Dispatches from the Archives

The Woman as “Work-Machine”: Gender and Anticommunism in Postwar Germany

by guest contributor Yanara Schmacks

By Yanara Schmacks

Historians of postwar West Germany have long noted the centrality of anticommunism in the formation of the early Federal Republic in the 1950s. Already in 1974 Richard Löwenthal argued that the “development of the Federal Republic of Germany is simply not understandable when not paying attention to the deep impact that a broad anticommunist and anti-Soviet groundswell exerted in the formative years” (355). Likewise, and most recently in 2017, the Berlin-based critical scholars group Jour Fixe Initiative has described anticommunism as “the historical key to the 20th century” (11).

Yet, systematic research on anticommunism as a phenomenon and an ideology in the post-1945 period is still wanting, as the most recent publications on the topic unanimously contend (Creuzberger & Hoffmann, Frei & Rigoll, Jour Fixe Initiative). Historians and political scientists exploring anticommunism in the Adenauer era (1949-63) have generally focused on two central dimensions: West Germany’s unique geopolitical situation in the aftermath of World War II, and the importance of questions pertaining to postwar national identity in structuring anticommunist tropes.

In the context of geopolitics, historians have pointed to the real danger that the existence of the newly founded GDR and Soviet expansion politics posed to West Germany’s existence as a democratic state. Despite this undeniably unique historical constellation West Germany was faced with, political scientists and historians like Stefan Creuzberger and Bernd Greiner also assert a paranoid dimension of anticommunism, arguing that “the perceived and real danger were disproportionate to each other” (94) and pointing to a “moral panic” (29) spreading through Adenauer’s Germany. Beyond the question of real or imagined danger, historians agree upon the doubly integrative function that anticommunism fulfilled in stabilizing and legitimizing the newly founded FRG in both domestic as well as foreign political terms, providing “political glue” (politischen Kitt) (229) across party politics on the one hand, and firmly rooting the young republic in the Western world on the other.

Election poster of the CDU for the federal elections in 1949. Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, Abt. Staatsarchiv Freiburg, W 110/2 Nr. 0144.

Likewise, anticommunism in its anti-totalitarian variant provided a new, respectable identity that demarcated the FRG as a decidedly democratic state against both the Third Reich and the GDR, while allowing West Germans to cling to one of the most characteristic elements of National Socialist ideology. In a similar vein, the notion of anticommunism as an “Occident ideology” (Abendlandideologie), most prominently put forward by historian Axel Schildt, emphasizes both the anti-Bolshevist and anti-Slavic racist dimension of the overly popular image of a unified Occident that defends Western civilization against a primitive “Slavic storm from the East” (21). This approach, as Siegfried Weichlein has demonstrated, further points to the centrality of religion, specifically political Catholicism, in postwar manifestations of anticommunism (124-138).

Despite the central importance and multidimensional manifestation of German postwar anticommunism that these findings indicate, I argue that it was also—and quite significantly so—characterized by a gendered dimension. The general nexus between gender and the anticommunist outlook of the early Federal Republic was established in pioneering works by Robert Moeller, Elizabeth Heineman, and others. However, their groundbreaking scholarship has mostly looked at how West German gender and family politics were drawn into conservative and reactionary directions in an effort to re-establish social order after the war and mark a clear distinction from the GDR—without inquiring into anticommunism’s specific historical Gewordenheit (development) or the reasons for its extensive appeal which, as I contend, critically hinged on fantasies and fears about gender and sexuality.

In order to demonstrate the importance of gender for postwar anticommunism, I draw on a small set of transcripts from 137 group interviews that members of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research conducted in 1950 and 1951 under the aegis of Friedrich Pollock, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer. Upon their return to Germany from US-exile in 1947, the German-Jewish Frankfurt School scholars aimed at getting a deeper insight into the legacies of Nazism in West German public opinion than would have been possible through ordinary opinion polls. The group interviews were meant to approximate realistic conditions as nearly as possible, thereby serving “to provoke the so-called nonpublic opinion” (23).

