Alan McDougall. Youth Politics in East Germany: The Free German Youth Movement, 1946-1968. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. 261 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-927627-1.
Reviewed by Benita Blessing (Department of History, Ohio University)
Published on H-German (February, 2006)
The prevailing literature on the former Soviet occupation zone and the ensuing German Democratic Republic (GDR) characterizes the ultimately single-party Socialist Unity Party (SED) regime as an omnipotent dictatorship that efficiently and brutally controlled all aspects of everyday and political life. To write against this generalization of the GDR as a totalitarian state that permitted no space for public criticism is to provoke the wrath of many historians and a broader public committed to relegating the half-century of that state to illegitimacy. In his new book on the evolution of the communist youth organization, the Free German Youth (FDJ), Alan McDougall consciously risks being labeled an apologist for the GDR with his insistence that the state and its young people functioned under a program of "coercion and consent" (pp. 5-8). With this analytical framework, McDougall repeatedly discredits any interpretation of the GDR as a totalitarian regime.
McDougall makes his case with a clear analysis of how the FDJ dealt with and was affected by five "crisis points" in GDR history, each of which forms a chapter: the June 1953 uprising; Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" and the Hungarian revolt in 1956; the 1961 building of the Berlin Wall; the SED's reformulation of youth policy in the mid-1960s; and, finally, the 1968 "Prague Spring" in Czechoslovakia. With this chronological and thematic organization, McDougall demonstrates how the FDJ became increasingly capable of contending with subsequent youth unrest after all these events. Yet he is also able to show that, without exception, FDJ functionaries never had the resources, personnel, or--most important--blind loyalty to their superiors to implement SED policy. Moreover, the SED itself changed course on youth policy, at times erratically, and was inconsistent in its attempts to win over all of East German youth, confusing both FDJ leaders and the larger membership. By viewing the history of the Soviet Zone and the GDR through the lens of one of the state's most important organizations, McDougall lucidly and convincingly portrays the GDR as a state that was incapable and, in some cases, unwilling to control all aspects of society.
McDougall uses his archival sources on the FDJ cleverly. The official memoranda of SED officials, their communiqués expressing concern about the state of the FDJ, and the multiple responses of FDJ functionaries and members themselves offer a complex and fascinating picture of the role of the state's official youth organization in the creation of East German society. He reminds us that the FDJ was not only an organization for pupils and students; the SED intended the FDJ to influence young workers at factories as well (p. 120). But the SED and upper-level FDJ functionaries confused FDJ members and younger people in general with a seemingly constant stream of policy changes. McDougall skillfully and poignantly communicates the sense of bewilderment and even betrayal felt by young people who (after Khrushchev refuted Stalin and the "cult of personality" around him), having struggled through the postwar rejection of Hitler and Nazism, were now expected to abandon Stalin's teachings (p. 83). With increasing availability of western media throughout subsequent "crisis points," McDougall argues, many young people began to ignore not only their state's official news programs, but to turn to western pop culture as a source of release and rebellion (pp. 186-192). Amidst all this youth unrest, even the hard-liner SED leader Ulbricht expressed a willingness to open up to ideas about reform, especially for young people--a reevaluation of Ulbricht that will surprise most historians and provide avenues for further research in this area (p. 164).
