Ambivalences, Contradictions, Choices: The Legacy of GDR Socialism



It was late when she arrived at the country road. The moon, invisible behind the thin cloud cover, spread an unreal ghostly blue light; the sharply arched sky marked off against the dark round earth. Rita could not look deeply enough into this light – simultaneously soft and hard – for which she had no name and knew no equivalent.

Suddenly, to her left, an island of light descended down to the border between sky and earth.

She quickly floated toward it. One could almost distinguish different colors and intensity of light, chains of yellow light beams on the earth, above it scattered red lights. Then black shadows rose from the smokestacks into the clear sky. A stink hit her inside, she must close the windows. She was again in the smell of the factory.

The above passage is from Christa Wolf's l963 novel Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven)1 (71f), a novel about borders crossed and not crossed, hopes met and unmet, that marked daily life of East German socialism. This story of the multiple divides within post-World War II Germany is told through the failure of a love affair between two people moving in opposite directions: Manfred, from hatred of the old to cynicism of the new, as he sees everywhere personal opportunism in a socialism that contained too much of Germany’s past; Rita, from passivity and aloneness to engagement with those about her. Rita sees the same things that Manfred does, but she finds more of worth in people, and hence believes in the possibility of real change. Manfred, a chemist with a desire for work that is tangible, finds his project blocked by bureaucrats mouthing phrases without substance, only to end up heading west. A meaningful private life appears to offer the only solution. Leaving for West Berlin, he expects his lover to follow. Rita, a student planning to be a teacher, working in a factory brigade during her studies, discovers in herself the strength to decide to stay and lead a life that is more than just private.

Set in 1961 around the time the Berlin Wall was built, Der geteilte Himmel touched a chord of recognition amongst those who came of age during the German Democratic Republic’s first decade. And, perhaps for that reason, the novel was sharply criticized by others who found fault with its depiction of the society rather than with the society itself. That attitude reflected a desire for an imposed clarity consistent with the illusion that a path forward is always possible. Clarity, however, can never be imposed; it is only possible through embracing the full range of human experience. Social justice, let alone revolutionary transformation, can only advance when the underlying causes of contradictions are exposed and addressed.

Rita’s path anticipated Christa Wolf’s subsequent life and writing; her later novels focus on individuals filled with uncertainties, uncertainties that became a way to get at truths too often ignored in public discourse. Never abandoning her socialist convictions or the GDR, she also never ceased to criticize its authoritarian form of governance or acts of injustice. In 1989-90, she was a prominent spokesperson for those protesters whose goal of a renewed socialism was embodied in the slogan “Wir sind das Volk” (“We are the People”). But this renewed socialism was not to be. The GDR’s inability to create structures for open discussion of the ideas, aspirations, and fears that she and others attempted to bring into the public sphere contributed to a situation in which, less than 30 years after Der geteilte Himmel was written, the dominant outlook came to be similar to that embraced by Manfred. Once hope became privatized, the goal of a different socialism was supplanted by the allure of the market. Hence the success of the counter-slogan “Wir sind ein Volk” (“We are one People”) as prelude to incorporation into capitalist West Germany.

Defeat often shuts out experience, failure seemingly offering nothing to teach other than what to avoid. So it is that the experiences of the GDR – of European socialism overall – are typically dismissed via the broad brush of generalization, the past reduced to a simple narrative of bad beginnings leading to bad endings. Human agency is thereby denied, as if the GDR could be understood apart from the outlook of those who comprised it. Joined with that is what on the surface seems the opposite: a tendency to give too little consideration to the objective factors which constrained the GDR’s development, divorcing consideration of choices made from the range of choices possible at any given moment. Socialist Unity Party (SED, the GDR’s ruling Communist Party) leadership and that leadership’s understanding of Marxism are seen by such critics as free-floating – a way-of-seeing that turns history into judgment without analysis. By contrast, understanding the duality of the GDR’s accomplishments and its rapid collapse can offer insights that are meaningful today.


The effort to build a new way of life in Germany after World War II took place in conditions of demoralization, dislocation and physical destruction. And it had to respond to the heritage of fascism, a system which strengthened the worst features of Germany’s cultural past in its violence, its encouragement of arrogance/servility, conformism/passivity, racism/anti-Semitism. The task was compounded by the fact that Germany’s liberation came by force of arms from without rather than a rising from within. This meant that many would not see the Nazis’ defeat as their own victory. It also came to mean that socialist measures would be applied to only one part of a divided country. British-US-USSR agreements to divide Germany and Berlin into occupation-zones took on a far sharper character by 1946 than anyone in 1945 had imagined.

US policy during the Cold War was to put constant pressure on divided Berlin in order to pressure the Soviet Union. West German foreign policy combined willing subordination to US interests with assertions of its own hegemonic aims through European integration, NATO, and alliances with countries such as Portugal, South Africa, and Israel. Annexing East Germany was a critical part of its effort to regain decisive influence over Eastern Europe. Although Willy Brandt’s Social Democratic-led government introduced significant changes in relationships with the East, the overall goals of the corporate/political leadership remained, including that of asserting sovereignty over the GDR.

Soviet foreign policy was less consistent. On the one hand it acted as an anti-imperialist force; on the other it pursued more parochial national interests. The contradiction was nowhere more apparent than in reference to the GDR, whose very existence stemmed from the breakdown of wartime unity into Cold War conflict. Thus the GDR’s ability to conduct its own affairs was limited by its principal ally.

Thus the conditions of ambivalence described by Manuel Gottlieb in his 1960 study2 prevailed over the GDR throughout its history. The resulting insecurity was especially sharp in its early years when, as with Sisyphus, progress made by hard work was often quickly reversed. Insecurity was amplified as each such reversal was met by a beckoning to cross the street and enter a West determined to see the East fail. It was a dynamic that brings us back to Wolf’s words – the contrast between “soft and hard,” the borders of light and shadow, sky and earth, establishing the contours of a life searching for definition.

The reality of being besieged – the need for conscious decision-making in place of blind market determinations – encouraged a style of leadership by decree. This contributed to the illusion that unified organization itself could overcome internal and external pressures. It laid the framework for persistent failures to ground national governance in participatory structures.

Although the tension between governance and participation existed in all countries that have sought a socialist path, it had particularly long-standing roots in the German workers’ movement. Germany in the early 20th century was simultaneously an old country and a new nation. Employers were well-organized and aggressive. This helped create an especially strong impulse toward organizational unity within the German socialist and labor movements. Once dispute over German participation in World War I shattered that unity, divisions proved more intractable than elsewhere. The fate of the 1918/19 German Revolution deepened that chasm. For one section of the German working class, the Weimar Republic was a victory to be preserved at all costs; another section saw it only as the revolution’s defeat.

