M. Klöckner: Kultur- und Freundschaftsbeziehungen

Kultur- und Freundschaftsbeziehungen zwischen der DDR und der Belorussischen Sozialistischen Sowjetrepublik (1958–1980).

Klöckner, Michelle
Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte des östlichen Europas 87
Stuttgart 2017: Franz Steiner Verlag
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Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Andrew Demshuk, American University, Washington, D.C.

The territories immediately east of the 1939 German-Soviet border suffered some of the worst demographic and physical catastrophes in World War II. Once the very core of the Pale of Settlement, the Holocaust devastated the region’s Jewish population, and the 1945 cession of Poland’s pre-1939 eastern kresy borderlands to Soviet rule involved the mass expulsion of ethnic Poles. Out of a once deeply heterogenous borderland, the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) was rebuilt within the Russian-speaking Soviet superstructure. Based upon her 2015 dissertation, Michelle Klöckner applies extensive research in national and regional archives of the former Soviet Union (USSR) and East Germany (GDR) to contend that official narratives about socialist friendship pushed under the aegis of East Bloc transborder institutions helped former German and Soviet enemies overcome mistrust. When for instance in 1974 a GDR delegation enjoyed a warm welcome at Vitebsk train station (a performance wherein thousands greeted them with flowers, songs, bread, and salt), Klöckner argues that hosts and visitors alike felt “confirmed” in their positive impressions of friendship (pp. 247, 260).

Klöckner’s sources and analysis overwhelmingly focus upon party elites and organizations. Shortly after the war, the Society for German-Soviet Friendship (DSF) was founded to combat anti-Soviet sentiment, and millions joined as the Cold War progressed. In 1958, the interwar All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (VOKS) became the Union of Soviet Societies for Friendship and Cultural Connections with Foreign Countries (SSOD). That year also marked the founding of a Byelorussian Friendship Society (BELOD) in Minsk. These organizations meant to enhance economic opportunities and inculcate antifascist socialist internationalism through carefully choreographed transborder exchange.

Due to its transnational emphasis and interest in perception and reconciliation after trauma, Klöckner’s case analysis intersects with considerable literature. Repeatedly citing Jan Behrends’ study on rhetoric of Soviet friendship in East Germany and Poland[1], Klöckner also seeks to confirm Rachel Applebaum’s finding that, more than official rhetoric about friendship, transborder understanding was attained in the Soviet-Czechoslovak case via cultural exchange and personal social contacts.[2] It would have been intriguing to see how Klöckner related her work to growing literature on sister cities, notably Daniel Logemann’s study on Leipzig’s 1973 twinning with Cracow; in contrast to Klöckner, Logemann finds that, even at the official level, little meaningful rapprochement was attained, as “hollow platitudes were seldom followed by sustainable outcomes.”[3] Finally, Klöckner’s analysis could have profited from scholarship on the rich prehistory of Russian/Soviet perceptions of “good” German humanism versus “evil” Prussian militarism, or shifting German perceptions of the Russian/Soviet western borderlands.[4]

Consideration of the latter scholarship would substantially improve Klöckner’s weakest, second chapter (the first chapter is the introduction). Rather than discussing where her necessarily circumscribed analysis of archival materials relating to the BSSR case study informs work on earlier periods and other regions, Klöckner offers a synopsis of Belarusian history that leaves one with the sense that a Belarusian nation had always existed just below the surface, waiting for its nation-state in 1992. This oversight is compounded by the near absence of attention to historic ethnic diversity. Most of prewar Grodno/Hrodna was Polish and Jewish, and the postwar influx of Russians paralleled the acculturation of incoming rural Belarusian-speakers into a Russian-speaking milieu.[5] Jews only enter the chapter amid the Holocaust with cursory mention of their annihilation (p. 40) – a troubling absence throughout the book. Eternalization of Belarusian national space invites slippage that it was specially distinct in German perceptions from Leningrad, Stalingrad, or Ukraine.

