Post-Fascist Continuity and Post-Communist Discontinuity in German Cinema


Over the decades, much has been written and revealed about the continuity of economic and political elites in the transition from German fascism to post-war West Germany. This understanding pertains mostly, however, to the spheres of politics, the judicial system, secret services, the military, and higher education. With regard to cinema, by contrast, such continuity has gone largely unnoticed.

Post-Fascist Culture and Post-War Film Industry Regulations

In the 1950s, West German cinema was dominated by the so-called Heimatfilm. This was in several respects an expression of the era of restoration. Together with the market-dominating Hollywood films, the Heimatfilm not only offered apolitical light-escapist happy-end fodder and the opportunity to forget about recent history, but it was also in essence tied seamlessly to the unfortunate tradition of the Heimatfilm under fascism. Here it fulfilled the function of distracting the population from the organizational elimination of the labor movement and the physical elimination of its leaders, from the reality of concentration camps, forced labor, the “war of extermination” in the East, and the Holocaust. As a matter of fact, the Heimatfilms of the 1950s were partly direct remakes of material produced during the Nazi era by the Ufa (Universum Film AG), which had been privatized in 1949 and was then – in the words of one of the greatest experts on West German post-war film and author of the international standard work The Ufa Story: A History of Germany's Greatest Film Company (1st English edition, 1999), Klaus Kreimeier – re-founded in 1956 as a “prime example of the restoration of the German film industry in accordance with political interests.”1

According to the Allied Forces’ denazification regulations, permission to work in the West German film industry was possible only by means of a specific license which the occupation authorities granted to “those German nationals … who appeared ‘politically’ suitable following an evaluation of the questionnaire used by the military government.” The main goal of the “film legislation of the allied forces” was the “exclusion of former Nazi party members from leading or creative positions in the film industry.”2

After the beginning of the Cold War in 1947, however, the denazification process was terminated. The reinstallation of the old elites seemed inevitable in order to position the Federal Republic of Germany as a remilitarized frontline-state of the capitalist West. This fact is demonstrated by the remarkable continuity of personnel, including in cinema.

Nazi Elite Continuity in West German Cinema

Most of the films popular during the 1950s were made by directors from the “Third Reich.” This was true not only for the (seemingly) anti-political Heimatfilm directors, but also for the so-called Vorbehaltsfilme, i.e. those films which had been banned by the Allied forces as Nazi propaganda and could only be screened under strict conditions. In fact, it was only in exceptional cases that leading Nazi directors did not continue their careers in West Germany.

Thus, Eduard von Borsody (1898-1970), who had been the master-cutter in fascist propaganda films such as Morgenrot (Dawn) (1933) and Flüchtlinge (Refugees) (1933) and the director of the cheerful-völkisch film Wunschkonzert (Request Concert) (1940), now directed Heimatfilms such as Bergwasser (Mountain Water) (1949) or shallow musical films such as Hab’ ich nur Deine Liebe (As Long as I Have Your Love) (1953). According to the German Reich’s Film Superintendent (Reichsfilmintendant) Fritz Hippler, Wunschkonzert was developed in direct cooperation with Joseph Goebbels and then declared to be “state-politically valuable” (“staatspolitisch wertvoll”) by the Nazi Film Evaluation Office (Filmprüfstelle) and became the commercially second-most successful film of the Nazi period. The Allied Control Office banned its screenings; in West Germany it was rereleased in 1980.

Then there is the biography of Wolfgang Liebeneiner (1905-1987). During the Nazi era, he directed the pro-euthanasia film Ich klage an (J'accuse) (1941) in close collaboration with the Ministry of Propaganda and as part of the political preparation for Operation T4 (the Nazis’ euthanasia program which killed psychiatric patients and the disabled) as well as the historical biopics Bismarck (1940) and Die Entlassung (Bismarck's Dismissal) (1942), which constructed an “historical analogy between the ‘Iron Chancellor’ and Adolf Hitler.”3 Right to the bitter end Liebeneiner worked on the unfinished film of German perseverance Das Leben geht weiter (Life Goes On). From 1948 on, Liebeneiner was back in business – with for instance Melodie des Herzens (Melody of the Heart) (1950) or 1 April 2000 (1952), the latter of which aimed to justify Austria’s myth of having been the “first victim of fascism” and to cleanse the land of its guilt in the war of destruction in Eastern Europe and the Holocaust.

The next biography is that of Carl Boese (1887-1958). In the Weimar Republic Boese had already made several revanchist and pre-fascist films, including the anti-French Die schwarze Schmach (The Black Disgrace) (1921), which depicted the occupation of the Rhineland by French black soldiers – stereotyped as animal-like sexual predators – as a Jewish conspiracy to bastardize the Aryan race. In the fascist era Boese went on to direct countless distraction-comedies and continued the same kind of work after 1949.

Then there is Erich Waschneck (1887-1970). Since 1933 he had been a member of the National-Socialist Factory Cell Organization of German-Born Film Directors (Nationalsozialistische Betriebszellenorganisation deutschstämmiger Filmregisseure). As part of the ideological preparation for the Holocaust, he had directed the anti-Semitic film Die Rothschilds (The Rothschilds) in 1940. In 1952, he managed to return to the movie business with films such as Hab’ Sonne im Herzen (Sunshine in My Heart Again). Fritz Peter Buch (1894-1964), who had produced the fascist propaganda films Annemarie (1934), Die Warschauer Zitadelle (The Warsaw Citadel) (1937), Katzensteg (The Cats' Bridge) (1937), Jakko (1941) and Menschen im Sturm (People in the Storm) (1941), returned to the West German film industry once more in 1952 with Cuba Cubana – a film starring Zarah Leander, who had been the highest-paid actress between 1933 and 1945 based on her involvement in numerous Nazi films. Even Franz Seitz Sr. (1888-1952), director of the notorious SA-Mann Brand (SA Man Brand) (1933), was able to write screenplays again. And Heinz Paul (1893-1983), who had also been a member of the National Socialist Factory Cell Organization since 1933 and had directed several films heavily inflected with Nazi ideology such as William Tell (1933), Die vier Musketiere (The Four Musketeers) (1934), Wunder des Fliegens (Miracles of Flight) (1935) and Kameraden auf See (Military Buddies at Sea) (1938), made his comeback with comedies such as Glück aus Ohio (Happiness from Ohio) (1950) and the Heimatfilm Wo der Wildbach rauscht (Where the Mountain Torrent Rushes)  (1956). Fritz Kirchhoff (1901-1953), director of entertainment and propaganda films such as Anschlag auf Baku (Attack on Baku) (1941) and Der 5. Juni (June 5th) (1941), returned in 1948 with (guilt) suppression films such as Schuld allein ist der Wein (It’s the Wine’s Fault) (1948) and Nur eine Nacht (Just One Night) (1949). And Jürgen von Alten (1903-1994), who had joined the NSDAP and the Nazi Factory Cells Organization already during the Weimar Republic and who during the period of fascist rule directed amongst other films the “state-politically valuable” anti-Semitic film Togger (1937) and Das Gewehr über! (Shoulder Arms!) (1939), a film which flanked the Poland invasion, created from 1950 onwards a number of films including Herzen im Sturm (Hearts in the Storm) (1951). In 1987 he received the Film Award in Gold for his acting in the short film Die Geige (The Violin). Carl Froelich (1875-1953), a Nazi party member who from 1933 on headed Nazi Germany’s Association of Film Production and Distribution (Gesamtverband der Filmherstellung und Filmverwertung) and between 1939 and 1945 was president of the Reichsfilmkammer, Nazi Germany’s National Film Board, was initially arrested after the liberation from fascism; however, in 1948, he was classified as denazified and ended up shortly before his death as a producer again of films such as Drei Mädchen spinnen (Three Stupid Girls) (1950) and Stips (1951). All of this despite the fact that with ten films, he had directed the second-most number of films banned by the Allied Control Council – only to be topped by the notorious Veit Harlan.

