Heaven or hell? Books look back on the German Democratic Republic

Stasi Hell or Workers’ Paradise? Socialism in the German Democratic Republic ― What Can We Learn From It?
By John Green & Bruni de la Motte
Artery Publications, 2009
50 pp.

Red Love: The Story of an East German Family
By Maxim Leo
Pushkin Press, 2013
272 pp.

Reviews by Barry Healy

November 16, 2014 -- Green Left Weekly -- The German Democratic Republic (GDR, or "East Germany") disappeared a quarter of a century ago after 41 years’ existence. The East German state is mostly remembered as “Stasiland”, as Anna Funder’s history of its secret police is called.

Yet, for all of its Stalinist failings, East Germany’s values still stubbornly retain many Germans’ endorsement, especially those of the eastern regions. In 2008, Der Spiegel surveyed young Germans nationwide and discovered that most defended what the GDR stood for.

This is usually dismissed as merely a form of nostalgia, but these two texts grapple with the fuller picture. What they recall are memories of when the fear of fascism could motivate whole nations ― and the promise of socialism inspired.

Husband and wife team Bruni de la Motte and John Green have personal links to the GDR. Born in Britain, Green studied in the GDR between 1964 and '68 and then worked on GDR television for 20 years.

De la Motte was born into a working-class GDR family in 1951 and lived there until the country’s demise. She now works for a British trade union.

Their short pamphlet was not written to defend the GDR, but to explain why people still hanker after elements of it.

They write that the GDR was not purposively created by the USSR after World War II. It was established in response to the Allies’ 1949 decision to create West Germany with a separate currency.

Most Germans in the west voted in referendums for socialisation of big industry, banks and utilities. The Allied occupation forces stopped these democratic decisions from being realised.

Despite being economically poorer and with a smaller population than the German Federal Republic ― West Germany ― the GDR managed to build a more egalitarian society based on a powerful “social wage”.

The GDR's constitution meant workplaces had attached medical facilities with doctors and dentists. Workplaces provided child care and assisted workers in finding housing.

Workers could only be sacked for serious incompetence or misconduct. However, alternative employment had to be offered. There was a social obligation to work and no unemployment benefit existed.

However, the Stalinist bureaucracy used control over employment to harrass oppositionists.

Newlywed GDR couples under 25 received an interest-free home loan from the state. Ninety-one percent of women between the ages of 16 and 60 worked and mothers received one month’s wage at the birth of a child to help buy essential items.

Green and de la Motte survey a large number of topics, from youth in the GDR to internationalism to women's rights. They demonstrate that, despite carrying the heavy load of the Stalinist bureaucracy, the GDR’s people achieved a great deal for themselves and could take pride in their social accomplishments.

Maxim Leo, who has won many awards for his memoir, takes a different approach, that of a multi-generational account of his own family. Via the mosaic, he creates a moving story of more than just the GDR.

Leo’s mother, Anne, was a Communist Party member while Wolf, his father. was a fiercely independent-thinking party critic. After the GDR’s destruction, Leo set about interrogating his parents, grandparents and their Stasi and party files to try to understand their varying levels of commitment to the GDR.

The combination illustrates the forces, refracted through the prism of one family, that drove German society in the 20th century, from the madness of Nazism to stultifying Stalinism.

Leo’s maternal grandfather, Gerhard, was a truly heroic anti-Nazi resistance fighter who fought as part of the French Resistance. After being captured and tortured by the SS, Communist partisans freed him in a daring raid as he was being transported to almost certain death.

He survived by the skin of his teeth, but some of his comrades were horrifically murdered by a Nazi commander who became a respected figure in West Germany. Gerhard said that he felt the Berlin Wall kept him safe from that monster and he staunchly defended the GDR government.

Anne found it difficult to criticise the party, even while she rebelled against its bureaucracy, because of her deep loyalty to her father’s heritage. Indeed, it is in the passages covering his resistance period that this book sparkles.

Leo’s paternal grandfather was somewhat different. He opportunistically shifted allegiance from fanatical Nazism to joining the Communist Party after the GDR's creation. In the process of reinventing himself, he abandoned his family. In his dotage, he expressed nostalgia for his Nazi youth.

