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Returnees, Memory and the State:
Book Essay on: Frank Biess, Homecomings: Returning POWs and the Legacies of Defeat in Postwar Germany
by Mackenzie Weinger
for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
About Mackenzie Weinger
I am a third-year history major with a focus on Europe, particularly Germany and Austria. I spent the summer after my freshman year traveling throughout the two countries while I attended a study program based in Vienna. I chose to write about this book by Frank Biess for two main reasons. One, my brother took his class at UC San Diego and recommended his book to me, and two, because I have previously studied the Wehrmacht and was intrigued by what happened to the soldiers in the post-war environment.
Abstract (back to top)
Frank Biess presents a study of the POWs who returned from the Soviet Union, using them as a lens to develop a comparative study of the two post-war Germanys. Throughout his book, Biess traces the experiences of the men with their respective governments of East or West Germany, as well as the psychological and cultural issues associated with their return. Biess argues that both the legacies of defeat and the burgeoning move toward redemptive narratives embodied by the returning soldiers shaped the German view of WWII history. Each government tried to shape the POWs into a particular type - either as post-totalitarian citizens who transcended suffering in the West, or as diehard antifascists in the East - in order to overcome the epic losses of the wartime years. Yet with that as the focus, Biess makes it clear through the use of government documents, personal letters, and media sources that the treatment and memorialization of the POWs also made it very difficult for Germans to deal with their Nazi past.
Essay (back to top)
Homecomings: Returning POWs and the Legacies of Defeat in Postwar Germanyexamines the circumstances, as well as the consequences, of the return to East and West Germany of the two million soldiers and POWs who spent time in Soviet captivity. Biess traces the experience of the Heimkehrer – the returnees – as well as their symbolic role in East and West German politics and memories of the war. In identifying returnees as a major social and political issue found in both societies, and in comparing and contrasting the different reactions of East and West Germans and their governments to the returnees, Biess is able to build a comparative study of the post-war Germanys and discuss a variety of questions focused on memory and citizenship, both particular to POWs and broadly to the two Germanys.
By examining and deconstructing the returnee experience – as well as the important political, symbolic and cultural roles the POWs played – Biess is able to highlight the similarities and differences of the two Germanys in the context of the problem both shared. Germany's legacies of defeat, as Biess argues, can be seen to be embodied and reflected in the POWs and the public's response to them through the redemptive narratives developed by both East and West. The redemptive narratives made the POWs an integral part of the rebuilding – spiritually, culturally and socially – of the two Germanys and left little room for dealing with the past. As Biess contends, it allowed for the two states to have a future-oriented existence centered on the transformation of their societies according to their chosen ideologies, but not on finding peace with the past. The West viewed the returning POWs as victims of the Soviets who transcended their experience, while the East cast them as men transformed by the antifascist schooling they had received in captivity. Biess demonstrates that neither East nor West dwelled on the POWs' role in the Wehrmacht, which he successfully marks as one of the main reasons for the problem of German memory of the Nazi period. His history of the aftermath of World War II uses the POWs as his lens to comparatively study the histories of the two Germanys, and it is stunningly effective.
To develop his argument, Biess utilizes many primary source documents, such as archival documents of letters and government reports, personal interviews, artwork and newspaper articles. Biess also intersperses his argument with a discussion of psychology and medical information on the returned POWs, and additionally emphasizes the memorial practices associated with POWs.
From War to Postwar
Biess' first section analyzes official and public responses to the major wartime losses, as well as the increasing number of MIAs and POWs after 1943. In doing so, Biess develops a thesis that shows the importance of what he deems “inward turn,” or the focus on personal grievances connected to the total moral and emotional disengagement from the Nazis' victims and actions (Biess, 31). What part, Biess asks, would the returning POWs – one of the clearest symbols of the Third Reich and its failures – play in postwar Germany? Biess uses this section of the book to examine the discourse of victimization and break down the narratives of victimization in East and West.
Biess uses letters from ordinary Germans to portray that most saw themselves as the true victims of war and dictatorship, and thus defined their postwar memory in the guise of victimhood. In one letter Frau R. writes that the returning POWs from the Soviet Union were “ ‘not comparable with the German concentration camps.' It was, in fact, ‘much worse'” (Biess, 52). Many families became focused on finding their loved ones, and drew back into a world focused on a personal desire for reuniting with them. As Biess notes, German awareness of guilt and responsibility did not turn into dealing with the past, but blaming the Allies for German suffering and centering their thoughts on reuniting with the ‘victims,' the POWs.
Biess also shows how important social and political forces in the West, such as the church and the SPD, wielded German victimhood for their own benefit, and thus perpetuated the myth. For example, “the POWs issue enabled the churches to criticize alleged Allied ‘injustices' while also allowing them to identify with German popular suffering,” (Biess 56) and it offered the SPD the chance to express their anti-Communist feelings (Biess, 59).
