Bill Niven. The Buchenwald Child: Truth, Fiction and Propaganda. New York: Camden House, 2007. XII + 244 S. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57113-339-7.
Reviewed by Allie Tichenor (Department of History, University of Chicago)
Published on H-German (September, 2007)
The Rescue Stories of Stefan Zweig, 1949-90
Taking as his point of departure the theoretical works of Maurice Halbwachs and Jan Assmann, Bill Niven traces the evolution of the story of the rescue of Stefan Jerzy Zweig, a four-year-old Jewish child imprisoned at Buchenwald. He follows the story in its transformation from a narrative that glorified the individual actions of the concentration camp inmates to one that legitimated the antifascist credentials of the East German state to its post-unification deconstruction. Although the focus of the book is not the events at Buchenwald from 1944 to 1945, chapter 1 provides a brief history of concentration camp as well as a recreation of the rescue as it "really was" based on archival sources and the 1961 testimony of Zweig's father, given to Yad Vashem (p. 10). Niven juxtaposes this factual account of events with the rescue stories that became essential components of the East German foundational myth of antifascism. The author's analysis of the instrumentalization of Buchenwald's past does not end with the collapse of the GDR in 1989. Niven offers an insightful examination of how the post-unification deconstruction of the communist narrative went "hand in hand with a remythification" (p. 8). What is most unique and refreshing about this study, however, is that the author never loses sight of the impact these changing narratives had on the original victim--Stefan Zweig--who became "thrice a victim: first of the Nazis, then of the GDR's manipulation of his rescue, and now of united Germany's redefinition of it" (p. 215).
The author dedicates the preponderance of the book to detailing the heroicization of Zweig's rescue in the GDR, the critical role played by Bruno Apitz's novel Naked among Wolves (1959) in this process, and the extraordinary efforts made by the state to equate Apitz's fictional representation with the real-life rescue of Stefan Zweig. In chapter 2, Niven outlines the gradual transformation of Buchenwald into the quintessential site of communist resistance. Immediately following the war, surviving Buchenwald communist inmates came under sharp attack for having collaborated with the Nazis. The former communist inmates first reacted by trying to suppress criticism. However, this defensive tactic against the perceived defamation of Buchenwald's memory gradually shifted to an aggressive marketing of the communist resistance fighters' own heroism at the expense of non-communist survivors. The East German state did not become involved in this marketing effort until the mid-1950s. With the escalation of the Cold War and the worker strikes of 1953, the SED needed to legitimate the East German state in the eyes of its own citizens as well as in those of the international community. The Buchenwald "self-liberation" narrative with its German communist protagonists seemed ready-made for championing the East German state as the "true" Germany. However, state cultivation of the memory of resistance resulted in the marginalization of the former prisoners. Unlike the Buchenwald communists, the SED did not wish to emphasize the uniqueness of the struggle at Buchenwald. Instead, the SED intended to nationalize the "self-liberation" narrative of Buchenwald. Niven makes clear that prior to the publication Naked among Wolves, the story of Stefan's rescue played only a small role in this narrative of antifascist resistance (pp. 54-62). However, the author argues that this master narrative set the tone for Apitz's integration of the narrative of a child's rescue into the broader story of Buchenwald's "self-liberation" (p. 85).
Niven's detailed account of the vetting process of Naked among Wolves is fascinating reading. Ex-prisoners of Buchenwald, the Committee of Antifascist Resistance Fighters (KdAW), and the editorial staff of Mitteldeutscher Verlag all demanded significant structural changes to Apitz's text. Niven notes that the common denominator that informed all these changes was "that Apitz's novel, for all its glorification of communism at Buchenwald, risked exposing those very aspects of its conduct that it sought to justify and explain away" (p. 94). For example, former camp inmates protested that one character could not function as both Camp Elder and the principled leader of the resistance movement. Niven suggests multiple reasons why former inmates might have objected to the conflation of these two roles besides a concern for authenticity. First, camp officials had regular contact with inmates in administrative positions; consequently, these inmates never held high-ranking positions in the resistance for fear that they might reveal operational details when interrogated. To suggest otherwise would have implied ineptness on the part of the communist resistance organization. More importantly, the merger of the two functions exposed the direct influence that communist inmates had exercised over the compilation of transport lists (pp. 95-96).
