Introduction: Thinking About the Victims of State Socialism

  • David Clarke
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Cultural Heritage and Conflict book series (PSCHC)


Describing the scope of the book, the introduction discusses the contemporary importance that is attributed to the notion of victimhood in the context of human rights, transitional justice and the politics of memory. It describes the measures taken in post-unification Germany to address the abuses perpetrated by the state socialist regime during the Soviet occupation and in the German Democratic Republic, before considering the difficulty of defining victimhood in this context.

Considering Victimhood

This is a book about constructions of victimhood. It intervenes in two fields of contemporary academic enquiry, in which the figure of the victim is of central importance: the politics of memory and transitional justice. The centrality of the victim to these research areas, which both analyse the various means by which societies “come to terms” with difficult pasts, also needs to be seen within a wider cultural context, in which victimhood has become a status both aspired to and often fiercely contested. This is not to say that individuals in the contemporary world aspire to suffering, but rather that those who have suffered seek recognition of victim status (both individually and collectively) from the political system and from society more widely when pursuing their claims for justice.

Joseph A. Amato argues that suffering has not always been readily convertible into a victim status that has such political potency. Particularly in the context of a pre-secular Europe, Christianity, he proposes, provided a framework within which individual hardship could be understood and accepted. Great amounts of suffering could be experienced by ordinary people without this necessarily being converted into a demand for political action. With the advent of secularized modernity, however, no one authority can give meaning to suffering. As we see with the coming of the First World War in particular, the alienating functionality of the various social systems, whether they be political, military or economic, appears to create un-legitimated suffering which, for want of a meaning-giving authority either within or beyond society, demands redress (Amato 1990, pp. 43–72).

The power of the victim role in terms of formulating such demands is evident from identity-based social movements of the latter half of the twentieth century, in which marginalized groups have sought to resist their persecution by converting their degraded status, which others had previously regarded as in itself a justification for discrimination, into an argument for fairer treatment on the basis of unjust victimization (Torpey 2005, p. 41). Particularly in the United States, ideological conservatives have fought hard to resist the power of such claims to victimhood, arguing forcefully that they represent unfounded demands from the undeserving, directed against the normative majority, who in their turn become the victims of a kind of emotional blackmail from groups who are allegedly unwilling to take responsibility for their own destiny (Rothe 2011, p. 23). This is hardly a new argument, reactivating as it does the claims of Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1887 On the Genealogy of Morals (Nietzsche 1996): for the philosopher, this elevation of the victim figure in Christian religion is a conspiracy of the weak against the strong who oppress them. In the contemporary German-speaking countries, too, the perception that the adoption of victim status has increasingly become a vehicle for attracting “money and attention” is also evident (Breitenfellner 2013, p. 30).1

When the suffering addressed by the adoption or attribution of victim status is historical in nature, the figure of the Holocaust victim often serves as a model, at least in the Western world. The duty to remember the Holocaust and its victims, both those who survived the horror and those who did not, increasingly became a focus of attention in Western Europe and the United States following the Eichmann trial in the early 1960s. This trial gave prominence to survivor testimony above and beyond the need to establish the nature of Eichmann’s activities, ushering in what Annette Wieviorka has defined as the “era of witness” (2006, p. 56). In this new epoch, the Holocaust survivor offers a point of moral orientation for the contemporary world. By commemorating their suffering in various ways, societies not only attempt to address the continued traumatic suffering of the survivors and the bereaved, but also demonstrate their commitment to the lessons of that suffering in terms of the values of democracy and human rights. In a similar vein, Erica Bouris argues that the conception of victimhood that emerges from the context of the Holocaust is that of the “moral beacon” (2007, p. 32). In other words, these are subjects deemed not simply to bear witness to the horrors of the past, but whose suffering accords them the status of moral guides for those who come after.

Despite the apparently overwhelming imperative to remember victims of egregious human rights abuses, whether in the Holocaust or in other cases, there are several reasons to be wary of this model. Firstly, as a number of commentators have observed, the act of conferring a purely moral and innocent status on victims of such abuses elides much of the historical reality of their experiences, when horrendous circumstances often confronted them with terrible choices that were necessary for survival, yet which left their own sense of morality comprised (Levi 1989, p. 59; Spelman 1997, p. 74; Enns 2012). Secondly, it has been argued, the elevation of the victims of historical injustice may allow those who have not suffered such harm to enter into a trivializing and highly emotional form of over-identification with the “pain of others” (Sontag 2004), rooted more in the individual or group psychological needs of those expressing such “mourning” than in any real understanding of the situation of those persecuted others (Jureit and Schneider 2010; Rothe 2011). Thirdly, where identification with victims of more distant atrocities is involved (for example in the prominence of Holocaust memory in the United States), such memory has been described by some scholars using Freud’s notion of “screen memory,” arguing that a concentration on sometimes distant traumatic events for which one cannot be held responsible can be a means of side-stepping engagement with more troubling local histories (Levi 2007, pp. 125–126).

The division implicitly proposed above between claims to victimhood based on present suffering in the case of social issues, on the one hand, and historical claims to victimhood that seek redress in the present, on the other, is clearly also porous. In a post-Cold War political climate that has been characterized by the ascendancy of a neo-liberal consensus that seeks to “roll back” the state’s role in promoting social justice, an ascendancy that has been paralleled by the rise of concerns about historical memory, it is arguable that issues of historical justice have come to stand in for claims for social justice in the present that can no longer be so easily articulated (Thompson 2015, p. 46).

In summary, we can observe that, while remaining a key feature of contemporary Western culture, victimhood is defined and made significant in a complex context, in which questions of morality, (collective) identity, justice and power are invoked. Against this background, it will be the key task of this study to consider from a theoretical point of view how it is possible to understand the meaning attached to the figure of the victim in the more specific contexts of memory politics and transitional justice. Both of these fields, whether in terms of their practice or in terms of their academic analysis, refer to the figure of the victim in various ways, yet the ways in which they do so remain to be fully understood. In fact, although both theory and practice attribute a central role to victims, the various means by which such victimhood is constructed, and the consequences that follow from such constructions in terms of the formulation of policy for dealing with difficult pasts, is very often passed over.

