Collapse of a Closed Society: The End of East Germany

Scientific Essay, 2010
35 Pages


Summer/Autumn 1989: The ‘Spark of Hope’

When the German-British sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf looked at the events in central and eastern European countries 20 years ago, he found a classic pattern of revolutionary transition from ‘closed’ to ‘open societies’: It begins with ‘monopolistic classes’ stifling opposition for a long time, thereby turning ‘manifest conflicts’ into ‘latent conflicts’ which continue to simmer beneath a deceptively quiet surface. Pressure builds up – until a ‘spark of hope’ ignites an explosion, which is all the stronger the more the conflicts have been simply ignored. Upheaval then sweeps ruling classes away and creates a temporary situation of ‘anarchy and anomy’. Order is then restored by either old or new forces – and people have to be vigilant, because, as Dahrendorf says, ‘There is no straight and painless road from monopolistic structures of power to pluralism and democracy’ (Dahrendorf 1991:86).

The German summer and autumn of 1989 fit this pattern. The background was, of course, the reform process in the Soviet Union since 1985, personified by Mikhail Gorbachev. Russian perestroika and glasnost encouraged calls for reform in the still-socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR). But the real ‘spark of hope’ came from elsewhere – from the mass flight of East Germans made possible by Budapest and Prague. In that sense, the Germans owe their revolution and their freedom to the Czechs and the Hungarians. But it is significant, I believe, that the main thrust of these events was the wish (and the eventual possibility) TO GET OUT of so-called ‘real existing socialism’ - rather than continuing a domestic struggle for reform INSIDE (as in Hungary, Czechoslovakia or Poland).

So, what happened in 1989? – Let me remind you of some key events: We are all familiar with the spectacular televised images of 9 November 1989, ‘when the Wall came tumbling down’. But this was not the outcome of a popular struggle for national unity. It was again mass flight from a state already in the process of total dissolution. In the preceding weeks hundreds of thousands had taken to the streets all over the GDR to protest against the ruling SED (Socialist Unity Party), most notably in the recurring ‘Monday demonstrations’ in Leipzig. These began in early September, with just over 1,000 participants. By 7 October (the 40th anniversary of the GDR), numbers had swelled to 100,000. On 4 November, more than half a million were counted at a rally in Berlin alone, and there were similar demonstrations everywhere.

The 7 October in Leipzig is the watershed of this German revolution. It triggered the downfall of Erich Honecker, Secretary General of the SED (18 October) and the entire East German government (7 November), as well as the end of one-party rule (1 December). The day ended peacefully, despite widespread (and justified) fears of a Tiananmen -style “Chinese solution”[1]. Just days before (3-4 October), the SED could still order a crackdown on demonstrations in and around Dresden railway station. On these days, several thousand East Germans passed through the city in special trains – on the way from Czechoslovakia to the West. They had occupied the grounds of the West German embassy in Prague and finally obtained permission to exit their own country for good. In Dresden, they passed by thousands of demonstrators still denied that right. Many of those actually did not want to leave the country, but they now demanded that their voices be heard inside the GDR. Exit and voice – the two words describe major protest themes of that autumn: (1) exit, the right to move freely (literally, and in a metaphorical sense) and (2) voice, political change, an end to the ‘closed’ society of socialist party dictatorship and a move towards open democracy (cf. Pfaff 2006). Despite the heavy-handed police crackdown, the demonstrators did not give up for days. The ‘Battle of Dresden Railway Station’ showed that the socialist regime was no longer invincible – and demonstrations elsewhere then confirmed that perception (cf. Dale 2006).

The events of Prague and Dresden were widely known to the East German public not the least because of broad TV coverage[2]. Through western media, East Germans were also informed about the earlier Hungarian decision to dismantle the Iron Curtain. They had seen on TV when the Austrian foreign minister Alois Mock and his Hungarian counterpart Gyula Horn symbolically cut the fence on 27 June . They saw how 600 just walked across the border near Sopron on the occasion of the so-called “Pan-European Picnic” of 19 August, and they knew that Budapest had finally agreed on 11 September to let thousands of East Germans go directly to the West without further complications. This led to further mass flights through the embassies in Budapest, Prague, and also Warsaw[3]. But East Germans also knew that their own regime steadfastly refused to consider any kind of reform and was in fact trying to get Prague and Budapest to stop the exodus. In that situation, the emotional flight scenes seen on TV were the catalyst for East Germany’s ‘terminal crisis’ (Maier 1997:129) – but they were, of course, not its cause.