Even for the worst propaganda filmmakers like Harlan (1899-1964), Karl Ritter (1888-1977) and Bobby E. Lüthge (1891-1964) it was at least temporarily possible to continue their work in West Germany. Thus, Lüthge, who in 1933 had shot Hitlerjunge Quex (Hitler Youth Quex), could now reemerge and succeed with mass-culture films such as Schwarzwaldmädel (Black Forest Girl) (1950) and Grün ist die Heide (The Heath is Green) (1951). And Lüthge’s military comedies such as Mikosch rückt ein (Mikosch Enlists) (1952) not only catered to the need for Wehrmacht nostalgia and masculine fraternization, but also politically flanked the highly contested remilitarization of West Germany, which was occurring at the same time. Ritter, who had been the producer of Hitlerjunge Quex, and also of anti-communist and anti-Russian films supporting the war of annihilation in the East such as Patrioten (Patriots) (1937), Pour le Mérite (1938), Im Kampf gegen den Weltfeind (Fighting the World Foe) (1939), Kadetten (Cadets) (1941), Über alles in der Welt (Above Everything in the World) (1942) and GPU (1942), returned from Latin America once the Cold War had started, and now directed romance films such as Staatsanwältin Corda (Prosecutor Corda) (1954), as well as cheerful musical comedies such as Ball der Nationen (Ball of Nations) (1954). Finally, Harlan, who had actively sought to become the director of the ruthlessly anti-Semitic concoction Jud Süß (Jew Süss) (1940) and who, according to a famous speech by the social democrat Carlo Schmid in the Bundestag, had helped create “the mass-psychological preconditions for the gas chambers of Auschwitz,” now in post-war West Germany made Heimatfilms such as Hanna Amon (1951).4

People heavily burdened with guilt such as the aforementioned Fritz Hippler (1909-2002) and the screenwriter Eberhard Taubert (1907-1976) were also able to continue their careers. Hippler, who in direct collaboration with Hitler and Goebbels and in preparation for the “Final Solution” had produced the anti-Semitic “documentary film” Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew) (1940), was able to continue shooting documentaries under his own name after 1945. His scriptwriter for Der ewige Jude, Eberhard Taubert, who had been a high official in the Reich’s Ministry for Public Education and Propaganda (Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda) as well as the publishing director of the anti-Semitic publishing house Nibelungen Verlag during the “Third Reich,” was also re-integrated into the establishment. During West Germany’s remilitarization he became the Consultant for Psychological Warfare (Referent für Psychologische Kriegsführung) of West Germany’s far-right Minister of Defense, Franz Josef Strauss and his team of advisers,5 one of the many facts that may help explain why Strauss’s “Stasi” file was destroyed after 1990 “for his own protection.”6

Only in rare cases were Nazi film directors banned from the West German (or Austrian) film industry. And in the case of Gustav Ucicky, who, with his militarist, anti-Slav and anti-Semitic films such as Morgenrot (Dawn) (1933), Flüchtlinge (Refugees) (1933) and Heimkehr (Homecoming) (1941), ranked among the most important Nazi directors, this ban was overturned. Later in 1957, Ucicky could make his comeback with the Heimatfilm Edelweißkönig (The Edelweiss King) – together with his former screenwriter Gerhard Menzel (1894-1966), who during the Nazi years had belonged to the group of 87 writers who signed the Pledge of the Most Faithful Followers (Gelöbnis treuester Gefolgschaft) for Adolf Hitler.

In 1975, Hans-Peter Kochenrath, the first scholar to systematically research and document the Nazi past of West German cinema, came to a devastating verdict:

While an attempt was made in the other arts, to eliminate the barbarism of Nazi art and start over, cinema unabashedly adopted the legacy of those dark times. In West Germany, it was only in the first years after 1945 that a few well-intentioned attempts to ‘deal with the past’ occurred; however, attempts to ‘deal with the present’ were completely non-existent.... The personal ties between the creators of Nazi film and post-war West German film are so strong that one can speak without exaggeration of an uninterrupted continuation of the Third Reich film in West Germany. Certainly one had to give up some time-related nuances – for instance, anti-Semitic tendencies and attacks on the Western powers who now had turned into allies. But everything else has been preserved: the Heimatfilms, the melodrama, the anti-communism, the worship of authoritarian leaders and systems, the love of the German Wehrmacht, the emphasis on German Gemüt and cheap farces of protagonists confusing each other or satires about German peasants. Yes, even the ‘doctor film’ already existed during the Third Reich.7

Kochenrath made yet more unsavory discoveries, such as the biography of Günther Rittau (1893-1971). In 1941, Rittau produced the film U-Boote westwärts (Westbound Submarines) on behalf of the Third Reich’s Navy; and in 1960 he made the film Spionage (Espionage) on behalf of the Bundeswehr (the newly founded West German army) – a film which according to the West German film expert Klaus Kreimeier was designed to strengthen “the preparedness of the Federal Republic against infiltration by the Eastern intelligence agencies.”8 Another biography Kochenrath brought to light was that of Johannes Häußler (1908-1964). Under fascism Häußler had directed Blutendes Land (Bleeding Country) (1933) and Deutsches Land in Afrika (German Land in Africa) (1939); and in 1951, he could – in the words of Kreimeier, who drew on Kochenrath in his research – “continue his tendentious production with the so-called documentary Kreuzweg der Freiheit (Crossroads of Freedom) on the former Eastern territories without significantly compromising his nationalist sentiments.”9 And in the same outright revisionist vein there followed Mutter Ostpreußen (Mother East Prussia), Das deutsche Danzig (German Danzig), Das war Königsberg (That was Königsberg) (all 1954) and Schlesierland – Deutsches Land (Silesia – German Land) (1956).10

Kreimeier himself’ added the biography of Gerhard T. Buchholz (1898-1970), who had written the screenplay for Die Rothschilds (The Rothschilds) and now – among other things – reappeared in 1952 as the director of Postlagernd Turteltaube (Poste Restante Turtledove), which targeted the GDR as the Cold War intensified. As late as 1958 Buchholz was part of the jury at the International Film Festival in Berlin.

Kreimeier concluded his research by saying that these kinds of films were “examples of undisguised political propaganda.” Yet, he argued, beyond the continuation of personnel the real scandal was the aesthetic continuity:

The dominant film… both in the Nazi state as well as later in the Federal Republic was the so-called ‘non-political entertainment movie’. It represents a rather subliminal continuity..., a latent identity in emotional attitudes, in the relationship to reality, in that particular realm of the ‘collective unconscious’ which is reflected by the medium of film perhaps more sensitively and with more nuance than in other forms of mass culture and low art. This identity, this continued effect of collective consciousness is particularly significant in cases where the clichés of the ostensibly ‘apolitical’, de facto anti-political and in its effect de-politicizing entertainment film are perpetuated and allow conclusions about the ideological foundation of [West] German everyday life.... [I]n the film genres of the fifties, specific ideological patterns become manifest that did not just emerge in this decade and that have not subsequently disappeared.11

Nevertheless, even if the Heimatfilm typified the climate of suppression of the 1950s, it did not have exclusive status in West Germany’s politically guided culture industry. In addition to shallow entertainment, there existed also revisionist historical misrepresentations. Liebeneiner, Lüthge, Rittau, Häußler and Buchholz have already been mentioned. More examples were films like Solange du lebst (As Long As You Live) by Harald Reinl (1908-1986). Reinl had worked as assistant director of Leni Riefenstahl’s film Tiefland (Lowlands). This film was created between 1940 and 1944 with Sinti and Roma people forcibly recruited from concentration camps who were deported after the completion of the film to the extermination camp of Auschwitz. And now, in Solange du lebst (1955), Reinl openly glorified the bombing of the Spanish Republic by the Nazi “Condor Legion.” Eventually Reinl would create more Heimatfilms as well as some of the highly popular Edgar Wallace and Karl May movies. Reinl’s Solange du lebst was so notorious that filmmaker Karl Paryla in the GDR responded more or less directly to it with the DEFA film Mich dürstet (I Am Thirsty) (1956) based on a novel by Walter Gorrisch which portrayed the opposite perspective of the left-wing defenders of the Spanish Republic.

Another example is Alfred Weidenmann (1918-2000). As a 16-year-old, this son of a factory owner had been a fanatical member of the Hitler Youth and embarked on a storybook career. He went through several propaganda departments of the Hitler Youth, and at 18 published his first in a series of Hitler Youth stories (many of which would be turned into movies); as an assistant to Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach, he later headed the War Library of German Youth (Kriegsbücherei der deutschen Jugend), which was sponsored by the High Command of the Army, Navy and Air Force and whose purpose was to strengthen the readiness for sacrifice amongst German youth. Later Weidenmann became director of the Film Department of the Reich’s Youth Leadership (Hauptabteilung “Film” der Reichsjugendführung) and in 1941 he directed the Hitler Youth documentary film Soldaten von morgen (Soldiers of Tomorrow). This film was followed one year later by the feature film Hände hoch! (Hands Up!), which won an award in fascist Italy, and, in 1944, Junge Adler (Young Eagles), a film which, according to his biographer Peter Longerich, was particularly enjoyed by Joseph Goebbels because it told “the story of a group of apprentices enthusiastically helping to build bombers.”12

After the war, once remilitarization allowed for such an undertaking, Weidenmann’s colleagues from the War Library established the war book series SOS – Schicksal deutscher Schiffe (SOS: Fate of German Ships), Fliegergeschichten (Air Force Stories) and Soldatengeschichten aus aller Welt (Soldier Stories from Around the World), which romanticized war, catering to Nazi nostalgia, and which today can still be bought at even the most provincial (West) German corner store. Weidenmann himself, whose writings were banned in the Soviet-Occupied Territories/GDR, continued his work in West Germany and cooperated further with his friend Herbert Reinecker (1914-2007), who had achieved a similar career in the propaganda departments of the Hitler Youth and later in the Waffen SS (the SS’s most brutal and fanatical wing). Among other things, Reinecker wrote the screenplays for the Weidenmann films Canaris and Der Stern von Afrika (The Star of Africa). The latter treats the life stages of German fighter pilot Hans-Joachim Marseille and his missions in World War II, and was premiered in 1957 at a ceremony with Marseille's mother. On the occasion of the film’s re-release a few years ago, the film critic Michael Boldhaus wrote:

