No theatre – Memory Books by Ex-Comrades

This is a review of several memoirs and novels by former members of a German maoist-communist group called KPD-AO (later only KPD, i.e. Communist Party of Germany). This may be of little interest for non-German readers, but in Germany the Maoist movement in the 70ies was probably stronger than in other countries. The German inland secret service (Verfassungsschutz) estimated the followers of these several Maoist groups as 60.000. There are some of them who became prominent as politicians much later: Winfried Kretschmann (present Ministerpräsident of Baden-Württemberg, former member of KBW), Antje Vollmer (former vice-president of Bundestag, former fellow traveller of KPD-AO), Jürgen Trittin (former Federal Cabinet minister for the environment, former member of KB Nord), all of them made their careers as members of „Die Grünen“. So it may be of some interest how the former intellectual leaders of one of these groups evaluate their commitment in the 70ies in retrospect.

  1. Melting of the snow

In 2022 and 2023 Elisabeth Weber 1, Ruth Ursel Henning 2, Willi Jasper 3 and Antje Vollmer 4 died in quick succession. Thus the most prominent group of the KPD-AO, which existed from 1970-1980, has now almost completely disappeared 5, after Jürgen Horlemann6, Christian Semler7, and Peter Neitzke8 had died years earlier9. The generation that tried to draw the consequences from the social upheaval of the 68e revolt is dying out. What remains? At any rate, a few books of remembrance, also of limited durability.10.


“The snow of merciful oblivion now covers the landscape on which the Maoist “K-groups” set about revolutionising the proletariat in the 1970s. […] Finally, and at least, the functionaries of yesteryear hardly understand their motives and actions of that time any more.[…] The former leadership personnel are too embarrassed by the history of the K-groups.”11.

This is what Christian Semler wrote in 1998. Slowly this snow of oblivion is melting and underneath it strange remnants, rusty junk of thoughts of a summer of action, once so hot, are emerging.

Today, the mode of commemoration of the actors of that time is less a reckoning with the past than an attempt to understand themselves.12.

When asked by his son “why one could have had the idea of becoming a member of a Maoist party in the 1970s”, Helmuth Lethen wrote his report “Suche nach dem Handorakel” 13. Marianne Brentzel 14 confesses at a loss:

“I know of no satisfactory answer that justifies my own decision to join this organisation for almost ten years, and none for all those who subordinated themselves to it for years.”15.

But understanding is not justification. When I justify a past action, I apply my present moral standards to the past action. By our present standards, the “decision for this organisation” is not justifiable. But there is a need to understand oneself, i.e. to find reasons in the context of the time that led to these decisions. Christian Semler put this most clearly in 2001:

“Should one, especially as a public figure, publicly distance oneself from those elements of one’s own life that appear reprehensible to the contemporary gaze? Contrary to the view that our biography consists of nothing but disconnected new beginnings, we all strive for something like an ego identity in our life cycle. Therefore, it is quite nonsensical to simply renounce parts of one’s biography as a kind of purification ritual. We should explain how everything is connected, what continues to have an effect, what has been overcome. This requires not knee-jerk distancing, but self-distancing.”16

  1. Reasons

So why did Helmut Lethen, a literary scholar born in 1938, participate in the founding of a Maoist party in 1969/70?

In “Suche nach dem Handorakel. Ein Bericht” in 2012, he describes in detail his intellectual career in the 1960s17: Reading Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Mitscherlich. These were the intellectual prerequisites of the student movement before 1969.

Mitscherlich’s thesis of the “fatherlessness” of the post-war generation, whose fathers kept quiet about their activities in the Nazi dictatorship and the war, was banal but “struck a nerve at the time” 18. Lethen, however, remained sceptical. That the “unreliability of internal control” of his generation caused by the lack of authority of the father generation was the psychological reason for the student movement was implausible to him at the time. For Lethen of the 1960s, Mitscherlich was also one of the fathers.

The rejection of Critical Theory (Adorno, Horkheimer) came with the Bild-Zeitung campaign of the SDS. Critical Theory could easily be integrated into the existing society. The Bild newspaper makers could also use it as strategic advice.

