Stronger than the wall: Gareth Dale’s trilogy on East Germany

Issue: 114

Mike Haynes

Gareth Dale, Between State Capitalism and Globalisation: the Collapse of the East German Economy (Peter Lang, 2004), £30

Gareth Dale, Popular Protest in East Germany, 19451989 (Routledge, 2005), £65

Gareth Dale, The East German Revolution of 1989 (Manchester University Press, 2006), £15.99

Three books in as many years are an achievement by anybody’s standards. What Gareth Dale has done here is more—through his discussion of the rise and fall of East Germany (the GDR) he has staked out a claim as a major influence on our interpretation of events in the second half of the 20th century in Europe. Whether it will be seen that way by the left is, however, another matter.

Discussions of the Eastern bloc societies tend to suffer from three problems. First, slight and poorly documented essays by left academics seem to be valued more than substantive pieces of theoretically and empirically engaged work. In an earlier generation both Tony Cliff’s State Capitalism in Russia and Chris Harman’s Class Struggles in Eastern Europe suffered from this condescension from people who had neither produced a similarly sustained analysis nor, it seemed, aspired to. Second, the focus of discussion has too often been on the USSR/Russia as if Eastern Europe were a world apart. For some the Russian ‘social formation/mode of production’ was so specific it had to be analysed separately from those in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and so on. Third, the so‑called Socialist countries were also seen as a world apart from ‘Western capitalism’ and therefore also required a different kind of analysis, though there was little agreement as to what that was.

Gareth Dale’s three books on East Germany challenge each of these problems. He draws on a detailed knowledge of the GDR based on personal experience of its last days, interviews, archival work and an impressive grasp of the published literature. Second, he sees his work as contributing to a general analysis whose implications go beyond a society of 17 million people which in the years 1945‑89 became one of the frontlines of the Cold War but which has now disappeared. Third, he is continually engaged in a discussion which, while it does not neglect the specific characteristics of the GDR, nevertheless rejects the idea that this was a non-capitalist society with a non-capitalist logic. In these terms he adds to the more recent work of Jane Hardy and Al Rainnie on Poland,1 my own work and that written with Rumy Husan on Russia and Hungary,2 and the discussion on the Balkans3—all of which tries to show the importance of the analysis of this journal through a detailed confrontation with the reality of the former Eastern bloc societies. And it is hopefully no slight to any of us to say that in many respects he outdoes us all.

But do we need a trilogy on the rise and fall of the GDR? The answer is yes. Each of these books takes up a different theme and the degree of overlap is limited. Between State Capitalism and Globalisation is a major economic history. It has already received a positive, if critical, reception, from one commentator bemused by its combination of detailed knowledge of economic change in the GDR and an explicit theorisation from the perspective that the Eastern Bloc countries were state capitalist.4 And if you are hoping that this review contains all you might ever need to know about the GDR then pause for a moment—Between State Capitalism and Globalisation offers more. It opens with a long discussion of capitalism and the global economy which has value for all of us and is the strongest published attempt to engage with debates on state and capital from a state capitalist perspective.5 The GDR aside, it should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in these issues.

State control represented what one vice‑president of the GDR state planning commission called ‘an attempt to transpose the economic rationality of the capitalist enterprise onto the national economy as a whole’ (p19). And it seemed to work. The 1960s saw the high point of confidence for the ruling class in the Soviet bloc. In the GDR Walter Ulbricht fondly imagined that it (the most advanced Soviet bloc society) would overtake the West. But from the late 1960s globalising forces which affected all economies began to expose the weaknesses of the GDR approach (and that in the rest of the Soviet bloc). Its leaders rejected isolated development in favour of greater links to the global economy but this brought debts and dependence and then weakened their room for manoeuvre by the end of the 1980s, and especially in 1989.

Popular Protest in East Germany, 1945_‑_1989 takes up the question of the resistance. It opens with the June 1953 uprising when workers, who had been repressed and brutally exploited, exploded in anger in the confusion of the period immediately after Stalin’s death. Dale argues the size of these protests in the GDR has been consistently underestimated. They were shortlived but they ‘developed at a breathtaking pace’ and were only crushed ‘by the deployment of ruthless military force’ (p10). ‘The situation is extremely serious,’ said the then head of the secret police. ‘It’s a question of them or us’ (p31). Though the rising was defeated the memory lingered on. ‘We sure showed them that they can’t just do whatever they like with us,’ said one worker (p33). Indeed the fear of a repeat of 1953 weighed more heavily on the minds of the GDR ruling class even though Erich Honecker boasted of the value of summary execution in deterring ‘counter-revolution’.

Thereafter Dale traces the more submerged forms of resistance that survived in the next decades, and the way that the regime used a combination of relative prosperity, ideology, surveillance and repression to sustain itself. He compares the arts of resistance with those of domination, emigration and youth rebellion and the emergence of small-scale dissident movements in the 1980s.

The final part of Popular Protest focuses on the 1989 revolution. For many people this is symbolised by the day that the Berlin Wall came down, but Dale stresses it was a much longer process with real worker involvement both on the streets and in the factories. ‘Between August 1989 and April 1990, 2,600 public demonstrations and over 300 rallies took place, as well as over 200 strikes and a dozen factory occupations. The largest three of the 2,600 demonstrations attracted well over 1 million people. No accurate figures exist for the total number of participants in demonstrations and public protests. That it was several million is indisputable. One researcher has estimated the figure over 5 million’ (p181). At the top the regime’s leaders were desperate for a way out. ‘Erich, we can’t beat up hundreds of thousands of people,’ said secret police chief Erich Mielke to Erich Honecker. This made a gamble on a technocratic deal with the West and unification look increasingly attractive even if some leaders had to be sacrificed.