Numerous Communists (KPD), Social Democrats (SPD), and independent leftists recognized the need to overcome that divide; examples of united action can be found throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. Nonetheless, the roots of disunity proved too strong. Unlike other countries, KPD membership and electoral support grew during its period of “class-against-class” offensive, even when running headlong into the greater strength of capital. As for the SPD, its accommodation of existing power to save the shreds of Weimar turned into a proposed accommodation with the Nazis in a vain quest to retain legal existence after Hitler took office. KPD and SPD alike were isolated and defeated.

Thereafter the fights for reform and revolution were joined of necessity as a way to live, to act. Anna Seghers depicts this in her 1946 novel The Seventh Cross wherein networks of humanity surviving an inhuman system provide linkages made meaningful by organized centers of resistance. Her bleaker The Dead Stay Young (1949) emphasized a different truth. In a narrative that begins with a soldier executed for his part in the 1918 revolution and ends with his unknown son executed by the same Wehrmacht officer about 25 years later for an act of resistance, what counts when networks are disrupted is personal strength of conviction. The KPD’s linking of reformist and revolutionary struggle during that period is recounted by Franz Dahlem, a key resistance organizer during the years of fascist rule. He demonstrates the slow building of an unprecedented unity, later made visible by anti-fascist committees which sprang up throughout Germany at the war’s end (Dahlem 1983). Launched by individuals who had kept their principles during the Nazi years (including those freed from concentration camps or returning from abroad), these comprised the full range of left-wing and humanist tendencies of the past. Though quickly suppressed in the British and US occupation-zones, they maintained greater scope for action for a longer time in the Soviet zone. Together with this, a significant degree of rethinking had taken place among surviving KPD leaders and among a meaningful minority of SPD leaders – a combination which gave the merger of the KPD and SPD in the East a genuine character at its inception. That new outlook was given expression by Anton Ackerman, a KPD leader, in his proposed “German Road to Socialism,” which would have built on the spirit of those anti-fascist committees in the creation of a new society. What that meant was put forth by Otto Grotewohl, a Social Democrat who, alongside Communists Wilhelm Pieck and Walter Ulbricht, formed the central leadership of the GDR in its first decade. Writing at the time of the SED’s creation in 1949, he stated:

The Communist Party is today [as distant] from 1932 as the SPD itself. After 1918 the SPD was lost in revisionism and had become so closely bound to the Weimar Republic that it lost its freedom of movement and capacity to struggle. The KPD oriented itself at that time with the great occurrence of the Russian Revolution and the views of the Third [Communist] International. Whereas for the one, socialist reforms left them content with the sparrow in hand, the other strove for the pigeon on the roof. The end of the song was that the working-class had neither sparrow nor pigeon. Out of all this there was much to learn. For the SPD there was the need to get back to Marx and Engels and for the KPD the need to recognize democracy as a form of struggle. Neither the one nor the other partner in unification is entitled to accuse the other of making this change as a maneuver. It is not a maneuver, rather the result of serious teaching out of the years from 1914 to 1945. (quoted in Gottlieb, 224)

But the self-critical appreciation of the past did not last; nor were its lessons fully assimilated. Cold War tensions revived a defensive reading of the past, a narrow course of action leading to repressive policies undermining the spirit of that initial unity. The SED’s inability to develop “democracy as a method of struggle” was a key factor in the GDR’s eventual demise. And, not unrelated, opposition reformers’ failure to take seriously the heritage of Marx and Engels, of class struggle, meant that the democracy won in 1990 was to prove more apparent than real.


Whether looked at in terms of the multiple personal divides at the heart of Wolf’s novel, or the ambivalence discussed by Gottlieb, or the difficulty of combining democratic forms of governance with use of state power to construct a just society, the GDR’s history was filled with contradictory pressures. These began with the internal dynamics/external pressures that led to the downgrading of democracy as a means of struggle. Instead, the tendency was to prioritize social equality and economic growth through control of the means of production, with the implicit assumption that political reforms would naturally follow. Except for brief periods, that priority remained dominant for the next 40 years.

There were some positive results. From 1961 on, the GDR’s economy steadily grew, providing full employment, strong social insurance protections, and low prices for basic necessities. Growth was maintained without shaking the commitment to equality whether measured by income, housing, or access to cultural and educational resources. Exceptions existed (and increased in the 1980s), but far less so than in comparable societies – which was remarkable given Germany’s traditional sharp class stratifications.

The commitment to equality was reflected in urban policy. The sort of occupational division/income segregation accepted as the housing norm in capitalist countries became the exception rather than the rule. Socially integrated housing contributed to the ability of the GDR’s primary school system to provide uniformly high standards. Pedagogical reform, in turn, encouraged individual growth and a sense of community. A possible measure of the quality of schooling is that the Finnish educational system, today admired as one of the best in the world, was itself influenced by the GDR’s model.

Another measure of the GDR’s underlying principles can be seen in the treatment of Greek refugees, displaced by repression after the defeat of the Left in that country’s 1946-49 civil war. Although the GDR’s resources were limited in that era, students were taught Greek language, literature, culture and history in addition to their German studies, so that they would not be estranged from either the land of their birth or their adopted homeland. The same approach was taken decades later with families uprooted from Namibia due to apartheid South African aggression.

University education was developed with similar principles in mind, marked especially in the late 1940s/early ‘50s by a strong emphasis on working-class access – both as a matter of socialist ideology and as a means to undo the pervasive Nazi influence in higher education, civil service, and the professions. This gave opportunities to those whose options were otherwise limited, and became a source of solidaristic values. Moreover, the strength of the primary schools and of vocational education narrowed the social divide between university and non-university educated. This doesn’t mean that elitism disappeared, nor that ideological rigidity in the social sciences – the tendency to a too-dogmatic Marxism, the idea of one correct truth – didn’t encourage a closed bureaucratic mindset. The cynicism of Der geteilte Himmel’s Manfred is bred by his observation of the use of “educated” Party language by others to advance their own personal goals. Nonetheless the break from the past was real and did lay the framework for an alternative social ethic.

An egalitarian impulse can be seen too in policies directed toward women, whose wages and educational and professional opportunities relative to men improved throughout the GDR’s history. Although this process was imperfect (SED leadership remained male-dominant), it made a substantial difference in daily life. The economic security and social support women enjoyed made the conflict between work and home less pronounced than in societies without such protections, even if women still carried an unequal burden of child-rearing and housework. Moreover, the substantive independence resulting from full employment, abortion rights, and childcare availability meant that a woman was not dependent on her partner’s paycheck. That independence inhibited domestic abuse as it inhibited overt workplace sexual harassment, just as the overall high level of social security helped lower crime rates and thereby reduce violence against women – a significant advance after the extreme violence of war, and against the backdrop of the Nazi program for women, “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (Children, Kitchen, Church).

