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Neither socialist heaven nor Stasi hell

History may be often written by the victors but a warts-and-all account of the successes and failures of the German Democratic Republic redresses the balance, says JOHN FOSTER

Stasi State or Socialist Paradise: The German Democratic Republic
and What Became of it
by Bruni de la Motte
and John Green
(Artery Publications, £7.50)

THE German Democratic Republic vanished in 1990. All that remains today are memories. The conclusion of the earlier book on the GDR by Bruni de la Motte and John Green drew on these memories to allow a range of individuals — a car mechanic, an architect, a farm worker, a doctor — to talk about themselves.

The result defied cold-war stereotypes. The GDR was neither a hell nor a utopia. It nurtured hopes of a new, more human social order but also restricted those hopes.

In the introduction to their new book, the authors stress the importance of the GDR’s experience, both positive and negative, for all those who seek a more just and socialist society.

Building such a society will never be undertaken, as Marx might have said, in circumstances of our own choosing. Nowhere was this more so than in the GDR.

The GDR was not created as a result of a mass mobilisation of working people. It came in the wake of war in the economically least developed part of Germany that was devastated, depopulated and subject to heavy reparations.

It was certainly the case that sections of the German working class had fought heroically against fascism and that the arrival of Soviet troops in Berlin marked, in a sense, the conclusion of a quarter century of anti-fascist struggle.

It was also the case that referenda held in 1946 in both eastern and western sectors showed majority support for the public ownership of large-scale industry and utilities and the expropriation of nazi-supporting big businesses.

Yet nazi ideology was deeply entrenched and the GDR was throughout its 40-year history in the front line of the cold war, subject to an economic blockade every bit as damaging as that against Cuba and faced with systematic attempts at destabilisation and subversion.

It was therefore remarkable that the GDR achieved as much as it did. A survey carried out among its former citizens in 1998 found that the negative things they associated with the GDR were restrictions on travel (62 per cent), scarcity of consumer goods (42 per cent) and dominance by the Socialist Unity Party (38 per cent) but Stasi spying only scored 5 per cent. 

Positive associations were considerably stronger — full employment (89 per cent), social security (85 per cent), opportunities for women (82 per cent) and workplace satisfaction (65 per cent). A more recent poll found that over 80 per cent felt that life was better in the GDR than it has been since unification.

The authors stress the detrimental aspects of the GDR’s political structure — that the leadership never lost its fear of “anti-state activities, rebellion and counterrevolution,” that its formally multiparty system remained subordinated to the leadership of one party and that Soviet tutelage involved seriously negative consequences for the internal democracy of the Socialist Unity Party itself.

Yet they also stress the high levels of informal participation in decision-making at local level and the depth of GDR’s economic democracy. Income differentials were 1:3 as against 1:12 in West Germany. Workplace security and some of the best social services in Europe gave people confidence to develop their own lives.

There was also the legacy of the nazi past. The GDR carried out full denazification, while in the west Nazi personnel continued to dominate the security services and the judiciary. 10,000 people were imprisoned in West Germany in the 1960s for association with the banned Communist Party and peace organisations.

As Seumas Milne writes in his foreword, history is too often written by the victors. The degree to which the GDR is still demonised in the West indicates that its attempt to build socialism remains both a challenge to contemporary capitalism and an experience from which we should ourselves learn.

The authors are to be congratulated on providing a balanced and informed account.

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