Jan C. Behrends, Thomas Lindenberger, Patrice G. Poutros, eds. Fremde und Fremd-Sein in der DDR: Zu historischen Ursachen der Fremdenfeindlichkeit in Ostdeutschland. Berlin: Metropol, 2003. 376 pp. EUR 21.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-936411-01-0.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Jurgens (Anthropology Program, Bard College)
Published on H-German (June, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Making, Managing, and Excluding "Others" in East Germany
For many years, the social circumstances and lived experiences of labor migrants, refugees, applicants for political asylum, and other "foreigners" in postwar Germany were largely the preserve of sociologists and social workers--historians, with few exceptions, did not engage with these topics. A substantial and still growing body of historiographic scholarship has since remedied this situation, but even now the focus largely remains on the policies, practices, and meanings of "otherness" in West Germany and the reunified Federal Republic rather than East Germany more specifically. Fremde und Fremd-Sein in der DDR offers a productive initial corrective to this lacuna that also speaks to the alarming racism and xenophobia that emerged in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) after 1989-90.
This edited volume, which emerged from a conference sponsored by the Potsdam Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung, maintains that contemporary East German xenophobia has a specific character that cannot be entirely equated with comparable attitudes in West Germany. Further, the book insists that this hostility toward "others" must be understood not merely as a consequence of the dislocations of (re)unification, but also through the practices of rule, inclusion, and exclusion that characterized state socialism. In particular, the contributors aim to situate past and present manifestations of xenophobia in relation to East Germans' truncated engagements with the National Socialist past as well as their lived and imagined relations with West Germans, the Soviet Union, "foreigners" of various kinds, and social groups whose commitment to socialism was suspect. Needless to say, this approach requires the contributors to conceive of otherness in a manner that extends well beyond constructions of ethnicity and race.
One group of essays examines the conceptions of identity and difference that informed East Germans' attitudes toward Cold War division, Germans from outside East Germany, and the Nazi past. These contributions highlight, first of all, the marked ambivalence that surrounded East Germans' relationships with the Federal Republic and its citizens. Documented exchanges of personal letters across the German-German border, for example, indicate that residents of the GDR were often uncomfortable with derogatory portrayals of "easterners" when these were applied to them by West Germans. They were, however, prepared to employ analogous representations to characterize other eastern Europeans when they could thereby assert their status as fellow Germans. In similar fashion, East German state and party officials felt sharp conflicts about ethnic Germans who settled in the GDR from the Soviet Union and elsewhere in eastern Europe. In contrast to the FRG's welcoming posture toward settlers, the GDR was at best selective in its acceptance of ethnic Germans: it feared that the arrival of too many settlers, many of whom had suffered under Soviet repression, would damage the popular legitimacy of both socialist states. Finally, two chapters address the lingering legacies of the GDR's culture of memory regarding the Third Reich. These essays analyze East German right-wing extremism not as an "import" from the Federal Republic after 1989-90, but as a homegrown phenomenon informed by the failure of the GDR to confront the atrocities of the Holocaust. In particular, the state's early commitment to antifascism hindered a wider acknowledgement of National Socialism as an integral aspect of "one's own" history, especially among East Germans born years after the foundation of the GDR.
A second group of essays explores historical connections between the Soviet Union and the GDR by way of the conceptions of others that prevailed in both states. On the one hand, these chapters examine Bolshevik constructions of class enemies and other "foreign" and "asocial" elements, and they suggest that, to a significant extent, East German state and party officials adopted Bolshevik aversions to an array of others in their efforts to engineer a uniform, disciplined socialist society. On the other, these essays address many East Germans' perceptions of their Soviet occupiers, and the Soviet Union more broadly, as an embodiment of civilizational inferiority. The very fact of occupation was a disorienting, even traumatic experience for East Germans accustomed to viewing Russians as primitive and brutal. As a result, much of the population was inclined not simply to treat official pronouncements of German-Soviet friendship with skepticism, but to regard the GDR itself, to one degree or another, as an inauthentic foreign imposition. These essays also imply, but do not thoroughly demonstrate, that the perceptions and practices that defined the Soviet occupation and the early years of SED rule helped to set the terms for later constructions of self and other. Jan Behrends, in particular, asserts that early state efforts to control relations between Germans and Soviets exemplified an enduring preoccupation with the rigorous regulation of difference. He also notes that state and party discourse often cast the GDR as a bounded ethnonational community, despite its manifest commitment to internationalism.
