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The Ph.D. Research Project 

Women, Power, and Politics in the Cold War (1947−1953)


The list of people, who lost their lives during the Cold War, is long. Nevertheless, the index of politically active and persecuted citizens, whose hard fate is still widely known and whose personality shapes the culture of remembrance, is short; even shorter when pursuers or persecutes are women. This lack is also depicted in academic studies. Inevitably, this creates the need for focusing my Ph.D. thesis on the female parameter, which gives a new impetus and a distinguishing characteristic to the proposal. Since the contents of my study deal exclusively with political and historical issues, merely postwar women active in politics occupy center stage.  


Whereas, who were these women? What do we know about their vita? Which is their family history and how did their social class determine their life's opportunities? Under which circumstances had their political attitude been shaped? Which was their real political role? How are international chronicle events been reflected in their life? How did they behave within power relations? How did they manage to develop their own personalities even being under the shadow of well-known men, who were in many cases not only their comrades but also their partners in life? How did they mutually influence each other? Did they bequeath an intellectual or cultural heritage? Did they have children? If yes, how did the latter manage to handle the hard accusation of being descendants of controversial figures or offspring of mothers, who acted in a despotic regime? Which is the postmortem fame of those women? Have they been exonerated, even became national heroes? Have they been convicted in the narratives of memory or disappeared in the process of coming to terms with the past?    

These questions can only be answered based on a corpus of biographies,

on which the present dissertation will focus.


The Selection Criteria / The Profile of Women assigned to the Survey:  

  • High Profile political activists, who exercised or were exposed to the power

  • Ideology: Left-Wing Politics (Communists and Socialists)

  • Timeframe of the political act: Early 50s (1950-1954)

  • High Educated and Intellectual

  • Executed or imprisoned after a Show Trial

  • Personal Life: Marriage and Maternity

  • Access to Primary Sources and Secondary Literature / Language Skills[1]


The Challenge

Four main characters will be in-depth (each personality on circa 30-40 pages) analyzed and portrayed, accompanied by a very brief reference to biographies of further noteworthy women, who possess a high degree of similarity to the protagonists and politically acted at the same time. The idea is to always keep the big picture in mind, in order to gain a better understanding of the sociohistorical context in which they acted. The challenge lies in performing biographical research via which a deeper understanding of how the particular factor of power permeated human relations within the frame of post-war, resp. cold war history can be gained. As each main character represent a different country, the following female biographies will be approached both from a national and transnational perspective. The historiography considers a succession of events − most of them nearly unknown even under some historians − progressing from 1946 up to 1954 in the USA, USSR, and Germany as well as in Southeastern Europe (Greece and Romania).

The Research Question

The present dissertation constitutes a Study of Women's Group Biography. The thesis analyzes − through a sociohistorical lens − power relations between four mid-century female political activists to the state and the ruling political system, to their own party, and to the society by always considering the reciprocal impact. Precisely, the following bunch of questions delineates the research problem:

How can the dynamics of gender and power be understood and interpreted, while investigating common characteristics of this historical group within the set timeframe? How did these women − being in key positions − exercise authority or contrariwise behave, while being exposed to power? Did gender-specific characteristics in cases of performing coercive power or obeying arbitrary decisions become apparent?  

[1] The author is fluent in English, German, Greek and confident in Italian and Romanian.

The four Biographies

1. CATEGORY: Left-Wing Women Punished and Executed – One Main Character

ETHEL ROSENBERG, née GREENGLASS (September 25, 1915 – June 19, 1953) USA       

Gender History Biography.png

All my heart I send to all who hold me dear – I am not alone – and I die ‘with honor and with dignity’– knowing my husband and I must be vindicated by history. You will see to it that our names are kept bright and unsullied by lies – as you did while we lived so wholeheartedly, so unstintingly – you did everything that could be done. We are the first victims of American fascism.” [2]

Accused of committing 'the crime of the century', passing valuable atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, Ethel Rosenberg was executed by the Eisenhower Administration despite fierce protests and the appeal of Pope Pius XII  together with her husband Julius in 1953 – with highly controversial evidences. It was the first time in the 177 years US history that the Civil Court approved the execution of U.S. citizens, who were convicted of espionage during 'peacetime'. Their sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol[3] are still seeking a proclamation stating that their mother's conviction was unjust and her execution was wrongful. They even called on President Obama and US Attorney General Loretta Lynch to formally exonerate her, characterizing her death us a collateral damage of McCarthyism. The siblings founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children, "a non-profit, public foundation that makes grants to aid children in the U.S. whose parents are targeted, progressive activists". My aim is to meet them and other contemporary witness very soon, in order to conduct my research based on the method of oral history.   

