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Repression and Degradation: The Problems Facing Postwar East Germany

Book Essay on: Werner Knop, Prowling Russia’s Forbidden Zone
(New York: Curtis Publishing, 1948), 188 pages.
UCSB: DD257.4.K6

by Adam Wenger
June 5, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
at amazon

About Adam Wenger

I am a second year history major, whose focus thus far has been on 20th century European and American history. Growing up as a Jew, I have always held a keen interest in German history and society. I have watched countless documentaries and read many articles on Germany, but up until this point I had never taken a course that covers its history so extensively. I chose this book to get a better sense of the divide between Western and Eastern Germany, especially in the direct aftermath of the Second World War.

Abstract (back to top)

Werner Knop’s book chronicles life inside Soviet occupied East Germany in 1948. As he travels illegally under the auspices of old friends and colleagues and with the aid of false papers, he witnesses the complete degradation that has befallen East Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War. The economy is in ruin, the Communist propaganda machine is in full swing, and living conditions are reprehensible when compared to the West. The repression and degradation witnessed at the time of his visit allow Knop to expose the Germans’ response to such conditions: that of unrelenting hatred and disdain for their Soviet occupiers. Knop goes on to argue, rather effectively, that this hatred taints the minds of East Germans, allowing them to ignore the past injustices of Nazism, as they redirect their angst towards the Soviet regime.

Essay (back to top)

Book Summary:

This memoir describes in detail the travels of a German born United States journalist, Werner Knop, through Russian occupied Germany in 1948. Having discussed with his US colleagues the inability of Western media to enter the Soviet zone of Germany, Knop takes it upon himself to embark on a chilling journey into the Soviet controlled territory. Being able to speak German like the Germans, and having the right friends needed to establish a network once he arrives, Knop is adequately prepared when he crosses into the “most closely guarded frontier in Europe” (13). He makes the grueling border crossing with the guidance of a hardened, elderly man. One he arrives safely in the Soviet zone, Knop is left alone to make his way through East Germany, with only a stack of German stamped notes and forged identity papers to get by. His travels take him from Weimar to Dresden as he traverses the Russian Zone, bearing witness to the poverty and barbarism the Soviets have wrought upon its subjects.

The first town Knop arrives in is Gernrode. Here he has his first encounter with Communist propaganda, something he continues to see in great quantity throughout his stay. He also has his first run in with the law, having to show his false papers to two policeman who question him on Berlin and his views regarding the potential for war. The uncertainty with which the Soviet policeman discuss the possibility of war with the United States illustrates what goes on to become a recurring theme in the story: that of a growing sense of dubiety—both from the German and Russian perspective—within the populace, in regards to the future stability of the Soviet zone.

After hitchhiking to the town of Jena, Knop befriends a German woman who sheds light on the inefficacy of Soviet occupation. She laments the failed currency reform:

“A year ago we in the Soviet zone thought we were better off than the people in the West. Today we see that we are ruined, whereas the Western Germans seem to be really over the hump now” (40).

Indeed, Knop is overwhelmed with the apparent poverty present. In an attempt to highlight the problem, he comments on the poor quality of bicycles found in Jena when compared with those from Western Germany.

In Leipzig, Knop meets an old friend and member of the Socialist underground. He learns about the Soviets’ technique of sympathizing with former Nazis in their attempt to win over East German sentiment. Knop leaves his friend and continues to travel through the Soviet zone, where he witnesses the failure of land reforms and the inability of the Soviets to adequately feed the German people. He describes the Russian zone of Germany as “the worst-fed part of Europe” (78). From Dresden to Plauen, Knop comes to grips with the bleak reality that is the Soviet zone: a war-torn, impoverished territory, scene to oppression and injustice.


In Werner Knop’s Prowling Russia’s Forbidden Zone, the author recounts his time spent in Eastern Germany in 1948. The book is entirely anecdotal, as Knop never uses any outside sources. He chooses rather to rely on his own knowledge of the time period for historical context. In doing so, Knop makes his report that much more believable, as well as visceral. It is easy to overlook his extremely pro Western bias due to his compelling narrative and telling dialogue. Knop’s main objective is to expose the social and economic problems facing Soviet controlled Germany, from rampant poverty to the ill effects of Communist propaganda. The book also focuses on the damage the Soviets wrought on the German populace, both physically and ideologically. The systematic destruction of cultural and historical sites, the deportation of prominent scientists and engineers, and the troubling renazification process implemented by the Soviets are all topics of Knop’s discussion. In all, his memoir reveals the complete degradation that befell the German public in the direct aftermath of Word War II, due to the utter exploitation of Germany’s people and resources.