So far Lethen explains the preconditions that applied to the whole breadth of the student movement. But why did it have to be this small circle of just under 20 West Berlin SDS members who wanted to found a democratic-centralist cadre party? At first, the balance of his attempt at self-explanation remains negative:

“What is not explained is why I joined the hand-picked crowd of party founders in 1970, in which I found clever minds of the student movement in West Berlin.”[16 Lethen, Handorakel p.21]

Then, in addition to saying goodbye to the crippling impracticality of Critical Theory, he gives another reason:

“Somehow the disenchantment with the paralysis of action and function of securing the present state of society of Critical Theory, which was supposed to legitimise entry into an ML party, concealed a more tangible reason from me. It lay in the fear of losing one’s composure in the environment of lifestyle experiments, in the maelstrom of the disintegrating movement, of drifting aimlessly, of being marginalised.” [17 Lethen, Handorakel, p.25]

“What saved us from collapse and running amok? Should the series of ML parties have been founded specifically for the purpose of preventing this course of events? Strange thought, these parties might have caught some as ‘sense machines’.” [17 Lethen, Handorakel, p. 27]

Lethen’s objective description of the function of the ML movement after 1970 corresponds to this subjective need for support and orientation:

“The disintegration of the student movement in 1969, 1970, 1971 released a quantum of unbound destructive energy that should not be underestimated. The achievement of the Marxist-Maoist apparatuses was to integrate the free-floating subversive energies into their above-ground system of movement.” [17 Lethen, Handorakel, p. 14]

Lethen’s thesis, repeated several times, is: the ML parties “objectively served to stabilise the Republic.” [17 Lethen, Handorakel, p. 13]

The political events and social developments that made possible something as improbable and nonsensical from today’s perspective as the founding of a Maoist-communist party by a handful of students and young academics, are described in Willi Jasper’s memoir book, “Der gläserne Sarg. Memories of 1968 and the German ‘Cultural Revolution'”:

  • – The shooting of demonstrator Benno Ohnesorg by a policeman on 2 June 1967,
  • – the assassination of Rudi Dutschke, the recognised spokesman of the student movement, on 11 April 1968,
  • – the student protests and strikes in Paris in May 1968,
  • – the invasion of Prague by Russian troops in August 1968.
  • – the Vietnam War with the failed Vietcong Tet-offensive in 1969
  • – the strikes at Fiat in Italy and the influence of the “Unione dei Communisti Italiani”,
  • – the non-union “wildcat” strikes in German factories in September 1969,
  • – the violent confrontation between students and police at the Tegelerweg demonstration in Berlin in November 1969.

This perhaps makes it easier to understand why then, at the working conference of the Berlin Red Press Correspondence on 6/7 December 1969, five former members of the dissolved SDS proposed the foundation of a Communist Party 19. Then, in February 1970, the Preliminary Platform of the Aufbauorganisation für die Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands (KPD-AO) stated:

“The timely building of a political organisation which was no longer student-oriented and which would have directed its main attention to the organisation of the proletariat would have been the corrective of delusions which haunt the minds of comrades to this day.” 20.

In retrospect, today this seems to have been more an attempt to replace many divergent delusions with a unified delusion.

The fact that the failure of this attempt was only admitted so late (earlier than with the competing K-groups, after all) was also due to the fact that it was initially successful. Alan Posener, then a student and later chief commentator for the newspaper “Die Welt”, describes the appeal of this group:

“That I joined the KPD/AO was more by chance. I had enrolled in German Studies in order to study something, and in the Rotzeg (Red Cell German of Studies) the representatives of the KPD/AO set the tone. Most of what they said I understood in outline at best, but I admired them as people: Dietrich Kreidt, Helmut Lethen and Rüdiger Safranski, for example, but also Lerke von Saalfeld, Beate von Werner and above all Elisabeth Weber. This was an impressive  concentration of intellectual potency. I think that most younger students at that time felt the same way: the decision for a political organisation was more a personal than an ideological decision. You decided who you wanted to belong to and then adopted the political line. This was then consolidated into actual conviction in the confrontation with the other sects.” 21

Helmut Lethen’s “strange thought” that the party may have functioned as a “sense machine” and picked up some who might have else been lost to terrorism, drugs or despondency is confirmed by Alan Posener:

“So I owe it to the KPD {…} that I got away from drugs and the feeling of existential nothingness. {…} And I owe it more to it than to any strength of character of my own that I was saved from the abyss into which others could fall.”

  1. Theatre nevertheless

“Never before, to my knowledge, had a German party been founded by such a preponderance of Germanists” wrote Peter Schneider about the KPD/AO 22. Helmut Lethen rightly remarks “that there were a disproportionate number of theatre scholars in our Politbüro.” 23

Helmut Lethen and Willi Jasper describe in detail the role played by the literary scholar Peter Szondi in the debates of the time. He was both the instigator of criticism of German studies, which was still under the influence of the former Nazi fellow travellers, and the victim of the student protests. Even the poet Paul Celan was drawn into the maelstrom of the 68 movements 24. The theatre was not left untouched either:

  • – Peter Stein’s production of Peter Weiss’ “Vietnamdiskurs” (Kammerspiele Munich 5 July 1968 with the collaboration of the later KPD-AO founders Wolfgang Schwiedrzik and Jürgen Horlemann) caused a scandal because money was collected for the Vietnamese guerrilla Vietcong after the performance.
  • – Peter Stein’s production of Brecht’s “Die Mutter” at the 8 October 1970 Berlin Schaubühne am Halleschen Ufer (again with the collaboration of Wolfgang Schwiedrzik) could be understood as a call to tackle the realisation of communism, “the simple thing that is so hard to do”.
  • – Wolfgang Schwiedrzik’s drama “Märzstürme 1921 (Leuna)” at the Schaubühne 7.3.1972 recalled the militant action of the KPD at the beginning of the Weimar Republic.