More substantial is Klöckner’s extensive third chapter, which surveys the conversion of VOKS into the SSOD. Although Klöckner herself observes the challenge of getting at reception, she concludes that performances by GDR groups in Belarus helped victims “experience with their own eyes” the “construction of a new, antifascist and socialist German society” (p. 164). Klöckner’s brief fourth chapter features the 1972 founding of a GDR consulate in Minsk to compete with Polish economic interests. Though it sponsored exhibitions, film screenings, and cultural events, the consulate was barred from significant bilateral decision making, which was undertaken at higher levels. All too tantalizing is the cursory mention that after 1985 the SED used this consulate to learn firsthand about perestroika and glasnost policies it wanted to reject (pp. 213–215).

Chapter five offers the most diverse and engaging analysis, exploring how human encounters functioned within “the narrow corset of state-sanctioned exchange” (p. 218). Of course, East Germans typically bypassed the BSSR to tour Leningrad, Moscow, or the Black Sea. It is also not surprising that sister cities, “friendship trains”, tourist delegations, and interaction with memorial sites were meant to serve official propaganda. As Frankfurt/Oder’s SED Bezirk leadership made clear before a 1974 friendship train to its sister city Vitebsk, all touring programs had to be “subordinated” to party conditions (quote p. 424). All participants were DSF members, most were SED, and free expression or exchange were neither desired nor permitted.

Beneath this surface of official rhetoric, Klöckner uses travel reports by party delegation leaders to offer fascinating snapshots of dissatisfaction, as well as old stereotypes and fears. In tune with official expectations, a 1969 Soviet report concluded that BSSR travelers felt “carefree” and “almost like they were back home”; but it critiqued GDR hosts for their lack of piety at the Soviet memorial in Berlin’s Treptower park, and GDR cuisine made Soviets yearn for their own kitchens (quote p. 288). In one instance, GDR authorities attributed stereotypical anti-Russian features to a Vitebsk visitor suffering from heart complications dating to German occupation. Having been incapable of taking part in much of the program, they concluded that “his condition and weaknesses could arouse the impression that he was a drunk” (p. 258). An “exceptional” Soviet report claimed that a delegation was blocked from touring a power station, because 20 percent of the group had Jewish heritage (p. 298). German reports also betrayed anti-Semitic utterances or affirmations of “Russian drunkenness” (p. 311).

In the end, SED leaders embraced rhetoric about the “struggle against fascism” and celebrated Soviets as heroic liberators to legitimate the GDR and absolve their citizens of fascist crimes. But Klöckner goes further and conjectures that GDR “antifascist pilgrimages” to areas devastated by Nazi occupation helped Germans separate themselves from their fascist past through expressions of friendship with real-live Soviets and promises to build a peaceful socialist international order (p. 358). She also infers that the sight of Germans visiting memorials in the BSSR helped Soviets to convince themselves that the GDR had experienced an antifascist transformation (p. 360). Even if Klöckner does not fully substantiate these hypotheses, experts on East Bloc interchange will benefit from her extensive archival hunting through sometimes difficult collections. Her thorough reading and exposition should inspire further research on what Cold War internationalism meant at the grassroots level.

[1] Jan C. Behrends, Die erfundene Freundschaft. Propaganda für die Sowjetunion in Polen und in der DDR, Cologne 2006.
[2] Rachel Applebaum, Friendship of the People. Soviet-Czechoslovak Cultural and Social Contacts from the Battle for Prague to Prague Spring, 1945-1969, Ann Arbor 2012.
[3] Daniel Logemann, Das polnische Fenster. Deutsch-polnische Kontakte im staats-sozialistischen Alltag Leipzigs, 1972-1989, Munich 2012, p. 35.
[4] Rebecca Mitchell, Music and Russian Identity in War and Revolution, 1914-1922, in: Murray Frame et al. (eds.), The Cultural History of Russia in the Great War and Revolution, 1914-1922, Bloomington 2014, pp. 221–243; Vejas Liulevicius, War Land on the Eastern Front. Culture, National Identity, and German Occupation in World War I, Cambridge 2000; Annemarie Sammartino, The Impossible Border. Germany and the East, 1914-1922, Ithaca 2010.
[5] For an analysis of Grodno as a palimpsest city steadily homogenized by varying rulers and subjected to ideological/national cleansing of urban landmarks, see Felix Ackermann, Palimpsest Grodno. Nationalisierung, Nivellierung und Sowjetisierung einer mitteleuropäischen Stadt 1919-1991, Wiesbaden 2011.

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