In 1957 and 1958, several historians in the German Democratic Republic, in a discussion of the November Revolution of 1918, described it as an aborted socialist revolution. This touched off a controversy that eventually reached the highest levels of government, leading to the intervention of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity party (SED) and a stern pronouncement by its first secretary Walter Ulbricht, who said that the definition in question was not only historically inaccurate but politically dangerous. Because no strong revolutionary class existed in 1918, Ulbricht announced, and because the rising had not been led by a revolutionary party, it was not a socialist revolution at all, and to say so might raise doubts about the indispensability of a Marxist-Leninist party (like, although he did not say this, the SED).

The incident illustrates the hazards that accompany the writing of history in the German Democratic Republic. In our own country, historians have the greatest possible latitude in their choice of subject and manner of treatment. Those among them who are writing books for public schools may, to be sure, be subjected to surveillance by state committees and private groups intent on preventing transgression of moral or religious convention and neglect of local heroes and events, but most historians go about their scholarly business without attracting the attention of anyone but their professional colleagues.

Such autonomy is unthinkable in the GDR, where historians are expected both to adhere to the principles of Marxist historiography and to be mindful of the requirements of the state and its ruling party. As scholars, they must not fall prey to relativism or impartiality, which are regarded as the enemies of objective truth. They must recognize that their work is always, as one GDR theorist has written, “part of the basic ideological struggle between materialism and idealism, between scientific and unscientific thought,” and that they must stand for the former against the latter. Thus they are required to see history as a movement of successive socioeconomic systems, as a continuous struggle of contending classes, that eventuates in the victory of the working class and the ultimate establishment of the classless society, as well as to explain the inevitability of this process, and to contribute through their work to the solution of problems that may impede its completion.

At the same time, as servants of a regime that has throughout its short existence always felt vulnerable to external pressure and possible attack, they must, as a party directive of 1962 made clear, be guided “by the political requirements of the current struggle and therefore by the decisions of the party.” In his masterly and comprehensive survey of East German historiography the late Andreas Dorpalen of Ohio State University points out that this has lent a polemical and propagandistic tone to East German historical work ever since 1945, when the first communists returned to East Germany from their exile in Moscow. The leaders of the German Communist party (KPD) and of the SED that succeeded it, were determined from the outset to carry through a basic reinterpretation of German history from the Marxist perspective; this would serve as a means of legitimizing their claim to power and their plans for the social transformation of their part of Germany.

The first task that they assigned to historians was that of enlightening the nation about the real nature of Nazism, which meant proving that it was the creation of monopolists, Junkers, and militarists—an interpretation that Western students of the subject would consider badly skewed but one that was useful as a basis for claiming that the GDR, a state of peasants and workers, had no Nazi past, whereas all of the elements for creating a new fascism existed in Western Germany.

Subsequently, historians were urged to address themselves to aspects of the past that had been neglected or misinterpreted for “class purposes”—the Peasants’ War of the sixteenth century, the struggle against feudalism and particularism, popular movements in the years after 1789, the successful socialist resistance to Bismarck’s persecution, and the like—and thus, by tracing a democratic and revolutionary thread through German history, to establish an honorable lineage for the new rulers.

By means of such actions as the establishment in 1964 of a special department in the Academy of Sciences to coordinate all historical work and to supervise research plans, the historical profession, became progressively centralized, making it impossible for scholars to ignore these directives or others that called upon them to prove that the development of the East German regime was in accordance with historical laws. In 1972 the Central Research Plan of the SED’s Institute for Marxism-Leninism made it bluntly clear to the profession that

historical scholarship takes as its point of departure that the socialist world system gathered around the Soviet Union is the inevitable result of the entire course of world history and that the GDR is the legitimate heir to all the revolutionary, progressive and humanistic traditions of German history and, above all, of the German workers movement.

It is easy enough to demonstrate that historians who are rewarded on the basis of their ideological conformity and their adherence to the current party line, as is true in the GDR, are likely to follow scholarly practices that are reprehensible by Western standards. As he surveys the way in which East German historians have treated the history of their country from the middle ages to the recent past, Dorpalen gradually assembles a small catalog of recurring characteristics:


—A tendency, rising from ideological insistence that the masses are the ultimate makers of history, to exaggerate the effects of peasant risings in the Middle Ages and popular agitations at later times.

—A deference to the views of Engels and Marx even when they are embarrassingly wrong, as in the case of Engels’s definition of the Reformation as a bourgeois revolution.

