Was it unavoidable?

Christoph Bertram

  • Dissolution: The Crisis of Communism and the End of East Germany by Charles Maier
    Princeton, 376 pp, £21.95, June 1997, ISBN 0 691 01158 3

It is a rare experience to witness the collapse of a modern state, not to mention of an empire; but those who were alive and conscious in 1989 can claim to have been present at just such an extraordinary event. Although most Western experts were aware of many of the internal shortcomings of the Soviet Union and its assorted East European satellites – Helmut Schmidt called it ‘Upper Volta with missiles’ – it had not seemed by any means moribund, even appearing to generate fresh energy and a new spirit, as well as international respectability, under Gorbachev’s reforms. The boldest forecasts saw another fifty years of Soviet rule in Central Europe, or if they were especially adventurous, a gradual erosion of the Communist empire: no one predicted the rush of events that led within a very few years from perestroika to collapse.

We did not see the writing on the wall, the brittleness of the prison complex that Lenin, Stalin and the rest had built and which their successors tried in vain to hold together. It was, I think, in the spring of 1989 that I became convinced that German unification, the official aim of all West German – indeed, all Western – governments, was not only unlikely but also undesirable, and urged my editor to start a campaign to this effect, a proposal he wisely chose to ignore. I was persuaded that the Soviet Union, with all its tanks, missiles, warheads, party bosses and raw materials, was there to stay. And whatever steps it might take towards internal reform, it would never permit its German creation, the German Democratic Republic, to go down the drain. Hence the GDR, economically the most successful of Moscow’s satellites, was also there to stay, under a leadership which seemed to enjoy a measure of domestic support despite the fact that it continued to shoot anyone who tried to escape to the West.

That the Soviet Union would remain as the guarantor of Germany’s division, and East Germany’s survival, seemed the fundamental law of Mid-European geostrategy, even when, in the summer of 1989, thousands of East Germans fled to the West via a now liberalising Hungary and when, in late autumn, tens of thousands showed their desire for change on the streets of Leipzig and Berlin. What had hitherto seemed absolute turned out, however, to have become relative without the nomenklatura of East Berlin, let alone anyone else, even noticing. A few days after 9 November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, I was in Moscow to see for myself how the Soviets reacted to the event. To my surprise, nobody in the Kremlin seemed to care very much. People just shrugged their shoulders. In their own minds they had already given up on the pretence of empire. I should have known then that unification would be merely a matter of months.

Could the Soviet leadership have prevented the dissolution of its empire or the handing over to the West of the one piece of real estate which gave them a veto on Germany’s future? They certainly could. If, in those autumn weeks, instead of ordering their troops in East Germany to stay in their barracks, they had conducted a few highly visible manoeuvres, a population long trained to read such signs would quickly have deduced that the old order would be defended, and returned to their homes, frustrated but resigned. Some Western leaders, not least Margaret Thatcher, were hoping in vain for such a demonstration of Soviet firmness.

So why did Gorbachev and his colleagues choose to stay on the sidelines? Why did they not even play the ‘German card’, as some of their close advisers urged, to woo West Germany away from its Nato moorings? The reasons were many, though their respective weight remains a matter of speculation. Perhaps, as Charles Maier suggests in the few passages of his book devoted to Soviet thought processes, they had made the strategic choice of opening up to a Europe in which they attributed the key role to Bonn, thereby relegating East Germany to the status of an irritating, burdensome and expendable ally. Perhaps they didn’t think that opening up to the West would entail the end of their empire and the collapse of the GDR; after all, in early December 1989 Gorbachev still seemed to believe that all that was needed for East Germany to survive as a separate ‘socialist’ entity was an injection of perestroika, glasnost, a bit of economic reform and some more loans from Bonn. Perhaps the Kremlin was too preoccupied with crises at home to care much what happened in the outposts. Perhaps it simply felt that the game was up. Whatever the explanation, it was the Soviet leadership which pulled the rug from under the GDR. The dissolution of the state created, and for four decades controlled, protected and subsidised by Moscow, became inevitable.

The analysis of Communist East Germany’s disappearance could rest here. Yet there must have been important reasons for the GDR’s collapse beyond the withdrawal of Soviet support. Charles Maier, a Harvard historian well known for his work on Western Europe, focuses on these other, often neglected factors. Like someone digging crumpled pieces of paper out of the wastepaper basket and straightening them out to try and decipher their contents, Maier picks the GDR, or rather its last months, out of the rubbish bin of Communism. His book, as he writes in the Preface, ‘endeavours to describe the disappearance of a very particular society with a complicated history: small, regimented, seemingly industrious, one of two heirs to a rich, even oppressive cultural legacy’. Not only Maier’s excellent mind, his heart is in it as well: ‘The participants who made their history in 1989 deserved an account that captured the energies, hopes and anxieties at stake.’

