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Margarete Buber-Neumann

From Women in European History

By Robert Qian

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Buber-Neumann, circa 1938

Margarete Buber-Neumann (21 October 1901 - 6 November 1989) was a prominent member of the German Communist Party who was imprisoned in both the Soviet Union and Nazi German during World War II. Though initially a devoted communist, her arrest during Stalin's purges significantly changed her political and social opinions. She survived both the Karlag Gulag and Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, and drew on her experiences in publishing her memoirs entitled Under Two Dictators: Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler. Two of her most relevant observations are written in her autobiography: First, she compared the Nazi and Communist systems and denounced them equally. Secondly, she revealed that the social differences of inmates outside these complexes were still relevant and significantly influenced their interactions as prisoners.


Early Life

Margarete Buber-Neumann was born Grete Thüring in Potsdam, 21 October 1901, the first and eldest of three sisters to middle-class parents of peasant origin. Her childhood would be indicative of her tumultuous later life; she joined a youth movement called the Wandervogel, a scout-like organization which advocated autonomy and youthful freedom in contrast to the old stale religious youth organizations. [1] The prevalence of disenfranchised youths in these organizations in the Weimar Republic made them easy targets for political parties seeking additional support from the general populace – the German Communist Party would prove to be one of the most effective at gathering youthful help.[2] Buber-Neumann’s early exposure to such a politically-charged organization like the Wandervogel made her far more susceptible to joining the communists later in her life.

The armistice signed by Germany ending the First World War dramatically influenced Buber-Neumann’s political and philosophical tendencies. Both the signing of the humiliating Treaty of Versailles and rampant hyperinflation created a charged atmosphere in the fledgling Weimar Republic, a fact that was handily exploited by both the radical left and right. While training to be a teacher in Berlin, the young Grete Thüring was swept along with this political vigor and joined the German Communist Party (KPD) in early 1921. Like most other young adults at the time who joined extreme left or right-wing organizations, she initially understood little of their ideology[3] – rather, it was the aftereffects of a lost war, the hated Versailles Treaty and the seemingly incompetent Weimar government that fueled the fervent emotional appeal of communism. She and her contemporaries – young men and women alike – were swept along by a sense of community and the emotional appeal of a revolution that would wipe out inequality and lead to a better world. Buber-Neumann’s initial devotion to communism would make her later experiences that much more important. In experiencing both the joys and the horrors of these systems, she gained familiarity with Nazism and Communism, the new absolutist systems that gained prominence after the early 20th Century.

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1932 KPD Propaganda

Under Communism

Grete Thüring’s first marriage was in 1921 to Rafael Buber, son of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. They had two children, but the marriage proved unsuccessful following his estrangement from the Communist cause. After losing a bitter custody battle and their divorce, Buber-Neumann committed herself fully to the KPD and soon fell in love with and married Heinz Neumann, a young up-and-comer in German communist circles who advocated open struggle against the Nazi Party. However, clashes in the early 1930s with party leader Ernst Thälmann and a shift in Soviet policy towards the Nazis meant that he fell out of favor, and the couple spent several years performing middling duties for the Communist movement in several countries. After being arrested by Swiss authorities, Heinz Neumann was expelled to France where his wife joined him, and was granted asylum in the Soviet Union in 1935. Unfortunately, Moscow proved to be no safe haven for the couple. Stalin’s Great Purge was heading into full swing, and an already-marginalized Heinz Neumann – whose opinions differed significantly from the official party line – proved to be a prime target. His fate was sealed when he refused a request from the Komintern to write a self-criticizing book praising new Stalinist party policies. [4] Heinz was arrested in April 1937 – following a quick sham trial he was executed half a year later, though Margarete would not learn of his fate until fifty years later.

Until her husband’s arrest, Margarete’s life had been overwhelmingly overshadowed by his career, travelling like fugitives between countries at his side. With regards to her own importance, she referred to herself as a mere “accessory,”[3] while her position mirrored the general status of female companions in her time period. Whenever female colleagues are mentioned in her memoirs, they are almost always referred to in their husbands’ capacity – in one particular scene Buber-Neumann recalls meeting “Klara Vater, the wife of well-known German Communist Kreuzberg” and a Russian woman who was “the wife of the German composer, Fon.” [3] Such introductions are all too common in her book, and reflect a subconscious adherence to the social standing experienced by women in Buber-Neumann’s time.

