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The Two Faces of East German Socialism

Axel Fair-Schulz

Anniversaries have a way of focusing historical memory. One such anniversary is upon us in 2022 and another came and passed in 2021. Forty years ago, in 1982, East Germany’s most famous dissident, the internationally acclaimed scientist and critical Marxist Robert Havemann, died. Imprisoned and sentenced to death by the Nazis for his activities as an underground resistance fighter, Havemann managed to survive World War II against the odds to become one of East Germany’s celebrities: an anti-Fascist hero, a faithful Communist, a world-renown Chemist, university professor and administrator, as well as a prominent member of East Germany’s parliament. Yet, in the aftermath of Nikita Khrushchev’s disclosures of some of Stalin’s crimes at the 20th Party Congress in Moscow in 1956, Havemann morphed from an orthodox believer into a critical Marxist who called East Germany’s ruling SED party to task for having established a paternalistic dictatorship, albeit with considerable welfare benefits, under the guise of a free and socialist society. This transformation cost Havemann his career and his freedom. While the SED did not dare to imprison him, they nevertheless put Havemann and his family under house arrest for the remainder of his life.  

Art by Laura Fair-Schulz

While Robert Havemann embodied the vision of an East German socialism as a genuinely emancipatory project linking social justice with political freedom, cultural and intellectual creativity, and ultimately the development of innate human potential, another East German, close to Havemann in age and some key life experiences, embodied the less inspiring realities of East Germany: Erich Honecker. On August 13th, 2021, sixty years had passed since the building of the Berlin Wall. No other East German politician is as closely associated with this border structure as Erich Honecker, both at its construction and dismantling. He was the Politburo member in charge of organizing and overseeing the logistics of fortifying the border between East and West Berlin, as well as East and West Germany, on August 13th, 1961. Honecker, of course, did not order the erection of the Wall on his own nor did he operate in a political and socio-economic vacuum. While being a rising star in the GDR’s inner circle of power brokers, Honecker still needed not only the support of the other Politburo members but also the green light from GDR state and party leader Walter Ulbricht, as well as – and most importantly the Soviet leadership in Moscow. Fast forward twenty-eight years, and we encounter a much older Honecker, who outmaneuvered and replaced his former mentor Ulbricht in 1971, becoming the leader of the state and party of eighteen years. On the 19th of January in 1989, Honecker stated defiantly that the Wall would remain “for another 50 years, another 100 years,” — unless the reasons that led to its construction were not removed and resolved. As it turned out, events played out rather quickly and differently than Honecker had hoped. Honecker was ousted by his own Politburo comrades in October 1989, only a few days after East Germany celebrated its 40th anniversary. And on November 9th, 1989, the new government under Egon Krenz opened the Wall and with that act the floodgates that washed the East German state from the stage of history, albeit without fully realizing what they were doing at the time. 

Honecker’s legacy is now forever bound with “The Wall.” Literally from one day to the next, a fortified border wall made West Berlin inaccessible to most citizens of the East-German state until they reached their retirement age. In addition to surrounding West Berlin, located in the middle of East Germany, for the next twenty-eight years, the Wall also buttressed the international border between the German Democratic Republic (GDR/DDR) and the Federal Republic (FRG). This border, arguably the most well-guarded in the world during the Cold War, divided not only the two German states from one another but also functioned as the demarcation line between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Both military alliances had enough nuclear weapons to annihilate each other, as well as all life on our planet, many times over. It was understood by both sides that even a relatively small conflict could easily get out of control, and thus extraordinary caution and vigilance were indispensable.  

While nuclear war between the so-called superpowers was ultimately avoided, at least 140 people had been killed at the Wall by East-German border guards between August 13th, 1961 and November 9th, 1989, by the time it finally came down. Every single death by violent means is always a tragedy, as it extinguishes an irreplaceable human life. Yet, while public museums and politicians in today’s united Germany officially commemorate the victims of the Berlin Wall, one looks in vain for any official memorial sites honoring the documented violent deaths of 34,361 refugees and migrants whose lives were ended by “the restrictive policies of Fortress Europe,” between 1993 and 2018. Pointing out the obvious selectivity in how tragedies and crimes are presented in official memory culture is not to excuse the very real shortcomings and misdeeds of the old Eastern bloc. It does, however, provide some needed perspective and a sense of proportion. 101 out of the 140 people who were killed at the Berlin Wall were East Germans trying to leave their country for the West. They were shot by East-German border guards and thus died thus as a direct consequence of political and socio-economic decision-making. The 34,361 migrants and refugees who died, while trying to get into the European Union, did so by drowning or being shot or choked to death — by European border guards.[1] It is the cruelest of ironies that these refugees also fled political and economic devastation in their home countries and died due to the political and socio-economic choices made by Europe’s rich and powerful.   

