Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Review: Under Two Dictators. Margarete Buber-Neumann.

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Train to Where?

Train to Where?


Review of ‘Under Two Dictators. Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler’. Pimlico 2008.  


Margarete Buber-Neumann’s testimony of suffering in Stalin’s Camps, and then, in the Third Reich’s, is a key document of the twentieth century. After an intense period of activism in the German Communist Party (KPD) she and her husband, the leading KPD official Heinz Neumann, fled when Hitler came to power, and headed for the Soviet Union. Employees of the Comintern, they worked in France, and in Spain, during the Civil War.

As the Communist International  became, as she puts it, a branch of the secret police, the GPU, any disagreements with the Soviet run leadership, and ‘unreliability’ became capital offences.

When the Great Purges began in 1937, and hundreds of German Communists were arrested,  Heinz was one of them,  a ‘deviationist’. Neumann was tortured in the Lubyanka and soon shot. Initially in a social limbo, ostracised (though a few managed to show her acts of kindness) and frantically trying to get news of her partner, Margarete was arrested in 1938 and spent miserable months crammed into a Moscow gaol. In January 1939 she was sentenced to five years imprisonment and sent to the Gulag.  From there, in one of the most sordid deals of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, in 1940 she was handed over to the Nazis and then sent to Ravensbrück. Miraculously she survived to write down her story, published in 1948. This,  as the enlightening Introduction states, is “one of the most important survivor memoirs of totalitarian terror.”(P xxii) It is now back in print through Pimlico. Nearly every page makes harrowing reading.

Buber-Neumann reached an international audience for her role in exposing the lies of the French Communist journal, Les Lettres Françaises, in the famous liberal case brought against Soviet defector Kravchenko (I chose Freedom). The PCF denied the Soviet Archipelago of Penal Servitude. She, to their chagrin, was living proof of the existence of the Gulag. That is, sent East with others on a hundred thousand strong slave labour mission to turn barren steppe into fertile fields for crops and grazing. 

Not even  cutlery and mess tins were provided for their daily use. Everything, primitive huts ownards, had to be built. Great disorder reigned amid back-breaking toil. The division between favoured ‘Criminals’ and ‘Politicals’ (noted by all survivor accounts) made their lives a living hell. 

The description of remorseless oppressive and chaotic daily life prefigures Solzhenitsynby many years. Initially (soon to be disabused) she found conditions in Germany a relief, “The Ravensbrück hut seemed a palace to me after the wretched clay huts of Birma. And the equipment: a proper lavatory, a washroom with proper basins, tables, stools and lockers!”(P 166) This was not to last as the Nazi extermination programme was stepped up. Everything went worse and worse. But. in the hard winter of 1944 – 5 the Cremetorian was in full swing, its “.. glow at nights was almost always there.”(P 263)

The narrative must be read in full, a vivid word picture of existence at its lowest,  from the Gulag, to the darkness  in the Konzentrationslager. Memorable are acts of resistance, however ultimately to little avail, from left oppositionists to the most downtrodden victims. In the course of this journey to hell, two reflexions stand out.

The first, is the mechanism which undergirded Stalin’s mass murders had its original in a Bolshevik institution of long-standing. It was not just the constant adulation of the Leader and the Party. It was permanent efforts to ‘purify’ the CPSU, an urge whose origins lie in Lenin’s not Stalin’s time. That is, the “Tchistka, or purge, was a regular institution in the Russian Communist party.”(P 15)  Originally designed as a way of clearing out ‘dead wood’ (human beings deemed unsuitable, unworthy, then, unreliable, then nonconformist, non-orthodox, dissident, anything other than fully obedient Stalinists).

A fright that leaves those saved all the worse morally.  Any Party member had the right to get up and denounce any other member, pointed questions about political past and present activities, if guilty of some deviation had to do public penance, Often a preliminary to actual arrest. “It can be imagined what an opportunity all this offered of paying off old scores.”(P 15)  One can easily imagine.

