From Spoils of War to Gifts of State

Chinese ‘Boxer Flags’ and German Conceptions of History, 1900 to 1955

  • Thomas Weißbrich (Autor/in)

Identifier (Artikel)


Using the example of state gifts, the article investigates various interpretations of objects in the context of political historical conception: during his first state visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1955, GDR Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl presented ten banners which had been captured by the East Asian Expeditionary Corps in the Boxer Uprising of 1900/01, as well as three plundered volumes of an encyclopedia. While Imperial Germany had made a distinction between legal spoils of war and questionable plunder, socialist politicians and historians after the World War II increasingly labelled both alike as stolen property. This generalization and criminalization served to demarcate Germany’s ‘fatal’ past from which the GDR, founded in 1949, was trying to distance itself. The GDR established a historical narrative based on Marxist-Leninist ideas. Anti-Fascism, anti-imperialism and anti-militarism were central aspects of its national identity. With these state gifts in 1955, the young GDR sought to distinguish itself symbolically both from Imperial Germany, which bore negative connotations, as well as from the competing Federal Republic of Germany, which it accused of continuing Germany’s militarist tradition. The ‘Boxers’ were a key positive point of reference in the historical conception of the Chinese Communist Party, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. The GDR’s state-run media gave a great deal of publicity to the presentation of these gifts and to the friendship between Germany and China which they demonstrated. The extent to which the East German regime was focused on its self-staging and considering how little it cared about the historical objects themselves is demonstrated by the fact that among the ten banners there were only two which can actually be traced back to the Boxers.

Keywords: Culture of remembrance; collective view of history; imperialism; GDR; Boxer Uprising


Culture of remembrance, collective view of history, imperialism, GDR, Boxer Uprising