Erich Honecker
Erich Honecker; drawing by David Levine

We are watching what is supposed to be the end of a great war in Asia—an ending so difficult and so often interrupted by checks and relapses that it is more like witnessing a painful death than a birth. Whether the war ends or not, the United States and its allies are silently, but with hideous peristaltic convulsions, eating a million words. The same is true in Central Europe, where the United States and her NATO allies are ending a phase of the cold war and swallowing, in the process, an even vaster number of proclamations and eternal promises. The West is setting about recognizing the German Democratic Republic at last.

Recognition is a nervous, embarrassed, touchy business. There are problems about where embassies shall stand, whether the GDR owes anyone reparations and compensations, and how to solve the Talmudic complexities of fitting recognition and embassies into the persisting fiction of Allied rights over “Berlin-as-a-whole.” But at least the quarter-century of pretending that there was no such place as the GDR is over.

Here, too, it is wise not to gloat. But one can recall tableaux of idiocy that will never be repeated: the old Allied Passport Office in the Pots-damerstrasse refusing travel documents to East German scientists, actors, and journalists who wanted to visit London or New York; the 1966 clash of patrol boats on the Elbe, which might have developed into a border war because nobody would talk to the East German authorities about where the demarcation line ran along the river bed; the “sound faults” that developed on West German television whenever the East German anthem was played at an international sporting event. With the exception of Albania, the GDR has remained the least known socialist state in Eastern Europe, reported about from West Berlin in terms, often, of comical falsity; it was the favorite location for Anglo-Saxon thriller writers who wanted to feel free to invent. Now there begins the period in which the place may be seen for what it is.

At present, this takes the form of translating the more responsible West German literature on the subject. Both Professor Ludz and Heinz Lippmann wrote their works in German, and Lippmann has the particular advantage of direct experience: he was for some years a senior official in the “Free German Youth” (FDJ), the East German youth movement, and before his departure for the West he worked with Erich Honecker, now first secretary of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and the successor to Ulbricht since May, 1971. He has made, this book suggests, a considerable effort to wash the natural rancor and disillusion of the émigré from this biography. He does not always succeed. But compared to previous literature about the GDR’s leading figures—for example, Carola Stern’s withering biography of Ulbricht*—this is a remarkably objective book.

Honecker is not outwardly a memorable figure. Whereas Walter Ulbricht had all the physical characteristics which made him such easy prey for the satirist or cartoonist—the squeaky Saxon voice, the goatee—Erich Honecker is a strapping, soft-featured, rather myopic looking person who has so far eluded parody. He embodies, however, many of the identifying political features of what Professor Ludz calls “the strategic elite,” which still governs the GDR. He is self-confident, sometimes to excess. He believes—inviting the typical cognitional muddles of the SED—both in absolute loyalty to the Soviet Union as the definition of a good communist, and at the same time in the primacy of German communist experience, the party of Marx and Engels operating in the most industrialized and prosperous communist economy in the world. He is an authoritarian rather than a totalitarian. He is, under the skin, an old-fashioned German working-class patriot.

For Honecker does not come from East or even central Germany. He was born and brought up in the Saar, in that small land of Catholic socialist coal miners which after both world wars passed under French control and then returned itself to Germany. Lippmann wisely gives these origins close study. Honecker was the son of a miner, raised among scenes of hunger and industrial conflict during and after the First World War, when the peculiar situation of the Saar created a special relationship between the class struggle and the “national question.” Once the newly formed Communist party of Germany had abandoned its early internationalism and come out for the return of the Saar to Germany, the region developed an intimacy between the Party and the working class which had few parallels in Germany proper, so that in the elections of 1932 the Communists gained over 23 percent of the vote, while the Saar Nazis won less than 7 percent.

Honecker thus witnessed the unusual spectacle of German workers who supported a Communist party on grounds that were not merely social but nationalistic. This, inevitably, is what he has wished to re-create in the GDR. It is a source of his confidence in the GDR’s future: he saw that future in the Saar, and it worked. Lippmann records his fury when, at the World Festival of Youth at Budapest in 1949, Honecker encountered the Free German Youth delegation from the Saar and found them taking a pro-French line. It mattered little that it was the French Communist party that they were favoring and not the Fourth Republic. For Honecker, their reluctance to come under the sway of Adenauer was a betrayal of the socialist patriotism of the workers of the Saar.


Anybody who succeeds the antique Ulbricht is bound to give the impression of youth, of a new generation. This is misleading. Honecker is not a representative of any “new technocratic elite.” He is sixty years old, his only trade is that of a roofer, and his only education beyond elementary school has been that provided by Party work and Party colleges. He worked as a clandestine organizer under the Nazis, having already spent a year in the Soviet Union at the Communist Youth International School, and at the age of only twenty-one was political organizer for the Party throughout the Ruhr basin. Arrested in Berlin in 1935, he was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment, and it was in the Brandenburg penitentiary, rather than in the Wehrmacht, the western emigration, or in Moscow with the “Ulbricht Group,” that Honecker spent the war.

