Stalinism Exported Abroad

Ulrich Merten’s new study, The Gulag in East Germany:  Soviet Special Camps, 1945-1950, gives a much-deserved “voice” to thousands upon thousands of German victims of Stalinism exported abroad.1  The Spetzlager (special camps), as they were called, came under the direct control of the Soviet central camp administration in the eastern occupation zone of Germany, which in October 1949 adopted its formal designation as the German Democratic Republic (more commonly known as Communist East Germany).  The Red Army’s hold over most of Eastern Europe in 1944-1945 permitted Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and his NKVD (the Soviet secret security services under Lavrentiy Beria) to project their political power beyond the USSR’s traditional borders and thereby construct a socialist society that mirrored their own.  In other words, to the Soviet victors belonged the spoils of the Great Patriotic War. Merten’s publication appears at a most opportune moment, close to the one hundredth anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.  This tragic and violent event continues to reverberate across the globe, as brutal regimes have claimed either inspiration from it or have modeled themselves after it.  Consequently, amid great proclamations to attain a more just society, Communist regimes worldwide have needlessly killed or murdered an estimated ninety to one hundred million persons to date.  Merten intends here to detail just one chapter in the longer “Black Book of Communism,” explaining how and why the Gulag tried to reshape East Germany in Stalin’s image after Nazism’s defeat in the Second World War.2

Drawing upon older as well as more recent English- and German-language scholarship on the topic, Merten not only seeks to inform the American general public about the Soviet concentration camps in East Germany, a serious matter which remains virtually unknown or forgotten outside of Germany itself, but also to expose at the same time the Soviet Union’s clear violation of human rights in this and other instances.3  More than seventy years later, it is high time to remove the Soviet version of the nefarious “night and fog” of the state-sponsored stealth terror waged against East German citizens.  Especially effective and powerful are the eyewitness reports and personal narratives contained in Merten’s compilation, putting an all too human face on East Germany’s forgotten Gulag.

According to the German government today, 95,000 persons either died in the Soviet special camps or perished while in transit to them during the immediate postwar years.  Though also constructing new facilities, the NKVD used a handful of former Nazi concentration camps such as Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen for the detainment of political prisoners, In reference to these camps, however, the Soviet and East German history books later only mentioned the Nazi-era victims, above all emphasizing the brave resistance of Communist anti-fascists at the expense of other victim groups, including Jews.4

In 1945, the defeated German people found themselves caught between liberation and occupation, posing a dilemma for both Allied and German leaders after the war.  The victors desired to impose their political will on the vanquished, but they also sought to establish a democratic structure in place of Nazism, though the Soviet notion of “liberation” soon varied considerably from those of the other occupation zones.  Meanwhile, the German side, embracing myriad perspectives across the political spectrum, wished to represent what they regarded as Germany’s best interests, though they also were prepared to collaborate with the Allied authorities.  Caught in a sensitive position, German leaders had to act as intermediaries between the occupation powers and the general populace.  This uneasy political role applied to the emerging Christian Democrats, Liberals, and Social Democrats (SPD) in the western sectors (American, British, and French) as much as it did for the rising Socialist Unity Party (SED) in the eastern zone (Soviet).

It is true that the American military occupation used the former Nazi concentration camp at Dachau as a detention center, but in view of diverse national priorities and political cultures, the postwar denazification process (1945-1948) differed in all four Allied occupation zones in Germany.  In particular, the administrative contrasts stood out most between the eastern and western zones.  On the whole, the western Allied sectors, especially in the American, regarded denazification as a question of individual guilt and as a rehabilitation (re-education) program.  For the Soviets and their soon-to-be established puppet-regime, denazification was treated mostly as one part of building a Communist political monopoly in their zone.  The Soviets and their protégés also employed torture and executions on prisoners, leading to mortality rates in the special camps that were much higher than those in the western sectors.