As for the East, they cast the POWs, and in conjunction, memory of the war, in the context of fascism as the primary victimizer. With the return of thousands of POWs from Eastern Europe, Wilhelm Pieck, in a welcoming speech on 10 August 1946,
Biess's chapter on the medical and psychological evaluation of the POWs details several individual cases. This section is less argument-oriented, and much more focused on relaying factual information about the POWs. However, this chapter is important in the book's context and in understanding the POW experience, and it does offer an important point in analyzing the trauma of returnees and the way East and West viewed wartime memories. In West Germany, POWs were diagnosed with ‘dystrophy,' which doctors linked solely to their time in captivity – thus “the diagnosis precluded, by definition, any extended discussion of the potentially traumatic impact of the military experience itself” (Biess, 74). As Biess shows in the first section, using first person narratives such as interviews, memoirs, and letters, as well as social and political information and medical records, the wartime and immediate postwar experiences of Germany and POWs reinforced the narratives of victimization.
In the attempt of both East and West to make citizens, Biess argues that each created a “redemptive narrative” for the returnees, and he uses this section to detail the respective memory narratives and show how each side cast POWs as symbols to most effectively work with the state's ideology. In the West, the focus was on postwar reconstruction and transforming citizens. In the East, the government portrayed the POWs as ideal future citizens who underwent antifascist conversions in captivity.
Biess presents art historical and propaganda materials that back up his argument for a “redemptive narrative” in the West connected with postwar re-Christianization. Biess demonstrates this by giving examples of the iconography associated with returnees that developed in which “Christian imagery turned returned POWs into a potent symbol for a society in the aftermath of total defeat” (Biess, 99). He discusses two exhibitions that included art depicting POWs as Christ-like sufferers, such as one of a bronze relief which showed a POW crucified in a fence of barbed wire (Biess, 101). By giving examples of how the “redemptive narrative” entered society in verbal, religious and artistic motifs, Biess effectively shows how important this device was in recasting wartime memories.
While the East did not share the memory of POWs as having undergone a Christ-like martyrdom, it did also perpetuate a kind of religious narrative to encompass its returnees – that of “antifascist conversions” (Biess, 126). As Biess writes, “much like Christian memories in the West, official East German memories portrayed returnees' experience in terms of a pseudoreligious progression leading from confession to conversion to redemption” (Biess, 127). Of course, in East Germany's case, it was a redemptive narrative making the POW a symbol in the longed for national conversion to East German ideology. Biess describes at length the antifascist schools for POWs that attempted to ‘convert' the returnees upon arrival in East Germany (Biess, 131). However, Biess does note how the East German government was often unsuccessful in transforming the POWs or re-defining their memories. He offers several primary source examples, such as how former returnees interrupted a speech, yelling “we do not want to have anything to do with the Russians” (Biess, 143). Biess demonstrates clearly that East German official memory did not always correlate with private memory.
Biess follows this broad, comparative study of POWs in memory and the state with a chapter detailing the way returnees faced parallel exclusion by each society – through the West German trials and the East German purges. Biess traces several individual trials – which were most often set in motion by accusations of returnees against fellow POWs – and details how they “offered one more opportunity to deflect charges of ‘crimes against humanity' away from postwar (West) Germans and toward Soviet Communism” (Biess, 155). While much evidence had to be brought forth in the West German trials – the government did its best to uphold the rule of law it in the court proceedings – “the POW trials did not initiate a more comprehensive legal confrontation with the past and instead contributed to its increasing obfuscation” (Biess, 162) by “subordinating German violence to violence committed under the auspices of Communist dictatorship” (Biess, 166).
The East's purges sought to exclude POWs as well, but focused on those who had been in captivity in the West – they were seen as potential subversives due to their exposure to Western thought, even if they had been antifascists during the war (Biess, 168). Biess shows through several individual cases – such as Wilhelm G, whose simple participation in a US reeducation course caused his removal from party positions for “reasons of principle” (Biess, 170) – how years of party membership could be nullified due to being a POW in a Western zone.
Both the trials and the purges served as a way for each government to redefine how the public – and POWs themselves – remembered the Nazi years. Furthermore, as Biess shows with court documents, letters from soldiers and SED reports, the trials and purges served as a way to define Germany's legacies of defeat by highlighting the time soldiers spent in captivity over the time in the Wehrmacht. As Biess demonstrates, the redemptive memory narratives – which cast the POWs as a critical part of the rebuilding of the two Germanys – also left little room for dealing with the past.
