Steven Pfaff, Exit-Voice Dynamics and the Collapse of East Germany (2006).
Despite the unpromising title, this is a superb analytical narrative of the 1989-90 collapse of East Germany. Pfaff draws on oral history, archival evidence (including opinion surveys conducted in the last years of the GDR), statistical analysis, and basic threshold models of collective action to produce a work that is not only insightful but also a good read. (One of my favourite bits: Honecker and other Politburo members apparently tended to discount fairly accurate reports of the situation in the country by the Stasi because they thought they sounded too much like what they could hear on West German television).
The East German revolution was a rare beast: a revolution without revolutionaries (or even, in the final instance, counterrevolutionaries), made by people after work, in a (mostly) peaceful manner (despite some violent confrontations in Dresden and elsewhere), against a regime which, on the face of it, seemed unassailable. The SED (the East German Socialist Unity Party) controlled a huge apparatus of repression (the Stasi, the “sword and Shield” of the Party), was uninterested in concessions, and was apparently quite willing to use overwhelming force against challengers (as they in fact did at first). Dissidents in East Germany were few and far between, most of them were loyal to the idea of Socialist state anyway, even if not to the policies of the party (truly anti-socialist dissidents tended to be expelled to West Germany), and their organizations were wholly infiltrated by the state. The forms of ideological control in the GDR, as in other Leninist regimes, encouraged dissimulation rather than genuine loyalty (“preference falsification”, in Timur Kuran’s useful terminology) and opportunistic compliance, with the result that the population seemed to be passive and retreated from public life to “niches” of tightly linked individuals, as Pfaff convincingly shows. Moreover, despite the stifling political repression, East German citizens were not badly off by the standards of socialist regimes: they had enviable job security (made possible, in part, by the constant possibility of exit, which created a situation of labor scarcity) and many social and welfare benefits, though many of these benefits had started to decay in the last years of communist rule.
In such conditions, there was widespread “pluralistic ignorance” – people who were dissatisfied with the regime were unable to tell how widely their grievances were shared (as their social networks did not include reliable linkages beyond their niches), and hence were mostly unable to use “voice” effectively to press for changes in the regime. So why and how was this regime overthrown so completely in the space of a few short months?
The key theoretical argument of the book concerns the relationship between “exit,” “voice,” and “loyalty” (in Hirschman’s terms). The GDR was different from many other repressive regimes (with the partial exceptions of Cuba and North Korea in the socialist world) in being placed in a situation where citizens could take advantage of an “exit” option (by moving to capitalist West Germany). Exit was, to be sure, made difficult (through the Berlin Wall, among other things), but it was far more available to dissatisfied GDR citizens than other options, and it was more available to them than to citizens of other socialist states, especially since the FRG recognized them as citizens and gave them considerable assistance once they reached Western territory. As others (including Hirshman himself) have argued, the key event that disrupted the GDR’s “repressive equilibrium” was the “exiting crisis” of August-September 1989 (when thousands of GDR citizens took the opportunity to escape to the FRG due to the dismantling of Hungary’s border fence). Where Pfaff’s analysis differs is in arguing that the existing crisis had two contradictory effects. On the one hand it acted as a signal that dissolved pluralistic ignorance and activated voice (both “dissident” voice by people who simply wanted reform, and “insurgent” voice by people who wanted a revolution or unification with Germany), but on the other hand large amounts of “exit” also eroded the social networks necessary to sustain protest.
Pfaff traces the consequences of this dynamic in painstaking detail (at times perhaps too painstaking), and shows how the demoralization of low-level party members and security forces, the ambiguity of instructions from hardliners at the top, and the ability of protestors to police themselves (at least in Leipzig) and remain peaceful all conspired to produce cascades of protest that made the regime crumble. As the protests increased, the dissidents were marginalized in their advocacy for reform of an independent GDR, whereas the majority (but by no means all) of the population in the streets increasingly wanted “exit” from the regime via reunification, and were able to push for this outcome by increasingly exiting (the numbers are staggering – huge numbers of people exited the country before and after the Wall fell). A regime that must imprison its population in order to survive surely has no right to exist.
Pfaff shows how this was a self-organizing revolution, without much in the way of leadership or heroes – though some people played more of a role in it than others, the overall impression one gets is of leaders being pushed aside by the force of anonymous numbers. Among leaders, Kohl comes off perhaps best; though widely criticized at the time, he did what successful revolutionaries do: he seized the moment and rode the wave of protests to an outcome that had seemed all but impossible mere months before, whereas the East German dissidents failed to act as a revolutionary counter-elite. Honecker and the aging leadership of the GDR mainly come out as deluded old men, trapped in dreams they perhaps no longer really believed in, though of course one should not forget that they were responsible for the (sometimes relatively comfortable) incarceration of a country.
Though the book is a good read, there is at times a certain amount of repetition (the book could certainly have been shorter), and the statistical analyses may seem like too much to those looking for a simple history of the fall of the GDR. But for those looking to understand the causes of the fall of the GDR, this book does a much better job than a simple historical narrative.