The specific historical context for exploring these issues will be Germany’s coming to terms with the fate of the victims of state socialism, both under the Soviet occupation of the territory that became the German Democratic Republic (GDR; also known as East Germany) in October 1949, and subsequently under the rule of the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, or SED) until 1990. Bracketing these historical periods together under the term “state socialism” is arguably problematic, given that the Soviet occupation and the early history of the GDR were qualitatively different historical periods in comparison, for example, with the post-Stalinist GDR of later decades, not least in terms of the differing forms of political repression that were common in those periods. However, in Germany today it is common for the victims of historical injustice under Soviet and SED rule to be treated if not as a single group, then as a series of groups who have important commonalities; whether by the institutions created to preserve the memory of their experiences, or by the compensation schemes that have been put in place to make good their suffering. Victims’ organizations, too, often encompass individuals from different phases in the development of East Germany from the Soviet occupation onwards, even if specific groups do exist to focus on particular forms of historically more specific suffering.

Although in the German context it is not common to speak of all of these individuals as victims of “state socialism,” it is a practical term to use here as it encompasses basic shared features of all of the phases of communist rule in eastern Germany after the end of the Second World War. Here David Lane’s definition of state socialism is a useful one:

a society distinguished by a state-centred, more-or-less centrally administered economy, controlled by a dominant communist party which seeks, on the basis of Marxism-Leninism and through the agency of the state, to mobilize the population to reach a classless society. (Lane 1996, p. 5)

To this I would only add that the “mobilization of the population” cited by Lane must also be understood here in the negative sense that those citizens who could not be co-opted into the state socialist project, or who were perceived as a threat to that project, were subject to various forms of repression from the period of the Soviet occupation until the demise of the SED regime; repression whose key aim was to maintain the communists’ hold on power. Although those forms of repression evolved over time, they were nevertheless always instruments in the service of the state socialist project as outlined in Lane’s definition.

Coming to Terms with the GDR

Following German unification, considerable resources were invested in the attempt to address the wrong-doing carried out in the name of the socialist experiment in East Germany. The first post-revolution government of the GDR, still headed by a member of the ruling SED, had already begun to formulate measures to rehabilitate and compensate the GDR’s political prisoners and others who had been persecuted by the regime, and the first democratically elected parliament ( Volkskammer ) and the last government of the GDR continued to develop these measures; which were, however, only partly incorporated into the Unification Treaty with the Federal Republic (Widmaier 1999, pp. 106–164). At the same time, initial steps were taken by GDR courts to prosecute officials of the regime, for instance those who had been involved in rigging local elections of May 1989, who were charged under GDR law with corruption and misuse of public office (Marxen et al. 2007, p. 11).

From the civil rights movement (Bürgerrechtsbewegung), which had provided one of the sparks that ignited the revolution against the rule of the SED, came the demand to investigate the human rights abuses that had characterized the GDR regime. The most important product of these demands, expressed most spectacularly in the occupation of Ministry for State Security (MfS) premises in Berlin and elsewhere to stop the destruction of secret records, was the establishment of an office dedicated to allowing the public access to their personal files: the Agency of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Records (Behörde des Bundesbeauftragten für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, or BStU). The establishment of the BStU, however, led to considerable debate about whether the exposing of informants who worked for the MfS and the right of individuals to see their files might be harmful both to the individuals concerned and to the general social climate (Miller 1999, pp. 19–34). The early 1990s were characterized by a series of attacks on prominent figures who had informed for the MfS at various points in their lives, and many came to see such attacks as a weapon with which primarily western commentators sought to delegitimize not just the GDR state, but socialist ideas in general (Sa’adah 1998, p. 101).

Even though debates about the MfS and its informants tended to dominate the media, the final months of the GDR’s existence and the early years of unification were also characterized by a process of uncovering a whole range of aspects of GDR society and its history that the control of the SED had either kept hidden or elided from East Germany’s official account of history. This process of revelation included the publication of censored texts and the showing of censored films, particularly those banned during the cultural freeze ushered in by the 11th Plenary Session of the SED’s Central Committee in December 1965. There was also open discussion of political persecution, such as the jailing of Walter Janka and other socialist intellectuals in the aftermath of the failed Hungarian uprising of 1956, and a breaking of the taboo the SED had placed on discussing the Soviets’ internment of German citizens both in the Soviet Zone of Occupation, but also in labour camps in the Soviet Union itself (Klonovsky and von Flocken 1991).

The early years of German unification were characterized by attempts to prosecute those who had run the socialist state, a project that was to become one of the most controversial strands of the unified German state’s dealing with the GDR past. The main obstacle was the legal principle that nobody can be prosecuted for an action that was not criminal at the time they committed it, or nulla poena sine lege (“no penalty without a law”). As Paul Cooke points out, by acknowledging the legality of the GDR state in the Unification Treaty, the Federal Republic was forced to regard actions taken in the service of the SED regime as essentially legal, unless they would have represented a breach of the GDR law at the time (Cooke 2005, p. 30). Although prosecutors attempted to modify this principle via recourse to the so-called Radbruch formula, which allows for the punishment of actions regarded as clearly in contravention of human rights even if they are formally legal when committed, this approach was soon dropped in favour of prosecuting GDR officials according to the laws of the now defunct East German state (McAdams 2001, pp. 32–33; Cooke 2005, pp. 31–33).

Views on the success or otherwise of these judicial endeavours remain divided, but the large gap between the number of cases investigated, which James A. McAdams estimates at over 62,000 (2001, p. 2) and the small number of cases actually brought to court, numbering just over a thousand, left may Germans sceptical about whether the time and resources invested had been justified (Borneman 1997, p. 100). In particular, former civil rights movement activists and victims of the regime felt that their cause had been betrayed. Bärbel Bohley, a prominent figure in that movement, and later a champion of victims’ rights, famously declared that, while opponents of the GDR had demanded “justice,” all they got was “the rule of law” (Jahn 1992).

