UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133c Homepage > 133c Book Essays Index page > Student essay

East Germany map

Problems of Unification and the East German Mindset

Book Essay on: Feiwel Kupferberg, The Rise and Fall of the German Democratic Republic
(New Brunswick: Transaction,
2002), 228pp.
UCSB: DD283.K86 2002

by Matthew Neal
June 5, 2007

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2007

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
at amazon

About Matthew Neal

I am a junior history major who has been studying the development of modern Europe and the Cold War. I have taken the History of Germany from 1900-1945 and the History of the Soviet Union, both of which are relevant to this topic. I am studying at the University of Padua next fall and hope to visit some parts of Germany. I chose this book because I am interested in East Germany and did not know much about the difficulties of Unification.

Abstract (back to top)

Feiwel Kupferberg’s The Rise and Fall of the German Democratic Republic is a sociological study of the East German mindset, and the problems that it caused during unification. He argues that the East Germans never had to come to terms with the Nazi past like the Westerners did, and this has made them not remedy the parts of their culture which are similar to those that were found in Nazism. This mentality is not as well suited for life in a liberal democracy, as it was the kind that was needed to survive in a totalitarian regime. Kupferberg sees The German Democratic Republic as contiguous with Nazi Germany, rather than a complete break from it, as the East Germans have claimed. He did not conduct his own interviews, but collected enough secondary literature and studies that he is able to make his points well and back them up with plenty of evidence.

Essay (back to top)


Feiwel Kupferberg, a Danish sociologist, examines the difficulties in the unification of East and West Germany. He comes to the conclusion that it is social and cultural problems that present the biggest obstacle in reunification. He particularly examines how the East and the West dealt with their guilt, both collective and individual, from the Nazi era, and how the way that they dealt with that is still affecting them greatly today. Kupferberg thus begins his book by explaining the different ways in which one can study culture. He briefly goes over the prevailing schools of explaining cultural phenomena, essentialist and constructivist, and very clearly explains that he is not a cultural relativist. Kupferberg is very clear about his view that there are moral absolute truths, and that Western liberal democracy is inherently more just than a totalitarian state. He explains what he is setting out to prove, namely that there are two different mentalities, one from the East, and one from the West, and essentially that the Western mentality is better suited for life in a modern liberal democratic state.

The first chapter after the introduction looks at what Kupferberg considers to be the East German mindset, and compares it to that of the attitudes in Weimar and later the Third Reich. He focuses on how little the East German mindset has changed since the end of the Second World War. He describes the unease felt by some West Germans at having “to share their state with a species of German long out of fashion in West Germany, a type with unmistakably similar traits to those Leo Szilard encountered in the 1930s” (Kupferberg, pg. 33). The reason for this, according to Kupferberg, is that East Germans never had to take a hard look at what in their culture led to Nazism. Since they were constantly told that as socialists they were victims of the Nazis, and further that fascism in general was only a problem in capitalism, they did not feel nearly as guilty about the Nazi Era as the West did. In the West they had to deal with this past, as in many cases they were forced to by occupying forces. This led to a complete reevaluation of what had led them to Nazism and a very active stance of trying to prevent something like that from ever happening again. While the East was committed to not allowing Nazism to take hold again, they certainly eagerly embraced many of the totalitarian elements that were present in the Nazi regime. Kupferberg argues that this is where the fundamental difference in the two mentalities lies; West Germany’s dealing having to deal with it led them to have a strong civic ethos in a liberal democracy, whereas in the East they did not go through any such process.

After he lays out his main argument, he goes through the various facets of the East German personality; although often he focuses on the intelligentsia and middle class of the society. This is organized more thematically than chronologically, as each chapter lays out a different trait that leads to difficulty in integrating into West German society. For example, he speaks of an East German tendency to be very introverted an inhibited in self expression. This is due to the extreme police state characteristic of East Germany and Nazi Germany. He argues that this trait was just carried over from one totalitarian state to the next, and it makes it very difficult to participate in a society that values free speech and individual participation (Kupferberg, 38). He has many points like this where he compares the similarities of totalitarian mindsets and then demonstrates how they make it very difficult to function in an open society. He wraps up his book with a conclusion that essentially quickly summarizes each of the chapters and then reiterates his main argument.

