reproduced.

Whereas the minutes of decisions taken by the Secretariat of the Central Committee (five people) in volume 1 concentrated on the organizational restoration of the party as a lawful mass party (in April 1946 it had approximately 800,000 members), the extended meetings of the Secretariat reflect the political discussions taking place in the party, the attitudes and considerations of the party leadership, and the criticism to which it was exposed by members. This is also demonstrated by the minutes of the national conferences at which the delegates from the local precincts had a chance to voice their opinions (vol. 3).

One important issue was the agricultural reform carried out in the Soviet Zone, where the land belonging to the aristocracy was far more extensive than in the three western zones. There were several reasons for the agricultural reform: for one thing, it was important to establish a basis for the new democracy in the rural areas, and this was certainly not possible with the Junkers in possession of the land; for another, land had to be provided to the Germans expelled from areas east of the rivers Oder and Neisse; and, finally, land had to be provided to the agricultural laborers living in the Soviet Zone. The purpose was to establish a democratically inclined group of people who knew whom they had to thank for their croft/homestead, viz., the democratic state. (The notion might be sound, but experience from Finland during the inter-war years shows that the newly established small farms there became a hotbed of the fascist Lappo-movement in the 1930s; this problem therefore requires a more thorough examination.) It emerges very clearly from the minutes that there was no agreement in the KPD concerning the tactical approach to this issue.

Originally, the editors were active in the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in the German Democratic Republic; they were historians with close links to the party. They all lost their jobs when the GDR was incorporated into the Federal Republic of Germany; however, their work in publishing these documents represents a major contribution to our understanding not only of the KPD, but of overall German developments immediately after the end of the war. The editors, who are masters of their profession, have refrained from making direct comments on the sources in the forewords to the volumes, and have instead chosen to work on the material elsewhere (e.g. Günter Benser in the periodical Beiträge zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung 2/1997). However, they have aided our understanding by providing more than 7000 notes or comments on individuals and events mentioned in the sources.

It must be assumed that we shall only be able to interpret the full meaning of the sources once we have the corresponding documents from the other German parties and from the occupation powers. Beginnings in this direction have so far been made only for the SPD and the Soviet Union. This is a pattern which is unlikely to surprise anyone: archives of non-Socialist parties and governments are normally kept inaccessible for much longer than those of the labor movement. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that the archives of the German bourgeois parties from the corresponding period will have survived in anything like the same state of completeness: all the bourgeois parties that we know of for that period were only established slowly, and, unlike the KPD and the SPD, they were new parties. The fact that setting them up was such a slow process particularly in the three western Occupation Zones was due to the wish on the part of the Occupation Powers to be able to control developments completely. In this context, independent German political parties would have been a disturbing factor, especially since many Germans were desirous of seeing a showdown with the economic structures that had led to the victory of Nazism. This, however, was not in keeping with the perceived self-interest of the Western Powers: they wanted to see Germany re-established on a bourgeois-democratic foundation. Consequently, as far as the bourgeois parties are concerned, other types of archives must be resorted to typically personal archives.

The sources published here also shed light on international issues both generally and with specific reference to international Communism. 1945 and 1946 are the years of preparation for the Cold War, which was proclaimed, for example, in Winston Churchill's Iron Curtain speech. This turn of phrase was a clear opening move in the game to combat Communism, now that Nazism had failed in that same mission. By contrast, the material presented in these volumes demonstrates with surprising clarity that the Soviet party and state leadership was not particularly interested in deepening the conflicts among the allied powers; rather, it was aiming at peaceful coexistence and was, in fact, willing to pursue an appeasement policy to achieve this objective. This is natural enough considering the destruction wrought against the Soviet Union by the Nazi forces and the fact that the US held a nuclear monopoly.

In Germany the consequence was that the KPD pursued a policy aimed at completing the bourgeois-democratic revolution that had been initiated in 1918. This meant a break with the revolutionary policy which the party had pursued till then, but the break was effected by the leadership despite opposition on the part of important segments of the rank and file membership. This emerges very clearly from the body of documents. It also reveals what problems concerned the KPD leadership on a day-to-day basis, what information was available to it, and why it promoted and accelerated the merger with the SPD in the Soviet Occupation Zone to establish the SED in April 1946.

Of course, in themselves these documents cannot explain everything, but they do provide an important contribution to understanding the positions of the Soviet Union and international Communism during those years. Following the publication of these documents, developments can be assessed on a far more certain basis. They also make possible a more informed discussion of whether or not the KPD pursued an independent policy for Germany, whether the party was tied to general Communist policies, and to what extent, if at all, the party influenced (independently of the Soviet Union) the positions of other Communist parties. There is evidence in the present material that calls into question the mono-causal explanatory models which have been prevalent for so long and which always conclude that Stalin and his system is to "blame" (see also Patrick Flaherty, "Origins of the Cold War: New Evidence," Monthly Review, May 1996).