Socialist East Germany then died a quick if unexpected[4] death: There are just 11 weeks between Sopron and the fall of the Wall – weeks which were in essence a general popular uprising against confinement in an authoritarian, paternalistic political system, a groundswell of anger about a government that had not fulfilled its own promises, a government that muddled along in a state of denial, without any legitimacy left and obviously quite incapable of solving even the most pressing problems. East Germans, it is fair to say, were at that point comprehensively disillusioned. Reactions of the state against both exit and voice demands then made it clear that the system had no self-healing capacities left.

The protests unfolded in an ‘opportunity cascade’, as Ruud Koopmans called it (Koopmans 2004:26, cf. Dale 2006:2). The more it became evident that the state did not have the means and resolve to counter opposition (or simply to address public concerns), the more people took the (ever-diminishing) personal risk to join the protests – more often than not out of a diffuse feeling of discontent rather than a clear political vision for the future. From Dresden onwards, events accelerated and the numbers of demonstrators grew rapidly, making latent conflicts manifest again and leading to the downfall of the socialist system with amazing speed.

The ‘Closed Society’ of the GDR: Primacy of Ideology

Until then, the GDR had been a ‘closed society’ in the definition of Karl Popper and Ralf Dahrendorf. ‘Closed societies’, so Dahrendorf, invariably fail because they subordinate individuals to a utopian vision of social existence. The utopian goal is sacrosanct, as are the social structures, institutions and leading castes which ensure compliance with the ultimate vision. ‘Closed societies’ (says Popper 1966, vol.1, 173-174) are therefore conceived as ‘magical or tribal and collectivist’, do not distinguish between state, society and the individual self, and therefore do not permit open, critical debate. Because they do not allow what Dahrendorf calls a pluralist, ‘open’ ‘civil society’, they are unable to reform themselves. Ultimately they collapse under the weight of their own unfulfilled ideals.

That also describes the GDR fairly well: a society systematically constructed according to Marxist-Leninist principles, with the SED (Socialist Unity Party) as sole guardian and guarantor of the ideology – a leading caste or monopolistic class in the words of Popper and Dahrendorf, respectively. The state was not conceived as a separate entity but as an instrument of the Party to coerce society into ideological conformity (Childs 2001:8). Within the Party, the principle of ‘democratic centralism’ concentrated all decision-making power in the hands of the Politburo and its helpers, the Nomenklatura, which never comprised more than about 500 top functionaries (cf. Wolle 2001:170). David Childs (2001:180) described them as ageing “men of limited experience and limited intellectual horizons”, living largely isolated in a fenced-off Berlin suburb (Wandlitz). By the 1980s, the GDR had mutated into a gerontocracy whose leaders acted as high priests of communist orthodoxy somewhat in the mould and self-definition of Plato’s philosopher-kings.

This ruling caste controlled society at every level – from government and mass organizations (like the trade unions) down to kindergarten supervisory boards (cf. Wolle 2001:156). GDR citizens automatically became complicit in the system simply by surviving and participating in social life in any form. These structures encouraged wide-spread self-control and self-censorship. But, as is well known, the GDR also had very extensive mechanisms of outward control in the form of the Stasi, the Ministry of State Security and its army of official and informal collaborators. Ironically, Stasi members understood their role essentially as social workers, assisting possibly deviant subjects to find their way back into the tribal structures of Party-dominated ‘real existing socialism’ (cf. Maier 1997:152-153)[5].

The GDR was a comprehensive and oppressive system of formal and informal control mechanisms. Party membership was nonetheless a highly sought-after privilege, in 1988 enjoyed by 2.3 million or 13.8% of the adult population (Wolle 2001:174, Childs 2001:14). Party membership (or Party patronage) was the single most important prerequisite for advancement in life (cf. Wolle 2001:171ff.). Contrary to egalitarian socialist principles, this led to a finely graded social hierarchy. Overall, the GDR was, as Charles Maier (1997:201) expressed it, a society, “in which privilege was allocated by ideological toadying and party membership”.

