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Progress, Not Politics”

The Muted Revolution: East Germany’s Challenge to Russia and the West

by Welles Hangen
Knopf, 231 pp., $5.95

Today’s copy of Neues Deutschland, punctually delivered across the Wall to a foreigner in West Berlin, contains as usual all the news dull enough to print. “Trades Unions: competition for final products. Fifteenth Party Congress of Fraternal Icelandic Party: Greetings Telegram from the Central Committee. Convince by Teaching: Teach Convincingly.” The main story describes the final day of the Writers’ Congress (“Writers: Co-moulders of Socialist Life”) and the closing speech by Professor Hager, member of the Politburo and secretary of the Central Committee. He spoke of the writer’s role as planner and manager in the building of socialism, “as co-moulder, not as mere observer or visionary warner. It can be no part of the function of the socialist writer only to ask questions of society and uncover contradictions and problems without hinting at the path of development in the spirit of the decisions of the Party and the government…” He ended with a quotation from Johannes Becher: “our political freedom is to be seen in the degree of agreement we bring to the great historical demands of our time. Freedom is agreement. Only through agreement to such recognized historical necessities can we become profound and genuine personalities and win true freedom of the personality.”

Earnest, strict, conformist, worthy, and infinitely long-winded, the public life of the German Democratic Republic drives ahead along a road as hard and straight as one of those Prussian chaussées paved for a hundred miles with small black cubes of basalt. Decisions taken in full unanimity succeed each other with the regularity of the wayside trees. The years of uncertainty, tyranny, and dissent lie far behind, like the dangerous and colorful labyrinth of a city’s outskirts. We are out in open country now, traveling without deviation to right or left, but traveling fast.

The time of inner conflict and confusion within the Party and State is over. As Mr. Hangen writes, “the time of troubles in Ulbricht’s own party was over by early 1958.” The crisis of the state and the economy was closed in 1961, with the closing of the open Berlin border and the building of the Wall. In the past five years, East Germany has made itself the most prosperous industrial economy in the socialist camp, and the fifth or sixth most powerful industrial nation in the world. The population, increasingly resigned to a political situation it sees no way to change, now appreciates a fair standard of living comparable to that of a Western European country in the middle Fifties. There is sensitive pride in what has been achieved, a settled confidence that more is to come. East Germany has consolidated.

Mr. Hangen does not like East Germany, but he recognizes that it has gained enormously in authenticity since the Wall. The West German official term, the “Soviet Zone of Occupation,” was never accurate. Now it is an active nuisance.

The DDR is a major variable in the German equation rather than a minor constant, to be added or subtracted after all other elements have been resolved. It has already survived longer than the Weimar Republic or Hitler’s “thousand-year” Reich. The fate of Germany will henceforth be decided not only in Moscow, Washington, London, Paris, and Bonn, but in East Berlin as well.

THIS BOOK is dedicated to describing an East German “challenge,” not only to the West but to Russia. Mr. Hangen, who was NBC correspondent in Germany and has made many diligent journeys to the eastern part of his beat, is writing about the regime’s “quiet struggle for autonomy within the Soviet orbit…waged by political and economic, not military means.” The maneuvers of Poland and now Rumania to attain a degree of national independence and their Parties’ demands for “non-interference in the internal affairs of fraternal states” are famous enough now. It is high time that we recognized that East Germany is making its own crabwise progress in this direction too.

German Communism has its own iron pride. This is the land of Marx and Engels. This was the land where the most powerful industrial revolution in Continental Europe produced the most powerful and self-conscious proletariat, whose leaders believed it as naturally destined to conquer the earth for socialism as the Wilhelmine high bourgeoisie believed their nation to be naturally destined to conquer the earth for “Deutschtum.” After 1933 came the years of guilt. For over twenty years, the CPSU could rely upon that devastating sense of shame and failure to help them in their purging and manipulation of the KPD and its modern successor the Socialist Unity Party (SED). That period, as Mr. Hangen has acutely seen, is passing, and with it the formal adulation of everything Soviet. “Conditions are very different, of course, in a highly industrialized country like the [DDR] and in a huge underdeveloped country like the Soviet Union. There it takes a long time for changes to seep down from the top.” So the director of an institute of Marxist-Leninism to Mr. Hangen. The old pride is back.