By 2005 this judicial coming to terms with the GDR past was complete (Marxen et al. 2007, p. 3), yet it by no means represents the only approach by which the unified Germany, and the German state in particular, still attempts to deal with the GDR’s legacy. Projects to provide public education about the GDR past and to attempt to form the nation’s collective memory of the Soviet occupation and state socialism in East Germany have been and remain an important area of state activity, channelled through a number of institutions, such as the Federal Centre for Political Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung), its regional counterparts (Landesstellen für politische Bildung), and the state-subsidised Federal Foundation for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in East Germany (Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur), founded in 1998 using capital confiscated from SED organizations (Sack 2016, p. 82). The latter is particularly significant because it distributes funds to grass-roots organizations with an interest in the GDR, such as the civil society organization that runs a museum and archive in the former MfS headquarters in the Normannenstraße in Berlin (Baron 2000). In general, as Thomas Lindenberger has noted, this officially sponsored memory culture has been characterized by its focus on power structures and ideology, political domination and repression, themes that are often juxtaposed with representations of opposition and resistance (Lindenberger 2001, p. 45).

Although it might appear that the post-unification German state has made considerable efforts to propagate an image of the GDR as an oppressive dictatorship, representatives of victims’ organizations nevertheless frequently express a sense of betrayal both by the political class and by their fellow citizens, who they regard as playing insufficient attention to the victims’ plight. Writing in 2008 in Der Stacheldraht (Barbed Wire), the journal of the umbrella victims’ organization, the Union of Victims’ Organizations of Communist Dictatorship (Union der Opferverbände kommunistischer Gewaltherrschaft, or UOKG), its then president Rainer Wagner summed up his members’ feelings as follows:

It is against the spirit of the times to openly refer to the bloody legacy of Marx, Engels and Lenin. … 20 years after the peaceful revolution of 1989, we unfortunately have to recognize that our resistance has only been superficially integrated into the collective memory of the German people. (Wagner 2008)

It has indeed proved more difficult than one might have expected to establish a negative image of the GDR in post-unification Germany, given that this was a state that, while it existed, enjoyed only limited legitimacy among its population, who were eager to overthrow both the government and the state itself as soon as historical circumstances allowed. A number of scholars have made the case that the phenomenon of Ostalgie , a misty-eyed or ironic celebration of all things GDR-related that focuses particularly on East Germany’s popular and consumer culture, can be read as “a kind of counter-memory” (Berdahl 1999, p. 202). In other words, such nostalgia for state socialism is understood as a reaction to what are perceived as western-inspired attempts to discredit the GDR (and its population) in toto, thereby failing to take into account the “normality” of the lives of many citizens, who found ways to accommodate themselves to the prevailing political conditions without necessarily supporting them (e.g. Cooke 2005; Naughton 2002, p. 19; Sierp 2009, p. 51). As Mary Fulbrook has argued, “[a]ctively sustaining the state, feeling one could live a ‘perfectly normal life’ within the GDR, and ultimately critiquing it and contributing to its downfall, were not … mutually incompatible” (Fulbrook 2005, p. 20). Furthermore, in the harsh economic climate of the early 1990s, as western-driven privatization of GDR industry and consequent deindustrialization proceeded apace, former GDR citizens quickly began to miss the benefits of full employment, generous social provision and the various forms of state-sponsored sociality that the GDR had provided.

The strategy of transitional justice adopted in the immediate aftermath of unification, whether it dealt with SED officials, members of the security services, or with collaborators with the MfS, was notably focused on dealing with the perpetrators at every level of the system, from the Politburo to the ordinary border guard at the Berlin Wall. Among West German political elites, there was a clear perception that this rigorous approach to wrong-doing under the state socialist regime was an answer to the perceived failure of the post-war Federal Republic to properly punish those who had committed crimes under the National Socialist regime (Offe and Poppe 2006, p. 243). At the same time, however, some commentators, such as Daniela Dahn, warned that prosecutions of state officials would only contribute to East Germans’ sense of being “colonized” by the Federal Republic, especially as it tended to obscure the fact that West Germany had itself deployed political prosecutions and administrative measures targeted at left-wingers and communists during its post-war history, albeit on a much smaller scale (Dahn 1998, pp. 132–148; Gössner 1994).

Unsurprisingly, members of the SED elite who had to stand trial after unification were quick to mobilize such claims of victors’ justice (Siegerjustiz) (Ahonen 2011, p. 36). However, the evident failure to produce widespread judicial punishment or even consistent civil lustration of those who played important roles in the regime or informed for the hated MfS left many victims of the SED regime with a sense of injustice and, in many respects, material disadvantage in relation to those who had persecuted them. Conservative commentators have also pointed to the relative prosperity and influence of former regime loyalists in the years since unification, and to the failings of transitional justice in dealing with perpetrators (e.g. Knabe 2007; Müller and Hartmann 2009).

This dissatisfaction among conservatives with the failure to punish those responsible for perpetuating the SED regime was accompanied, in roughly the first decade and a half after unification, by a tendency to warn of the danger of GDR socialization in terms of the alleged alienation of GDR citizens from the core values underpinning the political, economic and social status quo, in particular in terms of attitudes to personal freedom, self-reliance, individualism and democracy. The term “conservative” should not be understood exclusively in the party-political sense here, although many such voices have originated from Germany’s conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). It should rather be understood in its literal sense, in that those who took up such positions were keen to defend what they regarded as the established values of the pre-unification Federal Republic, often now referred to as the “Bonn Republic,” as valid for unified Germany as a whole. Conversely, cultural values associated with the GDR, such as an anti-individualist emphasis on collectivism, which featured heavily in the propaganda and official language of the SED regime, or the authoritarianism allegedly bred into GDR citizens by the GDR’s social institutions, such as its kindergartens and schools, were held to be incompatible with this consensus (Clarke 2002).

This discourse on the GDR and its inhabitants developed in parallel with a return to the interpretative paradigm of “totalitarianism” among a number of conservative historians in the early to mid-1990s, a move echoed on the political level by the stance of Helmut Kohl’s government (Niven 2002, p. 58). Such currents had a strong influence on the deliberations of the first Parliamentary Investigation (Enquete-Kommission des Bundestags) set up in 1991 to provide something like an official state position on the GDR past (Cooke 2005, pp. 41–45). In its academic context, totalitarianism as a model for understanding both National Socialism and the GDR’s state socialism, which had had its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, attempts to analyse different forms of modern dictatorship by identifying common features of fascism and communism under the umbrella of totalitarianism or Gewaltherrschaft (despotism, or literally, rule by violence).