While this progress was due in part to conscious efforts to address women’s status, fundamental advances tended to flow from general measures promoting social equality. Something similar might be said about the GDR’s steps to overcome the legacy of anti-Semitism and racism, although here that overcoming touched equally on national identity. In the first years after the war, the KPD issued statements which called for critical national self-reflection in light of the Holocaust, of the murderous German war machine in Poland, the Soviet Union and elsewhere. That understanding was never wholly absent, but tended to be fused over time with the projection of the GDR as an anti-fascist state, born from working-class opposition to war and racism. The importance of that identification hinged on the SED’s attempt to define a distinct identity, one rooted in recognizing May 8th – marking the Soviet entrance in Berlin and the Nazi capitulation – as a day of liberation. And so it was, though with a different connotation than the idea of liberation held for occupied Europe.

To acknowledge defeat and subsequent national division as victory meant a radical reconceptualization of national identity. An example of this was The Lesson of Germany, written as the war was ending by three prominent KPD exiles (Gerhart Eisler, Albert Norden and Albert Schreiner), which identified the heritage of social struggles and the Enlightenment – of the 1848 and 1918 revolutions – as forming the basis for the country’s moral rebirth. In the context of the imposed division after 1945, that past opposition between progress and reaction within Germany became reconceived as opposition between East and West, with the GDR as the sole inheritor of all that was forward-looking. Unfortunately, that was accompanied by a tendency to downplay widespread public complicity with fascism. Deemphasizing personal responsibility for Nazi crimes meant that some who saw the inadequacy of dealing with the past in purely ideological and structural terms felt estranged from society. This sensibility is expressed by Jurek Becker (author of Jacob the Liar) in his 1986 novel Bronstein’s Children, which he wrote after he had left the GDR. It tells the story of a man who can’t let go of his sense of victimhood for having been imprisoned as a Jew in a concentration camp. The man’s son rejects the badge of victimhood and its attendant privileges, but each is alienated from an East Germany whose rejection of the Nazi past is too abstract to be real.

Yet, important works of literature and film were produced addressing anti-Semitism, German-Jewish history and culture in their specificity and complexity. And while individual attitudes did not all change overnight, Jewish Communists were always able to play a significant role within national leadership bodies, and the Jewish community lived without experiencing the periodic outbursts of an unreconstructed neo-Nazi subculture (never absent from West Germany), and without the veiled – and sometimes not so veiled – official attacks on Jews that took place from time to time in Poland and the Soviet Union. The SED’s principled rejection of anti-Semitism was expressed early, in its refusal to allow show trials such as those which took place elsewhere in Eastern Europe during the early 1950s.

Moreover, there was validity to the dominant viewpoint put forward in the GDR which placed anti-Semitism within the overall context of German militarism and imperial expansion. German racism existed in other forms too, evidenced in the brutal colonial rule over German East and Southwest Africa (today’s Tanzania and Namibia) – and in the form of anti-Slavic/anti-Russian hatred, promoted by high-level political and academic circles before World War I and continuing to echo in post-World War II West Germany. There was also validity to emphasizing the importance of those Communist and other political activists victimized by fascism because they resisted, an acknowledgment that put Nazi rule back in the context of class struggle.

A structural understanding of the roots of German racism was projected forward in the systematic promotion of social equality. This value was put to the test when tens of thousands of workers as well as students from allied countries such as Vietnam and South Yemen, in addition to many political refugees from countries such as Chile, came to live in the GDR. Individual instances of prejudice and sometimes insensitive public policies existed, but these were always held in check by the high standard of universal provision. No community was subject to substandard housing, schooling, working conditions, and no segregated slums emerged. The fact that a suppressed racism burst forth amongst a significant minority in the East after unification (with instability and unemployment that ensued) doesn’t negate the value of what had been done. To the contrary, it speaks to the importance of egalitarian institutional measures to reinforce egalitarian ideology.

Opposition to racism and national oppression informed the GDR’s marked emphasis on pursuing international solidarity in its foreign policy. This, as a practical matter, reflected a strategy to break out of the isolation the West German government attempted to impose via the “Hallstein Doctrine” – breaking diplomatic relations with any country that recognized the East (actively pursued until the time of the Brandt government). Yet the support that the GDR extended to Cuba, Nicaragua, Mozambique and Angola, and to Palestinian and South African resistance movements, also reflected the internationalism of the socialist movement from its mid-19th century origins, which was made deeper by the paths of emigration followed after 1933. And so these were not just government-run solidarity projects; genuine popular participation was often evident, as in opposition to US aggression against Vietnam, in solidarity with Chilean victims of Pinochet’s rule, and in protest against the imprisonment of Angela Davis.

As the GDR acquired greater diplomatic recognition in the 1970s and as its foreign economic ties grew, so too did the cost of internationalism. Ilona Schleicher, in a 2008 booklet Solidarität gestern und heute (Solidarity Yesterday and Today), documents the many forms solidarity took, the occasional pressure to bend principles to meet economic goals, and the internal resistance to that pressure. Such resistance was successful because so much of the GDR’s self-identification was grounded in a broadly supported internationalism. East German reform movements, unlike those of Czechoslovakia, did not criticize this aspect of the country’s path, and survivals of GDR solidarity projects continue to this day (in which Schleicher remains engaged, following service she did for the GDR in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia).


Such worthy achievements were weakened, however, by lack of attention to democratic forms of engagement. This produced a constant gap between socialist values and everyday concerns. The damage done is particularly clear when looked at in terms of labor. Critically important to building the new society was the workplace, the hoped-for seedbed for new structures and relationships. Initially that understanding was framed by a desperate need for high levels of worker productivity to feed and house the population in a country devastated by war. This task was made more difficult by the breaking of natural economic ties with the rest of Germany and by the handicap of having to provide virtually all the post-war reparations due the Soviet Union. Simply providing work was a step forward in 1946, but by 1953 it was not enough; tensions over pay and working conditions led to that year’s civil unrest. The message was heard; thereafter workers’ support for the new society was not taken for granted.

Unions played a significant role in defining what such support came to mean. Partly, as in all socialist countries, increased production was a constant goal, a necessity to provide the surplus allowing for a better life. It was a question that occupied many of the workplace meetings, debates, and arguments that form the background of Der geteilte Himmel, reflecting the extent to which large numbers of workers in that era saw a connection between their efforts and their society’s progress. As progress was made, the desire to ensure better working conditions and a rising living standard took on greater importance, in line with (or going beyond) overall economic growth. On the other hand, however, unions and workplace committees became less focused on work quality relative to society’s needs. The potential narrowness ever at the heart of unionism was thought to be offset by broadening the sense of solidarity equally at its heart. Unions sought to serve this role by instilling collective values, and by providing space for socialization and leisure – goals that spoke to what many workers in the 1920s desired, though inadequate to meet the needs, let alone wants, of workers in the 1980s.

The difference between heritage and change was evident in labor education. Its importance is suggested by the appointment of Herman Duncker as the director of the GDR’s first trade union school. Along with his wife Käthe, he had worked with Luxemburg, was a founding member of the Spartacist League and the KPD, and had a method of teaching (reflected in his writing) that put forth a Marxism more alive in spirit than the dogmatic version that too often prevailed. That union school became as well a school for unionists from countries emerging from colonialism, reflecting the emphasis on internationalism as a union responsibility (many of the GDR’s overseas support projects were funded by union contributions).