Wolf instinctively rebelled against hypocrisy, perhaps responding to his father’s betrayal. His attitude towards East Germany was that it “was a dictatorship of civil servants who had betrayed socialism”. For Anne, however, there were “definitely big problems, but they could be overcome”.

“The GDR was always there in bed with us”, Wolf commented to his son, reflecting how politics dominated all aspects of life. It eventually led to the breakdown of the marriage.

For his part, Maxim’s attitude towards the GDR was “numb indifference”.

After the GDR’s collapse, each family member has struggled to cope. Wolf, who had lived as an oppositionist bohemian in the GDR, found the capitalist art market was not for him. Anne, who was active in the initial wave of democratic organising, fell into apathy. Maxim has found his feet as a bourgeois journalist.

Taken together, these two books offer an explanation of why the GDR had genuine adherents and why, eventually, Stalinism rotted out its soul, opening the way to capitalist restoration.

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From GLW issue 1033


At the end of their book, Green and de la Motte stress the need to get beyond the "one-dimensional picture" of what socialist life worlds were like in the GDR, and in other countries of the experiment that lost the Cold War -- still often distorted in the Western capitalist media and numerous currents of Western Marxism. It is their hope that "we can learn from this short-lived attempt at building a socialist society, even though it took place in a Cold War context ... We would argue that the GDR experience has given us a lot from which we can learn and build on -- if we choose to."

More books like this are needed, based on lived experience, from other former socialist lands, where many working-class families have now been reduced to immiseration and neo-colonial EUropeanization and remember a far better past.
The impact of that "Cold War context" Green and de la Motte refer to is often too little appreciated and analyzed, the entire vicious war against socialism waged by the West over many decades. To say "Stalinism rotted out its soul", as Barry Healy does, has for many average persons who grew up somewhere inside the Warsaw Pact bloc, born like Maxim Leo ca. 1970 and earlier, little concrete meaning. Their voices need to be heard.

Predictably, some UK publishers have taken the 25th anniversary of the triumph of the West and fall of the Wall to continue the Cold War rhetoric. On Nov. 15, the BBC World Service felt obliged to interview novelist Uwe Tellkamp on his novel The Tower: Tales from a Lost Country, just issued in English translation in London to mark Nov. 9. The Tower is a largely anti-socialist fiction/faction set in Dresden. A comparison of Tellkamp's semi-autobiographical novel and Maxim Leo's Red Love would be instructive. Tellkamp's faction can be read as a portrait of 'Stasiland' many East Germans, based on their own lives and complex storehouse of existential memory, would question.

All this goes far beyond dimensions of 'nostalgia'. What can be learnt from socialism 1.0 for building socialism 2.0 -- a real concern underlying John and Bruni's book -- is a major challenge, wherever we are.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)


I absolutely agree on the value of comparing the turgid Tellkamp book with what simply must be the more readable John and Bruni one (I know John's lively writing from another book).

But in the original review and the comment by Comrade Anonymous little if any attention is paid to what Marxists might call the 'Democracy Question'. It was the failure to surpass liberal democracy that condemned the State-Communist countries to eventual failure. What they did was not to extend, deepen, give ever-greater meaning to democracy but simply to deny what they condemned as 'bourgeois democracy'.

I am sure there are millions across the ex-Communist world who regret the loss of such security and sense of community as they might have enjoyed in these states. But then, surely, these must be people who give little or no value to democracy.

One can also understand how democracy might have been given no value to people previously subjected to Tsarism or Fascism. But this was not the case in Czechoslovakia which, between WW1 and WW2 had been a capitalist liberal democracy, where the Communist Party enjoyed considerable influence, and which had better social welfare provision than most capitalist countries. This explains why it was uniquely in Czechoslovakia that the Party/State itself initiated the search for 'socialism with a human face'. (I don't think they would have succeeded even had the Soviet Union not invaded).

By way of contrast, the East German regime claimed for itself the title of 'really-existing socialism' - thus rejecting the claims of critics, of left or right, that it was no such thing.

So I really think that Comrade Anonymous should do one of two things: either 1) abandon the idea that the DDR was socialist, or 2) donate the word socialism to State Communism and then give another name to the struggle for global (worldwide, holistic) social emancipation. I offer for his consideration the notion of 'commonism', around which a new wave of discussion is taking place.