There is a mystery about his time in Brandenburg. His fellow communists, busy building secret radios and organizing for the future, found him a loner. Lippmann guesses that he had secret tasks which were not to be shared with the rank and file. At all events, he made the first blot on his Party record by escaping in March, 1945, an act which upset plans for resistance actions in the jail and earned him a Party inquiry after the war, an episode no longer referred to in GDR literature. It did not harm his career: within a year, Honecker was chairman of the newly founded Free German Youth and embarking on his long and extravagantly loyal junior partnership with Ulbricht.

Building up the FDJ was Honecker’s road to the top. By the time he stepped down in 1955, he had given the SED, in its first years an uneasy coalition of minority Communists and old Social Democrats using totalitarian methods to keep itself together, a large and permanent source of reliable recruits for whom it was natural to satisfy ambition through the Party bureaucracy. In this sense he made it possible, as Professor Ludz would put it, for the GDR to become an “authoritarian” rather than a “totalitarian” system.

The FDJ, starting as a similar coalition with bourgeois and church youth groups, evolved into the usual communist state movement, with middle-aged “youth leaders” mouthing the usual wooden rhetoric about the joys of enthusiasm and loyalty. But the FDJ did develop in some of its following an authentic keenness and élan which Honecker, no cynic, shared. Lippmann shows that he was, in fact, a rather inefficient organizer whose militant zeal was apt to run away with him. On several occasions Honecker seriously embarrassed the Party. He threatened to let the FDJ “storm” West Berlin in 1950 and marched the youth groups over the sector border into the clubs of the West Berlin police in 1951. He set up the “Service for Germany” youth labor camps which foundered in their own muddle and squalor in 1953. But for Ulbricht his loyalty was more important than these lapses. Honecker held firm through every crisis and in 1956 won control of the Politburo post governing the army, internal security, and the frontiers. In 1957, he took over policy for the Party’s lower functionaries. By bureaucratic rules, though this was not seen at the time, he was already the most likely inheritor.

In the late Sixties, as it became clear that he would probably succeed Ulbricht, the West thought him a hard man. This was—and is—less than the truth. Honecker’s passion for his own class made him instinctively suspicious of intellectuals—he disliked Ulbricht’s cultural experiments in 1963 and 1964—and more hostile toward contact with noncommunists, especially Social Democrats. The present policy of “Abgrenzung“—increased political contact with West Germany combined with far sharper precautions against ideological infection from the imperialist neighbor—is a Soviet bloc policy that happens to fit exactly into Honecker’s own inclinations.

At the same time, Honecker is genuinely concerned with the prosperity and the political support of “his” working class, and this makes him a more practical and tolerant, though even more cautious, leader than Walter Ulbricht. He wants, for instance, to find a way of allowing freer artistic expression so long as this does not express anything hostile to the SED’s leading role: the head of a pin on which perhaps only East German intellectuals might be able to dance. His leadership of the German Democratic Republic, which is now a relatively collective leadership, is likely to exhibit the same paradox: greater changes and experiments than Ulbricht ever undertook, but undertaken with even greater precautions.


There are deficiencies in Lippmann’s book. One, which is minor, is the sometimes eccentric translation: a monster called the “Czechosloval Soviet Socialist Republic” appears, and an awful but engaging gaffe on page 206 has Honecker attacking the “revisionist, counterrevolutionary trend in the USSR” in 1968. A more serious defect is the emphasis on personalities and the absence of any sociological account of how the GDR developed. One might expect an ex-communist to remember that history is not made by individuals alone.

Honecker rose to power following the introduction of the New Economic System in 1963, which cautiously decentralized the economic command and remodeled the Party and bureaucracy according to the “production principle.” The system was to make the GDR not merely prosperous but, as a population, more reconciled to its own separate future. Well before other East European countries had embarked on these “market” reforms, and before the discontent of newly educated and qualified strata had made itself felt politically, the “strategic clique” of the GDR set about giving power to these specialists—especially those within the Party—and by enfranchising this elite, creating a more flexible relationship between Party and people.

Professor Ludz’s book came out in Germany in 1968, at a moment when the New Economic System and the changes in Party style and function associated with it were producing their most impressive effects. His work became at once the center of professional discussion among GDR experts in West Germany, and contributed to the general belief among intelligent politicians that “East Germany is changing,” which in turn made Willy Brandt’s advocacy of a gradual approach to recognition more plausible.

