Book Notes Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power

Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power Hot

Berlin and East Germany are infamous for the 'Berlin Wall,' but while everyone may have heard of the Berlin Wall, not everyone knows very much about it. Few people understand the ways in which the Wall and tightly-controlled East German borders helped define East German society. The Berlin Wall and the East German border takes us to the boundaries of borders, thereby telling us a lot about borders, frontiers, and the structuring of power generally.

Patrick Major writes in Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power:

Policing a border means more than patrolling a strip of land; it involves controlling its hinterland and populace. The frontier is merely the state’s outward manifestation. In Plato’s ideal state, only loyal citizens would be allowed out, and nobody under forty, while Sparta forbade travel abroad to protect against ‘the infection of foreign bad habits’. Labour migration was to be a perennial problem for gatekeepers. The dying Roman Empire tried to tackle it by tying peasants to the land by serfdom. Later, in the age of mercantilism and absolutism, as the New World threatened to drain the Old, states further regulated subjects’ movements, legislating against the emigration of skilled artisans.

By the late eighteenth century passports were obligatory to enter European countries, and by 1914 to leave them too. Yet Enlightenment theorists such as Carl Ferdinand Hommel warned ‘against having to make a prison of the state . . . The very proscription against venturing outside the land renders the inhabitants all the greedier to leave their fatherland and serves only as a warning to foreigners not to settle within it’.

Natural patriotism would instead furnish the necessary ties. Even in the age of social Darwinism between nation-states, the intellectual father of Lebensraum, the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel, still conceptualized state frontiers as fluid and organic, filtering membranes to keep the body politic ‘healthy’.

Today we take border controls like passports for granted — who can even conceive of border crossings without having to hold and show a passport? It's instructive to think about the fact that they didn't always exist, any more than nation-states always existed. There is no necessary or inherent connection between the two, any more than the existence of either is necessary.

People obviously warned about border controls like passports back when they were new, so why aren't more people warning about them now? I wonder if the existence of controls like passports will serve to perpetuate aspects of the nation-state, if not the very existence of the nation-state, long past they have outlived their usefulness.

This book is also about the invisible frontiers of power staked out behind the literal walls. Sociologist Max Weber was among the first to elaborate a systematic theory of social control, distinguishing between ‘power’ (Macht) and ‘rule’ (Herrschaft). Power signified the imposition of one agency’s will, even against that of others, whereas rule involved obedience and thus a degree of legitimacy. His third possibility of ‘discipline’ reflected simple habituation.

All three categories bear on East Germany. Post-GDR social historians adapted Weberian terminology, coining the term ‘overruled society’ (durchherrschte Gesellschaft), rejecting a simple pitting of state against society, with a no-man’s land in between, in favour of a vertical co-optation model.

Ever since the GDR’s foundation in 1949, opinion has been divided over how deep this control went. Was it total? Was at least the intention total? Did East German communism survive by brute force alone, through the Red Army, Stasi, and not least the Wall; or did it manage partial legitimation through a welfare state and an ideology of antifascism-cum-socialism? A key factor in this debate has been the perceived docility of East Germany, particularly vis-a-vis other eastern bloc states. To what extent did this quiescence rest on submission to power or consent to rule?

The way East Germany was ruled raises all sorts of questions for how our own societies today are ruled. We may not live in East Germany or even a nation that seems to resemble East Germany very closely. Nevertheless, there do appear to be more similarities underneath than most people realize. This is why a better understanding of how East Germany was governed and how its frontiers — physical and otherwise — were controlled can tell us something about our own societies as well as ourselves, or at least our relationship to our governments.

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