When the movie came out in August 1957 ... the young Federal Republic of Germany was marked by the Cold War and rearmament. On 1 April 1957 the first recruits had been drafted into the ‘Bundeswehr’…. With his 158 downings, Marseille had already been a gem of Nazi propaganda, and with its trivializing, entertaining depiction of war as an adventure, in which young men dressed in dashing uniforms can prove themselves, this film gets quite close to the Nazi propaganda films.13

Moreover, in 1954 Weidenmann produced Canaris about Wilhelm Canaris who was the head of German Military Intelligence Defense at the High Command of the Wehrmacht (Militärgeheimdienst Abwehr beim Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) during the fascist period. Film historian Claudius Seidl writes, “Especially the foreign film critics noticed that in Canaris history was not only played down; it was falsified.”14 Nevertheless (or precisely because of that fact), Weidenmann was given the “especially valuable” award by West Germany’s Film Review Board (Filmbewertungsstelle), in 1955 he received the German Film Award for Best Director (Filmband in Gold), and in 1956 the Gold Cup for the best feature film as well as the Bambi for the commercially most successful film.

Post-Communist Discontinuity after German “Re-Unification”

The continuity of the Nazi directors in the young Federal Republic of Germany stands in blatant contrast to the handling of the filmmakers of the German Democratic Republic. When the GDR was dismantled, the politics of so called “re-unification” after October 3, 1990 led not only to the fire-sale privatization of collectively owned enterprises but also to the destruction of, with very few exceptions, all existing socialist institutions as well as mass layoffs of the overwhelming majority of creative workers – from higher education to the film industry – in east Germany. A comprehensive survey of essentially all established and still-active directors of the DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft) directors active until the dissolution of the DEFA (1991), the careers of at least 41 directors were cut short due to these developments. These filmmakers, whose careers now ended like those from many other areas of society, in most cases involuntarily, included: Siegfried Hartmann and Walter Heynowski (both 1927-  ), Günter Reisch (1927-2014), Hans-Joachim Kasprzik (1928-1997), Günther Stahnke (1928-  ), Walter Beck, Joachim Kunert, Achim Hübner, Peter Hagen, Hans-Joachim Hildebrandt (all 1929-  ), Joachim Hasler (1929-1995), Frank Vogel (1929-1999), Fritz Bornemann (1929-2005), Gerhard Scheumann (1930-1998), Ralf Kirsten (1930-1998), Konrad Petzold (1930-1999), Lothar Bellag (1930-2001), Martin Eckermann (1930-2005), Werner W. Wallroth (1930-2011), Kurt Veth (1930-2012), Wolf-Dieter Panse (1930-2013), Bärbl Bergmann (1931-2003), Wolfgang Hübner (1931-  ), Joachim Hellwig (1932-  ), Roland Gräf and Irmgard Ritterbusch (both 1934-  ), Siegfried Kühn, Erwin Stranka, Helmut Nitzschke, Roland Oehme (all 1935-  ), Lothar Warneke (1936-2005), Horst Seemann (1937-2000), Fred Noczynski and Werner Kohlert (both born 1939-  ), Ursula Bonhoff (ca. 1940-  ), Ernst Cantzler, Hans Kratzert (both 1940-  ), Eckhard Pottraffke and Rainer Simon (both 1941-  ), Roland Steiner (1949-  ), and Rudi Hein (born in the late 1940s or early 1950s).

Furthermore, this kind of “re-unification” also more or less put an end to the careers of Horst E. Brandt (born 1923 but still an active director with his 1989 DEFA film Die Beteiligten [The Participants]), Rolf Schnabel (1925-1999) and Hubert Hoelzke (1925- , both still active as directors and, in the case of Hoelzke, also as an actor in 1989, but not after that), Klaus Gendries (born 1930, only one post-transition film in 1996), Helmut Dziuba (1933-2012, only one more film in 2004), Helmut Krätzig (born 1933, sparse television series episodes after 1989), Kurt Tetzlaff (1933-  ), Gitta Nickel (famous documentary film-maker in the GDR, born 1936, only some public television documentary films on the regional channel MDR), Karlheinz Mund (1937-  ), Vera Loebner (born 1938, few scattered TV engagements until 2004), Eduard Schreiber (1939-  ), Richard Engel (born 1940, fairly precarious with few engagements), Jurij Kramer (born 1940, only individual acting engagements after 1989), Claus Dobberke (born 1940, fairly precarious with very few documentary films), Detlev “Ted” Tetzke (1941-2004, only one more film in 1996), Ulrich Weiss (born 1942, four more movies, but only until 1994), Peter Rocha (1942-  ), Jochen Kraußer (born 1943, only three more films from 1994 until 1998), Christian Steinke (only one TV movie after 1989), Heinz Brinkmann (born 1948, a few more documentaries in the early 1990s), Jörg Foth (born 1949) and Petra Tschörtner (1958-2012), who both continued in the film industry but under quite precarious conditions, Michael Kann (young GDR film hopeful born 1950, only one Hungarian TV documentary in 1996), Sibylle Schönemann (born 1953, a few more and infrequent documentaries before a complete change of professions) and Dieter Schumann (born 1953, only two more documentaries in 2003 and 2010).

In fact, the only East German film directors who have been able to continue their work in the German film industry beyond 1991 are basically the makers of children’s films Heiner Carow (1929-1997, three more television movies after 1991), Gunter Friedrich (1938-  ), Rainer Bär (1939-  ), Günter Meyer (1940-  ) and Rolf Losansky (born 1931, three more films), the comedy filmmakers Hermann Zschoche (born 1934, working after 1991 for various low-brow television series) and Bernhard Stephan (born 1944, also probably somewhat precarious in TV series production), as well as the documentary filmmakers Lew Hohmann (born 1944) and Andreas Voigt (born 1953), and Christa Mühl (1947-  ), who after 1991, instead of directing film adaptations of Bertolt Brecht, Anna Seghers and Theodor Fontane novels and stories, was now also involved with more or less undemanding television series and telenovelas. A similar fate awaited Peter Wekwerth, Michael Knof (both born 1949), Gunther Scholz (1944-  ) and Manfred Mosblech (1934-2012) who also – like many of the others mentioned before – only managed to survive in schmaltzy pre-prime-time TV serials, never being able to return to either the big screen or ambitious intellectual projects such as Knof’s 11-part documentary Marx und Engels: Stationen ihres Lebens (Marx and Engels: Stages in Their Lives) (1978-1980) or the 1983 three-part TV series Aufbruch – Verrat – Hoffnung (A New Beginning – Betrayal – Hope) on the German 1918 revolution or Wekwerth’s 1979 five-part TV epic Die lange Straße (The Long Road) on problems and conflicts in the construction of socialism from 1949 until the 1970s or his 1985 four-part TV biopic Flug des Falken (The Falcon’s Flight) on the young Friedrich Engels in 1839 and the beginning of his friendship with Marx. Finally, another director who apparently could have continued working as a film director was Ulrich Thein (1930-  ). Yet in contrast with Mühl, Wekwerth, Mosblech and Knof, he refused to do so, saying that he was not interested in “creating the shit that I have been offered by producers.”

The careers of Jürgen Böttcher (1931-  ) and Konrad Weiß (1942-  ) seemingly could only continue because they had sought other vocations beyond just film: Weiß as a GDR dissident and Alliance 90/Greens parliamentarian and Böttcher as an artist outside the film industry. The careers of other DEFA directors such as Egon Günther (1927-  ), Frank Beyer (1932-2006), Thomas Langhoff (1938-2012), and Celino Bleiweiß (1938-  ) continued because they had already created a reputation for themselves in West Germany during the early 1980s – partly through direct relocation (Günther, Beyer, Bleiweiß). Thus, it was easy for them to continue their work even after the dissolution of the DEFA in 1991. Finally, Iris Gusner (1941-  ) had the good fortune to have relocated to West Germany already in the summer of 1989, which may have helped her to continue her work in the film industry, albeit also under apparently quite precarious conditions.

Among those directors who had worked exclusively in the GDR until its absorption, only the documentary filmmaker Volker Koepp (1944-  ), Helke Misselwitz (born 1947, still occasionally working as a director and now professor of Film and Television at Potsdam University), Jürgen Brauer (born 1938, several detective series films until 2008), Peter Kahane (1949-  ), Bernd Böhlich (1957-  ), and Andreas Kleinert (1962-  ) managed a successful transition – and in the case of Kleinert his DEFA debut did not occur until 1989. Meanwhile, the careers of the two best known East German directors today – Andreas Dresen (1963-  ) and Matti Geschonneck (born 1952 as the son of the famous DEFA actor and Cap Arcona survivor Erwin Geschonneck,15 but, unlike his father, a resident of West Germany since 1978) – only began after 1989.

