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David Martin

East Germany—Nature & Artifact

The character of the DDR.

What kind of society was the Deutsche Demokratische Republik? Mary Fulbrook in The People's State believes that the DDR was in some sense normal, whereas Arvid Nelson, writing about its approach to Nature in Cold War Ecology, and Eli Rubin, writing about its approach to artifacts in Synthetic Socialism, disagree. Nelson and Rubin provide a lens for thinking about the DDR in terms that are wider than what we conventionally label as religion but nevertheless bound up with fundamental attitudes to the world—above all to Nature and the nature of the human artifact. Furthermore those who postulate a religious instinct, whether existentially or biologically based, or who regard religion as a functional requirement of society, are prone to regard Communism as sharing key characteristics with religion. Indeed Nelson uses the word "religion" both with reference to some purist forms of Marxism and to the German reverence for Natur. Marxism picks up the religious idea of human dominion over Nature through the exploitation for human purposes of the powers of production, while being less sympathetic toward the equally religious or, at any rate, religiously romantic reverence for Nature, in Caspar David Friedrich, for example. For Germans the landscape, whether of the Rhineland or the Brocken, is iconic, just as the English landscape is iconic for English people. Music and literature are both accorded a quasi-religious respect in Germany, and Marxist ideology consistently attempted to harness the great names of the East of Germany, Goethe and Schiller, Bach and Handel, even Luther and Schleiermacher, to its own genealogy of progress. Ironically it was the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra which, with the church, played a major role in the fall of the regime in 1989.

What exactly is Mary Fulbrook's case for the normality of the DDR, or rather for the widespread existence of normal life? She admits, of course that a society based on surveillance and manipulative intervention, one that hems its citizens in behind a wall lest they flee conditions social scientifically designed to release their human potential, was far from normal. All the same she emphasizes the mundane ordinariness of life in the DDR, particularly as people grew up who knew nothing different. That, after all, is what socialization means and what it does under almost any regime that is not undergoing chronic collapse, whether it is Soviet Russia as recounted in Orlando Figes' The Whisperers or Danzig under the Nazis in Günter Grass' Peeling the Onion. The young Grass thought Nazi Germany sufficiently "ordinary" to join the Waffen SS. Fulbrook refers to the DDR variously as a "participatory dictatorship" and (with an odd echo of The Fable of the Bees) as a "honeycomb state." She describes how East Germans became "used to a society in which they were assured of child-care places and cheap holidays; of education, training and guaranteed employment; of a degree of comradeship among workplace colleagues, and relaxation in work-based sporting and social activities, on outings and anniversaries," and contrasts this with the more individualistic and competitive society of the Federal Republic in order to claim a real basis for Ostalgie. Her conclusion is almost elegiac: "In the end, in the context of a collapsing economy that precipitated the end of the Cold War, the individual search for material well-being and personal freedom won over the utopian dreams born in the violence of the Second World War."

Of course, when you switch the criteria of power and privilege from economic entrepreneurship to political rectitude, you are bound to rely on lies, on corruption and privilege, on the basis of personal connections to the power élite. At the same time, though the power élite in the DDR was tiny, the wider state involved millions in mass organizations and the party, and some areas were open to negotiation provided limits were strictly observed. East Germans did not necessarily see themselves as dupes or willing tools of totalitarianism. In any case it wasn't possible to cut off the population of the DDR from wider currents of change in modernizing societies, including youth culture and increasing individualization. What perhaps does not come across in Fulbrook's account is the degree to which people became passive, perhaps because they regarded initiative as dangerous. The health service, for example, was bedevilled by bureaucracy and the total inadequacy of supplies and investment, as well as by the interference of political priorities and—something ubiquitous in the Eastern bloc—"health rationing by power, privilege and (re)productivity." Pro-natalist policies, in some ways shared with the previous regime though not on a racist basis, contributed to an increased birth rate and much lower infant mortality. The dying fared less well.

What then of the results of planned secularization? Here Fulbrook's comments bring out the special position of pastors and priests, defined as socially unnecessary and yet in some ways constituting an irreducible island in East German society. Catholics formed a minority of about one million and rapidly regrouped to develop a way of living with the regime which survived the forty years with a certain élan, except where whole villages were destroyed, for example, by the introduction of brown-coal mining at which Günter Grass himself worked for a couple of years. As for Protestant pastors, they were even less dependent on the state for professional education and employment than the academic élite and the cultural intelligentsia. Some of them may even have entered the church because they were inadequately conformist at school and found theology the only area of study open to them.

