Osten, Maria (1908–1942)

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Osten, Maria (1908–1942)

German frontline reporter for Moscow's Deutsche Zentral-Zeitung during the Spanish Civil War who was later executed by the Soviets. Name variations: Maria Gresshöner or Gresshoener. Born Maria Emilie Alwine Gresshöner in Muckum bei Bünde, Westphalia, Germany, on March 20, 1908 (some sources cite 1909); executed in Moscow on August 8, 1942; daughter of Heinrich Gresshöner and Anna Maria (Pohlmann) Gresshöner; had sisters Änne and Hanna; married Yevgenii Cherbiakov, a Russian director (divorced around 1931); companion of Mikhail Yefimovich Koltsov (1898–1940, Russian writer and an editor of Pravda); children: (adopted) Hubert L'Hoste; José.

Among the many tragedies of the turbulent 20th century, one of the most chilling was the massive loss of life among Germans who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s by moving to the Soviet Union, a land they were convinced would provide them with a secure refuge. But it was here, in a nation that proclaimed its desire to build a socialist society based on principles of justice, that they would discover that the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin was no less inhuman than that of Adolf Hitler. Among the countless German idealists who lost their lives in the USSR was Maria Osten.

Born Maria Gresshöner in 1908 in Westphalia, she grew up in a privileged environment, her parents being prosperous landowners. As a child, her life at the family estate, Jägerborn, was one filled with servants and status. When Maria was four, her family acquired another estate near Neugolz, in West Prussia, where traces of rural feudalism remained. Early aware of the injustices of German life during and after World War I, Maria rebelled against her family's conservatism. She dropped out of her Lyceum studies at age 15 and two years later (1925) moved to Berlin, supporting herself by working in a tuberculosis sanatorium. In her spare time, she took art lessons with noted artists Ludwig Meidner and Willy Jaeckel.

Later in 1925, Maria began working for Malik-Verlag, one of Weimar Germany's most innovative left-wing publishing houses. Although her duties there demanded much of her time, she also wrote two short stories of high quality. Instilled with the spirit of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) literary movement, her stories appeared in two well-received anthologies, 24 neue deutsche Erzähler (1929) and 30 Erzähler des neuen Deutschland (1932), and she was encouraged to continue writing by Malik-Verlag's publisher, Wieland Herzfelde. In 1930, he also incorporated a photographic portrait of Maria into the graphic design for the dust jacket of Ilya Ehrenburg's novel, The Loves of Jeanne Ney.

Given the fact that most of the authors associated with Malik-Verlag were either members of, or highly sympathetic toward, the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, KPD), Maria became increasingly attracted by the idea that Communism was the only solution for the unemployment and social injustice becoming ever more prevalent during the worldwide economic depression. She moved in intellectual circles that were almost exclusively Communist-oriented. Among the most important influences on her at this time was the playwright Bertolt Brecht, who was briefly her lover.

At the end of a brief marriage to Soviet director Yevgenii Cherbiakov, in 1932 she moved to the Soviet Union to work as a journalist and author, changing her name to Maria Osten (Osten means "the East" in German). She then met and fell in love with Soviet journalist Mikhail Koltsov. A dedicated Communist, Koltsov had joined the Bolshevik Party in 1918, becoming one of the editors of the party newspaper Pravda in 1922. In Koltsov, Osten found the love of her life, and she became profoundly loyal to the Soviet cause. When the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, Osten could no longer go home. In Moscow, she busied herself with various literary and journalistic projects, while also maintaining contacts with leaders of anti-Nazi literary circles both within the USSR and in other countries, including Brecht, Helene Weigel , Johannes Robert Becher, Ernst Busch, and Egon Erwin Kisch.

Osten threw herself into anti-fascist journalistic activities. In 1934–35, she and Koltsov reported from the Saar region, an industrial area that had been under French administration since 1920 and was scheduled for a January 1935 plebiscite to decide whether it should be returned to (a now Nazi) Germany. Though Osten was disappointed when the plebiscite was overwhelmingly decided in favor of the Reich, she and Koltsov had adopted a young working-class Saar boy named Hubert L'Hoste. After returning to Moscow, she wrote a book for children entitled Hubert im Wunderland (Hubert in the Land of Wonders), with a foreword by Georgi Dimitrov, hero of the Reichstag Fire Trial in Nazi Germany and now president of the Comintern (Communist International). Appearing in print in Moscow in 1935 in both German and Russian-language editions, Hubert im Wunderland compared the quality of life in the Western world, which was portrayed as one of capitalist exploitation and feverish preparation for war, with Osten's highly idealized "socialist realist" picture of the Soviet Union. Here, she was convinced, was a nation that did not advance at the expense of social injustice, unemployment, or ethnic hatred. For a time, because of his adoptive mother's book, Hubert was a Soviet celebrity of sorts; he was even received in the Kremlin by the leading military commanders, Tukhachevsky and Budennyi.

