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Obituary: Helga Grebing (1930 – 2017)

All her life, Helga Grebing urged her party – the SPD – with her profound historical knowledge to keep in mind its roots. Thus, she never missed the meetings of the Historical Commission. She looked for communicating with the next generations. In the 1970s and 1980s, she led the argument with historians of different left-wing traditions of the old Federal Republic of Germany. She engaged in committed discussions at the then famous yearly Linz Conferences (International Conference of Historians of the Labour Movement) with colleagues from the GDR and the other countries of the Eastern Bloc.[1] Helga continued this debate with DIE LINKE until recently: This is shown by her article on Vergessene Traditionsströme [Forgotten Traditions] published in the German daily Neues Deutschland on 5 December 2016 that – according to the subheading – outlined an “attempt to reposition the lessons from the history of the German labour movement”.

After her habilitation in 1969, Helga Grebing became professor for political sciences at the Goethe University Frankfurt and, in the summer term 1971 and then come to Göttingen in the winter term 1971/72, first as visiting professor for medieval and modern history at Georg-August-Universität. There she took over a full professorship in history with focus on 19th and 20th century social history. In 1988, she changed for the professorship for comparative history of the international labour movement and the social condition of the working class at Ruhr-Universität Bochum. This was associated with the position as head of the “Institute for Research on the History of European Workers’ Movements” (nowadays “Institute for Social Movements”). In February 1995, she was given emeritus status.

Helga Grebing “was and is the German historian of the history of the labour movement”, as Dietmar Süß said on her funeral at Munich Nordfriedhof on 24 October 2017. We know the sentence from the obituaries. For Helga, historical research, its social relevance and political commitment belonged together. And since she already had this reputation in 1974, I attended her lectures in Göttingen and count myself among the generation of students of the 1970’s that was shaped by Helga. Helga addressed our urging questions on the history of the 20th century. Most students became teachers and, thus, carried on Helga’s basic understanding: Each and every teacher and scientist, and this was also the credo in her lectures, must fulfil a responsibility for social development, to prevent wars and dictatorships in the future, to facilitate equal educational opportunities for everybody and to contribute the knowledge acquired into society.

National Socialism and Conservatism

Helga came from a working-class family; her aspiration and her attitude were shaped by her experiences during National Socialism as a young girl, a young leader in the League of German Girls and her processing after the defeat in 1945. The slogan “Nie Wieder!” [“Lest we forget!”] became a lifelong point of reference. This already began with the dissertation thesis of Miss Grebing, only 22 years of age, on the Zentrum und katholische Arbeiterschaft 1919-1933 [The German Centre Party and Catholic Working Class 1919-1933]. Helga worked up her path until 1953 exceptionally open and honest, in particular regarding her detachment from National Socialism. Thus, in the years 2010-2012, back in Berlin, she wrote her memoirs on her first, formative years in Berlin that were published in 2012 under the title Freiheit, die ich meinte [Freedom I meant]. I would have wished for a continuation, but she did not want that from the very beginning.

Something people do no longer know today: Helga was the author of the first historical non-fiction book settling the score with the Third Reich: Der Nationalsozialismus: Ursprung und Wesen [National Socialism: Origin and Nature] (first edition 1959, revised for the last time in 1974). The text developed during her work as an editor for contemporary history with the Munich publisher Olzog Verlag that also edited the volume. When reading the text today, one could find much that is missing. But she was the first to address the history of terror, violence and the shamefully little resistance – also for historically less versed readers.

She had put herself at the service of “education for democracy” through political adult education[2] already back then. In this context, she published the Geschichte der deutschen Parteien [History of the German Political Parties] already in 1959. Time and again, she addressed a non-scientific audience with her publications. Thus, in 2011, together with Siegfried Heimann, she developed a city guide on the Arbeiterbewegung in Berlin [Labour Movement in Berlin].

Since talking about National Socialism was still difficult, but the student movement demanded dealing with the subject with good reason, Helga published Aktuelle Theorien über Faschismus und Konservatismus: Eine Kritik [Current Theories on Fascism and Conservatism: A Critique] in 1974. After several further articles on the topic[3], Arbeiterbewegung und Faschismus – Faschismus-Interpretationen in der europäischen Arbeiterbewegung [Labour Movement and Fascism – Interpretations of Fascism among the European Labour Movement] was published in 1990. In 1994, the two of us published Das andere Deutschland im Widerstand gegen den Nationalsozialismus [The Other Germany in Resistance against National Socialism].