As far as can now be estimated, a few years after the end of World War 2, and with the outbreak of the Cold War, a sectarian and dogmatic political line developed in the Soviet Union, spilling over internationally into the other Communist parties (with the exception of Yugoslavia). This line can be associated with Stalin, but the documents published here indicate that the leading strata of the CPSU, in the final phase of the war and for some years after, pursued a bourgeois-democratic approach. In this pursuit they were backed by, among others, the leadership of the KPD; but other Communist parties pursued a similar line which did not, to be sure, help them to achieve those positions in bourgeois society that they considered necessary to advance their program on the basis of parliamentary rule. By 1948, the Communist parties, despite having thoroughly compromised themselves, had to leave all the coalition governments in which they had participated.

The editors deny that the KPD departed from Marxism- Leninism, but they do admit that contemporary observers perceived KPD positions as being very different from those of earlier days (vol. 1, p. 11). Until then the KPD had been an opposition party the editors do not use the term "revolutionary" but now it seized the chance to take a constructive part in anti-fascist, democratic restoration activities, and consequently also with the Occupation Forces, particularly the Soviet military administration (vol. 1, pp. 13, 19). The editors' rather knowledgeable introduction to the work as a whole does not problematize KPD assessments of the situation in the time immediately after the war, which was, in fact, a turn to the right well suited to create new illusions to replace the old. It is relevant in this context to read the contemporary comments made by August Thalheimer, the spokesperson of the Communist Opposition, published in support of an independent Communist policy from his exile in Cuba (republished in Westblock-Ostblock. Welt- und Deutschlandpolitik nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg. Internationale monatliche Übersichten 1945-48, Bremen 1992).

Another central question concerned the relationship with the SPD. A number of other countries witnessed negotiations for unity between the Social Democratic and Communist parties in the post-war years, and, as a rule in Western Europe, they did not lead to any mergers despite strong wishes for them in the working-class population. The all-important political issue at the different KPD conferences in the spring of 1946 was, however, relations with the Social Democrats. Therefore, this is a relevant issue, which can now be discussed on a better foundation than previously. In Germany the debate concerning this issue was very hot in 1996, the 50th anniversary of the merger in the Eastern Zone. That year saw the publication of a number of contemporary SPD documents¾but with nothing like the density and completeness we find in the present KPD collection. Moreover, in the case of the SPD we are dealing with a selection of documents, and it is therefore difficult to assess whether or not they are representative of the actual developments.

The sources in volume 3 indicate a considerable range in perceptions and assessments of current activities. Assessments depended on, among other things, the geographical areas in which Communists were active. In the British and US Zones, the Occupation Forces prevented the establishment of a free and democratic party system; in particular the central political structures encountered obstruction on the part of the military administration. In the French Zone there was a direct ban on the establishment of political organizations. The KPD leadership chose to disregard this state of affairs, and tried to build up the party as a popular party, a mode that only became fashionable in the 1960s. While in the Soviet Zone the two working-class parties merged into the SED, in the Western zones the Social Democratic leadership rejected such a merger.

According to the leadership, the KPD was to become the mass party of the German people, capable of assimilating people from all social strata and thus ceasing to be a purely working-class party. However, exceptions were made: Nazis and previously expelled Communists could not be admitted to the party. That was the position of the leadership; party representatives in the Western zones reflected a more traditional perception of the tasks of the party, in part, on the basis of an ultra-left position, for instance in Hamburg.

The three sets of minutes/protocols contained in volume 5 were also published in a contemporary version; according to the editors, the discrepancies between the printed versions and the stenographic ones published here are not considerable, yet they are there, and in some cases they are the result of political "editing"; however, the editors have not been able to determine who was responsible for them, or whether the original speakers had sanctioned them. The contemporary minutes/protocols are hard to come by, and for this reason the editors have thought it important to see them published in a form that must be considered impeccable from a scholarly point of view. The minutes/protocols reflect the completion of the 11-month process in which the KPD had developed its organization and its political foundation to include positions on all major issues following twelve years of Nazism.

All things considered, the conclusion must be that this extensive and very carefully annotated edition constitutes an important step forward, because it makes previously unknown internal sources accessible to study and research. The five source-volumes provide us with good insights into KPD assessments and considerations immediately following World War 2. Most notably, they reproduce the party's tactical and strategic proposals concerning a pan-German development, which was the prevalent view of the way ahead on the part of the general public. But the documents also allow us to gain an insight into the development of international Communist policies applied specifically to Germany. The Communist parties were working to continue the anti-Hitler coalition of the war years, without, apparently, recognizing that the war had been a conflict between two imperialist blocs, which the Soviet Union had successfully managed to keep out of for nearly two years by means of the so-called Hitler-Stalin Pact. The parties did not see, and perhaps did not want to acknowledge, that the wartime coalition would be replaced by renewed conflicts between the US and its allies on the one hand, and the Soviet Union and its allies on the other. Whether this is attributed to the hypothesis that the Soviet Union represented a socialist system and the Western Powers the capitalist system, or whether both blocs are perceived as imperialist really does not matter; the conflicts were there. The sources now available provide us with the means to examine the underlying factors at work.

Reviewed by Gerd Callesen
Arbejderbevaegelsens bibliotek og arkiv
[Labor Movement Library and Archive]