Investigating GDR history, one would encounter the claim of being ‘apolitical’ quite frequently – a claim, which describes the notion of being somehow removed from ‘big’ politics as well as the everyday political penetration of the private sphere by the socialist state. Historians in the past postulated that this notion was a typical reaction of the people towards the politicisation of their lives, establishing so-called ‘niches’ of retreat – some might claim it was the second ‘Biedermeier‘ era. Unsurprisingly, with this assumption the picture of the so-called ‘Gartensparten‘, or ‘Dachas‘ in Soviet Russia, was connected, which offered exactly the desired private realm, supposedly removed from politics.
However, this is only one part of the story. Augustine L. Dolores study about the ‘technical intelligentsia’ and my research about the ‘medical intelligentsia’ surfaced a multifaceted picture of why these two professions, in particular, claimed to be ‘apolitical’. One aspect was the feeling of professionals to possess a unique role in society, which raised them above the ‘petty business of politics’. Especially for doctors, though, this self-perception had a longer tradition. In his recent book, Tobias Weidner provides a comprehensive discussion of the ‘apolitical’ medical profession in the ‘long 19th century’ in Germany. As Weidner concludes, the claim of being ‘apolitical’ was inherently a very political strategy:
“It became a key strategy of political communication during the 19th century. By emphasising the structural superiority of science over ‘pure politics’, doctors designed a model of a political space in which they themselves occupied a hegemonic position” (Weidner, pp. 392–393).
In the post-Second World War era, however, this communication strategy was also built on the paradigms of silence and the denial of the past. As my research unveiled, doctor’s ‘apolitical’ attitude was a façade, which they developed after the war. It was part of their attempt to re-assemble life-narratives, which were shattered in the face of defeat and their professions’ ethical responsibility for medical crimes and atrocities. Moreover, the deception, silencing and sanitising of one’s past was helpful to continue a stable life path or to achieve a stellar career. Many of the case studies, I utilise in my dissertation, were able to negotiate their past with themselves and with the state. They assimilated to the new rules and thus received the protection by the state against any potential exposure of their NS or war crime past – the typical life of a ‘turncoat’.
This statement, though, was not limited towards the medical personnel alone but was also true for the East German engineers, which Augustine proves in her study.
She identifies that their retreat into an ‘apolitical’ disposition was “based partly on the defence mechanisms developed by technical professionals working for the Nazis to justify themselves after the war” as well as “rooted in [their] professional ideology” (Augustine, pp. XVIII–XIX).
However, this self-perception of the technical profession was contradictory. Particularly during the 1960s, under Walter Ulbricht‘s economic reforms, the East German engineer experienced a phase of technocracy – where scientific knowledge and practical skills were more important than political commitment. Ulbricht provided his ‘technical intelligentsia’ with freedom and leeway in their decisions, which vice versa brought engineers into the position where they worked on behalf of the state and fulfilled its economic and political goals: a position everything but ‘apolitical’. These short-lived technocrats, however, were quickly replaced after Erich Honecker took over who put an end to the reform plan of Ulbricht, which was criticised by Moscow. Now, the ideological commitment was more important again than professional skills.
For the medical profession, their common claim to be ‘apolitical’ after 1945 stands in stark contradiction to their prominent involvement in the Third Reich. It can be assumed that around 45 percent of physicians in general, 60 percent of private practitioners and 75 percent of university doctors were members of the NSDAP between 1933 and 1945 (Ernst, p. 145; Naser, pp. 54, 69). Subsequently, as exposed in this essay, the ‘apolitical’ standpoint was a political defence strategy of the medical profession to either avoid further political penetration, silence the past or merely to enhance their career prospects in the post-war era.
Overall, it is a striking fact that even in Germany today, the issue of doctor’s involvement in NS organisations and medical crimes as well as the problem of so-called ‘turncoats’ (Wendehälse) has hardly been addressed by the medical profession itself. On the contrary: Wherever any exposure of doctors is imminent, the profession averts this attempt and prevents the insight into relevant archives (e.g. the Hartmannbund). Subsequently, the internal closure regarding their past (medical memories) of the medical community is still in place as it was in the post-war era.
Augustine, Dolores L., Red Prometheus: Engineering and Dictatorship in East Germany, 1945-1990 (Cambridge, M.A.: MIT Press, 2007)
Ernst, Anna-Sabine, ‘Die beste Prophylaxe ist der Sozialismus’. Ärzte und Hochschullehrer in der SBZ/DDR 1945-1961 (Münster: Waxmann, 1996)
Naser, Gerhard, Hausärzte in der DDR: Relikte des Kapitalismus oder Konkurrenz für die Polikliniken? (Bergatreute: Eppe, 2000)
Weidner, Tobias, Die unpolitische Profession: Deutsche Mediziner im langen 19. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt a.M.: Campus Verlag, 2012)