It was thus logical that the actions of the KPD-AO were “staged like revolutionary theatre.”25

  1. Losses and Gains

Working for the party was exhausting. Membership (also in the student association) required the recognition of the “primacy of politics”, i.e. the priority of political activity over all other expressions of life. Helmut Lethen describes the party as a “self-destructive funnel” that sucked up all energy without leaving any result. 26. This led to losses. The memoir books discussed here deal with these losses nonchalantly. Lethen left the party in 1976, Neitzke in 1975, Alan Posener in 1977. Willi Jasper, after all, had been working towards its dissolution since 1979. So they had remained independent and capable of acting. Willi Jasper only shrugs his shoulders when asked about his personal loss:

“When asked if it was a `lost time’, I explained {in 1980} that I could of course imagine having spent the last ten years more meaningfully.` But I could not answer at the time ‘through which constellation and at what point I would have had to direct my personal development in other directions.’ Of course, I felt a regret. {…} But I believed (and still believe) that the ‘guilt’ of the KPD-AO must be placed in an ‘overall balance’ of how much human and social existence as a whole has fallen by the wayside in the left movement since 1968.” [29 Jasper, p.33].

And Helmut Lethen’s damage was gastritis, which at least enabled him to turn away from the organisation. But the politically justified rejection of his applications for professorships in Bremen and Marburg still offended him.

“Of course, the party did destructive things, first and foremost internally: clever young trade unionists were torn from their biotopes and shipped from West Berlin to our dreamland and no-man’s land called the Ruhr. We ruined many comrades for life in their teaching profession, to which they were passionately attached. The party consumed inheritances and ended academic careers.” [30 Lethen, Handorakel,p. 18]

This unexciting negative balance sheet is clearly at odds with the shrill accounts of suffering published anonymously in 1977 by a group of dropouts27 and to the sneering remarks of outsiders 28.

However, the negative balance sheet is also contrasted with the attempt to save what can remain. Alan Posener, unsuspected of being an incorrigible because he left the party and worked for the flagship of the Springer newspapers, finds essentially two things he owes to the KPD: on the one hand, “technical-character things”: strict discipline, on the other ideological: “as a negative lesson, the deep abhorrence of communism and the deep horror of one’s own seductibility”, but also: “a left liberalism. Liberal, because I think I know how important freedom is; left-wing, because the real heroes are the people who don’t have it easy.” 29

Christian Semler also tries to record what remained of conclusive orientation, especially with regard to the not a few who remained politically active. First of all, in general for the student movement: “The left-wing students: “were, despite their often forced left-wing traditionalist character, motors of the democratic westernisation process”. 30 But then also specifically for the ex-comrades of his former party:

  1. brusque anti-utopianism (out of disappointment with utopia of the Cultural Revolution), association with East European democrats,
  2. left anti-totalitarianism, support from the East European opposition,
  3. three-world theory: legitimacy of national liberation movements also in the case of the disintegrating Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, positive valuation of the EU (second world)
  4. serving the people: “Volkstümlertum” “It allowed the ex-Maoists to measure their private professional existence against a general ethical standard.” Criticism of the anti-people development of technology (Green Movement).

However, as a shrewd dialectician, he also sees the downsides of these benefits: Anti-utopianism is at the same time the “refusal even to think the quite other of the capitalist mode of production”. Anti-totalitarianism leads to “moral superiority feelings” and the “pose of the chief prosecutor.” 31

  1. Novels

Not everyone feels important enough to publish their memoirs for future historians to read. Not everyone can process the affect of shame as productively as Helmut Lethen. Christian Semler attempted an honest stocktaking early on and several times as editor and commentator of the newspaper “taz”. Alan Posener can confine himself to a single question and thus avoid any “the red grandpa tells” attitude.

But there is another way to deal with embarrassing memories: fictionalisation. There are at least three novels by former members of the leadership of the KPD(no longer AO). Helmut Lethen skewered a fitting quote by Walter Benjamin for this:

“The birth chamber of the novel is the individual in his loneliness, who is no longer able to speak out in an exemplary manner about his most important affairs, is himself unadvised and cannot give advice. To write a novel is to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life.” 32.

Alexander von Plato circumnavigates the cliff of perplexity most elegantly…. Memory is his theme, but not his own and not that of the years 1970-80.

