east germany Archive

The “Participatory Dictatorship” – Fulbrook’s “The People’s State” (2)

The “Participatory Dictatorship” – Fulbrook’s “The People’s State” (2)

In Part One of my overview of Mary Fulbrook’s The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english] and DE [deutsch]), I emphasized Professor Fulbrook’s assertion that most histories of East Germany concentrate on the “state versus society” angle, seeing the latter wholly as a repressed body governed and repressed by the former.  As she makes clear in her introduction to the book, she believes the “state versus society” approach is unnecessarily and unnaturally limiting; a history that focuses only on the East German regime’s repression of dissent is, to some extent, ahistorical.

I also mentioned that in pursuing her newer, wider and, as she believes, more correct approach to East Germany’s history, Fulbrook appears to be at least somewhat worried that her own politics can be used against her, that she might be seen by some as downplaying the repressive elements of the dictatorship.  As I noted, she therefore goes out of her way on several occasions to remind the readers that the regime was, in fact, a repressive dictatorship.  (By the way, she makes this clear enough in another of her books concerning East Germany, Anatomy of a Dictatorship.)

Given her stance — and her own worries about how her stance might be received — I was really wondering just how far she would go in describing what we might call a “contented people” (not her phrase) in the later parts of the book where her arguments would be spelled out in greater detail.  Let’s be specific here: I was asking myself, “Am I maybe going to come away thinking that East Germany wasn’t such a bad place?”

Having now read up to the book’s conclusion — and most importantly the section with the eyebrow-raising title, “The Participatory Dictatorship” — I can say that rather than getting the sense of any kind of contentment experienced by East German citizens, I instead come away with a much greater understanding of what could be considered “coping“: how most East Germans settled into the system, became a part of it and recognized their own limitations as to what they could change about it.  So one of my overall reactions is that Professor Fulbrook probably did not need to worry too much that what she wrote would be considered a diminution of the repressive elements of East German society.  I can say with certainty that in sections such as “The Participatory Dictatorship”, I did not feel in any way that Fulbrook plays down the repressive nature of the regime.

Rather, she simply provides a very interesting and thought-provoking description of how, in fact, the “State versus Society” model hardly existed.  The State was the Society.  How’s that?

The regime did a truly remarkable job integrating the society into the state by widening — to an extraordinary degree — the group of stakeholders who had something to benefit from the state.  And I’m not just talking “benefits” in the form of health and education, but rather more in the form of making individuals feel that they are part of the state’s governance by providing them with responsibilities, no matter how pathetic (in retrospect) some of these responsibilities might seem.  Much of this was simply manipulation, but a very clever manipulation indeed.  That handful of people who truly held power at the top of the regime understood very clearly that they needed to give people a sense of (limited) power — or the appearance of power — to influence their local surroundings.

To that end, vast numbers of people were given some sort of “functionary” role.  (The notion of “functionary” is very prominent in Chapter 11.)  Fulbrook:

Implausibly large numbers — perhaps one in six of the population — were involved in one way or another in what might be called the micro-systems of power through which the GDR society worked.  This system cannot be described in terms of an extended “state” that was “doing something” to a “society” conceived of as separate from the “state”: rather it was the very way society as a whole was structured.  Life in the GDR, in just about every respect — including not only the obvious areas of the economy or the education system, but also housing and leisure — was organised in ways that were at the same time dependent on central policy decisions and on the practices of innumerable people who were active participants in the maintenance and functioning of the system on the ground.

Among them were 300,000-400,000 “key functionaries”, but then also another two million adults who

played a significant role as a functionary in one or more of the mass organizations, political parties and regional and local representative institutions such as the Stasi, the Army and the People’s Police, and the state administrative and economic apparatus.

[T]o try to call them all representatives of the “state”, rather than members of “society”, would be to make an artificial distinction that does not adequately depict the situation on the ground.[236-237]

She goes on to describe some of the “enormous number of functions” a citizen of the GDR could potentially hold. But it’s very important to note that she does not present this as some sort of ideal circumstance, as if it was “finally” a state in which “the people” could actively participant.  I found her to be describing a rather more pathetic situation, though I’m not sure she would characterize it as such.  For example, the “functionaries” would — unsurprisingly — use their functions as proof of commitment to the regime when asking (begging) for items of scarcity, such as apartments or management jobs.  A certain type of class system emerged in this “classless” society.

