There had been massive destruction of the country’s infrastructure (Bessel 2011), it lacked political structure and economic activity had plummeted. There was a scarcity of food, fuel and housing and Germany was in no condition to clothe or feed its population (O’Dochartaigh 2003). Following conferences at Potsdam between the Soviet Union and the Western allies (America, Britain and France) in 1945, Germany was divided into four zones of occupation; the Western Allies in the west and the Soviet Union in the east.
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Berlin, although entirely in the Eastern Soviet Zone, was divided similarly to the rest of Germany, with the Western Allies controlling the western sectors of Berlin and the Soviet Union controlling the eastern sector (Williamson 2001). Each of the four countries exercised supreme power in their own zones and they began to create a new order in each zone based on their own view of what would be best for the Germans (Williamson 2001). In 1945 in Soviet East Germany, eleven internment camps were set up, to systematically punish those who the soviets saw as enemies.
The soviets claimed that the camps would be used as an intern for active Nazi’s and opponents of communism. In reality, the camps were full of German youths who had been accused of charges of belonging to Werewolf groups engaged in underground activity against the Soviet Union (Bruce 2003, p. 6). The camps were also used to house opponents of the SED (Socialist Unity party) as well as capitalists, social democrats and communists who did not meet with official approval. Children as young as 14 were imprisoned and it was not necessarily a requirement to have broken the law to be imprisoned.
The arrests were indiscriminate, to the point where an internal review by the soviet authorities showed that 35,000 people had been wrongfully arrested (Kitchen 2012). Most of these people were released in 1948; however, there were thousands who were handed over to German authorities in 1949 to complete their sentences. Approximately 150,000 Germans were interned between 1945 and 1950, and the death rates in these camps have been estimated to be around 35-40 percent (Bruce 2003, p. 6). Riemann served 8 years and 16 days of her 10 year sentence as a political prisoner.
Following her arrest, she spent time in a castle dungeon at Ludwiglust for questioning. She was forced to confess to crimes she did not commit, including being part of the Nazi resistance movement. She was then taken to Bautzen a prison near Dresden, living conditions were awful, and inmates were locked in cages, the quarters were full of bugs and there were no toilets. She then moved to another prison fortress, Torgau where many women were raped. From there she was moved to the former Nazi concentration camp at Sachenhaun just outside of Berlin, which was run by the German police.
She says that at first she had been very happy to be committed to the Germans, as she and other inmates believed that their cases would be reviewed, and they would be released, however, she says that “what we had to endure under the Germans was worse than everything we had experienced under the Russians. ” The inmates were subjected to physical and psychological torture, for instance, Riemann speaks of the inmates being sent to the shower block once a fortnight, and being told that gas would come of the showers. This caused great panic, and they were relieved when only water came out.
After Sachsenhausen, Riemann was then sent to Hoheneck prison. She was put in solitary confinement where she tried to hang herself in December 1953. “I didn’t see any sense in living; I didn’t want to continue. ” She was rescued, hospitalized and then sent back to a single cell. She was finally released on January 18th 1954, aged 22. Before she left Hoheneck she had to sign a document saying that she would not talk about her arrest and say only that she was treated well. There are both strengths and limitations in using an oral testimony to learn about the past.
While on one hand, it provides a first hand experience that uncovers feelings and interpretations and not just facts, on the other hand, it can be biased and prone to the selectiveness and lapses of memory. Without first hand accounts of such events, there would be many gaps in history as only relying on documents could cause certain information to be covered up or lost. An oral testimony can provide personal insights, or anecdotes rarely found in official document. For instance, Riemann was forced to sign documents stating she was treated well during her internment, and it would not be known otherwise nless she and other prisoners gave their oral testimonies. Most of the limitations surrounding oral testimonies are attributable to human fault. For example, Interviewees may be unwilling to discuss mistakes or errors they made, even years after the event took place. Also, due to the limitation of human memory some interviewees may be unable to provide accurate accounts. This is of particular concern when an interviewee is recounting traumatic events or actions. Furthermore, as time elapses between the experience and its recounting, individuals tend to condense the sequence of events and will often omit critical actions and judgments.
It took Riemann more than 50 years before she felt able to speak publicly of her experiences. She states in her oral testimony that, “because I was and am still, of course, the youngest inmate, I need to do something for those people (her fellow inmates at Sachsenhausen). ” Riemann witnessed the suffering and death of many inmates during her internment and perhaps this is why she wants to make people aware of what really happened, and to give an insight in to what life really was like for many people living in Soviet East Germany.
Talking about, probably helps release some of the internal injury and trauma, rather than keeping it bottled up inside. Erika Riemann’s testimony is a first hand account of life in East Germany during the cold war. While there are both advantages and disadvantages to an oral testimony, the insight it gives into her life during the Cold War is something that cannot be found in documents. Reference List
Kitchen, M 2012, A History of Modern Germany: 1800 to the present, Second edition, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Bessel, R 2011, ‘Establishing Order in Post-war Eastern Germany’, Past and Present, 210, 6, 139-157. Bruce, G 2003,’The prelude to Nationwide Surveillance in East Germany’, Journal of Cold War studies, 5, 2, 3-31. O’Dochartaigh, P 2003, Germany Since 1945, Palgrave MacMillan, PLACE. Williamson, D. G 2001, Germany from Defeat to Partition 1945-1963, Addison-Wesley Longman Limited.