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The Vanishing

DISSOLUTION: The Crisis of Communism and the End of East Germany By Charles S. Maier, Princeton University Press: 440 pp., $29.95

June 22, 1997|RALF DAHRENDORF | Ralf Dahrendorf is the author of numerous books, including "Society and Democracy in Germany" and "Reflections on the Revolution in Europe." He is the former director of the London School of Economics and is warden of St. Antony's College, Oxford University

The "German miracle" was the rise of West Germany after the war, like a phoenix from the ashes of defeat. The combination of Economics Minister Ludwig Erhard's stubborn espousal of the market economy and federal Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's political skills in wresting sovereignty from the Allied occupation powers, while making sure that their domestic base remained strong, was miraculous indeed. Within five years of the foundation of the German Federal Republic, the rump country had become an economic powerhouse and a political force to be reckoned with, indeed a member of NATO.

The second German miracle happened 40 years later. It was the unification of powerful West Germany with the collapsing German Democratic Republic in the east. The process is the most poignant element of the West's victory in the Cold War. How was it possible?

Charles S. Maier, the distinguished Harvard historian who witnessed events as they unfolded in Berlin in 1989 and 1990, has now answered the most fascinating question concerning the process of unification: How did the dissolution of the GDR come about? Some of us remember what happened during that summer of 1989 all over hitherto Communist Europe. We have not forgotten the pictures of East German holiday-makers in West German embassy compounds in Budapest and Prague, who were distinctly unwilling to return to their allegedly prosperous country. We remember how Lech Walesa's Solidarity turned first into a round table, then into a non-Communist government in Poland. Then there are the television images of President Nicolae Ceausescuof Romania suddenly realizing that the crowd in front of him was hostile, not docile. Why did all this happen? What had changed?

There was Mikhail Gorbachev, of course. Once he had introduced glasnost, a certain freedom of speech, people said what they wanted, and this was not, in the terms of the old regimes, politically correct. There was the indomitable desire to travel; mobility is practical freedom. Then there was the decline of the economies, at a time in which television--unable to respect any borders--spread the news of economic revival in the West. Beyond that, every Communist country had its own story to tell, skeletons falling out of many cupboards, new heroes like Vaclav Havel emerging, crowds chanting unheard-of slogans--"We are the people," which, in Leipzig, soon turned into demands for German unity: "We are one people."

Maier traces the dissolution of the GDR both in minute detail and with the wisdom acquired from long experience with the subject. His answer to the question of why it happened is clear: "Communism self-destructed." It had become a hollow edifice with an ideology believed by few and with a nomenklatura of rulers liked by nobody. East Germans had created their own "niche society" of private pleasures tolerated by a regime that failed to recognize that these involved detachment rather than support. International public opinion increasingly turned against Communist regimes everywhere, not the least in East Germany. The leaders became jittery.

Then the economies of Communist countries began to falter. In the most fascinating analytical chapter of his book, Maier raises, and answers, the critical question, "Was socialism doomed from the outset, or were there later fateful turning points?"

His answer, for the GDR, is that socialism might have been viable if it had adopted market elements in the 1960s (in other words, if it had ceased to be socialist). The stubborn defense of principle, however, was bound to lead the German Democratic Republic into a spiraling debt that, by the time of collapse, required more than the country's total export earnings to service. Dependence on the Soviet Union for oil, the simultaneous pursuit of a wasteful investment program in computers and a policy of rising consumption--which in effect had to be financed by West Germany--aggravated the dilemma to the point that there was no way out. Socialist economies were always precarious, but self-imposed constraints and mistaken policies made them unable to respond to the challenges of the 1970s. From then on, collapse was only a matter of time.

The question remains why we in the West did not realize the imminence of this collapse. Why did 1989 come as a surprise after all? I am not sure Maier has any more of an answer than the rest of us. One cannot rule out the possibility that the world will make the same mistake again--with Cuba? with China?--of underestimating the pressures that destroy seemingly stable regimes.

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