And yet, as time went by, unions were less and less able to act as a force for socialist consciousness within the working class. Once people entering the workforce were educated through the GDR’s school system, union education needed to give them a forum for understanding the difficulties of economic development and how these could be addressed through worker participation. Duncker’s successors were unable to carry out this mission because as the economy became more centralized in the 1970s, unions at the worksite level were left with no meaningful role in economic planning. This encouraged a parochial outlook, which separated production from consumption. Protecting jobs, existing skills, wages and benefits was too often viewed in isolation from social solidarity. There were occasional exceptions. Schleicher notes protests in 1982 by factory committees against a proposal (agreed to by Harry Tisch, president of the central trade union body) to reduce solidarity spending. The protests were successful, the cuts were rescinded. But that example only highlights the gap between active cadre and quiescent members. It also reflects how top union leadership tended toward quiescence not activism – concerning itself with material benefits to the neglect of engagement with the array of social issues the country faced.

So the outcome was an increasingly apolitical workforce with concerns increasingly privatized. Thus unions were largely absent during the 1989-90 upheavals as either critics or supporters of the existing system. For all the talk of Lenin in the GDR, his critique of a narrow economistic unionism was lost in practice; the creative engagement of workplace organization with issues of social equality, governance, and culture failed to fully develop. What that cost came to light after 1990; labor was unable to effectively combat the plant closures, the lay-offs and speed-up, and the loss of benefits that followed quickly on the heels of unification. Individual worksite unions sometimes mounted heroic resistance, but as a whole they were unable to give voice or organization to those protests. The isolation of workers at this time was a consequence of too great a degree of centralization earlier.


The most serious attempt to create a decentralized participatory form of socialism came in 1963 with the introduction of the Neues ökonomisches System der Planung und Leitung (New Economic System for Planning and Management, NÖS). NÖS was conceived as a socialist market economy with individual, state-owned, and cooperative firms given autonomy, firm-to-firm relationships encouraged, growth measured by quality rather than production totals alone, profit-sharing permitted as a spur to labor productivity, and willingness to adopt new technology. Yet the NÖS was understood in broader terms. Herbert Graf, one of the youngest members of Ulbricht’s inner circle, provides in his memoir Mein Leben. Mein Chef Ulbricht. Meine Sicht der Dinge (My Life, My Boss Ulbricht, My View of Things) an invaluable lens on the leadership’s views, including the understanding of history behind this change:

The socialist democracy developed in the programmatic declaration of October 1960 [anticipating the NÖS] had its roots in the social origins of the workers’ movement and was a conscious alternative to bourgeois democracy. The Paris Commune in 1871 – though lasting only a brief time and existing under difficult conditions – produced the outlines of socialist democracy’s shape. Worker and soldier councils initiated early in the 20th century also produced various lessons. Finally, this tradition includes the struggle for democratic relationships in Germany, for universal voting rights, for a change in property relationships – and in the field of the economy, to create democratic relationships – the fundamental values and demands of German Social Democracy at the start of the 20th century. There was also a potential rich experience in the emergence and seven decades [existence] of soviets at all levels of state organization in Russia. That also made clear the potential danger for the democratic idea this development contained. (422)

Fundamental to this way of thinking was Ulbricht’s thesis that socialism existed as a relatively independent social formation – not as a short-lived transition to communism, the official standpoint at the time in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and, albeit differently conceptualized, China. The step backward being made was meant to provide a firmer basis upon which to construct socialist forms of representative and direct democracy, to serve as a direct alternative to the capitalist West and as an indirect alternative to the Soviet model. To give that idea substance, changes in government structures were proposed in order to increase the responsibilities of representative bodies from the municipal level up to the national parliament, instead of having such powers tightly held by the SED. Election laws were reformed as a means of making the system more participatory by breaking down the distance between voter and office-holder.3 So too, the nature of the anticipated economic changes meant that the role of works councils and unions would have to be enhanced in order to ensure workers’ participation in local planning and to safeguard their rights nationally in the face of greater labor flexibility.

Participation to be meaningful has to be informed, has to be based on a profound social consciousness. Therefore one other aspect of the changes envisioned was greater freedom of cultural expression, which allowed Der geteilte Himmel and other challenging works to be widely distributed and discussed. Taken as a whole, the hope behind the NÖS lay in the possibility of improving the material conditions of life while creating the conditions in which socialist values could develop organically instead of being imposed. Public ownership of society’s productive forces could then be made real in everyday existence rather than turning into the abstraction it became.

To be concrete, though, it was necessary to address the question of power. The privileged role of a Communist Party in a socialist society was not called into question. The Party stood as a unifying force against the divisiveness and fragmentation that are an inheritance of capitalism – and as a counterforce to the ideological, political and military threat that an unreconciled imperialist order always represented. If anything, the decentralization of economic and political structures enhanced the need for the SED to serve as a countervailing force, to oppose attempts to reintroduce capitalist property relations, to defend social and international solidarity. If power itself was not at issue, however, the means by which it should be exercised was a question that needed to be posed and answered. As Graf put the alternatives:

Is the Party the initiator of social development, effective due to its ideas, organization and membership, or [Graf’s emphasis] is it – from the center to the lowest level of administration – a kind of supreme government with final decision-making power? (426)

Ulbricht’s reply in the 1960s was to seek the former, hearkening back to Lenin’s last writings expressing concern over bureaucratic trends in the Soviet Union that culminated in Stalin’s authoritarianism. The notion of socialism as an independent social formation provided a framework within which the duality of bottom-up popular rule and overarching Party authority could be resolved as part of an on-going process rather than through command or will alone. But the command approach prevailed, and the NÖS was only partially, briefly, implemented. Opposed via backdoor methods by many in SED leadership (and, after Khrushchev’s 1964 fall, by the Soviet leadership), it was limited in first one aspect then another, eventually leading to Ulbricht’s forced resignation and replacement by Erich Honecker in 1971. That change brought with it a new constitution formalizing the SED’s national leadership role and a praxis – under the slogan “unity of economy and politics” – ever more detached from reality. All the unresolved tensions and contradictions, the negative aspects within the GDR’s positive advances, would now come to the fore.

The negative aspects doomed the NÖS, as insufficient arenas existed for open debate around different models of socialist development. Hence no effective appeal could be made to support a democratizing process. Here the pre-history of the NÖS reforms becomes relevant. An atmosphere of criticism and self-criticism prevailed in the immediate wake of Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin, but this was cut off after 1957, for fear of social instability and possible external intervention. Concern over instability was all the greater because of the weak state of the GDR’s economy due to leadership mistakes compounded by overt and covert West German acts of obstruction. Economic decline combined with shutting down public space led to growing emigration across the border and heightened tensions with a Bonn government opposed to any Cold War thaw (Mittenzwei 2003).4  Critical Marxists like Wolfgang Harich and Walter Janka were arrested even though what they strove for was consistent with the NÖS which was launched soon thereafter. The one great difference was that Ulbricht and the SED leadership were acutely aware of the limited room for reform due to external factors. Socialist reformers distant from the center of power and those trying to change the system from within that center thus acted at cross-purposes, without mutual sympathy – a foreshadowing of 1989/90.

