- Dictatorship and Demand: The Politics of Consumerism in East Germany
Like all state-socialist regimes, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had trouble organizing the production of consumer goods; unlike others, it was at the front line of the Cold War, and its citizens were able to compare East to West directly, usually to the detriment of the GDR. The leaders of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) knew well that they faced a challenge. After all, until the Berlin Wall was built hundreds of thousands left East Germany, in part because of the higher standard of living in the West. Mark Landsman's new book documents the SED regime's attempts to respond to the demand for consumer goods from 1947 to 1961 through pricing policy, rationing, planning, research into consumer needs, exhortations to workers to produce more, and finally the Berlin Wall itself.
As Landsman narrates, in the desperate years following World War II, consumer goods, including staples such as food, clothing, and housing, were scarce. The Soviet Union's policy of removing industrial plants and extracting high reparations from the Soviet zone of occupation exacerbated the situation. Landsman shows how the first elements of economic planning developed in response to chaos and shortage. Attempts to increase worker productivity by piecework pay, moral suasion, or special rations [End Page 195] failed to produce the desired result. Before long, more money was chasing fewer goods, and price-setting and continued rationing were the necessary responses. Consumer goods remained scarce in the Soviet zone long after shop windows in the West filled with goods in the wake of the Marshall Plan. East German leaders offered some goods at special stores (Handelsorganisationen, or HO) at high prices to soak up extra purchasing power while still trying to provide basic goods at low prices. But Landsman shows that shortages persisted, and the crisis continued. The systemic failure to provide goods and heavy-handed attempts to increase labor output finally led to the uprising of 1953. Following that debacle, the regime attempted to shift investment funds to consumer items. Landsman documents the creation of new research units seeking to determine the objective needs of consumers (Bedarfforschung) rather than subjective, individualistic demand (Nachfrage). But when decisions on how to allocate scarce resources were made, the state-socialist regime tended to prefer big industrial projects and guns to consumer goods, as Landsman shows. A new crisis of production after 1958, precipitated by SED decisions to push ahead with agricultural collectivization and a military buildup that took funds away from other investment, led to a flood of émigrés to the West—and eventually to the Berlin Wall.
Landsman succeeds in linking the GDR's weak legitimacy with the "political consequences of frustrated desire" (p. 2). But the book would have gained from a clarification of the causes of this failure to respond to consumer demand. On the one hand, Landsman seems to argue that the cultural ideals of Communism kept policymakers from responding to demand. Cultural images of the active, sacrificing, productive, male worker, part of the "proletarian mystique" of the Soviet model, drove policy (p. 5). On the other hand, he paints a regime overwhelmed by both the circumstances of scarcity in the postwar era and the deficiencies of centralized planning. Amid these problems, calls for republican austerity may simply have been an attempt to put a good face on a bad situation. Landsman ends by arguing that the regime of Erich Honecker drove the country into economic collapse by expending money on consumer goods rather than productive investment. If so, then the problem seems to be one primarily of economic necessity, not cultural ideals.
Landsman may also at times underestimate the ideological apparatus of Marxist-Leninist economics. In 1958, Landsman notes, Ulbricht made the absurd suggestion that within a few short years production in the GDR would "overtake and surpass" that of West Germany, echoing the prediction made by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Landsman states that "the available evidence suggests that the SED leadership...