That, however, was more than four years ago. Since then, events have qualified Professor Ludz’s rather optimistic views. The experience of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and of Poland in December, 1970, combined with heightened anxieties about “imperialist ideological subversion” as the formal barriers of the cold war come down, has produced a wave of conservatism in many Warsaw Pact states. Several market-economy experiments have been modified or replaced by “more efficient” or “modernized” or “rationalized” forms of central Party planning. The tendency to separate Party and state functions has been checked as the Party attempts to be more effective and responsive in factories and offices. The “revisionist” theorizing which accompanied the new economic models has been widely repressed. All these things have taken place with special force in the GDR.

The developments in the last few years do not invalidate Peter Ludz’s analysis of change in Party structures, nor, I think, do they mean that the trend toward “consultative authoritarianism” he identifies has ceased. Ludz is trying to identify a “counter elite” composed of the younger Party officials who have received higher education of one kind or another, and whose loyalty to the Party and its ideological orthodoxy has been acquired by adaptation to the society in which they grew up. He opposes this subgroup to his “strategic clique” at the head of the SED, a “primary group” bound by corporate loyalty from the outset which—as he demonstrates by a number of tables—seldom received as much as ten years of schooling.

The “counter elite,” he argues, is more open-minded and more concerned with making decisions on the basis of actual performance. As Party and state separate, and their officials become no longer interchangeable (which is what was taking place when Ludz wrote), the specialized bureaucracies become more autonomous and furnish the “counter elite” with its base for more independence in decision-making. Now that Party intervention in society is renewed, this autonomy has in one sense been reduced. But since “interchangeability” between the Party and the state is being restored, the opportunities for political members of the “counter elite” to exercise local power have therefore become deeper, if narrower.

Professor Ludz has included a remarkable section on ideology, a summary of progressive Marxist thinking both in the GDR and outside it on the value of technological progress. He begins, rightly, with the ambiguity toward technology to be found in Marx himself: the early works tended to treat technical advances as promoters of a further division of labor and therefore of heightened alienation, while the later Marx—so much more popular in the Soviet bloc—took a more positive view of industrial innovation, especially in heavy industry. All revisionist Marxists, in Eastern Europe or in the West, accept the possibility that alienation will persist in a socialist society, or at least in a society building socialism. “Utopians” (Ludz’s word) like Havemann in the GDR or the Frankfurt neo-Marxists in the West take the view that any technologically advanced society is increasing the level of alienation. But the “institutionalized revisionists,” those who argue from within the system for a more tolerant and open form of socialism, produce various hopeful arguments for their claim that technical progress in a socialist country can eventually emancipate human beings and reduce alienation.

Such writers, including the Polish philosophers Adam Schaff and Leszek Kolakowski, are in effect dealing with the same phenomenon as Ludz describes from a quite different point of view. They believe that new and highly complex modes of production can slowly enforce the decentralization of responsibility for making decisions and encourage a freer flow of accurate information. Professor Ludz provides a fascinating account of the thinking of Georg Klaus, the most interesting of these “institutionalized revisionists” in the GDR, who argues ingeniously that a technology based on cybernetics and the computer will actually reduce the classic type of alienation by diminishing the division of labor. This section should be required reading for anybody concerned with the political or economic study of Eastern Europe.

To descend to the grotesque: Steve Kelman, an American student, visited the GDR in order to produce an adventure story about the “realities” of Commie terror. He assumed, for some reason, that any normal American in East Germany would very likely be seized and pitched into a labor camp for being a capitalist, so he invented an elaborate tale about being a progressive who had a deep admiration for the East German system and would like to gather information about it so that he could return to the States and spread the gospel among his fellow students. The consequences were predictable. The officials he met were at first incredulous: those who run the GDR know well that the number of young leftists in the States who do not regard East Germany as a grimly authoritarian deviation from true socialism is infinitesimal. Then, still mistrustful, they began to take soundings to see if he would provide paid, confidential reports to them on various youth movements in the United States.

This was evidently just what Kelman wanted. He had his story: he was being recruited as an agent and, he assumed, his attempts to meet ordinary East Germans would put him under threat of arrest. Every few chapters, we find Steve sobbing himself to sleep over some fresh insult from his Red captors: “Why was there not a word on hotel reservations yet? I wanted to cry into the pillow of my bed, but there was no pillow. So I cried right onto the sheet.”

His reporting was made easy by the fact that he knows no history. An East German told him, accurately enough, that the Soviet Union had supported German reunification in the Fifties and the West had prevented it. “Were there no limits to what he could say with a straight face? I didn’t know much about the events which led to the division of Germany, but I knew what was a bare-faced lie…. Shit, they have lies for everything!” Life in the GDR is bleak and restrictive in many ways, but Kelman’s account of unrelieved terror and abject poverty is triumphantly perverse. The New Yorker article he wrote on his return was so inaccurate that it is being circulated in East Berlin as a joke. But never mind: the intrepid boy reporter escaped by daringly taking an elevated train to West Berlin and showing his passport at the border. “The first thing I did,” his book ends, “was buy a bottle of Coca-Cola.”

This Issue

March 8, 1973