Dresden im Januar 2024 ©
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Now more than ever, people want to help shape their societyOne Republic, Two Kinds of Democracy

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For the first time in her life, she said, she voluntarily attended a demonstration. Over 4,000 people showed up on that Saturday afternoon at the end of January in Frankfurt an der Oder, a city in eastern Brandenburg. The retiree, who worked as an electronics technician, had spent her entire adult life in this town. Prior to 1989 she often took part in marches along the main highway and in front of the »peace bell« on the banks of the Oder, although these were always orchestrated by the state. She did it because that’s what people had to do – and what they did – in the so-called German Democratic Republic: It was considered a duty by the factory that employed her. In the revolutionary autumn of 1989, she was not among those people who defiantly and courageously moved through the streets, thereby flouting the conventional practice of state-decreed marches. At the time, it somehow didn’t occur to her that she should demonstrate against the prevailing order of things in favor of »freedom.« 

This snapshot speaks volumes about the present condition of German democracy as well as about its history. For years now, we have been debating both the origins and the current state of German democracy with an intensity never seen in the past. A variety of public institutions – political commentary pages, hard-pressed political parties often dismissed as the »old parties,« and officeholders or civil servants from the government and state: All have tried to stem the rising tide of right-wing populism. They have resorted to everything from articles and Sunday sermon-style speeches to programs and commemorations designed to promote democracy and remind everyone of its benefits.

But quite recently the political and social »center« of society has been stirring in the east and the west, as well as in the north and the south. The mobilization of civil society, so often invoked but so difficult to pin down, casts the face of the »Berlin Republic« in a new light, at least temporarily. All over the Federal Republic people are making placards in favor of »maintaining democracy,« standing in the rain to support »tolerance and diversity,« and calling out the Alternative for Germany party as an »arsonist.« Even though the »against« is often louder than the ›for« and the crowds chant »Nazis out« rather than »long live democracy,« this is the first moment of the very recent history of German democracy in which the entire country is coming into view as the Federal Republic.

A shared history of democracy

Both phenomena – the rise of far-right populism and the democratic mobilization of the socio-political center – are outcomes of a German-German history of democracy, one shared in a dual sense. It began far earlier than 1990; in fact, it dates back to 1949 and even beyond. The two developments are better understood and categorized more intelligently in political terms if one takes fuller account of – indeed even begins to conceptualize – this divided democratic history of the longue durée. 
We are accustomed to think of German postwar history as a history of contrasts, and since 1990 we have carried on the so-called East-West debate according to that exact same schema. Here, we have the West-German history of democracy, there the history of East German dictatorship; here, a mature civil society, there an apathetic so-called niche society, one characterized by withdrawal into private milieus. Here, we have successful emancipation, there widespread stagnation. But let’s not forget that, after the devastating end of the »Third Reich« in 1945, both successor states bore the name of republic. One claimed to be a parliamentary democracy while the other called itself a socialist democracy. Both postwar orders promised their respective populations wide-ranging opportunities for citizen participation.

»Truly democratic principles prevailed only in the Federal Republic«

Of course, truly democratic principles – political equality, free and secret elections, the rule of law, and the separation of powers – prevailed only in the Federal Republic. By contrast, the other German republic was a »consensual dictatorship« (Martin Sabrow), in which human and civil rights were trampled underfoot every day. Political authority was understood in a quasi-identitarian manner such that the state insisted upon and postulated absolute agreement between a supposedly unitary »people’s will« and an all-powerful »Unity Party.«

Yet the paradigm of dictatorship should not obstruct our view of the fact that the German Democratic Republic, too, like other communist regimes, claimed to be realizing democracy. But of course, they didn’t mean the bourgeois-capitalist version of »class democracy« in which unequal property relations merely cemented unequal relations of political domination under the cloak of liberal democracy. Instead, the GDR was to be a »true« people’s democracy. The German Democratic Republic’s best-selling Political Dictionary, which the Socialist Unity Party had printed for ideological orientation in everyday life, defined socialist democracy as the »exercise of political power by the working class, and the working masses of the people led by the Marxist-Leninist party, in which formal bourgeois democracy is overcome and superseded by the construction of the dictatorship of the proletariat.« This mantra praising the »dictatorship of the proletariat as the highest form of democracy« and lauding the overcoming of »false« bourgeois democracy by its socialist successor, the Socialist Unity Party, distorted the meaning of democracy so much as to make it nearly unrecognizable: democracy as farce.
Nevertheless, the idea of democracy did play a formative role in the political culture, media, and subjective life-worlds and imagination of the GDR. By invoking this term, associated as it was with the yearnings of centuries, the second German republic was able to talk and act like a genuinely participatory state. The words democracy or democratic turn up more than 90 times in the GDR’s constitution. By the millions, citizens were organized into a variety of mass organizations, partly of their own volition and partly because they were compelled to join. The constitution linked civil rights not to human dignity and freedom, but instead to citizens‹ willingness to become »co-designers« of the republic. For example, article three of the constitution, approved in 1949, states that »Every citizen has the right and the duty to become a co-designer within his/her local community, county, country, and the German Democratic Republic.« Participation is taken to be a moral imperative.

»In the GDR democracy was a matter of nominal participation, not substantive involvement in making policy.«

In the GDR, democracy was a matter of nominal participation, not substantive involvement in making policy. Still, generations of East German men and women struggled to heed the call to co-design their society. Many citizens responded to that summons with an emphatic »yes,« thereby effectively supporting the dictatorship, which was one important reason for its long stability. But there was always also a critical undertone in the reception of that demand, increasingly so during the Eighties. Thus, the pseudo-democratic, »wizard of Oz«-like character of the regime was gradually unmasked. 