In the context of post-unification politics, however, the return to such a paradigm has been seen by those on the left as part of a wider strategy of delegitimizing the GDR, which could spill over into a delegitimization of socialism per se, both by drawing parallels with National Socialism and stressing the oppression of the population and the lack of individual self-determination implied in the totalitarian model (e.g. Wippermann 2009). Coming to terms with the GDR following this approach, which still has a considerable influence on conservative thinking, was therefore very much a way for Germany to put the GDR (and socialism) behind it as something from which nothing good could be salvaged; or an Abrechnung, to use the German term often mobilized in this context (Faulenbach 1999, p. 35).

Reconsidering the Victims of the State Socialism

Such discourses were hardly likely to make former GDR citizens more receptive to the plight of those who had suffered persecution under state socialism, given the apparent instrumentalization of such victimhood by those who sought to emphasize the dictatorial aspects of GDR state and society in an undifferentiated way. To this extent, the perception among victims of the GDR regime that their past and present plight has been afforded insufficient attention by their fellow citizens is not especially hard to explain. Nor is this lack of attention an entirely post-unification phenomenon. As I will discuss in Chapter  3, while the victims of the Soviet occupation and the subsequent SED regime were given a prominent place in the West German political culture of the Cold War, the development of détente between the two post-war states from the mid-1960s onwards had a profound effect on perceptions of those persecuted under state socialism. Many of these individuals who had escaped to the Federal Republic now felt that West Germans no longer recognized them as victims of political oppression deserving of sympathy and support. Among the hundreds of autobiographical accounts by victims, many express a sense of disappointment with the lack of interest and even hostility they experienced on resettling in the Federal Republic. So, for example, Eva-Maria Neumann, who attempted to flee the GDR in 1977, and who was arrested and imprisoned before being bought free by the Federal Republic, describes in her autobiography the attitude of West Germans to her continued activism against political oppression in the Eastern Bloc:

Our campaigns are regarded by many of those around us as a threat to the much-praised policy of détente. … Why are people here blind either to the dangers of the far right or to those of the far left? Can one not, must one not protest against right-wing and left-wing ideologies in the same way? … I am deeply disappointed. This is not how I imagined things would be. (Neumann 2007, p. 273)

Ellen Thiemann, writing about her own experience of arriving in the Federal Republic in the mid-1970s in a memoir originally published in 1984, reports on a sense of hostility against those who had fled the GDR, for example in this encounter with the representative of a housing association:

“People from the GDR always think they are going to get something for nothing!” Well, I’ve heard people talk like that before. I simply cannot understand why people here, who had the good fortune not to end up under Soviet occupation after the war, are so hostile towards people from the GDR. (Thiemann 2008, p. 309)

Not only have victims of state socialism failed to receive what they regard as proper recognition of their suffering from their fellow citizens, but scholarship has also had difficulties in accounting for and addressing their experiences. If we follow Fulbrook’s approach to GDR society, which entirely properly seeks to recognize a complex picture of accommodation, compromise and relative autonomy in the lives of GDR citizens, the very notion of victimhood becomes less clear-cut. From this perspective, is it not the case that everyone became complicit with such a system on some level, since not even those who resisted did so in every aspect of their lives? Yet, at the same time, all citizens were disadvantaged to some extent by the regime, even if this only amounted to their being required to parrot its official doctrines in certain situations or being unable to travel where they chose, so that all of those people who lived under state socialism could potentially claim victim status. As Jon Elster argues, referring to state socialist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe more generally

[u]nder “mature” communism, there was a genuine sense in which more or less everybody was at the same time victim and co-perpetrator. Roughly speaking, everybody knew that nobody believed in the tenets of the official ideology, and yet everybody was compelled to talk and behave as if they did. (Elster 2004, pp. 109–110)

Here Elster agrees, for example, with the perspective of Czech dissident (and later president) Václav Havel, who pointed to the general complicity of the subjects of state socialist regimes in their everyday interactions with power (Havel 1991).

This assertion seems at first glance to set the bar pretty high for recognition of victim status. However, what is more important is to note the implicit assumptions that underpin this judgement. Here, complicity apparently rules out the attribution of victimhood, drawing on a discourse of blameless or perfect victimhood that is only one (arguably flawed) way of constructing that category. This points to a central difficulty in discussing the victims of any political system that produces widespread harm, a difficulty that hinges on the very notion of “construction.” While political systems may produce many kinds of harms (“victimization”), Tasmin Amanda Jacoby argues that this is not synonymous with “victimhood,” which is a socially constructed identity (Jacoby 2015, p. 513). In a similar vein, Vincent Druliolle defines victimhood as

the identity, meaning and status of victims in society … [V]ictimhood is not given. Rather, it is historically and socially constructed, which of course does not mean that victims’ suffering is not “real.” The argument is simply that the status of victims in society is not directly related to the harm suffered. (Druliolle 2015, p. 319)

Not everyone who has suffered a harm under a dictatorship (or even a democratic regime) will consider themselves a victim, nor will they necessarily receive social recognition of that status, nor furthermore official recognition of their victimhood by the state. However, to assume the identity of victim is to stake a claim, whether through public activism or not, on some response from the wider society and from the state in particular. It is to stake a claim, in the case of the victims of former regimes, for the recognition of the legacy of that regime as a social problem, that is to say of a problem that demands remedy from state and society (Best 1990). Victims also seek official recognition from the state to bind it into obligations to create and promote such remedy, but state and society can only acknowledge victim identity and legal victim status by making a difference between individuals who have suffered in particular ways and the rest of the population, even though the rest of the population may also have suffered harms. In this way, as Christiane Wilke has observed, while a range of individuals may subjectively identify themselves as victims, victimhood increasingly becomes a legal status attributed to specific groups by the state (Wilke 2007, p. 481).