Yet, while Honecker has been in many ways the official face of East Germany for many decades and thus symbolized what East-German socialism was, Havemann stands for what it could have been. Havemann belonged to the same generation as Honecker, joined the German Communist party roughly at the same time, and, like Honecker, fought the Nazi regime in the anti-fascist underground. Both Honecker and Havemann were eventually captured and sentenced to long years in prison by the Nazi regime – incarcerated at the same place in the city of Brandenburg. After the liberation by the Red Army, both Honecker and Havemann settled into promising political and professional careers in what became the German Democratic Republic or GDR. But the similarities ended by the 1960s, as Honecker climbed to the highest levels of power in the GDR and Havemann, by then a respected physicist and university professor and, in addition, having several political and administrative positions, turned into one of the Eastern Bloc’s most well-known Communist dissidents. 

Honecker, in his long career as a Communist functionary, and later party as well as state leader, was notorious for his frequent and lengthy speeches. His declamations were memorable not for their eloquence or rhetorical intensity but for his eccentric intonations and peculiar pronunciations of particular words. Almost endearingly, Honecker never succeeded in annunciating the word “socialist” properly, despite deploying it with excessive regularity in his addresses. Yet, while having been a hapless public speaker, Honecker left a different impression in more personal settings. Politicians who met and interacted with him one-on-one or in smaller groups, from both sides of the Cold War divide, and across the ideological spectrum, commented on his professionalism and competence.  

Honecker was not an intellectual and kept his distance from the theoretical debates and controversies that unfolded within the German, Soviet, and international Communist movements throughout his long life. He penned no comments or interpretations on existing Marxist concepts, nor did he deepen or develop any new Marxist analytical categories. Honecker’s approach was conditioned by practical considerations. Thus, it was not with any encounter of classic Marxist texts, such as The Communist Manifesto or Capital, that he credited his conversion to the Communist movement but rather personal relationships and meetings with charismatic individuals. Foremost among them were his own father and Communist Party leader Ernst Thälmann. Honecker was drawn to what he perceived as their proletarian authenticity.  And indeed, Honecker’s father, Wilhelm, as well as Thälmann were manual workers by training. It was only natural for Honecker to follow in his father’s working-class footsteps although not in the same profession. The Honeckers, like many of their compatriots in the Saarland, were coalminers for many generations. Yet given the increasingly unstable and highly dangerous nature of working in the coal pits, young Erich apprenticed as a roofer instead. However, he discontinued his required training after two years, being sent to Moscow by the German Communist Party Youth League. Honecker studied at the International Lenin School between the Summer of 1930 and the Summer of 1931. Doing so transformed him into a life-long party bureaucrat, who worked his way through the ranks of the Communist Youth League, the German Communist Party (KPD), and eventually East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED). 

Erich Honecker was in many ways the quintessential Eastern-Bloc bureaucratic party official. Distinguished by a certain indistinguishability that oozed from his framed picture that hung in virtually every office during Honecker’s 18 years as leader of the GDR. His expressionless gaze conveyed neither individual charisma nor piercing intellect but a paternalistic power on behalf of the party apparatus. In his demeanor and overall appearance, Honecker looked more like a 1970’s-type small-town branch director of an insurance company than a proletarian leader. Dressed in his customarily proper but decidedly unpretentious suit, with his old-fashioned plastic standard-model glasses, Honecker epitomized not as much the cliché of the power-hungry Stalinist dictator but the pedestrian and routinized status quo. To him, socialism was not a grand vision of human emancipation from alienation or the healing of the ever-widening metabolic rift between human society and nature brought on by capitalist industrialization but something much less ambitious and more concrete. Fellow Politburo member Hermann Axen recalled in 1991: “[w]hat mattered to Erich was to have a roof over your head, enough to eat, warm clothing, sufficient money for a ticket to the movies on Saturday, and a condom.” Incidentally, this last item expresses a self-determined contraceptive freedom, enviable in this current age of American insecurity around a lack of privacy and autonomy. 

