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Dictatorship and demand: the politics of consumerism in East Germany

And to accomplish this, the Party would have to appease the population's appetite for at least basic consumer goods like nice clothes and decent food. Thus, Landsman portrays the SED as caught in a serious dilemma as it worked towards building socialism: if they pushed too hard, they would lose power, but if they bent too far backwards to appease the every wish and need of consumers, they would never get around to the main goal of building socialism. Landsman's argument then is that the one side of the tension was caused by a group of officials and organizations within the government, and to some extent the Party, pulling the behemoth SED and GDR government apparatus towards the needs of consumers.

Landsman calls this the "consumer supply lobby" and this is important because in past literature on this subject a kind of false dichotomy has been set up pitting the "people" against "the state," replete with divided camps of "top-down" and "bottom-up" GDR historians Ilko-Sascha Kowalczuk against Andreas Ludwig, for example. The first chapter, "Production and Consumption: Establishing Priorities," focuses on the very early days of the Soviet occupation, and does a wonderful job of laying out very clearly the productivist approach of the pre-GDR state apparatus, the Deutsche Wirtschaftskommission DWK , essentially a puppet of the SMAG high command.

The crisis of these first few years was simply life itself, as he puts it: "Deprivation, demoralization, and despair continued to shape the life of the Soviet zone. It was only after several groups, such as officials within the state labor union, the FDGB, complained to the DWK that workers simply could not work while suffering from hunger, that the SMAG issued the notorious order , which was the first of many failed attempts to square this circle by doling out more calories--but only for those engaged in the kinds of productivist work favored by the Soviets and the SED heavy industry.

The currency reform has a bit of an over-glossed patina, as Landsman points out, and it was not exactly as though all store shelves filled magically overnight with a cornucopia of modern consumer goods.

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Nonetheless, the East German leadership promptly buried their heads in the sand of the collected writings of Marx and Lenin, predicting with confidence that the whole thing was a sham and would end in massive unemployment for the western zone--whereas the Soviets promptly told them to start upping the supplies for consumers and enlarging Order for more workers. This was not the only point in time at which the Soviets would put pressure on the SED to start paying attention to the needs of consumers.

Considering that for a long time Russians generally thought of Germany as a quasi-paradise of the good life, and that the USSR's master plan was to ship its raw materials to East Germany and get top-quality manufactured goods in return for its own citizens, the fact that Russians had to tell Germans to pull their act together on the consumer front ought to tell us how bad the situation in East Germany for consumers really was.

And Landsman cites numerous other examples of Soviets chastising East German officials for not having nice stores, not having enough jewelry, and so on--all small vignettes that Landsman delivers beautifully. Once again, East German authorities bowed to the pressure but the solution they delivered was half-hearted at best. The HO stores they created to dry up the black market were a nice try, but the prices of the goods in them were kept exorbitantly high ostensibly to absorb excess purchasing power , and even though they came down later, the HO never fully became an organization that was solely about the consumer.

Rubin on Landsman, 'Dictatorship and Demand: The Politics of Consumerism in East Germany'

The customer was never king. It should be clear that the dichotomies between the forces pushing for better treatment of consumers on the one hand and the forces concerned with "building socialism" on the other repeat themselves in the series of crises that Landsman considers: the provisioning crisis of the forced collectivization in and ; the June 17 uprising; the turmoil in involving Poland and Hungary and the ascent of Khrushchev; and the renewed provisioning crisis following the second attempt at forced collectivization in , leading to the Berlin Crisis and the building of the Wall in In all cases, the song seems to remain the same: enormous pressure from the West, the East, and "below" forced the SED to do something about the travails of East German consumers, but each action they took seemed designed to placate rather than solve problems of provisioning.

There is an organization for "needs research" Bedarfsforschung --something one might consider to be a major necessity in a planned economy without a market, how else can a government know what to make and how much? In his conclusion, Landsman hints at a broader and more fundamental argument not really voiced clearly in his introduction: that in a planned economy, the consumer "lobby" could never have won. The deck was stacked against it--there was no way that a socialist government could ever have truly put consumption as its priority.

At the end of the day, socialism was always about maintaining power through control of the means of production , not the means of consumption, and so industry would always have the upper hand in the titanic clashes Landsman documents between the consumer lobby and industry. Industry did not want to play ball with trade; so industry did not have to, and whole towns and districts repeatedly did not get the things they needed and wanted, making life in the planned society a profoundly unplanned and unpredictable experience.

Table of Contents Acknowledgments Abbreviations Introduction 1. Production and Consumption: Establishing Priorities 2. Mark Landsman's well-documented study starkly reveals the contradictions between the priorities of production and consumption in perhaps the most industrious Communist society, the German Democratic Republic. The rich texture of this work, the presentation of now obscure bureaucratic conflicts, the gritty evocation of privation, ensure its quality and interest.

Dictatorship and Demand provides new and important information about a period in East Germany's history that had a defining impact on the country's later years. Landsman is an engaging writer who skillfully brings life to this generally opaque period of German history. State socialism failed, among other reasons, because it produced an economy of consumer scarcity.

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