How the GDR targeted academics

October 1, 1999

Christopher Andrew's supposition that the Stasi discussed schemes "to encourage naive modern languages departments in British universities to send students to study German in East German universities" ("Degrees of treachery", THES, September 24) needs to be set against the background of the German Democratic Republic's policy of Auslandsinformation. From the mid-1950s onwards, the GDR targeted different groups in Britain to raise awareness of the GDR. Initially, the bulk of this effort was undertaken to build support for arguments in favour of the recognition of the GDR. Following the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1973, similar tactics were employed but for different ends. This is particularly true of the 1980s, when the GDR sought to capitalise on the increase in British interest in the "other" German state in the wake of heightened activity on the part of CND and the broader peace movement to profile itself as a protagonist for detente and to mobilise sympathy and support for its "peace-loving" aspirations.

Much of this propagandising work was undertaken by the official friendship society, the Freundschaftsgesellschaft DDR-Gro'britannien. Their files show the priority attached to the need to combat ignorance of the GDR in Britain and to seize every opportunity for raising awareness of the existence and achievements of the GDR. In May 1988 the society drew up a detailed plan for intensifying existing contacts with British universities. The rationale for this was based on the role of academics as "multipliers", the range of disciplines in which GDR studies then figured, including German, European studies, Communist and peace studies, and what the plan described as the "well-known tendency of academics to form independent judgements".

The plan goes on to name a number of British academics, several of whom are highly regarded as experts on aspects of the GDR, and by no means naive, then or now, as to the nature of the regime. The list includes Gwyn Edwards, then at Loughborough and one of two names on the list described as members of the Communist Party, and Vic Allen's wife, Sheila, described as dean of social sciences at the University of Bradford, as well as Robin Pearson, mistakenly listed as John. As it happens, Karen MacPherson of Edinburgh University does not figure on the list.

The society planned to increase its provision of information about the GDR to these academics and to issue official invitations to some to visit the GDR for its 40th anniversary the following year. The plan also makes suggestions for a greater GDR involvement in academic conferences related to the GDR in Britain and closer contact with the academic journal GDR Monitor, now renamed German Monitor. Given what we now know about the readiness of some of these British academics to cooperate with the Stasi, it is ironic that the plan also comments on the need for other GDR bodies to work with the society in this endeavour: "We can't do everything on our own."

It is unthinkable that the Stasi was unaware of these and similar plans, though it is possible that the society had little idea of the full range of Stasi activities related to Britain.

Be that as it may, and without excusing the naivety of some modern languages departments in failing to anticipate the ways in which their students were likely to be targeted by the Stasi, few people in Britain could possibly have imagined the scale, the persistence and the thoroughness of GDR efforts to exploit opportunities to influence and infiltrate wherever it perceived an advantage. Now we do know, naivety is no excuse for lecturers or students to allow themselves to be caught up in anything similar again.

Marianne Howarth. Head of the department of modern languages, Nottingham Trent University

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