—A myopic refusal to give individuals credit for initiating reform, which leads, in treatments of the early Hohenzollern rulers, to unconvincing attempts to prove that militarism was the outgrowth of capitalism rather than of feudalism.

—The discounting of all nonsocial motives, so that, for example, Frederick William III’s reluctance to go to war with France in 1809 is attributed not to his belief that there was no prospect of victory (which was true) but to his fear of the consequences of mobilizing the masses (which is questionable).

—The frequent resort to the “must have” argument, which measures developments against a model agenda of history and assigns roles to groups even when the evidence for such attribution is scanty or points in the opposite direction.

According to this kind of reasoning, the bourgeoisie must have been the strongest advocates of the Prussian Tariff Union of 1834, because in the long run they stood to profit from it, although in truth state officials were the Zollverein’s chief supporters, and the relatively small bourgeois class was resolutely opposed. Similarly, what Dorpalen calls “arguing from a preconceived thesis rather than from the sources” has led to contorted claims by East German historians that it was the forces of monopoly capitalism, rather than Adolf Hitler, that were chiefly responsible for the prolongation of the Second World War, as well as for the Final Solution of the Jewish question, which was, in their view, merely part of a vaster scheme designed to consolidate German imperialist domination.

Finally, a constant element in East German historiography is the habit of viewing the past so insistently from the perspective of the present that the resultant picture assumes odd forms. An example is the usual treatment of the revolution of 1848 which concentrates not on the pivotal importance of the bourgeoisie, but despite its relatively small influence on events, on the working class, simply because, Dorpalen writes, it “would ultimately play the key role in the creation of the socialist order and the emancipation of mankind.” Because the GDR is regarded as the final realization of the aspirations of the working-class rebels of 1848, the revolution of that year is considered to be a more important subject for historical research than the unification of Germany in 1871, which was a “revolution from above.”

It is not the purpose of this admirably judicious book, which was completed shortly before its author’s death in December 1982, merely to list examples of the ideological rigidity and the cavalier disregard for different kinds of explanation that characterize much of East German historiography. Dorpalen was well aware that Western historians had their own biases and their own kinds of blinders, and he felt it important to urge them to see what might be learned from the work of their colleagues in the GDR. For his own part, he was sure that

the non-Marxist will find new facts and conclusions in the East German interpretations that he can usefully incorporate into his own concept of German history—from the social role of the medieval peasantry to the complexities of the Potsdam Conference.

GDR historians had been nothing if not energetic, and what their researches yielded about such things as the economic ramifications of the Thirty Years’ War, the growth of democratic forces in the years before 1830, and the difficulty of mobilizing the working class during the Great Depression might be useful in correcting the record, supplying new insights, and suggesting promising new directions for research. For example, with respect to the first of these subjects, Dorpalen pointed out that the work of Roland-Franz Schmiedt and Jan Peters on Gustavus Adolphus’s plan for developing Germany as a major market for Swedish exports, particularly ores, and for merging the economies of territories occupied by his troops with that of Sweden had added significant dimensions to the conventional view of the Lion of the North’s statecraft.


Aside from that, Dorpalen believed that Western historians might have something to learn from the dialectical approach, which,

with its stress on interaction and interdependence…, may give the non-Marxist historian further cause to reconsider his evaluations of class and individual relationships and to concern himself more…with the interrelationships between politics, economics, and social conditions.

In view of the deplorable compartmentalization of much of Western historiography and the widespread tendency of younger scholars to prefer highly specialized topics to large themes, this is probably sound advice.

Anyone who doubts Dorpalen’s conclusion that much good history is being written in the GDR should take a long look at Ernst Engelberg’s study of Bismarck as founder of the German Empire, which has had an enthusiastic reception in the Federal Republic. Born in 1909 and a member of the KDP since 1930, Engelberg studied at Berlin and Munich, taking his degree in 1934 and, after a period of detention in a concentration camp, emigrated in the same year to Turkey, where he remained until 1948. After his return to Germany, he was professor at Potsdam and Leipzig, president of the National Committee of Historians from 1958 to 1965, and director of the Institute for History in the Academy of Sciences. He is the author of, among other works, two widely read textbooks on Germany from 1849 to 1871 and from 1871 to 1897.

About his Marxist credentials there is no question, and in his theoretical works he has been critical of Western historians for concentrating their attention upon the top governmental and political strata of society while “facing the struggle of the people in uncomprehending hostility, not infrequently falsifying facts in the interest of the exploiting system.” On the other hand, he has always opposed slavish obedience to Marxist shibboleths; he has frequently warned against rigid application of the theoretical statements of the founding fathers of communism; and, while never denying the significance of productive forces as a key to the course of history, he has been more inclined to devote his attention to developments in the ideological and political superstructure, where human actors give history its precise forms.

