Dissolution: The Crisis of Communism and the End of East Germany

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Dissolution: The Crisis of Communism and the End of East Germany

By Charles S. Maier
Princeton University Press, 1997
376 pp. $29.95
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It is a great pleasure to read an author at the height of his powers. In dealing with the end of the East German regime and state, Maier has covered an enormous amount of ground. Not only does he provide a brilliant analysis of a political system that "corrupted the public sphere through privilege" and "the private sphere through secrecy" (that is, the omnipresent Stasi), he also describes the East German economic collapse, which began in the 1970s and accelerated in the 1980s. "The system," he notes, "depended on more muscle and more people to bend more metal -- not on ingenious breakthroughs." And he covers the political collapse of 1989 and the main actors of the final drama, the complex diplomacy of German reunification in which so many things could have gone wrong but didn't -- thanks to Helmut Kohl's sense of purpose, American support for him, and Gorbachev's financial worries that pushed him toward accommodation with Bonn. The troubles of deindustrialization, the dilemmas of political justice, and the purges of higher education are analyzed here with subtlety and compassion in a chapter aptly called "Anschluss and Melancholy."

One of this book's chief virtues is the author's style: Maier has a knack for the right formulation ("the market revealed its pathology as well as its promises"). Moreover, he makes very frequent use of the comparative method: when he looks at the effects of the economic crises of the 1970s on the West as well as the East, when he examines different patterns of revolution, and when he shows the similarities and the considerable differences between the Nazi and the communist regimes. Maier is a historian who thinks like a political sociologist. This is particularly evident in his discussion of political legitimacy and of the concept, and kinds, of civil society. His conclusion about the renewed emphasis on the German nation and on German identity is as nuanced and thought-provoking as the rest of this exemplary book.