In short, even on the most generous assumptions there are just 24 east German DEFA directors who were able to continue their work, or probably could have if they had wanted to (Koepp, Misselwitz, Brauer, Kahane, Böhlich, Kleinert, Gusner, K. Weiß, Böttcher, Carow, Friedrich, Bär, G. Meyer, Losansky, Zschoche, Stephan, Hohmann, Voigt, Scholz, Wekwerth, Knof, Mosblech, Mühl and Thein) juxtaposed to at least 66 DEFA directors whose careers in Germany ended largely involuntarily with the absorption of the GDR by the FRG. This fact stands in stark contrast to the fact that – almost without exception – all directors of German fascism were able to continue their careers in the West after 1945. The explosive force of this balance sheet lies in the sole conclusion that one can draw from it: Just as in reference to the transition of the film industry from the Nazi era to the Federal Republic it is impossible to speak of a break with the past, so also is it impossible to apply the term “re-unification” to the transition of the film industry from the GDR to the “Berlin Republic.” Post-fascist continuity after 1945 is matched by post-communist discontinuity after 1989.

Particularly worrying in this context is the fact that many of the interrupted DEFA directors provided artistically valuable works for the necessary coming to terms with the fascist past. These include, for instance, Joachim Kunert’s immensely successful masterpiece film Die Abenteuer des Werner Holt (The Adventures of Werner Holt) (1965) based on the eponymously titled two-part Bildungsroman by Dieter Noll (a coming-of-age story of a small group of young Nazi war supporters between emotional hardening, barbarization and resistance and their return from the war); Kunert’s seven-part film Die gläserne Fackel (The Torch of Glass) (1989) about the Carl Zeiss corporation; the five-part film Gewissen in Aufruhr (Conscience in Turmoil) (1961) by Hans-Joachim Kasprzik and Günter Reisch based on the turbulent autobiography of the antifascist Rudolf Petershagen, who surived the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943, actively surrendered his battalion in the battle of Greifswald in 1945 (leading to imprisonment and the death penalty from the Nazis) and would later be imprisoned again by the US secret service in 1951 under accusations of espionage; the antifascist children’s film Als Martin vierzehn war (When Martin was Fourteen) (1964) by Walter Beck (from the long-standing GDR tradition of anti-fascist children’s films aimed at presenting historical events from a children’s perspective rather than shielding them from current affairs as in West German children films during the 1950s and early 1960s); the extremely popular seven-hour TV saga Wege übers Land (Ways Across the Country) (1968) by Martin Eckermann (depicting agrarian social relations in East Elbia between 1939 and the early 1960s); Wengler & Söhne (Wengler & Sons) (1987) by Rainer Simon, a saga stretching across several generations of a working-class family from 1871 to 1945; the much-acclaimed and (among West German leftists) widely diffused five-part labor movement epic Krupp und Krause (1969) by Horst E. Brandt; and the documentary films Kamarad Krüger (Comrade Krueger: Honor Without Conscience) (1986) and Der Mann an der Rampe (The Man Who Met the Train) (1989) by Gerhard Scheumann and Walter Heynowski, focusing on Nazi and Auschwitz war criminals living undisturbed lives in West Germany.

The FRG’s Film Policy during the Cold War

The Cold War brought an end to the barely begun denazification in the West. This resulted inevitably in differences with the Soviet-Occupied Zone/GDR where, as a result of denazification measures, the top leadership positions were now occupied largely by the opponents and surviving victims of Nazism and fascism -- resistance fighters, concentration camp returnees, exiled political activists and intellectuals – while conversely in the West essentially the opposite was the case. This circumstance favored continuity between Nazi cinema and that of the FRG. Moreover, because of systematic denazification in the Soviet zone, many of the old elites lost their cliques and networks from the time of the Nazi dictatorship. This meant that even for those who did not politically reject the Soviet Zone / GDR, a career in West Germany, where these connections were largely preserved, was more desirable.

In West Germany all possible apologies for the immense continuity were therefore tried until the mid-60s, and those apologies find uncritical acceptance again today. Thus, the media historian Anja Horbrügger, who was born in 1979 in Hofgeismar in West Germany, for instance, approvingly quotes Peter Pleyer’s 1965 book about postwar film when she writes that the effort to exclude former Nazis from senior or creative positions proved to be “simply not feasible because, ‘almost all directors, writers, actors, cameramen and technicians had been more or less active members of the Nazi Party. That is why over the course of time this policy changed and now licenses were issued to filmmakers including those who had only passively formally belonged to the Party’.”16 The implication that key Nazi directors like Harlan, Lüthge or Ucicky were only fellow travelers of German fascism is in itself already outrageous. In addition, however, the example of the DEFA shows that there indeed existed alternatives and that there were directors not burdened by guilt who could have been promoted. The fact that Horbrügger overlooks (or maybe even hides) this simple truth can be interpreted as an example of the tunnel vision (or opportunism) which is characteristic of many West German historians.

The continuity was, however, not merely the result of something like post-fascist comfort and habit, but it came into existence with the direct influence of the anti-communist state. The background for this was the West German system of Federal Guarantees, which the government granted during the 1950s in order to “securitize the filmmakers against potential credit risks.”17 Klaus Kreimeier writes:

The producers who sought a federal guarantee had to submit ... the script, the cost estimate and all contracts for review. This installed a political control over the content of films which had a restrictive impact in countless cases. Thus in 1952 the film Das Herz der Welt [The Heart of the World] by Harald Braun, a biography of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bertha von Suttner, was denied a federal guarantee because its pacifist convictions did not fit into the political climate of the re-militarization of West Germany and its integration into the Western defense alliance. Furthermore, producers, who entertained contacts with the DEFA ... could not expect guarantees. A scandal was caused when the then Federal Minister of the Interior [Robert] Lehr refused a guarantee for Wolfgang Staudte. Staudte was not ready to abandon his work at DEFA.... The second guarantee period expired in 1955, but tellingly in 1956 the government nevertheless provided Alfred Braun with a 1.6 million [mark] loan so that he could produce his film Stresemann. The film was intended to help the election campaign of the CDU in the following year, but was a commercial failure.18

Alfred Braun? That name rings a bell. Right, it was he who during the Third Reich had written the screenplays for the Harlan films Jud Süß (Jew Suess), Die goldene Stadt (The Golden City) (1942) Opfergang (Sacrifice) (1944) and the monumental morale-boosting “perseverance film” Kolberg (1945) and who had directed the Reich’s air force propaganda film Himmelsstürmer (Sky Stormers) (1941). Presumably because Stresemann was such an economic disaster, Braun received the German Film Award in 1957.19

Moreover, the German government aggressively impaired or blocked the distribution of DEFA films that strove for an antifascist coming to terms with history. The provisional constitution of West Germany, the Grundgesetz, like its counterpart in the GDR, boasted: “Censorship does not take place.” However, as Martin Loiperdinger writes in his contribution to the joint work History of German film, this “meant little … for actual practice.”20 Although after the third reading of the Main Committee for the Preparation of the Grundgesetz in 1949 the people involved distanced themselves from a bracketing-out of film from the freedom from censorship, “even without a special censorship law … the freedom of filmmakers remained restricted by the ‘law in general’.” This resulted in “the political film import control, which – rooted in the Cold War – blocked films from the Eastern Bloc countries up until the beginning of the seventies.” The role of “reviewing board” was assumed by the secret “Inter-Ministerial Committee” which “began its work at the instigation of the Verfassungsschutz [West German intelligence agency] on 16 June 1954” and decided without legal basis about the import permit for Eastern Bloc films.”21 As Alexander Kötzing from the predominantly conservative, state-run Federal Centre for Political Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung) writes, its activity was aimed at “banning from the screen criticism of the Nazi past and references to elite continuities from the ‘Third Reich’ to the Federal Republic of Germany.”22 The existence of the Inter-Ministerial Committee was not revealed until 1957, when its actions were uncovered by an inquiry in the Bundestag. This practice of censorship stood, of course, in dazzling contrast to the crocodile tears shed over the GDR’s Cold War censorship at the time of the SED’s Central Committee Plenum of 1965. Yet it would be continued without interruption until the new Ostpolitik and justified by the Federal Minister of Economics Ludwig Erhard “with regard to the persecution of anti-constitutional tendencies (§93 StGB) and the banning of the German Communist Party by the Constitutional Court in 1956.”23

The West German population thus remained unmolested by anti-fascist DEFA films. This was all the more so because directors such as Staudte, who were active in both East and West Germany, were usually severely hampered in their critical work. For example, Staudte’s significant DEFA film Rotation (1949), in which he shows the role played by fellow travelers – exemplified realistically by the fictitious printer Hans Behnke – in helping the cause of fascism, was suppressed in West Germany for nearly a decade and then only shown in a censored and annotated version (at that time Staudte had long relocated to the West as a result of a conflict with Brecht and Helene Weigel). Earlier on, Staudte’s adaptation of the Heinrich Mann novel The Loyal Subject (Der Untertan; in English also known as Man of Straw and The Kaiser’s Lackey) had also already been banned in West Germany. And Staudte’s classic The Murderers Are Among Us (Die Mörder sind unter uns), the first German post-war film ever made, was not aired on West German television until December 18, 1971.24

“Braunbuch BRD”! “Braunbuch DDR?”: Nazi directors in the “Soviet Zone”

The Federal Republic of Germany, in turn, responded to the allegations raised in the other German state that it is a “restoration state” run by old Nazi regime cadres, with the accusation that the same continuities allegedly existed in the German Democratic Republic (or, as the diplomatically unrecognized second German state was officially called, the [Soviet] “zone” or “GDR” in quotation marks). In response to the publication of the highly successful Braunbuch BRD (Brown Book FRG), which sought to document the post-fascist elite continuity in the West and was translated into numerous languages, the FRG published the Brown Book GDR. In the film industry, however, a parallel development cannot be confirmed.