Main Essay:

The Rise and Fall of the German Democratic Republic is really not a very accurate title. This is not a history of the GDR; it is not even a history of the reunification. This is more of a sociological case study. This book focuses on the problems of the differences between the ways that the West Germans and the East Germans have dealt with their Nazi past. Kupferberg, writing more than ten years after the unification of Germany, examines why some East Germans are still having problems in dealing with their new society. He argues that the main divide between East and West Germans is not so much economical, as most Easterners have been able to prosper under the Federal Republic. The divide is of morals, and the core of this is how the two separate states dealt with the moral responsibility for the Third Reich. He goes on to argue that being able to live under the GDR took very similar traits to being able to live under the Nazis. Kupferberg makes his point very well, and supplies a great deal of evidence, ranging from interviews with different people who lived in East Germany, to essays written by high school students shortly after unification, to statistics from public opinion polls. He makes a very good case that East Germans have not had to go through the same questioning about the Nazi past that West Germans have due to the nature of the GDR, and this is what lies at the heart of the cultural differences between the two Germanies

A great deal of this book deals with morality. Kupferberg is a moral absolutist; he believes that certain types of behaviors are wrong morally. He explores the morality of buying into an immoral system, such as totalitarianism. He points out the similarities in the types of justifications used by people who are under these types of systems. He is particularly critical of the East German intelligentsia. He labels this as a moral strategy of being able to live with oneself in a totalitarian state. He argues that West Germany quickly realized after the war that this was not sufficient and adopted a different form of ethics that was based more on personal responsibility. The reason that this did not happen in the East was that they did not feel the same shame over Nazism since they were socialists; one of the main victims of the Nazis (Kupferberg, pg 43). An example of this is a very fascinating study he brings up about concentration camps that took place right after unification. There were two groups of students from teacher colleges; one from the East, one from the West; that were told to improvise a play about life in the concentration camps. The Westerners made a play about inmates who had been “selected for death merely because they happened to be Jews, their death had no meaning” (Kupferberg, pg. 63). The Easterners made a play about the camp inmates who were not demoralized, but rather busy organizing resistance. Kupferberg points out how this is interesting in how the East Germans did not really know the realities of the Nazi camps. The avoidance of dealing with the Nazi years was very deep rooted. This a very interesting analysis in how both sides dealt with the guilt. Kupferberg presents a very strong case that the West Germans dealt with it much better.

Kupferberg notes how a kind of amoral careerism came to dominate the thinking of many in the GDR. He argues that many in the GDR did not go against the system in order to better further their careers and give their children a better future. This kind of opportunism was also characteristic of Nazi Germany; where people would not speak up when their Jewish colleagues were forced out (Kupferberg pg. 11). These are the kinds of very interesting parallels that Kupferberg points out. He presents another interesting study that took place right after the reunification. A group of East German teachers watched the film Mephisto, about an actor in Berlin who cooperated with the Nazis in order to better his career. The West German instructor then asked the group to take a week to analyze whether or not he should apply for the same job after the war. The goal was to examine the reasons why someone would compromise their morality for personal gain. Within one day the teachers had finished, and had no problems with the man holding the same position (Kupferberg, pg. 65). They were easily able to rationalize the reasons and empathize with the actor, and since he had not directly done anything criminal, he was absolved of guilt. Kupferberg makes a very good point that the man had acted without morals, but that similar compromises were commonplace in the GDR.