The experience of mass unemployment, starvation, homelessness, and overall destitution, which accompanied the global collapse of capitalism during the Great Depression, left an unerasable memory not just on Honecker but his entire generation of working-class organizers and veteran communists. The historian Martin Sabrow, who has devoted a recent, massive. and carefully documented study to Honecker’s early years, concludes that the future East-German leader internalized the sensibilities, values, and political strategies from that time period even more deeply than his generational comrades. 

Hermann Axen, despite being of the same generation as Honecker, was amazed at how deeply the latter remained shaped by the values and ideals from the early decades of the 20th century. A case in point was Honecker’s meeting with a group of young East Germans in their new state-built apartments in the 1980s. Axen was flabbergasted when Honecker said to them proudly “[w]ould you have thought it possible in 1945 that one day we can have apartments like this?”[2] Axen understood the generational divide, while Honecker seemingly forgot that those young people could not have been alive back then. 

One key reason why the traumatic experiences of the late 1920s and 1930s structured Honecker’s political horizon with such gravity may be found in the fact that he had the spent some of his most formative years as a young man in the forementioned Nazi prison.  Arrested by the Fascist regime at the age of twenty- four, Honecker got out only when he reached thirty-three. Sabrow speculates that certain anachronistic aspects in Honecker’s thinking might be explained by having been cut off from the outside world at such a relatively young age and for almost an entire decade. As a political prisoner, Honecker had to spend much of his sentence in solidarity confinement. This prolonged isolation interfered and disrupted what otherwise would have been a natural political and ideological maturation process. In short, Honecker survived the horrors of imprisonment on the part of the Nazi regime by retreating into his own mental world and erecting a sort of time capsule around his political and ideological convictions that could not easily be touched by the world around him.  

The tragedy of Honecker consists of how his genuine revolutionary idealism and hopes, for a world beyond capitalist exploitation, was fused with his identity as a rising star of the party apparatus. The institutional outlook, the habits of thought, and the patterns of behavior increasingly limited his connection with the actual and evolving interests and wishes of East-Germany’s working class. Honecker’s “Marxism-Leninism” devolved further and further into sterile and anachronistic phraseology. To Honecker, all of the big questions of socialist analysis and strategy had already been sufficiently solved by Marx, Engels, and Lenin. The Communist Party was the unquestionable repository, arbiter, and instrument of truth and justice in the world. In the words of an East German communist hymn, coined by the poet Louis Fürnberg: “The Party, the Party is Always Right And This Much Remains To Be True. The Party, the Party is Always Right for it Fights for Justice and Truth.” Over the decades, careerism and cynicism spread inside the party and in society at large. This was due to many factors, including the privileges and perks – both real and assumed – that the leaders of the state and party hierarchy enjoyed. The GDR was, after all, supposed to be a state of the workers and farmers, not yet another system by and for the rich. After Honecker was forced to resign as East-Germany’s head of state and party in October 1989, sensationalized news stories began to circulate about his and his fellow politburo member’s supposedly extravagant lifestyle in their secretive Wandlitz compound outside Berlin. While members of the SED politburo indeed enjoyed some perks, such as privileged access to Western consumer goods, their overall living standard was considerably below what the CEO’s of even minor capitalist companies would have deemed themselves entitled to. Hence some of them eagerly tried to join the capitalist side, when the SED system started collapsing in the Fall of 1989. Prominent politburo members, such as the main architect of the GDR’s top-down command economy Günter Mittag, as well as the long-time editor of the main party newspaper Günter Schabowski, and the leader of the Federation of Union Workers Harry Tisch, not only denounced Socialism as a failed historical project but also proclaimed that there could not be any meaningful alternative to market capitalism and liberal democracy. They also realized, of course, that publicly swearing allegiance to their new overlords would considerably reduce the lengths of the prison sentences that were handed out by a vengeful West-German judiciary. Honecker, however, remained defiantly anti-Capitalist. He defended the GDR and warned that behind the happy façade of Western shopping malls lurked exclusion, discrimination, exploitation, and oppression. Drawing on his personal experiences of persecution and imprisonment as a Communist and anti-Fascist during the Nazi regime, he sardonically noted that the West-German elites, who now ruled over their vanquished former East-German nemesis, – put him into the very same jail as the Nazis did in the 1930s. In contrast to the Nazis, however, the authorities eventually released him from jail on humanitarian grounds, as he was now a frail man of over 80 and dying from incurable cancer. Whatever one may say of Honecker, he was a true believer in his version of socialism and was willing to suffer as well as spend decades in jail for it. At the end of his life, he had every reason to assume that he would die in prison, but he still refused to surrender his ideals and negotiate for clemency. 