And a final personal question: why does this comrade wish to remain anonymous? He or she is not, after all, living under Socialism 1.0.


Of course I still have to read these books. But I am currently stuck in the middle of much more difficult-to-read one, 'The Tower: Tales from a Lost Country' by ex-DDR citizen, Uwe Tellkamp.

So I can only respond to this interesting review. Yes, we can and should hold West Germany and world imperialism responsible for the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. But not at the price of making Communism innocent. And setting up East/West and Paradise/Hell is Manichean (vice v virtue) oppositions doesn't help an understanding of why all the East European Communist regimes collapsed so ignominiously, as a result of worker-cum-popular protest or to their quasi-universal cheers.

Does either of these books remind us that the first (recorded) mass labour and/or popular protest took place in East Berlin, 1953? To be followed by Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, by Hungary, by Poland (a whole series), and then by the worker-supported 'socialism with a human face' in Prague, 1968, crushed (as was the Berlin and Hungarian uprisings) by Soviet tanks.

That workers might have initially benefited from Communism in the DDR, or supported the Communist coup against a liberal-democratic regime in Hungary, has to be weighed off against not only the Stasi-dependent regime in the one, nor the STB in the other. These were dictatoships over the proletariat and the people. And the free or cheap housing, social services, education, sports were all riddled with inefficiency, favouritism, arbitrariness, and limitless hypocrisy.

I recall travelling with my Czech colleague, late-1968, to East Berlin by train and asking him why he thought there were so many more banners of international solidarity in the DDR than in the CSSR. 'Bigger banner-producing industry' was his dismissive reply (he had just experienced the crushing of the Dubcek regime with the approval of the DDR).

In a further exhibition of Stasi internationalism, we sat in the Council Meeting of the World Federation of Trade Unions, for which we worked. The main purpose of that Council was to bury the Soviet invasion - against which a majority of the WFTU leadership in Prague at that time had actually publicly protested! This burial ceremony was assisted, shamefully, by the Italian Communist CGIL. The only protest came from a Japanese Maoist delegation. Which the DDR organisers dealt with in traditional State Communist style by turning off the sound system, whilst the naive participants (mostly themselves Communist union leaders) waved their headphones in the air, assuming there had simply been a technical hitch.

Finally, let us remember Bertold Brecht's comment on the 1953 Berlin Uprising:

'There has clearly been a serious breakdown in the relationship between the leadership and the people. I propose we dissolve the people and elect a new one in its place'.

Even more finally, we should remember that the first time was a tragedy so that the next time won't be a farce.

Every country in Comecon has to be looked at separately and in existential depth. And well-anchored empirically in the narratives of average working people who usually don't write books but lived their lives there, socialist oral history and ethnography of lived memory. Millions and millions still of course alive, including the demographic born ca. 1970, the last to reach maturity under socialism before its dismantling.

In any event, Peter's comment about "the free or cheap housing, social services, education, sports were all riddled with inefficiency, favouritism, arbitrariness, and limitless hypocrisy" is quite a Cold Warrior generalization.

In every Comecon member country, that collapse after Nov. 1989 had very specific contours. In all, it was accompanied by staggering illusions among broad segments of the population in all walks about what capitalism was and how people's lives would change. Countless interviews today will confirm that.

As one interviewee in Bulgaria told me, "we were extremely naive about the capitalist West and the free market, and now look at the nightmare we have today for much of the population." Regarding "freedom of movement," she said: "As a young girl and teen, I traveled a lot by train very cheaply all over Eastern Europe, and from Moscow to Prague and East Berlin. Since 1990 I can't afford to travel, and haven't left the country except for a day trip to Bucharest."

In Bulgaria, perhaps the most successful of the socialist economies in Comecon overall, that 'inefficiency' included full employment for all at a livable egalitarian wage, including some 90% of the large Roma community, now largely unemployed and in mass exodus as vagabonds westward to EUrope, or stay at home to join the "sewing sweatshop of Europe" at some of the lowest wages in th developed world (http://goo.gl/HRY8Pr). Of course,in socialist Bulgaria full employment meant, as one interviewee put it, "three people sometimes did the job of one," and that was in capitalist terms a kind of "inefficiency" -- or was it a form of "socialist job-sharing" and a mode of a socialist UBI or "unconditional basic income" (http://ubie.org/) people should learn from?

