Gary Bruce. Resistance with the People: Repression and Resistance in Eastern Germany, 1945-1955. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003. 288 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7425-2487-3.
Reviewed by Filip Bloem (Department of History, Leiden University)
Published on H-German (December, 2003)
Gary Bruce's Resistance with the People: Repression and Resistance in Eastern Germany 1945-1955 is one of many recent books that deal with the East German uprising of June 17, 1953, an event that for a long time received far less attention from historians than other uprisings against Communist rule in Eastern Europe. Compared to the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968 or the tumultuous events surrounding Solidarnosc in 1980-81, the 17th of June remained a somewhat obscure date. This state of affairs has changed since the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, when previously closed archives opened up their collections and many historians took a fresh look at the uprising. A lot of this new research is centered around a debate on the nature of the events of June 17, 1953. Was it a worker's uprising, triggered by a 10 percent norm increase, that unintentionally almost toppled the Communist regime, or a popular revolution, with national unity and parliamentary democracy as its principal aims? Most new scholarship favors the latter interpretation, as can be seen in several books that have appeared on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1953 uprising. All of them emphasize the political character of the uprising and underline the broad popular participation.
The book by Gary Bruce fits this trend, although its scope is wider. In addition to the uprising of 1953, Bruce also looks at resistance in the non-Marxist political parties of the eastern zone. In the first period after the war these parties, especially the SPD and later on the CDU, quickly developed into popular competitors of the KPD. When it became clear that the Communists would never gain total control of the eastern zone by parliamentary elections, they started to subvert the other parties, with the help of the Soviet administration. The SPD was forced into a fusion with the KPD and the CDU, and the liberal LDPD were gradually brought under Communist control by a combination of intimidation and infiltration. By examining the resistance of the non-Marxist parties against the KPD/SED and the Soviet authorities, to which the first three and a half of five chapters are devoted, Bruce seeks to show that democratic ideas and concerns for legal security were central to their actions. In the remaining portion of the book, Bruce examines the uprising of 1953, in order to prove that "a basic commonality existed between aims and motives of resisters in the non-Marxist political parties and those in the broader population" (p. 12). This commonality, Bruce argues, was "characterized by a rejection of the Communist system, a desire for a united democratic Germany, and the restoration of basic human rights" (p. 3).
The motivation of resistance is a crucial issue for Bruce, who feels historical research on opposition and resistance in the GDR has neglected this topic. For this he blames the influence of historiography on resistance in the Third Reich, which, inspired by the concept of Resistenz, has paid relatively little attention to the moral intentions of resistance. According to Bruce this has led to a school of thought whereby Resistenz replaces Widerstand as real resistance (p. 8). This judgment is rather harsh. Resistenz stands for a type of research that does not ask what drives people, but is only interested in the extent to which certain individuals or social groups prove immune against attempts of totalitarian regimes to influence their ways of life. Naturally, the motivation behind opposition receives little attention in this approach, since it is simply not the object of research. One can argue whether the concept of Resistenz did or did not open the door to an unwarranted blurring of moral boundaries with regard to resistance in the Third Reich, but by showing the limits to national socialist power Resistenz unquestionably provided a welcome correction to the image of an all-powerful Nazi Regime. A fruitful concept like Eigensinn is performing a comparable role in contemporary research on the GDR.
Bruce's book is, however, based upon impressive archival research. Drawing on a wide variety of archival material, ranging from party archives to the files of the security police, Bruce is able to provide a very thorough, detailed account of the struggle the non-Marxist political parties put up for their independence. However, the wealth of facts Bruce has unearthed is not always matched by the depth of his analysis. By focusing exclusively on the supposedly democratic nature of anti-Communist resistance, Bruce misses some of the nuances and ambiguities of its leading proponents. What are we to think, for instance, of politicians like SPD-leader Otto Grotewohl or CDU boss Otto Nuschke? Initially, Grotewohl and Nuschke fought desperately for the independence of their parties, but eventually they gave in to Communist pressure. One can argue, of course, that they had no real choice open to them, but both of them went on to have long political careers in the GDR--Grotewohl even became Prime Minister. Was this acquiescence mere opportunism or were their political convictions not so democratic after all? Bruce fails to address their underlying intentions, which is a bit disappointing from a historian purportedly so interested in motivation.
Since Bruce claims that concepts of law and democracy were central to resistance in the GDR, it is surprising that he says almost nothing regarding the complicated history of these concepts in Germany. The demise of the Weimar Republic and the wide support for the Nazi dictatorship point to a strong current of antidemocratic beliefs in German political culture that did not simply vanish after the Second World War. In an infamous opinion poll, conducted among West Germans in 1948, more than 50 percent of the respondents thought national socialism had been a good idea badly executed. Of course, given the notoriously deceptive nature of opinion polls, such results should be treated with extreme care, but they do bring up the question of how enduring National-Socialist sympathies affected the political tendencies of the immediate post-war period in both German states. Bruce does not address this issue at all. While he makes a convincing case that the East German Communist regime was very unpopular and widely seen as an instrument of the Soviets, anti-Communism in itself is not necessarily or automatically democratic.
Despite these shortcomings, however, Bruce makes it abundantly clear that the events of 1953 did not come out of the blue--they were clearly about more than a raise in norms. He quotes police reports showing that the striking workers strikers were accompanied by large demonstrations attended by other sections of the population. All over the country, economic and political demands were voiced simultaneously. It makes one wonder why, if in 1953 political discontent was so widespread among the East German population, the GDR would later stand out in the Soviet bloc for its stability. Clearly, the reinterpretation of the June 1953 uprising as a democratic revolution cuts short answers to old questions, but raises new ones.
. See, for instance, Hubertus Knabe, 17. Juni 1953. Ein deutscher Aufstand (Munich 2003); Bernd Eisenfeld, Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk and Erhart Neubert, Die verdraengte Revolution (Bremen 2003); Rolf Steininger, 17. Juni 1953. Der Anfang vom langen Ende der DDR (Munich 2003).
. See, for instance, Thomas Lindenberger, ed., Herrschaft und Eigensinn in der Diktatur: Studien zur Gesellschaftsgeschichte der DDR (Cologne 1999).
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Filip Bloem. Review of Bruce, Gary, Resistance with the People: Repression and Resistance in Eastern Germany, 1945-1955.
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Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.