She refers to the functionaries described above as a “benign” form of participation.  That group was large enough as is, but we’ve not yet touched upon the “malign exercises of power” that could be undertaken by everyday members of society who, sadly, jumped at the opportunity.  We’re speaking here of the informal collaborators (inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, or “IMs”) who worked with the Stasi, the notorious East German secret police.  Fulbrook:

By way of comparison, the Gestapo employed 7,000 officials for a total population of 66,000,000 in Nazi Germany; the Stasi employed over 91,000 full-time staff in a GDR population of about 16,400,000 in 1989. [241]

And those were simply the official employees of the Stasi.  By the 1980s there were 170,000-180,000 informal collaborators, “an average ratio of one informer to every 60 or so adults.”  Given the turnover of IMs over the years, she estimates that a half million GDR citizens were informal collaborators of the Stasi during the Honecker years.  So this was yet another and more sinister way in which society and state overlapped during the second German dictatorship.

Fulbrook’s The People’s State (UK, CA, DE [english] and DE [deutsch]) is full of interesting data such as the numbers I’ve just showed you.  I believe she makes good use of the data and, overall, I found her argument very convincing.  She need not have worried too much about her arguments being misinterpreted from a political perspective: I experienced the book as a series of very thorough empirical examinations followed up by completely plausible interpretations.

It’s dense stuff, meant (I imagine) not so much for a casual audience but rather for university study.  Nevertheless, Fulbrook’s writing is very approachable — it’s only the detail that I think might put off the casual reader.  Professor Fulbrook is very thorough!  Personally, I like that.

Happy Reading!

Bill Dawson

P.S. For a dramatic interpretation of the methods of the Stasi — the East German secret police — check out the Oscar-winning film “The Lives of Others” (also available at Amazon UK, CA and DE).  For a foreign-language film, “The Lives of Others” has an extraordinary 270+ reviews at Amazon.com, almost wholly positive.  Here’s part of one:

‘The Lives of Others’ is 137 minutes of the best entertainment imaginable. Ulrich Mühe is an East German who himself was the target of Stasi oversight. For this film, he was awarded Best Actor at the 2006 European Film Awards. Is there a more just triumph than that?

Photo Credit

The lead photo accompanying this blog post is from the German Federal Archives which has kindly made it available via Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license.  The photo shows participants of the Bundeskongress of the German League of Democratic Women (DFD), one of the many organizations that would have been in a position to provide “functionary” roles as described by Professor Fulbrook.

Fall of the Berlin Wall – 20th Anniversary – links for 03 Nov 2009

Fall of the Berlin Wall – 20th Anniversary – links for 03 Nov 2009

Here are links for 03 November 2009 concerning that very important moment in German History (and world history), the fall of the Berlin Wall. The 20th anniversary of that momentous event is coming up in just six days, on 09 November 2009.

If you missed them, consider reviewing other recent entries containing links regarding the anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. And don’t forget our special page dedicated wholly to Fall of the Berlin Wall Resources.

And now to today’s links:

  • Deutsche Welle shows us “What’s Left of the Berlin Wall”.  Though it’s a fairly simple slide show featuring 16 photos, it has quickly become one of my favorites because of the excellent descriptions (in English) of each photo.  Very, very interesting, particularly the parts about cemeteries being affected by the border fortifications.
  • “I have never had such a gifted pupil since,” says German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s former teacher, according to an interesting article at the Independent which gives not only a brief biographical sketch of Chancellor Merkel, but also a glimpse at the town in which she grew up in East Germany.

Unfortunately, today’s video is not “embed-able” in my page, so you’ll have to head on over to the BBC to watch it.  It’s part of native German Franz Strasser’s trip through the areas of his former country, East Germany.  In this episode, Strasser talks with German students who belong to the first generation that grew up during reunification.  Interesting!

I hope you enjoyed today’s links.  Keep coming back for more!

Until next time,

Bill Dawson

P.S. Chancellor Merkel is right at the top of the list of the world’s most powerful women. She’s very modest in public and comes across as a bit of an intellectual (which she is); words like “dynamic”, which we often like to ascribe to leaders, don’t necessarily apply to her. But this makes her no less of an extraordinary woman, one who has a very interesting biography, as that Independent article suggests.

There are English-language biographies of this “Power-Frau“, such as the one I’ve highlighted here. Check it out!

Photo Credit

The lead photo accompanying this blog post shows German Chancellor Angela Merkel and comes from Wikimedia Commons, where it was graciously made available by Jacques Grießmayer under the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 license.

3 Links to Get You Up to Speed on the Berlin Wall

3 Links to Get You Up to Speed on the Berlin Wall

So you vaguely recall hearing something about an upcoming anniversary in Germany, but you’re embarrassed to admit that you don’t really know what all the hoopla is about. Sure, you know Berlin is the capital of Germany, and you’ve come across the notion of some kind of “Wall” being there, but that’s about the extent of your knowledge.