Utilities and transport were largely 'demonetized' -- now electricity, supplied by three foreign-owned private companies in Bulgaria, is increasingly unaffordable for vast segments of the working population. Bulgaria had an excellent basically cost-free medical system, including nearly demonetized basic pharmaceuticals, and doctors and dentists assigned to all schools. Today medical care in Bulgaria is in severe crisis, hospitals near bankruptcy in many towns, exacerbated by a huge exodus of doctors mainly under the age of 40-45 abandoning their patients and relocating west (http://goo.gl/QOhIRR ), not to be replaced.

The Bulgarian education system under socialism had high levels of achievement, whatever its failings. Teachers enjoyed far more respect than today, and few university graduates now wish to teach, due to the unlivable salaries (http://goo.gl/IHqe0N). The BG education system under Capital restored is beset by a prolonged and severe crisis, as recognized by most teachers and the EdMin in Sofia. It has been argued that literacy among schoolkids, teens and young adults was far higher during socialism than today (http://goo.gl/CeRYu), in part due to the presence of numerous well-supported local and school libraries --- and importantly, low cost, non-profit book production.

Bulgaria has suffered the largest exodus percentage-wise of any country in Europe since 1990 (http://goo.gl/xc7mT2)--- including a mounting teen brain drain, many of the 'better' high school leavers (from privileged backgrounds in the main) going abroad to study (perhaps never to return). This is generating a much-discussed decline in the quality of most entering students in Bulgarian higher education.

So in Bulgaria, the 'farce' is the restoration of EUropean capitalism and all its contradictions. And the broader 'tragedy'-- in the eyes of a great many ordinary older working people across the CEE (Central & Eastern European) countries, whose empirically grounded voice deserves to be heard -- is the loss of a system of social welfare, egalitarianism and guaranteed employment many socialists across the globe are now fighting for.

How particular parties functioned and failed to function, the nature of their top-down 'totalitarian' rule -- and often asserted disconnect from the working populations they claimed to be serving -- remain a broad area for engaged inquiry, esp. solid oral history unencumbered by Cold War prisms. That disconnect is paralleled in the huge perceived gulf between the governing and the governed across most of the capitalist globe today.

German film deals sensitively with the human dramas in Germany’s East under the impress of the fall of the wall and life before. It is well worth exploring those films and what they suggest about post-Wall identity in people’s life worlds in the former GDR. Two key films are Berlin is in Germany (Hannes Stöhr, director, 2001) and Good Bye Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, director 2003). Becker’s film was a huge box office success and was nominated for a raft of awards, many positive probing reviews in the German press. One comparative study of the two films is Jennifer Kapczynski, Negotiating Nostalgia: The GDR Past in Berlin is in Germany and Good Bye, Lenin!. The Germanic Review 82 (1) (2007): 78–100.

You can watch Good Bye Lenin! in full on youtube, with English subtitles. Judge for yourself what the film is trying to say describing an ailing Christiane’s life (a dedicated member of the SED) as it collapses together with the wall and her son tries to shield her from the knowledge that her country has imploded: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZzQuRgaG24

Red Love is the translation of the original memoir by Maxim Leo, „Haltet euer Herz bereit“. Eine ostdeutsche Familiengeschichte (Karl Blessing Verlag, Munich 2009). You can read the first chapter “The Shop” online (http://goo.gl/Wcb3vL ) in English. It is in part a striking statement of split identity in the family Maxim describes, in a country now vanished. If you follow German, Maxim gives a brief interview here talking about this huge bifurcation in his life and what it has meant emotionally, intellectually, the uncanny disconnect with his youth in the GDR and how he tries to deal with that as a writer and human being: (http://goo.gl/kFekTS ).

We should all bear in mind that the powerful electoral base of the major left party in Germany today, Die Linke, is in the former East, in Berlin polling 18.5% and in all federal states of the former GDR at or above 20% in the last 2013 Bundestag election (nearly 24% in Sachsen-Anhalt). Their constituency is not simply voters afflicted by Ostalgia. Perhaps nowhere in EUrope is there such a clear social and historical political geography of radical left sentiment. This is the positive legacy of the GDR, certainly viewed critically today (esp. its authoritarianism) by many supporters of Die Linke, reaching into the German political present.