A few source issues are worth mentioning here. None of these problems weaken the book's key arguments, but I would have liked to see a broader range and critical use of primary material. For instance, McDougall's claim that 1960s rock and roll music in the Federal Republic was "largely apolitical" is inaccurate--the lyrics alone of any Rolling Stones or even Beatles text belie this assumption for the West (p. 189). With such misstatements, McDougall falls into the very trap of Cold War logic that he so vehemently eschews, forgetting that the Federal Republic had its share of generational problems as well. Nonetheless, his observation that listening to this same music was a different kind of political act in the GDR, with potentially dire consequences for young people, is important, and corresponds to Dorthee Wierling's interviews with members of that GDR generation in her recent book Geboren im Jahr Eins (2002). Absent from McDougall's discussion here is Wierling's finding that the SED initially attempted to foster a homegrown, GDR beat scene, without success. Similarly, it is odd that he relied on second-hand accounts of primary sources available to him. For instance, the 1968 constitution for the GDR is easily accessible, even online, in German and English. Citing the actual text might have allowed McDougall to make an even stronger argument about the articles regarding the GDR's stance on its own sovereignty and German unification (p. 206). He also limits his discussion of Brigitte Reimann to secondary source analyses, such as the questionable claim that she was (or is) "best known for her 1961 novel ... Ankunft im Alltag" (p. 173). This description captures little of her complicated role in GDR intelligentsia and political circles. How much richer his description of 1968 could have been had he included the heart-wrenching elements from her diaries (published in the mid-1990s), demonstrating that she and her fellow GDR citizens felt themselves victims of their regime's duplicity, and her own disgust at having been a "well-intentioned fool." Indeed, McDougall's primary source references, outside of archival ones, are extremely limited, with a true analysis of only one cultural source from the GDR, Ulrich Plenzdorf's 1973 cult novel Die neuen Leiden des jungen W., about a young man living on the fringes of society (p. 139). When McDougall includes the oral history interviews he conducted with those people directly involved in the FDJ, he is curiously noncommittal about their interpretation of events, often not even commenting on their statements but allowing them to stand as theses and conclusions (e.g., p. 162, nn. 37, 38). A more critical, if not skeptical, approach to these men's stories of their activities decades ago would have been in order. Finally, isolated but intriguing statements about gender and sexual issues have no follow-up. For instance, McDougall claims that dissent was more common among young men than women in the GDR, but no reference is offered for this assertion (p. 17). And what were the "sexual problems" that FDJ functionaries helped out with in books and lectures, as mentioned in a 1956 youth forum (p. 79)? If we are to understand the full range of experiences of young people in the GDR, we cannot leave the analysis of such key issues to the field of gender studies--they belong front and center in a book of this scope. But let me be clear: despite the scarcity of relevant non-archival primary sources, McDougall's overall thesis that the FDJ existed in an environment of "coercion and consent" with its target audience retains its viability. Without a doubt, young people in the GDR recognized and used the limited public and private space available to them to protest the regime and FDJ policies, while the SED and FDJ leadership constantly reacted to perceived and real threats to the FDJ's influence. After reading this book, scholars will find it impossible to support the "dictatorship" approach to GDR history.
Still, why is it such a major contribution to the literature on the former GDR to show that a government was inconsistent in its policies and ineffective in implementing them, or that a state-sponsored organization suffered from bureaucratic obstacles and personality conflicts? Is this not the stuff of all modern societies? This is the challenge that faces all historians writing against the "dictatorship literature" on the GDR. The political lines of the Cold War have not disappeared for historians. Every scholar who argues for a more nuanced and balanced view of the GDR as a dynamic society that, in its half-century of existence, cannot be reduced to a view of the SED's party rhetoric as reality, must ultimately reject a larger, more established interpretation of the GDR as a police state that held no quarter. It is a delicate balancing act for young historians especially, who have a significant debt to pay those scholars who conducted research on divided Germany at a time when East German archives were not generally open for western eyes, and when SED rhetoric obscured an accurate portrayal of the everyday situations for most East Germans.
McDougall negotiates this landmine by circling his wagons: he identifies his work as part of a "new historiographical trend in GDR studies--developed primarily by British scholars such as Mark Allinson, Patrick Major, and Corey Ross" (p. 8). He is then careful to limit outright criticism of those historians who are skeptical of any analysis of the GDR beyond the SED and its massive Stasi (Staatssicherheit, the state secret police) apparatus, the state's "two most obvious symbols of repression" (p. 9). His citations regarding these historians are limited, with rare exception, to other historians' descriptions of what this totalitarian viewpoint comprises. In turn, these footnotes (overwhelmingly highlighting the work of the above-cited Allinson, Major, and Ross) also primarily cite the totalitarian vs. differentiated historiography cryptically, without explicit attacks on specific historians' work. And who can fault these would-be young Turks for not taking on this task? Perhaps it is taking the high road, for example, to point readers to Jürgen Kocka's 1994 chapter on the GDR as a "thoroughly ruled society" (durchherrschte Gesellschaft) instead of asking how Kocka can defend the statement that "all in all, GDR society proved itself to a large degree to have been an artificial product of a political authority" (p. 26, n. 85). Kocka, after all, co-edited with that same volume one of the first books on a social history of the GDR, including some chapters that spoke against that type of blanket statement (as Kocka himself acknowledges in a subsequent sentence). And the disgust that many historians retain for the GDR and its entire society is palpable enough to make any younger historian think twice about taking respected historians to task for their collapsing of official SED policy and everyday life, as when Dan Diner painted the entire culture of GDR antifascism in 1997 with the damning epithet "existential lie." Perhaps it is wiser, as McDougall has done, to write a solid book that would cause all but the most dogmatic readers to reject the concept of an "artificial" East German society.