In 1955, Pollock edited the volume Gruppenexperiment (Group Experiment), providing insightful yet mainly quantitative analyses of the interviews. Pollock’s analysis confirms the centrality of anticommunism in postwar German society and politics: 83% of the participants exhibited a radically negative attitude toward “the East” (188) and “no other topic had such a low level of ambivalence” (82). Interestingly, Pollock also notes that the topic of “the East” is the only theme in which opinion is independent of gender (191). However, my cursory qualitative analysis of four female-only group discussions and two male-only group discussions indicates that anticommunism in 1950s West Germany was in fact heavily informed by normative images of gendered identities that the participants saw threatened: in their imagination, communism embodied the reversal of the gendered social order.

This is demonstrated by various statements from both sets of groups. For example, when the conversation in a group of fourteen women at a convalescent home for mothers turned to the topic of “the East,” one woman, Schaefer (a pseudonym), recounted what one of her friends had experienced in Russia:

The mothers and the women – this is really true – when they are expecting a child, they are all in the factory, right. They work until the last day. There are halls in the factory, the doctor comes there, right, they are examined until – when there’s no other way – she gets there, gives birth, the child is taken away from her and put into a children’s home, and the mother continues to go to work.[i]

In Schaefer’s interpretation, anticommunism was fundamentally rooted in fantastic imaginations about the status of women and the state’s role in the configuration of the family in Soviet Russia. To her, this dystopian vision of the separation of mother and child, depriving the woman of her “natural” role as a mother and caretaker and forcing her into alienated forms of labor when she returned to the factory immediately after giving birth, was what most substantially distinguished “the East” from “the West.”

This theme comes up repeatedly during the conversations of the Gruppenexperimente, indicating the importance of gender in anticommunism. In a discussion among twenty-one women in a camp of barracks— some of them Ostvertriebene (Germans who fled or were expelled from Eastern and Central Europe), some of them homeless after having been “bombed out”—a woman referred to as Illing showed herself to be equally appalled by the purported conditions in the GDR (or, as the women still called it at the time, the “Eastern zone”):

The women are also not allowed to go outside. And then the worst thing is, the men are unemployed, and the women have to toil on the construction site (auf dem Bau schaffen), have to carry two hundred weight bags and so on. This is men’s work and not women’s, and when the women have an accident, no one cares, they don’t receive a penny of support or anything else. And if you’re a woman with children, you won’t make it at all.

Another woman joined in, calling out “That’s right,” and a third woman contended: “Just like in Russia, there the women also have to work, right.”[ii]

For Illing, as for some of her fellow interviewees, “the worst thing” about the GDR was the proposed reversal of the conservative gender order, with the woman being forced into a traditionally male role. Further, this imaginary development was clearly in conflict with the “laws of nature.” Explaining why it was especially the putting to work of women (Fraueneinsatz) that made her suspicious of Russia, one woman in the group from the convalescent home for mothers argued:

(…) because the woman more and more becomes a work-machine (Arbeitsmaschine) and that is not her purpose in nature. And this can make me tremendously sad, although I am usually not like that, when I see and hear something like that. We have to get away from these things – women in the factory and so on. The woman does not exist to excel in the workplace. It says very clearly: The occupation and the vocation. When she is forced too much into an occupation, she loses her vocation, indeed.[iii]

The interviewees’ primary association with Soviet-style communism was evidently the notion that the “natural” order between men and women had been upset, an idea that seemed to question their very identity as women. The woman, in their narrative, ceases to be a woman and instead takes on a male role when carrying heavy bags and working on a construction site, when being separated from her newborn, when not living or being allowed to live in compliance with her “natural” purpose. The role that projection played within German anticommunism becomes especially apparent here: having to work in a factory was precisely what many of these women experienced during World War II, when the Nazi war effort required women to join the workforce and thereby upset pretensions of a gendered division of labor that confined women to their “natural” role as mothers and wives.

Interestingly, the theme of rape comes up only very incidentally in the all-female interview groups, with a few of the women hinting at what was a common experience at the Eastern front with expressions like “one has heard bad things about the Russian and the women”[iv] or the warning to “not fall into the hands of the Russians.”[v] By contrast, in all-male interview groups, the purported rapes of German woman by officers of the Red Army at the end of the war constitutes the main reason for why they find it necessary to remilitarize Germany and defend it against “these masses” in Russia. For example, in a group of dentistry students, a young man labeled Ettinger argued: “And for every single one – in case it comes that far [in case the Soviet Union invades West Germany] – for every man – let’s say – a point of honor. Or do we want to witness yet again that our women are seen as whores or fair game. Because what happened in this area is, I believe, worth a defense. And he who does not understand this, he—” At this point another participant joined in: “… is beyond remedy!” And Ettinger agreed: “… is really beyond remedy.”[vi]

The men’s fierce opposition to the Soviet Union is thus also strongly linked to issues of gender and sexuality. Preventing the Russians from invading West Germany is here framed as a defense of the sovereignty of the German female body and as a matter of male honor. “Real men,” those who are not “beyond remedy,” would have to understand the threat the Russian soldier posed to what was inherently theirs: German women, and by extension their identity as “real” men.

