Is All Repression Created Equal?

Andrew Port

Wayne State University

Andrew I. Port is an associate professor of history at Wayne State University in Detroit. He previously taught as a Lecturer at Harvard and at Yale, and also worked as a Project Coordinator at the Office of Human Rights in Nuremberg, Germany. He received a Ph.D. in modern European history from Harvard, a B.A. in history from Yale, and a degree in political science from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris.

Port is currently the Editor of the journal Central European History and previously served as the Review Editor of the German Studies Review. He is the recipient of the 2013 DAAD Prize in German and European Studies.

Port’s research focuses on modern Germany and Europe, communism and state socialism, social protest, popular resistance under autocratic regimes, and comparative genocide. His first book, Conflict and Stability in the German Democratic Republic (Cambridge UP, 2007; pb 2008), appeared in German translation as Die Rätselhafte Stabilität der DDR (Ch. Links, 2010; Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 2011) and received a great deal of positive media attention in Germany. The author of numerous articles, he is also the co-editor with Mary Fulbrook (University College London) of Becoming East German: Socialist Structures and Sensibilities after Hitler (Berghahn, 2013).

His current project, “What Germans Talk About When They Talk About Genocide,” looks at German reactions to genocide in other parts of the world since 1945, with a special focus on Cambodia, Rwanda, and the Balkans. Andrew Port grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

In light of recent and ongoing revelations of mass surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency, Germany has reflected on its past history with state surveillance. Commenting on whether the common comparisons Germans have drawn between the present scandal and their history with surveillance, this essay is an excerpt, written by Andrew I. Port, from his book, Becoming East German: Structures and Sensibilities after Hitler, co-authored with Mary Fulbrook.

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Let us pose a rhetorical question that is sure to raise some hackles: was the GDR truly more repressive than the Federal Republic—or other Western states, for that matter?

To many, the question will seem absurd, if not downright offensive. But it is not difficult to draw up a lengthy list of politically repressive measures that Western states have employed against their own citizens since 1945—from HUAC and COINTEL in the United States, to the 1972 Anti-Radical Decree in the Federal Republic, to the more recent anti-terrorist laws. It will be objected that the comparison is unfair because there are “obvious differences.” Such repression was much more widespread, violent, and arbitrary east of the Elbe, where the possibilities for redress and reform were also much less limited.

The last two points are essential ones, and the difference may be one of degree, in the end. After all, it was not the Federal Republic that saw itself forced to build a concrete wall to keep its citizens from fleeing. But that is little solace to those in the West who have themselves suffered from oppression. Along Foucauldian lines, one might even counter that repression in the West was even more invidious for being more subtle and refined. But one does not have to appeal to Michel Foucault and the disciplining effect of discourse to get at the invidious nature of repression on both sides of the Elbe, as those who were members of “out-groups” knew and experienced all too well.

One thinks of “asocials” and other social outcasts in the GDR who suffered repression for political, religious, cultural, and other reasons. The West had pariahs of its own, of course. Surveying the past century, one thinks, for instance, of the Jim Crow laws and other forms of racial discrimination in the United States, as well as the treatment there of communists, homosexuals, Jews, and other minorities. It is not surprising that some American blacks remarked at the time that the Nuremberg racial laws of 1935 sounded “suspiciously like Miami.” It is also worth recalling in this context the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which began a year before Hitler came to power and lasted until the year the Munich Olympics were held forty years later. This was a shameful episode in US history—but one should not collapse all distinctions: its exposure did lead to the creation of the federal Office for Human Research Protections.

The GDR does not appear to have been similarly “adaptive,” in light of its ultimate demise. Yet, one wonders whether it might at least have had the potential to be. Some scholars have (longingly) interpreted the Ulbricht reform era as a “missed opportunity” to carry out salutary modifications that might have salvaged the socialist project. But in the end, the GDR proved stubbornly resistant to fundamental reform because it did not have the appropriate channels or possibilities for unfettered communication and public debate—or, for that matter, any willingness on the part of its leadership to relinquish even partial control. Sigrid Meuschel has argued that this is why the postwar socialist state could in the last resort only end in revolution and dissolution.

There are good reasons for posing such questions and making such observations … Pointing to parallels such as the existence of denunciatory acts, police brutality, and a socio-economic underclass, as well as the disciplining power of moral strictures under both systems, does have heuristic value. It can help us frame important questions … Why did Western states enjoy so much more popular legitimacy and support than those in the East? Why, in other words, were the GDR and the other states in the Soviet bloc unable to win the “hearts and minds” of the masses? And why was the capitalist West able to do so?

As Eric Hobsbawm muses, “Just how and why capitalism after the Second World War found itself, to everyone’s surprise including its own, surging forward into the unprecedented and possibly anomalous Golden Age of 1945-73, is perhaps the major question which faces historians of the twentieth century.”

It is worth recalling that most East Germans had had no, very little, or a decidedly poor experience with and memory of democracy. After all, formal democratic institutions had only existed on what would become East German territory for slightly more than a decade in the 1920s—and they had not been an unmitigated success, to say the least. Along similar lines, the Great Depression had not provided incontrovertible evidence of capitalism’s superiority as an economic system. How so many East Germans and their neighbors in eastern Europe came to be so enamored of democracy and the free market is thus an intriguing question.

An equally intriguing question is why this changes after 1945, i.e., why the West came to be seen as “superior” in normative as well as functionalist terms—even on the part of those who benefited least, and suffered most, under prevailing conditions of socioeconomic inequality and, in some countries, institutionalized racism and sexism. One possible reason is that it proved much better able to deliver both necessary and desired material goods—especially to those who “mattered” most in shaping public opinion and the “discourse” of civil society. There are other possible reasons. Historical prejudices against the “Russians” and the Soviet Union—fueled by Nazi propaganda—may have doomed the socialist project from the very start in eastern Europe and the GDR, tarnished precisely for being imposed from without. It could also be that the West simply conveyed a more effective message.

In the United States, even the most downtrodden have learned that they live in “the greatest country in the world”—a place where everyone has “equal opportunity” in a land of “unlimited opportunities.” They are aware of injustices, of course, but imbibe from a young age the hegemonic idea (pace Max Weber) that a failure to “succeed” is somehow a personal failing. This idea becomes hardwired and is perhaps the most important factor underlying domestic peace and stability. Was the GDR – to put it crudely – a “worse” place than the United States? One wonders how an African American youth from Detroit, where infant mortality, crime, and poverty rates rival those of many developing countries, might answer this question. But in the end, he or she would most likely not exchange “freedom” and the possibility of “making it big one day” for more modest material “security.” It could be that totalitarian systems “go against the grain of human nature”—or because some forms of propaganda have been more effective than others. It is difficult to demonstrate the validity of either proposition. But if it is indeed the latter, why might that be the case? An answer to that question sheds light on subjectivities, values, beliefs, and mentalities – the subjects of this volume. And an understanding of those intangibles can help us better understand, in turn, why one system proved more tenacious and more resilient than the other.


The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.