Buber-Neumann, Margarete (1901–1989)

views updated

Buber-Neumann, Margarete (1901–1989)

German author, Communist activist, and prisoner in the Soviet Gulag before being deported to Nazi Germany and incarcerated in the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp, who devoted the remainder of her life to exposing Stalinist tyranny. Name variations: Grete Buber, Margarete Buber, Margaret Buber Neumann. Born Margarete Thüring on October 21, 1901, in Potsdam, Germany; died in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on November 6, 1989; daughter of Heinrich Thüring (a brewery manager) and Else (Merten) Thüring; had two sisters, Babette Gross and Gertrud ("Trude") Thüring, and two brothers; trained as a kindergarten teacher; common-law marriage to Rafael Buber (son of the philosopher Martin Buber), beginning in 1921; common-law marriage to Heinz Neumann (a linguist and Communist revolutionary), around 1928; married Helmuth Faust (divorced); children: (with Rafael Buber) two daughters, Barbara (b. 1921) and Judith (b. 1924).

Joined the Communist Youth League of Germany (1921); joined Communist Party of Germany (KPD, 1926); worked in Berlin as a member of the editorial staff of Inprekorr, journal of the Communist International; fled Germany (1933) with Heinz Neumann, her second common-law husband, going to Spain, Switzerland, France, and the Saar territory; immigrated to Soviet Union (1935); arrested and convicted of being a "socially dangerous element" and sentenced to five years' loss of freedom (1938); expelled from USSR to Nazi Germany (1940); imprisoned in Ravensbrück concentration camp until 1945; became a noted author after 1945, whose books played a significant role in exposing the Soviet Gulag; after release, spent five years in Sweden; returned to Frankfurt in 1950; in Munich, wrote and published Milena—Kafkas freundin (1977, published as Milena: The Story of a Remarkable Friendship, Schocken, 1988); continued to write and speak out against Stalinist oppression.

Margarete Buber-Neumann's life, like the century, began in a time described by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig as "a golden age of security." Her father Heinrich Thüring (1866–1942) provided a financially comfortable, solidly respectable lifestyle for his large family. Born into an Upper Franconian peasant family, Heinrich was an ambitious and authoritarian man who had risen to a management position by dint of hard work and determination, becoming director of an important brewery. Although he was raised as an easygoing South German, he had adopted Prussian authoritarian values and drove himself without mercy, expecting the same devotion from his workers and his own family. In her memoirs, Margarete described her father as a combination Prussian drill-sergeant, peasant patriarch, self-made man, who customarily worked 12 or more hours a day. A capitalist through and through, he had no use for socialist doctrine of any kind.

In dramatic contrast to Buber-Neumann's rigidly authoritarian father was her remarkably freethinking mother, Else Merten Thüring (1871–1960). The last of twelve children, she was one of six who survived as half of her siblings died of diphtheria. Else was born in the small village of Schmergow in the Prussian district of Brandenburg but grew up in Potsdam, where she was raised by a brother who was almost two decades older. Her brother was broad-minded and sympathetic to socialist ideas, so Else grew up with his perspective. Like him, she rejected Prussia's monarchical, authoritarian, and militaristic ideals. Even after her marriage to Heinrich, Else never lost her nonconformist spirit, which she passed on to her children.

When Else became a mother, she regarded each new member of the family as a unique and precious entity never to be bullied or crushed. Since her husband had little time to spend with his children, Else left her mark on them, particularly on her daughters. Margarete and Babette (Gross) both grew up to be political and social rebels. Buber-Neumann cherished early memories of her mother's disdain for Prussian militarism, especially one incident. To celebrate May Day, soldiers in Potsdam paraded before assembled schoolchildren. During this military review, Margarete's mother made scathing comments under her breath, describing the elaborate ritual as "comic theater" and characterizing the kaiser as a "megalomaniacal saber-rattler."

While Margarete loved her mother, she had few happy memories of her father. At age three, she had visited a neighbor who owned a pet monkey and was thrilled when the monkey took a piece of lettuce she offered it. Full of childish enthusiasm, Margarete ran home to tell her family about this fascinating encounter. Her father did not respond at all to his little daughter's joy and, instead, beat her severely for leaving home without permission. As this was a typical encounter between father and daughter, they were estranged all their lives.

