- Under Two Dictators: Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler by Margarete Buber-Neumann, translated by Edward Fitzgerald
Pimlico, 350 pp, £17.99, January 2008, ISBN 978 1 84595 102 3
Margarete Buber-Neumann had the double misfortune of being incarcerated both in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. Soon after her release at the end of the war, she wrote an account of her experiences that was published in German and Swedish, translated into English as Under Two Dictators in 1949, then published in more than ten other languages before being revised by the author in the 1960s. This new edition was instigated by Buber-Neumann’s daughter.
Margarete Thüring was born in 1901 in Potsdam. After the 1918-19 revolution, she moved to Berlin and joined the youth movement of the German Communist Party (KPD). She trained as a nursery-school teacher and married Rafael Buber, the son of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. After their marriage broke down, Margarete lost custody of her two daughters and immersed herself in politics, writing for a newspaper produced by the Comintern at the Berlin headquarters of the KPD. In 1929 she met and fell in love with Heinz Neumann, a well-known German Communist. But Neumann became a victim of Party infighting, and he and Margarete were forced into exile, at constant risk of arrest by the authorities in Spain, France and Switzerland. In 1937, as denunciations of ‘deviationists’ escalated, Neumann was arrested in Moscow and jailed in the Lubyanka; later that year, he was shot.
Margarete didn’t discover what had happened to him until 1961. Under Two Dictators begins with her search for him in the prisons of Moscow in 1937; by the time she found out where he was being held, her own position as the partner of a ‘traitor’ had grown precarious. The German Embassy in Moscow was in Nazi hands, and Margarete was given leave to remain in the country for only five days at a time, making it impossible for her to work. Eventually, in June 1938, she too was arrested and imprisoned in the Lubyanka.
From this moment on, Under Two Dictators becomes, for the most part, a detailed account of imprisonment in appalling conditions. Buber-Neumann was held in a tiny cell called a sobachnik, or ‘dog kennel’. From the Lubyanka, she was taken to another prison, the Butirka, where she found herself in a cell so overcrowded that all the inmates had to sleep on their sides and turn over at the same time. The bright lights were never switched off and at 4.30 in the morning, 110 inmates had to fight for the use of ten water taps and five filthy holes in the ground. A defiant community spirit emerged, and the inmates would play chess with pieces carved out of stale black bread (the white pieces were dusted with tooth-powder), and embroider dresses with wool painstakingly unravelled from worn-out sweaters.
In 1939, she was charged with ‘counter-revolutionary agitation’ and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in Karaganda forced labour camp, a sprawling agricultural complex in a remote Kazakh steppe. Arriving in winter after a journey lasting several weeks, she was quarantined in a clay hut, where she attempted to keep warm at a broken stove. The washing facilities amounted to a bucket of thawed snow. Buber-Neumann was eventually assigned to a flea-infested barracks where she had only an old wooden door to sleep on, and was given the job of keeping a statistical record of the daily performance of tractors. When she asked for her case to be reopened, she was sent to the punishment block, where ‘beds’ were piles of twigs. The inmates were woken at three in the morning, had to queue for a breakfast of watery millet soup, and then spent the day weeding vast sunflower fields.