Benjamin, Hilde (1902–1989)

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Benjamin, Hilde (1902–1989)

German Communist lawyer and much-feared judge, known as "Red Hilde" in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where she served as minister of justice from 1953 through 1967. Born Hilde Lange in Bernburg an der Saale on February 5, 1902; died in East Berlin on April 18, 1989; daughter of a sales director of a department store; married Georg Benjamin (1895–1942, a physician); children: son Michael (b. 1932).

Joined German Communist Party (1926); became a lawyer (1928); forbidden to practice law (1933); joined German Central Judicial Authority (1946); served as vice president of GDR Supreme Tribunal (1949–53); served as minister of justice (1953–67); notorious for presiding over 1950s political show trials; member of Socialist Unity Party central committee (1954–81).

Selected writings:

Vorschläge zum neuen deutschen Familienrecht (Berlin: Deutscher Frauen-Verlag, 1949); (with others) Grundriss des Strafrechtsverfahrens der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (Berlin: Deutscher Zentralverlag, 1953); Die Hauptaufgaben der Justiz bei der Durchführung des neuen Kurses (Berlin: VEB Deutscher Zentralverlag, 1953); Karl Liebknecht, zum Wesen und zu Erscheinungen der Klassenjustiz (Potsdam-Babelsberg: Akademie für Staats- und Rechtswissenschaft der DDR, Informationszentrum Staat und Recht, Abt. Publikationen, 1976); Zur Geschichte der Rechtspflege der DDR 1945–1949 (Berlin: Staatsverlag der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, 1976); Georg Benjamin: Eine Biographie (Leipzig: S. Hirzel Verlag, 1977); Zur Geschichte der Rechtspflege der DDR 1949–1961 (Berlin: Staatsverlag der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, 1980).

Although the German Democratic Republic (GDR) never saw the full extent of political terror experienced in the Soviet Union under Stalin in the 1930s and several of the satellite "people's democracies" in the late 1940s and early 1950s, its legal system was a highly politicized one designed to ruthlessly eliminate political and ideological deviations. The individual most responsible for this hard-line conception of Socialist justice was the militant Communist lawyer Hilde Benjamin, known to most GDR citizens as simply die rote Hilde (Red Hilde), or even roter Fallbeil (Red Guillotine). With graying hair, held by a severe knot at the neck, and a wrinkled, often swollen face, this physically unremarkable woman inspired fear in her German populace.

She was born Hilde Lange in the industrial town of Bernburg an der Saale on February 5, 1902, into a solidly middle-class family of four children. Her father was a successful manager, her mother conventionally conservative and religious. Intellectually independent from an early age, Hilde was the family rebel. She declared herself to be an atheist in her early teens and put up a strong argument against being confirmed in the Lutheran faith. A brilliant student, extremely well-read, Hilde was a loner who graduated with honors from high school in 1920. Deciding upon a career in the law, she studied at the universities of Berlin, Hamburg, and Heidelberg. While in Berlin, she joined the Social Democratic student organization, but, showing her critical temperament, she quickly began to criticize the timidity of the parent party, which she saw as a complacent, reformist body that would be unable to create a classless society or meet the challenges of the newly emergent Fascist movements led by violently anti-Marxist demagogues like Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. Increasingly disillusioned with establishment Socialism, Hilde found herself attracted to the rhetoric and ideals of the German Communist Party, which advocated world revolution under the leadership of Soviet Russia.

Following graduation from the University of Berlin in 1924, she became first a junior barrister (Referendar), then an assessor, and finally a full attorney in 1928. The social privation and misery that she witnessed in Berlin convinced her that only a radical transformation of society could eliminate injustice. Virtually all of her law practice was devoted to defending the economic rights of unemployed or injured workers, or fighting for the right of women to enjoy full reproductive freedom. In the course of her fight for social change, she met and married an idealistic physician, Dr. Georg Benjamin (1895–1942). Born into a wealthy and gifted Jewish family that included the noted critic Walter Benjamin, Georg practiced medicine in Wedding, one of Berlin's largest working-class districts, where he tirelessly dispensed medical assistance free of charge in most instances. He too was drawn to the revolutionary program of the German Communist Party. For the next five years, both Georg and Hilde Benjamin became well-known and much respected among the poor and unemployed workers of "Red Wedding," a virtual fortress of revolutionary sentiments within the heart of the German capital.

Unrelenting in her legal work for what she regarded as poor and virtually powerless workers and their families, Hilde Benjamin had little time for private life. Convinced that only the triumph of Communism in Germany could end misery, exploitation, and war, she and her husband spent long hours being of assistance to the workers of Wedding. The rise of Nazism in Berlin in the late 1920s alerted both Benjamins to the danger from the political Right. The physical danger posed by brownshirted storm troopers in Berlin's streets only strengthened their resolve. In her modest law office, Hilde worked long hours assisting working men and women neglected by the law, people unable to receive pensions or compensation for work-related injuries. She was active in efforts to repeal the law making abortion illegal, and fought for full economic and social rights for women. Privately, these years were marked by both tragedy and joy. In 1931, her infant son died a few days after his birth, a loss that was devastating to both parents who had long desired a child. Long-sought family happiness finally arrived on December 27, 1932, when Hilde gave birth to another son, named Michael.

