Overlach, Helene (1894–1983)

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Overlach, Helene (1894–1983)

German Communist leader who led the Roter Frauenund Mädchenbund (Red Girls' and Women's League) during the Weimar Republic. Name variations: Lene Overlach; (underground names) Frieda, Klara, Frau Teschmer. Born in Greiz, Thuringia, Germany, on July 7, 1894; died in East Berlin on August 7, 1983; daughter of Martin Overlach; mother's name unknown; never married; children: daughter, Hanna.

Long before the German Communist movement was drowned in a sea of blood by Adolf Hitler, it had been betrayed by Joseph Stalin. By the late 1920s, Stalin had been able to seize control of the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands or KPD), making its leaders loyal to him and Soviet national interests. This included decreeing rapid switches of the party line to suit the shifting needs of the USSR, and precluded creating a working alliance between Communist and Social Democratic workers which might have halted Hitler's rising Nazi Party. Stalin was afraid that a Marxist Germany would destabilize the European power balance and endanger his own regime, so consequently he sabotaged any possibility of the emergence of an anti-Hitler coalition in that nation. Stalin's maneuvers do not negate the lives of many Germans who chose Communism as their political base in the years after 1918. Many were sincere in their desire to create a society based on social justice and free of the conditions that had in the past made Germany a reactionary and militaristic state that trampled on the rights both of its own citizens and of its neighbors. Helene Overlach was one of these Germans. A major figure in the German Communist movement, she was willing to risk her life in the struggle against the evils of Nazism.

Overlach was born in Greiz in 1894, the third of four children of Dr. Martin Overlach, a well-respected, liberal physician in that small Thuringian town. Greiz was the capital of the Principality of Reuss, whose sovereign prince, Henry XXII, resided there. Overlach's father medically treated both the bluebloods of the Reuss family and the local poor, and from an early age Helene became aware of the contrast between the rich who never seemed to work, and the poor who seemed to labor for long hours. She also noted the arrogance of the aristocratic elite, and even of members of the middle class, toward the poor. After her family moved to Berlin in 1904, Overlach became increasingly aware of the class tensions and economic exploitation that underlay all aspects of the German social order.

The death of her father in 1912 was a psychological and financial blow to the family. To support herself, Overlach worked 12-to-14-hour days, six days a week, in an office. By that time she had been able to complete her secondary schooling, including the local Realgymnasium and an advanced Commercial School, but her dreams of studying medicine had to be abandoned. At the start of World War I in 1914, she volunteered to work as an auxiliary nurse in one of Berlin's emergency military hospitals (Militärlazarett). Before too many months had passed, Overlach began to notice the discrepancies between the patriotic rhetoric of the state and the sufferings the war had unleashed, particularly on the working class and poorest sectors of the German population—the old, the women, and the children. In 1915, one of her brothers died soon after being severely wounded at the front. By 1917, like many other Germans, Overlach had come to reject the official justifications for continuing the war. As she saw it, the conflict was one between equally guilty imperialist states, and the working classes would only continue to suffer if hostilities continued.

In 1917, Overlach chanced upon a pamphlet by a still-obscure Russian Marxist revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin. His analysis of the nature of the war, as far as she could see, was quite convincing. Overlach was in Berlin in November 1918, when the armistice was announced and Kaiser Wilhelm I abdicated and fled the country. On November 9, 1918, she joined thousands of other Berliners in the mass demonstration that marked the end of the Hohenzollern monarchy and the beginning of the improvised German Republic. She volunteered her services to the Workers' and Soldiers' Council of Berlin, assisting soldiers recently repatriated from the front. Above all else, she witnessed the rapidly deteriorating relationship between radical Social Democrats, soon to call themselves Communists, and the majority Social Democrats. The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg , who would within weeks fall victim to the murderous rage of private armies known as the Freikorps. After working as a teacher in a business school, Overlach left Berlin in October 1919, to move to Munich.

