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Madarasz, book cover

Working Conditions and Labor Contentment in the GDR

Book Essay on: Jeannette Madarász, Working in East Germany: Normality in a Socialist Dictatorship, 1961-79
(New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), 206 pages.
UCSB: HD8460.5.M33 2006

by Kyle Leighton
December 5, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Amazon.com page

About Kyle Leighton

I am a fourth year history major who has always had a personal interest in labor relations. I chose to write about Madarasz's book because I wanted to gain a better understanding of the relationship between labor and the state in a socialist country such as the GDR.

Abstract (back to top)

Jeannette Madarász's Working in East Germany: Normality in a Socialist Dictatorship, 1961-79 is an analysis of the complex relationship between the East German central government, management, and the workers at industrial state-owned factories. Madarasz uses five case studies, each from a different state-owned factory, to look at the various situations that individual factories were in and how they dealt with their problems within the confines of state policy. She argues that through an intricate relationship between labor, management, the state, and the community, political and social stability was attained. Despite oftentimes poor working and living conditions, the works directors who ran each factory would make the necessary changes, improvements, or social contributions (although often very minor) to keep the workers content enough so as not to mount any major opposition. Meanwhile, the workers established social networks with their coworkers that strengthened their ties to the factory and extended beyond the workplace, enabling them to carve out an individual life that many came to enjoy. Thus Madarasz claims that workers in the GDR could live a "normal" life.

Essay (back to top)

Following World War II, Germany was divided into two separate nation-states. While the West became an American influenced western capitalist democracy, the East became a Soviet Communist influenced socialist dictatorship known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR). By 1961, with the Berlin Wall in place and emigration halted, the people within the GDR were left to establish for themselves an adequate way of life within the economically challenged and politically repressive GDR. Jeannette Z. Madarász argues, in Working in East Germany: Normality in a Socialist Dictatorship, 1961-79, that state-owned factory workers within the GDR found a level of normalcy and routinization during this period, despite poor working and living conditions. The state attempted to avoid any major labor walk-outs or strikes from upsetting the political fabric or production of the GDR, but with state funds as low as they were they could rarely afford to increase wages or buy new equipment. The solutions would vary with individual factories and were often to provide social services, programs and groups, which would eventually become central policy and an expectation that the workers had of the government. Although there was often dissatisfaction with the way the factories were run, most people grew to expect little change for the better from their complaints, and, consequently, accepted things the way they were. It was, thus, through this state-management-labor relationship that the GDR experienced a period of relative political stability during the 1960s and 70s in which workers were able to tolerate, even accept, and sometimes embrace, a dictatorial government that had locked in its own people.

Each factory had a works director who was the head of operations for that particular factory. However, because the factories were state-owned, the works director was forced to work within the guidelines set forth by the central government. If the factory had major production problems then the works director would be held accountable. Thus, the works director had a vested interest in the success of the factory, and any major labor disputes would likely lead to his replacement. Unfortunately, poor working conditions and a floundering economy made the environment ripe for dissent. It was up to the works director to take the necessary measures to increase production and improve morale around the workplace. One way this could be accomplished, as in the case of Rudi Rubbel at the BGW (Berliner Glühlampenwerk), was through strong and charismatic leadership. He “sought direct contact” with the workers, “showed strong paternalistic tendencies” and claimed, “Good comradely work with colleagues is the basic principle of every manager” (70). Also, the level of freedom accorded to these works directors was limited by the central government's involvement. In spite of this, a select few works directors, like Rubbel and Helmut Wunderlich at the TRO (Transformatornwerk Berlin), could rely on their political ties to give them more freedom in the running of their factory and allow them to implement necessary changes. “Wunderlich, as a former Minister for General Mechanical Engineering and vice-chairman of both the SPK [(State Planning Commission)] and the VWR [(People's Economic Council)], was well connected to central state authorities” (33).

Very few factories, however, had the good fortune of being run by a director as capable as Rudi Rubbel or well connected as Wunderlich. Most state-owned factories would implement social programs or work closely with the community (especially if it was in a more rural area) to quell the workers' desires for higher wages, keep a stable workforce and possibly improve the working or living conditions around the factory. The CFW (Chemiefaserwerk Premnitz), for example, was located in a relatively small town that it would rely upon heavily for its workforce, which consisted of about fifty percent women. The works director, Hermann Danz, who did not possess the political ties of Wunderlich or the charisma of Rudi Rubbel, was able to ensure a stable workforce with the addition of “a major childcare facility within the factory,…a laundry service, a shoemaker, and private repairs for household appliances” (125).