There did indeed exist a handful of former Nazi era artists in the GDR. The difference to West Germany, however, was that the continuation of their careers – in the context of the democratic anti-fascist and later socialist self-image of the GDR – was possible only through a break with their past, which also had to be reflected in their artistic work.

Apart from Staudte, there were nine other directors (and actors) who did have a fascist past: Adolf Fischer (1900-1984), Milo Harbich (1900-1988), Helmut Käutner (1908-1980), Eduard Kubat (1891-1976), Gerhard Lamprecht (1897-1974), Arthur Maria Rabenalt (1905-1993), Robert Adolf Stemmle (1903-1974), Erich Engel (1891-1966) and Georg C. Klaren (1900-1962). However, these artists became actively involved in the efforts to come to terms with the fascist past. Of course, it must be added that – against the backdrop of the DEFA procurement practice – a continuation of their respective careers would otherwise have been hard to imagine. Moreover, most of them did not stay for long in East Germany for a number of reasons which need to be clarified.

Hence, Harbich, whose career started in 1933 and who had worked as a cutter for Hitlerjunge Quex (Hitler Youth Quex), initially directed the film Freies Land (Free Land) about the successful land reform in the Soviet zone (one of the many demands of the West German social democrats to be realized only in the East), but then emigrated to Brazil. Stemmle, who had directed the Nazi propaganda film Jungens (Boys) in 1941, wrote the anti-fascist novel “Die Affäre Blum” after the war as well as the screenplay to its DEFA film adaptation directed by Erich Engel, but then ended up continuing his work in West Germany writing screenplays for commercial entertainment films from Karl May to Edgar Wallace. Staudte, who had been an actor in Jud Süß (Jew Süß) as well as in …reitet für Deutschland! (…ride for Germany!) (1941), now earned himself anti-fascist merits not only through the aforementioned DEFA films Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us), Rotation, and Der Untertan (Man of Straw), but also for the film Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (Roses for the Prosecutor) which, in 1959, was basically the first West German film to problematize West German post-fascist elite continuity. For his film Herrenpartie (Destination Death) (1964), which took a critical look at the lack of a coming to terms with the past in West Germany, Staudte, who had also directed adaptations of Brecht at a time when his plays were blacklisted across West German theaters, was slandered as a “traitor.”25 Rabenalt, who had directed the films …reitet für Deutschland! (…ride for Germany!) as well as Achtung! Feind hört mit! (Attention! The Enemy is Listening!) (1940) and who had also contributed to the aforementioned Riefenstahl film Tiefland (Lowlands), after the war directed the film Chemie und Liebe (Chemistry and Love) (1948), an anti-capitalist sci-fi comedy based on a template by Béla Balázs. Thereafter, however, he only directed one more film in East Germany – the pacifist Das Mädchen Christine (The Girl Christine) (1948) – and then continued his career in West Germany with sentimental films such as Hochzeit im Heu (Wedding in the Hay) (1950) and Die Försterchristl (The Ranger’s Christie) (1952). Lamprecht, who had already been active during the Weimar period with literary adaptations as well as an acclaimed social realism trilogy and had kept a strong distance from Nazi propaganda films during the “Third Reich,” directed his first so-called Debris Film (Trümmerfilm)26 Irgendwo in Berlin (Somewhere in Berlin) (1946) for DEFA, but then did not stay. The same thing applies to Käutner, who during the fascist period had not only refused to be instrumentalized by the regime, but had also developed a subversive aesthetic which ran counter to the aesthetic of fascism – something which did not remain unnoticed by Nazi censors. Käutner’s first film in the Third Reich, Kitty und die Weltkonferenz (Kitty and the World Conference) (1939), was banned, because it was considered by the Nazis to be pacifistic and too friendly toward Great Britain. And Käutner’s follow-up films, which more or less belonged to the entertainment genre, kept their distance from the fascist aesthetic in the view of most critics. Toward the end of fascism Käutner fell into conflict with the regime again. His penultimate Nazi-era film Große Freiheit Nr. 7 was banned because, according to the Nazi film evaluators, it did not show “German soul heroes”; and his last film Unter den Brücken (Under the Bridges) (1944) was still with the censorship authorities when the war ended. In the Soviet zone Käutner now directed the Trümmerfilm In jenen Tagen (In Those Days) (1947) in order to then continue his highly successful career as one of the few critical film-makers in 1950s West Germany.

The only former Nazi directors who had careers in the GDR were Klaren and Fischer. Georg Klaren, a native Viennese now in Berlin, had started in the second half of the 1920s as a screenplay writer and celebrated his directorial debut in 1931 with Kinder vor Gericht/Die Sache August Schulze (Children on Trial/The Case of August Schulze). During fascism, Klaren had written largely apolitical screenplays, but he had also provided Rabenalt with the idea for Achtung! Feind hört mit! (Attention! The Enemy is Listening!). He was active with DEFA from 1947 on. Among his films were the highly successful Georg Büchner adaption Wozzeck (1947) as well as four other films, including the self-critically anti-fascist Die Sonnenbrucks (The Sonnenbrucks) (1951) about fellow travelers and resistance fighters during the “Third Reich” as well as the also noteworthy Balzac adaptation Karriere in Paris (Career in Paris) (1952). For a short while, Klaren also worked as DEFA’s Chief Scenario Editor.

The second exception is Adolf Fischer, who had played proletarian figures in the Weimar Republic under the famous Marxist stage director Erwin Piscator and alongside the communist Brecht-actor and well-known singer Ernst Busch at the Theater am Nollendorfplatz in Berlin. Alongside Busch, he also starred in G.W. Papst’s classic radical film Kamaradschaft (Comradeship) (1931), a German-French co-production depicting working-class internationalism during a coalmine disaster underneath the French-German border, as well as in Brecht’s only feature film Kuhle Wampe (directed by Slatan Dudow in 1932) and Seifenblasen (Soap Bubbles) (another Dudow film, directed in 1933 and completed in Parisian exile in 1934). However, unlike all the figures mentioned, Fischer did not emigrate from Germany, but conformed to fascism instead and acted in propaganda films such as Pour Le Mérite, Das Gewehr über (The Rifle Over), and the aforementioned Achtung! Feind hört mit! (Attention! The Enemy is Listening!). In the GDR, Fischer was eventually rehabilitated and would play a minor role as the head of production for a number of humanist, anti-fascist and socialist DEFA films by people such as Martin Hellberg, Dudow and the famous Kurt Maetzig.27

“Daddy’s Cinema is Dead!”: The 1958ers and the Beginnings of the Denazification of Culture in West Germany

Those born after 1958, if they are cinematically inclined, usually associate post-war West German film with the so called Autorenfilm (auteur film) by artists such as Alexander Kluge, Edgar Reitz, Volker Schlöndorff, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, Harun Farocki, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Margarete von Trotta, Christian Ziewer, Bernhard Sinkel and Michael Verhoeven (the son of Nazi director Paul Verhoeven). This raises the question of how it was possible to overcome this continuity and cultural dominance of the Nazi directors and their Heimatfilms and revisionist films.

When in 1998, the so-called “march through the institutions” of the 1960s social movements culminated with the government takeover by a coalition of social democrats and Greens, this kindled a debate about the legacy of 1968, which celebrated its 30th anniversary that year. While the conservative media went after the former cop-beater and now newly announced Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, trying to tie the entire 1968 generation to Red Army Faction and Bewegung 2. Juni terrorism, the liberal (non-socialist) wing of “1968,” best personified by Otto Schily,28 saw the modernization of post-fascist, restorative-conservative Germany as their own accomplishment.

The truth is that a “zero hour” (“Stunde Null”) had indeed existed. However, it had a slightly longer pedigree than just “1968.” The West German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler, in his magnum opus Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, which is beyond suspicion of harboring any kind of sympathy for the GDR or hostility to the Federal Republic of Germany, noted that the actual “zero hour” was not 1968, but had started a decade earlier with what he called the emergence of a “new type of critical public sphere between 1958 and 1964.”29 The denazification of West Germany’s culture and of its cinema in particular was made possible by this new critical public sphere. And yet, it could only arise under very specific conditions.

