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

Interpreting the History of the GDR

Book Essay on: Corey Ross, The East German Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives in the Interpretation of the GDR
(London: Arnold, 2002), 221 pages.
UCSB: DD283.R67 2002.

by Jessica Wong
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
$30 & searchable
at amazon

About Jessica Wong

I am a fourth year student majoring in history at UCSB. I have taken a variety of history courses including Ancient Greece and Rome, Medieval Europe, and American, but do not have a primary focus. I also studied abroad for a year in England and studied 20th century British history and antisemitism during WWII. While there, I also had the opportunity to travel to Berlin and Cologne. However, before this course, I had never taken a course on German history. I chose to read this book because I had very little knowledge of East Germany and the GDR and hoped to learn life was like during a unique period.

Abstract (back to top)

In The East German Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives in the Interpretation of the GDR, Corey Ross examines the many debates surrounding the East German state in conjunction with his own opinions. He argues that all aspects of the GDR must be considered before drawing realistic, historical conclusions. Ross interprets and analyses arguments revolving around the GDR as a dictatorship, the state, society, and economy in East Germany, opposition and dissent, the fall of the GDR, and its place in German history. He presents other historians’ views and builds upon them, presenting a more complete picture of life in the GDR. I argue that by comparing and contrasting key debates on the various facets of East Germany, Ross effectively proves one must comprehend all aspects of the GDR to fully understand its complex history. With this broader knowledge and understanding of this state, historians can reinterpret current opinions and also create new arguments, providing new insight into the history of the GDR.

Essay (back to top)

Summary and Introduction

The history of the German Democratic Republic is difficult to interpret without first understanding its complications. In his book, The East German Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives in the Interpretation of the GDR, Corey Ross categorizes and explains different opinions regarding life in the GDR. He presents his views through careful analysis of other historians’ arguments, including those of Mary Fulbrook, Herman Weber, Sigrid Meusheu, Eckard Jesse, and Heinz Hietzer. By interpreting and evaluating different viewpoints, Ross effectively argues historians must consider and study the GDR in its entirety to successfully interpret and understand its history. Through his analysis, he answers the following questions: Can the GDR be considered a dictatorship? How were state and society related? What role did the economy play in its structure and eventual downfall? What level of dissent and opposition was present in East Germany? How has the GDR affected German and contemporary history? Ross uses each of these questions to create a full understanding of the GDR.

Ross addresses the social, political, and economic aspects of the GDR and recognizes the varying arguments that surround them. In his early and middle chapters, he focuses the large amount of research and writing published since the GDR’s fall in 1990. In his later chapters, Ross explains how the individual history of the GDR directly affects the broader German history. Throughout each section, Ross takes into account past and present debates, including those that support and challenge his arguments. To better explain his opinion, he begins with the interpretation of how the GDR has been viewed.

Since its fall, the GDR has been interpreted in many different ways. Ross draws on the conservative historian Ernst Nolte’s work that calls the GDR a “Soviet protectorate” (Ross, 16). According to Klaus Schroeder and Jochen Staadt, it was “a dictatorship dependent on the Soviet Union who ruled their population with terror,” while others argue the GDR was “doomed to fail” from its creation (Ross, 16). With these varying opinions regarding the GDR, Ross explains that one needs to realize the contrasting views of historians in order to begin interpreting these debates.

Was the GDR a Dictatorhip?

One of the most prominent debates regarding the GDR revolves around whether or not the GDR can be considered a dictatorship. Ross first explains the definitions of a dictatorship which include totalitarianism and dictatorship. With totalitarianism comes the involvement of the secret police, the Stasi, which had around 100,000 paid employees and thousands of collaborators at its height in the 1980s. Its involvement furthered the theory that those living in the GDR were under totalitarian rule. Ross supports J. Linz’s argument that the GDR is a “frozen” post-totalitarianist regime because “most of the control mechanisms of the party-state stayed in place for a long period and did not evolve” (Ross, 25). When discussing totalitarianism, the idea of Stalinism also arises.

Stalinism is often associated with totalitarianism, but it is specifically characterized by Stalin’s brutal nature of rule including his use of purges of rivals by murdering them, use of the secret police, forced labor camps, and other harsh means of control (Ross, 25-26). Ross cites Hermann Weber’s first definition of Stalinism as “the specific phenomena of arbitrary rule” and the “societal-political system that developed under Stalin” (Ross, 27). However, it must also be kept in mind that when associating the GDR with Stalinism, it also creates a direct connection between the GDR and the Soviet Union. This poses problems because in actuality, these two states were fundamentally different and Stalinism should have ended with his death in 1953. Using Weber’s arguments, Ross concludes Stalinism “is best limited to specific elements” (Ross, 39). However, Ross does not address the role of Ulbricht and other communist leaders in continuing Stalinist policies in East Germany. Therefore, I believe Ross did not consider all aspects of the GDR before coming to his conclusions. However, I do agree with his results that the GDR’s status as a dictatorship is dependent on what definition is applied. Ross continues his study by focusing on the relationship between state and society.

