In light of recent and ongoing revelations of mass surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency, Germany has reflected on its past history with state surveillance. Commenting on whether the common comparisons Germans have drawn between the present scandal and their history with surveillance, this essay is an excerpt, written by Andrew I. Port, from his book, Becoming East German: Structures and Sensibilities after Hitler, co-authored with Mary Fulbrook.

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Let us pose a rhetorical question that is sure to raise some hackles: was the GDR truly more repressive than the Federal Republic—or other Western states, for that matter?

To many, the question will seem absurd, if not downright offensive. But it is not difficult to draw up a lengthy list of politically repressive measures that Western states have employed against their own citizens since 1945—from HUAC and COINTEL in the United States, to the 1972 Anti-Radical Decree in the Federal Republic, to the more recent anti-terrorist laws. It will be objected that the comparison is unfair because there are “obvious differences.” Such repression was much more widespread, violent, and arbitrary east of the Elbe, where the possibilities for redress and reform were also much less limited.

The last two points are essential ones, and the difference may be one of degree, in the end. After all, it was not the Federal Republic that saw itself forced to build a concrete wall to keep its citizens from fleeing. But that is little solace to those in the West who have themselves suffered from oppression. Along Foucauldian lines, one might even counter that repression in the West was even more invidious for being more subtle and refined. But one does not have to appeal to Michel Foucault and the disciplining effect of discourse to get at the invidious nature of repression on both sides of the Elbe, as those who were members of “out-groups” knew and experienced all too well.

One thinks of “asocials” and other social outcasts in the GDR who suffered repression for political, religious, cultural, and other reasons. The West had pariahs of its own, of course. Surveying the past century, one thinks, for instance, of the Jim Crow laws and other forms of racial discrimination in the United States, as well as the treatment there of communists, homosexuals, Jews, and other minorities. It is not surprising that some American blacks remarked at the time that the Nuremberg racial laws of 1935 sounded “suspiciously like Miami.” It is also worth recalling in this context the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which began a year before Hitler came to power and lasted until the year the Munich Olympics were held forty years later. This was a shameful episode in US history—but one should not collapse all distinctions: its exposure did lead to the creation of the federal Office for Human Research Protections.

The GDR does not appear to have been similarly “adaptive,” in light of its ultimate demise. Yet, one wonders whether it might at least have had the potential to be. Some scholars have (longingly) interpreted the Ulbricht reform era as a “missed opportunity” to carry out salutary modifications that might have salvaged the socialist project. But in the end, the GDR proved stubbornly resistant to fundamental reform because it did not have the appropriate channels or possibilities for unfettered communication and public debate—or, for that matter, any willingness on the part of its leadership to relinquish even partial control. Sigrid Meuschel has argued that this is why the postwar socialist state could in the last resort only end in revolution and dissolution.

There are good reasons for posing such questions and making such observations … Pointing to parallels such as the existence of denunciatory acts, police brutality, and a socio-economic underclass, as well as the disciplining power of moral strictures under both systems, does have heuristic value. It can help us frame important questions … Why did Western states enjoy so much more popular legitimacy and support than those in the East? Why, in other words, were the GDR and the other states in the Soviet bloc unable to win the “hearts and minds” of the masses? And why was the capitalist West able to do so?

As Eric Hobsbawm muses, “Just how and why capitalism after the Second World War found itself, to everyone’s surprise including its own, surging forward into the unprecedented and possibly anomalous Golden Age of 1945-73, is perhaps the major question which faces historians of the twentieth century.”

It is worth recalling that most East Germans had had no, very little, or a decidedly poor experience with and memory of democracy. After all, formal democratic institutions had only existed on what would become East German territory for slightly more than a decade in the 1920s—and they had not been an unmitigated success, to say the least. Along similar lines, the Great Depression had not provided incontrovertible evidence of capitalism’s superiority as an economic system. How so many East Germans and their neighbors in eastern Europe came to be so enamored of democracy and the free market is thus an intriguing question.

An equally intriguing question is why this changes after 1945, i.e., why the West came to be seen as “superior” in normative as well as functionalist terms—even on the part of those who benefited least, and suffered most, under prevailing conditions of socioeconomic inequality and, in some countries, institutionalized racism and sexism. One possible reason is that it proved much better able to deliver both necessary and desired material goods—especially to those who “mattered” most in shaping public opinion and the “discourse” of civil society. There are other possible reasons. Historical prejudices against the “Russians” and the Soviet Union—fueled by Nazi propaganda—may have doomed the socialist project from the very start in eastern Europe and the GDR, tarnished precisely for being imposed from without. It could also be that the West simply conveyed a more effective message.