The Soviet concentration camps ensnared a wide segment of the East German population early on, including civilians who were not necessarily significant Nazi Party members, youths (male and female), and real or perceived class and political enemies of all stripes.  This elaborate state system of confinement considered it even more important to prevent any consideration of political resistance rather than combating actual popular resistance to the new political order.  State terror unleashed on a few outspoken individuals and political adversaries could therefore serve as a prophylactic measure against potential opposition by frightening the masses into permanent submission.

Kurt Schumacher once remarked that “Communists are only red-painted Nazis.”  Schumacher rose to prominence as the first postwar SPD leader in West Germany (officially the Federal Republic of Germany).  He had survived the Nazi concentration camps but also remained an ardent opponent of German Communists, past and present.  His striking observation brings to mind comparisons of the East German police state (symbolized by the Stasi) with Hitler’s Third Reich (embodied by the Gestapo), as well as the continuities of German history’s longstanding authoritarian traditions.  In 1933, after the Nazis’ legal seizure of power, many ordinary Germans assumed that Hitler’s new cabinet would only last a few short weeks or months, just another manifestation of the increasingly authoritarian and dysfunctional Weimar republic’s ever-revolving door of weak coalition governments.  In their view, the Nazis would lock up their German Communist (KPD) opposition, but in due time, if political fortunes allowed the KPD to gain brief control, they would likely turn the tables on the Nazis and do much the same.

For forty years, East Germany under the SED’s political stranglehold, led by Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker respectively, emerged as probably the most effective and notorious police state in  the Soviet Bloc, perhaps rivaled only by that of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania.  The ruthless foundations of this one-party system took a firm hold during the crucial formative period of state-building between 1945 and 1950, thanks in good measure to the fear and repression instilled on the general populace by the Soviet special camps.

In retrospect, the East German Gulag’s terrible effectiveness in establishing and maintaining Communist power in so short a time also contained within it the seeds of the police state’s own demise.  The exporting of Stalinism abroad raises a critical issue in Merten’s overarching analysis, namely that the brutal and repressive treatment of a significant portion of the country’s population soon put the embryonic German Democratic Republic and its ruling SED in a precarious moral and political position vis-à-vis its own citizens.

Indeed, as Merten observes, an East German mass uprising, which cut across class and social lines, erupted in June 1953, despite several years of state intimidation and terror.  Though crushed under Soviet tanks, this popular revolt already revealed the first cracks in the seemingly imposing and grand edifice of Soviet power.  It occurred shortly after Stalin’s death, but it also came as an alarming shock to Ulbricht and his SED so early in their rule.  It preceded by nearly three years Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s blistering condemnation of Stalin’s crimes in his February 1956 “Secret Speech” at the Twentieth Party Congress held in Moscow.  Following the “Secret Speech,” other powerful expressions of popular discontent broke out in Communist Hungary and Poland in 1956, though they, too, could not overturn the system.  Again, a mass uprising exploded in Communist Czechoslovakia during the so-called Prague Spring of 1968, signaling perhaps the last time that the younger generation thought it possible to reform socialism with a “human face.”  It, too, failed in the face of Soviet tanks, but the political sclerosis of the Communist bureaucratic police states only accelerated after that point.  The total collapse of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe arrived on the heels of Czechoslovakia’s remarkably peaceful Velvet Revolution of 1989, once it was evident that reformed-minded but beleaguered Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was willing to let the political dominos fall where they may.  By 1991, the contagion of political freedom and democratic revolution had spread to the once mighty Soviet Union itself, when it disintegrated as well.  Matters had come full circle, as the first threads of the Soviet Empire’s unraveling had arisen in East Germany, which had so closely emulated the Russian model.  When the Berlin Wall fell on the fateful night of November 8-9, 1989, the SED died with a sudden whimper, exposed for what it was now without its Soviet big brother to support it.  To its credit, East Berlin, lacking the confidence or political will at this point to save itself, refused to fire upon its own euphoric citizens, who had gathered together to breach the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie and embrace their western compatriots.

