Christoph Classen. Faschismus und Antifaschismus: Die nationalsozialistische Vergangenheit im ostdeutschen Hörfunk (1945-1953). Köln: Böhlau Verlag, 2004. 384 S. EUR 44.90 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-412-15403-5.
Reviewed by Stefan K. Berger (School of Languages, Linguistics and Culture, University of Manchester)
Published on H-Diplo (June, 2008)
Anti-Fascism in East Germany
Next to the newspapers, the most important mass medium of the post-war years was radio. At the end of 1947, 50 percent of households in Berlin had a radio and the numbers climbed to 80 percent for the entire German Democratic Republic (GDR) by the mid-1950s. Radio was thus a key medium for the formation of the public sphere--even under conditions of a Communist dictatorship. This volume looks at the discursive construction of anti-fascism in radio, but at the same time it reflects the institutional framework in which these discourses took place. And it also attempts to reconstruct how listeners reacted to radio, which is difficult as there were no representative surveys in the Soviet zone of occupation. But the book makes excellent use of painstaking archival research in German radio and state archives, and it assembles a wide range of information on radio programming and use from diverse sources.
Christoph Classen begins by recalling how Communist anti-fascism depicted fascism before 1945. Apart from underestimating fascism before 1933, the depiction of fascism remained always subservient to the interests of the Soviet Union. Also, Classen traces the universalization of fascism in Communist discourse, which essentially made all enemies of Communism, including the Social Democrats, into fascists. Against this background, he then deals in depth with two phases of radio programming on anti-fascism.
The first phase lasted from 1945 to 1948 and was characterized by the Soviets taking a firm control over radio programming. They intervened in programming decisions, had the last say in personnel matters, and used censorship widely. It was also a period in which the radio network was rebuilt. In organizational terms, centralizing tendencies were strong in the Soviet zone right from the beginning. The percentage of word programs to music programs was already high, despite the fact that there were many indications that listeners disproved of this didactic approach to radio.
National Socialism was the most important theme on radio in these years with a particular focus on the persecution and repression of opponents of National Socialism. Classen very effectively analyzes the dramaturgical means with which the stories about National Socialism were presented on radio. The Nazis were routinely described as barely human, and the Communist representation of Nazism allegedly used the same language of elimination that the Nazis had used in the years before 1945. Prioritizing the memory of the victims of National Socialism had the function of establishing a broad anti-fascist consensus in society. To this end there was not yet a strict hierarchy of victims. In fact, the Christian resistance was given particularly broad coverage to lay to rest fears that the Soviet Union and Communism would be anti-Christian. By contrast, the Soviets intervened to downplay the role of the Communist resistance and the degree of Communist suffering under the Nazis. Another central aim of the representation of anti-facism on East German radio was to invoke gratitude towards the Soviet occupiers. The Nazi war crimes on the Eastern front were prominently discussed, and the reporting about the war reflected directly the positions of the Soviets.
During the second phase, from 1947 to 1953, the radio network was extended steadily, at the same time that there were efforts to undermine the West German radio network by installing sixteen Störsender or jamming stations. However, it soon became apparent that the East Germans could not hope to stop the Western radio stations transmitting into East Germany. In this phase, the Soviets began to withdraw from direct interventions and stayed in the background. Institutionally, this phase of radio programming was characterized by the comprehensive purge of those who had been exiled in the West rather than the Soviet Union. A climate of denunciation and mistrust reigned supreme in East German radio, and the many dismissals of highly qualified journalists led to a de-professionalization of radio in the GDR. The centralization of the radio network was intensified, and the percentage of word programs rose even higher, as the GDR officials started a campaign against Western popular music. Their attempt to offer a socialist alternative instead turned out to be a debacle.
The theme of anti-fascism and National Socialism in general lost in importance and the topic was dealt with in a less and less concrete way. A distinct hierarchy of victims' groups now emerged, with the Communist resistance groups taking pride of place before anyone else. Anti-fascism became a means of integrating people into the new state that exculpated the vast majority of Germans and contrasted their anti-fascism with the evil of Nazism. Historical presentism began to dominate the reports on anti-fascism, which legitimated the stance of the socialist block in the Cold War and made the imperialist United States and its allies into worthy successors of the fascists. Fascism in the GDR became externalized and de-historicized. It was what had happened in a different country and was still smoldering in West Germany. Anti-fascism became the foundation stone on which socialism was being built in the GDR. Classen uses Jan Assmann's concept of the creation of a "cultural memory" to describe the effect of the anti-fascist narrative on the GDR in this period.
The more radio followed the dictat of the ruling Communist Party, the more radio listeners turned away from it and tuned their radio to West German stations. The propagandistic and didactic make-up of the programs on GDR radio was rejected by many listeners. Although, Classen manages to assemble impressive evidence for his thesis that it was successful among the first generation of social climbers in the GDR, those who had gone to the workers' and farmer's faculties and who became officials and functionaries rising through the Communist nomenklatura in the 1950s and 1960s. For them the Communist resistance to fascism became a master narrative that gave historical depth and legitimation to the foundation of the GDR and its rationale of building socialism. In subsequent generations, however, this was less and less the case.
On balance, Classen's book attempts to avoid the highly charged and polarized debate about anti-fascism as the key Lebenslüge of the GDR, but anyone reading his book cannot help thinking that anti-fascism was functionalized by the Soviets and the German Communists to a very high degree right from the very beginning. There is little evidence here for the thesis that antifascism in the GDR started off as something positive but became deformed only later through the influence of Stalinism. Instead, the reader closes this book with a feeling of dismay over the crude functionalization of the victims' suffering under National Socialism and the political point-scoring to which anti-fascism deteriorated during the first phase of the Cold War. Classen's study is theoretically aware, based on thorough archival studies and written in a clear academic style. It should be read by anyone interested in the East German variant of anti-fascism.
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Stefan K. Berger. Review of Classen, Christoph, Faschismus und Antifaschismus: Die nationalsozialistische Vergangenheit im ostdeutschen Hörfunk (1945-1953).
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