Holm Kirsten. Das sowjetische Speziallager Nr. 4 Landsberg/Warthe. Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2005. 159 pp. EUR 18.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-89244-952-2.
Reviewed by Peter Barker (Department of German Studies, University of Reading)
Published on H-German (January, 2007)
The Forgotten Camps
Since 1990 a number of works have born witness to the special camps, or "Speziallager." These institutions housed those prisoners in the Soviet Zone of Occupation judged guilty of crimes associated with the Nazi regime. With greater access to documents and to the camps themselves, these works supplement earlier accounts published in West Germany. These camps had memorials dedicated to the memory of their internees, who in a large number of cases also died in them. Much less has been published about the camps which were situated on Polish territory after 1945. In the middle of the 1990s, a group of internees from the camp in Buchenwald came together and asked the administration of the memorial to Buchenwald to set up a research project on the camp where they had previously been interned, Landsberg on the Warthe, now in Poland. The resulting research, carried out from 2001 to 2003 by the author, provides the basis for this book.
The discussion about the Speziallager has been bedeviled by ideological considerations. Early discussions in West Berlin and the Western occupation zones in the late 1940s were strongly influenced by the growing confrontation between East and West and were used by both the Western allies and German politicians and historians as instruments against a perceived Soviet threat in Germany. Soviet internment camps were ignored in the eastern press, except when it attacked western references to them as attempts to divert attention away from the crimes of the National Socialist period. Eyewitness accounts of the Soviet camps in the GDR continued to be published during the 1950s, but the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 overtook them as the symbol of communist oppression. Only a brief resurgence in interest occurred in 1985 after the visit to the Bitburg cemetery by Helmut Kohl and Ronald Reagan and Richard von Weizsäcker's speech about May 8th as "Tag der Befreiung." Discussion of the Speziallager dwindled until 1989-90. It was the disappearance of the Wall and the resulting direct access to Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Bautzen and other camps after 1990 that spurred a revived discussion about the significance of Soviet internment camps.
While in other countries in central and eastern Europe, the Soviet camps were used to highlight the brutality of Soviet communism, in Germany the debate became mixed up with a comparison with Nazi concentration and extermination camps (the so-called "doppelte Vergangenheitsbewältigung" controversy). Groups representing the victims of the Soviet camps tended to emphasize issues such as the innocence of many internees of crimes associated with the Nazi regime. While it is clearly the case that a large number of victims were innocent of individual guilt and the camps were used by communist authorities to silence political opponents, many of the historians and politicians who became responsible for these memorials after 1990 emphasized that these facts should not be used to relativize the crimes of the Nazi era.
It is important for historians and the dwindling number of survivors of these camps to provide as much precise information about the injustices which occurred in them. The author of this volume has assembled the personal accounts of as many former internees in Landsberg as possible. The book is based on fifty written accounts found in various public and private archives and thirty-seven interviews with survivors. He is not uncritical of a number of these accounts, questioning them when assertions are made for which no other evidence is available. He estimates that over 13,000 people were interned in the Landsberg camp as prisoners. They had been preceded by about 2,500 mobilized German men, used as forced labor since February 1945. The majority of these were transported to labor camps in the Soviet Union during March and April or handed over to the Polish authorities. Although the two groups existed side by side for a time, by the summer of 1945 the camp contained exclusively prisoners interned supposedly for their involvement with the National Socialist regime. The existence of the camp was, however, short-lived: by the end of January 1946 the majority of the prisoners had been moved to Germany to the Speziallager in Buchenwald. Of the original 13,000 prisoners, about 2,500 were released in the autumn and winter of 1945 in a rather haphazard fashion, and over 2,000 had died by the end of January 1946 as a result of the awful conditions prevailing in the camp, as well as from executions and acts of indiscriminate violence by the guards. Others were to die in similar fashion in Buchenwald. The details of the camp are presented in a sober fashion by the author and provide us with further evidence of the inhumane treatment of prisoners by the Soviet authorities. Unlike the equivalent camps in Germany, no memorial to the camp in Landsberg has been erected.
. For recent discussions of the place of the Speziallager in the "doppelte Vergangenheitsbewältigung" debate, see Peter Steinbach, "Symbolische Formen des Denkens," Deutschland Archiv 2 (2006): pp. 273-283 and Wolfram von Scheliha, "Sackgasse Totalitarismus. Die Forderung nach einem Gedenken an die sowjetischen Speziallager im Zeichen der Totalitarismustheorie führt ins erinnerungspolitische Abseits," Deutschland Archiv 2 (2006): 283-290.
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Peter Barker. Review of Kirsten, Holm, Das sowjetische Speziallager Nr. 4 Landsberg/Warthe.
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