More than 30 years after the reunification of Germany, millions of people have practically no basic knowledge about the GDR chapter of German history. For this very reason, it should not be surprising why so many people in East Germany still feel that they’re misunderstood, and are considered only as victims of the dictatorship, writes Matthias Uhl, Research Fellow at Deutsches Historisches Institut, Moscow.
On May 3, 1971, Erich Honecker was elected first secretary of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) in the German Democratic Republic. His rise to power was connected with many hopes, since his proclaimed unity of economic and social policy promised an increase in the standard of living in the East German state. The housing programme provided for the construction of almost two million new apartments by 1989. In addition, a 40-hour week was introduced in 1976; a little later, a year of maternity leave was introduced and, finally, interest-free loans were provided for young married couples and pensions were increased. The increase in social benefits, according to Honecker’s calculations, ultimately also had to increase the productivity of the economy. However, since some of this improvement in social benefits was financed by loans, East Germany’s economic difficulties became more acute and external debt also rose sharply. Therefore, in the 1980s, the SED government under the leadership of Erich Honecker faced enormous political, economic and social problems. The pressure aimed at reforming the GDR system was intensified primarily by the efforts of glasnost and perestroika in the USSR under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. Honecker, however, was by no means willing to give in to these efforts to open up society and hoped that he could push back the forces of reform using a vast apparatus of repression. Ultimately, in the autumn of 1989, despite all the plans, there was no large-scale deployment of the armed forces and security forces of the GDR for the bloody destruction of the opposition forces. The Soviet Union probably played a decisive role in this decision, since — unlike in 1953 and 1961 — it refused to deploy its troops stationed in the GDR to support the SED regime. Finally, on Monday, October 9, 1989, a demonstration with more than 70,000 GDR citizens took place in Leipzig, which forever destroyed the SED’s monopoly on power and led to the collapse of the rotten East German state. After the state and party apparatus of the SED had demonstrated its powerlessness in the face of the rapid political and social changes in the GDR, it would have been impossible to stop the people. Within weeks, the East German state collapsed like a house of cards. When the wall finally fell in Berlin on November 9, 1989, it quickly became clear that there was no alternative but to end the existence of the GDR and reunite Germany.
Since then, the East German state has been a part of history. Therefore, this article raises the question of what role the GDR plays in the historical consciousness of the Federal Republic of Germany and how its society relates to the legacy of the vanished state today.
Assessments of the GDR and its role in German history continue to diverge widely. Before the peaceful revolution in the GDR, the thesis of Hermann Rudolph about the GDR as a German alternative was repeatedly cited. On the other hand, after 1989, the writer Stefan Heym saw it only as a footnote in history. This reflects not only the changed views, caused by 1989, but also historiography. If until the end of the existence of the GDR in the East and West the history of a partial German state was written almost as a national history, the historian Christoph Klessmann presented the parallel post-war development of two German states as a novelty in his work Die doppelte Staatsgründung, first published in 1982.
The collapse of the GDR and the communist state system naturally changed the perspective. Political scientist Peter Graf Kielmansegg spoke out against the “parallel history of two German states”. Historian Hermann Weber, on the other hand, saw the main flaw of the SED regime in the lack of democratic legitimacy of the East German state. Against this background, the question of the similarity and comparability of the two German dictatorships in the 20th century almost naturally provoked itself.
Finally, in 1992, the Enquete-Kommission “Understanding the history and consequences of the SED dictatorship in Germany” was created for this purpose, consisting of 16 members of parliament and 11 experts. During 44 open and 37 closed-door meetings, the commission heard 327 witnesses and scientists. A study, which was about 15,000 pages long, was subsequently published as a final report.
In contrast, former GDR historians emphasised the anti-capitalist lines as the tradition on which government and society in East Germany was based, while at the same time emphasising its autonomy and intrinsic value. This was intended to substantiate the claim that the history of the GDR was ultimately a legitimate and autochthonous alternative to the Federal Republic. So Rolf Badstübner, a long time professor at the Central Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of the GDR, wrote at the turn of the millennium: “In fact, we were dealing with two different lines of development and potential opportunities, which, after the First World War and its consequences, simultaneously manifested themselves as epoch-making processes and constellations”. His colleague Heinz Karl even saw in the GDR nothing more than a consequence and implementation of demands “which were proclaimed back in the 19th century, which have since been at the centre of political disputes and for which they have been fought in revolutionary actions since 1918”. The historians of the former GDR, however, were not only concerned with the line of argument that stressed the role of tradition. They wanted to legitimise the vanished state in retrospect and at the same time fit it into the continuity of the social movement in Germany. Academically, however, historians who view the GDR as the second German dictatorship in the 20th century have largely prevailed.
However, for the general public, this question does not seem so simple. It is especially noticeable here that the West of Germany knows almost nothing about the history of the eastern part of Germany after 1945. Although the GDR has earned the right to appear in school textbooks after its collapse and the reunification of Germany, what is written there mainly emphasises only the repressive aspects of the history of the GDR. Only in textbooks for the 12th or 13th grade — that is, shortly before the certificate of maturity — can you find details about the socialist state. Students in West Germany mostly learn only about the negative side of the GDR. They hear about an unjust state, an ineffective economic system and the Ministry of State Security, which controlled all spheres of life of the citizens of the GDR and was supposed to eliminate any political opposition.
That is why, more than 30 years after the reunification of Germany, millions of people have practically no basic knowledge about this most important episode of German history. For this very reason, it should not be surprising why so many people in East Germany still feel that they’re misunderstood, and are considered only as victims of the dictatorship. But only in the rarest cases does this correspond to their real life experience. The positive aspects of the GDR, such as social security and public welfare, are scarcely represented in historical memory.
While the historical image of the GDR in the east of the republic also includes biographies of individuals, certain economic aspects of the GDR, and just the everyday life and mentality of the population, in the west it is mainly about the contrast between the dictatorship of the SED and the main democratic system, or that between social oppression and a free pluralistic society.
This indirect historical image of the GDR is probably one of the reasons that in the West, the experience of oppression, disappointment in the fall of communism and humiliation in the East is often transmitted in the form of stories and feelings. In the West, this leads to a latent rejection of the East as socialist, underdeveloped, and sometimes even radically right. Thus, much can be said about the fact that history lessons in schools should oppose this opinion with a more objective point of view and thus ensure greater mutual understanding between East and West Germans.
East Germans still consider themselves outsiders, and it is largely due to the fact that they have not yet entered the social, political and economic elite of the Federal Republic. For example, out of 200 top managers of the largest German corporations included in the Dax stock index, only four are from East Germany. Among the rectors of German universities, there is not even a single representative from the former territory of the GDR. None of the 25 presidents and presiding judges of the highest courts in East Germany are from the five new federal states.
If the elites are not strengthened through the inclusion of those who spent at least part of their historical past in the GDR, the historical memory and everyday culture of the second German state will be lost forever, because it will not be preserved for a common Germany. It is like an identity, part of which is simply cut off. It is still unclear how to make up for what has been neglected over the past decades. However, it is clear that if no effort is made, the feeling of frustration in the context of German reunification will persist for a very, very long time, especially in the East.