The denazification of West German film, unlike the liberation from fascism, did not come directly from outside the country. But it did depend on outside developments, namely the new constellation of the Cold War, which starting in 1958 led to the rise of the “Kampf-dem-Atomtod” (“Fight-nuclear-death”) and the Easter March peace movement. Only now was the grotesque parallelism of Auschwitz and homeland kitsch to some extent broken. The fear of nuclear war led to the rise of a new political opposition, which was carried by the West German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), the illegalized Communist Party, the left wing of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and a number of intellectuals and bourgeois leftists. At the same time, a “new critical public” and a social climate emerged in which younger artists put the suppressed past and the restorative present on the agenda. This was also partially supported by a modernization-oriented liberal elite centered around weekly mass publications such as Rudolf Augstein’s Der Spiegel, Henri Nannen’s Stern and later Marion Gräfin von Dönhoff’s DIE ZEIT. The result was an accelerated process of alienation of critical youth from their parents. This opposition in the FRG finally linked up, in their own way, with the efforts of the anti-fascist democratic DEFA films. This process led to the release of classic West German postwar films in quick succession: Wir Wunderkinder (Aren’t We Wonderful?) (1958) by Kurt Hoffmann; Unruhige Nacht (The Restless Night) (1958), Arzt ohne Gewissen (Doctor Without a Conscience) (1959) and the Hans Fallada adaptation Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone) (1962) by the bourgeois resistance fighter Falk Harnack;30 Hunde, wollt ihr ewig leben? (Dogs, Do You Want to Live Forever?) (1959) by Frank Wisbar, and Die Brücke (The Bridge) (1959) by Bernhard Wicki – the latter two both dealing with the futility of the war as exemplified respectively by the battle of Stalingrad and by the Volkssturm, i.e. the 1945 mobilization of underage youth and the elderly in the hopeless, senseless and criminal cause of defending the Nazi empire against the Allied Forces. Staudte’s already mentioned film Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (Roses for the Prosecutor), We Cellar Children (Wir Kellerkinder) (1960) by Wolfgang Neuss, and Der Transport (Transportation) (1961) by Jürgen Roland, about war deserters shortly before the end of the war, completed the picture. Together with Hollywood films such as Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) by Stanley Kramer, they shook up the social relationships of culture in the FRG.

At the same time in this young movement the awareness emerged that a real break with fascism presupposed the development of democratic cultural forms. With regard to cinema, this culminated in criticism of the dominant aesthetic in West Germany articulated in the Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962. Under the leadership of Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz it postulated: “Daddy’s cinema is dead!” The new West German auteur film now experimented not only with a new aesthetic form, but also with a new political expression. It took its inspiration equally from the French nouvelle vague, the film-revolutionary Jean-Luc Godard, the Frankfurt School and its culture industry critique, Walter Benjamin, and the constantly politically suppressed theater of Bertolt Brecht. These young directors created the conditions for a sustainable aesthetic denazification of West German film and the foundations for a generally critical and intellectually substantial auteur cinema, on whose shoulders today – consciously or unconsciously – in essence every German-language film still rests.

The denazification of West German film corresponded with similar processes in other cultural areas. The 1958ers movement also developed especially in the field of literature and articulated itself in the noticeable upswing in literary texts trying to come to terms with fascism – building on the earlier criticism voiced in Alfred Andersch’s autobiographical The Cherries of Freedom (Kirschen der Freiheit) (1952), in which French existentialist sentiment was connected to a deserter’s individualist will to survive, and in The Hothouse (Das Treibhaus) by Wolfgang Koeppen (1953), which describes in a melancholic way the restoration, Western integration and remilitarization of the Western half of Germany through the lens of a fictional SPD member of parliament. However, in literature also, a sudden wave of critical publications, which simultaneously expressed and shaped the consciousness of oppositional youth, emerged only in the course of the aforementioned Antiatomtodbewegung (Movement against Nuclear Death).

Thus, in quick succession classics of West German literature appeared that despite all the stylistic differences were united in their focus on fascism and in scandalizing the omnipresent suppression and glorification of the past. These writings included novels such as Flight to Afar (Sansibar oder der letzte Grund) (1957) by Alfred Andersch, The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) (1959) by Günter Grass, and Billiards at Half Past Nine (Billard um halb Zehn) (1959) by Heinrich Böll, and the plays Andorra (1961) by Max Frisch, The Deputy (Der Stellvertreter) (1961/63) by Rolf Hochhuth, and The Investigation (Die Ermittlung) (1965) by Peter Weiss. The political maturity and sharpness of this new critical intelligentsia reflected itself especially in the Weiss drama The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat (Die Verfolgung und Ermordung Jean Paul Marats) (1964), which already pointed to the impending re-appropriation of Marxism from its submergence under fascism.

In music also, there was a concerted effort to overcome post-fascist culture. Kluge’s and Reitz’s slogan “Daddy's cinema is dead!” was echoed two years later in the postulate “Daddy’s song is dead!” – articulated by the prominent chanson singer Franz Josef Degenhardt (1931-2011) who would go on to become a leading voice of the 1968 generation.31 The confrontation of the post-fascist Heimatfilm, as well as the culture-industry Hollywood film, by the auteur film was paralleled here with the confrontation and overwhelming of the old soldier song and the fascist Schlager, a culture-industry cliché-ridden artefact and alleged “folk” song with no popular roots whatsoever, which still dominated the music genre during the 1950s. Now, the so called Liedermacher (singer-songwriters, literally: song-makers, a term conceptualized after Brecht’s term “Stückeschreiber” [playwright]) such as Degenhardt, Peter Rohland, Dieter Süverkrüp, Gerd Semmer, the twin brothers Hein and Oss Kröher, Hanns-Dieter Hüsch, Hannes Stütz, Fasia Jansen and later on also Hannes Wader, with roots in the uncompromised, internationalist wing of the German Youth Movement, constituted themselves in the influential counter-culture festivals at the Waldeck Castle in Hunsrück, where they tried to develop a non-fascist song form, the so called intervening or Auteur Song (zeitbezogene or Autorenlied). In short, the political culture of 1968 was preceded by the cultural politics of the era since 1958.

At long last the unbearable continuity of the Nazi elite was revealed. Indeed, in the GDR it had been a central topic for a long time. The intellectuals who dealt with it there were sponsored by the state, since with the revelation of these relationships the East German state could assert its claim that it was the actual “new Germany” (“Neues Deutschland” – also the name of the ruling party’s daily newspaper and until today the largest socialist daily newspaper in Germany), and not the least, get closer to its foreign policy goal of international recognition. Hence the sensational success, in the GDR, of a number of literary and cinematic works such as the novel Michaels Rückkehr (Michael’s Return) by Leonhard Frank (1882-1961) or the DEFA film Der Prozeß wird vertagt (The Trial is Being Postponed) (1958), a straightforward adaptation by Herbert Ballmann (1924-2009), in which Nazi elite continuity was discussed. Kurt Maetzig’s film Der Rat der Götter (Council of the Gods) (1950), which is based on the Nuremberg Trial records and Richard Sasuly’s IG Farben documentation, impressively problematized the elite’s and the capitalist system’s continuity with the example of the IG Farben corporation and its successors Bayer, BASF, Wacker and Hoechst, whose profits were closely connected to the extermination camp in Auschwitz. In addition, from 1955 onwards extensive and systematic research on the fascist involvement of the FRG elites was carried out in the GDR and the results disseminated. This culminated in the 1965 release of the aforementioned, attention-provoking Braunbuch BRD: Kriegs- und Naziverbrecher in der Bundesrepublik und in West-Berlin (Brown Book FRG: War and Nazi Criminals in the Federal Republic and West Berlin), which in several editions published incriminating information on 2,300 members of West Germany's elite. A later investigation by the contemporary (West) German historian Götz Aly showed that the error rate was less than one percent. Some misinformation and deliberate falsifications were indeed cleverly used by FRG elites as a means to evade a confrontation with the material as a whole. To the extent, however, that young intellectuals in the West now started to ask the necessary questions, the mantle of silence over the fascist past and the careers of Nazi officials in West Germany became more and more frayed.

The tireless work of Thomas Harlan (1929-2010), the eldest son of Veit Harlan, who conducted research in Polish archives about the extermination camps Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno (Kulmhof) and Belzec, in cooperation with the Hessian federal prosecutor Fritz Bauer (1903-1968), who in 1963 initiated the first Auschwitz trial over the opposition of broad sectors of society and the FRG’s judiciary,32 finally led to the prosecution of at least 2,000 war criminals in West Germany.33 The federal government, however, responded to these revelations in an increasingly authoritarian manner. At the Frankfurt Book Fair of 1967, the entire print-edition of the Braunbuch BRD was seized and withdrawn from circulation. Harlan was accused of treason by, of all people Hans Globke (co-author and commentator of the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws of 1935, who had now become Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s closest adviser), and was prevented from entering West Germany until well into the 1970s by the withdrawal of his passport. State actions such as these, however, only ended up reinforcing the process of alienation among critical youth.

