Films in the ‘anti-Fascist’ German Democratic Republic. The DEFA and the Memory of World War II

Term Paper, 2009

31 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Memory of the Nazi-Past in the German Democratic Republic

3. Analysis of ‘anti-Fascist’ Films of German Democratic Republic Film Makers
3.1 The Blum Affair (1948)
3.2 Rotation (1949)
3.3 Council of Gods (1950)
3.4 The Axe of Wandsbek (1951)
3.5 The Kaiser’s Lackey (1951)
3.6 Naked Among Wolves (1963)
3.7 Carbide and Sorrel (1965)
3.8 The Gleiwitz Case (1961)
3.9 I Was Nineteen (1968)

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Berlin, 9th of November 2009. Hundreds of people celebrated 20 years of the fall of the wall, which finally ended the Cold War between the United States of America and the Soviet Union. The war started immediately after World War II and both superpowers tried to push through their ideologies among the people all over the world, especially in Europe. Whereas the United States favored a capitalist ideology, the Soviet Union preferred a communist ideology. The struggle between them led to a significant change in Germany in 1949, namely the establishment of two German states – the (communist) German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the (capitalist) Federal Republic of Germany (FRG).

Both countries tried to strengthen their ideological positions respectively by using certain means, e.g. propaganda. Above all, the GDR regime continued using propagandistic means within the following decades to influence its population indirectly in different aspects of life, for instance in physical education1.

During the process of the development in East and West Germany, the issue of the memory of World War II and the Nazi Past was discussed. Therefore, the GDR film institution DEFA was one of the first establishments which mainly published films shortly after 1945 to memorize the Second World War and the cruelties of the Nazis. But how important was the role of the memory of World War II for the GDR regime in reality? And would the GDR regime also try to use propaganda in films of such a sensible and important matter? Would it also try to spread its ideology within these movies? And if, how were ideological means implied in the movies respectively how did film makers conceptualize, frame and display their versions of World War II and its meanings?

To answer these questions the paper starts by giving an overview of the importance of the memory of World War II and the Nazi Past in GDR policy. After that, this policy should be further analyzed with the help of nine movies of GDR film makers and their contribution to the memory of World War II and the Nazi Past in East Germany. The conclusion is the last part of the paper. It is pointed out to the reader of this paper that the whole topic as well as the films cannot be fully analyzed because of limited space of this paper. Therefore this paper cannot be declared as complete.

2. The Memory of the Nazi-Past in the German Democratic Republic

After the end of World War II the successful allies France, Great Britain, the United States of America and the Soviet Union divided up Germany into different occupation zones. They all had in common to destroy any form of Nazism as a political issue. The Nuremberg interregnum and following imprisonments as well as death penalties for former Nazi war criminals were helpful measures.2 The goal to force Nazism out of politics was also held up after the establishment of the two German states out of the occupation zones – the communist orientated GDR out of the Soviet zone and the capitalistic orientated FRG out of the U.S., French and British zone.3

Both countries similarly rested their postwar memories “on interpretations of Nazism which its German opponents had begun to develop in the Weimar Republic”4. But the two states interpreted the meaning of ‘opponents’ of the Nazis dissimilarly because of their different ideologies. The leaders of the GDR favored former socialists of the Weimar Republic as the major enemies of the Nazis, while the FRG officials tended more to the democratic views of Social Democrats of the Weimar Republic.5

A more striking difference between both countries concerning postwar memory was the issue of the Jews and the Holocaust. Many people thought that the GDR and the Jews could find a certain basis after the Second World War for various reasons. Firstly, the Jewish and Soviet population suffered a lot from Nazi cruelties in World War II according to death numbers. Secondly, it was therefore assumed that the Soviet influenced GDR would follow an ‘anti-Fascist’ policy in the future and could be a home for the Jews, as well. Thirdly, the Soviet Union supported the new state of Israel, which also led to the assumption that within the Eastern part of Europe there could be a place for the Jews.6 Nevertheless reality looked different. The Soviet officials considered their suffering and ordeals of the Second World War more important than the fate of the Jewish population.7 Furthermore many Jews were afraid of living in the GDR because it was influenced by a dictatorial Soviet Union and reminded many of the dictatorial Nazi state.8 Moreover, “East German leaders kept the Jewish question on the margin of narratives of the Nazi era, refused to pay restitution to Jewish survivors or to Israel, purged those Communist[s] who sought to give it greater prominence and even gave […] support to Israel’s armed adversaries”9. Above all the marginalization of the Jews equaled the position of communists before 1933, which emphasizes that the GDR officials also rested their attitude towards Jews on interpretations of traditional communist leaders, e.g. Karl Marx. Herf states that “[i]t is striking how little […] World War II and the Holocaust changed these long-held views”10.

