- Comrades of Color: East Germany in the Cold War World ed. by Quinn Slobodian
Contemporary Europeans continue to grapple with notions of identity and belonging and to debate proper policies of inclusion and exclusion toward ethnic minorities, refugees, and immigrants within and beyond their national borders. Over the past two decades, scholars of Britain, France, and Germany have trained their eyes on historical developments since 1945, examining these topics against the backdrop of postwar reconstruction and democratization, the emergence of the Cold War and its competing cultures, decolonization and postcolonial adjustments, and the challenges of multiculturalism—including claims about how it has been tried and failed, or as Rita Chin has recently argued in The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Europe (2017), was hardly tried in the first place. The bulk of this work has focused on Western Europe: NATO nations that, in their former political lives, lorded over far-flung empires within Europe (in the case of Germany) or beyond (in the case of the UK, France, and the Netherlands).
By contrast, this important and deftly edited volume casts its critical eye on East Germany between the late 1940s and 1989 with the goal of exploring GDR internationalism and its "encounters across the borders of nation and bloc" (1). In a lucid introduction, Quinn Slobodian describes the volume as a response to the historiography on Cold War Germany that has tended to privilege the narratives of former SED functionaries and has focused on bipolar relations, whether national (German-German) or global (US-USSR). The essays in this volume, instead, plumb the archives to recapture the texture of East Germans' engagement with the third world and its inhabitants, both at home in the GDR and abroad. The authors approach their investigations as a "multipolar, transnational field," in the words of Young-Sun Hong, and explore how socialist solidarity was variously perceived, imaged, negotiated, and lived by East Germans and their various partners and beneficiaries from the global South (44).
The volume is divided into five sections. The first, "Race without Racism," features an essay by Slobodian, a second introduction of sorts, that sets the stage by exploring the persistence of racial thinking and processes of racialization even as the East German officials renounced racism in favor of a socialist vision of a "politically unified humanity" (24). The essay provides an astute analysis of East Germany's "iconography of internationalism," which declared a break with Nazi-era racism yet peddled stereotypical representations of people of color by white Germans (33). Slobodian terms this continued reliance on skin color and phenotypical difference for new internationalist purposes "socialist chromatism" (24). This essay, and some that follow, introduce new theoretical concepts to help us make sense of the ambivalences, [End Page 652] tensions, accommodations, and blind spots in East Germany's approach to racial and ethnic "difference" in its construction of cross-cultural socialist solidarity.
The second section, "Aid anders," features richly detailed essays by Young-Sun Hong on East German development aid to North Korea to build the industrial city Hamhung and by Bernd Schaefer on the pattern and range of East German aid to North Vietnam, including the import of contract workers to the GDR and the GDR's role in the Vietnamese coffee export industry. Both essays emphasize successes and failures; Hong's is especially good at uncovering the personal experiences and social interactions on the ground in North Korea, as well as such cultural contact's impact on East German participants' subsequent personal and political development. An essay by Gregory Witkowski offers an interesting reading comparing the rhetoric, images, and motivations structuring the philanthropic appeals by Christian churches and socialist organizations in East Germany. Oddly, no illustrations are included.
The third section, "Ambivalent Solidarities," focuses on the mutual appraisals and expectations of Black Africans and African Americans, on the one hand, and East Germans and SED officials on the other. Simon Stevens traces Black South African writer William "Bloke" Modisane's visit to East Germany...