The “zero hour” of West German culture lies somewhere between 1958 and 1968. The state of the Federal Republic of Germany contributed nothing to this. On the contrary, in the course of integration with the West and re-militarization it refrained from denazifying the West German film industry. Instead, it took great pains to shield the population from the efforts of DEFA directors trying to come to terms with fascism and to “direct all intellectual and practical efforts so that Auschwitz could not repeat itself,” as Theodor W. Adorno had demanded in the West. In addition, it responded with repressive measures against attempts at unveiling by the domestic young left opposition and the intellectuals in East Germany. All this suggests that the denazification of the elites and of cinematic aesthetics, as well as a coming to terms with fascism (not to mention the economic and political structures which had led to fascism in the first place) would not have happened without these efforts from below and from outside. However, this should not come as a surprise. Given the systemic and elite continuity between fascism and 1950s West Germany, the elites could not have had the slightest interest in this effort.

Conclusion: Where Are We Now?

The denazification of (West) Germany in general – and of its cinema and film culture in particular – was largely successful and continued through the 1980s as part of a general evolution of capitalism toward neoliberalism. The political collapse and absorption of the East German state in 1990 led to a general free-market triumphalism. Even though the problems which state socialism had sought to overcome – social inequality and insecurity, capitalist crises and war – continued to exist, becoming in fact more pronounced than ever, the dead body of the GDR came to be used as a tool to fend off any criticism of the capitalist status quo. History, or rather a very particular and ideological reading of it, is always used as a weapon of politics. In this case, the dominant and official historiography now depicted the East German state as merely a criminal “footnote” and “dead-end street” in German history, instead of as a legitimate but ultimately unsuccessful first attempt to build socialism on German soil. And the quarter-century since the fall of the Berlin Wall was now presented as a narrative of “freedom” for the East German population.

The official doctrine told of “two German dictatorships,” likening the GDR to German fascism. Tens of thousands of killed communist and social-democratic workers and labor leaders, six million Jews and others murdered in the Nazis’ extermination camps, an imperialist war of annihilation (especially in the East) which cost fifty-five million people including twenty-five million Russians their lives were now supposed to be no more evil than the German Democratic Republic which was indeed responsible for the crime of a minimum of 138 people shot dead at the state border between the FRG and the GDR (including eight GDR border patrol soldiers who were killed by gunfire from the West) but which, unlike the reunified German state after 1989, had never participated in any war abroad, let alone a war of aggression such as the NATO war in Kosovo in 1999.

The monstrosity of this “demonization [of socialism] by comparison,” which failed to include the Cold War crimes of the West,34 was obvious from the beginning – but nevertheless it prevailed. Based on the notion that everything that existed in East Germany was “ideological” or inferior to what had existed in the West, more or less all existing socialist institutions were eliminated or their employees replaced by West Germans. The post-communist discontinuity in German cinema is just one example – and not even the most drastic one – of this comprehensive endeavor. Occasionally it was even being pursued as a supposed equivalent of the campaign against post-fascist continuity in West Germany, with the notion that one could now “make up” for what had been “missed then” (i.e. in West Germany after 1945), by being extraordinarily thorough in eliminating “socialist ideologues” from their positions. The result was that the societal elites in the GDR were completely replaced by West Germans.35 Moreover, under the rule of the two East German state leaders – Angela Merkel as Chancellor and the war-mongering pastor Joachim Gauck as President – this development continues into the present. Thus, as comprehensive studies by the Jena sociologist Raj Kollmorgen have shown, East Germans today comprise only between 5 and 9 percent of the economic and political elites of “reunified Germany,” although they are roughly 20 percent of the total population. The only part of society where East German citizens have been over-represented is in the army – of course, only in its lower ranks.36

The dominant and official historiography took a blow, however, with the effects that monetary union and fire-sale mass privatizations of nationalized industries had on the Eastern economy. With de-industrialization out of control and mass unemployment rising, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) formed by the reform-oriented wing within the Socialist Unity Party (SED), which had ruled the GDR until 1989, not only survived politically as an institution for defending the political and intellectual elites of the defunct state fighting for their pension rights etc., but also continued to grow even beyond the former SED district capitals into a party supported by roughly a quarter of the population. Furthermore, during the late 1990s and early 2000s the cooptation and absorption of (West) Germany’s center-Left opposition by neoliberalism and the implementation of the neoliberal Agenda 2010 – which deregulated the financial sector and flexibilized labor markets, created the second-largest low-wage sector in Europe, and produced an ever-growing population in poverty – allowed the PDS to advance spectacularly by merging with social-democratic and labor dissidents in the West, allowing it to turn into an all-German party.37

With the global crisis that began in 2007, capitalism also started losing its allure in unified Germany. In this context, the West German elite’s historical narrative – still obligatory for any political career – has become increasingly shaky. While the older generation of GDR citizens has been silenced or has fallen silent except in some (east German) leftist publications, socially engaged members of the younger GDR generation involved in the late 1980s protests in East Germany (therefore credited as GDR dissidents) are becoming more and more daring and vocal in the mainstream media and are breaking through the increasingly stale and hysterical official “freedom” narrative. Hence, during the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East German author Landolf Scherzer, praised as someone whose reporting had chronicled the demise of the GDR, likened the state-official “freedom” narrative and “Unrechtsstaat” terminology and its echo in the conservative and liberal media to the GDR propaganda shortly before its political collapse.38 Another example is East German novelist Ingo Schulze, one of the activists of the Wende era, who was able to argue in the liberal weekly DIE ZEIT that “reunification” was in reality a kind of annexation of the East German by the West German state, since there was no chance “to really evaluate which of the [GDR’s] structures and property relations, which of its laws and practices were fit for the future and superior to those in the West.”39 Later Schulze would add to this his memories of how the newspaper he had founded after the Wende in the small town of Altenburg was desperately at the mercy of capital and its advertising Deutschmarks, which made him wonder: “Had I ever before been squirming in front of a party functionary the way I was now squirming in front of the owner of the largest furniture company in the region?”40 Likewise, Annett Groeschner, also active in the “Wende” era and now a novelist, bemoaned in the blog of the leading conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that in terms of social reproduction and women’s-rights issues such as the “compatibility of family and career” the old FRG “felt like the middle-ages,” which entailed that after re-unification she and other GDR Wende activists ended up “having to take care” that GDR achievements in this direction “were protected” when what they had actually been rallying for had been “to change things for the better.” And she then summed up the general feeling of many East Germans by saying, “we wanted freedom and we ended up with neoliberalism.”41

In the face of this historical opening at a time when capitalism has by and large lost its vision of a better tomorrow and in light of this subaltern rebellion against the state-official narrative of post-war German history, the cracks in the edifice of state-official historiography have been widened. The first opening was when the 2007-08 struggles within German historians’ circles about whether or not GDR historiography should include GDR everyday history were decided, over the opposition of the conservative wing, in favor of those historians (associated with the Sabrow Commission) who wished it to do so. Furthermore, in some fields of culture such as photography, a reevaluation of GDR cultural achievements has begun.

And yet, in many other branches, this development is still at the very beginning and is facing tremendous opposition from the state and the politically extremely well-funded academic establishment where careers are still being made in those terms. Nevertheless, the relative reduction of anti-communist hysteria is reflected in the fact that the segment of society which generally supported the December 2014 election of Bodo Ramelow to become the first DIE LINKE prime minister (in the East German state Thuringia) by far exceeded the 28.2 percent of votes his party received. Of course, this was helped by another fact, namely that Ramelow is a former trade-unionist from West Germany who also happens to be a moderate and a Christian. Nevertheless, the continuing power of the state-official GDR historiography is reflected by how especially the support of his election by the social-democratic and Green party junior partners in his coalition government depended on succumbing to the narrow and unjustified definition of the GDR as an “Unrechtsstaat” – not the least in the coalition treaty agreement.

Generally speaking, Germany is still far away from a non-hysterical analysis and interpretation of its post-war history, in which the two German states would be examined from 1945 forward (instead of from 1989 backward), and in which, instead of comparing East Germany to Nazi Germany, one would compare the two post-war states with each other, considering their respective Cold War crimes – surveillance, blacklisting etc. – in the context of the hegemony and empire of the two superpowers. This would be the precondition to a necessary debate about – and compensation for – the historical injustices experienced after 1989 by West as well as East German Cold War victims, including many GDR film directors.

Notes 1. Kreimeier, Klaus, “Der westdeutsche Film in den fünfziger Jahren.” In: Bänsch, Dieter (Ed.) (1985): Die fünfziger Jahre. Beiträge zu Politik und Kultur. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 290.

