15 January 2011

Book Review: German Communists

To kick start this blog, let's have a review of a recent ECE book I read.

A fair trip to the library in November ended with me checking out "The Last Revolutionaries: German Communists and Their Century" by Catherine Epstein. I was intrigued by the scope of the work and ventured to read this summary of several dozen German Communists over a scope of 80 years. Catherine's work was certainly impressive; she interviewed many of the people featured in the book and spent years collecting their memoirs in addition to the arduous task of interviewing. Having done interviews myself, I could only applaud her stamina because it must've been trying to get through all of them despite how interesting they must have been. The task to collect all these histories and put them into a coherent book was behemoth and she did it wonderfully.

I most appreciated that it covered the Communist movement from before World War I and followed it through the years. She wove the narrative of the group as a whole with individual biographies and dealt with the politics stirring with the comrade ranks. It was a pretty delicate balancing act because individual stories are inseparable from the politics of the underground movement and certain individuals dropped out of the story before the DDR came into being. Understanding the backstory of top comrades helped me appreciate the politics of the DDR and shed a lot of light on why the country was structured as it was. It highlighted the nation's extraordinary independence from Mother Russia, the Stalinist purges, the reasons behind the Stasi, Ulbricht's fall from power, Honecker's rise to power and the manner of his political control, and the downfall of the nation with its political ideal. The greater historical narrative was woven into the tangled web of biographies, especially as soon as the DDR was founded and comrades were purged from the ranks.

Her perspective as a historian really brought out the various levels of the Communist narrative in Germany: individual, group politics, national politics, and the dialectic of people and power. Though the book started rather slowly and it was, at times, difficult to keep the names and relationships straight, the writing was clear and unmuddled while keeping a balance between biographies and party politics by switching off in sections. I personally found the chapter on the foundation of East Germany the most compelling because it covered a period of time I hadn't read much about. I was amazed at how a group of comrades, who had hardly any work experience or training from decades of discrimination, simply whipped up an infrastructure from scratch. Their dedication, innovation, and misguided notions impressed me. I certainly wouldn't be able to whip up a national infrastructure, but I also don't fool myself into thinking I could. However, given how long the country lasted, it was a pretty impressive effort. I hope to find more books that cover this time period because I know so little about it.

Overall, the book is a must read for anyone who has an interest in the DDR. It gives valuable insight into the comrades that founded the nation and drove it, essentially, to its death. The book deals exclusively with East Germany's Communism and only touches on Russian politics when necessary, so don't look for a larger narrative including Russia. I give this a 9/10.

I will keep up book reviews on a weekly basis, so check in every Monday for a review on a book that Stalin wouldn't want you to read.