The German Democratic Republic: a total society?

Next, we shall consider what happens when total institutions seek to impose total con- trol on a society. While such control is difficult to achieve organizationally it is almost impossible societally, where subtle forms of control have to be involved in the fabrica- tion of total – not just organizational – identities by the imposition of styles of life deeply linked with the management of desires by consumption, mass media, success as spectacle, etc. We have one example of such an attempt at generalizing a total institu- tion to a total society in the country that used to be known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The GDR was more often referred to as East Germany to signify the socialist bloc state that was set up in the eastern part of Germany after the Second World War. At the core of this state was the secret police organization known as the Stasi. The control of society as a whole is based on the design and control of spaces and mobility (Deleuze 1992), on how openness and closedness is defined, rather than on a disciplinary society and the total institution regime. Is a society possible that is the extreme expression of a total institution, that is, one in which, while individuals are imprisoned, they can move freely inside the limits established in this new configura- tion of spaces? Until we have more knowledge of North Korea than we do at present, the GDR represents the best-documented case study available.

East Germany was the front line in the Cold War between Soviet communism and Western capitalism. It was taken by the Soviet Red Army, advancing on Berlin from the east in the closing stages of the Second World War, and assigned to the Soviet sphere of influence at the Yalta Peace Conference of February 1945. It was a frontier society whose boundary was defined to its west by the Berlin Wall, erected on August 13, 1961, to maintain order at its border by locking the people in and denying the freedom to move out, and shooting or imprisoning people if they were caught trying to escape. Across the Wall was West Berlin, symptomatic of a land of market opportunities largely denied in the East.

While the GDR, by some accounts of its ex-citizens, wasn’t too bad a place – it didn’t assassinate too many people – the whole society was premised on being a gulag. One could not easily get in and get out of the GDR, unless the regime chose to sell one into exile and profit from one’s export to the West, which was a trade not engaged in to the same extent by any of the other Eastern bloc countries. Of course, people applying often had to face severe repercussion and persecution (sometimes even jail) and sometimes these repercussions were even extended to their relatives. But that did not stop (tens of) thousands from applying and from eventually emigrating to the West and earning the GDR hard currency by doing so. Thus, the GDR was never a closed or total society although it was difficult to escape from, physically. The GDR authorities sought to stop people from inside getting out, which they did by trying to block every avenue of escape, never entirely successfully.

There were also many other interior escape attempts (Cohen and Taylor 1976) such as TVs tuned to the Western channels, the Red Flag not flying on the appropriate occasions, the jokes against the regime, and the refusal to seize the opportunities it afforded its subjects. Everyday knowledge of the world outside the Wall was beamed across the border from West German TV stations. However, such information was the most dangerous commodity because it gave knowledge of alternatives to the offi- cial story provided for the people of East Germany, represented by a set of beliefs that were insistently parroted, such that they became an ideology held by the elites as an act of faith. These escape attempts were even more dangerous because they involved not just bodies getting away but minds that roamed free outside the limits imposed by the official ideology. Dangerous escape attempts needed to be nipped in the bud; a security organization, the Stasi, was established to defeat resistance. At least every seventieth person ended up as a Stasi operative, according to official data published by the German government (Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung) and confirmed by associations of Stasi victims. However, when the number of people who were enrolled as informants – neighborhood and workplace spies – is included, then, according to Funder’s (2002) data, as many as one in three people were involved. What they did was to produce a simulacrum of total control. Masses of information was collected and filed, much of it as useless as the files that J. Edgar Hoover had the FBI keep at the same time in the US but, in the same way, having the potential for leverage, inducement and influence in a paranoid society:

The Stasi was the internal army by which the government kept control. Its job was to know everything about everyone, using any means it chose. It knew who your visitors were, it knew whom you telephoned, and it knew if your wife slept around. It was a bureaucracy metastasized through East German society: overt or covert, there was someone reporting to the Stasi on their fellows and friends in every school, every fac- tory, every apartment block, every pub. Obsessed with detail, the Stasi entirely failed to predict the end of Communism, and with it the end of the country. In its forty years [it] generated the equivalent of all records in German history since the Middle Ages. Laid out upright and end-to-end the files the Stasi kept on their countrymen and women would form a line 180 kilometers long …

Information ran in a closed circuit between the government and its press outlets. As the government controlled the newspapers, magazines and television, training as a jour- nalist was effectively training as a government spokesperson. Access to books was restricted. Censorship was a constant pressure on writers, and a given for readers, who learned to read between the lines. The only mass medium the government couldn’t con- trol was the signal from western television stations, but it tried: until the early 1970s the Stasi used to monitor the angle of the people’s antennae hanging out of their apart- ments, punishing them if they were turned to the west. (2002: 4, 17)