While she was with her husband, Buber-Neumann did not deign to inspect the flaws and investigate the injustices committed by the Stalinist regime – she was unaware of the Great Soviet Famine of 1933, for example. Heinz’s influence and personality had shielded her – for better or for worse – from observing the ugly truth of the communist system. Only after her his incarceration did she truly witness the inadequacies of the Stalinist regime: Long lines at the postal office where families were sending bread to starving relatives and the social indifference to political crimes that were committed daily.[4] The formerly naive image Grete had crafted as a young girl for a perfect communist world came crashing down, a scene that proved to be familiar to young European communists who had been swept up in the political fervor in the 20s and 30s.[5] Alone and without a valid passport to exit the country, it would only be a matter of time before she – as a suspect and wife of a disgraced former party official – would be arrested by the Soviet NKVD as well.

Karaganda Corrective Labor Camp

Buber-Neumann was arrested on 19 June 1938, and was sent half a year later to the Soviet gulag at Karaganda, Ukraine. Karlag, as it was called, was a massive, sprawling complex twice the geographic size of Denmark, and contained over 150,000 prisoners – most of them common criminals. Security was rather lax – it did not need to be strict, as the camp was surrounded by hundreds of miles of desert. Life was harsh, and facilities were flea-ridden and unhygienic. A vicious cycle of rationing meant that fewer rations were given out if working quotas were not met – and as workers received less food, they could do less work, until they wasted away of starvation.[3] Buber-Neumann was shuffled around various different camps in the complex in the two years that she was there – midway through her stay, a debilitating disease caused a sympathetic doctor to declare her unfit for heavy labor, likely guaranteeing her survival for the remaining time in the camp.

Buber-Neumann’s observations in the camp not only revealed the atrocious nature of everyday life, but also exposed important social and political differences in the microcosm of Karlag. Despite her formerly lifelong adherence to Communism, Buber-Neumann still exhibited certain nationalistic tendencies – small but subtle references refer to how her friend’s “German efficiency” and West-European management skills in a run-down leather manufactory overcame antiquated and primitive Russian methods.[3]

Camp life was largely mixed – in Karlag, both male and female inmates worked in similar areas, whether performing administrative duties or agricultural labor. Her memoir mentions little of gender issues in the gulag, with the exception of a particular episode where she was approached by a friendly barber offering to be her “camp husband”. When she replied that marriages required real love and affection, she recalls him saying: “I know all that, but that’s outside. In here a woman must have a good camp husband if she doesn’t want to starve.”[3] While reliance on a husband was not absolutely necessary to endure the camp, the majority of the best-paying and most comfortable jobs were held by men, an important factor when food and supplies were often scarce. Buber-Neumann mentions one girl who took full advantage of this arrangement: “There was a gypsy girl with us in the punishment compound. Perhaps she was sixteen, but she was already a woman, and very pretty. She never bothered to work. If you were pretty enough and not overburdened with moral scruples, there was no need to work.”[3] Her experiences thus depict that gender roles present in society – with the male as the provider and the female as his companion – extended into the camp, despite the theoretical equality that inmates possessed in prison life.

Rather than race, religion or sex, the dividing factors amongst inmates (and oftentimes guards) were their past criminal transgressions. Common criminals – murderers and thieves – made up the majority of prisoners, while the ‘politicals’ – ranging from corrupt politicians to common citizens who had been falsely accused simply due to Stalin’s Great Terror – composed a sizable minority of the population. Neither group cared much for the other, and the guards and natchalnik (work column brigadiers) were often picked by camp commanders from either faction. What resulted was that both parties supported of their own in-camp social group (criminal or political) regardless of their former political affiliations and rivalries; she mentions an episode where her attempt to steal potatoes was successful only because a fascist prisoner distracted a guard even though he had no motive for doing so.”[3] Even nationality appeared more important than sex; when criticizing a male prisoner who was watching female counterparts from a neighboring camp perform backbreaking labor, Buber-Neumann was amazed when “all the Russian women around sided with the man, and there was a chorus of indignation: ‘We are proud of it. Women in Soviet Russia play a different role from women in the capitalist countries. We have equal rights.’“[3] Again, this also reveals a certain level of nationalistic tendency within the prisoner population.

Ravensbrück Concentration Camp

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Ravensbrück Concentration Camp

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed 1939 proved to be the catalyst for the second chapter in Buber-Neumann’s ordeal. Part of the agreement included prisoner extradition; specifically, German anti-fascists (Communist or otherwise) who had largely fled Nazi Germany following 1933 were returned to the border and handed over to the SS and Gestapo in early 1940. [4] While most prisoners were simply grilled for as much information as possible and then released, Buber-Neumann – as the wife of a former prominent communist leader – was not so lucky. In a whirlwind sequence of events lasting over a few months, she was first put under protective custody by the Gestapo, and then ‘held under suspicion of high treason.’ [3] Finally, she was transported to a SS concentration camp located at the town of Ravensbrück.