Blurred. A Love in Germany 1989

For the historian Alexander von Plato 33 The years 1970-1980 are too short a wave for him to deal with it publicly. As an internationally renowned specialist in “oral history”, he is concerned with how the long waves of historical development play out in the short waves of a human life. The “longe durée”, the study of which the French historian Fernand Braudel made the task of historical science, i.e. the change in the coexistence of people that is imperceptible to individuals, has an effect on the life courses of individuals. The purpose of “oral history” is to record these developments, which develop in a time structure seemingly independent of the decisions of individuals and completely different from the individual life rhythm of birth, life and death, in their impact on the conscious experience of individuals.

Or as one of the characters, a film director, explains in von Plato’s novel “Verwischt. Eine Liebe in Deutschland 1989 (Blurred. A Love in Germany 1989):

“It is – I think – insanely difficult to link the long waves of history, which we can only learn, with the short ones we experience […] Perhaps only art can succeed in this.” 34

Another character, a historian, picks up on this:

“His thoughts about the long waves we can only learn and the short waves we experience struck at the heart of my work. To analyse these two waves together, that is the art that professionals in cultural and historical studies should master.” 35.

Von Plato tries to unite both: art (fiction) and historiography (truth); he has written a novel based on his life-history recollections of his interlocutors in the course of his work on German reunification. It is about the great period between 1944 and 2014 in Nazi Germany, the GDR and united Germany (The political developments in West-Germany in the 70ies are not mentioned at all).

This self-published novel, which has hardly been noticed by the media, actually has the makings of a popular book, it is something like a docufiction thriller. But interest in the German past is waning as interest in the present increases. Communist resistance to the Nazi dictatorship and the end of the GDR, that is of little interest in view of the Ukraine war. However, there is a clear warning from the perspective of a former GDR dissident from 2014:

“A united Germany under the umbrella of NATO, which kept Russia out of Europe and humiliated the Russians. We will pay dearly for that. {…} In doing so, we helped make Putin great.” 36

The plot centres on a West German historian, Marie, who wants to investigate the role of Jewish communist resistance fighters in the early GDR using the tools of “oral history”. She falls in love with Paul Z., one of her interlocutors, a 70-year-old member of the Central Committee of the SED. On the day the Wall is opened in 1989, he collapses after suffering a stroke. With all the devices of the detective novel – red herrings galore – the solution is withheld from the reader. After his arrest by the Gestapo, Paul revealed names of the domestic leadership of the KPD under torture, who were then executed. He always kept quiet about this in the GDR, but the Soviet secret service knew. A son of one of the victims of Paul’s “betrayal”, a successful film director, finally confronts him about it on that day of the GDR’s downfall. Which leads to Paul’s breakdown.

The narrator works with all the means of perspective narration. The first part consists of reports, notes, transcripts of conversations that a West German journalist receives from Marie and other people involved. Only in the short second part does it become clear that this material was the basis for a television film that this journalist made with the said film director. Marie now receives this material back and can use it to prove that the film director was justified in reproaching Paul for his weakness under Nazi torture, but that he had unjustly defamed him as a collaborator with the Soviet secret service. The honest enlightener was thus the liar.

Alexander von Plato knows the biographies of many GDR citizens intimately from his research work. And he knows the pitfalls of the “oral history” method.

“It is possible, after all, that one always picks something out of other stories and images that fits one’s own experiences or adventures.” 37

Even contemporary witnesses do not always tell the truth. But he has not written a roman à clef. The fictional characters are assembled from puzzle pieces of real biographies.

Red Flags Red Lips

Marianne Brentzel has taken a different path. She already wrote a novel in 2011, but an autobiographical one, a middle ground between a book of memories (Jasper) and complete fictionalisation (Neitzke).

Hannah Heister is the name of the heroine, born in 1943 (as Marianne Brentzel herself). Her life is told from the beginning of her studies in 1963 in Berlin at the Otto Suhr Institute (OSI) of the Free University until the dissolution of the party in 1980. It thus covers the development of the student movement from its beginning to the final end of its offshoots. The shooting of Benno Ohnesorg, the attack on Rudi Dutschke, all the important events are described in their effects. Hannah is initially a member of the Liberaler Studentenbund 38, then she switches to the Proletarian Left (PL/PI), a loosely organised group with syndicalist leanings that propagated that students should work in industrial factories. Hannah works as a factory worker at SEL and Gilette. But soon she is disappointed:

“She had had enough of a bunch of chaotic people who soon dispersed.” 39.

So the call to join the just-founded KPD-AO comes just in time.

“Probably the Chinese one was the right form of political struggle today. In no case would the comrades of the KPD get the crazy idea of instigating some kind of armed struggle.” 40.

