East Germany under Ulbricht

Review: Thériault on Major and Osmond

Patrick Major and Jonathan Osmond, eds. The Workers' and Peasants' State: Communism and Society in East Germany under Ulbricht 1945-71. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002. xv + 304 pp. Illustrations, bibliographical references, index. $74.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-7190-6289-6.

Reviewed by Barbara Thériault, Department of Sociology and Canadian Center for German and European Studies, University of Montreal.
Published by H-German (January, 2004)

Before the Birth of the Workers' and the Peasants' State

In 1974, Article 1 of the second constitution of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was amended. The state's self-definition as a "socialist state of German nation" was changed to the "socialist state of workers and peasants." The constitutional amendment, it could be argued, also reflects or at least coincides with the internal and external recognition of the GDR as a lasting state. The sixteen chapters making up this volume originate from a 1999 conference dealing with the time span before the institutionalization of the Workers' and Peasants' state or, as the subtitle of the book suggests, with communism and society in East Germany under Ulbricht (1945-71). The contributors, primarily British, but also German scholars of East Germany, aim to shed light on three facets of the defunct state, which build the book's structure: state, culture, and society. Reading the chapters is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle of "Ulbricht's Germany," as the original conference was entitled. As one could expect for this type of endeavor, the reader is not offered the monolithic picture the ruling communist party might have drawn, but rather a more nuanced one. Indeed, a general picture emerges, which illustrates the party's strained oscillation between strategies of repression and reform in its effort to mobilize the population while reacting to the limits set by "society," major issues, and political events such as the German question, Stalin's ascendancy, the 1953 workers' uprising, the 1956 revolt in Hungary, the Prague Spring, and Soviet military interventions.

The aim of the book is clearly stated at the onset: to present an English-speaking readership with a history of the Soviet Occupation Zone (SBZ) and early GDR, in which many chapters favor a bottom-up approach so as to reconcile "both halves of the story" (p. 8). Many of the chapters share a common leitmotiv. Stated from above: how could the guardians of socialism in the SBZ and the early GDR convince people of their message? Or, stated from below: how did society react to these attempts? The first section examines the state: its carriers and their apparatus (the party, the secret police, the police, and the army). A look at the Ulbricht years indicates that the party's high functionaries showed a great deal of pragmatism, often oscillating between repression and reform. Indeed, different strategies were adopted to control and mobilize the masses, ranging from sanctions such as imprisonment, expulsion, limited access to training and careers, monitoring and surveillance to rewards and more subtle persuasion--as Ulbricht's 1960 speech on the common concerns of socialism and Christianity shows (for an account of church policies, see Chapter Twelve by Merrilyn Thomas). In this respect, the position of those embodying both the "us" and "them," police officers and the party's rank-and-file, is particularly interesting for they were confronted with the tensions pertaining to the enforcement of the changing policies (see especially Chapters Four and Seven on the People's Police and the workers respectively). In looking at society and culture, the second and third sections of the volume show that the party leadership's endeavors did not always lead to the expected results as can be best illustrated by the massive exodus to the Federal Republic (Chapter Eleven by Patrick Major)[1], the continuous attraction to Western culture (Chapter Ten on youth policy and Chapter Thirteen on dance music),[2] and the indifference and apathy displayed by the population in general (Chapter Six on popular opinion reports). The chapters attest to the fact that though the party could, through repression and reform, often mobilize the population, it could not always spur allegiance and identification.[3]

During most of Ulbricht's rule as leader, "modern party absolutism" (Fulbrook, Chapter Sixteen) did not gain the stability and legitimacy it strove for. The Wall certainly played a large de facto role in creating a state. However, a comparison between the fields of activities studied in the volume points to experiments such as "impertinent socialism" once advocated in the domain of youth culture policies (p. 178) or socialism with humanistic concerns evoked when dealing with the churches. The crystallization of these conceptions could have led to the emergence of a particular socialism in the GDR. If anything is to be remembered from the chapter's assessment of the Ulbricht years, it is that the fate of the state had not been sealed. With the passage of time, the GDR and its ruling elite gained wider recognition. That their message did not always convince East Germans between 1945 and 1971 is maybe not so important. The citizens' motives to comply with the SED's rule--whether fear, indifference, or consent--are not decisive for, as Rehberg puts it, "Erzwungenes oft Zustimmung mobilisieren und herausbilden kann und weil so viele Einverstaendnisse eben doch auf Zwangsbedingungen beruhen."[4] In the 1970s, the Workers' and Peasants' state had gained more stability and recognition.

The individual chapters are the result of valuable work with archival material. Some sources, such as popular opinion surveys (see Allinson, Chapter Six) are original. More questionable, considering the rift between perceptions in time, are the retrospective interviews made with former GDR citizens. The chapters can be read on their own. The chapters' themes, such as dance music, church activities, women policies, and styles in historiography, gain interest if compared to similar issues in other countries, whether socialist or not. Such an angle could enable an understanding of the GDR's particularities. Taken together, the differences between the various fields examined in the individual chapters should have been systematically worked out. Thus, continuities with the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich as well as similarities to the Federal Republic could have been exposed. In so doing, the authors would have challenged or complemented their assessment of the ruling party's pragmatism. In the concluding chapter, Mary Fulbrook raises some of the methodological and theoretical issues that need to be addressed when engaging in the history of the GDR. Fulbrook's treatment of these issues can be read as a proposed research agenda, but also as a form of criticism at the end of the book. Indeed, a more theoretically informed introduction and approach would have been much appreciated.


[1]. The SBZ/GDR lost a sixth of its population before the construction of the Berlin Wall. This estimate does not include the expellees who passed through the eastern territories (p. 191).
[2]. East German music, films, and products seem to enjoy more popularity now than they did in the GDR.
[3]. K.-S. Rehberg, "Institutionen als symbolische Ordnungen. Leitfragen und Grundkategorien zur Theorie und Analyse institutioneller Mechanismen", Die Eigenart der Institutionen, ed. Gerhard Goehler (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 1994), p. 51.
[4]. K.-S. Rehberg, p. 51.

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