Biess begins his third with a discussion of the 5 May 1950 statement by the Soviet news agency TASS that announced the end of POW repatriation from the Soviet Union (Biess, 179). This sent many ordinary Germans into an uproar, and on the political stage was used in Cold War propaganda battles by both sides. The announcement – and the subsequent positions taken by the two governments – shaped commemorative practices and set into place a division between the government and families, particularly in the East.
In the West, Biess makes clear that some politicians did indeed mislead the public by making the POW issue an important political and Cold War subject. For example, Adenauer said the TASS announcement “left unclear ‘the fate of 1.5 million POWs'” (Biess, 180), clearly combining the categories of POWs and MIAs. Thus, the “alleged withholding of hundreds of thousands of German POWs quickly became a weapon in the propaganda battles of the Cold War” (Biess, 181), which helped West Germany integrate itself into the Western sphere by showing it was a victim of the Soviet Union.
The commemoration in the West focused on making absent POWs visible. Biess gives examples of “weeks of remembrance and days of loyalty [that] served to remind all West Germans of the fate of POWs still held in the Soviet Union” (Biess, 186). With this constant reminder, Biess emphasizes how the still-captive POWs represented a sense that the war had not ended in West German consciousness, and how it also perpetuated the myth of victimhood. West Germans also conflated POWs and convicted war criminals still imprisoned by the Allies (Biess, 191), and in doing so, could define such criminals as returnees that could therefore be welcomed and included in postwar society. This was perpetuated by West German officials, Biess shows, such as federal president who Theodor Heuss criticized European nations for allegedly stripping POWs of their human rights (Biess, 192), in a clear moment of connecting POWs with war criminals held in the West. Biess successfully argues that “West Germans thus gradually extended the assumptions of innocence from POWs in the Soviet Union to virtually all Germans who had been interned by the Victors of the Second World War” (Biess, 192), thus creating a “postwar community of solidarity” (Biess, 193).
Unlike in the West, which transferred war criminals into the same category as POWs, the East saw the POWs as the Soviet government had convicted them – as criminals, and denied them the status of “antifascist-democratic” citizens (Biess, 196). The East also had a great divide between public and private feelings of the POWs. The public, and particularly the wives of absent POWs, sent many petitions to the government, and often believed – in stark contrast to the official line – that the POWs were not war criminals (Biess, 198).
With the return of the last POWs in 1953-4 and 1955-56, both societies were deeply affected, Biess argues. In the West, “it signaled the end of the direct consequences of the war as well as the symbolic completion of postwar society” while in the East, “the return of the POWs removed a potentially destabilizing issue from relations between the SED and the East German population” (Biess, 202).
In the West, it signified the transformation from ‘victims' into ‘survivors' in public memory (Biess, 203), and also served to complete the body politic in the minds of the people. While some people were angry about Adenauer's meeting with Moscow and normalizing relations with the Soviet Union, “these interventions demonstrated [that] the return of the last POWs signified the reconstitution of West Germany as a nation while cementing the German division” (Biess, 209). Furthermore, Biess notes the importance in the media of highlighting family reunification – for example, a West German magazine adding the headline “Reunification” to a picture of a husband and wife (Biess, 209) – thus representing the demand for reunification of the family over Germany itself. Yet the return also opened up new possibilities, Biess suggests, for Germans to confront the issues of wartime guilt and responsibility. As a result of the return, Biess claims, West Germany's politics of memory underwent a stunning transformation in the decades to come (Biess, 226).
In the East, the government largely failed at imposing official memory on the people. It also undermined many people's views of the SED. One woman said she
Most people also did not accept the label of ‘war criminal' on the POWs, and one example of many that Biess cites is that of a Stasi official's declaration that “the population has not been enlightened enough, because it does not understand the difference between POWs and criminals” (Biess, 223). As the official and personal narratives of the last returnees did not match up, Biess defines East German memory as remaining static and cold (Biess, 226).
Biess has written a history filled with first-person accounts, sources from multiple archives and newspapers, and a variety of published works on a subject that truly illuminates the two postwar Germanys. While his discourse does not always provide pertinent comparisons – he highlights West German artistic representations of POWs, for example, but offers no insight into how the East represented them visually – and sometimes uses small incidents to make sweeping claims, Biess's book is filled with unparalleled insight on the topic. Another aspect that Biess may have overlooked is detailed in the review from the Institute of Historical Research, which wonders “if Biess might not have underplayed one of the motives for the ‘antifascist conversion' narrative – namely wishful thinking” (Niven, 4). Certainly that is a valid point, but it does not lessen the symbolic importance of East Germany trying to impose that narrative.
This book would make an important read for any person interested in German history, the politics of memory – how memory is portrayed and in what ways societies and individuals accept and respond to it – or what happens to soldiers when a war ends. Biess provides a wealth of details to back up his claims, and uses each chapter to build on his comparative thesis and prove the importance of POWs to German memory, politics and culture in the postwar period.
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