Letter from the Sabbatical: The Collapse of East Germany

William Urban, History

One of the joys of being on a Sabbatical is having time to read the books you normally put aside "until later." One of the duties of a Sabbatical is to share your discoveries with the rest of the campus community.

The first book to come to hand was Edward Petersonís The Secret Police and the Revolution: the fall of the German Democratic Republic (Praeger, 2002). It is a topic I knew quite a bit about, having lived in Germany for months at a time every few years (as a student, a Fulbright researcher, and on Sabbaticals); also I had crossed the Wall maybe a dozen times between 1964 and 1989; I teach courses dealing with totalitarianism; and in recent years Iíve visited Germany annually. Yet there was much in this book that I had been only incompletely aware of. That was even more so before the spring and summer of 1990, when my wife and I drove through two parts of the dissolving Soviet empire, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. Most importantly, I did not know how financially bankrupt this state was. Morally bankrupt was another matter. But my ignorance about the economic situation was understandable: the only Americans allowed in were those who could be counted on to report that the workersí paradise was real.

My experiences in East Berlin had not prepared me for the disastrous state of the infrastructure in 1990, because Alexander Platz had been made a showcase at considerable expense (the rest of the central city was pretty drab); intelligence agencies must have known, but American scholars and the American media were accustomed to doubting CIA information. As it turned out, the East German Secret Police (Stasi) reports were a devastating commentary on the systemís failures

Petersonís is not an easy book to read. Quoting more extensively than necessary, perhaps, from the secret police files, he has produced a slim volume as thick in prose as a police dossier. But not all that is beneficial is also pleasurable (as anyone who has done wind-sprints knows). This book demonstrates that for years the Stasi knew the country was heading for economic collapse, but could not persuade the ageing communist leadership to make changes; moreover, the Stasi understood that these changes had to be in the direction of more freedom, especially in the economic sphere, but could not bring themselves to abandon the dream of a fair, just and prosperous socialist state led by the Socialist Unity Party (the communists and their puppet groups). East Germany, by the way, was considered the most successful and prosperous state in the Soviet Empire.

The paradox in this is that East German was a workers paradise to a certain extent; it provided job security, retirement benefits, health insurance, free education and almost free housing, had a great Olympic team (as an American commercial had it, "better living through chemistry") and many theater and opera houses. Moreover, if you didnít want to work, nobody would make you. But someone had to produce something, and in time those who did the work saw that they got nothing more than those who did little or nothing, that management was fudging production figures to show that farm and industrial output was on the upswing, and that the communist elite was living well while workers were not. One lie after the other ultimately made the public conclude that no government statement could be believed, and no amount of jaw-boning could persuade the slackers to work.

The system still might have survived if West Germany had not been so obviously successful. East Germans who read only the government newspapers and Gunter Grass might believe that the West was dominated by Nazis and a thoroughly outdated Roman Catholic Church, but not those who could receive West German television and radio (and that was almost everyone). But that was a basic part of the communist message: as long as any capitalist state existed, socialism was in danger. They meant in danger of attack or subversion, but the real issue was choice; if people had a choice, they would choose the West. Therefore, the state had to deny or limit choices. Hence, building the Wall to keep doctors, engineers and workers from leaving (old people were free to leave, thus reducing the burden on social security). If the populace had voted with its feet, East Germany would have collapsed much earlier. The author does not suggest what the political ramifications would have been, had this occurred, but we all believed that as long as the hard-liners held power in the Kremlin, this might have led to World War Three; so perhaps the West Germans were smart to provide the aid that allowed the East German state to keep going as long as it did. Gorbachev made a start at the necessary changes in the Soviet Union, but he met only resistance from the East German leaders, who understood better than he did that their system survived only by repression and inertia; once they allowed a single change, everything was in danger of disappearing. And the East German leaders were right. Gorbachev was swept away as thoroughly as they were, if not as ignominiously.

The author gives us little information about the very efficient spy network and nothing about the support of terrorists, but he thoroughly documents the Stasiís programs for breaking up opposition groups, for milking West Germany of billions to ransom political prisoners and to retain transit rights to Berlin, failed efforts to prevent citizens from escaping, recruiting informants (as much as one-third of the population) and misleading the people by false economic reports and then discrediting foreign information as fascist propaganda.

This worked well right up to the end, at least for western audiences, if not for the East Germans. I remember listening to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohlís description of how easy unification would be, then Jackie and I looking at one another in wonderment; we were seeing first hand that nothing worked in East Germany, we knew that it would cost a fortune to replace and repaint everything (as it did), and that it would take a long time to restore habits of hard work and efficiency (as it will).

Some day I intend to look up my Stasi file. It exists, Iím reasonably sure. The collapse came too suddenly for the Stasi to destroy its files; surely some individuals managed to dispose of their dossiers, but most of the huge archive survived to document their criminal and unethical activities. Without that, this book could not have been written.

A last thought, reflecting on concerns for civil liberties and the activities of our new homeland security agency, is that some people canít tell the difference between the Stasi leaders and John Ashcroft. I can. Readers of this book will be able to also.

Monmouth College Courier (January 31, 2003), 5.