Lest we forget: Angela Merkel was very active in the FDJ (Freie Deutsche Jugend) in the 1970s and 80s, the youth wing of the SED (where she was a functionary), as recently (re)described in the controversial 2013 book by Günther Lachmann and Ralf Georg Reuth, Das erste Leben der Angela M. (Piper Verlag, not yet translated into English). Listen to biographical historian Reuth (in German) in a brief video speaking about Angela Merkel in the GDR and the great shift in her life (and thinking) in late 1989 and thereafter: http://goo.gl/Pbxa97 What Reuth says is controversial but also part of the ongoing discourse inside Germany today.

So people took very different paths – 'first life' (as Reuth’s title intimates),'second life' -- many different biographical trajectories flowing out of the collapse and incorporation of the GDR. Some of Ms. Merkel’s former associates in the FDJ elite think, vote and dream very differently from her today. One could wonder what an autobiographic memoir along the lines of Maxim’s book by Chancellor Merkel written with candor in detail might look like and reveal. Or how she views the book by John and Bruni if she’s seen it.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)


First of all this:

'In any event, Peter's comment about "the free or cheap housing, social services, education, sports were all riddled with inefficiency, favouritism, arbitrariness, and limitless hypocrisy" is quite a Cold Warrior generalization.'

I actually don't care if this was a Cold Warrior generalisation, but it actually comes from someone who worked twice for international Communist organisations in Prague, in the mid-1950s and then the mid-1960s. As I say in my autobio*, after the Soviet Communist invasion of Communist Czechoslovakia, 'In 1969 I left the Communist World and in 1970 the World of Communism'. The first was due to the Soviet Union acting in WW2 terms, thinking that Communism depended on who had the most tanks and the least scruples.

I don't actually think that Cold Warriors were much interested in Communist hypocrisy: they dealt with simpler categories - and were obviously oblivious to the hypocrisies of Western capitalism.

1955, I traveled from my new job with the International Union of Students in Prague to the World Youth and Student Festival in Warsaw. I met up there with a British Communist student from a Communist family, who was bringing to friends or family of her father gifts from the Capitalist West: contraceptives, 'Animal Farm' and '1984'! Was this an act of a Cold Warrior or of a Socialist Internationalist?

As for Bulgarian Communism. If things were so good, how come Bulgarian Communists don't today get 50% plus of the votes from those suffering from the horrors of neo-liberalism and low-intensity democracy? I was in Bulgaria a couple of times, in the 1950s and 1960s and also worked for a couple of years with a man who became a top Bulgarian diplomat. I have fond memories of him, as of other colleagues condemned to live under state-socialist regimes.

The account given above of the high living standards in Communist Bulgaria reminds me of a Soviet Jewish joke.

To cut to the bone, following the 20th Congress Comrade Grunshtin asks the Party speaker, 'If things are so good, how come they are so bad'? And at the following meeting, another Jew asks, 'If things are so good, where is Comrade Grunshtin'?

I met Communist Bulgarians in Bucharest in the mid-50s and then the mid-60s and found their Communism to be religious (today we might say fundamentalist). It might be closer to the truth to relate Bulgarian Communism to the historical gratitude to Russia in Bulgarian struggles against the Ottoman Empire. And, of course, the lack of any Bulgarian experience of liberal democracy. This would contrast with Czechoslovaks, who had had such experience, and who contrasted their lives under Communism with what they called, without cynicism or even irony, 'normal times'.

The problem with the 'Cold Warrior generalisation' is that it was true. Corruption, nepotism, inefficiency, bad quality, lies and hypocrisy were generalised under regimes that repressed any serious expression of criticism, and allowed dialogue only where it was considered safe for the regime. And, as under all repressive regimes, those who rose to the top were the subservient, the hypocritical, the authoritarian, the careerist.

Here two Communist (anti-Communist) expressions: 'I know more than my boss, and 'They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work'. The first is a comment on those who got promoted. The second explains why what was produced customarily fell to pieces before one got it home.