In her habilitation thesis from 1969 Grebing[4] focussed on the different authoritarian, anti-democratic currents of the Federal Republic of Germany: According to her analysis, conservatism aimed form the social, economic and cultural consolidation of power and domination. The dangers threatening our democracy, lately by the AfD, did not only worry her on a theoretical level during all her life.[5] The considerations taken up in her habilitation thesis constituted a basis for her critique on the “German Sonderweg” in Europe that was published in 1986 with the co-operation of Doris von der Brelie and Hajo Franzen. Helga Grebing urgently warned against decoupling German from European history, as well as against a simplistic view on the year 1933. What was the Western “normal path” anyway and what constituted an ideal modernisation development? Helga asked these questions with good reason.

On the history of the labour movement and its ideas

First published in 1966, the Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung [The History of the German Labour Movement] made it to 11 editions until 1981. In 1969, the book was published in English, in 1982 in Greek and in 1993 in Chinese. Also regarding this aspect, Helga as a pioneer with her overall view from 1850 until the time after the Second World War w. In 1985, she published the first elaborate revision on the labour movement in the German Empire with dtv (3rd edition in 1993).[6] Aged over 70, Helga once again underwent a fundamental revision and extension of her Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung [History of the German Labour Movement] until the end of the 20th century that came on the market in 2007. The edition focussed on the question, how “work for everybody” could look like in post-industrial Germany, and how the SPD could and should contribute to the creation of employment. Helga collected and read all articles and books on the topic and used the internet as a tool to inform herself. This was no easy undertaking, as she had lost her supporting life partner, Lucinde Sternberg-Worringer. But with Dietmar Süß, she had found a younger colleague, who supported her with meticulous precision and read and commented her texts. If Helga had not been able to interest him and other younger colleagues and to ask them for help, she would not have accomplished the undertaking. She needed a good while to recover from this enormous effort.

She had already taken up the task to revise a publication considering recent developments previously: The Geschichte der sozialen Ideen in Deutschland [History of Social Ideas in Germany] was completed in 1969 (757 pages). The new handbook on the Geschichte der sozialen Ideen in Deutschland. Sozialismus, Katholische Soziallehre, Protestantische Sozialethik [History of Social Ideas in Germany: Socialism, Catholic Social Teaching, Protestant Social Ethics], developed, among others, together with colleagues like Walter Euchner and Franz J. Stegmann, was her first larger project after she was given emeritus status. It was published in 2000 (2nd edition in 2005) and now amounted to over 1,000 pages.

Liberty, equality, fraternity: the demands of the French Revolution shaped Helga’s lectures and research: She checked the theories of left-wing thinkers and actors since the time of the German Empire against these demands.
- To name but a few, these were August Bebel, Willy Brandt, Waldemar von Knoeringen, Rosa Luxemburg, Alva and Gunnar Myrdal or Paul Fröhlich and Rosi-Wolfstein-Fröhlich, not to forget Fritz Sternberg.
- Already in 1959, the documentation So macht man Revolution [This is How Revolution is Made] was published in Politische Studien.
- In 1994, she published on Frauen in der deutschen Revolution 1918/19 [Women in the German Revolution 1918/19]. In general, the revolution of 1918/19 was at the centre of Helga’s thought, as the article Einhundert Jahre deutsche Revolution 1918/19 [One Hundred Years German Revolution 1918/19], published in the journal Perspektiven des demokratischen Sozialismus, Volume 1/2017, illustrates.[7]
- The demands of the French Revolution also guided Helga and me upon writing an overview on the Widerstandsarbeit von Frauen gegen den Nationalsozialismus [Resistance Activities of Women against National Socialism], 1994.

