Gareth Dale. Popular Protest in East Germany: Judgments on the Streets, 1945-1989. New York: Routledge, 2005. 246 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7146-5408-9.
Reviewed by Gary Bruce (Department of History, University of Waterloo)
Published on H-German (March, 2006)
Workers of East Germany, Unite!
Gareth Dale's work is a sweeping account of public opposition in East Germany. As the emphasis is on public forms of dissent, Dale addresses strike action, church activity, street demonstrations and other forms of popular protest, rather than social non-participation (as in current debates on the Nischengesellschaft) or other forms of resistance, like the dramatic student resistance of Wolfgang Natonek, Arno Esch and the Eisenberg Circle of the 1940s and 1950s. Dale's three-part work is bookended, naturally, by the only two incidents of large-scale mass protest in East Germany: the revolutionary upheaval of June 1953 and the revolution of 1989 that toppled the regime. The middle section investigates resistance behavior in the intervening period and the formation of preconditions for the revolution of 1989.
In part 1, Dale examines the June 1953 uprising. By commencing with 1953, the author unfortunately misses an opportunity to discuss the Saalfeld miners' revolt of August 1951, which was clearly a public protest and could have been fruitfully compared to the larger uprising two years later. Although there is little in his account of the 1953 uprising that is new to the historical record (in part because of the flurry of exhaustive works that appeared in 2003 on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary), his explanation of the "wildfire" nature of the uprising--the speed with which it spread throughout factories in the GDR--deserves consideration. Dale argues that the June 1953 uprising spread with such rapidity in large part because of the heritage of the German labor movement (including symbols, songs and strike committees), which stretched back to the Weimar era and beyond. Dale is struck by the fact that those too young to have experienced earlier labor traditions firsthand nevertheless exhibited familiarity with them--a sign that working-class families passed on these traditions even though they were officially taboo. Dale's explanation for the solidarity of the working class in the uprising of 1953 is for the most part convincing, but it does tend to reduce the uprising to a "workers' revolt," a description of June 1953 that the latest literature shies away from, preferring "popular uprising" or even "suppressed revolution." Dale's emphasis on factory worker participation leaves open the question of why a cross-section of the population took to the streets of East Germany. Why did the revolution spread like "wildfire" in other social groups, like youth, farmers and female non-workers? In my own work, I have suggested that repression and the state's abuse of basic rights fomented a "resistance potential" across a wide social spectrum that contributed to the willingness to engage in revolutionary behavior.
In part 2, Dale documents the level of bargaining power that workers had in East Germany by virtue of various tactics at their disposal (absenteeism, slow-downs, petty theft), actions that the regime believed it could not deal with in heavy-handed fashion lest June 1953 be repeated. This relative strength of workers vis-à-vis the regime echoes the conclusions of Jeffrey Kopstein in his path-breaking work on East Germany, and complements recent arguments on the "precarious stability" which characterized East Germany in the second half of its existence. Dale details the increasing loss of solidarity among workers in East Germany (in contrast to neighboring Poland, for example) as they focused on immediate, workplace issues. Accordingly, the culture of worker protest diminished over the years and worker apathy set in (p. 190). This section of the work is most helpful in describing the 1960s and 1970s in the GDR as they relate to workers' issues. This period has often been overlooked, as historians have focused on the more dramatic 1980s. The docility of the East German workers in contrast to their Polish counterparts is fascinating. Dale's explanation for worker apathy might well, however, have taken into account the fact that East German workers found themselves living under pervasive state surveillance. It is striking, for example, that worker apathy increased precisely as the Stasi was ballooning (especially after the 1973 Grundvertrag). In attempting to ascertain the reasons for declining activism, historians would do well to keep in mind the fact that the Stasi oversaw a sea of informants, and that there was a general popular fear of stepping out of line.
The final section of Dale's work discusses the revolution of 1989. Here, he takes issue in particular with the view forwarded by Linda Fuller that 1989 was a revolution of intellectuals within oppositional citizens' movements, and one in which the working class was essentially absent. Dale points to the large number of workers who took part in mass demonstrations in the fall of 1989, arguing: "Workers were not only involved, but played the decisive part in toppling the regime" (p. 186). Their participation, he continues, grew out of escalating worker discontent with a range of issues--from shop-floor to high-level political--that led to serious contemplation of strike action. Dale is right to restore balance to those accounts that overemphasize the role of intellectuals in 1989, but the force of his argument is diminished by his failure to place the role of street demonstrations within the general debate on why East Germany collapsed. If East Germany was toppled due more to regime implosion than revolution from below, the role of workers in the process may not be as significant as Dale suggests.
Historians will be disappointed with the source base of Dale's work. Although he interviewed a number of people involved in oppositional activity in East Germany in the 1980s, the amount of archival material that he introduces is very thin. His use of documents from the Stasi archive (Bundesbeauftragte für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen DDR--BStU) is, to be generous, odd. Although his footnotes contain references to documents he viewed at the BStU, he does not list the Stasi archive as one of the archives that he visited, nor do the citations fulfill the requirements of historical scholarship. "BStU, ZAIG, 2828"--without reference to title or date of the document--is an incomplete citation (see, for example, footnotes 14 and 21 in chapter 6). Occasionally archives appear in the footnotes only once, without an explanation as to what they are. I would guess from my own experience in the regional Stasi archives that "Leipzig BVfS" (footnote 13, chapter eight) is the Leipzig Bezirksverwaltung für Staatssicherheit, one of the regional Stasi archives. Even more disconcerting, however, is that Dale visited this rich archive and came away from it with only one citation for his entire book. This is the most disappointing aspect of his source base. From someone who worked in both central and regional Stasi archives, I would have expected more than just a handful of these documents to be cited in his book, considering the mammoth holdings.
In sum, Dale's book provides new arguments on 1953 and 1989 in East Germany, and some insightful material on the often-neglected years between, but the source base and the lack of a broader context will limit its impact on the historiography.
. Thomas Lindenberger, for example, argues against the GDR being "totalitarian" by virtue of the existence of a Nischengesellschaft. See his Herrschaft und Eigen-Sinn in der Diktatur (Cologne: Böhlau, 1999).
. An exhaustive recap of the literature on June 17, 1953 is Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk, "Die gescheiterte Revolution--17.Juni 1953. Forschungsstand, Forschungskontroversen, und Forschungsperspektiven," in Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 44 (2004), pp. 606-664.
. Gary Bruce. Resistance with the People: Repression and Resistance in Eastern Germany, 1945-1955 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).
. Jeffrey Kopstein, The Politics of Economic Decline in East Germany (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), and Jeannette Madarasz, Conflict and Compromise in East Germany, 1971-1989 (New York: Palgrave, 2003).
[5.] For a summary of these debates, see Corey Ross, The East German Dictatorship (London: Arnold, 2002).
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Gary Bruce. Review of Dale, Gareth, Popular Protest in East Germany: Judgments on the Streets, 1945-1989.
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