glaeser book forum part 3: the life of the stasi officers
In this installment of our Fall book forum, I’ll discuss how Glaeser applies the “sociology of understanding.” Based on interviews, he presents us with an account of how some East Germans (in Berlin) saw the world. His account of peace activists would be familiar to those who study movements. Peace activists saw their faith in German socialism challenged when authority figures were perceived to act in hypocritical ways. Thus, the personal attachment to communist institutions was challenged and eventually severed.
What is much, much more interesting is his account of the internal life of the Communist party and the lives of Stasi officers. Glaeser’s account relies on a description of the folk cosmology of Communist leaders. Essentially, there are two components to this “lifeworld.” One is a worldview derived from Leninist interpretations of Marxist theory. It was all about the Party and how the Party sets the course for the nation as a whole. Thus, the mental lives of Stasi officers is filled with thinking about how any action or policy reflects the Party’s agenda and mission as the guide of the people. Political Epistemics is filled with lots of thick description on how Stasi officers sat around and try to create an interpretation of the world that properly squared with how the understood Marxist-Leninist theory. I found the obsession with “left” and “right” deviations to be informative, if amusing as well.
Second (which I find more interesting) is a Manichean worldview that pits us (the Communist movement) against an evil outsider. Abstractly, the evil outsider was capitalism in general. More concretely, the enemy, the nightmare that haunted the socialist imagination was fascism, seen as the most perverse manifestation of counter revolutionary forces. The implication is that the people who had the most status were those who had somehow participated in anti-fascist actions in WWII, as partisans, prisoners, or soldiers. This biographical experience created a sort of authenticity from which the elite of the East German communist state could be built.
This is important from the perspective of political sociology because it indicates how socialist systems were often built on very real historical traumas and the authenticity that could be constructed from these experiences. While I find it hard to see how someone could abstractly accept a political philosophy that ceded all power to state committees, I do find it easy to believe how anti-fascist sentiment could be assimilated into a socialist party’s agenda. The Party became the “us” in a literal life and death battle with “them” (fascists).
This biographical approach to the East German state also explains, to some extent, the endurance of European socialist states, which survived starvation (USSR in the 20s), mass political murder (USSR in the 30s), warfare and mass death (USSR in the 40s), and open revolt (Prague ’56/Czech Republic ’68). The elites of the system had gotten to the point where there own internal sense of self was thoroughly integrated with the Party’s interests. Thus, social change entailed a thorough rejection of the self as it had been shaped by wars.
Ironically, this merging of Party ideology, history, and personal identity contained its own internal contradictions. Since Stasi officers were justifying their actions in terms of the inevtiable evolution toward communism, they hesitated to support the GDR when things started going bad in 1989. They simply couldn’t keep repressing dissent and still believe that the Party was really standing against fascism and moving in a progressive direction. This corrosive doubt, rooted in the tensions between individual experience and party ideology, and the confrontation with a now wealthy West Germany, enabled one important group, the Stasi, to hesitate when it came time to either fight anti-communist activists or simply give up on the East German socialist project.
Next week, we’ll wrap this up with a discussion of how this historical analysis fits into a broader social scientific discussion of revolutions.