Franz von Nesselrode,
Germany's Other Half
(London, New York: Abelard-Schuman 1963)
207 pages. UCSB Main Library DD261 .N4
Book review by Sean deGroot
for Prof. Marcuse's upper division lecture course Germany since 1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2004
About the Author
Meet the Real DDR, 1945-1961
The Soviet Zone, the Eastern bloc, and the lesser Germany are names that were commonly associated with East Germany. These names along with most familiar research done on the state of the German Democratic Republic in its early years all point to the same general conclusion, East Germany was a Soviet wasteland where politics were backwards and oppressive, the economy was in utter dismay, and its people on the brink of starvation. Although it is no secret that the DDR did indeed suffer mightily after the end of World War II, to cast an all enveloping dark cloud over the nation would be an overstatement. Part of the reason much of East German history is so tainted with horror stories is the source of the research itself. The West turned the DDR in a poster child for everything that was wrong in Soviet politics and communist theory. Much of the information or misinformation from the early years, roughly 1949-1961, about East Germany was simply propagandist ploys with no basis in reality. It did suffer its own fair share of troubles, most notably with the events of June 1953, but this event is often transformed by news reports from a moderately unpleasant situation to a catastrophe. East Germany suffered no more than expected damage from the loss of World War II, and although it lagged behind its Western neighbor, the economic, political, and social revival that took place in its early years was an astonishing and surprising development that is often concealed by Western tactics. To call the DDR a paradise or the place to be in the 1950s would not be the truth. Likewise, to believe reports the reports from the Western world at the time, describing the East as a starving, struggling, and backwards nation, would not be correct. The truth lies somewhere in between.
The Western world’s attack on the legitimate country and regime of the DDR took little time to get underway. From the day East Germany was created by the Soviet Government, the West attempted to discredit everything East Germany was. The most blatant of these attempts was the infamous Hallstein Doctrine. Basically formed to squeeze the DDR in an economic stranglehold, this doctrine declared, "The intention of the Bonn Government to break off diplomatic relations with any country (other than the USSR) that would establish such relations with the DDR" (Nesselrode 16). This actually proved quite effective in its unfair and unreasonable words, but it had more to do with the fact that many nations did not want to lose the beneficial economic aspects that went with West Germany rather than any real moral or political qualms with the policies of the DDR. The economic root behind this doctrine is clearly visible with the exception of the USSR to the case, undoubtedly because of its status as a global economic power. However, as time passed countries began to ignore this decree, particularly in 1957 when Yugoslavia extended full diplomatic recognition to the DDR. Soon many other nations, both communist and non-communist, began to extend certain policies and rights to the DDR that recognized its nationhood. They included: Finland, Yemen, Argentina, Colombia, Laos, India, Ghana, and Uruguay (Nesselrode 17). The Hallstein Doctrine began to fail after years of success, and it became clear that economic threats were no longer valid grounds for slowing the forward progress of a young and legitimate nation.
The struggles of the East German industrial and other economic sectors after the end of World War II were severe but not completely unexpected and therefore cannot be seen solely as the result of Soviet brutality. The Soviets lost up to 25 million citizens in the war, many of its own industrial plants and factories had been destroyed, and countless other heavy losses were inflicted by the German invasion in 1941. Just the number of dead is something that none of the Western powers had to deal with and they could not understand. The Soviets desperately needed to rebuild a broken and war-torn nation, and East Germany was a tool they could use. This policy of the Soviets’ extraction of all industrial goods is what ultimately started the DDR off on the wrong foot, and thus cast it forever behind West Germany. Only the numbers reflect what an effect reparations and dismantling had on the DDR’s economy.
How could a nation economically prosper as its neighbors did if it was required to pay back a superpower nation to this extent? Some economic hardship was bound to occur, and occur it did. However, as stated earlier, this cannot be seen as unexpected or unfair to the DDR. The Soviets had no Marshall Plan of their own and had to use East German industry to rebuild their nation. Therefore, the economic hardships endured by the East were to be expected and not a product of the USSR’s cruelty, as the West led people to believe.
