The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 797-799
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Caritas in der SBZ/DDR, 1945-1989: Erinnerungen, Berichte, Forschungen. Edited by Christoph Kösters. (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh Verlag. 2001. Pp. 257. DM 29.90 paperback.)
This volume is the result of a closed meeting sponsored by the German Catholic Kommission für Zeitgeschichte and the Deutsche Caritas Verband, the German equivalent to Catholic Charities. Particular themes were the adaptation of the organization to the demands of the times, the role of Caritas in providing social services, especially healthcare, the role of the western Caritas to support the organization in the East, and the complex relationship between Caritas and the East German regime. The contributions range widely in quality. In this, they reflect the wide spectrum in which the German public is engaging the history of the German Democratic Republic. Many of the articles are personal reminiscences about the work of Caritas under East German rule. The volume does include some very well researched contributions, such as that of Christoph Kösters on the relationship between the secret police and Caritas, Josef Pilvousek' s contribution on the role of Caritas in everyday life, and Silvia Kroll's article on the training of Caritas employees. Especially useful is Hans Günter Hockerts' discussion of the term Fürsorgesozialismus, perhaps best translated as benevolently paternalistic socialism. Hockerts argues that this term insinuates a harmlessness on the part of the regime, which never existed. To judge by this volume, one should rather speak of a socialism characterized by material and idealistic needs and wants. Caritas helped meet these needs and wants and thus was able to ensure its continued existence. The other reason Caritas survived in the GDR while it perished in other communist countries was its early [End Page 797] integration into ecclesiastical structures. This process already had begun during the NS-period in order to save Caritas institutions from seizure by the Nazi welfare organization NSV (Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt).
Less useful for scholarly understanding are those contributions that one would characterize as personal memories. Many of them raise more questions than they answer. An example of this is the article by Attorney Wolfgang Vogel, the controversial attorney who handled emigration questions of a humanitarian nature for the GDR government (exit visas for political refugees in return for hard currency payments to the GDR government). Vogel prides himself in having had long-standing friendly relations with Monsignor Zinke, the head of the Caritas co-ordinating offices in both halves of Berlin. Here some critical analysis would have been welcome.
Many of the contributions are frustrating for two reasons. First, much content is repeated from article to article—the editor should have wielded a sharper knife. Secondly, often interesting questions are raised briefly but not developed. Examples of this are the secret police's toleration of the apparently well-known smuggling of currency and goods in the vehicles of Caritas leaders or of the practice of having lecturers at Caritas seminars and conferences enter the GDR on a one-day tourist visa. More important, however, is the problem that few of the articles go beyond organizational history or personal reminiscences. Even in the otherwise useful summary conclusion, there is no analysis of the role of Caritas in the everyday life of East Germany from the perspective of its beneficiaries and its employees. For example, in contrast to the West, in the GDR "Catholic Church" was identified by many as meaning Catholic hospitals and care centers. How did communist administrators act when they had to refer people to Caritas institutions for services only these could offer? How did the employees of Caritas, especially the lay employees, live out their lives in a society that placed them "out of bounds." Beyond the fact that training and educational studies completed under the auspices of Caritas largely were denied recognition by the regime, one learns little. It would also be interesting to discover what innovative suggestions Caritas work in the GDR, closely identified with the work of the Church, might have had to make...