A similar thematic is evident in a third group of essays that analyzes forms of social exclusion "internal" to East Germany. Here the authors focus on discourses and practices surrounding three particular groups: antifascist German settlers from the Sudetenland, young people fascinated with western popular culture, and citizens engaged in "asocial" behavior. Taken together, these chapters suggest that the East German regime was committed to a program of social and cultural policing that aimed to undermine foreign influences, prevent the formation of undesirable ethnonational and class affiliations, and compel citizens' conformity to socialist order more generally. Significantly, state and party officials as well as ordinary citizens commonly voiced complaints against the GDR's internal others in a register that was moral as well as political: both antifascist settlers and "asocials" were accused of a repugnant unwillingness to engage in state-sanctioned work, for example, while young people attracted to western popular culture were charged with succumbing to the decadence of bourgeois life. As Thomas Lindenberger argues, a set of commonly held ethical understandings provided one of the few points of ideological agreement between the socialist state and its citizens. At the same time, many of these moral presumptions and their associated legal formulations paralleled bourgeois norms in ways that state and party functionaries were not prepared to acknowledge. At least some of these ethical conceptions may have informed subsequent xenophobia, although this point is, once again, provisionally suggested rather than carefully delineated.
Finally, a fourth group of essays addresses the experiences of non-German refugees and contract workers in the GDR. In the realm of propagandistic self-presentation, SED leaders valued refugees to the degree that they allowed the state to demonstrate its solidarity with fellow revolutionaries across ethnic and racial lines. In practice, however, the GDR was reluctant to admit refugees who would not further its economic and other instrumental interests, or who would unsettle Marxist-Leninist ideals of collective homogeneity by engaging in homeland-oriented political activities. Moreover, ordinary East Germans often resented refugees' real and imagined privileges, accused them of sexual and other "asocial" indiscretions, and viewed them more broadly with a mixture of disdain and paternalistic concern. A comparable ambivalence is discernible in attitudes toward foreign contract workers. East Germans may have commonly regarded these migrants as less civilized and disciplined than themselves, but they were often prepared to tolerate their presence as long as their own superior position in factories and work brigades went unchallenged. At the same time, many East Germans resented contract workers for their purported hoarding of scarce material goods, even as they valued Vietnamese workers in particular for their handmade blue jeans and other western-style wares. Such illicit forms of economic activity, however, were strongly condemned by state and party functionaries, who sought to limit contract workers' potentially detrimental influence (not to mention their prospects for long-term residency) by thoroughly regimenting their everyday lives and social relations.
As should by now be clear, this volume offers a wide-ranging--and worthwhile--treatment of the intricacies and contradictions of East German constructions of difference. In particular, the contributions profitably draw on a variety of archival materials and methodological approaches to chart the ways that Marxist-Leninist idioms of class and revolutionary solidarity were imbued with nationalist and ethnocentric, if not overtly racist, overtones. They thereby demonstrate that the xenophobia evident after 1989-90 offers points of continuity with, not departure from, the era of state socialism. And yet, the strength of this collection is also something of a weakness, for even as it highlights the varieties of otherness that existed in East Germany, it is not as rigorous as it might be in specifying these different forms or analyzing their interrelations. To be sure, a few of the chapters draw on theoretical arguments from a variety of sources--Zygmunt Bauman, Michel Foucault, Alfred Schütz, George Simmel--in order to conceptualize the social workings of ambivalence and exclusion. These efforts do not amount, however, to a cohesive argument that moves beyond the editors' useful but modest call to attend not just to others, but also to the social structures that constitute otherness. Within the book, this point is made most forcefully by Rita Roehr, who insists on a more precise engagement with the relations between socialist and nationalist elements in East German collective imagining.
In addition, other axes of difference could have been treated more extensively. On the one hand, the volume's attention to matters of family life, gender, and sexuality is uneven, with some chapters addressing these issues and others foregoing them entirely. This area would be a fruitful zone for future research, particularly since issues of women's work, reproduction, and childrearing (whether within or outside the nuclear family) figured prominently in East German social policy. On the other hand, the contributors have little to say about matters of religious difference. Along with further consideration of antisemitism in state socialism, it would be particularly important to explore governmental policies and popular attitudes toward the Lutheran Church: to what extent could Lutheran institutions and practitioners be accommodated within the socialist state, and under what circumstances did they (threaten to) become others? This question seems particularly pertinent given the church's role in the protests that contributed to the GDR's final dissolution. On the whole, though, Fremde und Fremd-Sein in der DDR makes a significant contribution, and it provides an important foundation for further inquiry into the negotiation of difference in East Germany.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Jeffrey Jurgens. Review of Behrends, Jan C.; Lindenberger, Thomas; Poutros, Patrice G., eds., Fremde und Fremd-Sein in der DDR: Zu historischen Ursachen der Fremdenfeindlichkeit in Ostdeutschland.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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