Clearly, a case could be made that there are harms affecting some individuals within a given society, in this case in contemporary Germany as a result of the legacies of persecution under Soviet occupation and in the GDR, which are in and of themselves deserving of special treatment. Claudia Card, for example, has devoted a considerable body of work to attempting, from the point of view of a moral philosopher, to draw distinctions between what she calls “atrocities” or “evils,” on the one hand, and the harm experienced by many people as a result of unjust societies, on the other. Card seeks to make that distinction in terms of the outcomes for victims, pointing out that some indignities or injustices “leave permanent or deeply disfiguring scars” while others do not necessarily do so (Card 2002, p. 105). She proposes that, where harm is “intolerable” and makes a decent life impossible (or severely impairs that decent life), then it is appropriate to talk of a different class of injury:

Evils do intolerable (radical) harm. Harm becomes radical when it gravely, irreversibly, or irreparably jeopardizes access to the basics that are needed to make a life (or death) tolerable or decent, from the point of view of the person whose life (or death) it is. (Card 2010, p. 46)

In the case of the GDR, there are certainly those who define themselves as victims of the SED regime who have suffered in ways that did not affect the generality of the population. These were individuals who were deemed to have inadequately adjusted themselves to the requirement to participate in the regime, or who actively resisted it, and who were punished as a consequence. They were arrested, subjected to psychologically damaging interrogation techniques at the hands of the MfS, and imprisoned for attempting to exercise rights such as freedom of movement and freedom of speech. Although such rights were undoubtedly denied to others, only some individuals actively sought to exercise those rights and they suffered severe punishment, as well as social and economic disadvantage, as a consequence. What is more, psychologists working with those who identify themselves (and are often officially recognized) as victims of the SED regime note that they frequently experience physical and psychological after-effects of their persecution that are not associated with the generality of the population.

Discussing the situation of former political prisoners, for example, Kornelia Beer and Gregor Weißflog summarize as follows:

The global quality of life of former political prisoners is noticeably lower than for the general population. In general, a lower level of functioning and a greater number of reported symptoms can be observed. According to their own reports, those questioned by us felt themselves to be psychically less capable and less adequate in carrying out their daily roles. In addition, they experience reductions in their emotional functions, as well as in their cognitive and social functioning. (Beer and Weißflog 2011, p. 131)

More specifically, therapists have noted a consistent set of symptoms among those persecuted in the GDR, such as a lack of self-worth, an over-sensitivity to perceived injustices, and an over-whelming sense of dissatisfaction and embitterment, which is not only the result of the persecution itself, but also of the perceived inadequacy of the redress they have experienced since German unification. This sense of injustice leads to a sense of double-victimization:

Those affected [fear] that their suffering could have all been for nothing. For many, the lack of or inadequacy of social recognition, which is often a source of complaint, seems to call into question the fact of their own suffering. They need external support in order not to end up in position in which they are the only source verifying their own suffering. (Trobisch-Lütge 2004, p. 25; cf. Trobisch-Lütge and Bomberg 2015, p. 37; Plogstedt 2014)

Apart from the mobilization of such symptomatology, it might also be possible to draw distinctions between victims and non-victims in the context of the GDR by making categorical differences between the kinds of harmful treatment that people were subject to. This move would acknowledge that the experience of victim of political oppression, in the GDR or elsewhere, can be understood in the context of certain societal norms. As with the victims of crime, there has to be a commonly accepted understanding of how citizens would normally be treated by the state and by other citizens, and victims themselves would have to be in a position to recognize themselves as having been treated in ways that demand restitution, for example through punishment of the offenders. While by the standards of international human rights it would be possible to claim that all GDR citizens were to some extent restricted in the exercise of fundamental freedoms, for example in so far as they were unable to travel to the Federal Republic or express themselves freely, the treatment of particular individuals, who were persecuted by means of imprisonment, politically motivated discrimination, interference of the MfS in their private lives, and so on, were subject to an unacceptable “violation of their society’s normative framework” (Jacoby 2015, p. 521). In terms of the psychological effects of such treatment, its traumatizing nature is linked precisely to this violation of normal expectations, which are “shattered” by the experience of persecution (Janoff-Bulman 1992). In this vein, the first of the Federal Parliament’s commissions of enquiry into the GDR proposed to limit the status of victim of the SED regime to those who had been subject to dictatorial measures that went beyond everyday experience, and which were implemented for specifically political reasons: what the commission’s report called diktatorische Willkür, or arbitrary and dictatorial measures (BT-Drs. 12/7820, p. 229).

While the SED regime may have restricted or disregarded human rights on a wide scale in order to control the population, for instance by opening their post and listening to their telephone conversations, it reserved particular repressive measures for those it considered to be (potential) enemies of the system and, more importantly, a threat to the SED’s power within that system. That treatment was, furthermore, of a kind that would have been considered cruel or unjust by the social norms of the time: it is no accident that the regime sought to suppress details of its violence towards its own citizens, for example, by refusing to reveal to relatives of those killed at the border how their loved ones had died and refusing to let them see the bodies before these were cremated (Nooke 2011, p. 175). The SED regime was clearly aware that its treatment of those it considered a threat would not be considered acceptable by the mass of its own population.

Further, as Leonore Ansorg (2005, p. 14) observes in relation to political prisoners in the GDR, the motives of the individual victim did not have to be consciously political, “rather it was the state that attributed political opposition to him.” In line with Ahnsorg’s judgement, Ansgar Borbe (2010, p. 12) reserves the term “victim” for those whose treatment at the hands of the GDR state and its institutions not only contravened dominant societal norms, but which was also motivated by the belief on the part of the state that such treatment would serve the political goal of securing the socialist system and SED power.

The possible definitional strategies outlined above offer various potentially plausible means of drawing distinctions between those who we might want to categorize as victims of state socialism in East Germany and others who experienced the dictatorship. However, even as we sympathize with those who suffered and continue to suffer special harms, both under state socialism and in its aftermath, it is necessary to recognize that such discursive constructions of the distinction between “ordinary” citizens and victims are precisely that: constructions. In opposition to such an approach, this study adopts a constructivist position, interrogating the conditions under which particular groups of individuals come to be regarded (and to regard themselves) as the victims of state socialism, in the sense of acceding to an identity, and possibly also an officially recognized status, which brings with it certain rights, for instance to compensation, representation of particular kinds in memorial museum projects, and so on.