State, Society, and Economy

He argues state and society cannot be separated, and instead must be studied side by side. Ross draws on Sigrid Meushel’s argument that “it was not the state that ‘withered away’ in the course of the party’s rule, ‘it was rather a process of the withering away of society’” (Ross, 47). In comparison to West Germany, East German society was “undifferentiated” (Ross, 60). The West’s prosperity was a stark contrast to the struggles of those living in the East. Therefore, the GDR had to be cautious in running its state. Ross sums up the relationship between society and the state by using Mary Fullbrook’s argument in her Die Grenzen which argues, “the state did not so much rule over society as through it” (Ross, 63). Ross agrees with Fulbrook’s argument and further states East German society had so many problems as a result of the clash between Soviet communist ideas and past German society (Ross, 68). Along with the state and society, Ross also addresses the economy.

Many historians argue the suffering economy of the East led to its downfall, but Ross argues it was not the main cause of its collapse. Some, such as Horst Barthel and G. Neumann have argued the GDR suffered more than the Federal Republic of Germany because it had a higher level of destruction during the war and the difference in economies between the two was established at the start. But Ross disagrees with this idea of a predestined failure and instead agrees with the majority of historians who argue the planned economy of the GDR had intrinsic problems, and these weaknesses increased over time leading to its collapse (Ross, 83). In support of his argument, Ross claims it was the East’s inability to adapt to new innovations and its ignoring of these problems that led to its failed economy (Ross, 89). However, the GDR’s collapse was not purely economic, and instead, was more affected by politics and society.

Opposition and Dissent and the Fall of the GDR

Ross believes social opposition and dissent were essential in the eventual downfall of the GDR. According to Eckard Jesse, the history of the GDR is one of “continual repression, but simultaneously also the history of permanent opposition” (Ross, 100). Adding to this argument, Ross states, “just because the vast majority of East Germans were not ‘for’ the dissident groups before 1989 does not mean that they were ‘for’ the regime” (Ross, 120). He also draws attention to the fact that although there was an apparant acceptance of the regime, people did not have any political choice. The majority of people did not openly resist the government, but there was a cumulative effect of dissent through small-scale acts such as slow-downs and sick days. J. Kopstein says these small-scale acts created a “long-term creeping immobilization of regime capacity to formulate and implement effective economic policies” (Ross, 125). Though these small acts of dissent prove there was opposition in the GDR, I do not entirely agree they had a significant effect on the economy. But Ross agrees that while these small acts were not immediately considered opposition, they set the stage for the eventual fall of the GDR.

After the end of the GDR, many questioned how and why the East German state had finally fallen. Different historians support three different ideas summed up by Fulbrook as: a “revolution from below,” an “implosion from above,” or a “collapse from the outside” (Ross, 127). But Ross argues it was a combination of all three that led to the collapse. Though there was opposition from below, he does not consider it an extreme revolution (Ross, 145). International pressures were also an important aspect as competition from West Germany and Cold War tensions placed more emphasis on the GDR’s problems. The leadership struggled to effectively control the GDR and slowly lost their hold over opposition. Although the GDR formally ended in 1990, Ross argues the communist dictatorship dissolved much earlier (Ross, 148). Its collapse must be understood from Fulbrook’s three different aspects to comprehend the whole history of the GDR.

The GDR in German History

After unification, Germany was faced with the challenge of incorporating the GDR into its history. Some historians, such as Heinz Hietzer, argue turning points such as the separate currencies, Berlin Blockade, and separation of states was the German communists’ (and Soviet) defensive reaction to Western decisions (Ross, 152). However arguments such as this are not universally accepted by Western scholars. It is also a common argument that the GDR was a victim of the Soviet Union. Arnulf Baring claims, “socialism in the GDR was in essence not something that grew in the country itself, but always remained a derivative of Russian power and a presence of the Red Army” (Ross, 156). One reason why its citizens went along with the GDR is because of past German history.

Other scholars believe there is a German tradition of a society of subjects being ruled by an authoritarian state (Ross, 157). But Ross makes the argument most historians today agree Stalin was not originally trying to establish a separate communist state in the Soviet zone, but was looking for a solution to the “German question” (Ross, 160). The GDR used German values of order and discipline were also called upon to “appeal to the masses” and to ensure authority (Ross, 167). Citizens had previously been under the dictatorship of Hitler’s Third Reich, and were thus more accustomed to harsher rule, but Ross makes a clear distinction between the two states as there were more differences between the two than similarities (Ross, 173). Thus, to fully understand contemporary German history, the past must be examined.

