- The German Democratic Republic by Peter Grieder
Peter Grieder’s small volume gives a concise overview of the main developments in the GDR’s forty years of existence. In little more than 150 pages, the book introduces and discusses the wide range of themes, arguments, and interpretive challenges that recent research into the “Workers’ and Peasants’ State” has yielded. Because the GDR’s human rights abuses were dwarfed by the much larger crimes of the Third Reich, historians have been struggling to define the nature of the East German state while taking into account its repressive nature, as well as popular participation and consensus. Grieder’s definition of the GDR adopts Konrad Jarausch’s concept of a “welfare dictatorship” and combines it with classical totalitarianism theory, a concept that is, for Grieder, “flexible enough to encompass softer, subtler forms of power” (4). The GDR was thus a “totalitarian welfare dictatorship guaranteed by the Kremlin” (130). This interpretive framework allows him, he claims, to “explain as well as describe East German reality” (2)—including the many inefficiencies of the GDR’s political system, the complex and often contradictory reactions and allegiances of its population, as well as its often rocky relationship with its Soviet patrons. Grieder then traces the development of a society that was ruled through a combination of “care and coercion” (6) from its conception in the 1940s to its collapse in 1989–1990.
The book’s chapters break down the GDR’s history into six phases: conception (1945–1949), construction (1949–1960), consolidation (1961–1971), conservatism (1971–1977), crisis (1977–1989), and collapse (1989–1990). Grieder uses Hans-Ulrich Wehler’s description of East Germany as a Soviet “satrapy” (Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, 1949–1990 [Munich, 2008], 424–25), but he prefers the term “Bolshevization” to “Stalinization” because the SED ruled without the type of large-scale violence that characterized Stalin’s reign. During its period of construction, the party’s leadership successfully established the pillars of its rule, which included the Ministry of State Security (MfS), as well as generous state price subsidies for food, housing, and utilities. Amidst the turbulences of the 1950s, “welfare-totalitarianism was taking root in the GDR” (44). In an effort to stave off the “pull of the increasingly magnetic Federal Republic” (50), the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 enabled the [End Page 241] SED to consolidate its control. But communist party chief Walter Ulbricht’s limited market-oriented reforms in the 1960s were bogged down by the SED’s bureaucratic insistence on the primacy of politics over the economy—a self-inflicted problem that would define and plague the GDR’s “real existing socialism” until its collapse.
Grieder’s periodization deliberately avoids the common division of the GDR’s history into a “Stalinist” Ulbricht era and an ostensibly post-totalitarian stage under Erich Honecker, who became party chief in 1971. Even though the Workers’ and Peasants’ state loosened its repressive rule over time, Grieder contends that “in some respects, East Germany became more totalitarian during the final two decades of its existence” (8)—as evidenced by the increased economic centralization and hypertrophy of the Stasi. Still, by the end of the 1970s the GDR had entered a destabilizing crisis that lasted until 1989. Grieder argues that the underlying “main cause for the gathering crisis was the totalitarian welfare state itself” (89). The GDR suffered from “systemic sclerosis,” brought about by the SED’s “obsessive-compulsive urge to direct an increasingly complex society, eventually leading to ‘bureaucratic overstretch’” (85). In this situation, Mikhail Gorbachev’s call for reforms in the Soviet Union became an existential threat to the East German client state. Because the SED leadership was unable and unwilling to liberalize the system that had assured its power for forty years, “totalitarianism was both the lifeblood and the wasting disease of the GDR” (93).
Along with his analysis of SED policies, Grieder pays attention to popular attitudes among East Germans, even though the absence of real democratic elections and reliable polls makes the extent of popular identification...