Many of the problems within individual factories were common to most of the state-owned factories; they were simply a result of the economic system that was being controlled by the state-planned economy. Oftentimes technology needed to be upgraded, but that would require an investment for the future when there were rarely funds available with the year's production costs already planned out. Therefore works directors were frequently powerless to tackle the problems voiced by employees. As time went by and the complaints put forth by employees were not addressed, people would tend to stop filing grievances because they expected them to be ignored. This, as well as the frustration with an ideology that continued to be propagated but failed to live up to its promises, would contribute to worker disillusionment.

As is common in any communist country, the GDR and the East German Communist Party (SED) attempted to cultivate a socialist ideology in which everyone would work towards the realization of a greater society for all. At first, many East Germans supported this ideal. However, over time ideology would continue to clash with reality, and it would find little success with the economic hardships and poor living conditions of the workforce. With so much inefficiency, shortages, lack of production, and general economic decline, particularly by the 1970s, workers came to no longer see the advantages of working for the betterment of the whole society that did not appear to be improving. This led to the GDR implementing limited bonuses for employees producing more than expected, but primarily what resulted was what Madarász calls Eigen-Sinn: a “state of mind focused on individual interest” in which people seek gains for themselves but without overstepping their bounds and causing conflict (143).

This type of individualistic thought also began to manifest itself in the brigades that took shape within state-owned factories. A brigade consisted of a small group of up to 30 colleagues who would work together and could receive bonuses, as well as discipline, as a group. This led to colleagues pressuring one another within their own brigade to be more cooperative and more productive. The introduction of brigades in the 1960s, therefore, was supported by the state-owned factories as a way to increase production. Production could also be increased through the increase in morale and decrease in turnover that came as a direct result of the friendships established through brigades that could tie someone to that area. According to Madarász, the Brigadetagebücher, the brigade diaries provide many detailed accounts and photographs of leisure activities outside of the workplace between colleagues, such as drinking or going to the theater. However, while the state meant for these brigades to be an extension of the socialist ideal applied on a small scale, members became more disillusioned with the socialist ideal when their formal brigade “complaints about unsatisfactory working conditions, bad management, and insufficient support from superiors hardly ever yielded long-term solutions” (157). Additionally, Madarász argues, employee theft from the state-owned factory would often be overlooked by colleagues within the same brigade as they understood their friends' need for it in a society ridden with shortages. The brigades added a much needed social network that became an important part of the lives of many citizens of the GDR and a reason why so many of them remember that period of their lives in the GDR with nostalgia.

The preceding evidence and arguments serve to support Madarász's case that in spite of the glaring economic difficulties and frequently poor working and living conditions in the GDR, the central and individual policies and social programs carried out by works directors, combined with the support of the brigades, were enough to keep the state-owned factory workers content enough so as to allow for a relatively stable political system for the better part of two decades. Most of the East German workers grew to accept the economic-political system and its shortcomings just as they embraced its benefits; benefits that the people came to expect the government to provide, such as free social programs and groups, and constitutionally guaranteed work.

While Madarász describes in great detail the inner workings of a number of state-owned factories within the GDR, her declaration in the title of the book that there is a general normality within East Germany during the 1960s and 70s is vague and never truly clarifies what exactly that normality is. It is hinted at on the last page that, by normalcy, she simply means that the East German people lived what they would call normal lives. In fact, in the last paragraph she describes a questionnaire of 57 former employees of state-owned factories, of whom, “Only eight denied the possibility of a ‘normal life' in the GDR, 18 described it as ‘partly normal' and 31 claimed that a ‘normal life' was possible in the East German dictatorship.” But normal is a subjective term that almost anyone would apply to their own life. No matter how strange the environment in which a person spends most of their life may seem to others, to that person it would be normal because it is what they have the most experience with and therefore feel the most comfortable with. Madarász mentions numerous times a ‘normalcy' experienced by the workers, yet based on her account there were ever changing norms throughout the 1960s and 70s. At the beginning of the 1960s the population was largely in support of the socialist ideology, while by the end of the 1970s most people had lost faith in that ideology and many had seen enough failure to provide the backdrop for the open resistance that would develop in the 1980s. Workers frequently discussed and reported problems to management in the early 1960s, but by the 1970s this was reduced to a small fraction of what it had been. Although it may be a stretch to attach to this period an idea that a single socialist norm developed, it provides readers with an overall picture of what it was like working in the GDR during that period and a strong argument that the state was politically stable thanks largely to the interrelationship between labor, management, and the state.