In the United States, even the most downtrodden have learned that they live in “the greatest country in the world”—a place where everyone has “equal opportunity” in a land of “unlimited opportunities.” They are aware of injustices, of course, but imbibe from a young age the hegemonic idea (pace Max Weber) that a failure to “succeed” is somehow a personal failing. This idea becomes hardwired and is perhaps the most important factor underlying domestic peace and stability. Was the GDR – to put it crudely – a “worse” place than the United States? One wonders how an African American youth from Detroit, where infant mortality, crime, and poverty rates rival those of many developing countries, might answer this question. But in the end, he or she would most likely not exchange “freedom” and the possibility of “making it big one day” for more modest material “security.” It could be that totalitarian systems “go against the grain of human nature”—or because some forms of propaganda have been more effective than others. It is difficult to demonstrate the validity of either proposition. But if it is indeed the latter, why might that be the case? An answer to that question sheds light on subjectivities, values, beliefs, and mentalities – the subjects of this volume. And an understanding of those intangibles can help us better understand, in turn, why one system proved more tenacious and more resilient than the other.


  • K Bledowski

    “How so many East Germans and their neighbors in eastern Europe came to be so enamored of democracy and the free market is thus an intriguing question.”

    Let me take a stab at answering this question as someone who’s lived 2/5 of his life in a communist country (bordering East Germany) and the rest in several democratic states. Over a span of five years I spent at least several weeks each summer in the German Democratic Republic. One time I worked as a simple helper (an exchange student) on a construction site in Berlin, just a stone-throw away from the Wall. Another summer I toiled in a tiny brewery near Dresden, doing all menial work. At other times I visited state-owned companies, met journalists, students, took part in academic seminars, etc. – all part of student exchanges that East Germany had maintained at the time with communist countries of the eastern bloc.

    My answers to the question above are rather mundane. Central Europeans were enamored of democracy in 1989 because it appeared to them a superior way to organize a society than was a dictatorship they had just relinquished. Why did the East Germans embrace the free market? Perhaps because their planned economy had delivered a vastly inferior quality of life to the one in nearby West Germany.

    Let’s step down a notch from these lofty pronouncements. Whether I spoke to ordinary people on the assembly line or a pharmacist I befriended or students I milled around or junior academics I debated – they all appeared dissatisfied with their professional lives. They disliked the pay, they disliked the working conditions, they complained about the purchasing power of their currency. There was little happiness about their station in life. I was surprised, perhaps because I felt much more optimistic about my life. One academic grumbled about Wien, Austria. That he’d like to go there for a conference, ride a trolley around town and see its beauty. Alas, that was not possible. A construction worker was stunned to learn that I’d visited the West. He pointed to the nearby Wall from atop our construction site and admitted he’d never see the other side.

    This misery surely misses the larger picture. Not everything was dark under communism and neither was everything that shone golden in the West. Yet in opinion polls today the Chinese consistently embrace capitalism and would not want to return to Mao’s state-owned economy. It’s a similar instinct to that of the East Germans in 1989 (I haven’t seen any Chinese opinion on democracy vs. communism; perhaps no surveys on this are conducted).

    The bottom line is that the East and West Germans faced similar starting conditions in 1945. Over time West Germany delivered political stability in a democratic setting whereas East Germany delivered political repression in a dictatorship. West Germany produced a rising standard of living that far outstripped the East German performance.

    “Why the West came to be seen as “superior” in normative as well as functionalist terms—even on the part of those who benefited least, and suffered most, under prevailing conditions of socioeconomic inequality and, in some countries, institutionalized racism and sexism.”?

    Lots of people in East Germany suffered under “inequality”, there was rampant “racism” in East Berlin toward African students … The myth that somehow communism would eliminate inequality, racism, sexism and any other “ism” had been disproved as early as the 1930s. Then, Soviet communism embarked upon policies which directly contributed to economic inequality, starvation, ethnic cleansing, and massive social dislocation. Does the author imply that East Germans should have embraced barbarity while they had just emancipated themselves from it?