In This Review
Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR, 1949-1989

Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Inside the GDR, 1949-1989

By Mary Fulbrook

Oxford University Press, 1995, 307 pp.

Fulbrook, a historian of modern Germany at University College in London, attacks the easy postmortem assessments of East Germany’s regime. There are those who waved the country into history as an artificial creature of Soviet power, propped up by tyranny and obviously doomed once the puppeteer withdrew, and those who lionized a long-oppressed people and credited them with, once given half a chance, rising up and casting off their chains. The first view, Fulbrook argues, fails to explain the system’s stability over nearly four decades, which few other East European regimes exhibited; nor does it do justice to the regime’s own best judgment, preserved in freshly opened archives. The second view obscures the complex relationship between state and society, in which the great majority of East Germans, after the initial years, accepted the reality and even legitimacy of the new system and, while sullen over its daily hypocrisy and shortcomings, hardly chafed to overthrow it. However, Fulbrook argues, the alternative notion -- that popular conformity in the GDR reflected some inherent German tendency to respect and yield to authority -- has no more merit. For beneath the society’s basic stability lurked a readiness to prod and test the boundaries of the state.

What destroyed the GDR, she contends, was reform -- not a German Gorbachev above, but opposition groups below that sought to exploit the regime’s weakening will in order to seek liberalization of the system. Though measured and subtle, the analysis fails to explain why the East German voter, when presented with the opportunity, swept away not only the regime but also its well-meaning liberal reformers.