Of course the Communist experience - how the people experienced Communism - differed from country to country, and from one period to another. But what I say is that the most serious criticism of of state-socialism is what remained after it collapsed. What human capacities, what social structures, what capacity for social protest or collective self-organisation?

And if one of the contributors to this exchange talks about the high percentage of Communist/Left/Socialist voters there are in the former East Germany, can s/he please tell me how the racist/Nazi/extreme right vote (and atrocities) are compared with those in the former West?

The most telling evidence of how people experienced Communism is to be found in the popular humour - jokes that circulated despite the extremely high risks run by those that repeated them.

One of the most telling has to be this one, proven bitterly true in 1989:

'Socialism is the stage of human historical development between capitalism and...capitalism'.

Those who defend or rationalise the experience of state-socialism, carry with them the burden of explaining away the thousands of such bitter and biting jokes. Under 'Actually Existing Socialism', of course, they could have had those telling them expelled from the Party (of which many were members), demoted at work, imprisoned or exiled.

The criticism of paleo-liberal, low-intensity, racist, militarist, patriarchal, anti-ecological capitalism, has no need of reference to a state-socialism that collapsed because of its profound and increasing internal contradictions. And the surpassing of our global capitalist dystopia can in no way be empowered by reference to the state-socialist dystopia.

As the sign on the wall in Buenos Aires said, 'Utopia is not what it used to be'.

Another world is not so much possible as essential for continued human existence. It is going to be constructed on the ruins of both liberal capitalist and state-socialist experience.


*I don't dare to now look for a URL of my autobio for fear of losing this page. But it is entitled 'Itinerary of a Long-Distance Internationalist: From Coldwar Communism to the Global Emancipatory Movement'. And it was published 2014, online and free of charge, by into-ebooks.com. It has a couple of chapters on my experience of the Communist world and of the international Communist movement. Reviews welcome.


I’m very grateful for the strength of this discussion sparked by my review. It touches on many things that animate my mind when it comes to Stalinism and the former workers’ states. I totally agree with those who say that the Soviet Union and the Eastern European satellites were not democratic and so are not examples of what socialists strive for.

However, they are examples of post-revolutionary states in transition. They show that it is possible for revolutions to go off the rails and be bureaucratically strangled.

Many years ago I read The Russians by Hedrick Smith. It was fascinating and I regret that I gave it away. It showed that the corrupt distribution of goods and services within the USSR was based entirely on the position a person held in the bureaucratic hierarchy. There was no relationship to ownership of the means of production.

This even extended to access to library services. And production was not organised on any basis similar to that of capitalist production. The system survived as a degeneration of the revolution the Bolsheviks had led.

These societies demonstrated working class alienation as deep as that in western societies, as Peter Waterman points out when talking about the humour.

Eastern European workers tried all sorts of ways to extricate themselves from that alienation, while remaining true to their socialist instincts. For example, when Solidarity decided its platform in Poland it called for workers control of a workers state. That is: the workers still wanted real socialism and not the ersatz variety being shovelled down their throats.

The Polish regime convinced them that there was nothing left preserving in the state and the workers went along with a restoration. When I visited Poland I saw plenty of evidence of mixed consciousness about that.

These two books, Red Love and Stasi Hell give us the chance to delve into the East German experience and discern what human progress was achieved there and what was turned to bureaucratic mush. In doing that we have to steer clear the rocks of both Stalinophobia and Stalinophelia.

There is no excusing Stalinism or minimising its crimes. But, like a dispassionate coroner dissecting a cadaver, we have to examine the evidence. If we fail to learn the lessons of the bureaucratic degeneration, by simply pushing the whole experience away as repulsive, then we cannot pledge to the peoples of the world that we won’t again fail them.

Whatever form future revolutions take they will result in transitional societies. We need to study the Soviet and East European societies in depth and distil their lessons.

Barry still wants to rescue state-socialism from what it surely was. And this was, as I might have said, here or elsewhere, not something beyond capitalism but which paralleled and/or reproduced much of what it overthrew.

I am still struggling with the almost 1,000 pages of 'The Tower'. I guess this is an act of penance for my collaboration with state-socialism and the international Communist movement it hosted, funded and inevitably controlled.