Here the leadership was caught in a bind due to the distance between public and private belief. Ulbricht’s initiative was a return to Ackerman’s ideas, but Ulbricht could not acknowledge that Ackerman had been forced out of leadership because of Soviet pressure. Dahlem suffered a similar fate in the early 1950s, as did others. Most were later able to resume important roles in the GDR, but the actions and ideas they had once advocated – and the reasons for their rejection – never resurfaced. This contributed to the self-censorship of many who didn’t want to get too far ahead of the curve. It obviously inhibited public willingness to debate the country’s future. Even positive steps, such as the resistance to show trials, were not aired, and did not become well known. This tied back to a basic problem: the inability to fully discuss (a) the persecution of German Communists exiled in the Soviet Union, and (b) points of disagreement with Soviet policy post-1945. Graf notes that Ulbricht’s admiration for the Bolshevik revolution and the Soviet role in defeating fascism was mixed with a sharp condemnation of Stalin’s practices and legacy. But that outlook – apart from the brief window after Khrushchev’s speech – could not be articulated by him outside high-level SED circles.

Without the possibility of honestly addressing the history of the GDR’s relationship to the Soviet Union, or its own history, it proved impossible to defend an alternative to what the Soviets had created. Erich Honecker orchestrated the initial attack on the NÖS at the SED’s 1965 Congress via the indirect method of attacking the cultural opening. He condemned the alleged influence of Western “decadence” and “pessimism” in literature and film. That latter term referred to works that addressed the realities in which people lived, without providing false solutions or ideal heroes, works that addressed the ambiguities and the sacrifices that integral to socialist construction. So the opening was closed in which Wolf – one of the few who publicly dissented from those charges at the Congress – and others had been able to use their voices and find audiences able to grapple with what they raised. Ulbricht did not respond to the attack partly due to a cultural understanding not much different from Honecker’s. More significant was an apparent underlying belief in the sufficiency of structural change to bring about social/ideological change, so the necessity of greater cultural freedom was not fully appreciated. Fundamental to Honecker’s victory and subsequent rule, however, was the SED leadership’s shared concern for maintaining the appearance of unity. This was a product of history and of the need to maintain social stability due to the country’s vulnerable sovereignty. But the approach was self-defeating. By not making internal differences public, the government further removed the people from active participation in building socialism. Social stability, to be real, needs to be based on relationships of trust.

Trust never fully developed, as Mittenzwei (2003) recounts. Talented artists, intellectuals, and other professionals – some strongly supportive, others critical of the existing system – found room for expression, leaving a rich heritage that can be drawn upon today. Yet the frequent imposition of guidelines for what could or could not be produced had a debilitating effect. Some emigrated, others sought a place of personal autonomy a means of social criticism. One example was Wolf’s Nachdenken über Christa T (The Quest for Christa T) (1969), a novel about unmet expectations. It tells of a woman dying of leukemia, questioning the platitudes by which the dominant society refused to address what was painful or difficult. Its “pessimism” is thus more truly an affirmation. That it was not perceived as such was itself indicative of the GDR’s unaddressed problems.

Guarantees of social equality, necessary though they were, could not create the freedom to which socialism aspires. Insufficient room was allowed for autonomous initiatives to shape and deepen the content of those guarantees. This became a matter of growing importance when a better educated population, having grown up with social security and without scarcity, demanded more than society structured as it was could provide. Socialist dissident Rudolph Bahro raised the contradiction in his mid-1970s book, Die Alternative. Its focus on ecological issues spoke to the GDR’s need to better address the quality of the way of life being created. But Bahro failed to fully grasp the need for an authentically socialist power to bring about what he envisioned.

Possible lines of cultural development left undeveloped contributed to a breakdown in social cohesiveness, to the emergence of a fragmented public sphere. Mittenzwei, borrowing a term used by Gunter Gaus (West German representative to the GDR), refers to the country as having become a “niche society”:

Communication within small circles and groups took place at all levels of society in the 1980s. Overarching structures still existed, they had not lost their functions, were not avoided. Small communities gradually grew within official institutions. These were not only tolerated, often they had official support. This development was the equivalent to an individuating of the state apparatus. Institutions and hierarchies were not put in question, rather it was felt that their methods of work needed to be expanded. (347)

This process – of small circles growing within society’s institutions as an outgrowth of social development – could have strengthened socialist democracy. But because of self-censorship and the consequent difference between public speech and private discourse, the opposite happened. Private networks became the norm. Eventually, such networks facilitated the rapid spread of the citizens’ movement, while their existence within state institutions fed the illusion that they themselves could provide the basis for renewing rather than destroying socialism. This paralleled western postmodernism, in its failure to link the particular to the general, the group to the universal. When ongoing discussion about society’s direction only takes place in parts, the parts take on greater weight than the whole. The citizens’ movement would be overwhelmed when the neoliberal West promised rights to the particular only, when “choice” in and of itself became valued as a good above all others.

“Niches” also replicated the gap between officials and public, as relationships within and between networks substituted for a relationship outside the community of the initiated. So, for example, the debates in the 1980s around productions of plays by Heiner Müller (or, in counter-fashion Peter Hacks), despite their intrinsic importance and artistic value, spoke only to the few. The wider social argument that occurred when Der geteilte Himmel was published no longer took place on a national stage. The divide between an engaged minority and those outside its circles ran a similar course to that noted amongst unionists; the most committed found their deeper political concerns cut off from everyday public discussion. Such a divide, while essential to power-maintenance under capitalism, is fatal to socialism.

The SED Party Congress was a setback to the NÖS, yet progress continued on other fronts. The year 1968 saw a democratic university reform and saw approval of a new constitution that anchored Ulbricht’s reforms in law. However, an external event – the Warsaw Pact occupation of Czechoslovakia – laid the basis for undoing all that had been gained. The GDR did not take part militarily in the invasion, but Ulbricht and other SED leaders were among the harshest critics of the Czechoslovak “Prague Spring” reforms, even though these were in some key respects analogous to their own reforms (albeit in other key respects sharply different).5  But even though there was no direct equivalence between the two countries’ approaches to change, their fates were linked.