Kupferberg points out that a group mentality was essential in both a Nazi totalitarian state and a Marxist totalitarian state. He argues that the heavily regimented and organized GDR made it so that East Germans are not very individualistic. This group pressure to accept the system of the GDR was instilled in them from an early age, and it makes it very difficult for them to deal with the Westerners. Kupferberg presents an interview from Der Spiegel from 1999 where an East German pupil said that “the mentalities of Ossies and Wessies are different. Among Ossies the collective feeling of togetherness is still present…among Wessies everyone is on his own” (Kupferberg, pg. 124). This collective mentality has led to a feeling of alienation amongst East Germans. In 1995, 72% of East Germans felt that they were second class citizens, and in 1998, it rose to 83% (Kupferberg, pg. 137). This is not due to economic factors, Kupferberg points out, as economic equality between the Westerners and the Easterners was close to being achieved. Kupferberg brings statistics to prove this claim, stating that by 1996 public employees in the East made ninety percent of what their Western counterparts made. Quality of life indicators were about equal three years after reunification, with the exception of private telephones (Kupferberg, pg. 137). Many have argued that it is economic inferiority that makes them feel that way, but Kupferberg pretty definitively shows that this is not a valid reason. This alienation of a substantial part of the population is certainly not good for a society, and Kupferberg makes the case that it has led to a rise in xenophobia and far-right extremism. He concludes that the combination of the group mentality with a feeling of alienation leads some to extremism, and thus it is more of a problem in the East. However, he discounts unemployment too readily, even though it is arguable that this is as big of a factor. The correlation between the two is interesting, but does come off as somewhat flimsy due to this dismissal.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is when Kupferberg points out the extreme similarities between the justifications that people used to excuse their participation in the repressive systems of the Third Reich and the GDR. This was compounded by the fact that they felt that Nazism was completely the West’s fault. Kupferberg raises the issue that “similar morally dubious behavior had once led to the murder of 6 million Jews” (Kupferberg, pg. 179). The West had been dealing with the moral issue of moral complicity for 50 years; the East had not, and apparently is dismissing it. Kupferberg underscores this with the case of 150,000 people who were informing on their neighbors for the Stasi (Kupferberg, pg. 177). He gives many cases of people who were informants being confronted and essentially being unapologetic for it. This is one of the places where he best points out the continuity between Nazi Germany and the GDR.

Kupferberg argues that the GDR was similar to, and in some ways continuous, to Nazi Germany. He also makes the case that the different cultural traits of the two Germanies make unification very difficult. These differences stem from the different ways of dealing with the Nazi past, and especially East Germany’s lack of dealing with it. Kupferberg makes his points well, and this is a very enjoyable read; although very dense. It is a very good book to read in order to better understand the compromises of living under totalitarianism, and how those compromises have made unification difficult.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 6/x/07)

Book Review:

  • Granville, Johanna. “Nullifying Nazism: Consequences of East Germans’ ‘Predicting the Past’” April, 2003, http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=28071055630412.
    Granville believes that Kupferberg did a very thorough job and made some very interesting points. She sees this book as valuable not only for historians, but also political scientists and sociologists.

Books and Articles:

  • Anderson, Jeffrey, German Unification and the Union of Europe: The Domestic Politics of Integration Policy. Cambridge University Press, June, 1999.
    This book goes more in depth about unification and the policies towards the European Union. Anderson argues that domestic issues caused by unification had an enormous effect on the policies that united Germany pursued with regards to the EU.
  • Joppke, Christian. East German Dissidents and the Revolution of 1989: Social Movement in a Leninist Regime. New York University Press. December, 1994
    This is another sociological work about the East Germans who did not buy into the system nearly as much as most of the people Kupferberg is talking about.
  • Berg, Stefan. “Germany’s Eastern Burden: The Price of a Failed Reunification.” Der Spiegel. September 5, 2005. http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,373639,00.html
    This is an article looking at the economic problems in the East and how things have progressed in the 16 years after reunification. This article goes very in depth about the economic problems that are still facing the East.


  • Wikipedia. “German Reunification.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_reunification
    This is a helpful overview of the events of reunification and the effects of it. It is a very brief look at these issues, and only helps to give a basic foundation of what happened during this time.
  • Wikipedia. “German Democratic Republic.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_Democratic_Republic
    Another good overview of the GDR itself. This goes more in depth than the previous, and has a good section on the culture of the GDR. This is helpful to read to get a basic understanding of East Germany in order to better see what Kupferberg is arguing.
  • German Culture. “The Reunification of Germany and Its Aftermath.” http://www.germanculture.com.ua/library/facts/bl_reunification_aftermath.htm
    This is a much more in depth article about the effects of the reunification. It goes over both economic and social issues. It also discusses some of the problems with the management of the reunification itself.

(back to top)

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 6/13/07; last updated:
back to top, to Hist 133c homepage, 133c Book Essays index page; Prof. Marcuse's Courses page; Professor's homepage