Divergent democratic traditions

So even though we cannot speak of a history of democracy in the narrow sense with respect to the GDR state, it remains essential to understand and describe it as an aspirational history of democracy. The invocations of democracy in the GDR, whether strategic, symbolic, propagandistic, or merely simulated, played a crucial role in both sustaining and destabilizing that regime. In other words, we do not exhaust the history of this state by describing it as a dictatorship. Rather, its demise also spelled the end of an unfulfilled promise of democracy that did after all produce effects in the real world. 

From the perspective of the history of democracy, both postwar German states look like parallel, yet mutually interdependent (Christoph Kleßmann) projects for ordering society following the collapse of National Socialism. They gave rise to two specific, quite divergent traditions of democracy that shape political culture to this day. Between 1949 and 1989 democracy in the West, understood as both the order of the state and everyday praxis, was negotiated. In the East it functioned as a postulate of the state and as a utopia in everyday life. Accordingly, citizens in the West regarded »their« state and polity as a perpetual project in need of but also open to shaping, while those in the East saw theirs as a fate-like challenge gyrating between promise and despair.

The democracy movement of 1989, along with its eventual aftereffects, shows how effective and consequential that promise was and remains even today, not only in the sense that practicing pseudo-democracy must have evoked considerable frustration, but also because the movement enabled people to experience real emancipation. That movement began long before the »autumn revolution« and spread far beyond the narrower circles of opposition, as can be seen, for example, in the courageous protests surrounding local elections in May of 1989.

The crucial point here is that this movement was not primarily devoted to negotiating representative parliamentary democracy; rather, it was about establishing direct or grassroots democracy. Thousands of letters from citizens, petitions, and draft papers from the months around the time that the wall came down prove this in impressive fashion. In their appeals, figures of the opposition but also ordinary men and women formulated society’s answer to the Socialist Unity Party’s empty promise of popular representation. At long last, they urged, the people really should rule, and that would be conceivable only if there were »genuine« and »unmediated« participation by the citizen body, either against or at arm’s length from the single party and the institutions of state that did its bidding.

»The democratic upheaval continues to have a stubbornly destabilizing effect on the political system«

The democracy movement produced effects that have lasted far beyond 1989 – 90. On one hand it put its imprint on the political culture of reunified Germany in quite constructive ways. Many people who had become politicized at the time (so-called »movement citizens«) devoted themselves to politics for the long haul, turning it into their life’s work. Statistics on the representation of East German elites support that conclusion convincingly. Since reunification East Germans have been slightly overrepresented, but only –and notably – in the politics of the German state at the national level. In other words, the temporary dual leadership of the country under Angela Merkel and Joachim Gauck was not an exception to the rule, but instead the expression of a generally successful arrival of the East Germans in the democracy of the Federal Republic.
On the other hand, the democratic upheaval continues to have a stubbornly destabilizing effect on the political system of the enlarged Federal Republic. Exploiting the rise of both Pegida (an anti-Islamic far-right movement) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, portrayed as supposedly citizens‹ »coalition movements« and as »alternatives« to the »regime of the old parties,« the right-wing populists (in a more or less calculated move) capitalized on the elements of grassroots and street democracy inherent in the 1989 revolution. For that reason, their messages resonated especially powerfully in East Germany.

The »burned« center of East German society

The political and social center of East German society may be described not so much as »silent« but rather as »burned,« since it has responded to the experience of two episodes of mobilization by and for dictatorships during the twentieth century by practicing a stubborn form of civic restraint. The upshot has been low levels of voter turnout, reluctance to join or consistently support political parties, less labor union organization, and lower levels of trust in institutions. Despite all that, the overwhelming majority in the East never has questioned either the adoption of the Federal Republic’s constitution, the Basic Law, or German unification itself. According to opinion surveys, Easterners value democracy as a form of government just as much as the rest of the country does, even though when they accepted the democratic state in 1990, it was not associated with an »economic miracle« as it had been when the West Germans adopted it in 1949. Instead, they had to learn how it worked while devising survival strategies in a struggle for existence.

Thus, as compared to the total population of a middle-sized city in eastern Brandenburg, but also in light of this previous history, the 4000 demonstrators in Frankfurt an der Oder who showed up on that Saturday in January constituted an impressive number. Slightly more than 45,000 citizens of that town are eligible to vote, so the demonstrators represented nearly ten percent of all eligible voters. In many places in West Germany, where democracy has already been in place for an entire human lifetime and where the AfD’s vote tallies were lowest, turnout at demonstrations was not much greater than it was in Frankfurt an der Oder. 

»Democracy relies upon the individual vigilance and devotion of as many members of the population as possible.«

So perhaps the signs of the times may be read as betokening a caesura in the history of democracy. Maybe this moment, in which the whole country has come into view as a Federal Republic for the first time since 1990, will give occasion to hope that democracy in the East still and in the West once again might be understood as unfinished business. Democracy is not a condition; it is a process. It relies upon the individual vigilance and devotion of as many members of the population as possible. And that especially includes skeptics, those whose are relative newcomers to this country, and of course people from the GDR who wore themselves out – regardless of which side they were on – trying to make sense of its mendacious ideal of democracy.  In this context the history of democracy in Germany amounts to an effort to match aspirations and reality and to maintain that balance as time goes on. In any case, we can draw on a wealth of experience as we try  to do exactly that.

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