The motives of rejecting the RAF’s armed struggle and the need for stability and orientation, which Helmut Lethen also mentions, also become clear here.

Now the novel becomes a party story, told from a very specific point of view. All the characters are recognisable, albeit under pseudonyms: the sinister comrade Elroh is Jürgen Horlemann, comrade Olaf (Peter Neitzke) tears up an image of Stalin and is expelled from the ZK. Katharina, the Great Ka, (Ruth Henning) competently dominates the regional leadership with flexible intransigence. The party leader Brotler (Christian Semler) only makes an appearance in passing. Hannah has a young son even before she joins the party and she becomes a functionary, moving from Berlin to Dortmund on behalf of the party. And what elevates the novel far beyond a party story is the shaping of this conflict between private family life and unconditional commitment to the political organisation.

This Hannah is a woman of fierce temperament, sharp tongue and considerable drive for action. Even after an unpleasant Christmas party at party headquarters, she keeps at it:

“I don’t want the chubby family routine to be my business.” 41

But she sees herself and her comrades as.

“puppets of self-imposed duties {…} not at all the universally developed personalities we once wanted to become. Rather like hamsters in a cog. The party is our world. We run and run and feel very important. But we don’t advance a metre.”

Thus she weeps over her life, but “didn’t know exactly why the next morning.” 42To her Parisian friend’s question, “What’s the point of it all?” she replies

“You know, it’s hard to explain, because besides inner conviction, it’s also living in a fixed social environment.” 43

And she does not let go, becoming a member of the Regional Leadership North Rhine-Westphalia, again with suppressed self-doubt:

“Why did she actually want this? Was it ambition that drove her? The desire for more recognition?! Certainly these ‘arch-bourgeois’ motives also played a role, as she had confessed to Lena in Paris, but added, above all she wanted to serve ‘the cause’ better.” 44

In this capacity she represents the complete subordination of all personal spheres to the primacy of politics, even in relation to others. She makes this clear to a comrade who refuses to move from Duisburg to Solingen and then allays her own doubts.

“He could have said no, she reassured herself. The party decides about my life, too. That’s the way it is when you join us. There’s no other way.” 45

After an abortion described in detail 46. She gets into second child without any problem. And yet the dichotomy remains:

“Family, Hannah often thought during this time, family is something crazy. A construction in spite of everything. You want it and yet you don’t want it.” 47

A trip to China with the party delegation at the invitation of the Chinese Communist Party provides the final disillusionment. The land of utopia is also only a contradictory reality. In the end, there is the redemptive self-dissolution of the party in the spring of 1980.

The silent hero in the background who makes it all possible is Hannah’s husband Rolf, that is Hugo Brentzel 48, the party’s long-time lawyer, who was not a member himself but defended numerous comrades in countless trials with which public prosecutors overtook party members. He is always there to look after the children when Hannah’s appointments take precedence, he is there to comfort Hannah in her nights of despair. These private scenes, which repeatedly interrupt the party coverage, are what give the account its character as a novel in the first place.

But the novel has a second element: texts entitled “Hilde’s Diary” are repeatedly inserted into the narrative of Hannah’s life. Only at the end does it become clear that Hannah’s friend Hilde has given her this diary. (A similar narrative manoeuvre to the handing over of material by the journalist Barbara to the historian Marie in Alexander von Plato’s novel). These texts recount in fragments Hilde’s search for her origins. She was born in the Ravensbrück concentration camp as the daughter of a concentration camp guard. In various stages of the narrative it becomes clear that this origin was both a reason for Hilde to join the communist party and that she wants to keep this reason to herself, not to make it available to the party as an argument. In return, she accepts being excluded from the party.

This parallel story to Hannah’s career, further deepens the theme of the conflict between privacy and political activity: the right motive leads to separation from the party, the wrong motive leads to advancement in the party.

Morelli disappears

The literary pinnacle of the memoir books by this group of authors is Peter Neitzke’s novel “Morelli verschwindet”. It is contemporary satire, a critique of memoir literature, a reckoning and reconciliation with the past – all rolled into one. A novel with bitterness and humour, of a superior reflectiveness that you will hardly find in any other novel. And a reading pleasure of the challenging, exciting kind.