In spite of dwindling congregations, the institutional structure of the Protestant churches remained intact. In the 1970s the role played by church hospitals, homes for the elderly and disabled, orphanages, and social outreach work with alcoholics and "asocials" led to a policy of domestic co-option, and to the church-state agreement of the 6th of March 1978, as well as infiltration by the Stasi. The relatively decentralized organization of the Protestant churches allowed space for dissident spirits at the grass-roots, and pastors offered opportunities for discussion and debate about pollution and the militarization of youth. These protected spaces provided the crucial preconditions for the growth of dissent in the 1980s and so for the extraordinary situation where "anachronistic remnants of the bourgeoisie" brought about what some called the "Protestant Revolution" of 1989.

This is where an autobiography by Theo Lehmann, as edited and translated in Blues Music and Gospel Proclamation, is interesting, for it brings together in unlikely combination two sources of social change: the church and youth culture, especially popular music. Lehmann was born in 1934 into one dreadful "normality" and lived out most of his adult life in the other dreadful "normality" described by Mary Fulbrook. His father was a pastor who had been a missionary in Tranquebar, South India, for the Leipzig mission, a historic venture founded as early as 1706. During World War II, Lehmann's father served as pastor at Christchurch, Dresden-Stehlen, where he and his family experienced the appalling bombing of Dresden on February 13, 1945, and the brutality attendant on the Russian victory. (An interesting detail is that Lehmann's aunt, his father's sister, joined the Jehovah's Witnesses, who were and are quite strong in that part of Germany.)

Important for Lehmann's future development was his clear detestation of any kind of regimentation, whether at school or in the kind of mass society promoted by the Nazis and the Communists alike. The Protestant Junge Gemeinde brought out his rebellious spirit to the point where he (briefly) joined the Communist Frei Deutsche Jugend in protest. Even liturgical responses irked him, and clearly the kind of autonomy offered by the pastorate was likely to appeal. Church is for noncomformists as well as conformists, especially in societies as conformist as those endured by Theo Lehmann. He describes himself as constantly at loggerheads with the church to which in the end he gave his whole life. His father showed much the same independent spirit when he became Professor of Mission and Dean of the Theological Faculty at the University of Halle.

After some characteristic problems with his Arbitur examination, Lehmann eventually moved from the Leipzig mission seminary to reading theology at the Leipzig Karl-Marx University, where he was greatly influenced by Helmut Thielicke. His hopes of a position at Halle University were dashed by an unfavorable political report, but more important for his future was hearing dance music and the blues on the American Armed Forces Network radio. Jazz was not only exciting on its own account, with its origins in the spirited music of slaves "made free by God," but also had an appealingly conspiratorial quality because labeled decadent. This was the music that accompanied Lehmann's wedding in the Moritzburg, Halle, and it became the subject, not without problems, of his doctoral dissertation. When he eventually became pastor in Chemnitz, a city designed to be model of socialist society, he linked blues music to a conservative evangelical gospel to create a new kind of youth worship. This was his very own show, and it became a model for the whole of the DDR, attracting thousands of young people. The rest of the story includes the regular attendance of the Stasi and of unofficial informers, intent on causing dissension between members of his team and between him and the church authorities. Just how far this went he only discovered, to his acute distress, on reading his Stasi files after the fall of the regime.

In Cold War Ecology, Arvid Nelson gives a detailed and scholarly account of the approach of the communist élite in the DDR to agriculture, the natural landscape, and the forest in particular, a study which goes to the heart of what went wrong and bears directly on the religious question. The communist élite, imposed by the Soviets, saw itself as the vanguard of modernity and harbinger of the future by virtue of having the keys to the unfolding of the historical process. That meant it was not enough to be on the right side of history in principle, but also necessary to prove that the productive powers of socialism exceeded those of Western capitalism, notably as represented by West Germany. In addition there would be a certain satisfaction in showing the Soviet victors how to bring socialism about in an efficient way, in particular by harnessing the cybernetic revolution.

Actually the Soviets were themselves intrigued by the same Promethean dream, though they recognized two drawbacks. One was the difficulty of reconciling the key role of the party cadres and/or the workers with a leading role for scientific technocrats. The other difficulty was the nature of extremely complex systems. Just one mistake in the calculations or fault in the cybernetic model can prove catastrophic, whereas a policy of pragmatically seeing how things work out enables you to pull back from disaster. After all, as recent events have shown, even capitalism can end up in big trouble if overtaken by hubris (or pride and greed): when you get your sums wrong, the consequences may be disastrous.