I applaud McDougall's fine book. But I am nonetheless concerned, ultimately, with his (and others' of our generation) approach to the historical literature on the GDR. The "new historiographical trend" is, more than fifteen years after the collapse of the GDR regime, not new, nor is it primarily British. It is not only that some historians were already looking behind the Berlin Wall for a more accurate portrayal of the GDR before 1989; it is that East Germans themselves were making some of the very points that McDougall et al. have eloquently addressed. The East German author Stefan Heym's 1974 novel about the 1953 workers' revolt in the GDR, Five Days in June, was published in the West and translated into English in 1977. Although a fictionalized account, anyone in the West could have recognized long before 1989 that the legacy of 1953 was one of persistent discontent among GDR citizens with their regime. As early as 1982, the educational historian Sterling Fishman, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, indicted his western colleagues for their near-total ignorance of GDR schools--a result, he believed, of American parochialism. His insistence that East Germans believed their brand of socialism to have roots in their own German past, rather than being an unwelcome Soviet imposition, presaged post-1989 works. In 1987, Thomas A. Davey wrote a fascinating account of how East and West Berlin children identified themselves as members of opposing ideological systems, but nonetheless as part of a German nation--a significant point for historians convinced of the thorough Sovietization of GDR society. In 1990, the German historian (and former GDR activist) Ina Merkel published a reconsideration of women's roles in the postwar East German years. The Triumph of the Ordinary: Depictions of Daily Life in the East German Cinema, 1949-1989 (2002), by Joshua Feinstein, remains one of the best studies on the historical use of cinema to describe everyday life in the GDR. David Bathrick's study of culture in the GDR won the DAAD/GSA Book of the Year Prize in 1996, and continues to be one of the most cited works on antifascism as it functioned in everyday GDR society. Anyone even remotely familiar with the GDR author Brigitte Reimann (1933-73) can find articulate discussions of East Germans' own attempts to reconcile their daily lives and desires with the conflicting messages coming from their government. One need only look at the steady number of U.S. and Canadian dissertation topics on new perspectives on the GDR listed annually in the American Historical Association's Directory of Dissertations in Progress to recognize that the problem with the "new historiographical trend" seeming novel is not a lack of excellent works in this field, in Germany, Great Britain, the United States, or Canada. It is an absence of a broader dialogue among these scholars in the historical literature, and a reluctance to engage explicitly historians who refute "new" scholarship on the GDR or, more troubling, are not reading it.
Alan McDougall's well-written and lucid book is such an important contribution to our understanding of the many levels of GDR society that it belongs on the bookshelves of all scholars interested in the SED and the FDJ. It would also be fascinating reading for graduate students or upper-division undergraduate seminars, although its price tag is unfortunately a deterrent for its adoption as a textbook (which constitutes a concern about limiting scholarship on the GDR to very narrow circles that I hope to see addressed elsewhere). I look forward to McDougall's continued participation in the "new historiography," regardless of where its origins actually lie.
. Brigitte Reimann, Alles schmeckt nach Abschied: Tagebücher 1964-1970 (Berlin: Aufbau, 1998), p. 217.
. Jürgen Kocka, "Eine durchherschte Gesellschaft," in Sozialgeschichte der DDR, ed. Hartmut Kaelbe, Jürgen Kocka and Hartmut Zwahr (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1994), p. 550.
. Dan Diner, "On the Ideology of Antifascism," New German Critique 67 (Winter 1997), p. 123.
. Stefan Heym, Five Days in June (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977; originally published in German in 1974).
. Sterling Fishman, "'The Berlin Wall' in the History of Education," History of Education Quarterly 22, no. 3 (Autumn 1982): pp. 363-364.
. Thomas A. Davey, A Generation Divided: German Children and the Berlin Wall (Durham: Duke University Press, 1987).
. Ina Merkel, "... und Du, Frau an der Werkbank". Die DDR in den 50er Jahren (Berlin: Elefanten Press, 1990).
. David Bathrick, The Powers of Speech: The Politics of Culture in the GDR (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).
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Benita Blessing. Review of McDougall, Alan, Youth Politics in East Germany: The Free German Youth Movement, 1946-1968.
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