The people of the DDR, in the first ten to fifteen years, were commonly thought of as underprivileged, underfed, and prisoners of their own borders. Although they did suffer through a difficult start-up period, this image of the East was once again a product of unsubstantiated rumors and propaganda from the West. An example of this was a headline from the Bild-Zeitung, West Germany’s largest newspaper, which read, "Die Zone Hungert" (The Soviet Zone is starving) (Nesselrode 59). However this could not be more untrue of the East, especially in the year in which it was printed, 1961. Journalist Franz von Nesselrode, who was one of the few journalists who actually did firsthand research in the DDR, described a much different situation. He stated, "The most salient impression of all I gathered during my stay in East Germany was that the people over there were not only well-nourished, but that they were, indeed, grossly overfed" (Nesselrode 59). Although his account could have been based on his own personal biases, numbers and charts are more objective. The table below reflects the East’s consumption of basic foodstuffs in comparison to prewar consumption in 1936.
This table reflects the steady increase, in most cases, of foodstuffs returning to their prewar standards. Although some categories had not reached or surpassed those standards, the nation surely was not in a state of starvation. This upward trend was mirrored in various other sectors including workers’ wages, fixed investments, consumer consumption, and international trade. (Philips 89) The East was progressing, albeit at a slower rate than the West, but surely it was not in the desperate situation it was described to be in the 1950s & 1960s.
The workers’ uprising of June 1953 was an international situation that seemed to confirm all the malicious reports piling out from the West about the DDR. East German workers, upset over a 10 percent increase in work norms, took to the streets and in a display of force, causing widespread rioting and property losses. The Soviet response was immediate and the uprising was quickly put down. Although it would be easy to draw broad conclusions from the events of 1953 and superimpose them over the entire history of the DDR, this would be unfair. There are several factors about the uprising that the West either ignored or did not recognize. First, shortly after the uprising, reports came out that, "attributed the June events to Western agents and fascist provocateurs who exploited legitimate worker dissatisfaction in an effort to overthrow the East German government" (Philips 150). Second, only five percent of the working class had taken part in the strikes, underlining the lack of popular support for the anti-state action (Philips 150). Google marcuse 133c to find where this has been published on the web. Third, was the reason for the workers discontent; had a call for increased work norms come at another time, say when there had not been shortages in certain foods and consumer products, there could very well been no rebellion at all. Lastly was a statement by Max Fechner, East Germany’s Minister of Justice, in the Neues Deutschland. He stated that "the right to strike was guaranteed by the constitution and, therefore, the activities of 17 June were not punishable" (Philips 152). Whether protesters actually were punished is another question, but the DDR made attempts to recognize rights set up by their constitution. This variety of factors point to a very different conclusion than the West would have the rest of the world believe about this event.
Another condition that seemed to confirm Western reports of the DDR was the steady migration from East to West both before and after the construction of the Berlin Wall. It is indeed true that approximately 2.5 million people fled from the East to the West between 1945 & 1961. However, the flow of traffic in the opposite direction is often overlooked. Between nearly the same years (1945-1962) official DDR records account for some 700,000 West Germans who fled eastward (Nesselrode 60). Obviously the flow East to West was much greater, but attention must be given to the fact that a substantial number of Westerners chose a supposedly inhospitable DDR for their home. Had the number been significantly lower, the migration could be assumed to have been caused by some outstanding factor such as the reunification of family or friends but a number as high as 700,000 indicated something quite different about East Germany.
Conditions in the DDR, when they were at their best, may still have left much to be desired for many of those who chose to stay there. A nation created out of a clash of political ideologies, on the heels of a devastating war, was bound to suffer some setbacks in the early years of its existence. Combine those setbacks and the manner in which their neighbor rapidly recovered,\ and it would be easy to see why so many accepted the West’s ideas of East Germany as this trapped and deteriorating nation under the control of an oppressive Soviet government. The lack of first hand accounts of the actual state of the DDR along with propagandist techniques in play point to conditions that favor a serious knowledge gap. There is no point in attempting to argue that somehow the East was superior to the West in the years dating from 1949 to 1961. However, there is a point in realizing the advancements and steps forward the DDR was making in its troublesome early years and seeing the nation for what it truly was, a work in progress.
Franz von Nesselrode, Germany's Other Half (London, New York:
Abelard-Schuman 1963), 207 pages. UCSB Main Library DD261 .N4
Ann L. Phillips, Soviet Policy toward East Germany Reconsidered: The
Postwar Decade (New York, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986),
262 pages. UCSB Main Library DD284.5.S65 P55 1986
J.P. Nettl, The Eastern Zone and Soviet Policy in Germany, 1945-50
(London, New York, Oxford University Press, 1951), 324 pages. UCSB Main
Library DD257.4 .N4
William Glenn Grey, Germany's Cold War: The Global Campaign to Isolate
East Germany, 1949-1969 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Press, 2003), 351 pages. UCSB Main Library DD259.5