Review of 'The Workers' and Peasants' State', eds. Patrick Major and Jonathan Osmond, Manchester University Press £15.99
When I was active in Natfhe in the 1970s and 1980s the Communist Party bureaucrats in the union saw East Germany, rather than Russia, as the 'socialist' motherland. In East Germany there were no show trials of the sort that had taken place in the rest of Eastern Europe in the early 1950s, women were positively encouraged to enter the labour force and so on.
This new book looks at the reality behind the surface. It contains a range of studies of the politics, society and culture of East Germany between 1945 and 1971.
What comes out is the difficulty the bureaucrats had trying to build 'socialism in half a country'. Until the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 it was relatively easy to cross into West Germany, and the regime in the East had to be wary of measures that might provoke too many to take flight. Notably it was impossible to introduce compulsory military service.
Likewise the fact of a shared language meant it was impossible to exclude cultural influence. Over 40 percent of young people in the East watched West German television. The Beatles were vilified as 'responsible for the waging of war and genocide'. But young people persisted in listening to the Fab Four instead of the officially provided alternatives.
In June 1953 working class discontent came to a head when a strike wave begun by building workers in Berlin spread through the country. While thousands were arrested and some 20 executed, there was no massacre on the scale of Hungary three years later. The police were ill prepared and in some areas refused to fire on strikers, while some army units abandoned their weapons in the face of demonstrators. In some places only Russian troops saved the Stasi (secret police) from lynching. Strikes continued into the autumn, and party officials who tried to address factory meetings were often shouted down.
The authors of this book have few illusions about East German society (though they tend to use the word 'socialism' as though it meant no more than a state-directed economy). They catalogue the harsh repression that did take place and show the ever-present role of the Stasi. Policies towards women are shown as the product of labour shortage rather than of feminist idealism.
As the conclusion argues, the term 'totalitarianism' does not fit the East German experience. This was no 1984-type society. The ruling group operated pragmatically, balancing the demands of Moscow with the pressures of 'public opinion' at home. Unlike other East European countries, East Germany had a working class which, despite Hitler, was only two decades removed from the revolutionary struggles of the early 1920s. It would have been rash to provoke it too far. The history of the regime was determined by the balance of the class struggle, mainly concealed, but coming to open confrontation in the 1953 strikes.