Magazine article The Nation

'Wrapping Up' East Germany

Magazine article The Nation

'Wrapping Up' East Germany

Article excerpt


|Wrapping Up' East Germany

Socialism in East Germany was not defeated by capitalism; the system--which had some elements of socialism in it--was overthrown by the people of East Germany. As it was being broken up, an opening briefly appeared for the consideration of a "third way," something neither capitalist nor Stalinist but combining the formal freedoms and market advantages of the first with the equality and stated social goals of the second. With unification and the complete domination of events in East Germany by the West, those possibilities have, for the moment, been suppressed. The termination of the pre-existing rights of every professor in every institution of higher education in East Germany, and the layoff of thousands of researchers in the academies, are a significant part of that process of suppression. While de-Stalinization is certainly needed, the course of the Abwicklung ("wrapping up"), the official euphemism for the dissolution of university departments and institutions, is making it crystal clear that the goal of the German authorities is the simple integration of East into West without reflection. The effort to find alternatives to capitalism and Stalinism is to be buried before it is fully born.

Most of the early leaders of the Wende (literally, the "turn") in East Germany were committed to socialism as an ideal. They saw de-Stalinization, the overthrow of the centralized, overplanned, despotic system of the German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.), as a step toward a better, more democratic socialism, not a repudiation of it. But the general dissatisfaction with the existing system was too great to permit that kind of reform. Twenty years earlier, at the time of the Prague Spring, it might have been possible to have thoroughgoing reform from within the system, especially in East Germany, where things were going pretty well economically. Even in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev initiated perestroika in the U.S.S.R., it might also have been possible in East Germany. But Erich Honecker's remark--that just because one's neighbor puts up new wallpaper doesn't mean one's own walls need redoing--ended that possibility. By 1989, the people of East Germany wanted out.

Intellectuals played a leading role in the G.D.R. reform movement in the early days: Writers, artists, theologians and professors spoke, wrote, marched, founded citizens' groups and planned strategies. The biggest single rally against the domination of the Socialist Unity Party, when close to a million people gathered at Alexanderplatz in East Berlin on November 4, 1989, was sponsored by the Union of Creative Artists. Its slogans were hardly pro-capitalist: "No Power for Anyone!"; "Against Monopoly Socialism, for Democratic Socialism!"; "Revolutions Are Festivals for the People!"; "Privileges for All!"; "Skepticism Is a Citizen's Highest Duty!" Not a word about free markets or unification with the West.

Universities were hothouses of reform. During my sabbatical in the G.D.R., from August 1989 to July 1990, I had occasion to walk through many university corridors; they were inevitably plastered with leaflets, denunciations, proposals, slogans, declarations. An independent nationwide student organization was formed, and the official Free German Youth lost almost all influence. New governing councils were elected and new presidents of universities chosen. Committees, generally with equal representation of senior faculty, junior faculty, students and staff, were set up to revise curriculums and review personnel decisions. Departments of Marxism-Leninism were closed; many professors who owed their jobs more to party loyalty than to scholarly competence lost their jobs. In academia, party membership became a liability rather than an asset.

In research institutions a similar pattern developed. The G.D.R. had never sent dissidents to gulags and rarely to jail; the most typical treatment of nonconformist intellectuals was to keep them on the payroll of some institution but to prevent them from publishing, teaching, giving lectures or otherwise infecting the public arena. …

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