‘De-legitimation’ as a term in context with the history of the GDR poses a problem insofar as it implies that the regime was once legitimate. In the period of Honecker’s rule, the closest we come to any form of ideal legitimacy is in the mid-1970s when the effects of price subsidisation were apparent. The scope of this project does not allow for a discussion as to whether the GDR had legitimacy or not – there are too many questions; in which field of life does one mean, to what degree? Assuming either then that the SED had or did not have legitimacy is not the question I am interested in, rather in what ways did the SED not have legitimacy when it fell from power.
Throughout this project, I have tried to convey the idea that the GDR and the outside world were inextricably linked in many ways. Jitters abroad would cause jitters at home. It is not enough, however, to say that the GDR was solely affected by foreign factors, but these were undoubtedly a catalyst.
The SED was not a legally legitimated body insofar as elections were concerned, since it regularly faked election results. The spirit of the GDR Constitution was regularly broken or bent; with, for example, infringements on privacy (Article 8), freedom of expression, freedom to travel (Article 10). So, by disregarding its own laws when it suited itself, the SED was exposing itself to others doing the same thing.
The SED was ‘rational’ only in the sense of ‘Goal Rationality’, but with Honecker’s “Einheit von Wirtschafts- und Sozialpolitik”,the ‘goal-orientation’ was now shifted to testable things. In itself, one can imagine how this may have led to economic discontent, but the existence of an external measuring-stick catalysed the situation. Moreover, it was no longer revolutionary. There was no longer any utopia to go to, so the SED’s raison d’etre was questionable.
But Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika brought ideas of change from the East, which intersected with those of the West by implying that democracy did not exist in the GDR, that change was necessary and that the system was failing.
Goal-rationality is flawed as a political tool since it negates legality. In a goal-rational system, it is perfectly acceptable to break the rules to get results. This is destabilising since it allows no check to the power of the party, allowing the infamous Stalinist Terrors, for example. It also does not check the power of the people, since in such a system, they will invariably not participate and will claim no regard for the laws of the land if they see a government acting without such regard. Goal-rationality and legal-rationality are therefore mutually exclusive political tools. Assuming that laws are a vital part of any society, especially one with a bloated bureaucracy, goal-rationality is unviable, at least in the long term. Perhaps this observation explains the collapse of the SED’s structure.
The battle the SED faced in trying to convince a sceptical audience that its communist path was the culmination of German history was exacerbated by its status as an alternative Germany. In the paranoid calculations of its rulers, the GDR was not fascist, not warmongering, not imperialist and not capitalist. The GDR was therefore only negatively defined, rather than carrying a positive definition of what it actually was – it was always in comparison with the FRG. But it also had a lot of things in common with its brother: families, traditions, religion, language. Just as citizens of the FRG were referred to as “Germans”, so too were citizens of the GDR. The ever present FRG offer of citizenship was a constant reminder to GDR citizens that there was an alternative to being a GDR citizen and still retaining one’s “German” identity. The GDR was bereft of any traditional legitimacy, despite many attempts to create it in areas such as cultural policy by the SED.
If charisma, according to Weber, can be enough to force through personal ideas, then the comparison between Gorbachev and the geriatric SED Politb?ro is evidence enough. Honecker’s taking of office in 1971 brought a real sense of hope to people who saw a younger, more dynamic leader than Ulbricht, with some good ideas for the GDR. This was repeated by Gorbachev eighteen years later as he offered an alternative target for charismatic loyalty, breaking the Politb?ro’s geriatric, grey-suited monopoly. This affected not only much of the citizenry, but also party members.
So, if we take the above to be true, was it only a matter of time for the SED to just mechanically lose legitimacy and hence power? Weber’s theories come again into play. In the introduction I referred to the concept of there having to be a ‘binding’ alternative for an existing government to lose power. The problems the SED failed to solve, which I have discussed in this project, reduced the degree to which the regime was seen as ‘binding’ and so lowered the required standards to pose an alternative. Each loss by the SED in attempting to include parts of society was the opposition’s gain. The alternatives presented varied greatly from one pressure group to another, but the central plank was the same – removal of the leading role of the party. It was a negative Wende. Every miscalculation the party had made would haunt them as the groups it had attempted to co-opt or repress turned on it; even those within the party questioned the exemplary character of the SED. This is the crucial factor: without a compliant and motivated bureaucracy, the government could no longer function. But also of crucial importance was that there was any alternative at all; and had the atomisation of society continued indefinitely, it is hard to see the necessary room for political activity ever appearing.
International factors played a huge role in the de-legitimation of the SED. This project has hopefully illustrated in which areas of the GDR’s life they played this part. Had it not been for the oil shocks, Ostpolitik and Gorbachev, to mention only a few, perhaps the history of the GDR would have taken a different course. What is clear, however, is that there were severe weaknesses in the government and economy of the GDR and that they were either caused or strongly exacerbated by international events. Events beyond the effective control of the SED acted as catalysts to the weakening of the SED, and the strengthening of opposition in line with this Weberian model. As Weber does not provide as detailed an analysis of authority systems from below, only the weakening of government power can be tenuously used to indicate a strengthening of oppositional power. There is a gap in Weber’s model, but it is necessarily filled with some assumption in this project.
How far was Weber right? In traditional and charismatic terms, he is hard to refute, especially considering that this project cannot objectively answer this by looking through his eyes to test his theories and in the light of the evidence. Yet if we replace his model’s legal-rationality with goal-rationality, then he would be seen to be vindicated. However, just as Western systems claim to exist to protect the rights of their citizens, an essentially open-ended claim, communist ones can be seen to use teleologism in a similar open-ended way. The goal-rationality they use justifies actions in a society that has a legal system with second-order rules similar to those of democracies, but allows them to circumvent the annoyances that freedom brings to any government. It is therefore not a case of a simple switching of rationalities in Weber’s model, but the two run together; the difference between democracy and dictatorship might just be a question of degree.