Kommunismus in der Krise. Die Entstalinisierung 1956 und die Folgen

TitleKommunismus in der Krise. Die Entstalinisierung 1956 und die Folgen
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsHarms, Victoria
Author(s) of reviewed materialand Roger Engelmann, Thomas Großbölting Hermann Wentker(eds.)

Book.Title translated:
Communism in Crisis. De-Stalinization and its Consequences

PublisherIm Auftrag des Instituts für Zeitgeschichte und der Bundesbeauftragten für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen DDR Analysen und Dokumente. Wissenschaftliche Reihe der Bundesbeauftragten für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdien
ISSNISBN 978-3-525-35052-2
Review year


Full Text

In 2008, the Institute of Contemporary History [IfZ, Munich] and the Federal Commissioner for Stasi Records [BStU, Berlin] published this collection based on presentations  originally delivered at their joint conference in 2006. It assembles a broad range of studies about the reasons, effects and various reactions to the so-called de-Stalinization following the notorious speech of Khruschev at the 20th Party Conference held on February 24, 1956. The 22 articles are divided into five sections, namely 1. Satellites in Crisis, 2. International Dimensions, 3. Repression in Flux: Developments in Regard to Secret Police, Judiciary, and Penal System, 4. Intellectuals between Loyalty and Dissent, 5. Authority and Social Conflicts. Yet, these titles provide only vague guidance to the actual content of the articles as they admit topics as diverse as the  background to the Polish events, cooperation between the Hungarian and East German secret polices, the penal system, workers’ rights and the role of Robert Havemann. Although the project is international in outlook, German issues receive the most elaborate treatment and most contributors work for one of the two organizing institutions.
The aim of this review is to highlight the most remarkable articles: the collection starts with Jan Foitzik’s praiseworthy clarification of the terms ‘Stalinization’ and ‘de-Stalinization’ respectively. He sketches the way Khruschev’s famous speech was disseminated[1] and proves that this often used, but vaguely understood term embraces various  processes and long-term effects. In its application as a catchword common today, it barely reflect the very different consequences these processes had for the USSR, GDR, ČSR, or Poland following February 1956 [“De-Stalinization Crisis in East Central Europe. Devolution, Causes and Consequences” (pp. 36-60)].
Mark Kramer provides a concise assessment of “Soviet-Polish Relations and the Crisis of 1956. Brinkmanship and Intra-Bloc Politics“ (pp. 61- 126) that concurs with recent re-evaluations of events in Poland. Kramer emphasizes the distorting reports by the Soviet Ambassador Ponomarenko and Marshal Rokossowski which had Khruschev misjudge the situation in Poland and ultimately turned his October trip into a confrontation. Consequently, Kramer also re-assesses the roles played by the main Polish actors, Gomułka and Ochab.
Hanns Jürgen Küsters and Thomas Großbölting focus on the impact of Khruschev’s speech on the West: in addition to the American Radford plan on troop withdrawal and disharmony among members of the newly founded NATO. Küsters explains that Konrad Adenauer, then Chancellor of West Germany, sought new paths to preserve his state’s weak sovereignty. Combined with the Suez-conflict it was ‘de-Stalinization’, he continues, that motivated the early steps towards a (West) German and French dominated integration of Europe. Großbölting describes the policy choices of the French and Italian Communist Parties, which suffered a severe blow from both the speech and the Soviet invasion of Hungary in November 1956. While the PCF never really recovered, he claims, Togliatti insisted on polycentrism and Italy’s ‘special way to Socialism’ and managed to turn the Italian communists into a political force of lasting strength.
Andreas Hilger in his “Limits of de-Stalinization. Soviet Politics between Rehabilitation and Repression 1953-1964“ (pp.253-273) and Roger Engelmann  in “Lessons from Poland and Hungary 1956. The New Orientation of the GDR State Security as a Result of the de-Stalinization Crisis” (pp. 281-296) both put the regularly assumed positive effects of de-Stalinization into perspective with regard to the workings of repression and the secret police apparatus. Hilger insists that even the policies of rehabilitation in the Soviet Union were arbitrary and limited since the measures initiated by Berija and Khruschev intended above all to consolidate their power and secondly, to make the Gulag more profitable. Engelmann claims that in the GDR repression was evident throughout the 1950s and the chekist spirit prevailed largely unchanged.
Section four launches a crucial interpretation of intellectual protagonists: Erhart Neubert in his “Opposition to the System and Inbuilt Opposition – a Paradigm Shift in 1956?“ (pp. 347-361) and Guntolf Herzberg in “Rectification of Socialism or How the Status quo was Substantiated“ (pp. 363-370) disagree on Wolfgang Harich, the influential philosophy professor who had initiated debates but was arrested and tried in November 1956: While Neubert makes Harich the predecessor (even potential founder) of “system inherent opposition” (p.360) and thus a precursor to the GDR’s civic movements of the 1980s, the latter adversely vilifies him: Harich like any other GDR intellectual at the time “failed to overcome […] the discredited Stalinist system because they paid tribute to the status quo in an overly cautious manner” (p.370). Though his topic is related, in the brief analysis of international communication among “intellectual dissidents” Mathias Braun stops short of positioning himself in the preceding discussion [“Going beyond Petőfi Circles? The International Contacts of Intellectual Dissidents” (pp.371-389)]. Bernd Florath’s assessment of Robert Havemann cannot be contested in this regard here, but drew public attention when Florath critically commented on Florian Havemann’s 2007 biography of his father.