What communist ideology offered was yet another version of human domination over Nature. "Modernity's conflict with custom defined and shaped the European landscape as much as economics," Nelson writes. One has to understand the religious resonance of Nature and the potent notion of close-to-nature permanent forest (or Dauerwald) that framed the struggle between the modern industrial forest and the primeval forest of German lore. That same struggle framed what happened in East Germany after World War II, and it provides one clue why the Nazis, with their sense of sacred soil as well as blood, took better care of the forest than the Communists, in spite of the strains imposed by looming defeat.

East Germany had suffered much less damage than West Germany during the war, but it was poor in most resources apart from wood, and it had lost vast areas of territory as well as suffering ethnic cleansings involving some twelve million Germans and being compelled to pay crippling reparations to the Russians. Control of the countryside and the mobilization of the productive forces of the rural economy had been one of the least successful as well as one of the most brutal aspects of the communist experiment in Russia since 1917. If the communist élite in the DDR could not deliver in a sector so mythically saturated and politically sensitive, it would be exposed as a failure by its own most cherished criteria of judgement. Failure was unthinkable, and any signs of failure had to be suppressed, which was one of the reasons the DDR was (with Romania) one of the most secretive nations in the whole Eastern bloc.

The regime officially embraced science, but scientific data were dangerous because they documented heresy. One could not concede defeat to the revanchist, neo-fascist warmongers, exploiters and polluters of the West. The result was that in order to fend off the Western threat, the DDR became a militarized society, as well as one notorious for modes of exploitation that ruined the forest, particularly with clear-cutting, and resulted in massive industrial pollution. In response, as Nelson points out, "East Germans, at the epicenter of the Soviet bloc's environmental catastrophe, formed the earliest environmental movement in the Eastern bloc in the early 1970s, under the shelter of the Protestant Church." The threat to the environment, the evident increase in pollution, and the militarization of society were causes that could be taken up, in particular by an educated pastorate, in the one free space left in East German society. The church retained the resources to resist the materialism that guided DDR policy. Indeed, the church, historically lampooned for not following its own prescriptions, was able to show that communism likewise failed by its own criteria, though without a doctrine of sin to account for the failure. At the same time the more gullible elements of the Western intelligentsia were still prone to accept the apologetics of the DDR, though the evidence of forest death, pervasive pollution of air and water, and decrepit factories stared them in the face.

One might frame the issues of the forest in terms of contrasts between spirit and matter, care or respect and domination, sustainability and exploitation for maximum short-term advantage. But as Eli Rubin shows in Synthetic Socialism, the issue of the use of plastics in the DDR posed a rather different contrast between the disposable and the enduring. Plastic was "a hissing and a byword" in the West because it represented the inauthentic and disposable, and therefore the waste and wastefulness of consumer society. That is exactly what the leaders of the DDR thought in the years immediately following World War II. They considered it far better to create products that were authentically rooted in the national culture of the people. Wood and working in wood was authentic whereas plastic and above all Bauhaus functional architecture was an international style originating in interwar capitalist Germany. (It was true that the Nazis did not approve of Bauhaus functionalism either, but that was not a sufficient reason for communists to embrace it.)

Soon, however, considerations of politics and practicality brought about a change of mind. Stalin died in 1953, to be denounced in 1956 by Khrushchev. Stalinism had favored expensive monumentality—the Stalinallee, for example, running east from the Alexanderplatz in East Berlin and designed to challenge capitalist building projects on the other side of the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin. Stalinism had also favored production over consumption, but the deep discontent that surfaced in the disturbances of 1953 led the East German communist nomenklatura to consider whether it might be better to offer carrots to consumers as well as holding sticks over workers and making demands for ever higher production targets.

This is where practical considerations started to bite. In spite of the fact that the DDR was not well endowed with natural resources, it was the beneficiary of Germany's high standards of education, including a long tradition of technological innovation. Innovation had long been encouraged in Germany, in part to put Germany ahead of its political and military rivals, like the French and the British, who had pre-empted the profits and resources of empire. Now it was a matter of putting East Germany ahead of capitalist Germany as the potential flagship of the Eastern bloc. It could not rely on Russian support, not at least in the way West Germany could rely on the United States, so it made sense to turn to its one great resource: the chemistry industry. Chemicals now emerged at the heart of planning.

Of course the chemistry industry, like plastics and Bauhaus functionalism, had tainted capitalist associations, and had been implicated in Nazi policies and plans for war. All the same, undesirable associations could be reversed if chemicals, plastics, and Bauhaus architecture were mobilized for the benefit of the People and the People's Economy. In particular plastics could be deployed as cheap and above all durable goods for furnishing apartment blocks, and Bauhaus principles could be deployed to produce apartments on a large scale. The ensemble of plastic furnishing and Bauhaus architecture, with its new and decisively modern aesthetic, could now be embraced and driven forward by all the propaganda resources at the government's disposal. Institutions in Halle and Berlin devoted themselves to the creation of a set of basic designs, standardized but with built-in variations.

