By the end of 1989, the Socialist Unity Party (SED) ruling the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was ostensibly at the physical height of its power.
The Nationale Volksarmee had a high priority in the state budget and represented significant manpower and destructive potential. The Staatsicherheitspolizei was at its strongest. Established in 1950, it boasted between 85,000 and 105,000 employees, backed up by a colossal bureaucratic system holding files on many millions of individuals.
Why, if the SED possessed such vast information, manpower and weaponry did it not break up the crowds of demonstrators as Deng Xiaoping’s party had in Tianamen Square, instead ordering its troops to wait in the wings? Why did the Politburo seem to back away from its professed quasi-omniscience and depose Honecker? As Erich Mielke put it, “How did it come that we simply gave up our GDR, just like that?”
The GDR was founded as a result of international events. It was a symbol of the Cold War division of Europe. It proved to be remarkably susceptible to external influences in terms of social movements, policymaking and economic terms. The SED was the definition of the GDR. It was what made the GDR essentially different to the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). A reformed, capitalist GDR would no longer be an intrinsically viable state, but just the Eastern half of the ‘German Question’. “Ohne die Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands g?be es keine Deutsche Demokratische Republik” Any damage to the prestige of the SED would damage that of the GDR, therefore any damage to the GDR was to have very negative impacts on the SED.
I focus on the Honecker era (1971-1989) for a number of reasons. Firstly, it begins with the SED in a relatively strong position in the GDR. Secondly, working with the bold assumption that with the resignation of Honecker in October 1989, the legitimacy of the SED was at an effective end, allows a clean break in analysis. Finally, there is a relatively high concentration of relevant events in this timescale that lend weight to the hypothesis of this dissertation, namely that the GDR’s internal stability was under the influence of the international environment.
Legitimacy is the manifestation of a government’s power in that the government has an awareness of the right to govern reciprocated by those governed. This is especially relevant when considering the functionaries whose job it is to carry out the orders from above. They must believe in the righteousness of their actions, but also vital of the general population which must see a valid reason to participate in the society. According to Max Weber, legitimate authority claims legitimacy in different combinations of the following:-
“1. Rational Grounds – resting on a belief in the ‘legality’ of patterns of normative rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands (legal authority).
2. Traditional Grounds – resting on an established belief in the sanctity of immemorial traditions and the legitimacy of the status of those exercising authority under them (traditional authority); or finally,
3. Charismatic Grounds – resting on devotion to the specific and exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative pattern or order revealed or ordained by him (charismatic authority).”
The relevance of this to the events and processes of the GDR’s decline may not be immediately obvious, yet it provides a good framework with which to measure the decline in both the people’s recognition of the SED’s right to rule and, perhaps more importantly, the decline in self-justification of the SED and its apparatus of their right to rule. This is where “Goal-Rationality” shows its importance as a theoretical implement. Rigby defines it as:-
“2. The predominant orientation of these command-structures is towards goal-achievement, rather than towards the application of rules, which Weber correctly identifies as the predominant orientation of the public bureaucracies of Western ‘capitalist’ societies.
3. Consonant with this, the legitimacy claimed for the commands issuing from this system and for those holding office under it is framed in terms of ‘goal-rationality’ rather than the formal-legal rationality of Western ‘capitalist’ systems.”
The whole society in a Communist system is subject to a goal-rational approach. To be exact, the goal that is aspired to is Communism itself. The party places itself as the instigator and director of the processes that lead to communism. It places itself at the vanguard of the revolutionary process. By arguing that certain measures taken are necessary for the advancement to utopia, policies and laws, and hence the domination of the party, is legitimated. Free elections are conveniently made inappropriate by the threat of ‘false consciousness’. In theory also, complaints and hardships are endured in expectation of a future reward. It can never be a replacement for legal-rationality, since all societies need laws to function, but must co-exist with it. However, the viability of goal-rationality as a long-term political tool is questionable due to its disregard for the rule of law. The two are mutually exclusive.
Weber is relevant to the communist model because of his view that the focus of any system of legitimation is the command-obedience relationship, Herrschaft. This is central to the system in place in the GDR, as the obvious dictatorship of the SED, the ideas of ‘Democratic Centralism’ and the fact that the economy was centrally directed demonstrate. Even if the dominance of the party over the people is overwhelmingly assured, the dominance of the party over its own bureaucracy must also be maintained. This mode of legitimation is still relevant to maintain the functioning structure of rule, which requires an obedient administrative staff.
Furthermore, according to Max Weber, a social order is legitimated if at least one part of the populace considers it to be ‘vorbildlich’ (exemplary) and ‘ verbindlich‘ (binding), whilst the other part does not offer an alternative as equally ‘verbindlich‘. Therefore, one of the main tasks of this project will be to determine to what extent the SED lost the quasi-religious belief in itself that existed in at least one half of Weber’s equation, and to what extent the balance was tipped towards the dissidents’ alternatives.