A Human Rights Contradiction

Ned Richardson-Little

Thirty years since reunification, the former East Germany is routinely presented as a “second German dictatorship” where human rights were all but nonexistent. Yet when that state took sides with Third World causes and antifascists in the West, it frequently used the language of human rights — an expression of solidarity that often clashed with realities in East Germany itself.

A visitor looks at an exhibition that shows what everyday life was like in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) at the DDR Museum on September 15, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. (Maja Hitij / Getty Images)

Interview by
David Broder

When we think about East Germany, we wouldn’t be likely to consider it a beacon of human rights. While it called itself the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the state is notorious for the Berlin Wall and the Stasi secret police, and widely portrayed in film and in mass media as an example of socialist “totalitarianism.” Most contemporary scholarship presents a much more nuanced view of ordinary life in the GDR — rejecting the idea it was somehow akin to Nazism. But the language of human rights is normally associated with the state’s opponents, or even as imported from the West after the 1975 Helsinki Accords and the oppositional movements of the 1980s.

Ned Richardson-Little’s book The Human Rights Dictatorship, recently published by Cambridge University Press, offers a rather different perspective on this question. He explores how the notion of “human rights” was deployed by the East German leadership right from the end of World War II, as it sought to promote an alternative socialist notion of “rights” different from those in the West. Before the creation of Amnesty International, the GDR already had its own Committee for the Protection of Human Rights to defend the rights of prisoners — that is, prisoners in other countries.

Looking at this history allows us to understand wider aspects of GDR history, in particular as concerned creating an antifascist popular culture, its efforts to build solidarity with Third World countries, and its place in the international order. Jacobin’s David Broder spoke to Ned about his work and the legacy of the GDR thirty years since German reunification.


DB

Our story starts with the 1946 elections for the state governments in the Soviet-occupied zone, in which the Socialist Unity Party (SED) faced surprisingly intense competition from the Social Democrats. Some SED intellectuals like Karl Polak concluded that the party had failed to combat working-class voters’ fears of dictatorship and Soviet repression. In this context, why did the party start talking about “human rights” — and what kind of ideas could it draw on?

NRL

After 1945, “human rights” gained currency as a way of talking about creating a new world free of Nazism. But the concept was fluid — it hadn’t been defined yet and could go in lots of different directions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) wasn’t written until 1948. So, it was up for grabs politically — its legitimacy was yet to be fixed to any ideological program.

The SED’s problem was the lack of any socialist or Marxist tradition of talking about human rights. Karl Marx saw it as a kind of marketing ploy which dressed up bourgeois rights in the guise of universal values. At the turn of the century, August Bebel occasionally mentioned it in connection to colonialism, but Lenin never did, nor Stalin. So, there was little to draw on textually in 1946 to back up a Marxist-Leninist human rights program.

In this case, the language of human rights was used defensively against the Social Democrats, as the SED sought to present itself as the genuine united party of both Socialists and Communists. But particularly, it was an assertion of universal values against Nazism, presenting the SED as bearers of the moral mission to overcome the horrors of the Third Reich for good.

DB

You tell us the Social Democrats said there could be “no socialism without human rights,” whereas SED man Polak replied there would be “no human rights without socialism.” Some rights the GDR upheld — and Western countries didn’t — illustrate what he might have meant. For instance, the right to a job and guarantees allowing women economic independence, to get divorced, be a single mother with her own cheap apartment, etc. But missing, here, is the notion of civil liberties with which the individual can defend themselves against the state. So, in what sense did this talk of human rights amount to anything more than a rebranding of socialist economic policies?

NRL

Certainly, civil rights in East Germany couldn’t be used against the state. Anything leveled against the state — “the community” — was seen as egotistical individualism and not what socialism was about. The point of the revolution was not to individualize rights, in an atomized way, but to create a society in which everyone could realize their individual freedom collectively.

Here, rights become a way of identifying social priorities and conceiving of the good of the community as a whole. The East German constitution said it protected political rights. Yet what it defended was not a way to make claims against the state, but a means of defining a philosophical vision of what socialist democracy looks like, in which everyone participates and is part of an organic collective whole that controls the economy and political system.

This organic collective control was to be led by the SED, as the vanguard of the workers’ and peasants’ state. So, the discourse of human rights was very instrumentalized to legitimize the system. But it also spoke to defining a new understanding of what society should look like under state socialism.

