Reading Mao’s Little Red Book in Divided Germany

MaoBFLPQuinn Slobodian
Assistant Professor, Wellesley College
Follow on Twitter @zeithistoriker

Professor Slobodian tells a remarkable story concerning the controversial Cold War German reception of one of the world’s most printed books: Mao’s Little Red Book.

In 1967, West Germans bought over one-hundred-thousand copies of Mao’s Book of Quotations, also known as the Little Red Book. Three editions were sold, each bearing a distinct ideological imprint.  Alongside the familiar, plastic-bound edition of the Beijing Foreign Languages Press was a paperback published by the left-liberal Fischer Press. Translated and edited by West German students of Sinology, the Fischer edition provided a scholarly perspective on the Cultural Revolution that was broadly sympathetic, signaling its orientation with a cover photograph of a young girl and an elderly woman in a benign moment of intergenerational MaoFischerMaoBreviercommunication [left]. The third edition [right] of Mao’s book of quotations, published by the anti-communist Marienburg Press had the title, The Mao Zedong Breviary: Catechism of 700 Million. The editor, a minor functionary in the Economics Ministry, Kurt C. Steinhaus, warned of a coming race war led by the Chinese against the world’s white populations. The publishers declared that their goal in releasing the book was to “show Mao in all his severity.” “It is necessary,” they said, “to give Germans and Europeans the creeps.”

As I describe in my book Foreign Front: Third World Politics in Sixties West Germany, West Germans read the Little Red Book for reasons ranging from fear, to curiosity, to the hope that Chinese communism might offer a way out for a left trapped between the consensus-minded functionaries of West German organized labor and the calcified bureaucratic socialism of the GDR. Socialist student activists adopted the Beijing edition as an outward symbol of their distance from both the West German mainstream and the Soviet-led socialist bloc. As in the short film, The Words of the Chairman by student filmmaker Harun Farocki (below), the book served as an accessory to the antiauthoritarian Maoism of an early phase of socialist student activism from 1966 to 1968 and an emblem of later turns to subcultural and sectarian Maoism from 1969 into the 1970s.

In all cases, China was distant. The only real contact with Chinese culture came through trips of small numbers of activists to East Berlin to smuggle back films, copies of the Peking Review and, most importantly, stacks of the Little Red Book to sell at political events.

In East Germany itself, there were zero copies of Mao’s book of quotations for sale in 1967. Yet China was nonetheless much closer, and the Little Red Book was a matter of state. Relations with China worsened progressively since the Sino-Soviet Split of 1962-63 reached a low point for the GDR in 1967. For East German officials, the Little Red Book was a feared sight in the hands of Germans but more so in the hands of the Chinese, including those who perpetrated a series of violent clashes with East Germans in both Berlin and Beijing in the course of the Cultural Revolution.

In both countries, Mao and the Little Red Book represented the intrusion of a political force from beyond Europe and North America. The book was seen in both countries as an instrument which could challenge, and was challenging, the powers that were. Observers in both countries, especially in Sinology circles where sympathy for Mao had been high in the 1950s, believed that the format of the Little Red Book distorted the Chinese leader’s writings, but they also saw its aphoristic structure as the source of its success. The repackaging of decades worth of Mao’s utterances and writings into pithy commandments transformed historically-grounded analyses into scripture, theory into religion, and selections from the Collected Works of Mao into what was called on both sides of the Wall, the “Mao Bible.”

Many observers in West Germany dismissed popularity of the Little Red Book as meaningless modishness. A reviewer of Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise following its West German premiere in January 1968, wrote that the film proved that “everything is fashion for the West. Even the most immediate horrors can be re-digested playfully by our (sub)culture industry [and] the mechanisms of aestheticization work so splendidly that Mao can be turned into a trendsetter.” At the theater, he observed, “there is a glass vitrine—across from the refreshments—full of pretty red Mao bibles (two deutsche marks each).”

The alternative analysis was to take the interest in the Little Red Book in deadly earnest. Werner Titztrath, who would become editor of the Springer Press-owned Hamburger Abendblatt, portrayed the Little Red Book as the node of a global revolutionary network. He wrote in 1968 that the Vietcong “the machine pistol aimed, already practices insurgency: They want revolution. The others” — West German student activists — “Mao Bible under their arms, attempt at least, to experiment with it.”

In East Germany, the encounter was much more proximate as East Germans came into direct contact with the mobilized Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution both at home and abroad. Youth stormed the automobile of the East German ambassador at the airport in Beijing in February 1967 chanting the slogan from the Little Red Book, “Fear no sacrifice!” and dousing the car and its inhabitants with black paint, the color of reaction. In East Berlin itself, Chinese embassy employees suspicious that authorities had helped cause a car accident in which four Chinese diplomats had died, hung the embassy building with signs in June 1967 quoting from the Little Red Book about the need to fight “so long as a single man remains” and the threat that “blood must be answered with blood!”

After publishing hundreds of thousands of copies of Mao’s writings in the late 1950s, the chairman’s books had abruptly disappeared from East German libraries and bookstores after the first disagreements between the Chinese and the Soviets in 1960. Young East Germans began to go directly to the source in 1967. Visits to the Chinese Embassy peaked late that year with as many as sixty-three young East Germans a day entering and leaving with Mao buttons and Little Red Books. Students at high schools were reported to be reading the book and wearing homemade Chinese-style caps emblazoned with the words: “Mao fan.” The government finally banned visits to the embassy in early 1968, posting guards at the gate to stop the stream of the curious.

Unable to fold the book into a dynamic of apolitical consumption, and thus neutralize it, the East Germans ended up taking Mao’s book of quotations much more seriously than West Germans. If the free market was able to “disarm Mao with fashion” in West Germany as one observer wrote, in the GDR, the only option was the always elusive goal of total proscription.

This post is adapted from my contribution to Alexander Cook, ed. Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History (Cambridge University Press, 2014).