Knop argues that Russia’s refusal to accept the terms of the Marshal Plan and implement Western ideas into East Germany, coupled with the Soviet government’s tenacity in maintaining a Communist stronghold on Eastern Europe, by whatever means necessary, ultimately led to economic crisis. In turn, this economic crisis brought about major food shortages, failed land and currency reforms, and a ghastly future of repression, which resulted in the collective disdain of the German public towards its Russian occupiers. However, before the Germans could think about freeing themselves from Soviet oppression, they must first come to grips with their own past, and their own problems. Only then could they expect to rid themselves of Soviet repression. He claims that living conditions are entirely reprehensible when compared with the West, and that the political fear created by the Russians was equally bad, if not worse than conditions under Nazism. He also holds that the Russians will continue their occupation of Eastern Germany until America and its Western allies forcibly run the Soviet regime out of the country. Finally, he suggests that it is the Soviet goal of acquiring world wide Communist dominance that ultimately compels the Russians to maintain their stranglehold on Eastern Germany.

One of Knop’s recurring observations is the overwhelming poverty present in the Soviet zone. Without Western aid, the Soviet zone was left in shambles. From the peoples’ clothing, to the bicycles and trains they ride, everything in Eastern Germany was decrepit in comparison with the West. Knop describes the Soviet zone trains as the most “dangerous and unreliable mediums of transportation in present-day Europe” (50). The seats have been stripped to make firewood, the windows broken, and the bathrooms filthy (ibid). With a complete disregard for the German people, the Russians removed thousands of miles of tracks as reparations, making missed connections and belated arrivals commonplace. The Soviets felt that Communism would be able to flourish under a revived Russian economy. Only then could Germany be built up and unified under Communism, serving as a symbol of Soviet might. Knop maintains that “Soviet policy in Germany, as everywhere in Europe, is expansionist by virtue of the dynamics of a totalitarian regime that regards world-wide rule as its basic objective” (197).

Along with the poverty came subsequent food shortages. As result of these food shortages, those living in the Soviet zone were given food rations. Knop learns that the average “consumer,” receives 1,250 calories a day, whereas his counterpart in the West receives 2,200, which leads him to describe the Russian zone of Germany as the worst fed part of Europe (78). With the stereotypical image of a robust Communist leader ingrained in the minds of most Germans, food rations and shortages that fed the affluent and not the poor angered the populace. When people spoke out against the system of rationing, however, they were quickly silenced. Knop recalls the story of one woman who stole potatoes from a field only to be sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp (79). The ruthlessness of the Russian police, coupled with the knowledge that much of the potato supply was being used by the Soviets to make Schnapps, left many Germans embittered. It became hard not to compare the Soviet occupation with Nazi policy of the past. Knop was undoubtedly aware of the toughness, resourcefulness, and cleverness Soviet policy shared with Nazism (90).

The Soviets understood the similarities that existed, and intentionally attracted former Nazis. Knop reflects on the process, which historians have termed renazification:

“The Russians are appealing increasingly to the pathological fringe of German nationalism—the embittered former Nazis, the jobless high officers of Hitler’s armed forces, the same unprincipled but efficient mercenaries who started to undermine the democratic republic of Weimar twenty five years ago” (85).

For a country struggling with the horrors of its past and the shame and guilt that accompanied it, seeing perfect replicas of SS men marching down the street three years after Hitler’s suicide could not be reassuring. The Soviets hoped that by ending denazification, and by reintegrating former Nazis into the government, they could unite Germans under Communism. Knop is unsure how successful the Russians will be in their goals, but nevertheless agrees that the Nazis and Russians compliment one another in their lust for power and hatred for Western democracy (89).