The second is a moral observation, “Christian morality declares that suffering ennobles the sufferer. That can be only a very qualified truth. Life in a concentration camp showed the contrary to be true more often than not. I think that nothing is more demoralising than suffering, excessive suffering coupled with humiliation such as comes to men and women in concentration camps. That is true of individuals and probably of whole people.!”(P 185) To her, it’s not like ordinary prison, where there’s  one blow, loss of freedom, is only the first. “You had lost all human rights – all, all without exception. You were just a living being with a number to distinguish you from the other unfortunates around you.”(P 185) What can you say to that?

The final passages contain further reflections. In the wake of her liberation Margarete was, like millions, adrift in a defeated Germany. On her wanderings she met with dissident Communists, who had rebelled against Stalinism in the KPD and retained their faith under the Nazis.  Her host began by stating that, “The Comintern was used only for what was useful to the Russians.”(P 311) Something went deep inside Buber-Neumann, “I experienced a long, long forgotten feeling of happiness, K hesitatingly, and with uncertain words, directed the following question at me: ‘Comrade Grete, what do you actually think of Soviet Russia. You have been there, haven’t you? To us, you surely can tell the truth.”(P 312)

Friends came in the room as she told them,  “All of them former members of the KPD, members of the opposition who, like K, had left the Communist Party yet had remained antifascists imprisoned by the Nazis for many years in penitentiary or KZ,”(P 312) Nevertheless they remained treated by Communists as traitors, “Yet they still considered themselves to be Communists, they believed that they were the fighters for the true the fact that their ideological foundations was already damaged at all its corners. They didn’t dare yet to doubt Lenin, let alone the October Revolution or even Marxist theory. The great traitor was called Stalin.”(P 312) She described the full extent of the Big Cleansing and the Show trials. When she  got to the Hitler-Stalin Pact and  the Soviets handing her over to the Nazis one of her audience couldn’t control himself, “filthy killers!” he shouted.  

These are surely good people every democratic  left-winger would identify with. But is the following the case? “The path of suffering hadn’t ended yet for them, but already they had known the pain that a Communist feels when he loses his political   faith and has to re-orientate himself in this life – lonely and banished. (P 313) It seems an impertinence to comment after such a series of terrifying experiences. But one holds to the democratic root of Marxism so firmly because it is strongly planted, for all the efforts to tear it up.

The tale finishes on the most glorious of notes. Her heart-rending welcome in the House of Johannes Thuring, by her mother, sister, brother in law Dr Fleiss, and their children, rings in the mind, “From above on the steep wooden stairs at the entry to the house my mother’s voice, which had turned old, called over and over again, ‘Had  she really come? Has she really come…’”(P 341)

Margarete was embedded in the culture of the 20th century. Apart from her link to the core of German Communism her first husband, Rafael Buber, was the son of Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher. In Ravensbrück she befriended Melina, that is the woman of  Kafka’s beautiful letters Briefe an Melina. The two had promised that the one who managed to live would write down what they had seen. Melina wasted away, but Margarete managed to survive. She must be listened to. I don’t care about her eventual support for German Christian Democracy. This book has something that stays. 






Written by Andrew Coates

March 12, 2009 at 2:06 pm

4 Responses

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  1. […] Under two dictators Recommended: tendancecoatesy: Review of Under Two Dictators by Margarete Buber-Neumann. […]

  2. I know a story of a rank-and-file member of the KPD who suffered a similar experience but he rejoined the KPD after 1945 and did not talk about his imprisonment thinking that he was the innocent victim of a mistake by the soviet authorities … Margarete Buber-Neumann not only joined the CDU but aligned herself at the end of the 1970ies with far right elements at the fringes of the CDU


    March 13, 2009 at 1:25 pm

  3. The ‘innocent mistake’ theme is pretty much covered in her book – a widespread reaction in fact.

    I am aware of her anti-Commmunism cold war style. Not that went further, how much further Enty?

    However yesterday I re-read some of my Briefe an Milena, and in the Nachwort there are a couple of pages about Buber-Neumann’s relations with Kafka’s Czech translator (and love)in the Nazi camp. They are so moving they excuse nearly anything.

    Andrew Coates

    March 14, 2009 at 10:50 am

  4. then, of course, there is Bill Roger’s wife and her Mum, an old KDPer, I forget the title, Red Mother, Pink Daughter?


    March 14, 2009 at 9:05 pm

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