Clearly, it is impossible to abstract that claim for recognition of and compensation for those considered victims of the SED regime in post-unification Germany from the wider political connotations of the notion of victimhood in Germany’s post-war history. The genocide against Europe’s Jews has become a touchstone for such politics in post-1968 Western Europe, bolstering an entirely laudable agenda of anti-racism and liberal (or even social) democracy. From a left-liberal perspective, to emphasize the suffering caused by state socialism can look like an attempt to undermine the moral capital of the Holocaust and rehabilitate the kinds of ideology that caused it. This is particularly difficult terrain when the victims in questions are Germans, some of whom were alive during the National Socialist period or were even members of the Nazi Party.

Asserting that any severe abuse deserves the same prominence as any other ignores the ideological uses to which the very notions of human rights and victimhood have been put and which they continue to serve. As I will discuss further in Chapter  3, following the period of détente in the 1970s, the United States in particular sought in the 1980s to delegitimize the Soviet system with reference to its failure to guarantee freedom of speech and other rights (Moyn 2010, pp. 121–175). In the German context, the so-called Historians’ Debate (Historikerstreit) of the mid-1980s was evidence of a conservative move to break free of the moral constraints that remembrance of the Holocaust had allegedly placed on the expression of national sentiment and the apparent moral advantage such remembrance gave to the left. By positioning Soviet communism as the original horror, to which National Socialism was allegedly a mere reaction, right-wing conservative intellectuals effectively instrumentalized the notions of victimhood and suffering to their own agenda, insisting that the misery caused by the Soviet Union (to its own people and later to others) should not be distinguished from the crimes of National Socialist Germany (Schmitz 2006, pp. 96–99).

Although the outcome of the Historians’ Debate can ultimately be said to have further secured Holocaust memory in German political culture, such revisionist projects were revived across Europe following the end of the Cold War, as conservative intellectuals and politicians called for a parallel commemoration of the Holocaust and the crimes of socialism, particularly in the context of EU-level memory discourses (Clarke 2014). The reception of the mammoth volume The Black Book of Communism, published by a team of French historians in 1997 and widely translated, exemplifies this trend. The analyses contained in this book present the crimes of communist-run states as an inevitable consequence of communist thought and make explicit parallels between the “racial genocide” of the National Socialists and the so-called “class genocide” of the communists (Rassen-Genozid and Klassen-Genozid in the German translation; Courtois et al. 1998, p. 21). However, the book also seeks to highlight the deforming effect of communist rule on civil society.

For example, in a contribution to the expanded German edition, Ehrhart Neubert, a former GDR civil rights activist and a historian of opposition in East Germany, characterizes the SED’s rule in terms of a “liquidation” of individuality and a “de-politicization” of society, in which citizens had become incapable of “political thought and action” (Neubert 1998, p. 845). While the view that the Holocaust was a unique event in human history and thus deserving of special commemoration still largely holds sway in contemporary Germany (Beattie 2006, p. 162), some conservatives and others on the right clearly view this as a handicap for the expression of their political ideas, and Bill Niven (2002, pp. 45 and 56) has suggested that some victims of state socialism have allowed themselves to become complicit in such relativization of the Holocaust. Such concerns might arguably play into the reluctance that Anthony Glees has claimed to observe among Anglo-Saxon scholars to address human rights abuses under state socialist rule, both before and after German unification (Glees 1998).

In this fraught and highly politicized context, it should be stated that this book does not seek to adopt a position of advocacy for any group of victims or for any one interpretation of the past. This may appear to be a ducking-out of the moral responsibility of partisanship on a terrain where much appears to be at stake. I have often found the testimony of victims deeply moving, just as I have equally been troubled by some of the historical interpretations that are put forward in the names of those victims. Nevertheless, it seems to me that any prescription of mine about how their experience should or should not be remembered, although morally self-gratifying for me, would not change the situation with regard to their place in the memory culture of the unified Germany; nor do I possess a position of superior insight into how that memory culture should be formed. More importantly still, such an approach would also leave unquestioned a fundamental assumption implicit in any claim for the importance of one kind of memory of victimhood versus another. That is the assumption that, as a society, we need memory of victims to do moral work. Such a position would assume that it is necessary to achieve a “proper” memory of past suffering in order to express particular values and in order to produce desirable outcomes.

Such a stance would equally leave unquestioned the situation of academic researchers in relation to any such fight for “proper” memory and better outcomes for the victims, an advocacy approach that has been a consistent feature of scholarship on the victims of the SED regime (Schweizer 1999; Siegmund 2003; Guckes 2008). This study will draw for its concrete examples on a number of mechanisms and strategies that have been employed to promote memory of abuses under Soviet occupation and in the GDR. However, what I hope to show is that the abandonment of an advocacy position allows me to analyse not how victims of the SED should be dealt with in contemporary German, but rather to understand how debates about specific constructions of the significance of such victimhood feed into the formulation of policies of transitional justice and historical memory. The reader will note the plural use of the term “constructions” here. As will be set out in Chapter  2, this study proceeds from an avowedly constructivist position in relation to the function of victimhood in relation to the politics of memory and transitional justice, which examines not how victimhood is constructed for society as a whole (if such a thing were possible), but rather analyses how competing constructions of victimhood are produced by the different social systems that contribute to the development of such politics.

In passing, although by no means incidentally, I will note here that the fact that victims of state socialism draw comparisons with the situation of the victims of National Socialism in staking their claim to material and symbolic recognition need not necessarily be analysed in terms of moral condemnation, and indeed that we run the risk of missing something important about victims’ own construction of victimhood when we do. There are doubtless individuals among the victims of state socialism who subscribe to conservative, right-wing and even far-right ideologies, and victims’ organizations have at times struggled since German unification with charges against members and officials that they have expressed such views (Sachse 2012, pp. 58–59; Jander 2013). Leaving aside the plausible suggestion that some of these individuals may have become radicalized through their traumatizing treatment at the hands of the GDR state (Alisch 2014, pp. 148–150), it remains a leap of logic to assume that every time a victim of state socialism or an organization representing them makes reference to the treatment of victims of National Socialism or National Socialist crimes more widely, their purpose is to downplay or relativize the suffering of the victims of National Socialism.

