- Tailoring Truth: Politicizing the Past and Negotiating Memory in East Germany, 1945-1990 by Jon Berndt Olsen
In his new study of East German memory, Jon Olsen addresses the question of stability and legitimacy through the lens of the memory landscape and the state's intentional "memory work" (7). Directly engaging with the longstanding debate on how to conceptualize the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) — either as a totalitarian state or a misguided socialist experiment — Olsen argues for a more nuanced interpretation based on how state and party leaders interpreted history to legitimize their new undertaking. He examines exhibitions, memorials, commemorations, and museums as means to understanding how the state negotiated with independent initiatives, artists, and the ruling Socialist Unity Party (sed) officials. Through various compromises, these different actors crafted messages that educated the public, drawing on a recognizable past that established lines of continuity, and therefore credibility. Following East Germany's historical trajectory from Soviet occupation zone to Cold War focal point to a crumbling communist system, Olsen identifies five phases that underscore the sed's objectives at different points in its existence. Ultimately, Tailoring Truth illustrates how the state extended professional history into the public sphere as a systematic means to shape collective memory in East Germany.
In the first two chapters, Olsen stresses the importance of the recent past in defining the sed's memory work. He identifies how the sed needed both to distance itself from the recent past, as well as justify its own existence in [End Page 353] a Cold War context. Similar to Jeffrey Herf and other scholars, Olsen rightly emphasizes the place of anti-fascism in the sed's narrative. Indeed, the GDR drew significant credibility from working class leaders who had suffered under the Nazis. In particular, those active in the anti-fascist underground in camps, such as Ernst Thälmann (1886–1944), became leading figures for the sed in its memory work. In this manner, Olsen argues that the discussions around the GDR's memory landscape exemplify how the sed state tried to appeal to its citizens and how that outreach became a complex negotiation over how the past was represented. When possible, Olsen attempts to reach into the mind of the public to analyze its response. In a 1948 traveling exhibition, for example, there was a box for anonymous comments, the notes from which indicate many visitors did not fully believe the exhibition's message.
One of the book's greatest strengths is its attention to generational and political shifts in the GDR, which Olsen traces in chapters three through five. In chapter three, Olsen delves into the sed's efforts to connect with a new generation that did not directly experience the Third Reich while still underscoring the anti-fascist lines of continuity. Olsen argues that the state reached out to younger generations by connecting local history to the national narrative, and by bringing the national narrative to the provinces. Chapter four pushes forward into the 1980s, highlighting the sed's struggle against routinization while simultaneously having received international stability with the policy of Ostpolitik instituted under Willy Brandt (1913–1992) and the GDR's subsequent admission into the United Nations. In an effort to relate to its citizens further, Olsen argues that the state broadened its historical heritage to include previously disdained or ignored figures, such as Frederick the Great (1712–1786) and Martin Luther (1483–1546), and emphasized the "progressive" elements of their legacies. Nevertheless, these efforts prove deficient in chapter five, as the sed loses its monopoly on historical narrative and memory. Olsen is particularly effective in highlighting the state's limitations in his retelling of dissident involvement in the breakup of the official commemoration of Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919) and Karl Liebknecht (1871–1919) in 1988. In the epilogue, he continues the debates over memory cultures and commemoration in the years since the GDR's collapse, bringing the book virtually to the present.