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Biography 26.4 (2003) 774-779

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Catherine Epstein. The Last Revolutionaries: German Communists and Their Century. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003. 322 pp. ISBN 0-674-01045-0, $29.95.

Catherine Epstein's collective biography of eight East German communist leaders covers the period from the Weimar Republic to a few years beyond the downfall of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1989. The two central figures, Walter Ulbricht and his successor Erich Honecker, are familiar names, though together with their other comrades much remains murky and mysterious to the average westerner. Ms. Epstein has succeeded admirably in lifting the veil, or should one say curtain, that hitherto has shrouded the lives and philosophy of these seven men and one woman. Far from being identical political peas in a pod, they are revealed as individuals of varied backgrounds and life experience who were capable of extremes of sacrifice and selfishness, loyalty and betrayal, dedication and intolerance, yet without exception remaining steadfastly loyal to the creed that bound them together.

For communism to its dedicated followers was tantamount to an all-consuming religion. They saw themselves and the KPD, the Communist Party of Germany, as the chosen people whom History one day would surely vindicate. Seen in this light, their sufferings in the concentration camps and in [End Page 774] exile were to be borne with fortitude. The years spent in underground opposition were their catacombs; men such as their murdered leaders Karl Liebknecht and Ernst Th¨almann their saints. In Marx and Lenin they could also quote scripture, while Trotskyism provided a convenient heresy.

The glorious dawn came in 1945 when the Red Army liberated Germany from the Nazis. Here, surely, was the historic moment for which they had endured so much, the Russian zone the Promised Land which they and their comrades despite the ravages of war would eventually turn into a proletarian paradise. Many German communist veterans were secretly dismayed at the Soviet dismantling of whole industries as war reparations, the raping of women, and the forced collectivization of agriculture. But any criticism was muted, as were the many bitter personal rivalries. Votes were invariably unanimous; opposition to the party line (if any) was rarely recorded.

In April 1946 the old antagonists, the KPD and the SPD (Social Democratic Party), were merged into the SED, the Socialist Unity Party, in effect establishing communist control over the Soviet zone of occupation. At first during the Aufbau (reconstruction) period the communists appeared moderate, even democratic, but their lack of practical experience in administration and their inability, or unwillingness, to work with others—any "loyal opposition" was an oxymoron—soon revealed their true colors.

Who were these new rulers of the Eastern Zone? What was their background? As Epstein makes clear, to understand the inflexibility of the GDR geriatric leadership, one must go back to the chaotic years following Germany's defeat in 1918 and to the agitated period of the 1920s known as the Weimar Republic. The postwar street fighting and mutual antipathy of the SPD and KPD led to the violent oppression of the latter in May 1919. The later history of agitators, purges, intolerance, and liquidations dates right from the beginning: "KPD members . . . learned unceasing and vitriolic factionalism as a way of life in the party," with enemies and conspiracies surrounding them on all sides.

To ensure the KPD's survival, a fervent loyalty was demanded of all party members, who in turn structured their lives around the movement (one comrade who gave the party top priority even forgot to show up on his wedding day). To the true believers, communism became a way of life—a family that, whatever the tensions and hatreds, forged bonds that could never be broken. Remarkably few of the party leaders, especially the veterans of the Front and Lost Generations, forsook the KPD despite later purges, solitary confinement, and torture during the Nazi tyranny. To quote Epstein: "The sanctity of party discipline, the fear of factions, the purging of real or suspected opponents, and the authoritarian hierarchy that characterized East [End Page 775] German politics...


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