School brought more dealings with Prussian authoritarianism. Margarete and her classmates were exposed to a constant barrage of propaganda, singing patriotic doggerel like "Der Kaiser ist ein lieber Mann und wohnet in Berlin, und wär es nicht so weit von hier, so ging' ich heute hin" (The kaiser is a fine man who lives in Berlin, and were it not so far from here I'd go there today). The young girl did not assimilate this philosophy well. In December 1915, Buber-Neumann joined the Alt Wandervogel, part of the German Youth Movement. Love of unspoiled nature bound these young people together. At first, Margarete was intoxicated by hiking in the forest, singing folk music, and celebrating traditional German nature festivals. The Wandervogel rejected conventional morality, embracing freer relations between the sexes and a simpler lifestyle. As World War I drew to a close, however, Buber-Neumann became increasingly disillusioned with youthful Romantics entranced by nature. By 1918, four years of carnage had wiped out an entire generation in Europe. At one meeting, a male leader stressed that members must defend German culture just as the Teutonic knights had done in the Middle Ages. An incensed Margarete asked, "Of what relevance are the ancient Teutons to us today? We would be better advised if we concerned ourselves with the things that are taking place in today's Germany."

In 1919, Margarete enrolled at the Pestalozzi-Fröbel-Haus in Berlin-Schöneberg to become a kindergarten teacher. The collapse of the German monarchy and the loss of the war unleashed a chaotic but creative period of artistic and intellectual ferment. The young woman threw herself into expressionist art as well as lectures on free love, Marxism, and world revolution. In March 1920, she witnessed the Kapp Putsch, a failed coup of extreme rightists who wanted to overthrow the German Republic. Soldiers supporting the coup wore black swastikas on their helmets. After a series of political arguments, Buber-Neumann's father threw her out of the house. For a time, she lived in the home of Karl Wilker, director of the Linderhof, an experimental reform school. One of her friends was Trude Marcell , a teacher at the Fröbel-Haus who shared many of Margarete's anti-authoritarian

views. Through Trude, she met and fell in love with Rafael Buber, son of the famous Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber. Espousing free love, the two contracted a common-law marriage, and in 1921 their first daughter, Barbara, was born. A second daughter, Judith, would arrive in 1924.

In 1921, Margarete Buber, as she now called herself, attended a huge memorial demonstration for the martyred Communist leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg . Deeply moved, she committed herself to the Communist movement. That same year, she received her diploma as a kindergarten teacher and relocated to Heidelberg where Rafael was pursuing his studies. Shortly after, she joined the German Communist Youth League while Rafael began working in a cement factory to support his family. When the Communist Party had him steal dynamite for its underground work, the police got wind of the Bubers' Communist connections and searched their apartment but found nothing. Soon thereafter, however, Rafael was caught handing out Communist pamphlets and was expelled from the university. Rafael went to Jena to continue his studies, and Margarete moved in with her in-laws who provided a more secure environment for the children.

In 1926, Buber-Neumann returned alone to Potsdam, joined the Communist Party, and took a job at the large Tietz department store where she soon organized a Communist cell consisting of department store employees. Her sister Babette, also a Communist militant, introduced Margarete to many revolutionaries. Buber-Neumann joined the League Against Imperialism and the editorial staff of Internationale Presse-Korrespondenz (Inprekorr), the Comintern's German language publication. For some time, Buber-Neumann's common-law marriage had been failing, and by 1928 the relationship had ended. Rafael's mother instituted court proceedings to take Margarete's daughters from her. Though Buber-Neumann was deeply disappointed when the courts awarded custody to the Buber family, the event proved fortunate for the little girls. Their emigration from Nazi Germany to Palestine with their Jewish grandparents in 1933 probably saved their lives.

I believe it is my duty to let the world know on the basis of first-hand experience what can happen, what does happen, what must happen when human dignity is treated with cynical contempt.

—Margarete Buber-Neumann

In the late 1920s, Margarete Buber had met Heinz Neumann (1902–1937), a brilliant linguist who had studied at the University of Berlin. Heinz was a committed Communist revolutionary and a rising star in the Communist International (Comintern). He first visited Soviet Russia in 1922 and served on the German Communist Party's Central Committee and its Politburo. In those heady days, international revolution seemed inevitable. Margarete fell in love with the dynamic Heinz and soon contracted a common-law marriage with him, taking the name Buber-Neumann. Heinz had already traveled to China in 1927 at the behest of Joseph Stalin, whom he strongly supported at the time. The couple visited the USSR in 1931 and again in 1932. By the end of 1932, however, Heinz Neumann was no longer a supporter of Stalin and no longer served on the German Communist Party's politburo or the Comintern's executive committee.

When Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933, Margarete Buber-Neumann had just returned to Berlin from the Soviet Union. Soon the Nazis began to systematically exterminate leftists, and she fled the country using a fake passport. She joined Heinz, who had gone to Spain in 1932 on a Comintern assignment. In November 1933, she and Heinz went to Zurich, Switzerland, where they carried out more conspiratorial work, but this time their luck ran out. Heinz was arrested and imprisoned in December 1934. Margarete feared for his life when Swiss officials threatened to deport him to Nazi Germany, a certain death sentence. Eventually he was released, and the couple moved on to Paris where Margarete worked with Willi Münzenberg (1889–1940), a leader of the German Communist Party propaganda division. In January 1935, she helped organize a plebiscite in the Saar territory, allowing citizens to choose whether they would reunite with Germany, remain independent, or unite with France. Despite massive propaganda efforts by anti-Nazi forces, the left suffered an enormous defeat when the largely working-class population of the Saar voted over-whelmingly to join Nazi Germany. Many of Buber-Neumann's illusions about the revolutionary spirit of the masses were shattered by the Saar experience.

By 1935, Margarete Buber-Neumann and her husband realized that Stalinism was apparently as great an evil as Nazism. Nevertheless, they remained dedicated Communists, hoping that the Soviet Union might still correct its course. Consolidating his power in the USSR, Stalin had begun to eliminate anyone who posed a possible threat. Margarete Buber-Neumann and her husband were internationalists; Stalin was not. The Neumanns detested Nazism both morally and ideologically; Stalin was a cynic who once told Heinz that if Germany became fascist, this would allow the Soviet regime time to industrialize. It was already clear that Stalin was planning to make a deal with Hitler. Faced with deportation to the Third Reich, Margarete and Heinz had few options, however. They chose the lesser of two evils and moved to the Soviet Union in the spring of 1935.

The Neumanns became residents of the Hotel Lux in Moscow, a hotel reserved for Comintern staff and special foreign "guests." They soon discovered that they were virtual prisoners. Because they were known anti-Stalinists, few of their neighbors dared talk to them. When the Soviet purges began in 1936, a Lux resident was taken away by the secret police almost nightly, never to return. Despite the atmosphere of terror, a pseudo-normal life somehow emerged. Margarete and Heinz took well-paid jobs as translators with the Foreign Workers Publishing House. They even vacationed in the Crimea at Sochi, where Stalin had his villa.

On the night of April 27/28, 1937, agents of the secret police came for Heinz. Margarete never saw him again and never knew his fate. Soviet archives, opened at the end of the Cold War, indicate he was sentenced to death on November 26, 1937, and executed the same day. Margarete lost her job and was forced to move in with friends who endangered their own lives to shelter her. She sold personal belongings in order to survive while she tried to learn her husband's fate. On June 19, 1938, she was arrested and taken first to the infamous Lubianka prison and then to Butirka where she was kept for several months. Though Buber-Neumann refused to admit she had committed any crime, she was nonetheless sentenced to five years in the Gulag as a "socially dangerous element."

Although conditions had been far from good in Moscow prisons, much worse was to come. Buber-Neumann became prisoner #174,475 at the Karaganda camp in Siberia. It was brutally cold on the steppe; there was little food; and there were no washing facilities. Political prisoners were housed with common criminals whose status was much higher. These criminals often consorted with the guards to make the lives of the political prisoners as miserable as possible. After a time, Buber-Neumann was transferred to Birma in Kazakhstan where she did agricultural labor. Though the work was hard, she had always been a fighter and refused to give in to the system.

In the fall of 1939, Buber-Neumann's conditions suddenly improved. She and several of her fellow prisoners were transported back to Butirka in Moscow and given clean clothes, blankets, and good food. Since they had been committed Communists who had done nothing wrong, they happily awaited their release. It was not to be. In late August 1939, the Hitler-Stalin pact had been signed, pledging that the two countries would not attack each other. One part of the agreement was that Stalin would send anti-Fascists back to Nazi Germany where thousands had already been exterminated in the Third Reich. In February 1940, Buber-Neumann and some of her fellow prisoners were put on a train, destination unknown. They desperately hoped they would be released in Lithuania and held onto this hope until the train reached Brest Litovsk, at the border of the Soviet Union and German-occupied Poland. Here they were handed over to the Gestapo and SS.

