S. Lorenz: »Schwarze Schwester Angela« - Die DDR Und Angela Davis

"Schwarze Schwester Angela" – Die DDR und Angela Davis. Kalter Krieg, Rassismus und Black Power, 1965–1975

Lorenz, Sophie
Histoire 178
360 S.
€ 64,99
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
David Spreen, Department of History, Harvard University

Lorenz’s book examines a fascinating episode at the intersection of the activism of the Global Sixties, the global Cold War, and German-German competition: the East German solidarity campaign for Angela Davis. Between 1970 and 1975, after Angela Davis had been arrested for her alleged role in a failed attempt to free the Soledad Brothers by taking several hostages, the East German state launched a solidarity campaign that involved the leading East German press, letter-writing campaigns, and several high-profile visits by African Americans including by Davis herself to the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Lorenz sets out to explain why the East German state took interest in Davis. This is not a trivial question: Davis’s suitability as an object of identification for the GDR was seemingly at odds with her broader political connections. After all, Davis was a hero to the West German New Left and moved comfortably in those circles, most notably through her friendship with Herbert Marcuse. This milieu was staunchly anti-Soviet. And then, Davis’ public image as an icon of Black Power, a movement associated with a predilection and (anti-Soviet) Maoism put her at a great remove from the Soviet-style communism of the East German state. Lorenz explains the way that Davis’s case navigated these competing and sometimes deeply antagonistic strains of the postwar Left, giving particular attention to the formation of Davis’s political identity and the ways in which this might have set up her later sympathies for the state-socialist regime. Ultimately, Lorenz argues that the Davis campaign cannot merely be understood as an act of Cold War propaganda but built on pre-existing ideas of Black-Red solidarity between African Americans and socialist internationalists emerged in the interwar period.

The book is divided into four chapters, the first three of which are devoted to the various contexts from which the solidarity campaign emerged. Chapter 1 explores the nature of East German solidarity politics in the Cold War. On the level of foreign policy, solidarity politics served the East German quest for international recognition. Domestically, articulating East Germany’s role as an ally in anti-colonial struggles served to reinforce the impression that the East/West conflict was a war with real stakes for an East German public, thereby providing an important tool to legitimize the SED’s party rule (p. 41). Lorenz’s analysis avoids a purely cynical reading of solidarity politics while also insisting—in line with a growing historiography on race in East Germany—that official anti-racism and anti-imperialism did not mean the absence of racism.[1]

One of the pitfalls of purely cynical readings of East German internationalism is that it turns the ‘recipients’ of that solidarity into passive objects. Lorenz counters this sort of narrative by paying equal attention to the African American side of the Black-Red alliance. Chapter 2 explores Black-Red solidarity and the special sense of connection between African American activists and communists during the Comintern period. Of course, the motivations for African American activists’ engagement with (and within) the Comintern were complex as well: “the Comintern—with its internationalist and interracial agenda—did not just provide an ideological-theoretical frame of reference […] As an organization it also provided African American activists with a then rare political field of action to drive forward their interest on the international stage” (p. 67). While there is ample literature on Black-Red collaboration in the interwar period [2], Lorenz convincingly demonstrates that this collaboration reached far into the postwar period—the relationship between the GDR and Angela Davis being a key point of evidence.

But how did Angela Davis and the GDR find each other? Chapter 3 explores Davis’s own biography and the formation of her political identity in three stages. Early in life, she was exposed to communists through her mother’s involvement with the Southern Negro Youth Congress. Later, travel to Paris and Berlin exposed her both to anti-colonial causes and gave her the opportunity to cross into East Berlin on multiple occasions. Here, she believed to witness a successful attempt at building an anti-racist society. Especially the early exposure to communists with a strong belief in Black-Red solidarity prefigured Davis’s later receptiveness to communism—albeit with a strong emphasis on the importance of race and gender alongside class. The nature of this chapter is largely interpretive and builds on well-known material, not least on Davis’s own autobiography. Lorenz successfully mobilizes this material to suggest that readings of Davis as a Black Power icon have eclipsed her strong and early affinities with the Old Left and party communism.

Chapter 4 draws together the foundations laid in the previous chapters and argues—convincingly in my view—that these prehistories enabled the somewhat awkward alliance of the SED with Angela Davis, an icon of Black Power and hero of the West German (and anti-GDR) New Left. One of the merits of Lorenz’s analysis is that she does not rely on a purely ideological explanation of this relationship. That the window for further campaigns closed was not necessarily the result of ideological changes of direction, but of the changing dynamics of the Cold War. If the GDR’s anti-colonial and anti-racist politics of the 1960s and 1970s were partially motivated by the struggle for international recognition, the rapprochement between East and West Germany left little incentives for further campaigns. And yet, as Lorenz points out, both the SED and Angela Davis continued to understand each other as allies, even after the window for the solidarity campaign had closed (pp. 254-255).

The book makes several important historiographical interventions. Most immediately, it contributes to a growing literature that has productively complicated the relationship between official anti-racism and the persistence of racism in East Germany but that heretofore has favored synchronic perspectives and explanations, especially within the context of German-German competition. Lorenz’s attention to the solidarity campaign’s broad resonance with the East German Public and, at the same time, to the persistence of racial stereotypes in the official campaign is certainly important. Even more important is her insistence on the diachronic dimension of the long history of Black-Red solidarity. More broadly, her book complicates our understanding of the relationship between the Old Left of social democracy and communism on the one hand, and the New Lefts of the 1960s on the other. Recent scholarship has chipped away at the supposedly rigid dichotomies between Soviet-aligned dogmatism and the supposed anti-authoritarianism of the student movement and instead emphasizes the space for the “marginalized” within the Old Left alongside more differentiated accounts of the New Lefts. Lorenz’s new book adds to this reworking of our understanding of the Old Left, of which the state socialisms of the Eastern Bloc and their associated communist parties in the West were the most important representatives, at a time when student activists, civil rights and Black Power activists, and others were increasingly looking beyond communism for transformative political potential. It is true that at times the book seems to exaggerate the incompatibility of communism and Black Power, but only to then give it the nuance that the rich history of Angela Davis’s encounter with the GDR deserves.

[1] Compare the contributions to Quinn Slobodian (eds.), Comrades of Color. East Germany in the Cold War World, New York 2015; Young-Sun Hong, Cold War Germany, the Third World, and the Global Humanitarian Regime, Cambridge 2017.
[2] Alongside the works Lorenz cites, one might also mention Susan D. Pennybacker, From Scottsboro to Munich. Race and Political Culture in 1930s Britain, Princeton 2009.

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