Helga Grebing – always committed

Allow me a very personal story from summer 2017. After her 3rd stroke, Helga was hospitalized in the Schlosspark-Klinik in Berlin. On the way to my book presentation ... unmöglich, diesen Schrecken aufzuhalten. Über die medizinische Versorgung durch Häftlinge im KZ Ravensbrück [… Impossible to stop this horror. On the Medical Service by Prisoners in the Concentration Camp Ravensbrück], I visited her. Her speaking was still incomprehensible, but she was happy about my visit. When I had to say goodbye, and told her the reason, she got very uneasy. Something bothered her, I could not understand her. I had to take a guess. Only after I promised that I would bring her the book on the next day, I was allowed to leave. This had a special meaning for her, since this volume also gives Lucinde’s cousin, Else Court, a place in the memory of Ravensbrück. This was important to Helga. Elsa Court had been prisoner doctor in Ravensbrück and already died in 1947. When Lucinde Sternberg-Worringer was still alive, she had asked me to look for her traces. Helga still commented extensively on the manuscript of the reconstructed biography, published in an article in 2014, and had, thus, enriched this contribution to the history of the Worringers, for whom she herself had erected a monument with her book.

Helga’s last project was dedicated to Fritz Sternberg, whose edited volume became available printed under the title Streiten für eine Welt jenseits des Kapitalismus [Struggling for a World Beyond Capitalism], when she was already in the hospital. I knew Sternberg from her lecture in the winter semester of 1975/76 on “theories of fascism”. Back then, she had already written on the Faschismusanalysen Arthur Rosenbergs, Richard Löwenthals und Fritz Sternbergs [Analysis of Fascism of Arthur Rosenberg, Richard Löwenthal and Fritz Sternberg] the year before and published the volume Aktuelle Theorien über Faschismus und Konservatismus [Current Theories on Fascism and Conservatism]. What she was reflecting and reasoning on in her last year of life, had been on her mind for 50 years.

Helga was very grateful that she had found the support in Klaus-Jürgen Scherer she needed to realise this volume after her first two strokes. For one last time, Helga drew from her general knowledge and her specific knowledge on the literary estate and the writings of Fritz Sternberg that she had preserved together with her partner in life, Lucinde Sternberg-Worringer.

Helga Grebing was an exceptional person in the first generation of post-war historians: It was not easy for her to gain acceptance, and sometimes fight her way through, as a working-class child, social democrat and woman, but she succeeded in remaining true to her self-understanding. Lucinde Sternberg-Worringer was her important support until her death in 1998. She accompanied her, whenever possible, likewise to the Linz Conferences of the ITH. Exchange was important for the two of them. Lucinde did not only ground Helga in everyday life and regarding her interaction with her co-workers, but was always also the first critical reader of her texts. Without her, Helga would probably not have left us such an oeuvre.

Christl Wickert (Berlin)
Translated from German by Lukas Neissl


[1] Already since the early 1980s, the author could accompany Helga Grebing to Linz as doctoral student on the ticket of Grebing’s respective institute.
[2] Until 2017, particularly, at the Georg-Vollmar-Akademie in Kochel or the Evangelische Akademie in Tutzing.
[3] To mention only a few texts regarding the examination of National Socialism, like 1978 in Wolfgang Luthardt (ed.): Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterbewegung und Weimarer Republic [Social Democratic Labour Movement and Weimar Republic], 1984 in the Festschrift for Alfred Kubel on the defeat of the organized working class in the fight against German fascism or 1996 on Die Arbeiterbewegung in Europa und ihre Auseinandersetzung mit dem Faschismus zwischen den Weltkriegen [The Labour Movement in Europe and its Fight Against Fascism Between the World Wars] in the Festschrift for Herbert Obenaus. Helga was concerned with the question: Was lässt sich aus der Geschichte lernen? [“What can be learnt from history?”].
[4] Published in 1971 under the title Konservative gegen die Demokratie [Conservatives Against Democracy].
[5] For lack of space, I will not refer to her contributions on the theory of democracy.
[6] Cf. also Jürgen Kocka’s Traditionsbindung und Klassenbildung. Zum sozialhistorischen Ort der frühen deutschen Arbeiterbewegung [Tradition and Class Formation: On the Social-Historical Location of the Early German Labour Movement], published in 1987. With Wolfgang Abendroth, whose history on the labour movement until 1933 was only published posthumously in 1996, she had very long arguments, particularly at the ITH Conferences until his death in 1985.
[7] In 2007, Helga Grebing had once again compiled central articles of Eberhard Kolb, Peter von Oertzen, Gerhard A. Ritter, Richard Löwenthal, Susanne Miller and others, under the title Die deutsche Revolution 1918/19 [The German Revolution 1918/19].