Buber-Neumann was sent to Alexanderplatz prison in Berlin to be interrogated by the Gestapo. Although she had committed no crime except for adhering to her political beliefs, she was charged with high treason. In August 1940, she was transported to the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp for women where she met and formed a tight bond with the journalist Milena Jesenská . Buber-Neumann was put in charge of many Jehovah's Witnesses, a sect of religious fundamentalists the Nazis hated and with whom she had little in common. She lost many of her Jewish friends and comrades at Ravensbrück as they were immediately executed or sent to Auschwitz. Some of the Polish women were used in heinous medical experiments. There was no news from the outside world, but Buber-Neumann and her fellow prisoners pieced together scraps of newspaper set aside for toilet paper to read what passed for truth in the German press. Once again Buber-Neumann fought authoritarian oppression in Ravensbrück. Snubbed by most of the Stalinists in the camp, she nearly died in solitary confinement after one encounter with the Nazis. In January 1945, she withstood blood poisoning and lived only because Inka, a Czech Communist friend stole the drugs that saved her.

In April, the Soviet army finally liberated Ravensbrück, but Buber-Neumann's near brushes with death continued. Released with other prisoners when Nazi control of the camp evaporated, she was almost shot by machine-gun fire from an Allied plane. Having survived more than five years at the hands of the Nazis, she was desperate to avoid being picked up by Soviet forces. Luck was with her when an American soldier let her pass through to the Western zones, telling her, "O.K., sister. Go through."

Soon Buber-Neumann made it to Sweden where she began to write her memoirs, Under Two Dictators, first published in Germany in 1948 and then translated into many other language editions. Over the next few years, she patched her life back together; after learning her two daughters were living in Israel, she established strong ties with them. She testified in several trials in the postwar period. Her testimony against the Ravensbrück camp commander helped secure his conviction and eventual execution for war crimes. In 1949, Buber-Neumann was involved in the Victor Kravchenko trial in France. Her shattering testimony convinced many that Stalin's Gulag system was comparable to the horrors in Nazi concentration camps and played a significant role in eroding the prestige of the French Communist Party among that country's intellectuals.

Returning to Germany in 1950, Buber-Neumann settled in Frankfurt am Main. In 1951, she became editor of the political journal Die Aktion, speaking out forcefully against Soviet Communism. During the chilliest days of the Cold War, she reminded Germans that Stalinist oppression, not Socialist humanism, was at the heart of the Soviet experience. When she died in Frankfurt am Main on November 3, 1989—three days before the fall of the Berlin Wall—many Germans had forgotten who she was or regarded her as just another Cold War relic. Margarete Buber-Neumann experienced terror and degradation inflected by two of the 20th century's most heartless regimes and yet she survived. She spent the rest of her life warning of the evils that inevitably surface when political dogma becomes a religion.


Buber, Margarete. Under Two Dictators. Translated by Edward Fitzgerald. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1949.

Buber-Neuman, Margarete. Der kommunistische Untergrund: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der kommunistischen Geheimarbeit. Kreuzlingen: Neptun Verlag, 1970.

——. Von Potsdam nach Moskau—Stationen eines Irrweges. Hohenheim: Edition Maschke, 1981.

Des Pres, Terrence. The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

"Erbswurst und Karnickel," in Der Spiegel. Vol. 12, no. 17. April 23, 1958, p. 23.

In den Fängen des NKWD: Deutsche Opfer des stalinistischen Terrors in der UdSSR. Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1991.

Lazitch, Branko, and Milorad M. Drachkovitch. Biographical Dictionary of the Comintern. Rev ed. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1986.

Mayenburg, Ruth von. Hotel Lux. Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein Sachbuch, 1981.

McDermott, Kevin. "Stalinist Terror in the Comintern: New Perspectives," in Journal of Contemporary History. Vol. 30, no. 1. January 1995, pp. 111–130.

Müller, Reinhard. "Linie und Härasie: Lebensläufe aus den Kaderakten der Komintern (II)," in Exil. Heft 1, 1991, pp. 46–69.

Read, Anthony, and David Fischer. The Deadly Embrace: Hitler, Stalin and the Nazi-Soviet Pact 1939–1941. NY: W.W. Norton, 1988.

Schafranek, Hans. Zwischen NKWD und Gestapo: Die Auslieferung deutscher und österreichischer Antifaschisten an Nazideutschland 1937–1941. Frankfurt am Main: isp-Verlag, 1990.

Schumacher, Martin, ed. M.d.R. Die Reichstagsabgeordneten der Weimarer Republik in der Zeit des Nationalsozialismus. Politische Verfolgung, Emigration und Ausbürgerung 1933–1945: Eine biographische Dokumentation. Düsseldorf: Droste Verlag, 1991.

Wall, Irwin M. French Communism in the Era of Stalin: The Quest for Unity and Integration, 1945–1962. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Weber, Hermann. "Weisse Flecken" in der Geschichte: Die KPD-Opfer der Stalinschen Säungen und ihre Rehabilitierung. 2nd ed. Frankfurt am Main: isp-Verlag, 1990.

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