Studying and evaluating the history of the GDR today has both furthered original arguments while adding new ones. As more Stasi files are uncovered, more questions arise regarding individuals and their moral decisions (Ross, 184). He supports J. Danyel’s argument that a person cannot view and interpret these historical debates as a “completely detached outsider” because each person has his or her own views on issues, such as politics and ideology (Ross, 190). Therefore, each person will inevitably be biased in their interpretation of the GDR and there will always be debates. The contemporary history of the GDR has led to studying the trials of past GDR leaders.

Ross argues the commission in charge of bringing people to justice is not effectively carrying out its duties. Some believe the greatest weakness of this commission is its failure to involve ordinary East Germans with their testimonies as a public history. This “loss” of the East Germans’ own history can also be attributed to the rapid steps towards a united Germany (Ross, 200). This history, though complicated, needs to be remembered. The many interpretations and debates regarding the GDR make it more difficult to learn from its history. Because of its complexity, Ross urges historians to keep all views in mind and to draw new connections between past and current debates.


In this book Ross has collected various views regarding the many aspects of the GDR, including its status as a dictatorship, the state, society, economy, opposition and dissent, its collapse, and its place in history. He successfully presents differing opinions and relates them to his own arguments. Though I do not agree with all of his analysis, his overall conclusions provide an insightful view of East Germany. By giving a detailed analysis of its history, Ross develops a wide understanding of the GDR. With the arguments he presents, along with his own analysis, readers gain a greater sense of the history of East Germany. Although the GDR’s history is complex, Ross urges historians to consider all views before determining their own arguments. By taking Ross’ advice, perhaps new understandings of the GDR will be realized and its history better understood.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 6/14/07)

Book Reviews

  • Childs, David. “The East German Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives in the Interpretation of the GDR,” The English Historical Review. February 2003, Volume 118, Issue 475, pgs. 289-290. <http://ehr.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/118/475/289>
    Childs believes Ross succeeds in giving an overview of the interpretations of the GDR, what it stood for, and why it failed. Though Childs does not always agree with his interpretations of the GDR as a “welfare dictatorship”, he agrees historians should not waste time debating over terminology. Because of Ross’ attention to different aspects and the provided bibliography, he considers the book useful for students studying the GDR.
  • Steege, Paul. “The East German Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives in the Interpretation of the GDR,” The German Quarterly. Spring 2004, Volume 77, Issue 2, pgs. 253-255. <http://vnweb.hwwilsonweb.com/hww/shared/shared_main.jhtml?_requestid=59465>
    According to Steege, Ross’ book provides readers with a useful overview of the evolving historiography of the GDR. He credits Ross with his ability to address the complexity of debates while making them accessible to his readers.
  • Yoder, Jennifer. “The East German Dictatorship,” German Studies Review. October 2003, Volume 26, Number 3, pgs. 692-693. (Jstor)
    Yoder praises Ross’ book as an “outstanding resource” for students because he shows how Germany is influenced by the changing history of the GDR. She points out his emphasis on the fact that interpretations of East Germany are still relevant to today. She is encouraged by his “refreshing insights” of the GDR and encourages all students to take advantage of this book.

Books and Articles

  • Mary Fulbrook, The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 352 pages. UCSB: DD286.3.F85 2005.
    Fulbrook focuses on the recently-opened archives of the GDR to examine how the transformation of East German society, economy, and state affected the lives of its citizens. She focuses why East Germans citizens’ testimonies reveal their lives were “ordinary” though living under an oppressive government (Amazon.com)
  • Andrew Port, Conflict and Stability in the German Democratic Republic (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 303 pages. UCSB: DD901.S12P67 2007.
    Port addresses the question: why and how was the GDR able to last so long? By interviewing residents of Saalfeld, he presents the government’s methods of preventing citizens from rebelling against authority and repressing opposition. (Amazon.com)

Web Sites

  • World History at KMLA, “History of the GDR” (2001/March 5, 2007),
    This site gives a broad overview of the GDR from its establishment to the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. It also addresses the political constitution, the problem of population outflow to West Germany, control of society, and policies since 1953. It provides a brief history of the GDR’s early years and provides helpful links to topics, making it a quick and easy way to learn the basics of East Germany’s history leading up to the Berlin Wall.
  • M. Anderson, “East Germany” <http://www.fortunecity.com/victorian/riley/787/DDR/index.html> (August 1, 2001/April 26, 2006)
    This site provides a detailed history of the GDR in an organized layout. It includes many aspects of the state including its communist ideology, formation, primary leaders, organizations, and propaganda posters. With the help of this website, a more detailed knowledge of the GDR can be gained.

(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