The occupation of Czechoslovakia discredited the idea of a democratic means of struggle, putting off indefinitely what Grotewohl had recognized as essential. Those opposed to Dubcek, and to the social forces set in motion by his policies, were unable to mobilize significant numbers of people behind an alternative reform process (let alone in support of the system as it had existed). Hence the need for outside force, which in turn meant that Warsaw Pact leaders believed it impossible for ideas, members, organization to become strong enough to counter a perceived threat of a return to capitalism – a return that took place 21 years later under conditions much less favorable to those advocating socialist solutions. In 1968 it meant that those who looked with hope for internal reform in the GDR became demoralized. The Soviet government was the ultimate arbiter of what could or could not be done; a reality with consequences again made evident 21 years later.

Prior attempts to better ground GDR socialism in public participation had been shut down for analogous reasons. Repression in the GDR followed the Soviet attempt to isolate Yugoslavia in 1949, as also the Soviet occupation of Hungary in 1956-57 – both reflections of a deeper problem, the inability of Soviet socialism to reform itself. All the processes at play in the GDR were at play in the Soviet Union in more extreme form: tremendous advances toward growth and equality against deep-rooted backwardness; the need to overcome destruction from foreign invasion; the unprecedented violence of World War II. These, when added to the perpetual siege of the Cold War, contributed to shortsightedness and internal repression that those looking for a new path were unable to break down.

Meanwhile, for many in leadership, maintaining the status quo looked to be the safest course to follow. But that status quo was unsustainable. Nothing illustrates the constraints on the GDR so clearly as the building (in 1961) of the Berlin Wall, an act that highlights the ambivalence of the GDR’s position throughout its history. Gottlieb, writing in 1960, explains the circumstances that made the decision to seal the border appear necessary. The security it represented allowed for economic development and political reform. While the Wall thus undergirded the hope embodied in the NÖS, it equally brought its undoing. An artificial division produced an artificial security vis-à-vis the West that could not last. It bred a greater dependence on the East. It sidestepped a real political solution. It could only exacerbate the distance between people and government, especially for a younger generation brought up with greater expectations, which saw in travel-restrictions a host of other limitations.

Of greater significance, the Berlin Wall contained a fundamental concession: the final abandonment of the goal of unification which the KPD/SED had supported. The vision of a new Germany behind The Lesson of Germany was one to which Pieck, Grotewohl, and Ulbricht had all been committed. Initially the goal was a neutral, demilitarized Germany which, if attained, could have provided the basis for politicizing class/social struggles across the country and potentially throughout Europe, rather than these being turned into a confrontation between blocs. The radical implications behind that possibility explain why the idea was adamantly opposed by the US and West German governments. By the 1960s that demand could have been modified as a demand to preserve what the GDR had built within any future unified structure. Giving in to Cold War pressure, however, led to the advocacy of division and to ideological polarization. The dichotomy reinforced the unwillingness to discuss the East’s weaknesses, and contributed to a one-sided picture of the West that didn’t conform to what people saw or heard. Building the Wall meant that changes below the surface were missed. A door had been closed on creating living relationships with popular movements in the West that could have revived in new forms the popular front orientation of the 1930s (Harich’s goals touched on this).

West Germany’s leadership would have fought that tooth and nail. By the early 1960s the West’s remarkable (if uneven) economic growth was continuing, even as it retained a rigid class system that was also highly patriarchal, and formalized a two-tier labor system through the recruitment of Turkish and other foreign workers. This was overseen by a parliamentary system in which choice was limited, power uncontested. The influential role of former Nazis throughout the civil service and government ministries, the powerful political role of conservative Lutheran and Catholic leaders, and the continued authority of business elites who helped put Hitler in power meant that a fierce anti-communism and imperial mindset remained from the past.

This harsh reality behind the democratic façade was not, however, the whole story.  New social, cultural and political dynamics were challenging the status quo. To look only at the political side, a significant change took place in the SPD. After 1945 the division of the German working class reappeared in the form of the SPD’s embrace of the West and reversion to its Weimar role. This lasted until its 1959 Bad Godesberg Congress adopted policies associated with Willy Brandt replacing its self-conception as a workers’ party in favor of becoming a “people’s party.” A defeat for its small Marxist left, this was a bigger defeat for the stronger right that used the language of class to justify a course of subordination. The result was to integrate the SPD more fully within the dominant party consensus while at the same time allowing it to be a more effective vehicle for social reform. Although the SPD drew a line at anything close to systemic confrontation with existing power, its reforms were meaningful in many details, and helped provide terrain in which a genuine radicalism would grow.

The left consisted of Marxist organizations with lineages in Weimar – most importantly the banned KPD, which in 1968 was again able to function legally as the newly founded German Communist Party (DKP) – though still subject to official sanctions. Unimportant electorally, it organized a wide range of activists at the base of the labor movement, focusing on anti-war actions and building opposition to neo-Nazi revivals. Much larger and more encompassing was the New Left, a transformative force openly combating all forms of oppression and militarism. At its height in 1968, countless numbers saw the connection between oppressive relationships in daily life and an oppressive social system, advocating direct action as the way to bring change. Though the rise and decline of the New Left was relatively rapid, it gave birth to a plethora of collectives, organizations, communities, and networks which have sustained reformist and radical/revolutionary activists in the years since.

Those networks within labor, women’s, and migrant communities; in anti-war, anti-corporate globalization, environmental and other movements; amongst opposition intellectual and artistic circles, bear – albeit in a different setting and around different needs – a degree of equivalence to the “niche society” Mittenzwei describes. The lack of mechanisms to engage each other meant that an opportunity to redefine and expand the options of GDR socialism through connections from below (in addition to those sought diplomatically) was lost. West German activists/theoreticians Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge in their 1976 [?] work on the “Proletarian Public Sphere” wrote of the potential of such networks to reinforce an alternative consciousness, as a counter to the ideology of the bourgeois state. Those networks, however, are at most times too weak to challenge the system if cut off from the larger political, union and other public bodies, reformist though these may be. A Marxist organization can serve as the needed counter-weight to co-optation, provided that it is part of – able to learn from as well as contribute to – autonomist networks and larger reformist groupings.6

None of the above is inconsistent with the orientation of the KPD in the run-up to the war, or in 1946. This alternative approach to building GDR socialism could have also been helped expand its international relationships in a manner to help build left strength worldwide, breaking free from Cold War limitations. How realistic that road not taken was is hard to judge, though it is notable that North Vietnam maintained an array of relationships to autonomous movements in the South, providing the basis for liberation/reunification. Cuba’s ability to survive while overcoming the isolation imposed by the US has been aided by its ability to build solidarity relationships across the spectrum of the Latin American left – a kind of unity being developed today in Venezuela and Bolivia. Obviously Germany is not Vietnam, Europe not Latin America, but another measure of untapped potential can be discovered in the SED’s successor party Die Linke. Its strong support in the East testifies to that region’s socialist heritage and has enabled it, as a party to the left of the SPD, to become an electoral force nationally. At the same time, anti-capitalist currents in Die Linke have been strengthened by membership drawn from the West’s SPD, DKP and independent left. Whether Die Linke is able to continue to grow and maintain its principles is a question for the future; relevant here is simply the observation that the kind of potential it reflects was not grasped when the GDR still existed.