DB

1948 saw the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — though neither of the Germanies was a UN member — followed by the Basic Law in West Germany in 1949. You mention the Committee for the Protection of Human Rights (KSM), a body created by the East German state which denounced abuses in other countries, including the treatment of Easterners and members of the banned Communist Party in West Germany. Could you tell us what kind of “human rights” framework this could draw on, when East Germany did not itself allow organized opposition — and what did East Germans think of this?

NRL

Both state-orchestrated and based on mass mobilization, KSM initially focused on the banned Communist Party in the West, but moreover sought to connect human rights to the question of overcoming the Nazi past. It pointed to continuities of personnel in the West after 1945 — people like Hans Globke, right-hand man to [Chancellor] Konrad Adenauer, and deeply involved in the Nazis — but also rearmament and the idea that West Germany was inherently a threat to peace.

The KSM didn’t really have a coherent philosophy of human rights as a legal system, or draw on texts to indicate that West Germany was contradicting sections of its own constitution or international law. Rather, it created a cultural and ideological narrative of human rights based on antifascism. This was crucial in portraying communism as a heroic force overcoming Nazism and struggling against its remnants after 1945.

It operated rather like Amnesty International’s prisoner campaigns, tying individual cases into this same narrative. It defended people working to try to foster international cooperation for socialism, trade unionists, and members of the Free German Youth, a GDR mass organization banned in the West. In this binary, whoever fought for antifascism was fighting for human rights; those who oppressed antifascists were against human rights.

KSM gained traction among people already on board with this antifascist vision of East Germany, like labor movement activists and Spanish Civil War veterans, but there was also a degree of popular buy-in and participation. There were charity concerts on the radio where people could send in requests in exchange for donations, and mass letter-writing campaigns, which large numbers did participate in.

Within its core group of supporters, KSM certainly did have people very passionate about what was going on. But what’s hard to say is how many East Germans who took part in these campaigns really identified with the antifascist narrative of human rights, or else, for instance, acted on behalf of their coworkers, or felt compelled to take part in what happened to be going on in their workplace.

DB

The postwar GDR leadership included many figures who had been active antifascists under Nazism — a rarity among the general population. Yet a common argument holds that when the GDR proclaimed its own antifascist character and pointed to ex-Nazis in positions of power in the West, it was essentially whitewashing its own population’s complicity by attributing the Nazi legacy to the other Germany. But could we say that these human rights campaigns were a means of building up an antifascist culture among the population which the GDR had inherited after the war?

NRL

It was important for a lot of people to have a narrative explaining the sharp transition in their lives, from the Third Reich to state socialism. So, this idea of GDR antifascism as something that had wiped the slate clean — a socialist revolution that had uprooted Nazism and created a state without continuity with that past — was useful in freeing the broad population from the legacy of the Third Reich and its own complicity in Nazism.

This framing of human rights activism in terms of antifascism was essentially a way for the losers of the war to become the winners of the postwar. It offered people complicit with the Hitler regime — or who had passively accepted rather than questioned it — a way to be on the side of morality and human rights. And they contrasted that, as against people in the West stuck in the Nazi past, now rebranded as liberal democracy but doomed to repeat its failures because the roots of capitalism hadn’t been eradicated.

This was not simply propaganda for the GDR, but a way of giving its citizens a way of understanding the world and a path forward within the socialist system.

DB

The GDR is notorious for being drastically undemocratic, given its single-candidate elections, censored press, and ubiquitous surveillance. You tell us that while there was no effective opposition, the GDR leadership did create pressure valves, allowing letters of complaint and petitions, and setting up “bloc parties” allied to the SED, purported to represent the different elements of the population. Were these just avenues for airing grievances, or could they prompt policy change?

NRL

You can’t equate mass letter-writing to a form of democracy able to shift high-level state decisions: East Germany wasn’t going to leave the Warsaw Pact if enough people wrote in petitions.  But we can also look at lower levels of policy.

Take people’s complaints about individual party members’ behavior and corruption, or about consumer goods — a huge focus of these letters — or housing, by the 1980s the core subject of complaint. And you can see changes at this lower level — or at least, responses to complaints. This didn’t necessarily mean policy change, but grievances voiced from a position of loyalty in the name of trying to “improve socialism” could be addressed by various state organs.

