30 May 2011

Monday Book Review

I read Crumbling Walls and Tarnished Ideals: An Ethnography of East Germany Before and After Unification by Hans Baer during my research in 2009.  I was under the false impression that the book was about East Germany in general, though given the title, it was a reasonable expectation.  It was after reading the first few chapters that I realized why academics give very dry and specific titles to their books and articles: you want to know exactly what you're reading about without heavy browsing.  I wanted a more general treatise on East Germany and ended up with a book largely about the SED (the political party of East Germany during Comunism) and education system in East Germany.*

Do not mistake this as a bad review because I did not get what I expected.  The surprise (in the long run) was nice because it gave me unusual insight into something I hadn't even thought to look into.  At the time of my thesis, I was rather annoyed I spent an amount of money on something that didn't directly help my research.  I felt rather betrayed by the title.  Conversely, it was the unrelated nature of the book that gave me the knowledge to back up some of my research claims; the similarities of the education system's internal politics to the general politics of SED membership (not to be confused with the politics of the SED).  More than anything else, I remembered learning that SED membership was not about feeling in tune with their politics, but removing the threat of insubordination.  The book delves into the lives of many educators in the years surrounding 1990 and follows them throughout the changes in the DDR, particularly as it entered a new era with the BRD.

In the education system, most intellectuals thought that the communist system as it existed was a stepping stone to a more egalitarian system.  Naturally, the SED did not see it that way, but these professors were SED members to influence change from inside the organization.  Other professors joined the SED simply to keep their jobs.  Socialists knew the importance of education in continuing communism, so non-SED educators were considered a threat.  However, during the Wende, their party membership was considered a threat to the new education system and many were removed from their posts as a result.  This time period was similar to denazification because it sought to remove proponents of a fallen system from their positions of power and ostensibly it removed all socialist threats in the new capitalist, democratic Germany.  Although Communism did not allow a difference of opinion, many teachers complained that even in the Wende, their opinions were not allowed to be expressed.  Communist sympathies or leanings were considered liabilities and could not be openly expressed, which did not make the Wende seem like such a radical change.  It merely made black white without accepting the gray area.

This reflected the experience of farmers in rural areas, who were also recognized as vital to Communism's survival.  A lack of SED membership was a red flag for insubordination and was treated very seriously by the government.  During (and after) the Wende, party membership was considered a shameful piece of information.  Luckily, they did not face the same discrimination because BRD did not consider them in a position of power, which I am sure the farmers missed in a way.  Though the book had nothing to do with my research in the rural shadows of Berlin, it did draw useful comparisons to understand the complicated matter of party membership. There was general information on East Germany during the Wende in this book, but it was not to the extent I had expected.  Konrad Jarausch's Rush To German Unity would be a far better recommendation for someone who wants to understand the Wende and the wide-reaching effects of that change.  I do recommend Baer's book for those who wish to know more about the changes in the education system or want to draw comparisons to other changes during that same period.  I just hope that this book review gives you the proper expectations for the book.

*Please note that I use German abbreviations and proper nouns throughout the book review.

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