At 13.02 on April 18, 1983 a strangely incoherent telephone conversation began between Erich Honecker and Helmut Kohl, and was noted for posterity in the archives of the East Berlin Politburo. The two German leaders were supposed to be discussing "questions of mutual interest".
Comrade H. "Hello?" Mr K. "Kohl."
Comrade H. "Hello?" Mr K. "Yes, Kohl speaking. " Comrade H. "Yes. " Mr K. "Good day, Mr General Secretary."
Comrade H. "One moment. Hello? Who is there?" Mr K. "This is Kohl."
Comrade H. "Good day, Mr Kohl. Honecker here."
Mr K. "Good day, Mr Honecker."
Comrade H. "I can't hear very well."
These two men born within 100 km of each other in the Prussian and Bavarian Rhineland respectively were now separated by more than a poor telephone line. The 18-year age-gap between them was enough to mean that Honecker could claim in his memoirs a vivid and defining memory of the Russian Revolution (he was five) and Kohl could count his blessings as one of those "born late", that is reaching adulthood after Adolf Hitler's demise. Their very different paths had now brought them to long service at the top, each threatening to overtake Otto von Bismarck in his Reich capacity: 18 years eventually in Honecker's case, and in Kohl's 13 and still counting. Their respective realms were accorded full diplomatic recognition around the world and were represented in the United Nations. Each fielded world-class Olympic teams (boycotts permitting) and each gave grudging recognition to the existence of the other. Within their own spheres of influence they were regarded as among the most dynamic economies. And yet, within seven years of this halting exchange Honecker was under arrest, and within eight Kohl had emulated his Bismarckian rival in kilograms as well as longevity by becoming the chancellor of a newly united Germany.
It is an extraordinary story and one which only makes sense in the context of the greater and more terrible story of Germany in the 20th century. This continues to fascinate at both academic and popular levels, but besides the continuing stream of works on the Empire, the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, three new areas have opened up of late.
The immediate aftermath of the second world war, the defunct German Democratic Republic, and the expanded Federal Republic of the 1990s are all receiving fervent scholarly attention. The scale of this publishing binge in German tests the stamina of even the most ardent enquirer, but even in English there is a wealth of new material. It is, not surprisingly, of uneven quality, but the best is very good indeed and leads into fruitful areas of new research.
The volumes under review here include: a British memoir of wartime operations and post-war Allied Control (Noel Annan), peopled by mustachioed characters called Tubby and Biffy, but including some fascinating first-hand observations on Russian machinations and on Konrad Adenauer; a brief, but lucid and elegant account of the travails and achievements of the Federal Republic (Peter Pulzer); an excellent collection of interviews with east German intellectuals (Robert von Hallberg); a blow-by-blow insider account of the frantic international diplomacy of German unification by two members of George Bush's National Security Council staff (Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice); two extremely useful volumes of essays on varied aspects of Germany in the 1990s (Peter H. Merkl; Derek Lewis and John R.P. McKenzie); and two remarkable historical treatments of, in turn, the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany (Norman M. Naimark) and the German Democratic Republic (Mary Fulbrook). The variety of styles, approaches and sources testify to the vitality of the subject, which is in no way exhausted even by this pile of books.
The GDR is the brooding presence in all this literature. The origins, history and failure of that state and the crisis of its society determine most of the questions asked, even where the successes of the victorious Federal Republic are placed in the foreground. Pervasive too are equations between the late 1940s and the 1990s, when many if not all Germans faced radical adjustments and views of an unpleasant and compromising past.
Most of the books and articles continue perennial methods and debates, adapted to recent circumstances and incorporating revelations from the exploded GDR. What is now beginning, however, is an assessment of the post-war period from a genuinely historical standpoint. The archival material is there, open and aplenty in the central, regional and local deposits of the former GDR, less freely in the Stasi files of the Gauck Authority, and in archives of post-communist central and eastern Europe.