That’s what I’m here for, to help you learn a bit o’ history. Here are three links to help you understand what this upcoming anniversary is all about:

  1. The BBC maintains a series of pages dedicated to helping British students study for their GCSEs (General Certificate for Secondary Education). For their history coverage they include a set of pages on the Berlin Wall. This is a very short (a few paragraphs) summary of why the Wall was built. If you wish to go further in understanding the historical context, view the other pages in their “Back to International relations 1945 – 1991″ series.
  2. The website of the German Mission to the United States features a page titled Looking Back at the Fall of the Berlin Wall”, which is a nice, succinct, single-page summary of the Berlin Wall. A short timeline covering 1945-1990 is also provided, as are several suggested links to other pages.
  3. Last but not least, there is always Wikipedia and their comprehensive entry concerning the Berlin Wall. This makes for longer reading than the links above, but provides a great deal of historical context.

And now for a little bonus. Do you want to “feel” the Berlin Wall, in an emotional sorta way? I find the video below to be absolutely goose-bumpy! It features video clips concerning the Wall, accompanied by the song “Wind of Change” from the German band The Scorpions. The song is relevant: it was written with the revolutions of 1989 in mind. Put on your headphones, turn up the volume, kick back and immerse yourself in the Berlin Wall experience:

No excuses! Now you know about that infamous Wall and you’re prepared to talk about it in the coming week!

Until next time,

Bill Dawson

P.S. You can always read a book, too, if you find yourself more interested! Here is one wholly dedicated to the topic of the Berlin Wall. The book came out this year specifically because of the 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, which is celebrated on 09 November.

It’s Jeffrey Engel’s The Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Revolutionary Legacy of 1989. That link is for Amazon.com, but the book is also available via Amazon UK, Canada and Germany.


Photo Credit

The photo of the Berlin Wall that accompanies this blog post is from Flickr user “vivaopictures”, who has graciously made it available to all of us via the Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license. The suggested attribution is as follows:

Mary Fulbrook, “The People’s State” (Review part 1)

Mary Fulbrook, “The People’s State” (Review part 1)

For me, reading Mary Fulbrook’s The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker (also at Amazon UK, CA, DE [english] and DE [deutsch]) is like an act of intellectual integrity. My normal, day-to-day inclination during conversation is to do nothing but bash East Germany, that dictatorship of communist elites that repressed its people, shot those trying to leave, sent murderous goons outside its borders to eliminate political enemies and perpetuated the lie of a successful “actual existing socialism” while running its economy into the ground.

Judging from that previous sentence, I’ll still be bashing that second German dictatorship (along with first) long after I finish Professor Fulbrook’s book.

But what I won’t do anymore is try to hide and ignore something which I already knew but which was never explained to me as well as Professor Fulbrook has done: the simple yet politically inconvenient fact that many (most?) citizens of East Germany led normal lives, did not feel threatened by the State and even participated — with some measure of satisfaction — in their own governance.

Fulbrook confronts this issue head on. She knows it’s politically charged, and she exerts herself during the book’s introduction to make sure that readers realize she is not attempting to act as an apologist for the dictatorship. She goes so far as to introduce and address the possibility that her own personal politics might be construed as having influenced the conclusions of her research.

Part of my purpose in this book is to provide an empirically founded alternative interpretation to one such highly politicised model of the GDR: that of totalitarianism. But I do this not because (as some commentators will no doubt wish to argue) I am allegedly an ‘old leftie’ nostalgically hankering after some mythical past, or yearning for a rose-tinted picture of what might have been, but rather — more mundanely — because as a professional historian and scholar with a social science background I think the totalitarian approach simply does not capture adequately the empirical realities of life in the GDR. [x]

In other words, interpreting the history of the GDR (East Germany) only from the perspective of it being a totalitarian society is not adequate: it ignores the fact that many of its own citizens did not experience it in this way.

This is not to say (and I don’t believe she means to say) that writing a complete history of the GDR can be accomplished without an emphasis on its totalitarian nature. Such an effort would be ahistorical; but so too are histories that only take the totalitarian approach:

[W]e need new ways of thinking about the interrelations between political processes and social change in the GDR than the old dualistic model of state versus society, regime versus people, can allow. [xi]

Moreover, the dualistic approach to East German history is curiously different from standard approaches to western histories:

Yet while no Western historian would seek to write the social history of a Western society solely in terms of regime policies and popular resistance, this is very much how the social history of the GDR has been conceived, particularly when added in to the general historical overviews of political developments.[11]

The book is thus also a call to action directed at historians. The complete emphasis on regime-versus-people — which has so far been the tack taken by most historians — ignores other aspects of life in the GDR which were also important in forming the society. For example, the GDR was not just a communistic state, but also a modern industrial state. Western historians have long included the modern industrial condition as a factor shaping the histories of their own societies, but somehow this angle has been largely ignored in histories of East Germany.

