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  • Red Prometheus: Engineering and Dictatorship in East Germany, 1945–1990
  • Scott Moranda
Red Prometheus: Engineering and Dictatorship in East Germany, 1945–1990. By Dolores L. Augustine. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008. 381 pp. $40.00 (cloth).

In Red Prometheus, Dolores L. Augustine explores the everyday relationship between communist dictatorship and German engineering in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The book is notable for its attention to complexity; East German engineers and scientists daily encountered the realities of power, but their responses to the power of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) were never predictable. The messy lived experience of dictatorship is all the more evident for the author’s focus on individual engineers and scientists revealed by archival research and oral history.

Complexity, of course, can obscure as much as it illuminates, but Augustine is clear to always remind us of the debilitating effect of censorship and political paranoia on high-tech engineering. Recent histories of East Germany have provided a valuable service in focusing our attention on the limits of dictatorship, as well as the spaces available for negotiation between society and the state. In particular, cultural historians have shed light on collective identities in the GDR. These scholars often take the regime’s security apparatus as a given, choosing instead to explore the rich textures of everyday life lived within the GDR—woven from continuities from the past, pragmatic adjustments to political realities, as well as occasional enthusiasm for the socialist future. Of course, cultural historians have never ignored relationships of power. By the end of Red Prometheus, however, the long reach of the Stasi security forces is impossible to ignore. Of course, it could be asked if this is all that surprising. Nonetheless, Augustine’s contribution is her ability to weave political oppression into the tapestry of everyday lives.

The history that Augustine tells revolves around the events of 1968 to 1971, as Walter Ulbricht fell out of favor and Erich Honecker imposed his unique combination of consumer socialism (demanding strict political loyalty on the one hand and privileging consumer demand over technological innovation on the other). Before this period of transition, Augustine argues that engineers found more room for maneuver. Afterward, scientists experienced increased surveillance from political cadres. Their autonomy diminished, Augustine insists, as a traditional scientific culture—bourgeois, male-dominated, and proudly “apolitical”—weakened under pressure from the SED.

In the first half of the book, Augustine thus devotes much of her attention to continuities with the past that persisted well into the [End Page 169] 1960s. In particular, she stresses the continued faith in and practice of apolitical science, as many scientists believed the communists would keep politics and technology separate. If scientists kept quiet about ideology, they would be free to pursue their research with little outside interference. Their experiences under Nazism conditioned their hopes, as the organization of research had changed little since the war. Both regimes placed technical experts in high-security research facilities and isolated them from the civilian population. Though the SED did assert its control over the universities, a precommunist academic culture survived because Ulbricht needed to keep engineers from fleeing westward and because Ulbricht admired the German academic tradition.

With the construction of the Berlin Wall, concessions to engineers diminished, and the Third University Reform in 1968 broke the independence of academics. Scientists previously had controlled institutes in which professors set the research agenda and determined hiring and promotions. By the end of the 1960s, the SED had much greater control over research agendas. The extent of that control is revealed through the biographies of five high-tech scientists around which much of the book revolves. Examining the careers of each scientist (Heinz Barwich, Matthias Falter, Werner Hartmann, Herbert Kortum, and Paul Görlich), Augustine explains the failure of key research projects in the 1960s, especially in microelectronics. Not trusting the technical intelligentsia, the SED quickly abandoned projects that did not look promising and blamed the political weaknesses of engineers for all failures.

In the Honecker era, the Stasi established their control over research facilities. Augustine suggests that, at some level, the SED interference was a genuine attempt to modernize research, as some leading scientists...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-8050
Print ISSN
1045-6007
Pages
pp. 169-172
Launched on MUSE
2010-04-01
Open Access
No
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