More than a Footnote? The Place of the GDR in Modern History

Nov 12, 2009

23rd Annual Lecture at the GHI | Speaker: Donna Harsch (Carnegie Mellon University), Commentator: Thomas Lindenberger (Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for European History and Public Spheres, Vienna)

The German Historical Institute's 23rd Annual Lecture took place on the evening of November 12, 2009, with Professor Donna Harsch of Carnegie Mellon University speaking on the historical significance of the GDR in a presentation entitled "Footnote or Footprint? The German Democratic Republic in Modern History." Professor Thomas Lindenberger of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for European History and Public Spheres in Vienna provided the comment.

Donna Harsch addressed the GDR's place in history. Her lecture was inspired by the claim of the great historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler that the GDR "was a footnote in world history." Wehler based this conclusion on a coincidence of facts about the GDR: its small size, utter failure, lack of autonomy, and dictatorial control over individuals and society. This set of facts, according to Harsch, does not weigh decisively against historical significance. The GDR, she suggested, left a "footprint" in the dual sense of making an "impression" and leaving a representative "archeological" record. It did so, in part, due to structural elements of its history that will continue to evoke interest and interpretation. She pointed to its status, in tandem with West Germany, as a "controlled experiment" in comparative development. Its history, she added, was a dynamic one, characterized by change in society and culture, and by the rise and fall of SED hubris and power. Its society, too, is of historical interest, she posited, given its unpredictable interactions with a state that had less control over social developments than it claimed. Such structural elements take on significance in conjunction with evidence that the GDR played a role in important events or processes. The GDR was significant, she argued, to three major stories of twentieth-century history: Germany, Communism, and women's wage labor. Its history cannot be separated from the history of Germany since 1918. Its place in European Communism is of illustrative and comparative value. And the mass entry of married East German women into employment was part of a postwar social transformation whose private and public reverberations the GDR case can help illuminate.

In his comment, Thomas Lindenberger agreed with Harsch's views on the significance of the GDR for German, communist, and gender history and its outstanding suitability as a test case for the historical study of modern societies. Besides noting that one must see Wehler's statement that the GDR was a "footnote" in light of his Wehler's footnotes - which are quite substantial - Lindenberger highlighted Wehler's political intent and argued that one must answer him on political ground, as well. In this light, one must consider West German political culture in the postwar period, and particularly its treatment of the GDR, as an ephemeral phenomenon. Wehler's "footnoting" of the GDR, then, can be seen as denying it enough historical weight to have made a difference to the FRG, just as West German culture attempted to do throughout most of the GDR's existence. But for Lindenberger, the most important thing to remember about the GDR, which earns it a place in world history, is the peaceful democratic revolution that ended it. This revolution should be viewed within the wider, world historical context as part of a larger project of revolutionary changes uniting the European continent.

The full text of Donna Harsch's lecture and Thomas Lindenberger's comment will be published in the Bulletin of the GHI in Spring 2010.