In contrast to that was the opinion of the FRG officials like Kurt Schumacher. According to them anti-Semitism could be overcome and the Holocaust would be the core of memory of the Nazi Past in both German countries.11

The different opinions of the officials of both countries towards such a highly sensible topic as the memory of the Holocaust and World War II illustrate that the upcoming Cold War gained more and more influence and therefore international politics and national interests played an important role in the memory of the Nazi past.12 Especially in the GDR the memory of the Nazi past was used to legitimize the states position13 respectively to weaken the position of the ‘ideological’ opponent in the West and to cover its own weaknesses (in other areas). “So entwickelte sich in der DDR ein widersprüchlicher Antifaschismus: einerseits war er ehrliche Überzeugung, mehrheitlich akzeptierter gesellschaftlicher Grundkonsens und integrative Faktor, der Erziehung Schule öffentliches Leben durchdrang, andererseits wurde er von der SED[…] mißbraucht […].”14 That is the reason why the term of an ‘anti-Fascist’ state, which the GDR regime often used itself, has to be viewed very critically.

Naturally, the GDR officials wanted to uphold their position among the people and therefore used various means to reach their goal. One of these means was the film production. Therefore on the Third Party Congress of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) “the political function of film as an instrument of propaganda in the service of current political activities was clearly formulated”15. Furthermore on the 1st of January 1953 the DEFA, which was founded in 1946, was nationalized by the East German government.16 This makes obvious how the GDR could spread their propaganda (of the SED view of history) in the film industry, strengthen their political ideology as well as fortify the acceptance of the SED among the people.17

Most importantly for film productions at that time was the dealing with the question of guilt during the Nazi time, i.e. the films showed those who were guilty of Nazi crimes and those who fought against it. According to that the people who fought against the Nazis were socialists whereas the guilty people were naturally anti-socialists.18 After Stalin’s death in 1953 the situation for the film makers got better in terms of restricted content, but only five years later the SED took over control again.19 At the same time more and more households got television, which made it possible for the people to watch West German television, too. This led to a decrease of viewing numbers in cinemas20. But GDR film makers used new visual techniques as well as more complex stories at the beginning of the 1960’s which made movies more interesting and innovative. These modern sometimes system critical features did not last for long because in 1965 the GDR regime tightened up its control towards films and film makers. From then on film makers focused on less contentious issues, e.g. historical films.

In conclusion one can say that the memory of the Nazi Past was highly important for the GDR regime, but because of the emergent Cold War it was more and more used for propagandistic purposes, which apparently affected the film industry.

3. Analysis of ‘Anti-Fascist’ Films of German Democratic Republic Film Makers

How the affected film makers put the ideological and propagandistic demands into practice should be showed in this chapter. It should be considered that only some aspects of each film can be analyzed because of limited space of the paper.

3.1 The Blum Affair (1948)

Although in 1948 the GDR was not officially founded, the movie was produced in the DEFA studios which were in the Soviet zone of occupation at that time. Therefore it can be rather recognized as a GDR film because the policy of the Soviet Union and the GDR was basically the same. The movie which was directed by Erich Engel deals with anti-Semitism as well as nationalism during the Weimar Republic and is based on an actual event which took place in Magdeburg in 1926.21

Karl Heinz Gabler, a former soldier and thief, needs money and murders a man, called Wilhelm Platzer, and so he gets some money in form of checks. When Gabler uses them he is arrested by the police, but invents a story to acquit himself. Instead he accuses the boss of Wilhelm Platzer who is the rich Jewish manufacturer Dr. Jacob Blum. The police officer Schwerdtfeger as well as the State Prosecutor Konrat tend to believe his story because both think that Jews want to work together with left wing politicians to control the German government. That is the reason why Blum is arrested and has to stay in prison and is denied any form of contact to his wife. She believes in his innocence and asks the democratic ‘Regierungspräsidenten’ for help. He demands a police officer to investigate the case independently. He proves the innocence of Dr. Jacob Blum and police officer and Schwerdtfeger the State Prosecutor Konrat are embarrassed because of the mistake. The film ends by showing Blum and his wife. She says that she knew that everything will be clarified because they live in the German state under the rule of law, but her husband makes no reply to it.22

The movie perfectly fits in the category of movies dealing with the question of guilt, which was highly supported by the later GDR regime. The anti-socialist respectively conservative police officer and state Prosecutor are the ones who opposed Jews and were not interested in giving the Jews and the left wing politicians more power. In contrast to that is the more left wing Regierungspräsident who permanently tries to prove the innocence of the Jew Dr. Blum, i.e. he fights for the Jews. Thus this emphasizes that the left wing/ socialist politicians were the ones who fought for the Jews in the Weimar Republic, which makes the viewer believe that they also would fight for them in future. Therefore the communist system can be seen as a system of justice, which naturally strengthens the Soviet legitimacy.

