GDR workers

Reviews The image of the foreigner in the GDR. Dissertation review

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds pp 127-128
Published on balticworlds.com on november 19, 2015

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The starting point of this study is the historically verified fact that the GDR/East German state and society was characterized by emigration rather than immigration. Nevertheless, the SED regime was forced to import foreign labor, especially after the Berlin Wall was built. Yet the ruling communist state party showed no interest in an active integration policy for the so-called “Vertragsarbeiter” (contract(ed)-workers), the majority of whom came from Eastern Europe, East Asia and southern Africa. As other contemporary research studies have shown, the SED regime was actually interested in keeping the foreign labor immigrants as separate as possible from the East German population, trying to strictly regulate and control any contact that occurred. In contrast to this practice (as well as to that of Germany in the past and of the capitalist FRG/West Germany), the communist state party’s propaganda represented the GDR as a society whose relationship with foreigners was mainly characterized by a paradigm of “friendship between nations.” Based on these facts, two main observations have been formulated for this thesis. First, even a dictatorship aiming for total control does not completely succeed in fully determining the everyday reality of a society. However, at the same time — and perhaps precisely because of this — individual human relationships are shaped by the requirements and demands of such a system of rule. This leads us to the question of how the idea of a “friendship between nations” was compatible with the everyday experiences and conflicts of intercultural encounters with foreign labor immigrants in the GDR.

Previous research has established a dualism between the state propaganda of “friendship between nations” on one hand, and the everyday practical experiences of intercultural relationships on the other. To overcome this dichotomy, this study applies the research method of discourse analysis together with James C. Scott’s model of “Public Transcript.” It analyses how the image of the foreigner in the GDR/East Germany was used and constructed on different levels and examines the normative connotations it carried in different contexts. The study uses the term “public transcript of friendship between nations” to show in what manner and to what extent the ideological guidelines of the SED communist state party shaped the discourse about and interaction with foreigners in the GDR/East Germany. In addition, this study examines how and in what form the “public transcript of friendship between nations” was undermined, questioned or even criticized. Thus it is a discourse-historical contribution to the ongoing debate about how far and how deep the totalitarian claim to power and its influence in East German society actually went. This study approaches the topic by analyzing texts in which intercultural encounters between East Germans and foreign labor immigrants are a theme on various levels. The first set of texts includes articles from daily newspapers and magazines of the SED state, as well as similar reports in the marginalized press of the Christian church. Secondly, National Archive files from the GDR government’s State Office for Work and Wages’ department of foreign workers are examined. Here, reports from and correspondence with state-run companies that employed foreign labor immigrants are of particular interest. Finally, the third type of document to be analyzed in this study are complaints or petitions (“Eingaben”) from GDR citizens from the records of the relevant state office in which the employment or residency of foreign workers in the GDR/ East Germany are problematized. These three steps constitute the outline of the empirical part of the thesis; complementary sources from the records of the Commissioner for the Documents of the State Security Service and other already published sources and relevant research literature also feature in parts two and three.

This study assumes that the manner in which the admission and residence of foreigners is talked or written about in a society, or how one communicates with and treats these people, says little about the migrants themselves. Rather, examining such discourses allows us to formulate clear statements about the willingness to admit migrants and the self-conception of the host society. According to the self-understanding of the SED, it was the leading force in the “socialistic” society in the GDR/East Germany; its monopoly of rule was constitutionally secured. Decisions about the hows and whys of GDR politics were (almost) exclusively made by the Politbüro, or the inner circle of the SED. Yet the selection of sources does not include any guidelines or documents from this entity. Nor are bilateral agreements regarding the employment of foreign workers explicitly analyzed. The author does not explain why she does not include these sources, but considering their importance, such a choice begs an explanation.

To some extent, this study is a critique of the method and content of previous research on migration and intercultural encounters in the GDR. Especially in the introduction, the author criticizes the fact that ideologically-critical approaches have settled for a mere comparison of propagated claims and verifiable reality. It is claimed that the discourse-historical method chosen for this study will allow us to go beyond this. Indeed, this study correctly points out that the imminent decline of the SED regime in 1989 was accompanied by a notable increase in overt xenophobia; however, it falls short of showing exactly how it better explains this development. The author could have strengthened her case by more explicitly linking this statement with her conclusion, integrating other studies into her work and comparing their results with her own, but this contextualization is missing.

The study rightly points out that the “public transcript of friendship among nations” legitimized the existence of the GDR as a socialist(ic) German state. This was done in a conscious effort to differentiate itself from the capitalist Federal Republic of Germany, which was seen as a direct rival and as the sole successor of the Third Reich. The study very convincingly shows on various levels how this ideological directive determined talk about and interaction with labor immigrants in the SED state. However, it also raises the question — but unfortunately does not further explore or attempt to answer it — whether and to what extent the SED communist state party was able to establish and/or put into practice a markedly different image of foreigners and treatment of labor immigrants compared to the Federal Republic.  Differentiating itself from the omnipresent Federal Republic was just as important for the SED state as the break from the historical traditions of the German Empire (in particular those of the national-socialist dictatorship) proclaimed in the anti-fascist founding myth. In the GDR, the Federal Republic — and only the Federal Republic — was seen as the sole responsible successor of the Third Reich. This attempt by the SED state to distance itself from certain developments in German history has been questioned, and it is a question that is raised again by this work, albeit in a more specific, narrower context. Yet, here again, one cannot help but ask how these results fit into the big picture in terms of communist dictatorships and modern German history.

In conclusion, this work deserves much praise; it is supported by an excellent command of the current state of research, an ambitious thesis question, a convincing choice of research method, and a logical selection of sources. As previously mentioned, the conclusions are spot on; however, a few more examples would have helped to more explicitly demonstrate, show and link statements and conclusions. Likewise, the work’s overall significance would have been increased by situating the GDR in the broader historical context. More explicitly contextualizing this study among others with different approaches would have also better demonstrated the value of cultural-historical approaches in understanding historical developments. Nevertheless, this accurate and convincing research is a remarkable contribution to a better understanding of GDR history. ≈

  • by Patrice Poutrus

    Lise Meitner senior fellow at the Institute for Contemporary History at the University of Vienna. His research focus is on migration and media representation.

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