It’s hard to find any similar changes in direction at the national level. But complaints from women about access to abortion do seem to have played a role in the liberalization of abortion law under Erich Honecker. In the Weimar period, the Communist Party had demanded the legalization of abortion with the slogan, “your body belongs to you” but after 1945 the idea prevailed that the social necessity of abortion had disappeared along with capitalist oppression. The banning of abortion was very unpopular and in the 1960s this cause was taken up by wom­­­en specifically in the language of rights. The state didn’t fully endorse their idea of bodily self-determination. But there was a liberalization of abortion access and the state changed its natalism policy from one based on punishing abortion to one of incentives for having children.

Similarly, if we look at the mass discussions over the drafting of the 1968 constitution, a mobilization by the churches was able to make the state move from a position of removing constitutional rights to religious freedom — leaving just one article defending the freedom of religious belief — to having two articles on freedom of conscience. This was a largely symbolic victory. But in this case, it’s interesting that the state responded to such pressure and saw citizens calling for this not as “dissidents” but as Christians constructively trying to make space for themselves within the socialist society.

DB

In terms of trying to lay claim to the state’s own expressed aims, you mention citizens who write letters in outward defense of the GDR’s bid for international recognition and its drive to join the United Nations — by saying that surely, to this end, it ought to embrace the UDHR.

NRL

Yes, it’s interesting how people came at these problems from multiple angles, insisting that they wanted to be good socialist citizens, but something was standing in their way. In the case of the 1968 constitution, that meant complaining that the proposed changes would hamper a Christian’s efforts to be a real member of the socialist community.

Or, in the case you mention, pointing out that it would be a tragedy if the international community shunned East Germany for not living up to the ideals it claimed to believe in, just because foreign countries had got some sort of mistaken impression . . .

DB

It is hard to imagine such a statement as not, somehow, a coy or even a sarcastic way of expressing criticism.

NRL

Here, we have the problem of discerning people’s genuine intentions, because these letters have a certain literary style that had to be used in order to get them read.

If you sent in an anonymous letter going all out saying the state was illegitimate, you’d trigger an investigation into who you were. But if you stayed within the lines and didn’t explicitly challenge the SED’s leading role, you could get away with a lot of what very much sounds like sarcasm — and snarkily saying that the state was clearly violating international norms it claimed to agree with.

But using just the right rhetoric, you could assume a position that came across as loyal criticism voiced by a socialist citizen, and not as something coming from a dissident who wanted to bring down the state.

DB

If people did claim that the SED was violating international norms, how were they aware of what documents like the UDHR said — was it all just West German TV, or sources made available within the GDR itself?

NRL

A lot of the origins of human rights dissent came from within East Germany itself. For sure, people could hear about human rights from West German TV. But often they made their case using the rhetoric and prescriptions published in East German media. Since they had to phrase things in a loyal-sounding way, they needed to draw on the rhetoric of the system.

KSM publications laid out the East German constitution and legal code and compared them point by point with UN human rights covenants: “Look how we are achieving all these rights.” So, people could refer to these texts to say that the state was not living up to principles which it explicitly claimed to have realized.

The UN declaration wasn’t some kind of forbidden knowledge the government was trying to keep from people. The idea of human rights floated around the public sphere of East Germany uncontained, and it was something people could reach out to and use as leverage.

DB

On UN politics, you refer to a shift in KSM activity, from early years in which it was mainly concerned with communists arrested in West Germany, to a focus on Third World causes and the situation of black people in the United States. It would seem that, beyond the interests of international solidarity, this was useful as a means of highlighting Western hypocrisy — and derailing criticisms of the GDR’s own record.

NRL

The 1960s saw a shift from an antifascism focused on Germany, to the bid for a global conception of human rights and a global legal framework. This sought to marry the East German notion of human rights with the agenda advanced at the UN by Asian and African countries. Essentially, this meant asserting state socialism’s own anti-imperialist and anti-racist credentials, but it also extended to a comparison between Western states’ refusal to recognize the GDR as a legitimate country, and their denial of self-determination in the Third World.

This was useful in seeking Asian and African allies in the bid for recognition, but worked very well domestically, too. I think it helped dampen a certain degree of criticism of internal problems by people who were part of the cultural and intellectual elite. A certain kind of “whataboutism” in response to the accusations against the state — pointing to West Germany, which had its Basic Law but also emergency laws to deal with student protests and ban people connected to the Red Army Faction; and to the United States, which spoke of human rights but denied them to civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and napalmed Vietnam — was an effective rhetorical strategy with key parts of the GDR population.