Knop’s recognition of the German peoples apparent hatred of all things Communist is well documented in his memoir. Whether it was the failed land reforms, the repugnant treatment of German POWs, or the Soviets ability to squash any hope of a spiritual revival in the Soviet zone, East Germans had many reasons to be filled with animosity towards their occupiers. Nearly three years after the end of warfare, there were still close to a million Germans being held prisoner in the Soviet Union (113). And as Knop explains, at the “current rate of repatriation, several hundred thousand men would still be in Russia by the middle of 1949, four years after the end of hostilities” (ibid). Knop’s East German friends constantly refer to what the author calls the “injustices” committed by the victors against the German people, including, among other things, the holding of war prisoners, the driving out of millions of Germans from Polish-occupied Germany, and the Soviets' slave-labor policy in the uranium mines of Saxony (115). The hatred for the Russians seems to overshadow all other emotions, including personal responsibility for the war and its repercussions. Of all the Germans Knop encounters, only one, referred to as Herr P, refuses to deflect the crises of occupied Germany onto the hands of the victors. He brazenly rebukes his peers:

“Have you forgotten the words ‘Ye have ploughed wickedness, ye have reaped iniquity? Surely the Russians would not be here today, our cities would not be destroyed, if we as a nation had not gone to war?” (116).

The terrible poverty existed. So too did farms so small that families were forced to live in mud huts, without tools, fertilizer, or machinery (70). Those who spoke out against Russian oppression could be deported to concentration camps or killed (73). Knop understands the injustices, and so too do his German confidants. It is incredibly difficult to justify the Russian actions. Soviet Communists, such as one Knop meets named Klein, would argue that “it wouldn’t have been right to have the Germans remain at their high standard of living while the Russian peoples’ standard was, perhaps, fifty per cent lower” (174). Indeed, Russia suffered insurmountable losses in the war, incomparable to any other nation involved. In the film, “The Rape of Europa,” which chronicles the looting of European art during the Second World War, a Communist official in Russia explains that every single Russian family lost someone to the war. He accounts for the Soviet looting of German art during the Russian occupation as a means of reparation.

Still, the sending of 50,000 Germans to concentration camps was completely unjustified and deserving of outrage (73). Yet, despite the danger East Germans faced at the hands of their Soviet occupiers, there was a greater danger rooted in their hatred for the Russians. Herr P describes this threat to Knop:

“…we are in the gravest danger—and I’m afraid most of us have succumbed to it by now—of being hypnotized by our ordeal and of completely forgetting that we unloosed the flood. If we continue along this path of nourishing our grievances, then the Russians will have defeated us…” (120).

Ultimately, the popular discontent welled up inside the Soviet zone would only lead the Russians to “pull the reins of terror and persecution tighter and tighter” (197). When Werner Knop wrote this report, he and his confidants had no way of knowing it would be more than forty years before Eastern Germany would be liberated. What Knop did understand at the time, mirroring the sentiment of Herr P, was that the Germans were “again threatening to jeopardize their future by crying for the moon” (194). In 1948, East Germany was being sucked dry, victim to Soviet exploitation. As Knop returned to America, free to reflect on his travels, his words foreshadowed the inauspicious future Soviet occupation held in store for East Germany.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 6/14/07)

Book Review

  • The Russian Review, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Jan., 1950) pp. 69-70. A very brief, and slightly subjective review of Knop’s book. It discredits the American journalist for his investigative, sneaky approach to his writings, but acclaims it as one of the only reliable accounts of Soviet Germany.

Related Books

  1. A Woman in Berlin (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), 288 pages.
    Tells the gripping story of German women who were victims of rape by Soviet troops occupying Berlin and East Germany. It provides yet another reason for East German hatred towards Soviet occupation.
  2. Mark Allison, Politics and Popular Opinion in East Germany 1945-68 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 256 pages.
    A broad look into postwar East Germany and Soviet occupation. The book examines how East German citizens reacted to Soviet policy, offering insight into the development of German disdain and hatred for their occupiers.
  3. Norman Naimark, The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945-1949 (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1995) 608 pages.
    Explores in further detail Soviet policy in postwar East Germany, including the consequences facing East Germans, such as rape and repression. Offers valuable insight into the Soviet perspective as well.

External Links

  • Robert Wise, “Occupation,” 3 July 2003, <http://www.robertwise.com/occupation.htm>
    This site gives a detailed and concise analysis of postwar occupation in both East and West Germany. It highlights the socio-economic problems facing East Germany.
  • Washington Post, “Germany,”
    This extensive overview of German history sheds light on the economic instability of East Germany following WWII, comparing it with the West. It is very useful in that it supports statistics used by Knop in his book.
  • Hist 133c review: Aaron Johnson on Wilfred Burchett, The Cold War in Germany (Melbourne: World Unity Publications, 1950).
    This book presents the view of a British journalist who traveled in Germany and the Soviet Union for three years after World War II ended.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 6/13/07; last updated: 6/14/07
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