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Christine Whitehouse, Carleton University, History

The 'Free Germany' Movement: Jewish Exiles in Transnational Perspective, 1938-1961

My project employs a postcolonial lens to examine the experiences of a group of German communists of Jewish descent who spent World War Two exiled in Mexico City. It simultaneously considers how some members of the group experienced alienation upon their return to the German Democratic Republic after 1946 as part of the Stalinization of Eastern Europe in the early postwar period. Through an analysis of the group’s publications and the state’s response to non-conforming socialists, I aim to determine how members of the Free Germany Movement negotiated their sense of self as Germans, Jews, and communists as they wandered from Germany to Mexico City and back again.

Given the aim of my project, my research is divided into two key strands. First, my project is a cultural history of mentalities and imaginings, which were produced in exile through transnational ties. In this section I am particularly interested in examining how the Free Germany Movement’s partnerships with other Leftist organizations in Mexico City, as well as similar German groups based in other western countries, produced their particular vision for postwar Germany. Additionally, this thread explores how and to what extent witnessing the Holocaust from abroad shaped how members thought about their personal politics. Secondly, my project synthesizes the cultural production of German-communist-Jewish identity with the political realities of Soviet occupation and the founding years of the GDR. This second area of research will largely examine how the Soviet government, and eventually the SED, developed East Germany as a one-party state that mirrored policies coming out of Moscow.

Through an analysis of the Free Germany Movement and the SED’s Soviet-backed response to their alternative vision for the German Democratic Republic, this research will bring to light moments of contingency in the history of German socialism. The German Democratic Republic did not develop along a pre-determined path. Instead, as the case of the Free Germany Movement makes clear, German socialists were confronted with choices along the way and alternative paths to the ones chosen were available, though Soviet influence did not always make them easy to pursue. This contextual emphasis on contingency and identity promises to contribute in important new ways to on-going debates since reunification over the legacy of GDR history in Germany’s (trans)national narrative.