The question of untapped potential returns us to the outcome of 1989-90, which, despite the intentions of many of its key movers, came to reinforce the power structure that the left in the West had been fighting. Daniela Dahn, an activist in the GDR’s civic protest movement as a founder of Demokratischen Aufbruch (Democratic Breakthrough), now active in grassroots antiwar and social movements, describes the price paid across Germany following the GDR’s destruction (Dahn 2009). She shows how, without the GDR serving as a possible other path, the neoliberalism that had been held at bay in West Germany was unleashed. By 2010, rising poverty and inequality, cuts in social insurance, and the reintroduction of war as a means of politics indicate the social realities not fully acknowledged in prior years. Looking at the East alone, the picture is harsher. Although there is no guarantee that the NÖS would have been successful, the conjunction of Eastern reform and Western radicalism in the 1960s did offer the best chance for different outcomes. Instead, a politics of drift ensued.

A distinctive society did develop in the East; its distinctiveness is still in evidence today. The idea of a new nation being formed in so brief a period proved to be an illusion, one that stands for many more. By the mid-l980s, with the breakdown of communication between worksites and central planning, between national leadership and local communities, no place existed where the path to collapse could have been challenged.

Horst Brie – active as a Communist while a teenager in Prague exile in the 1930s, later a GDR diplomat serving in North Korea, China, Japan and Greece – illustrates this in his Erinnerungen eines linkes Weltburgers (Memoirs of a Leftist Citizen of the World) (2006). Apart from providing insight into the GDR Foreign Service, his book traces the lost opportunities of the postwar years as irreconcilable contradictions developed. Observing one side of this he comments:

The aim of the GDR’s leadership was to steadily improve people’s material conditions.... After Erich Honecker’s assumption of power, living standards improved. In the last years of the GDR’s existence, spending for social needs went beyond the capacity of the real economy. (213)

This lack of realism meant, as Brie also notes, that the rising standard of living came with growing public alienation that prevented any redirection of resources or priorities. The choice was instead made to sustain growth by borrowing from the West. Failure to understand the ensuing vulnerabilities proved to be the most damaging illusion. A mixture of frustration and wishful thinking marked the end, which Brie also encapsulates:

In the second half of the 1980s we [Brie and his wife] noticed during our vacation in the GDR how radically the public atmosphere had deteriorated and, with that, the open expression of criticism of the current government. It was the time of Gorbachev’s assumption of power, and many comrades were ripe with the hope that his announced politics would bring a democratic society and reorganize the economy. (184)


The hope remained unfulfilled. Egon Krenz, the SED’s last General Secretary, describes in Herbst ‘89 (Autumn ‘89) (1999) how events spun out of control during the few months between Honecker’s forced resignation and the SED’s disbandment several months later. Writing while in prison – a marker of the “victor’s justice” imposed once reunification was complete – Krenz speaks of his intent during those few months in office to make real Gorbachev’s concept of Perestroika as a “revolution within the revolution.” Key to that notion, he makes clear, was the “within”: reforming the GDR root-and-branch should not undo its socialist character or jeopardize what previous generations had worked hard to build. Krenz subsequently argues that while Gorbachev raised the right questions, he failed to provide constructive answers. The GDR failed to find those either.

This failure reflected, as in the past, a lack of trust and communication between reformers inside and outside of leadership, although in 1989 unlike 1957, initiative lay with the outsiders. Krenz quotes from an appeal issued the day the border opened between East and West Berlin, calling for people to remain in the East and press forward for the “creation of a true democracy that would also be true to the vision of a democratic socialism” (236). He drew from that the hope the GDR could remain a sovereign socialist society, though recognizing that past treatment of critics as enemies made overcoming distrust unlikely. The appeal had been written by Christa Wolf, a mark of the consistency of her commitments expressed in Der geteilte Himmel.

Among the organizations supporting that statement was Daniela Dahn’s Demokratischen Aufbruch. Dahn’s criticisms were sharper than Krenz’s though not incompatible with his point of view. In her essay, “We Are the People” (in Dahn 2002), she scores the narrowness that came to prevail in a too-closed society, due to the suppression of critical thought. But she also rejects the anti-Communist stereotype of the GDR as a “totalitarian” society. Her outlook is that of one who lived in and engaged with, not just against, what existed. From that flowed the argument that when she and others demanded greater freedom and democracy, these were meant to build upon the social rights that had already been acquired. The recognition made explicit in her 2009 book, Wehe dem Sieger! (Woe to the Victor), was already present: democratic rights without economic rights become hollow.

This returns us to the vexing question of power. Unless there is genuine popular power, the power of private property – of the few over the many – will reassert itself no matter what political structure is in place (a reality that Ulbricht, Honecker, and Krenz all understood). Solidarity then gets replaced by competition and division as part of the fabric of daily life. Failure to maintain solidarity was the reason Gorbachev’s reforms led to a Russia lacking basic social justice, let alone a more democratic socialism. The inability to act within the framework of even a flawed solidarity meant that the desired and important step for peace was bought at the expense of dismantling one of the world’s two power blocs, thereby enlarging the scope for endless US/NATO neo-colonial wars “against terror.” And it meant that the Soviet Union before its dissolution negotiated away the GDR’s existence without the participation of its government.

I recall a visit to the GDR during that time of ferment, probably in mid-1989, a moment when change was on the horizon. I met with three friends whom I had worked with in the past – all three with some connection to GDR foreign intelligence, all three convinced Marxists and committed anti-imperialists. Our discussions centered on a recent letter in the Soviet Communist Party newspaper Pravda attacking Gorbachev’s policies. Only one of my friends agreed with that letter, taking a sharp position against Perestroika and Glasnost and against any attempt to implement similar measures in East Germany, desiring instead a return to the seeming clarity-of-purpose of the past. Another was strongly in favor of all that Gorbachev represented, took part in the Leipzig protest marches (whether before or after that conversation I can no longer recall), and argued forcefully that the GDR’s future depended on the embrace of thorough democratic reforms. The third sympathized with what the Soviets were then trying to accomplish while remaining wary of where this might lead in a world hostile to socialism – and perhaps a bit less convinced than the other two of the public’s socialist convictions.

At the time, my perspective was closest to that of the Gorbachev supporter. I had no doubt that the US and West German governments were implacably hostile toward all that the GDR (or Soviet Union) represented – hostile to the progress they had made, not to their failures – and would do all they could to seize the opportunity to distort the desire for change and turn it to reactionary purposes. My miscalculation was that I believed socialist organization and ideology ran deep enough, were strong enough to preserve what was valuable while undergoing the transformation of a “revolution in the revolution.” The inability to do so spoke to weaknesses that ran far deeper than the policies of Gorbachev or Brezhnev or Honecker or any other particular leader. It is a weakness that cannot be separated from the lack of class consciousness, the weakness of socialist organization and ideology in the capitalist world.