The main role of the Stasi was to protect the German Democratic Republic from its citizens through producing a huge surfeit of information on them for its controllers. In fact, the state defined the republic as the Communist Party; effectively, the Stasi was there to protect the party from the people. Thus, a state that was in principle the supreme power, because it owned and controlled the means of production in the society, was unable to exercise the power it held theoretically because it was not a state based on legitimacy. Its control was constantly weakened by the necessity to exercise power almost continuously, in so many small ways, that it had nothing behind it and could not build power as a free, creative and empowering positivity. Nothing much that was positive could survive in a civil society suffused in nega- tivity, articulated by a sovereign power able to do whatever it thought necessary to maintain its members in fear. It arrested, imprisoned, and interrogated anyone it chose. It inspected all mail in secret rooms above post offices (copying letters and stealing any valuables), and intercepted, daily, tens of thousands of phone calls. It bugged hotel rooms and spied on diplomats. It ran its own universities, hospitals, elite sports centers, and terrorist training programs (2002: 59). The GDR was a totalitarian society, anything but the ideal speech community that another German, Habermas (1971), was theorizing across the border. The Stasi was a per- verse, brutal, and criminal instrument of oppression.

While the Wall was one of the most disgusting buildings in German history it pales into insignificance in the face of the inhumanity that characterized the gas chambers of Auschwitz; moreover, the intimidation spread by the Stasi did not match that of the Gestapo’s terror. To Jews, gypsies, or mentally ill people in Nazi Germany assimilation, consent or submission was not an option to evade extermi- nation; in the GDR, being a good socialist could ensure a measure of freedom in a society that sought for a total control that was never entirely achievable. As Arendt (1970) observed, effective terror is enhanced by extensive social atomization. The best way to maintain and intensify such terror is through a network of informers. They are a perfect Panopticon: as one never knows who is in the pay of the police, potentially every person one comes into contact with might be – so one must always be on guard.

Dense networks of bureaucrats characterized the GDR’s state-approved and state-dominated civil society organizations, which thrived on the premise that member- ship has its privileges, especially for the authorities. The guardians of order in the GDR enjoyed extraordinary privileges, denied the ordinary citizenry, for their pains in its service. It was a society built on an obsession with order. It was also a house of cards, built on the denial of the citizens’ Nazi history. Fighting this history was its initial justification; however, the justification rapidly shifted to fighting the West as decadent capitalism. In turn, this was translated into fighting any of its citizens who showed a fascination for the freedoms that the West offered, who refused the state’s dictatorship over their needs, or who failed to be seduced by the lure of the official ideology. The house of cards only survived because it was the front line for the Soviet bloc, and the Red Army could intervene at any time it chose to restore its version of order, as it had in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. However, when glasnost and perestroika came into Soviet fashion with Gorbachev after 1985, the GDR was done for as the Red Army could no longer be relied on. The Soviet Union was changing and the GDR was failing to change with it.

Glasnost spread to the GDR, initially to Leipzig, where in 1989 the Nikolaikirche became a focal point for protest against the regime. In August the Hungarians cut the barbed wire at their border and the people poured across. They demanded access across the wall to the West as well, and the border guards allowed it but were instructed to survey the identity papers of those returning so that they could be dealt with later. Coming back into the GDR, people started to destroy their identity papers en masse in revolt against the regime. The demonstrations got larger and larger and the regime became less able to control them. They stopped trying and fled to their offices. The government decided to relax border controls and the rest was history, with people dancing on the wall and then tearing it down, followed by the reintegration of Germany, after the only successful revolution in German history. Nonetheless, while it lasted good bureaucrats protected the GDR and left plenty of evidence of that fact. The Stasi’s overconcern with formalization left kilometers of data, which name both victims and perpetrators, and which document the crimes committed – something that has, since the demise of the GDR, eventually served the cause of the victims in their claim for legal action and compensation.32

The Stasi sought to exercise a dictatorship over needs on behalf of the ruling elite of the party in the GDR, but failed. The most forceful critique of East European state socialism (Fehér et al.’s 1983 Dictatorship over needs) was that the state in com- munist societies dominated civil society in the name of civil society’s freedom. Such societies denied civil society any autonomy from the party-dominated state in the formation of opinions and needs. In the absence of markets, the state could exercise dictatorship over the needs of the people, such that consumers could not obtain freely what they wanted, unless they capitulated and joined the party’s priv- ileged ranks. In many ways it was this control over needs as much as the control of surveillance that characterized power relations in the GDR. Control of individuals by control of their needs is the first step in control, before surveillance with coop- tation/repression, before fabrication of identities or self-surveillance as the (never full) realization of control.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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