[2] Ethel’s letter to lawyer Emanuel Bloch. Found in: Schneir, Walter and Miriam (1973). Invitation to an Inquest: Reopening the Rosenberg "Atom Spy" Case. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 252. 

[3] Both brothers took the family mane of Abel and Anne Meerpol, who adopted them.

Photo: Ethel Rosenberg, separated from her husband Julius by heavy wire screen as they leave U.S. Court House after being found guilty by jury. Copyrights: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. © Roger Higgins. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-117772], from:

The first category of the anthology is completed by a briefly refer to:

Milada Horáková, a Czech WW II resistance fighter, leader member of the Socialist Party and mother of a minor child (16 years old), who was sentenced to death on June 27, 1950 − two days after the beginning of the Korean War. The Communists, who had been completely influenced by Stalinism, executed her due to ‘high treason’ and ‘conspiracy’. Horáková was posthumously rehabilitated in the early 1990s and received the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1st Class). Her daughter, Jana Kansky immigrated in 1968 to the USA.

2. CATEGORY: Powerful Left-Wing Women in Key Positions – Two Main Characters  

HILDE BENJAMIN, née Lange (February 5, 1902 – April 18, 1989) East Germany (DDR)

hilde benjamin.png

While presiding as a judge over a series of political show trials in the 1950s, she sent with a relentless toughness e.g. Erna Dorn to death. Thus, she was characterized as 'Red Hilde', 'Red Guillotine' and 'Red Freisler' (prominent Nazi judge). This is, nonetheless, a ludicrous characterization, as the famous Scholl siblings' executor Roland Freisler was ironically the one who banned her for 12 years from the lawyer profession due to her Jews Communist husband. Further, Freisler had carried out 2.000 death sentences within two years; Benjamin, on the contrary, two death penalties within four years[4].


Despite coming from a bourgeois family, she was interested in the Communist ideas and married the Jews-Communist physician Georg Benjamin (brother of Dora and Walter Benjamin), who was murdered in the concentration camp Mathausen. In 1953, Benjamin became the first Minister of Justice in the world[5]. However, her best moment in life was the birth of her son Michael, law professor in Moscow and East Berlin, to whom she had kept a very strong relation. She was recalled from her position in 1967 She was called out of office in 1967 because "her lesbian relationships to a circle of women around the Central Committee were [according to Stasi files] known to American intelligence services [CIA]."[6] She was also the Biographer of her own husband and the most powerful woman in DDR beside Margot Honecker (Minister of National Education 1963-1989).

[5] Brentzel, Marianne (1997): Die Machtfrau: Hilde Benjamin ∙ 1902-1989. Berlin: Ch. Links, 7.

[5] This is repeatedly underlined by Marianne Brentzel and has to be approved.

[6] Borgmann R., Staadt, J. (1998). Deckname Markus: zwei Top-Agentinnen im Herzen der Macht ; [Spionage im ZK], Berlin: Transit, S. 117.

Photo: Hilde Benjamin holding a speech at the Women Congress of DDR in East Berlin, Dynamo-Sporthalle, 26.06.1964 as Justice Minister. Copyrights: Bundesarchiv (Federal Archive); ADN-Zentralbild, Image183-C0627-0010-005, from: (Lebendiges Museum Online)

ANA PAUKER, née Hannah Rabinsohn (February 13, 1893 – June 3, 1960) Romania

ana pauker 2.png

Photo: Copyrights of the left: The Romanian National Museum (MNIR), of the right: © TIME, Cover Credit: Ernest Hamlin Baker, Sep. 20, 1948

On September 20, 1948 the TIME featured Anna Pauker's portrait on its cover and characterized her as 'The Most Powerful Woman in the World alive'. The daughter of a poor, religious Orthodox Jewish family became the world's first female foreign minister by entering office in December 1947. The 'iron lady' and unreserved Stalinist was also the unofficial leader of the Romanian Communist Party directly after World War II. Nevertheless, she did not follow, like in other Soviet satellites states, Stalin's 'anti-Zionist' campaign and enabled the emigration of 100,000 Jews to Israel. With her downfall, she was accused of 'espionage' as an international Zionist for Israel and the United States. She was mother of five children.

Communism and Jewish Women after WWII

In the case of Ana Pauker as well as in this of Rosenberg – both of Jewish origin – the parameter 'Communism and Jewish Women in USA and Eastern Europe after WWII' should not be neglected.