Understanding the GDR’s history thus stands for me as one path by which to analyze and help overcome those lacks in our present. My view of the GDR developed over time. I first visited as a child with my family in 1962; in the years that followed I would return often, developing my own set of attachments to people and places, finding it building a system with objectives of peace and solidarity that I supported. It was a system worth defending, and I committed myself to act on this conviction. My travel and experiences with people also gave me room to observe the lacks and limitations that needed to be challenged, tied back to my observations of life in West Germany where family and friendship ties were of equal importance, and tied back also to my own participation in the US left and labor movements. In all cases, it seemed to me, the most important question to look at critically is not the moment of defeat, but rather moments of advance that are halted. I grew up in a Communist/left socialist tradition; it struck me as a child when listening to lived tales of revolution and counter-revolution, of Weimar's beginning and end, of fascism's triumph and destruction, that greater meaning was contained in forward steps halted than in subsequent reversals.

So it was that the defeat of Germany’s revolutionary upsurge loomed larger than the final nail hammered in its coffin in 1933; that the break-up of popular front politics in and surrounding France, Spain, Czechoslovakia was more important to understand than the world war which inevitably followed. That outlook influences reflections on my own experiences. The question of why late 60s/early 70s radicalism, and the intense mid-80s and mid-90s labor battles, failed to grow the deep roots that were both needed and possible remains of more interest than analysis of subsequent reaction. This frames the personal importance to me of understanding the GDR, the NÖS, 1989/90, the lost possibilities not wholly lost if providing a step toward tomorrow.

Günter Benser, a historian who worked for many years at the Institute for Marxism-Leninism in Berlin, provides a critical/self-critical look at East German history in his DDR, gedenkt ihrer mit Nachsicht (GDR, Think of It with Indulgence) (2000), evaluating socialism from a commitment to participatory or direct democracy. Four times in 20th-century Germany, he notes, people took such power in their own hands: the worker and soldier councils of 1918-19, anti-fascist committees in 1945-46, the 1968 movement in West Germany, the citizens’ movement during the GDR’s last years. Each of these flowered with a seeming suddenness, developed through autonomous groupings, and engaged large numbers of people previously disengaged from social action. A glimpse can therefore be had in each instance of what could be. But the moments were all short-lived due to some combination of greater institutional, ideological, military strength of capitalist forces. The movements’ progress was also blocked each time by reformist fear of that counter strength which translated into fear of popular radicalism and propelled the search for “safe” channels within which to place discontent. And the limitation or defeat of these movements was also due to the disorientation of Marxist organizations unable to create vehicles of collective solidarity that build upon grassroots initiatives.

Written over a longer period, one can see elements of the GDR’s 40-year fate in all of these. But there is one final factor. Movements were defeated because international mutual support was too weak, as were linkages between different parts of Germany (and in 1946, ‘68, ‘89, specifically East-West). There was thus insufficient reinforcement for anti-capitalist understanding and practice. The defeat of the citizens’ movement was turned into a working-class defeat throughout Germany because the left, East and West, was unable to seize upon the potential of the moment.

This brings us back to 1918. Luxemburg’s pamphlet on the Russian Revolution bears the spirit of this understanding, once the quotes critical of the Bolsheviks are put back into the context from which they are usually removed. For her criticisms of the authoritarian measures she saw being introduced were mixed with admiration of the revolution itself, were cast as a self-criticism of the German revolution’s weakness, given that its victory would have allowed the Soviets different choices. An echo of this should still be heard today. The GDR’s defeat rests on the same basis as our own defeats, an inability to build democratic forms of revolutionary struggle (with equal emphasis on all three terms).

Finally, we need to recognize that socialism, whether in power or in opposition, can only thrive when the practice of solidarity is joined to issues of everyday life faced at the workplace, in communities, and in personal relationships. In this way the abstraction of socialism is made concrete in its progress and its reversals, in the borders crossed and uncrossed, in hopes met and unmet that constitute our individual and collective lives. Understanding where the GDR went wrong means understanding its value, its contribution to strivings for a socialism that builds a world of peace and justice, a world that gives content to the quest for freedom – toward being able to touch the border between the sharply arched sky and the round dark earth.


Bahro, Rudolf. 1981. The Alternative in Eastern Europe. London: Verso (German orig., 1977).

Becker, Jurek. 1988. Bronstein's Children. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. (German orig., 1986).

Benser, Günter. 2000. DDR, gedenkt ihrer mit Nachsicht [GDR:  Think of It with Indulgence]. Berlin: Karl Dietz.

Brie, Horst. 2006. Erinnerungen eines linken Weltbürgers [Memoirs of a Leftist Citizen of the World]. Berlin: Karl Dietz.

Dahlem, Franz. l977. Am Vorabend des zweiten Weltkrieges [On the Eve of the Second World War]. Berlin: Karl Dietz.

Dahn, Daniela. 2002. Wenn und_Aber: Anstiftungen zum Widerspruch [If and But: Incitements to Argument]. Hamburg: Rowohlt.

Dahn, Daniela. 2009. Wehe dem Sieger! Ohne Osten kein Westen [Woe to the Victor! Without the East, No West]. Hamburg: Rowohlt.

Eisler, Gerhart, Albert Norden and Albert Schreiner. 1945. The Lesson of Germany: A Guide to Her History. New York: International Publishers.

Gottlieb, Manuel. 1960. The German Peace Settlement and the Berlin Crisis. New York: Paine-Whitman.

Graf, Herbert. 2008. Mein Leben. Mein Chef Ulbricht. Meine Sicht der Dinge [My Life, My Boss Ulbricht, My View of Things]. Berlin: Edition Ost.

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Seghers, Anna. 1946 [1942]. Das siebte Kreuz [The Seventh Cross]. Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag.

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1. [Ed. Note: Italicized English titles refer to published editions. Where no published translation exists, the English versions of titles are not italicized.]

2. “Ambivalence grows out of uncertainty and involves simultaneous pursuit of irreconcilable objectives and the holding of antithetical attitudes” (Gottlieb 1960: xvi-xvii).

3. This was done by (a) establishing smaller election districts, (b) allowing contested elections between candidates running on the SED/Bloc Party list, (c) creating a system for recall of elected representatives, and (d) giving state and municipal governing bodies greater responsibility for local economic policy. 4. Werner Mittenzwei, a literary and theatre critic long active in the GDR’s Academy of Science and Academy of Art, provides in this book a detailed history of the East’s cultural policies and the cost of closing public space.
5. Each country conceived similar economic reforms with the goal of building a socialist market system. In Czechoslovakia this was accompanied by a questioning of the central role of the Communist Party in society, whereas in the GDR the changes were meant to strengthen the SED’s hegemony.

6. Wolfgang Abendroth, who embodied such connections through his activism and writing for Social Democratic, Communist and independent radical left groupings, signaled in his person the unfulfilled possibilities of the 1960s/70s.