In 1936, the proclamation of a new Soviet Constitution by Stalin appeared to give added weight to the belief that a new and better social order had been created. Ominously, in that same year the first of a series of purge trials—resulting in death sentences for many former political allies of both Vladimir Lenin and Stalin—began to mar the landscape. Inspired by the revered author Maxim Gorky's call for a new Soviet literature, Osten ignored the gathering political storm, instead concentrating on her own writings, and on collaborating with both Soviet and German-exile authors to help publish such influential anti-Nazi publications as the journal Das Wort and the international anthology Ein Tag der Welt (One Day the World), which appeared in print in 1937.

Whatever doubts Osten and Koltsov may have had about Soviet realities, they appeared insignificant in relation to the growing aggressiveness of the forces of European Fascism. In July 1936, supported militarily and politically by Hitler and Mussolini, a clique of Spanish generals led by Francisco Franco raised the banner of revolt against a democratically elected republican government. Almost immediately the antifascist forces of the world, ranging from anarchists and liberal democrats to Socialists and Communists, rallied to the cause of the endangered Spanish Republic. Soon after the outbreak of the civil war in Spain, Osten was sent there as a war correspondent for Moscow's Deutsche Zentral-Zeitung (DZZ). Bravely, she sought stories at the front lines, reporting on the soldiers of the Spanish Republic, both Spaniards and the men and women who came from many nations to serve in the International Brigades. The Spanish Republicans were almost always at a disadvantage when it came to weapons. Not only Franco's forces but "volunteers" from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy brought death and destruction with their superior military technology. The Republicans most feared the fascists' airpower, which was merciless in seeking civilian targets, including the Basque town of Guernica that would be immortalized in Pablo Picasso's mural of the same name.

By the end of 1937, only months after they had appeared in the DZZ, Osten's articles were collected in book form in the Russian-language Reportages from Spain. Koltsov, who had also been in Spain, collected notes for a book on the Spanish conflict as well. While they were there, Osten and Koltsov had adopted another child, a Spanish boy named José. In 1938, Osten left a doomed Spain to accept a new assignment, that of editor of the Paris office of the Moscow-based German-language journal Das Wort (The Word). Published since 1936, Das Wort had secured the support of many important German literary exiles, including Brecht and Lion Feuchtwanger. Osten had become acquainted with Feuchtwanger during his December 1936 visit to the Soviet Union, when she served as his host and guide. She was also involved in organizing the creation of a new firm, the Verlag 10. Mai, in order to publish a series of books on themes of current interest.

As well, she contributed articles to the German exile newspaper Deutsche Volkszeitung, which was published in Paris but read in anti-Nazi circles throughout the world. In her spare moments, she also worked on the manuscript of a novel, Kartoffelschnaps (Vodka). Despite the political terror that dominated life in Moscow, both Osten and Koltsov—loyal Stalinists—appeared to have weathered the storm. For a long time, many of Osten's journalistic colleagues in Russia had been decimated by the Stalinist terror, vanishing into the night as "wreckers" and "enemies of the people." In June 1937, DZZ editor

Julia Annenkova had been arrested, never to return. Over a period of three days in February 1938, virtually the entire editorial staff of the paper was liquidated. Very likely because she was in Spain (and later in Paris), Osten escaped the dreaded knock on the door.

Koltsov's career also gave all appearances of flourishing as never before. His newly published book Ispanskii Dnevnik (Spanish Diary) was immensely successful, and in the summer of 1938 he was elected a deputy to the Supreme Soviet. Besides continuing to work as a Pravda editor, Koltsov was involved with the Zhurgaz publishing firm, headed the foreign relations branch of the Soviet Writers' Union, and edited the periodicals Krokodil, Ogonek, and Za rubezhom (Beyond the Borders). Quickly, however, everything changed. Despite the fact that Koltsov was an uncritical supporter of Stalin, he fell out of favor. During a private talk with "the boss," Stalin asked Koltsov if he owned a gun and if he ever entertained the thought of killing himself. Koltsov told his brother, political cartoonist Boris Yefimov, that he could sense "an ominous, hostile breeze blowing from somewhere." The downfall of the feared head of the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police), Nikolai Yezhov, on December 8, 1938, seemed to signal the end of the terror, but not for Koltsov. Late in the night of December 12, while working in the Pravda editorial offices, he was arrested.