The scale of the historical treasures in the former Soviet Union is scarcely to be assessed as yet, but material is already helping historians to a fuller and more authentic picture of the Soviet role in German affairs. Naimark has made the most of the opportunities in The Russians in Germany. It is a quite splendid work of erudition, style and humanity, which replaces all earlier writing in English on the subject, some examples of which (J.P. Nettl in 1951 and and Gregory W. Sandford in 1983) were excellent in their own time. Using primarily the German and the Russian sources, Naimark sets new levels of archival research and raises many issues for historians to debate in years to come.
The book, as the title suggests, is primarily a history from the top down, exploring the mechanisms by which the Soviet military administration, with its Moscow masters and its German servants in the zone, attempted to control and direct an extraordinarily complex situation. Naimark has sensibly chosen not to attempt a straight narrative through the book (although a chronological table and a list of Red Army officers would help even the expert reader), but provides, instead, what are in effect eight interlocking essays on the occupation. Most aspects are covered, including an extraordinarily detailed account of the Soviet use of German scientists. The most original and disturbing chapter, however, is entitled "Soviet soldiers, German women, and the problem of rape". Over 70 pages Naimark confronts an issue which was ignored or suppressed by most of those affected: the Soviet military, the German communists, and many of the women themselves.
As noted in the Lewis/McKenzie collection, it has now been given documentary treatment by Helke Sander in her 1992 film BeFreier und BeFreite: Krieg - Vergewaltigungen - Kinder (Liberators Take Liberties: War, Rape, and Children), but Naimark has provided the best written account. It is a subject which could lapse into the lurid and repetitious, but Naimark manages to recount the horrors and humiliations with a proper tone and to explore the various "explanations" of the mass-rape phenomenon without becoming pretentious or removed from the reality.
He is particularly good on the roles of drink and revenge. The rape chapter recounts all-too-direct experiences, and elsewhere in the book the less traumatic day-to-day pressures on the population also emerge. Naimark's account of the land reform of 1945 highlights the chaos and deprivation in rural areas during the late 1940s, and he gives a graphic portrayal of the dreadful conditions in the uranium mines in the south of the zone.
In general, however, Naimark leaves the social history to future researchers, concentrating upon the mechanisms and purposes of power. He conveys the Russian insistence upon the Germans adopting the practices and rituals of the Soviet Union, bringing out the curious feature that both the Russians and the Germans imagined themselves culturally superior to the other.
Throughout the book, however, one is made aware of the chaotic and unpredictable nature of rule by the Soviet military administration. Local commanders often operated at cross-purposes, all appealing to Moscow for instructions, and for a short time in the late spring of 1945 the Schwarzenberg region was without any military administration at all.
The ejection of the Nazis there was done by the Germans themselves, and Naimark uses this as one example of many of the potential for antifascist and democratic renewal so soon stifled by Walter Ulbricht and his crew. Naimark does not claim that The Russians in Germany is a definitive study, and he is well aware of the further detailed work which is emerging on the social, economic and political complexities of the zone. It is unlikely, though, that his overall study of these few crucial years will be superseded for a good while to come.
In particular, he has set the scene for a fuller understanding of the regime and society which followed the occupation: "Its [the GDR's] successes, its failures, and its ultimate collapse derived from the initial institutions and habits of interaction established during the immediate postwar period. The effects of the Soviet occupation still reverberate throughout eastern Germany."
The story of the GDR itself is taken up by Fulbrook in Anatomy of a Dictatorship. She, like Naimark, faced the problem of having to do the research twice, once before the end of the GDR and once afterwards, when the archives were fully opened. Covering a much longer period than Naimark, she cannot be as fulsome in the detail as he is, but she too avoids the chronological narrative and prefers to highlight structures and themes. This does not mean that she sees the GDR as static. Rather the reverse: at the heart of her analysis is an attempt to lift the GDR from accusations that its "artificiality" reduces its historical interest.
The GDR had a history, it changed over time, and its governance and the experience of its citizens created a distinct society, which as numerous articles in the Merkl and Lewis/McKenzie collections testify refuses quite yet to die. Fulbrook benefits from being outside the intra-German disputes and mutual accusations which colour much of the work being carried out in Germany itself, but she admits refreshingly to the ethical and political dilemmas which confront anybody tackling the maze of authority, compliance, collaboration and dissent which was the GDR.
