This essay is a supplement to the April 1994 issue of Eastern German News.

Scapegoating GDR Research?
A Commentary

Thomas A. Baylis

The fall of Communism in eastern Germany, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, has brought with it a rather ugly outburst of scapegoating. One of the targets of righteous venom has been Western GDR research, particularly that carried on by scholars influenced directly or indirectly by the late Peter Christian Ludz. Such attacks appear to go back in part to the long-standing rivalry between "schools" of West German research on the GDR, but they also share kinship with the ferocious attacks on Christa Wolf, Heiner Mueller, and other GDR writers who were once lionized in the West, with the partisan assault on the SPD's Ostpolitik, and more loosely with the Historikerstreit and the revival of the intellectual right in Germany.

One of the more visible symbols of the assault on pre-1989 GDR research has been the demise, at the Free University of Berlin, of the GDR section of the Institute for Social Science Research, once led by Ludz himself, earlier by Ernst Richert, and later by Hartmut Zimmermann, three scholars who arguably contributed more to a subtle and realistic understanding of the GDR than anyone else. A corresponding counter-symbol is the formation of a Forschungsverbund SED-Staat at the Free University with the explicit purpose of discrediting earlier GDR research as well as uncovering evidence of SED penetration of the University (the parallel to the declarations by GDR "society scientists" of their commitment to an ideological agenda heavy on the Entlarvung of the class enemy is unmistakable). While more objective scholars will recognize the Verbund's agenda for what it is and judge its products accordingly, it is troubling that even for some non-Germans, the assumption that earlier GDR research was severely tainted by blindness to the system's evils and/or a desire not to offend its ruling authorities is widespread? Witness some passing comments in Timothy Garton Ash's recent book or the uniformed remark of a recent commentator in Monatshefte that Ludz's work is "now largely discredited."

What Ludz, Richert, Zimmermann, and others in fact sought to do was to look behind the facade of monolithic one-party dictatorship at the GDR's tensions and conflicts and the underlying processes of social and economic change, both those intended by the regime and those not intended, and to assess their impact on elites, pivotal social groups, and ordinary citizens. While hardly uncritical, these writers were not content simply to detail the evils of the old regime in order better to denounce them (the tenor of much of the early writing on what was then called the "SBZ"), but sought to explain how the "system" actually worked, what problems it faced, and how it might try to adapt and respond to both internal and external pressures. Part of their approach required that they explore how participants in the system understood regime policies and ideological pronouncements, the "immanent" perspective so badly misunderstood by Ludz's critics. While employing a wide range of western social science concepts and analytical approaches, until very late in the GDR's history they were forced, it should be recalled, to do without the survey research, intensive field interviews, and reliable statistics that are taken for granted in studies of western countries. Some of their conclusions and predictions have subsequently proven to be incorrect. What scholars have not? Without their work over the years, nevertheless, it would have been impossible to understand the forces that led finally to the GDR's collapse and continue profoundly to influence the views and behaviors of the Federal Republic's sixteen million new citizens.

Now the critics appear to want to return to some of the worst excesses and omissions of early Cold War scholarship. The GDR must be seen as, and only as, an Unrechtsstaat; all those who held responsible positions in its institutions must be viewed as part of an undifferentiated, hopelessly compromised nomenklatura; its policies, whether in education, health care, or the economy, must be treated as uniformly misconceived and generally of evil intent. It would, of course, be no less foolish to indulge in an uncritical GDR nostalgia, as some of its citizens and former functionaries now seem inclined to do. A "critical-empirical" social science, such as that championed by Ludz, must continue patiently to pursue the complex and constantly changing reality that the old GDR was and the "new states" of the Federal Republic are. None of us approach these subjects without our own convictions and prejudices. But the kind of shrill scapegoating we have seen has no proper place in our efforts. [4/22/94]
[Converted to html on 13 December 1994 by Randy Bytwerk]