Book Review: The People's State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker


9-22-07, 10:23 am

The People's State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker By Mary Fulbrook Yale University Press 2005.

It has been almost twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the German Democratic Republic. Since then a lot has been written about the former socialist state. However though, like the history of the former Soviet Union and Eastern European People's Democracies, the history of the GDR has, for the most part, lacked balance, objectivity and perspective. Fortunately, Mary Fulbrook's 'The People's State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker,' is a welcomed change.

The premise of Fulbrook's book is the simple, yet neglected question: What was life really like for East Germans. From the very beginning of 'The People's State' Fulbrook makes clear her goal: to tell the story of normal, everyday East Germans, their lives, their perspectives, not the perspective of a minority of dissident voices. She writes, '...once historians, sociologists and political scientists started to write about East Germany under communist rule, protesting voices began to be raised. Faced with accounts of repression, complicity and collusion, former citizens of the GDR claimed that their own memories and experiences told them otherwise.'

Fulbrook continues, 'Most East Germans did not feel that they had spent up to four decades of their lives trembling in 'inner emigration,' or conspiratorially plotting against the regime, or making a pact with the Red Devil for private advancement.' For most people, the GDR was not the way it was described by western sources. It was something else. And as a result, most East Germans sought and lived normal lives, worked, went to school, went to the doctor, went on vacation, spent time with family and friends, and participated in the democratic processes of the East German state.

While Fulbrook claims that the GDR was still a dictatorship, she makes this claim without redbaiting. The unique historical circumstances which lead to the development of a specific East German society isn't lost by Fulbrook; she deals with the remnant affects of Nazism, with the hostility of the western capitalist world and with the socialist goals and Marxist vision guiding East German society. She depicts a government sincerely trying to do its best to provide for the people, despite conditions of scarcity.

What makes Fulbrook's book so good is the depth of thought she puts into understanding the dynamics of power within East German society. She writes, 'The exercise of power was in many areas both far more multifaceted and complex...less sinister and repressive, than totalitarian theorists would have us believe.' In fact, in many ways, her analysis challenges the dominant historiography and urges us to look at East Germany and other formerly socialist states from a new perspective. 'The notion of what constituted the East German state thus needs in some way to be extended...,' she writes. 'We have to recognise [sic] that political goals were not always or only to do with the maintenance and retention of power; there were many common humanitarian goals, as in areas of health policy, housing and gender equality...' that greatly benefited the East German people.

According to Fulbrook, the East German state took special care to provide for its citizens. 'In 1978 between one half and one third of people ate their main weekly meal in a school or works canteen. The state provided seven million dinners daily....the hard statistics,' she continues, 'do tell a story of a continually rising, if limited, standard of living...' However frustrated people may have been because of shortages and delays, most citizens saw the GDR as trying to live up to its socialist ideals, and as a result, most East Germans benefited from socialism.

Social mobility for working class Germans, especially women, was also heavily emphasized in the GDR. However according to Fulbrook, the struggle for gender equality was, like any other industrial nation, 'lopsided and partial.' While, 'There were very radical changes in the public and professional aspirations of women' there was only 'minimal changes in assumptions about what was 'normal' [behavior] for men.' Fulbrook goes into more detail: 'So women benefited massively from the strenuous campaigns of the 1950's and '60's to ensure they achieved similar levels of education and qualification as men and had comparable careers aspirations, and [as] they fully entered the East German labour force, their capacity to combine motherhood and employment [was] greatly eased by the institutional and legal framework...' set up by the Socialist Unity Party (SED). But, too often, women 'did not rise to levels of leadership and management' like their male colleagues.

Fulbrook paints a complicated picture of a society in flux, struggling to develop and provide opportunity. She methodically details the real life situations of most East Germans - who for the most part were content with their lives - while truthfully acknowledging the short comings within East German society. Unlike right-wing, anti-communist historians searching zealously to prove that capitalism has won, Fulbrook's objective analysis gives a glimpse of the realities of life in a very complex, multidimensional society. This is a honest book. Well worth the read.

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