The basic risk in an approach of this kind is that concentrating on the German participants – both leaders and people – allows us to forget that theirs were no more than supporting roles in the drama of dissolution. It is a risk Maier has been willing to take. If this sometimes makes his account less than persuasive, so be it. Its value lies in its exploration of those factors other than Soviet tutelage which made the GDR seem a viable state for so long and which, in its last stages, led both its Communist bosses and an emerging group of left-wing democratic reformers to believe that it could and should survive on its own.

Maier has thus written not so much about power as about people. He argues throughout that when the East Germans acted collectively, they had a decisive impact on their own history. The people he is most interested in are the intellectuals who were trying to find a third way between capitalism and Communism long before the Wall came down, and, in the very last months of their ‘Democratic Republic’, hoping to succeed. They wanted their Germany to be just, democratic and non-capitalist, in this last respect fundamentally different from the Germany whose bright lights could be seen from their capital city, and whose televised realities could be received by most of their fellow citizens. The intellectuals were proved wrong, and Maier, who does not hide his sympathy for them, traces the reasons they were bound to fail.

The received wisdom today has it that Communism was doomed because it could neither repress its subjects all of the time nor offer them the material advantages which they saw those outside the empire enjoying. But like the intellectual dissidents themselves, Maier is not satisfied with a thesis that has become a truism only in retrospect. He looks at the level of public support which the Communist leadership in East Berlin commanded from the mid-Sixties to the mid-Eighties, and points out that even coercive regimes ‘may rest on a general acceptance and sometimes enthusiasm’. The Wall that was built on the demarcation line between East and West Germany in August 1961 consolidated the power of the regime, while also forcing gaoler and gaoled to try and get along with each other.

The need to co-exist led the leadership to seek a legitimacy which repression alone could not provide, and their subjects to explore the limits of what they were permitted to do. It not only brought about a privatisation of day-to-day living but restricted the options of those in power. Late socialism, says Maier, strove increasingly hard to corrupt its own public, so losing what was left of its ideological credibility. More significantly, Communist leaders, particularly those whose territory bordered on the capitalist West, had to offer their subjects the consumer goods their economy was least able to provide, and in order to do so, became indebted to Western governments and banks. In this way they became more and more dependent on a rival system which all their rhetoric claimed was moribund. Given the closeness of West Germany and its abundant coffers, the pressures, as well as the temptations, were greater for East Germany than for any other Moscow satellite.

Maier has no doubt that Western loans prolonged Communism’s life: ‘The most disastrous consequences [of the planned economy] were concealed because Western policymakers, intellectuals and businessmen decided that their interest lay in stabilising the Eastern bloc.’ But maybe they were prolonging the death agony. Here, as elsewhere, both Maier and the facts are ambivalent. Socialist economies, he argues, could not survive because they ‘could no longer remain an enclave’. If that is so, Western support made the demise of Communism both more certain and less disruptive, killing it off gently, with marks and dollars.

This of course assumes that, left to themselves, the planned economies could have survived and prospered. Conventional wisdom in the West has it otherwise, however, believing that the collapse of the political system was the inevitable consequence of the economic system’s fatal flaws. Maier – and here his book is at its most controversial – dismisses this fashionable neo-Marxism: adequate reforms within the system would have been possible, he argues, and sufficient for its survival.

To prove his point, he gives a great deal of prominence to the reforms proposed in the early Sixties by the Soviet economist Yevsei Liberman and those who echoed his ideas for more market and less central planning throughout the Soviet empire. Had these ideas prevailed, Maier implies, Communism would have been in a much better position to weather the ‘forces of transformation that gripped West and East alike’: the decline of traditional heavy industries and the emergence of information technology and new service industries. The West managed the transition but only at the price of prolonged social disruption; the East did not and was overtaken by history.

But Maier insists it was the politics not the economics of Communism which were the root cause of this. Just as Liberman and his colleagues were gaining support for a degree of economic liberalisation, pressure for political liberalisation was making itself felt in many satellite countries. The Moscow leadership had only one reaction – namely, to see a challenge to its power – and only one response: to crack down on the reformers. ‘Socialist reform fell victim to the logic of imperial control’ – most brutally in Prague in August 1968, less visibly but no less intensely elsewhere.

Could Communism have reformed? Perhaps, but imperial Communism was clearly unable to do so; as Gorbachev was to find out much later, only when the Soviet Union had given up its ideological prerogatives in Eastern Europe did reform become possible in Moscow. Was it the political or the economic character of the ideology which condemned it? Despite Maier’s valiant efforts to show that politics alone were responsible, the two aspects were so closely intertwined as to be inseparable in any autopsy.