Finally, there is one aspect of working in East Germany that Madarász maybe should have considered more strongly. She wrote only about four pages on the Stasi, which was primarily about a single informant, yet she says that there were “many at every level in every factory in East Germany” (165). While she admits here that the Stasi could have influenced decision making, she leaves them out of the rest of the study. The fact that so many Stasi existed within the state-owned factories opens up the possibility that the Stasi may have played a sizeable role in the discouragement or choking off of open criticism or larger movements of opposition. The simple fact that people knew the Stasi were around could make them less trusting, and thus less likely to scheme or voice opinions out of fear. Or, less likely, the Stasi may have detained people before they were able to cause too much dissention. Thus, a little more research into the Stasi's influence in the state-owned factory workers' attitudes and actions and a concise assessment of its effects would have provided Madarász with the information for a more complete argument.

Working in East Germany: Normality in a Socialist Dictatorship, 1961-79 is a great read for any audience seeking an in-depth analysis of the interrelations of East German politics, economics, or state-owned factories. It would also appeal to anyone interested in general labor relations or economic implementation within a communist state.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 12/x/08)

Book Reviews:

  • Dale, Gareth. “Working in East Germany: Normality in a Socialist Dictatorship, 1961- 79.”American Historical Review; Apr 2008, Vol. 113 Issue 2, p603-604, 2p.
    A brief review that credits Madarász on her solid research that sheds light on the inner workings of the factories, but also criticizes her for making generalities based on only five case studies and her liberal use of the term 'normal.'
  • Pritchard, Gareth. “Working in East Germany: Normality in a Socialist Dictatorship, 1961- 79.”German History; Oct 2007, Vol. 25 Issue 4, p655-656, 2p.
    Also brief, praising Madarász for digging up interesting details providing good literature on Soviet-like socialist working conditions. Still, he questions her use of the term “normalization,” as well as “individualization,” and why she does not consider repression as a stabilizer.

Books and Articles:

  • “German Democratic Republic.” International Journal of Sociology. Summer/Fall1980, Vol. 10 Issue 2/3, p100-112.
    This article describes the economic layout and structure of the GDR in the 1970s. It examines the urbanization that was much greater than other socialist countries and how this affected labor, technology, and the socio-economic infrastructure.
  • Kopstein, Jeffrey. The Politics of Economic Decline in East Germany, 1945-1989. University of North Carolina Press, 1997. 246pp. (amazon page)
    In this political science analysis, Kopstein examines the policies and reactions of East German elites. He argues, similarly to Madarász, that within the struggling economy there was political stability and the ultimate collapse of the GDR was not brought about by any major opposition.
  • Pence, Katherine and Betts, Paul. Socialist Modern: East German Everyday Culture and Politics (Social History, Popular Culture, and Politics in Germany). New York: University of Michigan Press, 2008. 392pp. (amazon page)
    A collection of essays investigating everyday lives of the citizens of the GDR. They assess how state-level politics and grassroots blended to form the experiences of East Germans up to the collapse of the GDR.


  • A Dictionary of World History “German Democratic Republic.” (2000, last revised 2008) http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O48-GermanDemocraticRepublic.html
    This brief overview of the GDR's historys to put Madarász's book into context. It also includes some potentially useful links below the article.
  • Bytwerk, Randall. “East German Propaganda.” (2000, last revised Oct 21, 2008) http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/gdrmain.htm
    This page is within a larger site that includes pre-Nazi, Nazi, and East German propaganda. It includes speeches, posters, articles, pamphlets, and other propaganda materials from the GDR, and provides a little background information on each source.
  • Wikipedia. “History of the German Democratic Republic.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_German_Democratic_Republic
    This page provides a number of details on the political and economic environment during the 1960s and 70s as well as a number of links to other possibly relevant sites. It includes sections on economic policy and domestic policy.

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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 12/16/08; last updated:
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