The system discouraged independent initiative. Stefan Wolle (2001) notes that even in the numerous autobiographies and self-justifying statements of party cadres released after the collapse not a single instance of open, critical debate was mentioned. The author comes to a damning conclusion about the long-term psychological consequences of East-Germany’s ‘closed society’:

“Die erschütternde Antwort lautet, daß sich nirgendwo im Apparat Widerspruch regte. Der wichtigste Grund dafür lag in der Tatsache, daß beim überwiegenden Teil der Funktionäre im Laufe der Jahre alle für ein Gesellschaftsveränderung notwendigen Eigenschaften wie Kreativität, Phantasie, Risikobereitschaft, Initiative, Zivilcourage und Verantwortungsbewußtsein verkümmerten, weil sie – zumindest tendenziell – Hinderungsgründe für die erstrebte Karriere darstellten. Wer sich mit der Macht zu tief einließ, verkam auch geistig und charakterlich, und wer schließlich in den Chefetagen saß, war das Resultat einer langen und systematischen Negativauslese. So ist der reale Sozialismus nicht Opfer einer großen Verschwörung oder feindlicher Machenschaften geworden, sondern an seinen eigenen Strukturen zugrunde gegangen.“ (Wolle 2001:532)

The shocking answer is that there were no signs of criticism anywhere in the apparatus. The main reason for that was the fact that over the years the overwhelming majority of functionaries lost all those character traits necessary for social change, such as creativity, imagination, an appetite for risk, initiative, civil courage and a sense of responsibility, because they were, at least potentially, obstacles in one’s own desired career. Whoever engaged himself too deeply with existing power, degenerated intellectually and in character, and the one who finally made it into the corridors of power was the end product of a long and systematic negative selection process. Thus the real existing socialism did not become the victim of a grand conspiracy or hostile machinations; it perished by its own characteristic structures.

As is well-known, Germany has a long tradition of accepting the state and its functionaries as a paternalistic institution well above particular group or self-interests (the ‘ Father State ’)[6]. The GDR actively copied the model of the Prussian bureaucratic state, with its ‘ respect for orderly obedience and a patronizing attitude towards its citizen-subjects’ (Maier (1997:115) . But it went much further than all previous political systems (except possibly the Third Reich) in two respects: (1) It gave the state unprecedented, very comprehensive welfare duties (Schmidt 2005:132), and (2) it degraded the state from a quasi-objective institution to a mere executive organ of pure Marxist-Leninist doctrine. It is, I believe, this primacy of ideology which justifies the label ‘closed society’. It led to the astonishing incapability of the Nomenklatura to even perceive problems when they arose (not to mention find solutions). It also led to failure in the only area in which the Party could ever hope to find legitimacy: wealth and social security.


[1] On the previous day, the official Leipziger Volkszeitung had announced that “law and order would be restored once and for all” (cf. Maier 1997:142). This triggered widespread concerns, as one anonymous participant wrote on an informal ‘prayer wall’ in the Thomaskirche: “I am afraid that 10/9/89 will be a day like Tiananmen Square in China. And that the rest of the young people will shed their blood for this senseless state. I, we, are frightened.” (ibid)

[2] Cf. Wolle 2001:106-108 about role and acceptance of ‘West TV’ in the GDR

[3] Cf. Maier 1997:125-127. In total, 10,000 East Germans escaped through the West German embassy in Hungary, 17,000 via Prague, and about 5,000 through the embassy in Warsaw before 9 November of this year (ibid:131).

[4] cf. Maier 1997. See also, for example, Dahrendorf 1991:85, Childs 1987:95, quoted in Childs 2001:xiii

[5] The overall mechanisms of control and censorship are, for example, discussed in detail in Wolle 2001:219-267 (chapter “Macht und Geheimnis”)

[6] cf. Mayer 1997, chapter 3. See also Dahrendorf’s ‘Society and Democracy in Germany’ (1967)

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Collapse of a Closed Society: The End of East Germany
Hong Kong Baptist Universitiy
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Collapse, Closed, Society, East, Germany, GDR, GDR: Economy, GDR Opposition, East German Society, East German revolution
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Dr. Hans-Werner Hess (Author), 2010, Collapse of a Closed Society: The End of East Germany, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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