The basic idea of the novel is anything but naïve: Gregor Hellman, a bar pianist, hires Frantz Morelli, an architect, as a ghostwriter to write Hellman’s autobiography with the help of his notes. Everything is twisted and mirrored here. Hellman enlightens Morelli:

‘Writers {…} pass off as fiction what is more or less composed of elements of their own biography. But using the usual tricks to obscure their own person. I’m interested in the reverse: How, when one’s own life is a fiction? How do you solve that literarily?'” 49

And Morelli understands his role for Hellman as “a kind of productive shadow, an investigative double, a questioning instance and a crafted cleavage product.” 50

But Morelli disappears, throws his mattress, complete with manuscripts, out of the window of his 5th floor flat into the river and departs, destination unknown. He writes nothing for Hellmann; he does not return the three thousand he received as a down payment. The novel now constantly switches perspectives between Hellmann and Morelli. Hellmann is looking for Morelli, thinks he is meeting him. This gives rise to a series of satirical vignettes of the present: a visit to the shopping paradise “Universum”, assisted by a digital shopping assistant, which ends with Marxist-trained terminology:

“‘Don’t worry. The producers of social wealth will refrain from revolutionising the relations of production.’ ‘And what do they do instead?’ ‘They find their field of activity in the sphere of circulation.'” 51

Or the lecture of a famous artist in art school:

“Speech acts pushed across the planet as market events. The business field is called performative approach or performative turn.” 52

And a visit to a converted industrial hall, one the “Chambers of Posthumous Fame” have been built in, small windowless cubicles for people who want to disappear. There are also “chambers for renegades of any {…} chambers for communists of once competing general lines.” 53.

Hellmann has meanwhile found fragments of an address book in Morelli’s abandoned flat, all just addresses of people beginning with K., a Latin teacher, a newspaper editor, an optician, his former landlady, a voice consultant, a piano teacher, a performer. He interviews them one after the other. He receives information about Morelli’s past, but none about his current whereabouts.

In the second part, however, it becomes clear where Morelli has disappeared to: Dubai, where he experiences the final phase of the construction boom there. But there he also meets a writer. This results in the “art talk” of the novel, in which the secrets of its making are released. The writer recommends Julio Cortazár’s method:

irony, incessant self-criticism, incongruity, imagination in no one’s service. {…} You must write the anti-novel, without any closed order. You must make your readers accomplices. Give them something like a façade with doors and windows, nothing more. Behind it they will discover all kinds of contradictions {…} They will discover a world of ruins behind the façade with doors and windows. And rejoice.”

Morelli counters:

“Only with these tricks you don’t write a narrative today. The form can be conventional. It doesn’t have to, it can. So conventional that one is seduced to immerse oneself in your story. And stay with you for a while. You have to postpone breaks and incursions. {…} Above all, your story must be a story of your time, with every line. {…} The façade is the convention. Your ruins are not the ruins of the narrative form, only theorists are interested in that, but the ruins of your present. When I write, I report on ruins, on clouds of dust. Of the slurry of the world in which I live.” 54

That these are not just the self-referential pirouettes of an indecisive man of letters, but really the legacy of the real Peter Neitzke, becomes clear again and again. For example, one of Hellmann’s interlocutors says of Morelli:

“You may know that at some point he co-founded one of those left-wing political sects.” 55

And in one of Morelli’s notes inserted as “lost property” it states:

“Morelli, someone once told him, here we argue politically, not morally, morally was petty-bourgeois, putting one’s own miserable person in the centre, your name is not Morali, the party secretary once said, smiling maliciously, your bourgeois name is Morelli, morally is not argued here, it was not about morals, politically was to take one’s own person into the direction of the political, politically was to judge people according to where they stood, on the right or the wrong side. He suspected that this was fundamentally wrong, but risked no quarrel with the comrades.”56

Before leaving the desert of new building ruins in Dubai, Morelli quotes to himself in soliloquy the critique of the Trinitarian Formula of vulgar economics from Karl Marx’s third volume of “Das Kapital” 57 that the true realm of freedom can only flourish on the realm of necessity as a base.

“You sought your private realm of freedom here. Didn’t work out, as you can see. Doesn’t work anywhere as long as …” 58

Eventually Hellmann and Morelli do meet, on the Baltic beach, beat each other up and then play Bill Evans’ song “What are you doing the rest of your life?” four-handed on Morelli’s grand piano [Peter Neitzke’s grand piano]. Morelli continues to deny Hellmann’s biography:

“Why would he necessarily want to lay out his life, some story of depression? {…} An obituary, if someone had put it in the paper and I had discovered it (what else) by chance, would not surprise me.” 59

On 13.5.2015, shortly before the publication of this novel, Peter Neitzke died.