Nobody is content with Ulbricht and his colleagues in the leadership. And yet on any traveler in East Germany the conviction grows that the Party has roots far more reliable and authentic here than in Poland or even in Czechoslovakia. In the traditional German sense, it is something of a social success. It is respectable, solid, morally conservative, responding to the old preference for a political party which is united and concerned with maintaining a total way of life, a Weltanschauung, rather than with mere parliamentary advantage. It is imposingly dull; in each office, works, and institute the Party group meets and discusses the news in Neues Deutschland (carefully read and underlined in red pencil by the members in their spare time) in a litany of platitudes expressed in jargon. West Germany provides enough examples of public aversion to “negative” criticism in politics: the Party is always “positive.” There are no lasting internal feuds embalmed in blood: The SED engineered no Rajk or Slansky trials.

THE WHEEDLING CRY of all authoritarian parties, “progress, not politics,” was never so successful as here. The public obsession with economic progress is unique. Members, friends, and deadly enemies of the Party alike speak now of almost nothing but production figures, hard currency earnings, the “New Economic System” which is coming into force and which is the boldest and most methodical application anywhere in the “bloc” of the principles of Liberman, the reforming Soviet economist. Mr. Hangen did much work on this topic, and talked at length to many of the younger technocrats and managers charged with the introduction of the new system. Everywhere, trade relations with the Soviet Union are anxiously and often angrily discussed. Did the suicide of Dr. Apel, head of the Planning Commission, mean that Moscow continues to exploit East Germany by charging above world prices for its raw material exports to the DDR while paying below world prices for its imports? Mr. Hangen states that this is so, and I have met loyal party members who agree with him. Yet it should be said that British experts come to the conclusion that this is not the case. The prices are broadly fair: The problem is the sheer volume of the commitment (48 per cent of East Germany’s foreign trade) and the type of goods demanded.

One detects in what Mr. Hangen writes a slight tendency to accept the “progress, not politics” argument although in a qualified sense. The arrival of the non-dogmatic technocrats must lead to a general relaxation: efficiency and democracy have some causal relationship. This argument must be treated skeptically, for the moment. Even if the new “reliability” system should lead to a mass removal of old-guard Party work-horses from management (and it is not yet clear that such a removal will be carried through), it would still be a very long time before these changes were reflected in increased liberty of expression. East Germany has no Leszek Kolakowski to state in public that technical efficiency is impossible without a parallel advance in free criticism and discussion.

This is not a friendly account, though, and in some ways Mr. Hangen is ruder than the facts allow. Cars are not “a rarity” on the streets of East Berlin, and the standard of living which he so deeply scorns (no cream or grapefruit for breakfast) is that of the extremely recent past in Western Europe, shared still even in West Germany by the less well-paid. His disgust with certain hotels surprised me so much that I had to look up my notes to make sure that we stayed in the same places. He is right to be critical about aspects of the university system, as he is right to say that the universities are the center of what dissent exists; but he should have added that the educational framework as a whole is full of intelligent and even audacious experiments which the West Germans both study and envy like the unitary secondary schools which defer selection until fourteen, or the technical subjects taught from the age of twelve, which have produced double the West German percentage of pupils attaining matriculation. The medical and social services, though under-endowed, are fairer and offer more security than their West German equivalents. This is a part of the East German achievement which perhaps seems more important to a European than to an American. It is none the less one of the fundamental reasons for the “consolidation” which Mr. Hangen is writing about.

THE BEST PART of the book is its conclusion. Here, in talking about Western policy towards the DDR, Mr. Hangen’s angry practicality swings free and hits hard. “The time has come,” he writes, “for Washington to reflect if it should continue denying itself regular access to the Soviet Union’s most important ally. The aim of policy, after all, is to influence events, not simply to perpetuate legal fictions.” Full diplomatic recognition would probably be a mistake, for the “earthquake” it would cause at Bonn, but the United States should trade and “build bridges” with East Germany as busily as it does with, for instance, Rumania. Germany, he believes, will remain divided for the foreseeable future because the Soviet Union has now abandoned interest even in a neutral reunification; the only course now is to encourage rapprochement between the two states and by trade to “give the East Germans more bargaining power with Moscow.” There are signs that the Social-Democrat half of the Grand Coalition at Bonn has understood this, and does not intend the policy of approach to Eastern Europe to exclude East Germany. The most recent and startling example was the interview given by Herr Wehner, the new All-German minister, to the Washington Post in which he suggested actual recognition of an East German state once it had liberalized to a degree comparable with that of Yugoslavia. The argument that Bonn is now setting up diplomatic relations with Rumania and the rest in order to cut East Germany’s links with her allies in the Warsaw Pact is now seldom heard, even in Bonn. To isolate East Germany as a sort of “Soviet Mozambique”—the Brzezinski theory—is a policy without promise. We do not have to like this grim and touchy little state, but for the sake of European security and for its own sake, we must learn to live with it.

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