The interesting question is why the mass movement also came to see this a solution. Dale quotes a placard at a Christian Democrat rally: ‘Helmut [Kohl], take us by the hand, show us the way to the economic miracle land’ (p167). But he then rejects the idea that such a simple material analysis is adequate, and especially so in terms of the level of mobilisation. Here he suggests two things were crucial. One was that the high levels of protest did not necessarily reflect a strong belief in the people’s own capacity to change the world. In some respects, 1953 was more radical than 1989. The submerged character of conflict in the next decades meant that, when things exploded, East German workers lacked the self-confidence to strike out in a different direction. This was then compounded by the peculiar character of the leadership that emerged.

The suddenness of the collapse brought to prominence a collection of intellectuals, artists, Greens and religious figures—some of whom played courageous roles that individually put most readers of this journal to shame. However, collectively they found it hard to connect. ‘It was always difficult to make worldly problems intelligible to the intellectuals and artists of the opposition,’ said one worker. Indeed from the other side Dale honestly records the problems of his own fleeting attempts to intervene. Leaders and ‘led’ therefore moved in different ways. In the first phase workers looked to these ‘leaders’ almost in spite of themselves. Then, when the movement began to radicalise even more, its erstwhile leaders who had been temporarily catapulted into prominence were looking to negotiate and even join the government. Thus a gap was opened up which could not only be capitalised on by the West German leader Helmut Kohl, but which also provided the basis for a negotiated shift of power as a top‑down process. Dale quotes an American commentator suggesting that unification ‘left little room for citizen input. It was the hour of the policymaker and the bureaucrat. [It] relegated people to being subjects, rather than agents of change’ and of course, there were no mass mobilisations in West Germany either.

The East German Revolution of 1989 treats these themes in much greater detail. But Dale again stresses that it makes more sense to investigate events in a country like the GDR in the context of a wider understanding of ‘German, European and world history’. He rejects the continuing influence of Cold War thinking on the history of the GDR in favour of recognition of what he calls ‘shades of grey’ between Eastern and Western Europe. He also develops his critical engagement with social movement theory to analyse the interaction of the ‘streets’ and ‘civic protest’ groups. ‘Had we related to workers’ demands we could have become a lively, trade union-linked left wing movement. Instead we became a sect,’ said one of the few workers in the New Forum civic group (p228). But he adds to this a more structured discussion of ‘history from above’ by looking at why the regime acted as it did. Here he stresses the negotiated nature of the transition and the way in which East Germany’s leaders were able, with the assistance of their counterparts in West Germany, to undertake ‘a very orderly retreat’. The rhetoric of ‘Communism’ was used so long as state driven competition seemed to work. When it came to the crunch and a more market based regime seemed to offer a solution to the problems of running the GDR ‘their commitments could be—and were—abandoned without a fuss’ (p xi).

In this sense the GDR initially followed the pattern of ruling class continuity visible elsewhere in Eastern Europe. But the GDR’s leaders were less successful as a group because, when the transition depression hit, they found themselves part of wider German structures through unification. This meant that they had fewer ways of bending the system to protect themselves so that eventually ‘only a relatively thin layer of East Germany’s ruling class was able to survive’.

This whole analysis—its depth, detail and theorisation—is important. This is not to say that readers will necessarily agree with everything Dale writes. I would have liked to see more comparative growth data used to inform the discussion in Between State Capitalism and Globalisation. When discussing East German workers in both Popular Protest and The East German Revolution I think Dale might have moderated his comments about ‘their substantial shop floor strength’ had there been more discussion of the similarities of the labour process east and west. But these are matters for detailed discussion. What should stand out for all of us is the overall achievement and challenge which Gareth Dale has laid down.


1: Jane Hardy and Al Rainnie, Restructuring Krakow: Desperately Seeking Capitalism (London, 1996). Readers should also note the many articles on Poland by Colin Barker in this journal as well as his collaborative work with Gareth Dale and also Colin Mooers on revolutions and 1989. See Colin Barker and Colin Mooers, ‘Theories of Revolution in the Light of 1989 in Eastern Europe’, in Cultural Dynamics, volume 9, number 1
(1997), pp17-43.

2: Mike Haynes, Russia. Class and Power in the Twentieth Century (London, 2002); Mike Haynes and Rumy Husan, A Century of State Murder? Death and Public Policy in Russia (London, 2003); Mike Haynes and Rumy Husan, ‘Health and Safety at Work in Russia and Hungary: Illusion and Reality in the Transition Crisis’, in Vernon Mogensen (ed), Worker Safety under Siege: Labor, Capital and the Politics of Workplace Safety in a Deregulated World (New York, 2006).

3: Mike Haynes, ‘Analysing Balkan Development 1945-1989. The Rhetoric of the Economist’, in Andrew Hammond (ed), The Balkans and the West: Constructing the European Other (London, 2004), pp36-49.

4: See, for example, the review by Nigel Swain in The Economic History Review, volume 58, issue 2 (February 2006).

5: But before they are lost to history we should also note Emma Bircham, ‘The International Political Economy of Actually Existing Capitalism: Rethinking Globalisation and the Retreat of the State’, London School of Economics, PhD (2005); Mike Haynes, ‘Economic Backwardness and State Led Development: The Origin, Character and Fate of the Soviet Model’, University of Wolverhampton, PhD (2005).