The Soviet special camps in the Soviet-occupied zone in film, television and video

Funding: The Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation, the “Stiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur“ foundation, and the DEFA Foundation

Project director: Dr Günter Agde

From the very beginning of construction, the special camps run by the Soviet NKVD were the subject of heated public debate within the print media of East and West Germany. There are no surviving professional or amateur film recordings of the special camps, and just a very few film recordings remain to document the camps’ dissolution in 1950. Official GDR Wochenschau accounts portrayed the release of the inmates as evidence of Soviet "magnanimity" implying it was indicative of the successful re-education of the former inmates. The West German Wochenschau focused on the demonstrations of former inmates, and accused the occupying Soviet authorities of tyranny and barbarity. In the end, both sides took advantage of the issue for the purposes of Cold War propaganda.

In the years that followed, the public debate on the special camps came to serve as a proxy for the larger issue of prisoners of war.
The special camps seemed to capture, in a tangible way, the fate of German prisoners of war in the Soviet Union after 1945. In the GDR, the issue surrounding prisoners of war was framed as a question of personal and social re-education and transformation. (In later years, the GDR went on to continue this pattern of repressing and silencing debate on difficult chapters of its history.) When a large number of prisoners of war returned to Germany after Konrad Adenauer’s visit to Moscow, the issue was briefly revisited in television news accounts in West Germany, after which it again vanished from public and media consciousness.

After the fall of the Wall and German reunification in 1989 and 1990, public debate on the complex history of the special camps in the former East could – and did – resume. This revival, in turn, also spurred a revival of the debate in the former West.

From the late 1980s, the proliferation of the mass media and its increasing accessibility ended the silence that had once surrounded the issue of the special camps. The availability of video technology accessible by anyone at any time, as well as the sheer number and diversity of television networks, spurred the creation of a new public audience — an audience which seized on the issue of the special camps. A substantial number of research projects and publications also took on the issue, many of them making use of video recordings of the experiences of private individuals.

This flood of media attention spurred a proliferation of film material that varied widely in audience, authorship, content, perspective, and reliability. Video recordings by private individuals — typically recorded by former inmates on the former camp grounds — served as a means to give witness to deeply personal memories.

Taken together, these films form a large and heterogeneous visual exploration of the history and political implications of this highly sensitive issue. The media treatment also captures the process by which the reunified German public grappled with the topic.

The aim of the project is to create a Germany-wide inventory of all videos and television films on the issue, and to record their filmographic data, location, condition and accessibility to users. Amateur videos, when available, are particularly welcomed for inclusion.

The results of this research will be recorded in a database of source materials. (Of course, all privacy guidelines will be observed, and all eyewitnesses will be treated with the utmost tact and sensitivity.