Opening the lines of communication

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Science under Socialism: East Germany in Comparative Perspective

edited by Kristie Macrakis and Dieter Hoffmann Harvard University Press: 1999. 380 pp. $55, £34

The history of the German Democratic Republic (DDR), which was founded on 7 October 1949 and dissolved by the unification agreement of 1990, offers the historian an enticing, discrete historical episode. A disadvantage, on the other hand, is that many of the participants are still living, making objective research more difficult. Previous analyses and attempts to integrate the history of the DDR were affected by partisan feeling and were thematically limited. The first analyses of scientific development emphasized a recent history dominated by political and social science.

The editors of Science under Socialism, which has appeared in English and in a modified German edition, criticize the dominance of political and social science in accounts of contemporary history, especially in previous works on the history of the DDR. First, they claim, such a one-sided view leaves out central themes in modern social development: the important role of science and its connection with the development of “productive forces” is not adequately considered. Second, it is essential to take into account the role of the scientific and technological revolution in producing propaganda.

The book is divided into four sections. In the first, on the general politics of science and research, the authors try to take an overview of the subject, with special attention to the period immediately after 1945 and to the reform attempts of the sixties. The second section covers the transformation of the Prussian Academy of Sciences into the Academy of Sciences of the DDR, as well as the role of the Leopoldina. The third focuses on the “core domains for social progress” such as biomedicine, computer science, chemistry, aircraft construction and nuclear physics.

The final section offers some interesting biographical sketches revealing the conflicts people encountered, and their lives and survival strategies as scientists. Among these, Dieter Hoffmann examines the chemist Robert Havemann, who was variously an anti-Nazi, a communist and a dissident. Mitchell Ash takes a critical look at Kurt Gottschaldt, who continued his twin research unhindered under four political systems, and asks whether this type of opportunism is typically German. Ash nevertheless confirms the high quality of Gottschaldt's science — which is an historical exception.

The book brings together authors of different ages and disciplines, of whom six are Americans and 12 Germans, nine from the former DDR. The East German participants have the complicated task of writing about a phase of their own lives. This critical insiders' view is both challenged and supplemented by the outsider's perspective of their American and West German colleagues, all the more since the editors are a former DDR citizen and an American. It is, therefore, not surprising that the preface to the English edition states, somewhat cryptically: “Writing about East German history can be controversial and complicated, especially since many of the historical actors are still alive. Whereas Kristie Macrakis wished to include a discussion of some of these problems in a prologue, Dieter Hoffmann did not; therefore we agreed that the prologue should be printed with the understanding that it is Macrakis's view and approach and not necessarily those of Hoffmann or the other contributors. Whereas Macrakis wished to discuss the creative process involved in an East-West group project and the controversy surrounding who should write East German history now, Hoffmann wanted only the finished product presented.”

It is striking that the articles by the East German contributors are much less strongly judgemental. They know how difficult it is to evaluate historical processes in which one has taken part, how easy it is to be wrong and to injure individuals. The contributors from the West, on the other hand, are much less restrained in their judgements. John Connelly, an American specialist on Eastern Europe, is much less ready to admit clarifying or explanatory circumstances than the distinguished DDR historian Hubert Laitko. Connelly was born in 1960; Laitko was born in 1935 and forced to retire in 1992.

Kristie Macrakis's own two contributions reveal a predilection for the spectacular: she notes with some disappointment, in an interesting article on espionage and technology transfer, that real undercover agents rarely have the fantastic adventures that one associates with spying. She has interviewed double agent Werner Stiller (from the Ministry of State Security — the Stasi) and political celebrities such as the late Politburo member Kurt Hager and the legendary chief of the Information Division, Marcus Wolf.

The authors are diverse not only in temperament, viewpoints and expectations, but also in their approach to their subjects. Thus, a primarily sociological account of biomedical research by Rainer Hohlfeld stands next to Eckart Förtsch's theoretical systems presentation about science, higher education and technology policy, based on the interaction of partial systems and on the structure and functions of apparatus. These contrasts make the book readable and colourful.

The present volume can only provide a first step, however, towards a more powerful theoretical conception of the DDR's role in the larger system of science. Meanwhile it challenges both east and west, despite all their differences and disappointments, to continue the conversation.

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Werner, P. Opening the lines of communication. Nature 402, 580–581 (1999) doi:10.1038/45074

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