Communism, after all, began as an economic theory of politics. It turned out to be flawed both as a political ideology which could not tolerate the freedom of a dynamic economy, and as an economic system which, because it could not deliver the goods, in due course undermined the political system. It is true that China currently seems to be demonstrating that Marxism and the market can get along. But how long will it be before market forces have undermined the ideological legitimacy of Beijing’s Communists? The imperial version of Communism at any rate was unable to provide guns and butter because economic liberalisation in the provinces was rightly regarded by the centre as a threat to the empire.

Inherent contradictions like these do not cause regimes to collapse overnight. It took imperial Turkey several centuries and a world war to fall apart, and the Soviet Union itself lasted over seven decades. For historians, it is the moment when decline suddenly accelerates that is the most interesting: when all the uncovered cheques are presented simultaneously, and the patience of an erstwhile docile people erupts in protest and revolution.

In focusing on the GDR’s last months, Maier allows himself to speculate about the German way of revolt. Comparing the autumn of 1989, the winter of 1918 and the spring of 1848, he believes he has discovered a recurring pattern of Teutonic upheaval:

Revolutions in 17th-century Britain, 18th-century North America and then, most spectacularly, France culminate in a period of growing tension in which the development of a coherent opposition emerges step by step with a growing crisis of the regime. In Germany in 1848, 1918 and 1989, the opposition hardly advances beyond a loose network of dissenters before the streets explode ... German regimes break down, lose their capacity overnight to enforce obedience as angry crowds finally take to the streets. But ... no leadership emerges. The aperture of historical spontaneity opened briefly, admitted a ray of piercing light, then closed.

Well, perhaps. Germany, the latecomer among European nation states, has yet to learn how to hold a constructive revolution. Maier’s theory has its fascination and underpins his sympathy for the band of East German dissidents who found themselves marginalised once the crowds in Leipzig and Berlin gave up singing ‘We are the people’ in favour of ‘We are one people.’ But was it really because this was a typically German revolution that no opposition capable of gaining power emerged in East Germany? Was it not rather the existence of an alternative political system across the barbed wire which ordinary East Germans, if not the intellectuals, were determined to become part of once the Wall fell? The question does not fit with Maier’s argument. Yet it remains pertinent – more so than any learned comparison between earlier upheavals, even if they did have a few things in common.

No Harvard professor worth his tenure can resist quoting from Tocqueville. Maier obligingly begins with an excerpt from The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution:

Never was any such event, stemming from factors so far back in the past, so inevitable yet so completely unforeseen ... What was the true significance, its real nature, and what were the permanent effects of this strange and terrifying revolution? What exactly did it destroy, and what did it create? I believe that the time has come when these questions can be answered.

Tocqueville wrote his account more than forty years after the event; not even ten have elapsed since the Wall came down.

Maier does not claim to have written the definitive history of those fateful months. The collapse of a modern state is a complex matter, especially in the case of the GDR whose legitimacy depended on its fundamental difference from its other half, and whose existence had less to do with its own performance or the consent of its citizens than with the protection and support of an alien power. In retrospect, what is striking is not that the system collapsed but that it survived so long. Other historians will have to dig further down into the soil Maier has turned – as he is well aware.

Maier has, however, performed a major service for those who forget too easily. He has gathered all the available facts together and reading him is a pleasure. He explores the connections and associations with Germany’s bumpy history, and suggests avenues for further research by challenging conventional, often complacent wisdom. And he has created a memorial to the outstanding individuals who, by maintaining their intellectual independence under duress, originated the process which, when events offered them the chance and others joined in, brought down the Communist regime.

East Germany has since been absorbed into a larger Federal Republic, though the economy of the ‘new Länder’ will lag behind that of the ‘old’ for a long time to come. Unemployment will remain even higher than in the Western half, and resentment at having been the losers in the unification process is widespread, particularly among the older generation. Yet the merger, after fifty years, of these two very different societies has been an unprecedented achievement – and no less so for being without alternative.

In retrospect, the gravest mistake has been the failure to seize the opportunity unification offered for a renewal of Germany as a whole. Instead, outmoded West German structures – a rigid bureaucracy, a social security system too generous to survive even in the wealthy West, a coalition of unions and employers that renders jobs more expensive and hence scarcer – were given a new lease of life by being expanded into the East. Far from giving Germany more power, unification has reduced the country’s ability to respond to the challenges of the post-Cold War world. As Maier puts it at the end of a last chapter entitled ‘Anschluss and Melancholy’, ‘The unease that the East Germans brought to a united Germany came to be increasingly matched by the malaise emerging in the wider society. In their post-1989 melancholy, the East Germans just threatened to lead their West German compatriots into a new epoch of vanished reassurance.’ The new compatriots will have to find a way out of their shared predicament. When they do so, the dissolution of the Communist state on German soil, and the unification of a democratic Germany, will be complete.