Ravensbrück Concentration Camp was a newly-constructed facility, built for the express purpose of holding female inmates. Though the original concentration camps were intended to hold political dissidents, by 1940 the Nazi party had begun to remove society’s ‘undesirables’ – vagrants, gypsies and prostitutes. Later in the war, large number of Polish women and Jews also arrived at the camp. Because of her position as a political prisoner, she was treated relatively better compared to most women in camp, and worked in a highly-sought after position as a functionary. This position gave her greater flexibility in observing daily life and interactions amongst many of the inmates.

Her written experiences at Ravensbrück give us just as much insight as those in Karlag. In an all-women camp, social and political distinctions borne in society became even more apparent. German and Czech communists, having heard of her empathetic rejection of the party, targeted her with venom and spite, denouncing her as a Trotskyist, while criminals considered her to be arrogant. The divisions between these social groups were fully exploited by the SS, which introduced a ‘self-administration’ system, in which certain prisoners were given responsibilities over their colleagues. When criminals or Asocials were given such a position, she states, they would “exploit them to the advantage of themselves and their favorites and to the suffering of their fellow prisoners.[3] Ironically, despite her formerly communist affiliations her closest friends and allies in the camp would prove to be a sect of Jehova’s Witnesses, whom she affectionately referred to as Bible Students.

Most interesting is Buber-Neumann’s own low opinion of ‘Asocials,’ who were whores and prostitutes who were outcasts of society. She is unflattering in her description, and contrasts her duties as hut senior amongst the Asocials compared to the Bible Students: “Whilst I was Hut Senior amongst the Asocials, the whole day had been occupied with some duty or other and disturbed with some new fear. With the Bible Students my life ran very smoothly. Everything went like clockwork.” She further described a particular group of Asocials who were assigned to her hut as “morons, bedwetters, epileptics, the women with tics of all kinds.”[3] While her disdain for such a group was unlikely to be intentionally vindictive, her tone is indicative of the fact that even in a camp that was as far removed from normal society the differences in social classes were still relevant – that a civilized, educated woman such as Margarete Buber-Neumann still held preconstructed judgments against girls who were considered by society to be scandalous and unclean.

Meeting Milena

It was at Ravensbrück that Buber-Neumann would meet Milena Jesenská, a spirited and fiercely independent Czech journalist from Prague who was once involved in an intense relationship with author Franz Kafka.[6] Their first meeting was already unique; having heard that Grete had spent time in the Soviet Union, Milena approached her, and with a journalist’s dedication extracted her for as much information as possible on her experiences in Moscow and the Ukraine.[7] Only week after they had met, Milena proposed they write a book together when they were released – a volume that was to be entitled The Age of Concentration Camps, that would expose the brutal realities that occurred on both the Soviet and Nazi sides, an idea that ultimately resulted in Buber-Neumann’s post-war written account of her time spent in Siberia and Germany. The two women immediately made strong impressions upon each other, and would remain the closest companions for the rest of their time at Ravensbrück. Milena ultimately died of kidney failure in late 1944. [3] Milena’s significance was that she not only inspired Buber-Neumann’s autobiographical work, but also gave her the strength to survive because of the promise that she made

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Her Book

Release and Memoirs

As the situation in the camp deteriorated in late 1944, thousands of prisoners either died of starvation or were marched off to be gassed or shot. When the Russians approached Ravensbrück in spring 1945, Buber-Neumann and other long-term political prisoners were suddenly released for reasons unclear – she was fortunate, for after several days the SS forced the remaining 20000 inmates on a forced evacuation march that took the lives of thousands more. [8] She herself fled south away from the incoming Soviet soldiers towards her grandparents’ home in Bavaria, having no desire to encounter her communist tormentors.

In the immediate post-war years were difficult for Buber-Neumann. It had been thirteen years since she had last been a free woman in Germany – the friends she had made in Ravensbrück were either dead or had returned to their homes across Europe, while she now despised and hated the resurgent communist movement. In a letter she writes to her daughter Judith in Israel, Buber Neumann finds that her “life is now very lonely. The people to whom I belonged with until 1933 and in the years of emigration are dead, missing or still abroad.” [9] Much like other Holocaust survivors such as Charlotte Delbo, Buber-Neumann suffered from survivor’s guilt.