In light of the version of anticommunism that had been prevalent during the Third Reich, the prominence of gender in these early 1950s discussions seems curious. While the Jour Fixe Initiative has claimed that “as the central ideological continuity, anticommunism marks the Federal Republic of Germany as the successor of the NS state” (15), this continuity is not without limits, considering for example the relative absence of the virulently antisemitic image of a Judaeo-Bolshevik conspiracy that was characteristic of and rampant during National Socialism. Indeed, research on anticommunist propaganda in the early 1950s notes that postwar anticommunism was much less antisemitically loaded, with anti-Slavic racism usually taking the place of antisemitism (45). No doubt, this decline in antisemitic discourse within anticommunism was to a certain extent a result of mere political opportunism. However, in the Gruppenexperimente, antisemitism as such was not tabooed at all; in most conversations, “the Jew” was at some point blamed for the Holocaust because of his alleged “workshyness,” “haggling” (Schacherjuden), warmongering, and “bloodsucking.”[vii]

Attempting to understand the specific configuration of anticommunism that characterized postwar Germany and the role that gender played in it, Claude Lévi-Strauss’ concept of bricolage can be illuminating. Rather than constituting a direct continuity of National Socialist ideas, postwar anticommunist images were composed of assumptions and attitudes that German society, like a bricoleur, had collected over a much longer time. This aligns with Axel Schildt’s notion of postwar anticommunism as an occidental ideology (Abendlandideologie) as well as with Ulrich Herbert’s suggestion that early 1950s West Germany was marked by substantial references to the traditional bourgeois culture of the Kaiserreich and, relatedly, constituted a more general, cultural-critical rejection of modernity (as embodied by both National Socialism and communism). While some of these ideas remained latent during the Weimar years and National Socialism, concepts like a Judaeo-Christian Occident and the pertaining social norms that focused on the gendered order of society made a comeback in the early 1950s (or at least figured as “invented traditions” that functioned as imagined continuities with the past) as they were positioned in opposition to the Godless, anti-Christian communist enemies without and within. And at the contingent nexus between anticommunism and Abendlandideologie in the specific configuration of postwar anticommunist imagination, gender and the family took center stage.

[i] “Protokoll Nr. 79: Frauen aus einem Müttererholungsheim,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, December 19, 1950), 36, Institut für Sozialforschung.

[ii] “Protokoll Nr. 91: Frauen in einem Barackenlager,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, January 4, 1951), 24–25, Institut für Sozialforschung.

[iii] “Protokoll Nr. 79: Frauen aus einem Müttererholungsheim,” 37.

[iv] “Protokoll Nr. 9: Frauengruppe,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, October 10, 1950), 79, Institut für Sozialforschung.

[v] “Protokoll Nr. 79: Frauen aus einem Müttererholungsheim,” 34.

[vi] “Protokoll Nr. 74: Dentistenschule,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, December 14, 1950), 39, Institut für Sozialforschung.

[vii] For example, “Protokoll Nr. 86: Studentengruppe,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, December 18, 1950), 1, 7, 9, Institut für Sozialforschung; “Protokoll Nr. 70: Abiturientengruppe,” Gruppenexperimente (Frankfurt am Main, December 5, 1950), 2, Institut für Sozialforschung.

Yanara Schmacks is a PhD candidate in Modern European History at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Her article “‘Motherhood is Beautiful’: Maternalism in the West German New Women’s Movement between Eroticization and Ecological Protest” is forthcoming in Central European History. She is working on a dissertation project that explores the politics of motherhood in the three German states from the 1970s to the early 2000s.

Featured Image: Udarnitzi (Record Breaking Workers) at the Factory Krasnaya Zaria. Pavel Filonov, 1931.

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