Robert Havemann was also man of deep convictions. Despite his impressive personal courage, however, he was not a saint, nor did he strive to be one. He loved life and partook in its pleasures. Not everyone who encountered Havemann remembered him with equal fondness as he was a complex human being and not free from human vices. His political trajectory began as a loyal Party member, fueled by anti-Fascist commitments that almost cost him his life. He became a Marxist intellectual and eventually a Marxist dissident who could no longer reconcile being a party loyalist with what mattered ​most to him, namely the necessity to conceptualize socialism as social justice, environmental sustainability, and substantive democracy. 

Having defied both Fascism and Stalinism, Havemann remained committed to a socialist alternative to capitalism. To him, tinkering with and tweaking capitalism would never be enough. He saw it as a socio-economic system that in the long run would undermine even the limited forms of democracy that had developed in some capitalist states. Capitalism, as a system ultimately geared towards private profit, could not fulfill genuine human needs. Thus, capitalist societies generate deepening inequality and massive socio-economic inequality is corrosive to what becomes increasingly formal political equality.

In addition, Havemann recognized that the for-profit system would not be able to make the necessary ecological changes to stop and reverse catastrophic climate change. He developed an early eco-socialist critique of capitalism and the nominally “socialist” Soviet Bloc states alike, condemning both for pursuing economic models that are/were ultimately unsustainable. 

In the liberal and conservative mainstream, Havemann is chiefly commemorated as a human-rights activist and opponent of “Communist totalitarianism,” whose Marxism is at best be remembered as a historical curiosity.  At the other end of the spectrum, those who are nostalgic about the East-German state often frame him as a traitor and opportunist. Needless to say, both approaches reveal considerably more about their adherents than about Havemann himself. 

To Havemann, Marxism needed to free itself from any futile quest for “eternal truths,” be open to challenges, and continue to develop as the world around us evolves. Havemann, a professor of physical chemistry at Humboldt University in East Berlin during the 1950s and early 60s, ventured far outside his actual field of expertise by offering a series of public lectures on philosophy, which ultimately led the ruling SED regime to deprive Havemann not only of his professorship but to expel him from the party and eventually put him under house arrest until his death in 1982. His alleged crime was that he challenged the authority of the party to have the last word on philosophical issues, thus questioning the party’s self-understanding as the “central administration of eternal truth.” 

In the early 1980s, Havemann became the key link between the older generations of dissident Marxists (like Ernst Bloch and Wolfgang Harich) and the much younger cohort of peace and environmental activists who found their niche under the umbrella of the mainstream Lutheran Church. His long friendship with the rebellious as well as up-and-coming song writer Wolf Biermann, in whose apartment Havemann also first met his future wife Katja, already exposed him to regular contact with newer generations. It was there that Havemann befriended the self-styled “Blues Vicar” Rainer Eppelmann, with whom he collaborated closely until the end of his life. Neither a saint nor a sage, Havemann was at the end of his life more certain of what he rejected than how a functioning democratic and sustainable socialist society could actually be built, given the reality of the Cold War and the hostility of those in power towards it on all sides. His experiences as a Marxist in the 20thcentury made him realize that both authoritarian-state “socialism,” of the sort that developed in the USSR since the late 1920s, as well as Social-Democratic welfare state capitalism were ultimately dead ends. Aware of the inherent instability and unsustainability of capitalism, Havemann continued to hope for an emancipatory socialism, based on a deepening of democracy and the expansion of social justice far beyond what was archived on either side of the so-called Iron Curtain. He was arguably East Germany’s most well-known and most influential Marxist critic of the SED dictatorship during the 1960s and 1970s. And he was ahead of his time by emphasizing that socialism must be both genuinely democratic and ecological or else risk merely reproducing the pathologies of capitalism in an altered form. 

Axel Fair-Schulz, a native East German, is an Associate Professor of European History at the State University of New York in Potsdam/NY.  He is currently writing a biography of Havemann for the Revolutionary Lives Series at Pluto Press, tentatively titled Robert Havemann: From Anti-Fascism to Eco-Socialism.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/20/drowned-restrained-shot-life-stories-migrants-case-studies  

[2] Hermann Axen, quoted in Martin Sabrow, Erich Honecker: Das Leben davor 1912-1945, (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2016), 501.