Engelberg came to Bismarck from what he calls the Gegenposition, for while he was writing his doctoral dissertation on “German Social Democracy and Bismarck’s Social Policy,” the story of the Chancellor’s attempt to destroy the Social Democratic party filled him with deep indignation. At the same time, he seems to have shared the experience of the novelist Theodor Fontane, who once wrote that he could never read a speech or a letter of Bismarck’s without being overcome by admiration and delight. Engelberg’s interest in the Prussian statesman deepened after the collapse of the Bismarck Reich in 1945, when he resolved to study its origins and early history. As he proceeded, he writes,

I recognized, more clearly than before, how strong, how multifaceted and contradictory, how rich he was as a personality, and how consistently he proved himself capable of resolving the problems left open by the failed revolution of 1848 in his own way. That strengthened me in my determination to write a biography of Bismarck.

It is not a complete biography, since it stops in 1871, but it is a splendid start, showing a sovereign command of the sources, filled with new material from the reordered Bismarck papers in Schönhausen, the Gorchakov papers and the Archive for Foreign Affairs in Moscow, and other collections in Bonn and Vienna, and written in a clear, economical style that is never dogmatic and always persuasive. The long section on Bismarck’s forebears and his own attitude toward them is perhaps the most original and fascinating part of this long work, but hardly less so are Engelberg’s description of Bismarck’s connection with the Pietist circle in Pomerania, his account of his entrance into politics in the years 1847-1850, his explanation of the remarkable flowering of his diplomatic skills while envoy to the Frankfurt Diet during the Crimean War, and his systematic analysis of Bismarck’s principles of thought and action.

Perhaps the book’s most interesting aspect is that a reader who knew nothing about its author would not easily guess that he lived and published in the GDR; and a reader aware that this was a book from East Germany would look in vain for examples of the kind of Vulgärmarxismus described in Dorpalen’s survey. Certainly Engelberg’s conclusion, which is both a summary of his own view and a tribute to his protagonist, shows no trace of the not uncommon Marxist tendency to depreciate the importance of individuals as makers of history:

Unsatisfied by the narrowness of his Old Mark-Pomeranian Junker’s existence, he was early driven forth into the vastness of the great world. Soon he realized that not only kings and the upper nobility were actors there, but also bankers and industrialists. They had to be reckoned with, and their interests had to be taken into account, because otherwise those of the landed nobility, the crown and the army could not be preserved. This precept of Realpolitik, which distinguished him from most of his class, he was able to translate into a cleverly balanced policy that was rich in expedients and as cunning as it was imaginative, a policy that required all of his powers: his talent for deductive reasoning and his subtle knowledge of human nature, his dynamic temperament, his faith in God, and the devil in his body.

Bismarck was complex and often contradictory in his work, which was in the truest sense epoch-making, now cautious, now reckless, now flattering, now full of menace…. He understood how to force the issue at the right moment. Gifted with the rare ability to grow beyond himself, a compleat politician, he became the founder of the Reich because he could do what he wanted to do, and he wanted to do what he was capable of doing.

Engelberg’s example and that of other scholars suggest that the demands made by the state upon historians in the GDR have not made impossible a high level of scholarly performance. What can be said about the other side of historical work in the Democratic Republic, about its uses as an instrument for legitimizing state and party in the eyes of the East German people? For almost forty years now citizens have been subjected to a barrage of historical propaganda in party organs, the press, and school books. Has the government gained in stability as a result?

The question of stability is at the heart of three recent books on the GDR. James McAdams, assistant professor of politics at Princeton, has written an interesting study of the Honecker regime’s gradual mastery of the art of living with and profiting from détente, after Walter Ulbricht’s attempt to block that policy ended his career. The excellent survey by the Mannheim political scientist Hermann Weber emphasizes the history of the Republic before the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, the Stalinization of the system in the Fifties, the establishment of the rule of the Apparat, and the durability of its influence into the Honecker period. Timothy Garton Ash’s report of 1981 on the state of the GDR is the work of a brilliant British journalist who had lived for nine months in East Berlin and traveled widely in the country.