  • Peter Neitzke, Schwarze Wände. Roman. Textem Verlag 2008
  • Marianne Brentzle, Rote Fahnen Rote Lippen. Roman. Edition Ebersbach, 2011
  • Helmut Lethen, Suche nach dem Handorakel. Ein Bericht. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2012
  • Alan Posener, „Was ich der KPD verdanke (1-3)“., 25.6.2013
  • Christian Semler, Kein Kommunismus ist auch keine Lösung. Texte und Essays. Hg. v. Stefan Reinecke und Mathias Bröckers. Berlin: taz, 2.2013
  • Peter Neitzke, Morelli verschwindet. Roman. Lohmar: Hablitzl, 2015
  • Willi Jasper, Der gläserne Sarg. Erinnerungen an 1968 und die deutsche „Kulturrevolution“. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2018
  • Alexander von Plato, Verwischt. Eine Liebe in Deutschland 1989. Berlin: neobooks, 2019
  • Helmuth Lethen, Denn für dieses Leben ist der Mensch nicht schlau genug. Berlin: Rowohlt, 2020
  • Marianne Brentzel, Rathaussturm. Vechta: Geest-Verlag, 2021


  • Andreas Kühn, Stalins Enkel, Maos Söhne. Die Lebenswelt der K-Gruppen in der Bundesrepublik der 70er Jahre. Frankfurt/M, New York, Campus 2004.
  • Benedikt Sepp, Das Prinzip Bewegung. Theorie, Praxis und Radikalisierung in der West-Berliner Linken 1961-1972. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2023
  • Klaus Birnstiel, „Gelehrtenexoterik. Einige akademisch-intellektuelle Erinnerungs- und Notizbücher.“ in: Merkur 67 (2013), S. 354-360.

  1. 16.5.1941-31.3.2022
  2. -17.12.2022
  3. 11.6.1945-3.2.2023
  4. 31.5.1943-15.3.2023
  5. Elisabeth Weber was the leading head of the Rotzeg (Red Cell of German Studies) at the Berlin Freie Universität in 1970 and then a member of the leadership of the KPD(formerly AO) until 1980. After 1980 she was a staff member of various members of the Bundestag of the “Greens” and decisively involved in the preparation of the merger of Bündnis 90 and “Die Grünen”. Obituary Böll Foundation, Obituary Havemann Society.

    Ruth Henning was also a member of the Central Comitee of the KPD(former AO). After 1980 she supported the Polish opposition, lived in Poland for a time and founded the German-Polish Society Brandenburg. Obituary Märkische Oderzeitung

    Willi Jasper was editor-in-chief of “Rote Fahne”, the party’s weekly newspaper, from 1976-1980. Since 1994 he was professor of Modern German Literary and Cultural History and Jewish Studies at the University of Potsdam. Interview Deutschlandfunk 2022

    Antje Vollmer, vice-president of the German Bundestag from 1994-2005, “did not join the party {KPD-AO}” and was only a member of the “League against Imperialism”, a subsidiary organisation of the KPD, but in any case had an influence on the party’s women’s policy line through her biography of Clara Zetkin published under a pseudonym (Karin Bauer) (Oberbaum Verlag, Berlin 1978) and an article on the women’s question in the “Rote Fahne”. Obituary taz

    The fact that these persons are mentioned here mainly in their functions in the years 1970-1980 does not mean that their later activities and positions should not be acknowledged. All those mentioned here made significant contributions to politics and culture in Germany after 1980, which cannot be mentioned here in detail. What are these 10 years against the 30 or 50 that followed!

