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Communism’s Routine Evil: East German Edition

East Berliners escape to the West through a hand-dug tunnel in this undated photo.

Dessau, August 1990

Peter Santucci had just moved to East Germany. A graduate of Georgetown University, where he sang barbershop, and of Boston University, where he studied opera, he had found opportunity in the state-subsidized opera houses of the East. He was given an apartment that had been built in the 1930s. A small electric box over the kitchen sink heated water for a barely functional shower and the apartment’s two heaters were still fueled by smelly brown coal. The Stasi began keeping a file on him the day he auditioned at the Dessau Opera House. They opened his mail and let him know it by putting a large X on each page, then crudely taping the envelopes shut. They also summoned him every ten days for an “interview.” He finally laughed at them, explaining that there was nothing worth spying on in East Germany. They didn’t like that, but left him alone afterwards… and reunification happened the next week.

Aachen, August 1992

A young Nikolai Wenzel pedaled down Bismarckstrasse through the heat wave, heading home from his job at Vereinigte Glaswerke. He was clad in khakis and a short-sleeved blue shirt, and sporting a new haircut. After five years of studying German in French schools, two years at Princeton High School in New Jersey, and three semesters of advanced German at Georgetown University, where he was studying international relations, he had grown tired of the same old topics: German reunification, Turkish immigration, nuclear weapons on German soil… So he decided to quit the formal study of German, and take a full-immersion summer job. As he coasted down the bicycle lane on that hot August afternoon, he was annoyed. In addition to the usual taxes, he had just been burdened with one more: the Solidaritätszuschlag (solidarity surcharge) that was imposed on West German workers to pay for reunification. A college kid of 18, he had been fascinated by German reunification for a decade, but he hardly expected to have to pay for it. Over the years, Nikolai – first a US Foreign Service Officer, then an economics professor – came to learn about East Germany: from books on constitutional design after the fall of the Soviet Union (such as Tim Garton Ash’s The Magic Lantern), movies (“The Lives of Others”) and histories (The Black Book of Communism).

Anecdotal Journalism

In Beyond the Wall, Katja Hoyer indulges in a detail-heavy anecdotal history of East Germany. The book is thoroughly researched, but it’s just too much. Aside from the color of politicians’ suits, the temperature and breezes during speeches, and the names of their children, we learn that the author was “an excited little girl with unruly, pitch-black hair that resisted every attempt to control it.” The book, at 422 pages plus notes, could easily have been one quarter of the size. The rare instances where the author (a journalist with some training in history) shares historical analysis are disappointingly thin, as the glimpse of good insight is lost in a barrage of anecdotes.

This book will be a grave disappointment to anyone with even a modicum of knowledge of East Germany. It could be a pleasant read – if a slog through details – for those with the curiosity and time for a torrent of fluff.

Hoyer takes us through 70 years of history, starting with the exiled communist leaders of the interwar period, to the post-war creation of East Germany, its struggles and desires for independent communism and, ultimately, reunification with the West.

Hoyer argues that East Germany was its own country, and not just a historical parenthesis. This is true looking forward, as the wounds remain, but disputable looking back. Indeed, East Germany is just a footnote to Soviet history. The country was formed amidst the birth pangs of the Cold War, as the Big Four hesitated between two separate countries and a neutral unified Germany. Although the East German Politburo sought its own way, Moscow and the occupying Red Army ultimately called the shots. When Soviet material support periodically failed, so did East Germany. 1989 was just another crisis – moral and economic – of East German communism. But, unlike 1953, when Soviet forces quashed an uprising of malcontent East Germans, this time they did not intervene.

The string of economic crises and cyclical waffling between full communism and liberalization is reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s own growing pains, from post-revolutionary nationalizations to the New Economic Policy, and from Stalin’s hardline to Kruschev’s liberalization, then back again under Brezhnev, before Gorbachev’s perestroika. Hoyer lacks the economics to grasp the root cause of East German weakness (nodding to communism, but ultimately blaming reparations or high energy prices or other factors). We are reminded of Ludwig von Mises’s 1920 essay, “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth.” Mises demonstrated that, without private property, there are no prices. Without the profit and loss system to convert individual choices into efficient outcomes, there cannot be rational allocation of scarce resources. In sum, communism is bound to fail – if not immediately, but in a slow agony. Central planners “want to abolish private control of the means of production, market exchange, market prices, and competition. But at the same time, they want to organize the socialist utopia in such a way that people could act as if these things were still present. They want people to play market as children play war, railroad, or school. They do not comprehend how such childish play differs from the real thing it tries to imitate.” While East Germany was the richest of the communist countries, playing market caused it to lag behind the West – from which it had to take technology, trade, and aid.

Two Final Tensions

The book presents, if by omission, two tensions.

First, it is unclear what foreign policy lessons can be gleaned. In addition to Soviet support, East German communism was propped up by Western trade, gifts, and investment (about which Hoyer is rather enthusiastic). But the West acted as an enabler, perpetuating an unsustainable and evil system for forty years. Would a complete embargo have forced another revolt, 1953-style, and would that have been the knell of East German communism? Or would it simply have led to further Soviet intervention? The dilemma remains, as it does with Cuban isolation versus Chinese engagement.

Second, Hoyer explains that the East’s adjustment to markets and centrist democracy has been slow and sometimes painful. Then again, after forty years of dictatorship and only thirty years of liberty, it is perhaps a minor miracle that the East has only 11% less disposable income than the West, or that the extremist parties there aren’t doing even better. Hoyer attempts to provide a sympathetic reading of an alternative to capitalism – one that engaged in brutality, sure, but made such wonderful strides for inequality, women, and workers, and in which individuals did make their way and find meaning. In doing so, she ignores one big problem: the bodies. Indeed, international socialism killed an estimated ten times more people than did national socialism. Of the estimated 120 million murdered by communist regimes, an estimated one million were killed in the Eastern bloc. And these figures do not include the hundreds of millions of lives ruined by fear, poverty, and inability to choose one’s life plan and flourish as a human being. The Allies rightly insisted on denazification. Forty years later, a few communist leaders received a slap on the wrist, but there were no widespread trials for crimes against humanity. Hoyer barely mentions the punishment of the dictators.

Ordinary Germans got by under Nazism, despite the deprivations and the horror; Hitler did build the Autobahns and return pride to a humiliated Germany. That does not erase the regime’s evil. The same can be said about East Germany under communism; this book comes dangerously close to banalizing evil.

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