Additionally Soviet officials censored parts of the film and gave advices to the film makers how certain persons should be depicted. Thus Major Simowski, the film censor of the Soviet Occupation Authority (SMAD), said that the character of Dr. Blum should be less portrayed as an industrial but more portrayed as a socialist fighter in the class struggle.23 This makes obvious that the movie was strongly influenced by Soviet propaganda respectively ideology. By fitting the characters to Soviet politics, the viewer would be secretly influenced and would not immediately recognize the Soviet propaganda, because no communist signs or symbols were used but just the behavior and acting of a person.

3.2 Rotation (1949)

The first ‘anti-Fascist’ film of the GDR was directed by Wolfgang Staudte in 1949. It shows how blue collar workers in Germany were seduced by the Nazis and therefore did not question the negative side of the dictatorial regime.24

Hans Behnke, a locksmith, is one of those blue-collar people. During the final days of the Weimar Republic and the first time of the Nazi regime he becomes unemployed and has to live in very poor conditions. His entire life is based on his wife and his new born child Helmut. He gets a job in a printing company which publishes Nazi propaganda material what his brother-in-law does not like because he has joined the Communist party. Behnke stays apolitical and firstly refuses to join the Nazi Party but later on enters the party in favor of his family. In the meantime his brother-in-law has to flee but comes back after a while. He asks Hans to help him distributing resisting pamphlets. Hans agrees to help him but keeps some of the pamphlets hidden in his apartment. When his son Helmut finds them he reports to Nazi officials because he had joined the Hitler Youth. As a result Hans is arrested. After the war father and son reunite and have feelings of guilt to each other. Finally Hans demands his son to oppose Nazism in the future.25

As the Blum Affair this movie also fits in the category of movies about the question of guilt, which were demanded from the GDR regime. The main character is the guilty person without knowing that he supports a terrible regime respectively that he is guilty himself. Many viewers of the film could have seen similarities to their own situation during the Nazi era and therefore the movie emphasizes a certain effect to the viewer.26


1 Concerning the topic ‘Propaganda in physical education’ I have written a paper which analyses articles of the GDR magazine ‘Körpererziehung’ between 1952 and 1955. It confirms that the GDR regime used the magazine to influence its readers politically.

2 Jeffrey Herf, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997) 373.

3 Ibid, 4.

4 Ibid, 5.

5 Ibid, 376.

6 Ibid, 5.

7 Ibid, 381.

8 Ibid, 5.

9 Ibid, 3.

10 Ibid, 376.

11 Ibid, 378.

12 Ibid, 383-384.

13 Ibid, 388.

14 Kurt Finker, Zwischen Integration und Legitimation: Der antifaschistische Widerstandskampf in Geschichtsbild und Geschichtsschreibung der DDR (Schkeuditz: GNN Verlag, 1999), 170.

15 Christiane Mückenberger, “The Anti-Fascist Past in DEFA Films” in “DEFA: East German Cinema 1946-1992” [ =DEFA&hl=de&cd=1#v=onepage&q=&f=false] December 1, 2009, 66.

16 Daniela Berghan, “Hollywood behind the Wall: The cinema of East Germany” [] December 1, 2009, 19.

17 Susanne Brandt, “Geschichte und Film: Der Untertan (1951)“ [] December 1, 2009, 10.

18 Mückenberger, “The Anti-Fascist Past in DEFA Films”, 66.

19 Marc Silberman, “German Cinema: Texts in Context” [ byafOb4QC&printsec=frontcover&dq=German+cinema&hl=de&cd=2#v=onepage&q=&f=false] December 1, 2009, 147.

20 Susanne Brandt, “Geschichte und Film“, 10-11.

21 DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, “Affaire Blum (The Blum Affair)” [] October 22, 2009, unpaginated.

22 Ibid, unpaginated.

23 Ibid, unpaginated.

24 DEFA Film Library at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, “Rotation” [http://www.umass. edu/defa/filmtour/sjrotation.shtml] October 22, 2009, unpaginated.

25 Michael Buening, “Cautionary Tales” [] October 22, 2009, unpaginated.

26 Ibid, unpaginated.

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Films in the ‘anti-Fascist’ German Democratic Republic. The DEFA and the Memory of World War II
World War II
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films, german, democratic, republic, defa, memory, world
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Christopher Borns (Author), 2009, Films in the ‘anti-Fascist’ German Democratic Republic. The DEFA and the Memory of World War II, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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