Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Under Two Dictators

Under Two Dictators: Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler
Margarete Buber-Neumann
Moscow, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union + Karaganda, Kazakh SSR, Soviet Union + Ravensbrück, Germany

PLOT SUMMARY: Margarete Buber-Neumann and her husband, Heinz Neumann, are members of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) who emigrated to the Soviet
Union in 1935. As part of Joseph Stalin’s Purge, the two are arrested by the Soviet secret police (known as the GPU or the NKVD). Heinz is arrested in 1937, and Margarete is arrested in 1938.

     Buber-Neumann is first imprisoned in the Lubyanka and then in the Butirka prison. In 1939, she is sentenced to five years of imprisonment in the Karaganda prison in Kazakhstan for being a “socially dangerous element.” She endures brutal conditions in Karaganda and is forced to do physical labor. She makes friends there, like Boris, but they are eventually separated. In 1940, she is sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. Buber-Neumann finds the German concentration camp to be run with more organization and “Prussian thoroughness” (Buber-Neumann 187) than the Soviet prison. Margarete witnesses atrocities like biological experimentation, forced abortions,  and mass murder at Ravensbrück. The death of her best friend, Milena Jesenská, greatly affects Margarete and almost destroys her will to live. Buber-Neumann is released from Ravensbrück in April 1945. She escapes from the advancing Soviets and, after fighting numerous obstacles along the way, is reunited with her family in Bavaria, which is in
American-occupied Germany.

ANALYSIS: Buber-Neumann’s book mostly focuses on her experiences under German captivity because she spent more time imprisoned by the Germans then she did imprisoned by the Soviets. However, it still offers numerous insights into captivity.

     Buber-Neumann is, in a way, a captive before she is even arrested by the Soviets. She lives in fear of the GPU and supposes that they have come for her when Heinz is arrested. After Heinz’ arrest, she constantly tries to think of ways to escape from the Soviet Union: trying to escape from a place is something a captive would do. This is why, when she is eventually arrested, she is far calmer than one would expect a person in her position to be: she had been a prisoner of the Soviet Union in mind and the arrest made her a prisoner of the Soviet Union in body. This reveals a fascinating insight about Soviet captivity: the regime made thefuture inmates of the gulag feel like prisoners before they were arrested, which lowered their resistance upon their eventual arrest. Buber-Neumann’s accounts of the Soviet and German prisons also brings up questions regarding the purpose of imprisonment, especially by totalitarian regimes. While the NKVD and the SS run their prisons differently - the NKVD’s aim seems to be forced labor whereas the SS’ aim is genocide - both of them still share an overwhelming similarity: the prisoners are used as slave labor and their main “use,” if it can be called that, to their imprisoners is physical work. Buber-Neumann’s escape from the advancing Soviet forces after she is released from Ravensbrück also shows that captivity does not only manifest itself as a physical prison. Of course, Buber-Neumann fears being imprisoned again by the
Soviets, but the fact that she has to escape even after being freed from prison shows that, in a way, the Soviets still have her captive until she finally reaches the American occupation zone.


“And a bodily search at the Lubianka is the thing to let you know to the full what being a prisoner means; not even the most intimate parts of your body are any longer decently your own; you are no longer a human being; you are a thing; an object to be mauled unceremoniously by such creatures as the woman with the coarse black hair and the florid features.” (47)

“Do you really want to make us believe that in the Soviet Union innocent people were arrested?” (324).

“Between the misdeeds of Hitler and those of Stalin…there exists only a quantitative difference…Stalin betrayed the original good idea [of communism] and established in the Soviet Union a kind of Fascism.” (325)

BIOGRAPHY: Margarete Buber-Neumann was born Margarete Thüring in Potsdam, Germany, on October 21, 1901, to a brewery manager. She trained as a kindergarten teacher and had two marriages and two daughters.

     She joined the Communist Youth League of Germany in 1921 and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1926, working in Berlin as a member of the editorial staff of Inprecor, the journal of the Communist International. She fled Germany in 1933 with her second husband, communist revolutionary Heinz Neumann. The couple eventually emigrated to the Soviet Union in 1935.

     On the night of April 27/28, 1937, the NKVD arrested Heinz. He was executed later that year. On June 19, 1938, Margarete was arrested and imprisoned first at the Lubyanka prison and then at Butirka. Although she refused to admit to any crimes, she was sentenced to five years imprisonment in the gulag for being a “socially dangerous element.”

     Buber-Neumann was first imprisoned in the Karaganda camp in Siberia and then transferred to Birma in Kazakhstan. In February 1940, she was sent to Germany as part of a prisoner exchange between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. She was interrogated at Alexanderplatz prison in Berlin, charged with high treason, and interned in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.

     In 1945, she was able to pass through to the American-occupied part of Germany after the Red Army liberated Ravensbrück. She then moved to Sweden, from where she began to write her memoirs. Under Two Dictators was first published in Germany in 1948. Her testimony against the Ravensbrück camp commander ensured that he was executed for war crimes and her testimony in the Victor Kravchenko trial in France showed the world that Stalinism and its gulags was comparable to Nazism and its concentration camps.

     Buber-Neumann returned to Germany in 1950 and settled in Frankfurt, where she died on November 6, 1989, just three days before the fall of the Berlin Wall.


“Buber-Neumann, Margarete (1901-1989).” Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Accessed 23 March 2019.

Buber-Neumann, Margarete. Under Two Dictators: Prisoner of Stalin and Hitler. Translated by Edward Fitzgerald with an introduction by Nikolaus Wachsmann, Vintage-Random House, 2008.


McCann, Meg. “Milena Jesenská: The Power of Friendship.” Studies in American Jewish Literature, vol. 17, 1998, pp. 109-119.
In thisarticle, McCann analyzes Milena Jesenská’s friendships with Franz Kafka in her youth and her friendship with Margarete Buber-Neumann in prison.

Toker, Leona. “Gulag Memoirs as a Genre.” Return from the Archipelago: Narratives of Gulag Survivors, Indiana University Press, 2000, pp. 73-100.
This chapter
explores various memoirs of former gulag prisoners, e.g. Margarete Buber-Neumann, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Yevgenia Ginzburg, etc., how their memoirs describe life in the gulag, and how those memoirs are connected to each other.

Eckart, Gabriele. “The Rereading of Willy Münzenberg’s and Margarete Buber-Neumann’s Lives in Antonio Muñoz Molina’s novel Sefarad (2001).” Romance Notes, vol. 48, no. 1, 2007, pp. 59–66.
In this article, Eckart analyzes Molina’s descriptions of Münzenberg’s and Buber-Neumann’s lives and argues that Molina’s description of the “concrete emotional and physical impact” (Eckart, 66) of Nazism and Stalinism on their lives is justified.

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