The rise and fall of Female Leaders in Politics

The vehement defamation and discrimination that both Pauker and Benjamin experienced inside the Communist party (rumors of espionage and lesbian activities) after having accomplished huge goals is a very important factor that has to be studied.

3. CATEGORY: Left-Wing Women Punished and Imprisoned – One Main Character

ELLI IOANNIDOU, née PAPPA (1920 *month, day unknown – June 3, October, 27, 2009) Greece


On March 30, 1952, the Plastiras Government − that was under the total influence of USA, its allies and the Palace − executed despite international protests the leading cadre of the Greek Communist Party and father of a 7-month-old baby, Nikos Beloyannis, due to 'antipatriotic' acts. His partner and Greek WW II partisan Elli Pappa, an intellectual author (inter alia: 'The ancient Greek philosophers in Marx’s Capital'), born into a bourgeois family and sister of the distinguished novelist Dido Sotiriou, née Pappa, received death sentence which was, nevertheless, subsequently commuted thanks to her maternity. Elli Pappa refused to accept the decision of the court-martial. This attitude is analyzed with all due deference to this outstanding woman based on the principle of Introspection and Extrospection as well. The same approach also applies to Benjamin, Rosenberg and Pauker. This high-educated woman spent the rest of her life stigmatized and persecuted (see Military Junta of 1967–1974). Her son, also called Nikos Beloyiannis as his father, grew up in the prison by his mother's side up to the age of three. Nowadays, he lives in her apartment in Athens. He, as well as Takis Lazaridis, who was also indicted and not executed, is today 92 years old, lives in the Greek capital city and noteworthily stands completely aloof from the ideology for which he was once ready to be sacrificed. In consultation with Professor Spyros Sakellaropoulos, author of 'Έτσι αγαπάμε εμείς την Ελλάδα' (2018) [eng. This is how we love Greece], the most trustful source regarding this issue, we endeavor to intensify my research on this extraordinary personality by also meeting her son and commemorate for an extensive interview.  

Photo: Elli Pappa during the Show Trial. Photographer: Unknown.

Elli Pappa could not be seriously analyzed without taking into consideration the case of Мирка Гинова from the Slavomacedonian minority in North Greece, before coming to any conclusions regarding the extent of McCarthyism influence on the Plastiras decision not to execute her. What was the decisive factor? Motherhood or feminacy in general? The execution of the Communist teacher Mirka Ginova − the first woman who was sentenced to death during the Greek Civil War, today celebrated as a national hero in North Macedonia − will be very helpful.


The third category of the anthology is – in the context of the Truman Doctrine − completed by a briefly refer to:

Behice Boran, Sociology professor at the Ankara University, publisher of left-wing magazines, first Turkish chairwoman of a party (labor party TIP), founder of the Türk Barışseverler Cemiyeti (companionship of friends of peace) against the Turkish participation at the Korean War, which was the reason for her first imprisonment in 1951. Behind bars, she gave birth to her son Duran. She was re-arrested after the military coup of 1971. The second military coup of 1980 was the reason for an exile in Europe. Her funeral, a mass demonstration in 1987, was the first public left-wing show of force in Turkey's after the coup.

An excerpt


Prison as a vestibule of death: The Fall of Ethel Rosenberg and Elli Pappa

This chapter focuses on the incarceration of two women at the pinnacle of McCarthyism, delineating the penal system within the Cold War, where Ethel Rosenberg and Elli Pappa received death sentence. In this sense, jail was per se a prelude to death; whereby capital punishment, as an act, did not embody only punishment on a personal level, but served as a demonstration of state power and as a warning, resp. as a deterrent. Precisely, prison is observed not only as a space in its original function: a temporary whereabouts of isolation before announcing the death penalty in a show trial. Based on Foucault’s hétérotopie, the author emphasizes the process, in which the place of detention is being metamorphosed into a locus, where family moments occur. In addition, the condemned women bear a series of resemblances to each other while experiencing their utopia during the incarceration. Isolated behind bars, they become aware of the fierce protests against their execution. Hence, the place of incarceration is transfigured into a stage, where the last act of a drama takes place. Despite war atmosphere, the women taken into custody provide this 'big fortress […], this gray stone building, almost medieval like'[1] with a peaceful sense of intimacy. Merely, they transform a space of ignominy into a place of dignity. Lastly, Pappa gives birth to her son behind bars and escapes death sentence. Prisons as maternity hospitals? An attempt to cover this rare aspect will be finally made.


[1] Cooper, Anderson (October 16, 2016) "The Brothers Rosenberg". CBS News. Retrieved January 12, 2020. [Citation of Robert Meeropol].

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