In addition to expanding the framework of GDR history by allowing for empirical approaches beyond the purely political, Fulbrook also came to interesting conclusions regarding the political processes themselves. She introduces the term “participatory dictatorship”, which is sure to raise the eyebrows of many a reader. The political process, she argues,

did actually involve very widespread participation of large numbers of people, for a wide variety of reasons: not always or necessarily out of genuine commitment to Marxist-Leninist ideals; nor always or necessarily as a result of being simply coerced or cowed into compliance.

In the bits that I have quoted (which extend no further than Chapter 1, though this blog entry is already too long!), I hope you can see how challenging and thought-provoking this book is, and why I’m reading it so slowly. I have yet to finish it; it will therefore remain the “Book of the Week” for some time, as I plan to write further about her evidence and the extent to which I find it convincing.

In clear text: it’s the most important book I’ve read to date on East Germany, because it’s opening up new avenues of research rather than simply reinforcing what we already know and believe about the second German dictatorship.

If you’re fast, you might even pick up The People’s State and finish before I do!

Until next time,

Bill Dawson

P.S. Not to be forgotten among these notions of normal, everyday life in East Germany are the stranger and more intrusive activities of the communist dictatorship, particularly its Ministry for State Security (the infamous Stasi).

For one dramatic interpretation of the Stasi, I recommend the award-winning film, “The Lives of Others” (2007 Academy Award: Best Foreign Language Film) (also available at Amazon UK, CA and DE). I particularly enjoyed the film because I got to see German actors whom I see day-to-day watching German television from here in neighboring Austria. It was fun to recognize these faces and see them playing in such an important and internationally acclaimed film.

Photo Credit:

The lead photo accompanying this blog post is from the German Federal Archives (via Wikimedia Commons) and shows a queue outside of a bakery in East Berlin.

Fall of the Berlin Wall – 20th Anniversary – links for 29 Oct 2009

We skipped a day yesterday, but here we are with links for 29 October 2009 concerning that very important moment in German History (and world history), the fall of the Berlin Wall. The 20th anniversary of that momentous event is coming up on 09 November 2009.

If you missed them, consider reviewing other recent entries containing links regarding the anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. And don’t forget our special page dedicated wholly to Fall of the Berlin Wall Resources.

And now to today’s links:

  • The first is a bit humorous, though it’s not meant to be.  At Russia Today we learn that Vladimir Putin may have “significantly contributed to reuniting the German state, but this stage of Putin’s biography is still classified and no specific facts can be obtained.”  Riiiiggghhht.  Russia Today is run by the “Autonomous [tee hee] Nonprofit Organization ‘TV-Novosti'”. [“tee hee” mine.]  The journalist for the documentary that is mentioned in the article works for NTV, which is controlled by Gazprom, the state gas industry.
  • At the New York Times appears a Reuters article about the “Stasi files”: massive amounts of paperwork kept by the East German Ministry of State Security, detailing extraordinary amounts of information about the citizens on whom they were spying.  Authorities in the re-unified Germany had originally thought they could honor all requests by private citizens to view their files within ten years.
    But thousands of people, mainly from former East Germany, are still applying every month. In the first half of 2009, applications were up nearly 11 percent on 2008.

    “We have had more applications this year because of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall,” said Martin Boettger, who heads a regional branch of the Stasi archives in Chemnitz, formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt.

    “Many films and books are being made, events are being held, so it is in the public consciousness,” said Boettger, whose own file contains 3,000 pages, detailing even the most trivial facts of his life and branding him a “religious fanatic.” (my emphasis)

    It really makes you wonder: what on earth could this particular citizen – Mr. Boettger – have done that could have been interesting enough to fill up 3,000 pages?

Today’s video is a report from Reuters about where pieces of the Wall have ended up:

Until next time,

Bill Dawson

P.S. We’re now just 11 days away from the 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I’m going to be cutting back on these daily links — they won’t be daily anymore, because I almost feel like I’ve been spamming my own blog! :) So they’ll be a bit less frequent, and with some other bigger blog posts interspersed.

Fall of the Berlin Wall – 20th Anniversary – links for 26 Oct 2009

Here are links for 26 October 2009 concerning that very important moment in German History (and world history), the fall of the Berlin Wall. The 20th anniversary of that momentous event is coming up on 09 November 2009.

If you missed them, consider reviewing other recent entries containing links regarding the anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. And don’t forget our special page dedicated wholly to Fall of the Berlin Wall Resources.

And now to today’s links:

Today’s video is from Sony Pictures Classics’ account at YouTube and features the trailer for the film “The Lives of Others” (Das Leben der Anderen), a German film concerning the Stasi and how it spied on East German citizens, particularly (as in the film) prominent authors or other artists who were seen as politically unreliable or even subversive.

More links tomorrow.

Until then,

Bill Dawson

The Lives of Others (DVD)P.S. “The Lives of Others”, the film whose trailer is shown above, is now available on DVD at Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca and — in the original German — at Amazon.de.