- Suppressed Terror: History and Perception of Soviet Special Camps in Germany by Bettina Greiner
In the twenty-five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, historians and the German public have begun constructing a unified history of twentieth-century Germany. The fall of the GDR meant access to new sources and investigations of long taboo subjects, such as mass rapes in the Soviet Occupation Zone. Bettina Greiner’s newly translated monograph, Suppressed Terror, presents a topic largely unexamined in the English-language literature on the postwar period. Her exhaustive exploration of the experience and memory of Soviet special detention camps from 1945 to 1950 offers a new lens through which to view violence, memory, justice, victimhood, and guilt in the Soviet Occupation Zone and beyond. Greiner reminds her reader that these Soviet special camps, detention centers set up in former Nazi concentration camps across the Soviet zone of occupation, have struggled to find a place within a German narrative. Historians and the public alike have labeled them as tools of denazification, examples of arbitrary Soviet justice, or failings of the subsequent East German system of justice. Based on memoirs, testimonies, and documents from former camp detainees and camp archives, her study documents the purpose of the camps, the experience of detention, and the role that detention memoirs have played in individual narratives and German public memory.
Greiner argues that special camps were not a systematic form of denazification or reeducation, but that Soviet authorities used detention as a tool to address security concerns. Without access to clear Soviet documentation on the purpose of the camps, she bases her argument on the ages of detainees, the culture of denunciation [End Page 201] and forced confession, and the laws under which Soviet authorities held or charged individuals. Drawing on detention memoirs and testimonies provided after release, Greiner traces the story of inmates from arrest and interrogation through daily life in detention, camp hierarchies, and tensions within fractured camp communities. In evaluating these sources, Greiner situates each description of trauma and individual attempt to make sense of the experience in the testimonies of other detainees and other available camp records. Her examination of denunciation for detainees’ internal narrative is particularly astute. The seemingly rampant denunciations of real or fictional wartime and postwar crimes meant that, for detainees, “German social cohesion … proved elusive” (113). Greiner argues, however, that they used the frequency of such denunciations to try to demonstrate their own innocence. While this chapter provides an interesting model for the use of memoirs and allows detainees to voice their experience of violence, Greiner at times falls prey to the same stark break between World War II and the postwar that her subjects impose on their stories.
Greiner draws on literature from psychology, literary theory, and memory studies to explain the need of former detainees to be acknowledged as victims, society’s reluctance to see them as such, and their methods to gain that recognition. Since the immediate postwar, former detainees have crafted their stories around available German narratives. Their silence on the Third Reich matched their vehement anti-Sovietism at the height of the Cold War and fit easily within predominant West German discourse. With the 1960s, however, memoirists found themselves struggling to gain public recognition. Citing the work of scholar Jan Phillip Reemtsma, Greiner concludes that, in the eyes of the public: “It is … the illegitimacy of the injury—and not the injury as such—that is proof of victimhood” (292).
Greiner locates the origins of this struggle for recognition in the complexity of the reality of special camps. The presence of members and functionaries of the Nazi party among the detainees precludes an easy conclusion that the detention was illegitimate. Likewise, however, the arbitrariness of so many detentions challenges the public to categorize these internments as punitive or intended for reeducation. In an effort to frame their experiences as those of victims, many memoirists draw on questionable “alternate framings” and recognizable imagery of the Holocaust (300). Greiner challenges her...