At the time of her arrival there, the Bavarian capital was still reeling from the events of recent months. In 1919, Munich lived through two short-lived revolutionary uprisings by the extreme Left, as well as bloody military reprisals from the forces of the Right. (Although she was unaware of it, Overlach arrived in Munich precisely at the time of the birth of Adolf Hitler's Nazi movement.) While working as a secretary in a lawyer's office, she joined a Leftist youth movement, the Freie Sozialistische Jugend (Free Socialist Youth). Here, she came in contact with Franziska Bergmann-Rubens , who would by December 1920 become a leading member of Germany's Communist Youth Movement. By the end of 1920, Overlach had officially become a Communist. From 1921 to 1925, she was active in several places, including Berlin where she worked at party headquarters as secretary to Wilhelm Pieck, one of the top KPD leaders. She also worked in Düsseldorf in the Rheinland-Westphalen section of the party. In 1923, she met Clara Zetkin for the first time, and under unusual circumstances. Delegated to meet Zetkin at the Hamm train station, both she and Zetkin were arrested there by a French military officer. After several hours, both were released.

Overlach sharpened her skills as a journalist and agitator throughout the 1920s. From 1923 to 1925, she worked as a member of the editorial staff of Essen's KPD newspaper, the Ruhr-Echo. She also worked briefly in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) as chief editor of that city's KPD journal, the Schlesische Arbeiter-Zeitung. Overlach became closely identified with the KPD faction led by the party's later supreme leader, the former dock worker Ernst Thälmann. She took the side of the Thälmannites in their battles with Ruth Fischer and others who were hostile to the increasing domination of the KPD by the Soviet forces led by Stalin.

By the end of 1925, Overlach had proven herself to be a reliable member of the Thälmann faction. This, along with the favorable impression she had made on Zetkin, led to Overlach being chosen the de facto leader of the KPD women's organization, the Roter Frauenund Mädchenbund (Red Girls' and Women's League, RFMB), founded in Berlin on November 29, 1925. Although Zetkin was the nominal RFMB leader, the actual day-to-day work of heading the organization fell to Overlach. Aged and infirm, Zetkin actually lived in Moscow much of the time during these years, even though she was universally regarded as the Grand Old Lady of German Communism and was a member of the Reichstag (Parliament). Through agitation and propaganda, RFMB membership grew significantly from around 9,000 in May 1926 to around 20,000 that November. These numbers, however, may have been manipulated, and while the KPD leadership in Berlin may have looked upon these women as potential militant Communist stalwarts, between 70% and 80% of them were listed as " parteilos"—not belonging to a political party.

During the years of the Weimar Republic (1919–33), women made up between 7% and 17% of the membership of the KPD. The party had great difficulty in recruiting working-class women, and a high percentage of women in the KPD were housewives, unemployed, or from the urban intelligentsia. Many were indifferent to politics, while others were essentially conservative in their ideals. Some union members were strongly committed to the moderate Social Democratic Party. Overlach believed that the majority of Germany's women, being oppressed in various ways, could in fact be made sympathetic to the message of German Communism. From the mid-1920s, she worked to spread the word, both to the population at large, and within the male-dominated KPD leadership. As her influence within a now increasingly Stalinized KPD grew, Overlach worked to recruit more women into the orbit of German Communism. In March 1927, at the 11th Party Congress of the KPD, held in Essen, she was elected a member of the national Central Committee and was put in charge of women's affairs. In May 1928, Overlach was elected to the Reichstag, representing a working-class district in Düsseldorf. Her influence within the KPD leadership, now totally Stalinized, was confirmed in 1929 when she was re-elected to the Central Committee. More important, she now became a candidate member of the policy-making KPD Politburo.

By 1930, Germany was in the throes of a rapidly worsening economic crisis. The misery brought on by growing unemployment brought recruits and votes for the KPD, but benefited Hitler's Nazi movement even more. The KPD spent much of its energy demonizing the sluggish Social Democrats, attacking them as "Social Fascists" who were little better than Hitlerites. Overlach was concerned with these developments but had become a cog in the machinery of the KPD. In 1930, the RFMB was absorbed by an organization that existed as much on paper as in reality, the Kampfbund gegen den Faschismus (Fighting League Against Fascism). More to the point, in March 1930, Overlach was seriously injured at a political demonstration. As if to symbolize her—and the KPD's—growing loss of control over the situation in Germany, starting in 1930 Overlach became increasingly involved in Soviet and international Communist activities. In March 1931, the women's division of the Communist International in Moscow asked her to collect data on women's work carried out by the French and British Communist parties. In 1931 and 1932, Overlach traveled to France and the United Kingdom to collect this data. While there, she met with local Communist leaders, including Jacques Duclos and Maurice Thorez in France and Harry Pollitt in England.

