- Engineers of Modern Development: East German Experts in Ba'thist Syria: 1965-1972 by Massimiliano Trentin
Syria's Ba'th Party remains, in Eric Rouleau's apt phrase, "an enigma," and no more so than during its heyday in the mid-1960s. The so-called "radical" wing of the party adopted programs that empowered disadvantaged members of Syrian society, most notably women and farm laborers, yet imposed an unprecedented degree of state supervision on industrial workers. Efforts were made to strengthen state agencies at the local level, while at the same time augmenting the institutional capacity of the central administration. Such initiatives heightened fundamental contradictions in Ba'thi economic policy, and set the stage for the demise of the radicals and the consolidation of a "corrective movement" that melded a strong state with an overriding concern for efficiency and even profitability in industry and agriculture.
New insight into the workings of the Ba'thi political economy at its zenith can be found in Massimiliano Trentin's innovative analysis of relations between the technical missions of the German Democratic Republic (DDR) and the Syrian authorities from 1965 to 1972. Rather than promoting scientific socialism per se, the East Germans quickly took steps to create a rational, modern political apparatus, in which departments in Damascus could make policy and issue directives to the provinces in an orderly fashion. When Prime Minister Yusuf al-Zu'ayyin hinted that he planned to issue a public condemnation of the "coffee drinkers" who staffed government ministries, the East German adviser to the finance ministry "advised him not to stir up their resistance with such a provocation, because he needed their support to implement reforms." Schneider then wrote to his superiors in Berlin: "I would define the current situation [in Syria] as the 'telephone phase' and [End Page 322] a state cannot be governed by the telephone. There is no unitary political line, yet. But there must [become] only one state, which must rule everything" (pp. 109-110).
Paradoxically, such a highly disciplined apparatus was not created by the radical Ba'thi leadership, but blossomed instead under President Hafiz al-Asad in the 1970s, who was in fact famous for checking up on subordinates by telephone. The groundwork for the new order got laid in 1968-69, as East German advisers managed to put in place a collection of new agencies and procedures, even as the radical and pragmatic (Trentin calls it "nationalist") wings of the Ba'th Party wrestled for control over policy-making. The DDR technical mission's primary adversary in the months surrounding the 1970 coup d'état turned out to be one of al-Asad's key allies, Minister of the Economy 'Abd al-Halim Khaddam, who "staunchly advocated [closer] relations with Western states" (p. 132).
Trentin bases his account on a close and extensive reading of the German archives — both East and West, as well as on interviews with participants and an impressive range of secondary literature in German, French and English. His prose is cogent and spare, even elegant, which makes for fluid reading and quick comprehension. One comes away wishing he had included a bit more detail, and perhaps greater density, to the story. But as an initial foray into a previously overlooked aspect of the evolution of Ba'thi Syria, Engineers of Modern Development is most satisfying.
Fred H. Lawson, Mills College