Osten heard of Koltsov's arrest while in Paris and made plans to clear him from what she knew were false charges. Arriving in Moscow in May 1939, along with her adopted son José, she was unable to undo the "misunderstanding" that had led to Koltsov's arrest and imprisonment. At this point, because of her connections to the doomed Koltsov, Osten lost whatever protection she had enjoyed from the leadership of the exiled German Communists in Moscow. On July 3, 1939, a so-called Small Commission of KPD leaders declared her party membership to be "at rest," presumably with further investigations to follow. A further ominous development took place on October 14, 1939, when Osten was expelled from the KPD.

From then on, Osten was filled with fear and frustration. When she arrived at the door of her adopted son Hubert's apartment, she was told by both Hubert and his new wife that they could not let her enter; she had become much too dangerous to be associated with. As a member in good standing of the Komsomol (Young Communist League), he did not intend to "besmirch" his own name. For some inexplicable reason, Osten was not arrested at this point. Instead, she and José moved into a room in a cheap Moscow hotel. Through the Soviet Writers' Union, she was able to find a job at one of Moscow's film studios, Lenfilm. Still at liberty when Brecht and his family stopped in Moscow in May 1941, on their way to California, Osten displayed once again her capacity for generosity. A member of the Brecht group, Margarete Steffin , one of Brecht's major collaborators, had to be hospitalized in Moscow with end-stage tuberculosis, and Osten spent hours in the hospital with her as she slowly died. The Brecht group, which consisted of the playwright and his wife Helene Weigel, their children, as well as Ruth Berlau , had already left Moscow when Steffin died in early June 1941. Osten's telegram dated June 5, 1941, informing Brecht of Steffin's death is the last document she wrote that has survived.

Probably seeking to make her situation more secure, Osten had become a Soviet citizen around the time of Brecht's visit. This decision may have been fatal, making her only more visible to the ever-suspicious NKVD. The immediate triggering event for her arrest was the unexpected attack on the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany and its allies on June 22, 1941. Despite their anti-Nazi credentials, German exiles in the USSR were now viewed as potential allies of Hitler, and on June 24, 1941, Osten was arrested in Moscow by the NKVD. Both of her adopted sons would apparently vanish into the vast interior of the Soviet Union, José without a trace, and Hubert to Kazakhstan as a deportee. Hubert L'Hoste survived the deportation, married a second time, but wound up in the Gulag for several years. After his release, he would die in August 1959, at age 36, of a ruptured appendix.

Osten was shot in Moscow on August 8, 1942. Koltsov had already suffered the same fate, on February 2, 1940. At the time of her arrest, the manuscript of Osten's novel Kartoffelschnaps, on which she had been working for a number of years, vanished. The death of Stalin in 1953 made it possible to look with candor at the toll taken by his dictatorship, particularly during its purges. In 1957, Osten was posthumously rehabilitated by the Military Tribunal of the Moscow Military District, the wartime sentence against her being declared unjust and without foundation. In the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where de-Stalinization never went beyond timid first steps, Maria Osten's name was mentioned only occasionally and with considerable caution despite her former fame. Her fate in many ways remained an embarrassment to an East German leadership compromised by its close ties to the harshest aspects of Sovietism.

The life of Maria Osten was never investigated by scholars in either of the two post-1945 Germanies, and only on rare occasions did excerpts from her writings appear in print in the GDR. During the 1980s, the final years of the GDR, the regime's half-hearted attempts at openness resulted in feeble attempts to confront the Stalinist past. One such occasion was the celebration of Maria Osten's 80th birthday on March 20, 1988, which took place in a remote cemetery in the GDR; there, a memorial plaque in her honor was unveiled next to her parents' gravesite in the village of Loitz-Kreis Demmin. Present that day was an informer for the GDR Ministry of State Security (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit or Stasi) who dutifully informed Stasi headquarters in East Berlin that an unauthorized ceremony to honor a victim of Stalinism had just taken place.


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