We should all read, remember, esteem and learn from Margarete Buber-Neumann writes John Whitfield. She joined the German Communist Party (KPD) in the 1930s, and, as the partner of Heinz Neumann, one of its leading members, was caught up in its internal disputes. By the mid-1930s they were in exile in Moscow, where those disputes become factors in the purges and terror. This marvellous book is her account of her life from 1937 to 1945 during which period she successively; lived in fear, was deprived by the Stalin’s secret police the NKVD of Heinz, lived in terror, was arrested, interrogated over months, accused of oppositionism, sent to the GULAG in Karaganda (high on the steppes of Central Asia) for five years educational labour, served about a year outside Karaganda, was summoned back there and then to Moscow, speculated fearfully with other German communists about their futures, was told her sentence was replaced by immediate expulsion from the SU, was expelled at Brest-Litovsk with other Germans into the arms of the Reich, was interrogated for months at Lublin and then Berlin, and sent in 1940 to Ravensbruck’ the concentration camp for women, in ‘protective custody’. (It was not then an extermination facility.) There she was rejected by the KPD network as a Trotskyist and oppositionist, and finally succoured by the Bible Students (Jehovah’s Witnesses) who knew Hitler for the Anti-Christ, and had a faith, self and collective discipline, and an organisation to protect themselves. As the Reich collapsed in April 1945, she left the camp, and eventually found her way to her mother and sister, awaiting her the other side of Germany. An introduction to the book tells the story of the other parts of her life, and there is a preface from Israel by one of her daughters with Raphael Buber, the son of Martin Buber, the German Jewish Zionist theologian, who took his granddaughters to Palestine before WW2. This edition is a revised expanded version of the first English edition, published in 1949.
It is clear from the book that, despite being close to the centre of the KPD, the author was scarcely a Marxist. She describes what happened to her, but neither understands it nor explains it. So we can learn from her that political education and theory are crucial. When she meets other communists, in a cell in Berlin or as she travels home, she responds to their faith in the Soviet Union by describing what she experienced, and records only that they wept. Explanations of Stalinism and Nazism do not appear in the book. Only one other of her books has been translated into English, but their titles do not suggest Marxist analyses. After remaining radical and progressive for many years she ended supporting the Christian Democrats.
But that weakness is outshone by the strength of character and spirit, and the humour she displays throughout, notwithstanding the horrors and betrayals she underwent. She finds Gestapo interrogation less awful than the NKVD’s as the former’s retained some vestiges of pre-Nazi legal processes, and sought evidence, while the latter’s sought only confession and guilt. She admires the Bible Students, and is amused that she does. She describes the administrative systems of the GULAG and Ravensbruck, how the guards are also oppressed there, and how to exploit both to survive. She shows the clear differences between criminal and political prisoners, and is amusing about the ‘bed politicals’, who chose to love one of the wrong racial group.
While it is certainly easy to understand that the KPD’s failure to understand and fight fascism correctly politically led to the author’s later cold-war anti-communism, it should not prevent readers responding to the courage and tenacity she shows, and her care for her fellow detainees. Very few readers of this review will fortunately, get anywhere near the terror and peril of the German communists thrown by Stalin to Hitler as part to the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939.
I would suggest treating this book as being worth stealing (except from a library or comrade) were it not that it has been remaindered at less than £5, and in some places, £3. The capitalist system does do us some favours: we can read these wonderful memoirs for less that the price of a pint, which shows a surprising sympathy for our political priorities.