Less than five weeks after Michael's birth, on January 30, 1933, the Benjamins' world began to collapse. Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany as the result of a deal between his Nazi Party and a coalition of desperate and gullible conservatives. Radicals like the Benjamins were high on the enemies lists of local Nazi cells. Known throughout Wedding as militant Communists and heroes of the working-class men and women of the unemployment-racked district, their lives were now at risk. Georg Benjamin was fired from his job as a school physician, and in April 1933 he was taken away from his family to Racked, one of the first Nazi concentration camps. Here he was mistreated both physically and psychologically by storm troopers intent on getting even with a "Bolshevik Jew" known throughout Berlin from hate-filled Nazi propaganda literature. When he was released in December 1933, his health had been shattered and his license to practice medicine was taken from him, though his revolutionary faith was intact. Hilde was hated as much as her husband, having achieved notoriety several years previously when she served as one of the defense attorneys of Ali Höhler, the man accused of murdering Horst Wessel, a Nazi student and pimp who became "immortal" for having written the words of the Nazi anthem. Within weeks of the Nazi seizure of power, she was stripped of her license to practice law.

Hilde Benjamin relied on other anti-Nazis for assistance during the first years of Nazi rule, always fearing arrest but refusing to leave Germany because she believed the Nazi regime might still be overthrown by a revived working class. She eventually found employment at the Soviet Embassy in Berlin, where she advised the trade division on legal matters. Her emotional energies were divided between raising her only child Michael and trying to secure information on the condition of her husband, who would never see his son grown. Georg Benjamin was rearrested in May 1936 as a result of his continuing involvement in anti-Nazi underground activities. His October 1936 sentence was six years' imprisonment at the Brandenburg penitentiary.

With the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939, Hilde Benjamin's services were no longer required at the Soviet trade delegation, and life became even more precarious. Occasionally, she received word through the anti-Nazi underground of Georg's stubborn determination to survive his term of imprisonment. Though his sentence was served in May 1942, the administration of Brandenburg concluded that after six years in a National Socialist correctional facility Georg Benjamin remained at heart an ardent revolutionary. As a Jew and Communist, his continued survival in Nazi Germany was "not desired." He was transferred to infamous Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz, Austria. After several months of ghastly mistreatment, he was murdered at Mauthausen on August 26, 1942. A shaken Hilde Benjamin carried on, protecting her son from air raids while she endured the war jobs she had no choice but to accept.

The collapse of Nazi Germany in the spring of 1945 opened up a new world for Benjamin. As the widow of a militant Communist humanitarian and as a certified anti-Nazi in her own right, she, and her son, qualified for the moral and material benefits accruing to "Victims of Fascism." Benjamin was energized by the forced fusion of Social Democratic and Communist parties in 1946, and she was a charter member of the resulting Socialist Unity Party. Her legal career was revived, and she now worked with enthusiasm as district attorney of Berlin-Lichterfelde, serving in this post from 1945 through 1947. Her political reliability propelled her into an important job in the Central Justice Administration of the Soviet Occupation Zone, which she held until 1949. With the creation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in October 1949, she became a vice president of the new state's Supreme Court.

A personal tragedy of the postwar years was the insistence of her party superiors that her son Michael be sent to the Soviet Union for his education. Although she was a strong supporter of Stalin and the Soviet system, Benjamin had hoped to keep her son with her in Germany. Party loyalty overcame personal feelings, however, and Michael was educated in Leningrad; he returned to the GDR in 1956. Weeks after the workers' uprising of June 17, 1953, was suppressed, Hilde Benjamin was appointed GDR minister of justice. Universally regarded as a hard-liner, she inspired fear in both anti-Communists and reformers within the Socialist Unity Party (SED). She remained in this position until July 1967, strengthening her reputation as an uncompromising Communist of classic Bolshevik attitudes. To this class warrior whose life had been shattered by the Nazis, dissent was tantamount to treason. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Berlin Wall, Benjamin became a Cold War caricature; in the words of one imaginative journalist, she was quite simply "the world's worst woman." The lost human potential of an intelligent idealist whose beliefs had been twisted by a cruel century did not find its way into these portrayals.

In the age of uncompromising cruelty that claimed her husband, Benjamin had survived by becoming cold and ideologically hard as steel. A geriatric marvel in the 1970s and into the 1980s, she enjoyed the status of being a "party veteran" of German Communism. It is possible that she did not notice that the foundations of her German Democratic Republic had been built on sand, and that most of her Communist state's population had grown tired of old slogans appropriate to the world of the 1920s and '30s rather than the 1980s. With her death on April 18, 1989, Hilde Benjamin was spared the pain of watching all she had lived for collapse in a few weeks' time.


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John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Benjamin, Hilde (1902–1989)

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