  6. 7.12.1941-24.5.1995 Obituary Southeast Asia Information
  7. 13.12.1938-13.2.2013 taz Overview of Obituaries, Three taz Memoirs
  8. 21. 8.1938-15.3.2015 obituary Bauwelt
  9. Jürgen Horlemann, Christian Semler and Peter Neitzke were the founding triumvirate of the KPD-Aufbauorganisation, which emerged at the end of 1969 from the dissolution of the Berlin SDS (Socialdemokratic Students Association) and the RPK (Red Press Correpondence) conference. The KPD-AO was also derisively called the “Semler-Horlemann-Neitzke group”
  10. A detailed account of the K-groups, also called ML-parties, including the KPD-AO, as a subject of historical research is: Andreas Kühn, Stalins Enkel, Maos Söhne. Die Lebenswelt der K-Gruppen in der Bundesrepublik der 70er Jahre. Frankfurt/M, New York, Campus 2004. The drawback of this work, written from a temporal and intellectual distance from the ML marxist-leninist) movement, is the author’s fascination with the repulsive features of his subject. He collects all the reprehensible or astonishing practices and views he could find (and rightly so, there are many). An effort to understand the motives of those acting at the time, except in the detached formulas of social psychology, is completely absent from his work. Moreover, he treats the three organisations KPD-AO, KPD/ML and KBW in context and thus does not do justice to the KPD(formerly AO), especially in the last two years of its existence. A discussion  of the political developments in Germany and the world of the 1970s is completely missing (cf. the review by Thomas Dannebaum )
  11. Semler, p.32, taz 1998 The abbreviated citations refer to the bibliography at the end
  12. The writer of these lines was a member of the Rotzeg (Rote Zelle Germanistik) of the FU Berlin in 1970, then of the Communist Student Association (KSV) until 1978, a staff member of the magazines “Kämpfende Kunst”, “Kunst und Gesellschaft” and “Spuren” and cultural editor of the weekly newspaper “Rote Fahne” of the KPD(formerly AO) from 1978-1980. My task was to open the newspaper to the general public. So I mainly wrote reviews of current films and novels. My articles were successful in that they drew many indignant letters from readers. After all, there were much more competent assessors around the party than this little-read youngster. The phrase “was never a member of the party” has a disreputable tradition in Germany, but in this case it is unavoidable. I was a subaltern employee of the party headquarters in Dortmund and then in Cologne in various capacities without being a member of the party. When I was handed the application for membership in 1979 with the remark that I had only been forgotten, I had already pleaded with the “Rote Fahne” editorial staff for the dissolution of the party and did not return the form
  13. Lethen, Handorakel, p. 11
  14. Former member of the North Rhine-Westphalia regional leadership of the KPD and member of the party delegation to China in 1979
  15. Brentzel, p.175
  16. Semler p. 80, taz 2001
  17. In his autobiography “Denn für dieses Leben ist der Mensch nicht schlau genug. Erinnerungen” (Memories), Lethen draws on his older “Bericht” for the phase from 1969 to 1980 and adds little new.
  18. Lethen, Handorakel p. 72
  19. “Die erste Etappe des Aufbaus der Kommunistischen Partei des Proletariats” Thesenpapier von Semler, Horlemann, Neitzke, Hartung, Chr. Heinrich, Jasper. Presentation of the proceedings of the conference, in: Karl-Heinz Schubert, “Zur Geschichte der westberliner Basisgruppen”, from: Aufbruch zum Proletariat. Dokumente der Basisgruppen, introduced and selected by Karl-Heinz Schubert, West Berlin 1988
  20. Die Partei aufbauen. Plattformen, Grundsatzerklärungen. Berlin, 1971
  21. Alan Posener, Was ich der KPD verdanke 1-3.
  22. quoted in Jasper, p. 53
  23. Lethen, Handorakel p. 19. The first German edition of the writings of the stage designer and theatre reformer Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) was published in 1969 by the later KPD-AO founding members Elisabeth Weber and Dietrich Kreidt: Edward Gordon Craig, über die kunst des theaters. Berlin: Gerhart Verlag, 1969
  24. Jasper, pp.58-63
  25. Jasper, p.133
  26. “The apparatus was a self-destructive funnel that devoured movement energies in the self-running of repetitions internally, but had a stabilising effect externally in the confusing situation of the 1970s.” Lethen, Handorakel, p.18
  27. Wir warn die stärkste der Partein… Erfahrungsberichte aus der Weit der K-Gruppen, Berlin 1977
  28. Michael Rutschky, Erfahrungshunger. Ein Essay über die siebziger Jahre. Berlin: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1980
  29. Posener, Part 3
  30. Semler, p. 167
  31. Semler, pp. 34-36
  32. Walter Benjamin, Illuminationen p. 413, quoted in Lethen, Handorakel p.51f
  33. (*1942).His dissertation Zur Einschätzung der Klassenkämpfe in der Weimarer Republik. KPD und Komintern, Sozialdemokratie und Trotzkismus. Oberbaumverlag, Berlin 1973 decisively shaped the historical understanding of the KPD-AO cadres. He was then head of the KJVD youth association of the KPD.
  34. v. Plato, p. 302f
  35. v. Plato, p. 304
  36. v. Plato, p.283f
  37. v. Plato p. 312
  38. The Liberaler Studentenbund Deutschlands was actually the student association of the FDP, but had already broken away from the FDP in the 1960s and saw itself as part of the “socialist opposition.”
  39. Brentzel, Red Flags p.102
  40. op. cit. p.103
  41. op. cit. p.141
  42. op. cit. p.142
  43. op. cit. p. 157.
  44. op. cit. p. 160.
  45. op. cit., p.209
  46. Which is not, as the blurb says, “dictated” by the Party, but also wanted by her. Her first reaction to finding out she is pregnant at the gynaecologist’s is “I don’t want that, no child and no heart sounds.” Later she repeats “I want it {the abortion} too” p.202
  47. op. cit. p.226.
  48. ✝︎2017
  49. Neitzke, p.24
  50. op. cit. p. 57
  51. op. cit., p. 32
  52. Op. cit., p. 34
  53. op. cit., pp.45-47
  54. op. cit. p.118f
  55. op. cit. p. 76.
  56. op. cit. p.51.
  57. Karl Marx, Das Kapital Vol. III. 48th Chapter, in: MEW Vol. 25, p. 828
  58. op. cit., p.125
  59. op. cit., p.139

Leave a Reply