As Bettina Greiner has suggested, we need to recognize that victims of Soviet occupation and the SED regime communicate their sense of victimhood in a context in which, as already noted above, National Socialist persecution has become a model and a yardstick for remembering other crimes. References to National Socialism in victims’ discourse are arguably as much evidence of victims responding to widely circulated conceptions of victim status as they are evidence of unacceptable intent (Greiner 2006, p. 132; cf. Wüstenberg 2017, p. 237). Nevertheless, it will still be important to point out when such comparisons are historically tenuous, and when they may have unfortunate unintended consequences.

Policies for the Past

In light of the discussion above, the central question explored in this book is not: “how should Germany remember state socialism in East Germany and its victims?”; but rather: “how is victimhood constructed by social systems engaged in the formulation and implementation of policies for transitional justice and historical memory in the aftermath of the East German dictatorship?” Secondarily, but no less importantly, I aim to analyse how the constructions of victimhood put forward by these social systems can be said to impact the kinds of policies that do get implemented, therefore having specific effects on the outcomes for victims. While, on the face of it, the process of developing such policy is driven by moral imperatives, I will demonstrate the ways in which systemic factors drive certain kinds of what both Erik Meyer (2008) and Andrew Beattie (2011) call “policies for the past.” This will be set in the wider context of political debate about these policies (what Beattie and Meyer both call “the politics of the past”), but the focus of the research presented here is very much on outcomes in terms of policy implementation, not just directly by the state (“official memory” in Beattie’s terminology), but also by state-sponsored institutions and organizations (what he calls “state-mandated” memory).

So, the question is not: “are victims of the GDR adequately compensated for their suffering?”; but rather: “how is victimhood constructed in the creation of compensation schemes, and what effect does this construction have on the kinds of compensation offered?”; not: “have victims of the GDR regime been adequately commemorated in museums and memorials?”; but rather: “how do the various systems engaged in the creation of such sites conceive of the role and significance of victimhood, and how do such conceptions feed into the particular presentations of history that take place there?”

Through such an approach, this study stakes out a territory at the intersection of the field of enquiry that has become known as memory studies, on the one hand, and the study of transitional justice, on the other. However, my focus will be less on the analysis of any German “collective memory” of the Soviet occupation and the SED regime, and more on the policies that successive governments in the Federal Republic have adopted since the beginning of the Cold War to secure a particular memory of communist rule. Given the strong commitment of the political mainstream in Germany to implement adequate policies to honour the victims, it is notable that those policies have rarely satisfied the victims themselves, or at least not fully. The question therefore remains as to what factors shaped these outcomes, given the apparent will to address the victims’ needs. Therefore, with regard to the understandable frustration of victims of the Soviet occupation and the SED regime that their suffering does not currently play a central enough role in the collective memory of the united Germany, this study is concerned not with the social dynamics of memory that produce such an outcome, but with understanding how the state and its institutions come to formulate particular solutions in an attempt to influence collective memory based on a particular construction of the social and political function of victimhood. In this respect, as will be discussed in more detail in Chapter  2, this study also contributes to the field of study that has in recent decades come to be known as transitional justice, which seeks to understand dealing with the legacies of non-democratic pasts from a policy point of view.

This focus on the state needs to be carefully explained and justified. A number of examples to be analysed in this study do not concern themselves directly with the policies and actions of either governing politicians or state officials. However, it is important to note that the commemoration of the suffering of the victims of the SED regime has been largely a state-funded or a state-subsidized undertaking. The provision of compensation to victims of the SED regime, and indeed of the Soviet occupation that preceded it from 1945 to 1949, has long been a federal responsibility, as will be discussed in Chapter  4 of this study, although individual German regions (Länder) have occasionally provided hardship funds outside of the national provision. In addition, via the Federal Foundation for the Study of the Communist Dictatorship in East Germany, the federal state now provides funds for the running of victims’ associations, the production of their publications, research funding for academic work on the SED dictatorship, and therapy and counselling for victims (see Bundesregierung 2013 for an overview of these activities). In addition, through the mechanism of the Federal Memorial Concept (Gedenkstättenkonzeption des Bundes), the federal government has since 1999 provided funding to memorial museum sites commemorating both the National Socialist and the SED dictatorships, where these are deemed to be of national importance, as co-funder with the individual German Länder in which those sites are located.

As will be discussed in Chapter  5, the priorities and the framing of the Memorial Concept have been the subject of considerable controversy, not least in the eyes of victim groups, and especially because the use of such funds for the development of memorial museums has often been tied to the engagement of historians working as museum professionals at these sites, whose approaches victims have often criticized. Despite these difficulties, whether in matters of compensation or commemoration, victims of the SED regime have consistently turned towards the state and its institutions as a means of securing proper recognition for their past suffering. In light of the above, my understanding of what “policy” constitutes in the fields of memory politics and transitional justice will follow Claus Offe and Ulrike Poppe’s broad definition, which encompasses Beattie’s “official” and “state-mandated” memory: “initiatives taken and strategies chosen or sponsored by state actors (governments, the judiciary, and special agencies constituted by law)” (Offe and Poppe 2006). Clearly, such policy is implicated in a broader “politics of the past,” defined in terms of “an active political influencing of the interpretation of historical events in the service of various political projects” (Heß 2016, p. 103).

This study does not simply focus on public policy on memory and the political debate that surrounds it, however. In terms of the role of the state and the political system in memory policy, it is also necessary to acknowledge that the status of victim is one that is constantly in need of (re)definition, and that victims themselves play an active part in this process, both shaping and shaped by the broader social and cultural context. As noted above, not everyone who might conceivably have suffered harm as a result of Soviet occupation or the SED regime is today classified as a victim, and some categories of victim have a more central role in policies of compensation and commemoration than do others. As I will discuss in Chapter  3, victims, or at least the victims’ organizations that often represent their interests in relation to the political system and the state, find ways of talking about their victim status that allow them to present themselves as legitimate recipients of the symbolic and material resources provided.