2. Horbrügger, Anja (2007) Aufbruch zur Kontinuität – Kontinuität im Aufbruch. Geschlechterkonstruktionen im west- und ostdeutschen Nachkriegsfilm von 1945 bis 1952. Marburg: Schüren Verlag, 43-44.

3. Wenk, Michael (2005) “Der Staatsregisseur. Zum 100. Geburtstag von Wolfgang Liebeneiner,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 7 October.

4. The latest attempt at coming to terms with Harlan was made by the film director Oskar Roehler in his film Jud Süß – Film ohne Gewissen (2010). Roehler is also the director of the film No Place to Go (2000), a remarkable tribute to his mother, the West German communist novelist whose work had been particularly popular in East Germany and who committed suicide shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

5. See Der Spiegel, No. 20, 1989, 43-44.

6. A few notable biographies not discussed here are those of Peter Paul Brauer (1899-1959), Viktor Tourjansky (1891-1976), Paul Martin (1899-1967), Georg Jacoby (1882-1964), whose blacklisting (also) ended in 1947, Herbert Maisch (1890-1974), who directed the Nazi propaganda films Starke Herzen (Strong Hearts) (1937), Menschen ohne Vaterland (People Without a Fatherland) (1937), III 88 (1939) and Ohm Krüger (1941) but did not return to the film industry after 1947, continuing instead as a stage director and the Superintendent of Stages of the City of Cologne. Another crucial Nazi propaganda film director, Hans Steinhoff (1882-1945), died shortly before the end of the war.

7. Kochenrath, Hans-Peter, “Kontinuität im deutschen Film.” In: Bredow, Wilfried von/Zurek, Rolf (Eds.) (1975): Film und Gesellschaft in Deutschland. Dokumente und Materialien. Hamburg: Hoffmann & Campe, 286ff.

8. Kreimeier, “Der westdeutsche Film in den fünfziger Jahren.” (note 1), 286.

9. Ibid.

10. See also Ebbrecht, Tobias (2007): “‘Wir hatten eine Heimat, und die Heimat starb’. Johannes Häußler und die Kontinuitäten im politischen Dokumentarfilm vor und nach 1945.” In: Filmblatt, Vol. 12, No. 34, 7-26.

11. Kreimeier, “Der westdeutsche Film in den fünfziger Jahren,” 287.

12. Longerich, Peter (2010): Goebbels. Biographie. München: Siedler Verlag, 562-63.

13. Boldhaus, Michael (2002): Faschismus und Zweiter Weltkrieg im Spiegel ausgewählter Kinofilme, Teil 4.

14. Seidl, Claudius (1987): Der deutsche Film der fünfziger Jahre. Heyne Filmbibliothek, 208.

15. On 3 May 1945, five days before the end of the war, the British Royal Air Force attacked the luxury ocean liner SS Cap Arcona, filled with approximately 5,000 concentration camp inmates, in the Bay of Lübeck. While the concentration camp inmates tried to save their lives by swimming to the nearby shore, they either drowned in the cold water or were shot dead by members of the SS waiting for them. Geschonneck was one of the only roughly 400 survivors, who also included the composer of the concentration camp song “Peat Bog Soldiers” (Die Moorsoldaten), Rudi Goguel (1908-1976), the GDR politician Ernst Goldenbaum (1898-1990), the resistance fighter Heinz Lord (1917-1961), the Czech composer Emil Frantisek Burian (1904-1959) and Sam Pivnik (1926-  ), who would later write books describing his experiences at Auschwitz, during the death marches, and on the Cap Arcona.

16. Horbrügger, Aufbruch zur Kontinuität – Kontinuität im Aufbruch, 44; the quote is taken from Pleyer, Peter (1965): Deutscher Nachkriegsfilm, 1946-1948. Münster, 29.

17. Kreimeier, “Der westdeutsche Film in den fünfziger Jahren” (note 1), 290.

18 Ibid.

19. Braun had been back in business since 1949, directing Ave Maria (1953) starring Zarah Leander.

20. Loiperdinger, Martin (2004): “Filmzensur und Selbstkontrolle. Politische Reifeprüfung.” In: Jacobsen, Wolfgang/Kaes, Anton/Prinzler, Hans Helmut (Ed.) (2004): Geschichte des deutschen Films. Stuttgart: Sammlung Metzler, quoted from, 19.

21. Ibid.

22. Kötzing, Andreas (2009): “Zensur von DEFA-Filmen in der Bundesrepublik.” In: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 1-2/2009. Online at Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung:,4,0,Zensur_von_DEFAFilmen_in_der_Bundesrepublik.html#art4

23. Loiperdinger, “Filmzensur und Selbstkontrolle” (note 20), 19.

24. Among the films directly banned were Eisenstein’s Aleksandr Nevsky, Jiri Krejcik’s The Higher Principle (1960) about the wave of terror following the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague, the anti-fascist documentary film Du und mancher Kamerad (1956) and even films such as Berlin – Ecke Schönhauser as well as the fairytale Das tapfere Schneiderlein. See further Kötzing, “Zensur” (note 22).

25. Later on, Staudte directed some of the highly popular four-part adventure series (also known as “advent tetralogies” because of their first broadcastings) for West German public television, including two based on novels by Jack London.

26. Debris Movie is the genre name for the films made immediately after liberation from fascism.

27. Another filmmaker who should be mentioned here is Helmut Spieß (1902-1962), who had been director of the theater in Weimar after 1933, and created a number of films in the GDR after 1950 including Hexen (Witches) based on literary material of the East German communist author Kurt Barthel better known under his pseudonym KuBa.

28. See Solty, Ingar, “Otto Schily – ein politischer Seiteneinstieg im Kontext der hegemonialen Kooptation und passiv-revolutionären Selbsteinschreibung von ‘1968’ in den Neoliberalismus”, in: Lorenz, Robert, and Matthias Micus (eds.) (2009) Seiteneinsteiger: Unkonventionelle Politiker-Karrieren in der Parteiendemokratie, Book Series: Göttinger Studien zur Parteienforschung, Vol. 3, edited by Peter Lösche and Franz Walter. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 206-222.

29. Wehler, Hans-Ulrich (2008) Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, Vol. 5, C.H. Beck, Munich 2008, 311.

30. Harnack had previously worked in East Germany. However, he relocated to the West after his 1951 film The Axe of Wandsbek (1951), based on the 1943 exile novel of the same name by Arnold Zweig, caused a controversy with DEFA officials, who objected that the depiction of the Nazi executioner aroused compassion for him. Brecht tried to resolve the situation by suggesting changes to the script. Instead, the film became the first one to be blacklisted in East Germany and would not be screened – in an abridged version – until 1962.

31. See Solty, Ingar, “Franz Josef Degenhardt,” in: Killy Literaturlexikon, New Edition in 12 Volumes, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008, Vol. 2 (“Boa-Den”), 574-77, and Solty, Ingar, “Franz Josef Degenhardt: Ein Klassiker der deutschen Nachkriegsliteratur,” 2 parts, in: junge Welt, December 3 and 5, 2011.

32. Fröhlich, Claudia (2006): „Wider die Tabuisierung des Ungehorsams“. Fritz Bauers Widerstandsbegriff und die Aufarbeitung von NS-Verbrechen. Frankfurt: Campus Verlag.

33. According to some of his friends and colleagues, Bauer’s sudden death from a sleeping-pill overdose on 1 July 1968 was a suicide provoked by the personal attacks he experienced due to his work.

34. Wippermann, Wolfgang (2009) Dämonisierung durch Vergleich. DDR und Drittes Reich. Berlin: Rotbuch Verlag.

35. Bürklin, Wilhelm/Hoffmann-Lange, Ursula (1999) “Eliten,” in: Weidenfeld, Werner/Korte, Karl-Rudolf, Handbuch zur deutschen Einheit 1949-1989-1999. Edited by the Federal Agency for Civic Education. Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 317-329.

36. While not a single general or admiral was East German, 62 percent of the lowest ranks were from the area of the former GDR as were almost 50 percent of all soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and Kosovo. As a result, even the liberal weekly DIE ZEIT summarized this economic draft as a choice of “unemployed or Afghanistan,” likening East Germans to African Americans in the German version of an “underclass army.” Staud, Toralf, “Arbeitslos oder Afghanistan,” in: DIE ZEIT (online), 26 November 2009.

37. See further Solty, Ingar (2008) “The Historic Significance of the New German Left Party,” Socialism and Democracy, 22:1, 1-34.

38. Scherzer, Landolf, “Ich bin wohl doch Sozialist,” Tageszeitung, 6 November 2014.

39. Schulze, Ingo, “‘Vereinigung’ war nur ein Beitritt,” DIE ZEIT (online), 23 July 2014. (The era of the Wende [turn] is that of the GDR’s collapse.)

40. Schulze, Ingo, “Wir leben von der Verdrängung,” DIE ZEIT (online), 16 October 2014

41. Gröschner, Annett, “Wir wollten Freiheit und bekamen Neoliberalismus,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Blog), 29 October 2014.