In no sense is she an apologist for the regime, but she does understand its origins and she does venture to comprehend the difficulties facing individuals living their lives in this deeply politicised and surveillance-obsessed state. Fulbrook's investigations of levels of complicity, compliance and complaint lead her into home life and the workplace, and through her use of the archive of the trade union organisation, the FDGB, she is particularly strong on the workers, those in whose name the entire edifice of the GDR was established. She corrects the notion that the working population was entirely supine apart from in June 1953, and in conscious emulation of Ian Kershaw on the Third Reich teases out the varieties of disruption and dissent which were possible within certain bounds. She is also especially good on the churches, which had a degree of autonomy within the system, especially after 1978, but which were the locus not only of freer expression and a different ethic, but also of complicity with the workings of the state. The collapse of the state cannot help but interfere in the analysis of earlier phases, but Fulbrook does not see the task of the historian of the GDR as being to chart steady decline. The nature of the regime and the extent of its economic success both changed over time, and its eventual failure should not simply be read off from earlier conflicts. But Fulbrook appears indecisive about whether there was a period in the 1970s when the GDR could be said to have established itself among its citizenry and opened up possibilities for a more open society.
"Creation of a niche society?" she remarks, "There never was a 'golden age' in the GDR when the subordinate masses were genuinely content to leave politics to a well-meaning but all-powerful elite and to retreat into private niches", but later in "Challenges to domination" the tone is different: "There was, then, a brief 'golden age' for the GDR in the early 1970s; and it was in principle possible that reforms might be effected which would improve the quality of life in the here and now for East German citizens." Are these different sorts of "golden age"; one for the regime and one for the people?
Fulbrook's analysis of dissent and opposition, fragmented though they were, leads sensitively into an exploration of the final crisis of the GDR, but here as elsewhere she is stronger on those dominated than on those dominating. Part 1 of the book on the political leadership, the party and the Stasi is less illuminating than later sections on the churches, the intellectuals, and the general population.
It also has to be said that the economic dimensions of state policy receive less attention than they might in an anatomy of this state-planned dictatorship. That said, it is a fine book, bringing "GDR studies" properly into the realm of historical scholarship and laying the ground for much interesting work to come.
The most compelling interviews conducted by von Hallberg are, of course, those towards the end where he talks to the compromised Rainer Schedlinski and Sascha Anderson. Schedlinski was interviewed before news of his Stasi involvement became known, and he therefore does not explore his contention that because the Stasi was the only authority allowed to be critical, Stasi informants could in a way hope to change things for the better (see James Mellis in Lewis/McKenzie). Anderson receives double treatment, once before and once after the "surprising revelations". The second interview has that compelling awfulness which came across even more immediately in the televised interviews of Anderson by Bjorn Cederberg shown in 1994.
The remainder of von Hallberg's conversations have their fascinations, but his introduction, emphasising the "professionalisation" of GDR intellectuals and castigating them for their failure, if not betrayal, is grounded more in theory and assertion than in historical analysis. Zelikow and Rice make much of their access to otherwise confidential US state papers and they do have the benefit of having been directly involved in the diplomacy of 1989-90.
There are certainly some intriguing intimate portrayals of the main actors: Kohl deliberately keeping Hans-Dietrich Genscher in the dark; and Mikhail Gorbachev showing anger and frustration. It is also made clear how near to crisis the east and west Germans and the representatives of the four powers so often were. This is - in addition to Wolfgang Schauble's account of the intra- German treaty negotiations - a very full and useful account to have, but in the end it contains few surprises. General news coverage at the time appears to have been amazingly accurate.
Jonathan Osmond is professor of modern European history, University of Wales, Cardiff.
The New Germany: Social, Political and Cultural Challenges of Unification
Editor - Derek Lewis and John R. P. McKenzie
ISBN - 0 85989 494 0 and 442 8
Publisher - University of Exeter Press
Price - £30.00 and £12.95
Pages - 365