Numerous journals and magazines devoted themselves to advertizing the usefulness and ideological acceptability of these innovations, in particular to the New Woman, who was now both a worker and in need of efficient and practical apartments and furnishings in her role as homemaker. In the magazine Kultur im Heim, illustrations showed the new products as "beautiful in Form, Practical, and Joyfully Colored." Plastics went on display at the Leipzig Trade Fairs, and by the time of the DDR's 20th anniversary in 1969 the promised flood of plastics was well on its way. But so massive were the failures of the East German economy that when plastics did flood the Volkswirtschaft, they did so as part of a massive recentralization of the industry.

Rubin suggests that the legally enforced, "most purposeful" substitution of plastic for natural materials created highly centralized meaning that inhered in plastics and was absorbed by the people. If the power of the Stasi was hard power, this dissemination of an approved product as symbolizing and materializing the proclaimed ideals of the regime was soft power. The two forms did, of course, reinforce each other, so that one of Rubin's key interlocutors was identified as suspect because she failed to conform to socialist expectations by her exclusive use of wood and metal furniture. That was the novel way in which the East German state redefined original sin. The plastic revolution permanently replaced the "authentic" culture of the past, and its time- and labor-saving artifacts—including ubiquitous and iconic egg cups shaped like chickens—in due course became part of the cult of Ostalgie and a reminder of an alternative modernity.

And this is where Rubin disagrees with Mary Fulbrook and other authors he labels Fulbrookians as to whether this "welfare dictatorship," keeping its population in by force behind a wall, was in its everyday life a normal society. A normal society is not so described simply because most of the time people think more about mundane concerns than the power of political dictatorship, or its omnipresent machinery of surveillance, or the privileged lifestyle of its apparatchiks. Eli Rubin does not accept this understanding of normality any more than he accepts the straightforward dismissal of the DDR as a totalitarian society replicating the dictates of Soviet power. For him the plastics revolution stays on as part of the "Wall in the head" Germans refer to when thinking about the continuing difficulties of German integration.

One essential plank in the planned secularization of the DDR was the careful ideological construction of the clash between science, including Marxist pseudo-science, and religion. In her discussion of this crucial aspect of the campaign to eliminate religion, Monika Wohlrab-Sahr in The Role of Religion in Modern Societies shows that it even succeeded in infiltrating the otherwise highly resistant Catholic subculture. She concludes that the campaign based on the alleged opposition between science and religion "was not only embodied in political ideology and state institutions … but actually resounded in the world-view of large parts of the population" as documented by the World Values Survey. By contrast, the same campaigns in the Ukraine, as described by Catherine Wanner in Communities of the Converted (2007), were much less effective and even counterproductive, given the association of religion with Ukrainian nationalism.

As already suggested in the first part of this article, German culture had historically nurtured the seeds of such a construction, and these seeds had taken root most tenaciously in what was later to become the DDR. The East-West divide in church participation was already evident in 1910, particularly where, as Max Weber put it, plebeian intellectuals had adopted socialism as a this-worldly eschatology. Positivism was particularly influential in establishing a dichotomy between religion and science with its double strategy of disenchanting the world and setting up science itself as a form of salvation in competition with both politics and religion.

This dichotomy has also been influential in the story of how religion and science have interacted in the West, and in his writings John Brooke has shown how genuine problems associated with evolution were (mis)constructed in terms of a narrative based on a fundamental clash. In the DDR, of course, political salvation and scientific salvation were regarded as intimate allies, not as competing. In West Germany the principle of the functional differentiation of spheres as between religion and science prevailed, so that biology books tended to point out differences in mode of approach and kinds of understanding. In the DDR, by contrast, textbooks initially treated religion as irrational and later in the 1970s ignored it altogether. Fundamentally educators in the DDR stressed antagonism while their counterparts in the Federal Republic adopted a pluralistic relativism.

Wohlrab-Sahr concludes that elements of internal secularization within Protestantism may make it less able to resist antagonism and disenchantment than Catholicism. The comparative data already cited for Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and for much of Northern Europe, give this contention some color of plausibility, over and above the impact of state-sponsored secularization in the DDR. Just conceivably it is not an accident of history that Wittenberg and Prague are two of the epicenters of secularity, the other being Paris. The contrast between the secularizing potential of Protestantism in Europe and its vigor in the United States is a question for another day.

This is the second part of a two-part article.

David Martin is the author of On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory (Ashgate). He was recently elected as a Fellow of the British Academy.

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