McAdams and Weber both begin their accounts with strong intimations that the East German system is both more secure and more self-confident than at any other time in its history (Weber says rather oddly that “the GDR is one of the most stable states in modern German history”), but both end by expressing doubts whether this condition will continue. Garton Ash clearly believes that it is impossible to talk at all about stability in the case of a country that makes so much of its birthdays because it seems to fear that each one will be its last and tries to protect itself against that possibility by using cradle-to-grave militarization as a form of indoctrination and by maintaining the largest internal security forces in Eastern Europe. All three authors see the continuing deficit in domestic credibility—despite the country’s relatively high standard of living and the success of its social programs—as the regime’s most persistent weakness.

Does this mean that the historians have failed as propagandists for the state? Certainly they have been thrown into the breach during every one of what McAdams calls the GDR’s “crises of identity”—after the death of Stalin, after the building of the Wall, after the onset of détente seemed to necessitate a policy of Abgrenzung (“delimitation”) to prevent the state’s being overwhelmed by a flood of Western ideas and influences, during the time when Erich Honecker sought to deny that the GDR was a German state at all, and subsequently, when he reversed himself and placed Frederick the Great back in the middle of Unter den Linden and celebrated Luther’s five hundredth birthday—always with the mission of proving that what was going on was in accordance with immutable law and was therefore inevitable and right.

Certainly they failed to attain that objective (Weber is quite explicit about this in his last pages), and instead of asking why we should perhaps ask how they could have hoped to succeed. How could they have been expected to convince anyone that the GDR was a state of “peace and freedom, humanity and social justice, legitimized by the centuries-old history of our people” and embodying everything that was noble and good in the German past, including “the ideas of the men of the Enlightenment” (all this from a 1969 directive cited in Weber’s survey) when, according to Garton Ash, at least three thousand political prisoners were under lock and key (a third as many as in the Soviet Union from a population only a fifteenth as large), when writers who criticized any aspect of life in the GDR were silenced or expelled, and when citizens were denied the right to visit places they could see on their television screens? The Mauer-Effekt (Wall Syndrome) has not, after all, perceptibly weakened in the last twenty-five years; on hearing that Garton Ash came from the United Kingdom, a six-year-old boy asked his mother, “Are we permitted to go there?”

What credence could possibly be placed in historical explanations that have, in response to shifts of attitude in the Soviet Union and the Federal Republic, changed so often and so radically? At the end of his study, McAdams asks himself whether the GDR’s leaders would even be capable of rewriting history once again, in the event that the Soviet Union, angered by Bonn’s SDI treaty with the United States, demanded a radical cooling of present relations between the two Germanies. In addition, the changes have often been too patently self-serving to command much credibility. Frederick’s statue was allowed to come back to Unter den Linden because of the failure of Honecker’s attempt to persuade his fellow citizens to acquire a “Socialist state consciousness” and because he was afraid that the West Germans might monopolize the national issue. As for Luther, once pilloried as the archfoe of revolution, his rehabilitation came about partly for financial reasons (“He brings money,” Garton Ash writes. “Luther is a Dukatenscheißer. Thousands of western tourists…stand in queues in the rain, waiting to see the study in the Wartburg, where Luther worked on his translation of the New Testament”) and partly, by seeming to appease the Church, to make the outside world forget for a moment the GDR’s flagrant violations of the final act of Helsinki.

It is perhaps understandable, then, that ordinary citizens are less than receptive to historical propaganda that presents versions of reality that do not accord with their own perceptions and trivializes injustices from which they suffer daily. As for the intellectuals, there is abundant evidence that their views of the historical process are at sharp variance with those favored in the top offices of the SED. East Germany’s most gifted and original dramatist is Heiner Müller, who in the 1960s and 1970s wrote a series of plays—Schlacht, Traktor, Germania Tod in Berlin, Leben Gundlings Friedrich von Preußen Lessings Schlaf Traum Schrei—that portrayed German history not as a Hegelian process that moves inevitably, by overcoming successive obstacles, toward a goal that is worth all the effort, but as a series of defeats—the revolution of 1918 as a lost opportunity, fascism as the culmination and self-destruction of bourgeois culture, Stalinism as the end station of shattered socialist hopes, present-day socialism as mere social industrialism. “The optimistic philosophy of progress that is officially propagated in the GDR,” Antonia Grunenberg wrote recently in Die Zeit, “Müller’s plays reduce ad absurdum. In the GDR also, progress ends on the dump heap (as in Leben Gundlings in the auto junkyard); therefore, for Müller, Europe no longer has a historical future.”

Needless to say, his plays, which are no more complimentary of the Western system than of the Eastern, cannot be produced in the GDR.

This Issue

September 25, 1986