Unfortunately the quality of the articles is uneven and the number of insights they offer are rather widely different. Some articles are too brief and superficial to be included at this point of time, when one anniversary and publication follows the next. Although the publication of the volume took two years, hardly any of the articles reflect the new controversial discourse about the period before 1989-90. Moreover, the authors barely engage in any dialogue with each other. Even though Hermann Wentker introduces the concept of ‘de-Satellization’, which according to him continued for years in contrast to ‘de-Stalinization’ (pp.150-166) and this concept would deserve serious attention, it is not discussed by fellow authors. Furthermore, although recent publications have returned to the terms “Eastern Europe” or “Eastern Bloc” for the sake of geopolitical accuracy and clarity when speaking of the times before 1989-90, here the very same region is variably described as East Central, Central or Central Eastern Europe. Additionally, it is hardly condonable to reiterate assumptions dismissed earlier[2]: Bonwetsch (p.187)[3]  and Stöver (p.216), for example, state different dates for Hungary‘s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact in 1956 which also makes for a crucial difference in interpretation. (The issue has been clarified by the collection of documents on the Hungarian revolution published in 2002[4].) Last, although Christian Sachse’s work on the contested issue of the militarization of the GDR deserves attention, this final chapter barely connects to the topic of de-Stalinization or to any of the previous studies.
Nevertheless, Kommunismus in der Krise does present some valuable historical assessments: perhaps most importantly, it emphasizes ‘de-Stalinization’ as a period and not as a caesura. Many authors justly argue that the developments in this period depended mainly on the ruling elites. Apart from the outbursts in Berlin 1953, Poznan or Budapest 1956, policies were decided in Moscow and between the Soviet Politburo and indigenous party cadres. Crucially, de-Stalinization is presented as a struggle over power and influence. In this vein, Khruschev’s speech ought to be seen as his claim to power while it also served as a “catalyzer” of developments already under way (p.60). Internationally, in 1956 a bipolar world became manifest, and even though a new phase of foreign policies was initiated, it also contributed to the consolidation of the Moscow-dominated bloc[5].
In conclusion, some more precision and editorial strictness would have improved the overall presentation. The collection exemplifies well the standard and interests of studies into the Cold War era that have accompanied the lasting frenzy about anniversaries. They tend to be commemorated by vast numbers of festive events and upsurges of publications which increasingly influence the historical narrative of the 20th century as a whole. For long de-Stalinization has been conceived as a rather homogenous process of liberalization in the Eastern Bloc; yet, sustained research was hardly possible until the mid-1990s.  While the term prevails, its meaning has been modified to describe a wide range of processes that ushered in the new era after Stalin’s death. Whether all contributions even those of mediocre quality and little innovation or insight need to be published should be considered more wisely. In my assessment, Sections One and Four represent the strongest parts of the collection with the latter on intellectuals shedding specific light on lasting disagreements of evaluating individuals and certain acts. This kind of interpretative battle is in all likelihood going to continue throughout the festivities marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this year.
[1] Nevertheless, how the West obtained the entire speech, remains unclear: Stöver claims the CIA received it from Mossad (p.211), others name Polish defectors.
[2] On p. 174, note 14, Bonwetsch accuses the Hungarian Prime Minister of having been a long-time KGB agent. This construction stemming from 1989 has been sufficiently dismissed by János Rainer, Imre Nagy. Vom Parteisoldaten zum Märtyrer des ungarischen Volksaufstands(Paderborn: Schöningh, 2002), p.52.
[3] Apart from the misfortunate title and some factual flaws [see above], Bernd Bonwetsch coherently displays the power struggle within the CPDSU’s highest echelon [pp.162-192]. This often only superficially elaborated conflict needs scrutiny since developments in the entire bloc were decided in Moscow and it reveals the decisive role of individual enmities long continued after Stalin’s death.
[4] Csaba Békés, Malcolm Byrne, János Rainer, The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents (Budapest, New York: CEU Press, 2002).
[5] Foitzik puts it best: “The systemic foundation remained unchanged after 1956: The periphery’s political, military, economic and ideological dependence on the centre did soon weaken slightly, but in fact it remained the same until 1989. […] The only continuity is the system’s chronic crisis of integration, that flared up again in Poland in 1980” (p.54).