Things improved slightly after she moved to Sweden. Honoring her promise to Milena, Buber-Neumann set about writing their book on concentration camps. Entitled Under two Dictators: Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler, it documents the time she spent in both Karlag and Ravensbrück and the people she met within. The book was used as a tool to fight Communism, which – in her view – “still exists, and millions of people are still suffering in its prisons and concentration camps”. [4] Buber-Neumann compared the Communist and Nazi systems in her book, though at first glance they could not appear to be more different. Karlag was a huge, sprawling complex, with little in the way of laws and regulations – some of them bordering on the absurd: Killing a fellow inmate would extend a sentence by three years, while refusal to work for the 25th time resulted in the death penalty[3] By contrast, Ravensbrück appeared methodical, regulated with typical Nazi efficiency. Yet each camp ultimately achieved the same objective. Each camp tortured and killed their inmates and provided a similar picture of prisoner life. Of this she writes:

“The two camp systems emerged from very different political and metapolitical situations, but we must not forget that they ended up achieving the same identical ends. That is why they should be denounced equally – and absolutely. My hatred for German concentration camps is no greater and no smaller than my hatred for the camps of Stalin the dictator.” [9]

She concludes the similarity of the two absolutist systems was what drove her to continuously struggle against the Communist system she had once loved – it became completely unacceptable to her that though Nazism had been vanquished an equally despotic and flawed system had survived, if not flourished. Stalinist Communism therefore needed to disappear just like Hitler’s ideals did. As a result, she became active in anti-communist movements for the rest of her life[4] and tirelessly spoke out and protested against the communist threat until the end of her life.

Later Life

Margarete Buber-Neumann would likely have lived the rest of her life in relative obscurity had it not been for single event. 1946 a Soviet defector named Victor Kravchenko wrote a book called I Chose Freedom, in which he documented scathing reports of his life in the Soviet Union and the horrors he experienced under the Stalinist regime. When the French Communist Party began a character-assassination campaign against him, he sued them for libel. The court case – one that was widely followed by the world – was heard in 1949, and Buber-Neumann was called upon by Kravchenko to testify. She became one of the star witnesses, and her calm recollection of the terrors committed in the Siberian gulags was in sharp contrast to the usual antics of the trial. [10] When Kravchenko ultimately won, she had attracted a great deal of attention – as a result, her own memoirs gained fame and Under Two Dictators was published and translated into eleven different languages and became an international bestseller. In later years she remained a writer, publishing a biographical work on her friend Milena amongst other works. Margarete Buber-Neumann would finally pass away in 1989, only days after witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall and the system she had once loved and despised.

In her inspiring story of struggle and survival, Margarete Buber-Neumann uses her skills of observation to survey the behavior of her fellow prisoners and guards and adds her own intellectual abilities to explore the ideological systems by which they are imprisoned. Though she was wholly impartial, even these scenarios give us an ability to glimpse into the thoughts and motives of the camp inmates, ultimately allowing us to have a clear insight into the both the people and the philosophies of the German Concentration Camp and the Soviet Gulag.


  1. Elizabeth Heineman (1989). “Gender Identity in the Wandervogel Movement”. German Studies Review. Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 249-270
  2. Elizabeth Harvey (1995). “The Failure of Feminism? Young Women and the Bourgeois Feminist Movement in Weimar Germany 1918-1933”. Central European History. Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 1-28
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 Margarete Buber-Neumann (2008). ‘’Under Two Dictators: Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler’’. Pimlico, London.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Tzvetan Todorov (2003). ‘’Hope and Memory: Lessons From the Twentieth Century’’. Princeton University Press, Princeton. Trans. David Bellos
  5. Sean McMeekin (2000). ‘’From Moscow to Vichy: Three Working-Class Militants and the French Communist Party, 1920-1940’’. Contemporary European History, Vol 9, No. 1, pp. 1-38
  6. Antonio Muñoz Molina (2001). ‘’Sepharad’’. Harcourt, Orlando. Trans. Ralph Manheim.
  7. Margarete Buber-Nuemann (1990). ‘’Milena’’. Collins Harvil, London. Trans. Margaret Sayers Peden.
  8. Barbara Rylko-Bauer (2005). “Bringing the past into the Present: Family Narratives of Holocaust, Exile, and Diaspora: Lessons about Humanity and Survival from My Mother and from the Holocaust”. Anthropological Quarterly. Vol. 78, No. 1. pp. 11-41
  9. 9.0 9.1 Michaela Wunderle (2001). ‘’Apropos Margarete Buber-Neumann’’. Neue Kritik, Frankfurt/Main
  10. Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper (1994). ‘’Paris After the Liberation 1945-1949”. Hamish Hamilton, London.

See Also: Annotated Bibliography

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