Writing History is Making History, or How to Roll Back a Revolution or Two: Naked Among Wolves (1958; 1963; 2015) and the New Europe

  • Abstract:

    Writing history is making history. The definition of a legacy uses the past to project a future. Configuring a trajectory and thus identity means delineating possibilities; it means precluding or evoking alternatives; and it means making assumptions as to the limitations or possibilities of agency. As a result, historiography can acquiesce or compel a cry for change. My paper will examine the post-1990 rewriting of the history of the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald just outside the East German city of Weimar, which had shaped, for Easterners, a powerful identity hard to dispel. For indeed, while Western-dominated media turned the revolution of 1989 into a set of well-rehearsed clichés, every year following the 1990 takeover of the German Democratic Republic by the larger West Germany, the Eastern part of Germany was rattled by many more rebellions than the year of 1989, with some, such as the Bischofferode Hunger Strike, in which miners protested the divestment of their mine, being much more radical, organized and sustained than the 1989 upheavals without receiving commensurate media attention by the Western-backed institutions. The narrative of feasible equity and feasible change, of solidarity and human worth, which the Buchenwald myth of a successful rebellion against Nazi rule contained, remained virulent. Easterners were conditioned by narratives such as the 1958/63 Naked among Wolves; for them to become second-class Germans in the Federal Republic and to arrive in a new Europe bent on neoliberalism, their narrative of revolution had to be rewritten. While post-1990 scholarship has produced many volumes on the Buchenwald communists, the most popularized rewriting of the Buchenwald history ironically retakes the GDR’s founding myth that the 1958/63 Naked among Wolves had become in retrospect. It deviates markedly from the East German historiography, in particular in how it renders the revolutions taking place within the camp, both of the inmates against the Nazi commanders and the inmates against their own leadership. The 2015 version of Naked among Wolves, for instance, strips the camp leadership of its Marxist narrative and strong orientation towards the future. Indeed, the Communist leadership of the camp is hardly recognizable as such, although it was precisely Communism’s clear vision of a time to come and an ideological confidence that a more just and equitable society is feasible that allowed them to withstand the Nazi terror in the first place. Indeed, the Marxist narrative that socialism will be born out the squalor and deprivation of capitalism running amok in a sell-out of human values supplied their script; it enabled their agency and common agenda. Accordingly, where the 1958/63 communist camp eldest joined enthusiastically into the inmates’ run on the Buchenwald gate, his 2015 counterpart, after announcing that the camp is now in the inmates’ hands, rages silently. Instead of carrying the child as the token for, and owner of, the future across the open square as his 1958/63 version had, he remains alone in the SS’s office, engaging in helpless, planless destruction, calling to mind the many recent titles, which like Pankaj Mishra’s 2017 Age of Anger speak of frustration accumulating in a neoliberalist society. And while the inmates in the 1958 and 1963 versions seem to act coordinatedly and come together with energy, enthusiasm and ecstasy as a community in their storm on the gate, in the 2015 remake, they stumble out of their wooden barracks only after the camp eldest has made the announcement that they are free. They enter the picture in the background, singly and in small groups, like walking dead, forlorn, incredulous, dazed, as if visually quoting Katherine Verdery’s “Corpses on the Move” in her 1999 study of The Political Lives of Dead Bodies, the not-yet-dead heroine of Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 Goodbye, Lenin or the dead undead of Olivia Vieweg’s 2012 Endzeit. The more charged a history, the higher the stakes. Reverberating the East like no other historical space, the history of Buchenwald needed to be rewritten for that bit of former Eastern bloc to fit into the ‘Heart of Europe’, or rather: into the ‘heart of a neoliberalist Europe.’ Yet, by the same token, rewriting the history of Buchenwald is also rewriting the legacy of the former East and, with it, the history of (the Other) Europe—a making of history that needs to be reflected as such.