Merten’s portrayal of the divergent fates between Western Allied and Soviet detention camps in postwar occupied Germany strikes a powerful chord for this writer.  The impact of Allied policy after the Second World War reached far and wide, even affecting the status of prisoners of war and the treatment of real or perceived political enemies half a world away.  I reside and work in an unremarkably small, remote southern plains community in northwestern Oklahoma, which once played host to one of the United States’ major German prisoner of war (POW) camps during the Second World War.  From July 1943 to November 1945, Camp Alva at its peak held about 4,850 German POWs.  Most inmates there came from the ranks of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps, soon followed by numerous hardcore SS members.  The camp’s tough reputation earned it the special, if not notorious, moniker of Nazilager (Nazi camp).  It was common knowledge at the time in the American camp system that “troublemakers” from nearby prisoner and transit camps would face transport to Alva as a proper punishment.

The Geneva Convention of 1929, however, required the humane treatment of detained enemy prisoners in Camp Alva and elsewhere.  Camp facilities had to provide POWs with the same amount and quality of food as their own soldiers, even including access to canteens.  Accommodations for recreation also were provided to prisoners, such as sports, music, the arts, and reading materials.  Religious expression was permitted to them as well.  The Geneva Convention, moreover, allowed the captors to utilize POWs as laborers, training them in agriculture or other work in useful industries and trades.  For their services, German POWs earned rations similar to American soldiers, their small salaries going toward the purchase of food and supplies.  Medical care was also made available to them.  In short, United States authorities envisioned a more humane regard for enemy prisoners as a means of better disposing them toward democratic traditions following the war.  At the time, many local Oklahomans, still only recovering from the abyss of the Great Depression with the infamous Dust Bowl’s epicenter situated just west of Alva, sometimes thought with bitterness that the POWs were treated too well or better than they deserved.5

Indeed, many German prisoners later recalled their overall fair and decent treatment under the Americans during wartime incarceration, whether in the European theater or stateside.  As a result, in the 1970s and 1980s, a number of grateful former German POWs and their families traversed the Atlantic to visit the camps, including the former site, or what remained of it, here in Alva, and reminisce about the past.  With a second chance at life, most of these men, returning to their devastated homes after 1945, participated, along with assistance from the Marshall Plan and other aid programs, in the rapid construction of a liberal democratic and prosperous West (later united) Germany.  More tolerant American, British, and French policies toward German civilians and military personnel ultimately paid economic and political dividends for the western alliance in the emerging Cold War and beyond.  So vastly different was the Federal Republic of Germany’s postwar fate with that of the cold “night and fog” of Stalin’s shadow, which shrouded Communist East Germany.

Dr. Eric J. Schmaltz

Northwestern Oklahoma State University

Alva, Oklahoma


Summer-Fall 2017




1 In previous works, Ulrich Merten has performed a great service in providing a sympathetic yet forceful “voice” for other victims of the Second World War or Soviet Communism almost forgotten today:  Forgotten Voices:  The Expulsion of the Germans from Eastern Europe after World War II (New Brunswick, New Jersey:  Transaction Publishers, 2012); and Voices from the Gulag:   The Oppression of the German Minority in the Soviet Union (Lincoln, Nebraska:  American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, 2015).


2 Stéphane Courtois, ed., et al., The Black Book of Communism:  Crimes, Terror, Repression, trans. Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London:  Harvard University Press, 1999 [1997]).  See also the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (Washington, D.C.) Website: (accessed Nov. 12, 2017).


3 For additional insights, see Anton Weiss-Wendt, The Soviet Union and the Gutting of the UN Genocide Convention, Critical Human Rights Series (Madison:  University of Wisconsin Press, 2017).


4 Jeffrey Herf, Divided Memory:  The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys (Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London:  Harvard University Press, 1997).


5 One of the most detailed and up-to-date academic treatments of Camp Alva in Oklahoma is the forthcoming article by Kyle Starkey, “Mapping the History of the Nazilager,” Civitas: The Journal of Citizenship Studies (Northwestern Oklahoma State University Institute of Citizenship Studies), Vol. VI (2017).