Niven also examines the significant changes that Apitz made to the father's account of Stefan's rescue in order to create a "conservative, antifascist variation on traditional child-foundation myths" (p. 112). These changes include the complete removal of Stefan's father from the novel, the shifting of the child's arrival from 1944 to 1945 in order to more intimately link the child's rescues with preparations for "self-liberation," and the marginalization of Jewish suffering. However, Niven takes this interpretation too far in his comparison of the child figure in Fritz Cremer's statue commemorating the "self-liberation" of Buchenwald with Apitz's fictional Stefan. Niven writes: "In the final analysis, Apitz reinfantilizes the child figure, which in Cremer's sculpture was at least able to stand on its own two feet. Where Cremer acknowledges the dynamism of youth, Apitz reduces it to absolute helplessness, thereby reinforcing the rights of the adults in what is effectively an inversion of the feral myth of Romulus and Remus" (p. 86). Admittedly, the fictional Stefan is a figure without personality or speech. But the harsh reality remains that a four-year-old Jewish toddler in a Nazi concentration camp was at the complete mercy of adults. Yet, this single overstatement does not detract significantly from an otherwise perceptive analysis of how Apitz used Stefan's rescue to bolster the GDR's antifascist credentials and criticize West German postwar policy.
Similarly, Niven portrays the 1963 DEFA film version of Apitz's story and the search for the real Stefan Zweig as integral components of an effort to prop up the foundering myth of antifascism. Niven's analysis of the film focuses on the documentary quality of the film. Filmmakers and GDR officials emphasized that Naked among Wolves recounted actual events. When the film failed to win top honors at the Moscow Film Festival, a search was launched to find the real Stefan Zweig. By finding Stefan and bringing him to the GDR, GDR officials hoped to counter growing public doubts about the validity of Apitz's story, the DEFA film, and the GDR's antifascist heritage.
Niven ultimately fails to provide any empirical proof that the public had ceased to believe Apitz's story. In fact, the author devotes very little space to outlining the gradual erosion of public confidence in the foundational myth of antifascism and explaining how Apitz's story fits into this process of erosion. As a consequence, Niven's shift from Stefan's story as told in the GDR to its post-unification deconstruction is abrupt. This shortcoming could have been overcome if the author had followed up on his brief comment that Naked among Wolves was mandatory reading in East German schools. Niven leaves unexplored how young East Germans experienced a school curriculum that championed communist heroes. Thus, the author does not reference FDJ reports from the late 1960s that lamented young people's growing preference for Western rock and film stars as role models rather than the pantheon of approved socialist heroes. He also does not cite the March 1989 confidential survey conducted by the Leipzig Institute for Youth Research that showed East German youths had little knowledge of the Hitler era and that only 57 percent were willing to do everything possible to make sure fascism did not reoccur.
Still, Buchenwald Child: Truth, Fiction and Propaganda is a thought-provoking study of the politics of memory. In detailing the mixed motives behind the post-unification deconstruction of the rescue, Niven offers a poignant account of its impact on Stefan Zweig. Niven points to Zweig's anger at the post-unification emphasis on the "victim exchange" to the exclusion of all other facets of his story. Zweig maintains that this emphasis suggests that he did not deserve to live and that he was even responsible for the murder of the Roma boy sent to Auschwitz in his place (p. 210). Niven's moving account of Zweig's reaction to the manipulation of his rescue during the GDR years and later is a powerful reminder of the potential human costs when memories of the Holocaust are manipulated for contemporary political agendas, whether socialist or democratic.
. Alan L. Nothnagle, Building the East German Myth: Historical Propaganda in the German Democratic Republic, 1945-1989 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 137-141.
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