When you associate human rights violations with things like the torture in Pinochet’s Chile, with the mass killings in Vietnam, with the junta in Greece, for a lot of people the problems in the GDR faded in importance. “How could you compare anything happening here, where everyone has food and a home, with people being thrown out of helicopters in Chile?”

As with many NGOs focused on questions abroad, the internationalization of the problem doesn’t necessarily draw attention to similar issues at home, but rather deflects from them.  Situations abroad always seem more black-and-white, with greater moral clarity than the more complicated problems one sees in one’s own society. When many people heard Western human rights criticisms of the GDR but looked at their own lives and saw they weren’t being carried off to torture chambers by fascists, they might have thought it was all a bit overblown — and at least the situation wasn’t as bad elsewhere.

DB

Your book suggests that until very late on in GDR history, human rights wasn’t a useful line of argument for dissidents or left-wing critics of the SED like Rudolf Bahro.

NRL

In the 1970s, GDR dissidents were further from the discourse of human rights than their counterparts in most Eastern Bloc countries.  I think in part that’s because of the use of this ideological and propaganda theme by the state itself.

But intellectual dissidents on the Left had no interest in bandwagoning with Western human rights organizations.  Rudolf Bahro said that their demands were completely “inane,” and insisted on the need to move forward into a better socialism, not backward into liberal parliamentarism. Someone like Robert Havemann saw things more in terms of convergence — a more democratic East, a more socialist West. But there was a real allergic reaction against working with Western human rights groups, seen as inherently anti-socialist in their aims. For those who wanted to advance a more democratic socialism, these weren’t allies they were looking for at this time.

The 1980s saw a shift. Peace activists pushing for demilitarization — especially after the 1970s introduction of mandatory military training in schools — and those calling for environmental improvements — given the vast industrial pollution — thought they could seek change on such “moral,” “apolitical” issues. But the Stasi really didn’t agree — and there was a crackdown. It saw any independent movements as inherently oppositional and thus intolerable; if people wanted peace, they should join the state-run peace movement, and environmentalists should join conservation societies to plant trees and protect frogs. You could do that, but not complain about a chemicals plant pouring waste into the river, which might disrupt industrial production.

So, even among “concerned citizens” who had long considered the human rights critique of the GDR too abstract or as Western and liberal, once they found the Stasi arresting people for being involved in such causes, they began to turn to this same language as a basic appeal for pluralism. That is, in their understanding, you’d need a political revolution just in order to create the space for “moral,” “apolitical” campaigning.

At the same time, a lot of the state’s residual legitimacy attached to the idea of a global fight for justice had begun to wane by the 1980s, added to which were the crises in terms of consumer goods. This created a kind of tipping point at which the language of human rights began to bring together a wide array of disaffected and disgruntled groups.

DB

Most discussion of human rights’ effect in the unraveling of the Eastern Bloc focuses on the Helsinki Accords of 1975 and in particular the principle of freedom of movement. You push back against this idea — why?

NRL

The accords had an important effect. But what doesn’t hold up is the idea of a dam-breaking moment in which Western, liberal notions suddenly spread to the East in 1975 and then created irreversible momentum toward 1989. Human rights had been part of public discourse in East Germany since the 1940s.

As for people trying to leave the country, already in the early 1970s, even before Helsinki, people had invoked the UN human rights covenants as leverage. Helsinki did coincide with a moment when increasing numbers wanted to leave — and became a useful tool for people legitimizing what they are doing.

It’s interesting, though, that the wave of people seeking exit permits didn’t come the day after Helsinki, and it also faded within a few years. Helsinki led to more people writing about human rights but wasn’t a sudden turning point that created a new consciousness.

Within East Germany, the church came to an accommodation with the state after Helsinki, moving from a position of criticizing socialism in the name of human rights to one recognizing it as in compliance with international human rights law. This was a way to position itself as not inherently anti-socialist and give it more freedom to protect its members and work both institutionally and behind the scenes.

If you look at letters people sent, the Helsinki Accords did come and go as a reference point, but so, too, did the constitution and the UDHR and the newspapers — at one point, everyone was citing Honecker’s autobiography. That isn’t to say that Helsinki was irrelevant. But people looked everywhere for such principles in support of their claims.

