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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.3 (2003) 150-152

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Jonathan Grix, The Role of the Masses in the Collapse of the GDR.New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. xiii + 213 pp. $69.95.

The East German revolution of 1989 began with the mass flight of East German citizens to West Germany and escalated when vast numbers of other East Germans poured into the streets in open protest against the regime of the Socialist Unity Party (SED). Jonathan Grix's study successfully places the East German masses at the center of the revolutionary story. Most important, he argues that the attempt by many East Germans to leave their country for the West was itself a political act and part of the revolution.

The first two chapters of Grix's volume explore the way the options of "exit" and "voice," taken from Albert Hirschman's well-known model, were distorted in a period when neither option could be exercised without adverse consequences. "Loyalty" was only conditional, and lasted only as long as the state suppressed criticism and provided [End Page 150] consumer goods. Grix's manipulations of the "exit-voice-loyalty" model provide some insight into the nature of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), but the concrete details of the revolution that he presents are in the end more interesting.

Grix focuses on the northern city of Schwerin, which has not usually been associated with revolutionary activity in 1989. Using a number of unpublished sources, he traces the changing mood of the population. Stasi reports on "oppositional" and "hostile" activities in Schwerin; unpublished letters to the editor of the local newspaper; reports of local party organizations in a factory and a hospital; and petitions as well as reports summarizing petitions submitted to local and national party leaders all show a clear shift in tone from the mid-1980s on. People commented with ever greater frequency about the signs of economic deterioration: the lack of spare parts, the shortage of nurses, the time required to purchase consumer goods. At the same time, people became more aware of the gap between reality and what the state-controlled media reported. When the GDR banned the lively Soviet journal Sputnik in 1988, hundreds of petitions protested the ban, and workers openly expressed their disagreement in factories. People increasingly understood that the news media were treating them as immature subjects rather than as citizens. More and more people were willing to submit petitions to the government, and the tone of the petitions changed. The number of citizens who threatened to withhold their votes in the next elections, for example, increased by more than threefold from 1986 to 1989. The number of citizens requesting the right to emigrate likewise soared. Private grumbling about conditions of life and emigration turned into open criticism of the East German state. By September 1989, citizens seeking to emigrate gave political reasons for doing so, occasionally even in open letters to the local newspaper (which remained, of course, unpublished). These were not just consumers on the lookout for a better deal in the West; these were political protesters.

As Grix shows, those seeking to leave East Germany posed a problem for the country's dissident intellectuals. Many dissidents were angered when would-be emigrants took part in protests mainly so they would be expelled from the country. At the same time, those demanding to leave brought a new power to the demonstrations and indeed were part of the general movement to overthrow the East German state. Under extraordinary circumstances those demanding "exit" and those demanding "voice" came together to declare the end of their conditional loyalty to the state. Grix provides an excellent, convincing account of this process in the supposedly quiescent province of Mecklenburg.

On the basis of his research Grix argues that the masses rather than the dissidents were the real revolutionaries. He writes that "any 'movement' [for revolution] in 1989 belonged wholly to the citizens and not to the intellectuals, SED Party members or the marginalized groups" (p.156). Grix's annoyance...