The most awful part of 'The Tower' for me, so far, is its account of military service in the DDR. This is shown to have been more brutal, its senior officers and veteran conscripts, more sadistic than my experience as a British conscript. I don't know whether the army of the DDR inherited this brutality/sadism from the Nazis or the Soviets. Readers of these pages may have heard of the latter, or of that still existing in the contemporary Russian army.

I did my compulsory military service, ironically, on the same front line as the conscript in 'The Tower', if on the Western side and around 1960 rather than after 1980. I was in Hamelin in the RASC - the corps with the trucks. He was in the corps with the tanks.

To simply dismiss the author of 'The Tower' as 'anti-socialist' is not so much cheap as a way of avoiding the necessity of coming to terms with the grotesque, grey, caricature of socialism that the DDR represented. And this is something that I consider to be conveyed, in all its excesses, by its author, Uwe Tellkamp.

One of the uncomfortable things it shows was that it was not merely the new, opportunist, bureaucrats that were the agents of oppression but also veteran Communists, including one or more who had suffered in Hitler's concentration camps or Soviet purges. Suffering does not enoble. The experience of living under a genocidal regime does not necessarily purge one of reproducing this behaviour. (For a non-socialist case, consider Israel).

Whilst doing my military service in Hamelin, there took place there a rally of the Waffen SS. During this 2-3 day drunken spree, in which participated also old Nazi collaborators from Belgian Flanders, we were allowed out of our barracks, but not in uniform and not across the river. I went out with my camera, crossed the river, made such photos as I dared and sent them back home to my Labour MP - who did nothing with them.

Christian, doing his military service in the DDR, wanting to protect himself and other persecuted soldiers, has nobody, no place, to appeal to. He doesn't even dare to fully inform his family of what he is experiencing.

Now, I recall, just after the Fall of the Wall, being at a left academic conference in Germany, which was dealing with this as part of the history of Prussian, Imperial German or Nazi expansionism. I felt that they were ignoring the awkward fact that - unlike the incorporation of Bohemia into the Third Reich - this anschluss had been overwhelmingly welcomed by those now incorporated into West German capitalism. Moreover I suspected that whilst these independent leftists had in no way identified with the DDR, it existed for them as a 'Not-West-Germany', a blank space on a map onto which they could project their democratic socialist dreams.

I have more sympathy with those comrades then than with the ones above, at a greater distance of time and/or space, who think that state-socialism was 'in transition' to anything beyond capitalism.

Should we not rather be paying homage to those who spoke (or sung) out, like Rudolf Bahro and Wolf Biermann? Or who became victims of the DDR, such as Hanns Eisler, who provided the truly revolutionary music to many of Brecht's equally revolutionary words?

There is a great US musical documentary film about Eisler. In this I saw another Communist composer, whom I had met in the DDR (a friend of my parents whilst in exile in London during WW2), admitting that he had played a role in getting Eisler condemned and expelled by some state-controlled association of musicians, for 'formalism'. I seem to recall that Eisler, who had written the music for the National Anthem of the DDR, had been writing an opera based on the German folk hero, Till Eulenspiegel. In the movie, his co-composer and erstwhile friend, has the grace to break down when recounting his shameful act.

So, about the attempt to create a post-capitalist society, we surely have to proclaim that the first time was tragedy. Any attempt to defend or justify it should surely be considered not so much face as a continuation of the tragedy.

Much of what Comrade Waterman has to say is correct and valuable, but it is seriously disoriented by his terminology. The Soviet Union and the States it formed in its image in Eastern Europe were not socialist and still less were they communist. A communist society is a stateless one, where the principle of "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need" applies. Clearly, this does not describe the German "Democratic" Republic. The GDR wasn't even in transition to such a society. If one wants a term to describe the former Eastern Bloc countries, it is best to use the term "Stalinist".

It is impossible to go forward a single step unless we dispense with the notion that socialism can be handed down from above by a State that may or may not be democratic. The GDR's extensive and admirable social provision had as much in common with Bismarck's institution of social services in order to PREVENT socialism as it had with any attempt to CONSTRUCT it. Socialism will be achieved by a workers' revolution or it won't be achieved at all.