DB

And another important factor, in understanding the use of human rights rhetoric in the late 1980s, is surely the fact it was also being voiced by Mikhail Gorbachev…

NRL

Yes, while the Accords in 1975 weren’t a dam-breaking moment, they did launch an ongoing process which became tied up with reformism within the socialist bloc. Mikhail Gorbachev’s reference to human rights ties into this idea of socialist renewal — it’s not just a matter of Western groups putting pressure on the East and making them become liberal, but also a way of seeking to respond to domestic crises, without jettisoning the socialist system entirely.

DB

Again, you highlight the early and widespread use of human rights discourse in the GDR, as opposed to the common notion that it was simply a Western import. Yet ultimately, reunification didn’t bring together different human rights traditions from both sides. West Germany swallowed the GDR, with no discernible impact on the expanded state’s constitution or political order. So, what residue of East German notions of human rights was still present in the protest movements of 1989-90 — did they hold out a different idea of what it could mean?

NRL

What’s erased in the history of the movements 1989 is the idea that it could have been anything other than the triumph of liberal-democratic human rights and the absorption of the GDR into the West — that is, the possibility that people wanted anything other than Western-style parliamentary capitalism.

Yet, when we look at the social movements of 1989, many did push for a democratized socialism in a still-independent GDR, merging liberal protections with socio-economic rights. Others pushed simply for unification, and in between there were progressive Christians, and more conservative ones keen to end socialism.

In the movements of 1989, human rights served as a banner that could bring together people with contradictory agendas, in a cause that was ostensibly “apolitical” and purely “moral.” Yet under the surface, a whole range of political choices had to be made. And with the collapse of the SED and the opening of the Wall, the broad and seemingly universal coalition fractured — and the different groups competed for power.

By the end of 1989 you had factions talking about creating an East German constitution and others who wanted the rapid elimination of the entire legacy of the socialist state. So, the strength of human rights discourse — its seeming universalism, able to unite a wide coalition — was also its weakness when it came to defining a cohesive political agenda.

DB

Jacobin has published articles arguing that the movements of 1989 had the potential to produce a more democratic socialism. But one possible objection to this narrative is that if — as you said earlier — East Germans habitually voiced criticism within official boundaries, invoking the system’s own principles, then how are we to assess the “socialist” element of these movements — and the strength of popular identification with this? Independent-left forces like New Forum were prominent in the protests but made minimal impact on the March 1990 elections, and still less so the various far-left groups. So, did any of this socialist-inflected human rights politics really continue after 1989, as a critique of what came next?

NRL

There was a left critique within the unification process, with an alliance between dissidents and ex-SED members up through spring 1990. But after the win for the conservative coalition in the elections in March, on a platform of rapid unification, the air really went out of the democratic-socialist project.

In those elections the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS, ex-SED) got 20 percent and the various left-wing human rights groups under 3 percent. Yet despite their weak performance, the other parties almost all picked up on their demands. The victorious Christian Democrats campaigned on “never again socialism” but also said they’d be protecting people’s jobs and homes, defending the welfare state to some degree, on the basis of the West German “social market economy.”

So, these groups’ demands weren’t completely eliminated. If people wanted some mix of social and democratic rights, the Christian Democrats did best at presenting themselves as able to achieve that, on the basis of the prosperity in the West and the Deutschmark. But those who advocated new experiments suffered heavily from the impression of economic non-viability, left by the GDR itself.

As for what came after 1990, some former SED members who had now been purged from their jobs revived the language of human rights — pointing to the similarities with the anti-communism in the West in the 1950s.

But also instructive was the 1990s rolling back of abortion rights — with the West’s more restrictive legislation expanded into the new Eastern states. East German feminists said that even though they had gained political rights, they had lost other rights like bodily self-determination. So, the conservative notion of human rights drawn from the West German constitutional court clashed with the East German human rights tradition.

Today in Die Linke [the Left Party] many would say that 1989 could have achieved a more robust set of economic and democratic freedoms. But part of the problem, there, is that association with East Germany has itself become toxic. If in the post-1949 GDR whatever socialism did was “human rights”, after reunification even positive aspects of the GDR like state-provided childcare were framed as “totalitarian.”

DB

Something which many Easterners of many political affiliations would reject . . .

NRL

Some victims of the Stasi reject any attempt to talk about normal life in the GDR as whitewashing totalitarianism, while others, even if dissatisified with parts of that society, would fully reject any attempt to compare it to Nazism or to present them as having had to wait forty years to catch up to West German normality. Such claims still breed a lot of resentment among people who reject a narrative in which their whole lives are reduced to a story of perpetrators and victims.