Stalinism and Exile: Biographies in a Context of Terror

(Last modified October 2006)

This project aims to retrace in detail the biographies of a number of German emigrants who were victims of Stalinist terror. Such an undertaking has become possible thanks to the availability of previously unknown material from Moscow archives: personnel files, informers’ reports, and transcripts of interrogation by the secret police shed new light on individual biographies as well as the Soviet regime’s system of surveillance and denunciation.

The fate of Jewish physicians Martha Ruben-Wolf and Lothar Wolf is investigated in the first case study. On the basis of their travels in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, the couple wrote propagandistic brochures lauding, for example, the introduction of legal abortions in the USSR. As Jews and communists who faced imprisonment by the Nazis in 1933, they fled from Germany via Switzerland—where they met other exiles such as Bertolt Brecht, Bernard von Brentano, and Lion Feuchtwanger—and arrived in Moscow in 1934. Numerous autobiographical documents testify to their growing disillusionment with the USSR in the course of the 1930s, as abortion was again banned and Stalinist terror increasingly left its mark on daily life in the Soviet capital. Traumatized by her husband’s arrest, Martha Ruben-Wolf committed suicide in 1940.

A further case study, which is being realized in cooperation with Jürgen Zarusky of the Institut für Zeitgeschichte [The Institute of Contemporary History] in Munich examines the lives of Anna Etterer and Franz Schwarzmüller. As members of the German Communist Party, they were victims of persecution by both the Nazi and Stalinist regimes in the period after 1933. In her letters to Schwarzmüller, Anna Etterer described the realities of daily life in a Soviet GULAG. Her will to survive was kept alive by her desire to be reunited with her daughter. Franz Schwarzmüller—who petitioned Stalin, Dimitrov, Beria, and Pieck to have Etterer released—concealed the death of the couple’s daughter in his letters. Their correspondence reflects a mixture of paranoid visions of the enemies threatening the Soviet regime, internalized models aimed at explaining its reign of terror, and expressions of a desperate will to resist. Franz Schwarzmüller died in a Soviet camp in 1942. Anna Etterer survived; after World War II she was first a loyal functionary of the German Communist Party in Munich and later worked for the Society for German-Soviet Friendship in East Germany.

The third part of the project retraces the life of writer Maria Osten, who considered the Soviet Union to be her "dreamland" and was shot there in 1942 as an alleged German and French agent. Osten was at home in Berlin, Prague, Moscow, and Spain and in diverse milieus. The various stations of her life and the persons (and correspondents) associated with them—Brecht, Benjamin, Feuchtwanger, Kolzov, Malraux, Hemingway—testify to these exiles’ transnational communication networks and illustrate Maria Osten’s role as an intermediary between East and West. Subjected to constant surveillance by Stalin’s secret police, the writer was finally shot by the NKVD in Saratov on 8 August 1942. Interrogation transcripts, numerous reports from informers, denounciations from male colleagues and indictments reveal the internal workings and methods of Stalinist terror. Maria Osten’s personal tragedy offers insights into the nature of National Socialism and Stalinism as systems of hegemony and terror in what has been called the "age of extremes".

The project also includes work on the largely unknown political biography of Heinrich Blücher, the husband of Hannah Arendt, who was a member of the illegal "military apparatus" of the German Communist Party until 1936. Finally, a contribution on Heinz Neumann is also in preparation, under the working title "Penance rituals of a Stalinist virtuoso of belief".