Saturday, 12 December 2009

Inventing a Socialist Nation – Heimat and the Politics of Everyday Life in the GDR 1945-1990
By Jan Palmowski

Pubs: Cambridge University Press
Hdbck £60.00 (342 pps)
Apart from the price, the jargon, too, places this book very much outside the range of a general readership.
The author looks at the concept of ‘Heimat’ (a uniquely German word, inadequately translated as ‘Homeland’) and the attempt to build socialism in the GDR.
The author, a Westerner -as the so-called experts, granted the oxygen of publicity, invariably are - approaches his subject with predictable pre-conceptions: socialism was ‘imposed’ and the Party attempted, in a devious and sinister manner, to hijack the concept of Heimat to gain people’s co-operation. He conveniently ignores the widespread desire throughout Germany shortly after the war for a more equitable and even socialist society. That the SED didn’t fulfil those expectations in the GDR for a variety of reasons would be a separate, but more rewarding area of research.
He states that his book is about ‘…how nationhood was constructed and contested [and] is fundamentally about how socialist elites impose their power on the subordinate masses, and what strategies the masses develop to resist these impositions.’ This clearly reveals the formulaic approach of an ‘outside ideology being imposed’.
Not long after the fall of the Wall and the virtual take-over of the GDR by West Germany, many felt they had indeed lost their Heimat and missed aspects of the life they had in the GDR, but Palmowski ignores this. He says that the GDR’s leadership failed to successfully introduce a socialist culture. However, just one example: the Jugendweihe – a secular form of coming-of-age ceremony, introduced by the GDR did, despite resistance from the church, become a widespread and popular ceremony.
New Labour tried to re-engender a sense of patriotism and ‘feelings of Heimat’ in Britain in order to achieve social cohesion, and the Conservatives have always beaten the patriotic drums and flaunted union jacks; all political leaderships attempt to gain people’s allegiance by invoking patriotic symbols. Why should the GDR be different?
Much of Palmowski’s factual evidence is culled from the fifties and early sixties – the height of the Cold War – and a difficult period of consolidation for the GDR. He quotes incidences of sabotage - the cutting of rail tracks and the burning down of schools - but gives credence to wild assertions that the Stasi did it to incriminate innocent villagers! If the population was so overwhelmingly anti-socialist, as the author implies, why did they not all leave before the Wall was built in 1961?
Palmowski’s research is based on two small, rural areas and villages in the former GDR– largely conservative and hardly representative of the country as a whole. Virtually all his sources are either from official documents or western academics. GDR experts are given no voice. His work is reminiscent of those early anthropological studies by westerners of ‘primitive’ jungle tribes. And his conclusions revert to the tired formula of a Stasi-dominated state within which corners of private freedom were carved out.
One wonders who in the English-speaking world will be interested in this rather arcane subject matter, but even if there are, they will find here little enlightenment either about socialism or the GDR.
515 words
John Green

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