Although she had largely retired from heading the women's affairs division of the KPD by 1931, relinquishing these tasks to Roberta Gropper and Lisa Ullrich , Overlach remained active in this area in a less formal way. On October 24, 1931, she addressed 1,500 women in Berlin at a Congress of Working Women. At this assembly, powerful appeals for working-class solidarity were mixed with descriptions of Nazi violence in the streets of German cities, towns, and villages. Although this was by far the largest working-class meeting of German women before 1945, the reality of the situation was that it was too little and too late to stop Nazism. At a mass rally of 10,000 women on October 22 in Berlin's Sportpalast, Overlach appealed to her audience: "We are a power to be reckoned with, if we chose to unite."

Hitler formed a "legal" cabinet on January 30, 1933. Within a month's time, the Reichstag building was in flames under mysterious circumstances and the Communist Party was banned. As a KPD leader, Overlach was included on an arrest list dated February 28, 1933. She now went underground, using aliases: "Frieda," "Klara" and "Frau Teschmer." Unlike top leaders like Thälmann who were arrested in March, Overlach remained free until a few days before Christmas 1933, when she was arrested in Essen. In August 1934, she was sentenced to three years' penal servitude on the standard Nazi-concocted charge of "preparation for high treason." For the next several years, Overlach was imprisoned with other women political prisoners—almost all of them either Communists or Social Democrats—at the Ziegenhain and Gotteszell penitentiaries, as well as at the Aichach women's prison. On December 30, 1936, she was told she would continue to be incarcerated under the legal category of "protective custody" (Schutzhaft) despite the fact that her term of confinement had been served. Overlach was taken to the Moringen concentration camp for women, and later to the Lichtenburg concentration camp. There, her health deteriorated dramatically, and manifestations of serious cardiac problems became evident.

Convinced that she was no longer a threat to the Third Reich, officials released the seriously ill Overlach in May 1938. In Berlin, she began earning her living as a typist in an office. Some time later, she was able to find work teaching in a business school. Every third day, she had to go to the local police office to sign papers. She was also regularly spied on by the Gestapo. Most painful to Overlach was the fact that she could not see her daughter Hanna, who had been living for years in Switzerland. A bittersweet reunion between mother and daughter took place in 1942, when Hanna, then aged 11, was expelled from Switzerland. In August 1944, a few weeks after the failed July 20 assassination attempt on Hitler, Overlach was again arrested. Her name was on a list of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Main Office) designated " Rückkehr unerwünscht" (return not to be desired), meaning that she was designated to be killed. She was sent to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp for women, where her already fragile health declined rapidly. Several of her friends at Ravensbrück were able to find a way to get the seriously ill Overlach (under a false identity) on a list of Polish women prisoners who were going to be sent to Sweden. On April 22, 1945, while the war still raged, the transport of women prisoners left Ravensbrück, arriving in Malmö, Sweden, on May 1.

With her health largely restored, Overlach returned to Berlin in late April 1946. Happily, she was again able to find her daughter, then almost 15 years old. Overlach joined the newly formed Socialist Unity Party—the old KPD in all but name. Despite her impressive credentials from pre-Nazi days, Overlach was not chosen to serve in a leadership position. As a woman, and as a Communist who had survived in the heart of Nazi Germany rather than in exile in the West or in Moscow, she was perhaps not considered a reliable Stalinist, even though she had never given any indications of a lack of resolve in this sector. Instead, Overlach was chosen to be director of East Berlin's Institute for Vocational School Teacher Training. In September 1950, she became a professor at the Pedagogical Academy in East Berlin.

At the end of 1954, Overlach retired from her professional duties. By now a venerable party veteran, she was awarded a number of high distinctions by the SED leadership of the German Democratic Republic. These included the Clara Zetkin Medal in 1955, and the Bar of Honor of the Fatherland's Order of Achievement in Gold (Ehrenspange zum Vaterländischen Verdienstorden in Gold) in 1969. On the occasion of her 75th birthday in July 1969, she was awarded the prestigious Karl Marx Order. On many occasions during her long retirement years, Overlach could be seen as an honorary delegate at SED party conferences. She spent her final years, in declining health, at East Berlin's Clara Zetkin Old Age Home, where she died at the age of 89 on August 7, 1983. In a public statement on the occasion of her passing, the SED Central Committee noted that with the death of Helene Overlach, "our Party has lost a revolutionary fighter who had been a member of the organized working class since the days of her youth, and who dedicated her entire life to the cause of peace and Socialism." Going beyond the mechanical official rhetoric, her friends and family could recall a woman who had attempted to change the world for the better, only to find that to do so was an extremely difficult task.


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