This is not to argue that victims only seek to adopt victim status for financial gain (a common and persistent prejudice that reaches back at least to the First World War; Fassin and Rechtman 2009, pp. 41–57), but rather to observe that victims must make their suffering meaningful for the state and for the political system if they are to have a hope of receiving the material and symbolic resources they very often badly need. The construction of a meaningful victimhood is therefore caught between a desire to express and make sense of one’s own suffering (Wilkinson 2005, p. 41), on the one hand, and the recognition that any victim identity must be politically viable (Jacoby 2015, p. 525), on the other. Policymaking in the area of memory and transitional justice can therefore be said both to address victims’ needs and to shape their perception of what it means to be a victim.

Within the framework set out above, this study approaches the politics of memory and transitional justice in such a way as to demonstrate how high-sounding claims for historical justice translate into practical measures to make good that ideal. This is not a claim for objectivity as such, but rather for what German speakers call Wissenschaftlichkeit, and what English speakers would call (social) science. As Niklas Luhmann, whose theoretical insights will inform my analysis, notes, science is a system of communication that sets itself apart from everyday social communication and creates a set of theories and methodologies to make judgements, distinguishing between the true and the false, or rather between what is and is not the case (Luhmann 1992, p. 124). Following this reasoning, this book does not seek to participate in debates about how the victims of the GDR should be remembered, but rather seeks to find ways to analyse how communication about such victimhood takes place in the social and political context of contemporary Germany. Whereas the participants in these debates have knowledge or beliefs that inform their perception of the situation and their communication about it, the purpose of this analysis is to understand how participants in these debates construct the world in which they take place through communication, not to participate in that communication myself.

The Structure of the Book

In exploring constructions of victimhood, this study takes a selective approach, aimed at highlighting the interactions between three main systems implicated in the construction of victimhood and the formulation of policy that seeks to address that condition: the political system, the system of science and the system of protest. While drawing on a range of archival sources, this study is not a work of history as such. It makes no claim to comprehensive coverage of all the wrongs perpetrated during the Soviet occupation of Germany and under the SED regime, nor does it offer a discussion of all of the policies for memory and transitional justice implemented in response to those wrongs both before and after German unification. For example, restitution of property and criminal trials are not covered in detail, although these issues have been addressed in earlier scholarship (e.g. Quint 1997; Borneman 1997; McAdams 2001). Although the chosen case studies span the entire period from the late 1940s until the present day, they have been selected primarily because they help me to show interactions between these three systems, illuminating the process whereby victimhood is made meaningful and by which policies are formulated to address that demand to society as a whole that victimhood represents. Chapter  2 also sets out in more detail the relationship between the study, its theoretical project, and the fields of study on which it draws, namely memory studies and transitional justice.

Chapter  3 concerns itself with the activism of victims’ groups before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of the two post-war German states in 1989/1990. Among the plethora of victims’ associations active at various points throughout this period, it analyses the positions formulated by two of the longest-lived and institutionally most stable associations: the broadly conservative Vereinigung der Opfer des Stalinismus (Association of the Victims of Stalinism, or VOS) and the Arbeitskreis ehemaliger politischer Häftlinge in der SBZ/DDR (Working Group of Former Political Prisoners in the Soviet Zone of Occupation/the GDR), which was affiliated to the Social Democratic Party of German (SPD). This chapter draws on archival research to investigate the changing roles that these organizations proposed for the victims of state socialism who had fled to the Federal Republic, in terms of their utility and status in (West) German society. It also charts the modifications that these positions underwent in response to the changing political climate throughout the various phases of the Cold War. In doing so, it focuses on the dealings of victims’ organizations with the state and with the political parties that offered them patronage. The central thesis of the chapter will be that victim activism consists to a large extent of maintaining communication about the nature of victimhood within the system of protest, a communication that intersects (sometimes uneasily) with the priorities the political system on which victims rely for influence and status.

Chapter  4 focuses on the renewed debate around compensation for the victims of state socialism both before after German unification. While the matter of such compensation had been deemed largely settled by the 1980s in the Federal Republic, a new impetus to address the suffering of victims in the first democratically elected Volkskammer of the GDR shortly before unification, and the arrival on the scene of new victims’ organizations founded in the GDR itself brought about a reopening of the compensation question, leading to a series of legislative measures over the next decade and a half. This chapter will examine the interactions between the victims’ organizations, operating within the system of protest, and the political system to determine the factors that led to the particular kind of compensation scheme that was eventually (although incrementally) introduced. It will also investigate the ways in which, more recently, activists have sought to expand the boundaries of the status of victimhood in order to bring others (specifically, those interned in the GDR’s punitive children’s homes) within the framework of the compensation legislation. The chapter ends with a consideration of attempts to highlight other abuses experienced by victims as deserving further compensation, specifically in relation to the question of forced labour ( Zwangsarbeit ) by political prisoners in the GDR.

Chapter  5 investigates the creation of memorial museums designed to commemorate the victims of the Soviet occupation and subsequent GDR regime. The chapter pays attention to the role of historians and museum professionals in the debates over the creation of such memorials and asks what is at stake when historians and victims find themselves in conflict. The chapter works on a selective, yet comparative basis, highlighting debates in two different German regions, the city-state of Berlin and the state of Brandenburg. It argues that the specific party-political constellations at work in these two contexts have had a significant impact on the development of memorial museum sites, but that the final outcomes in terms of how the policy to create individual museums played out in their overall conception and design were not uniform. This chapter’s thesis will be that memorial museum design is ultimately the outcome of a complex set of interactions between the political system (at both national and regional level), the system of science that determines the communication of historians and museum professionals, and the system of protest that frames the discourse of the victims’ associations.

Archival Source

BT-Drs. = Drucksache des Deutschen Bundetages.


  1. 1.

    All translation from the German are my own.


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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Clarke
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Modern LanguagesCardiff UniversityCardiffUK

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