Colin Humphreys


An Alienated Man

(May 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.69, May 1974, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

An Alienated Man
Robert Havemann
Davis Poynter, £4.

IN MAY 1966 the top East German scientist Robert Havemann was summoned for questioning by the political police. The event was notable, for it was the third time in his life that Havemann’s socialist beliefs led him to suffer repression. He had been sentenced to death under the Nazis for resistance activities. He had been forced out of his job in West Berlin in 1949 because of his support for the Communist-inspired Peace campaign. And now he was being threatened by the police and sacked from his job in East Berlin because of his questioning of Stalinist policies.

His book is an account of his third clash with authority, interspersed with recollections of the earlier experiences. It provides both striking testimony to the author’s personal courage and a fascinating view of the East German regime from the inside.

Havemann first went to live in East Germany in 1949 as a dedicated Stalinist. He saw through the façade of ‘democracy’ in the West as he was victimised from his job and as his friends were beaten up by the police for collecting signatures for the Stockholm Peace appeal of 1950. His initial reaction was to see in East Germany the sort of society he was striving for. He was a member of the ‘People’s Congress’ which founded the German Democratic Republic with Walter Ulbricht at its head, and was one of the few Communist Party members with enough faith in the regime to address the East Berlin workers when they rose in revolt in 1953. His account of the rising is enough in itself to make the book worth reading.

‘On the morning of 16 June 1953 I was in my flat on the seventh floor of the building in Strausberger 9 and just eating my breakfast when, suddenly, unusual and strange noises reached me from the square.

‘The whole square was at the time a single building site ... But this was not the noise of cranes or the screeching of building lifts, no sort of technical noise. It was human voices. I went to the window and saw how a small procession of building workers had formed up behind a rudely-painted banner on the square and had just began to move. I read: “Down with the 10 per cent rise in norms”. It was a moving sight, for the small procession grew in a moment into a huge demonstration. They came running from all sides in their working clothes...

‘The procession reached Unter den Linden, in front of the university. It had grown mightily, and apart from building workers, many young people who were not wearing working clothes were to be seen in it. They shouted in chorus: “We are workers not slaves. Put an end to the extortionist norms. We want free elections.” And always loudest of all, the sentence, “We are not slaves”.’

This first big demonstration ended with a massive meeting in front of the House of Ministries. Havemann tells how he himself tried to speak to it:

‘The elderly building worker got order for me and a hearing from the men. “We all want peace, freedom and a better life”, I cried ... “We want free and secret elections in the whole of Germany – free equal and secret elections”. My words received applause. Then I had to make a transition: “But you know, our government has proposed this to the West German government. Grotewohl wants free elections in the whole of Germany. We must go to the West. It is there that the dividers of Germany are. It is there that we must demand free elections ...”

‘I received no further applause. Again there arose a roar against which no voice, however strong, could make itself heard ...’

Havemann himself seems to have accepted at the time the suppression of the revolt by Russian tanks which followed the next day. He writes that he favoured the publication of a book by the writer Stefan Heym which accepted

‘the basically wrong official line that 17 June was a counter-revolutionary uprising organised by Western secret services.’

But his own later experiences made him change his mind and recognise that

‘It is naive to believe that these fingers [of the secret services] determine world history. The start of the 17 June uprising came as a surprise to all. It began on 16 June 1953 in the Strausbergerplatz in Berlin, when a handful of building workers unfurled their home-made banner protesting against the recent 10 per cent increase in norms, that is to say against a reduction in wages. This insignificant event was the small cause of a great effect It brought into motion an avalanche whose surface of ice had been building up for months, indeed years.’

Havemann’s own account of East German society explains why his views were altered. He recognises it as a society in which there is a ‘parasitic class’ of functionaries who earn ‘30 to 40 times as much as the average worker’. He describes how the system operates to transmit orders from the top down:

‘Every quasi-stratum of this system is dominated by the stratum above and itself dominates the stratum below. Any democratic process of forming opinion from below is entirely precluded. Admittedly the most varied opinions are formed among the population on all important questions. But these opinions of the man in the street are almost always directed against the official view which is decreed from above.

‘The official view is proclaimed monotonously and ceaselessly in the press, radio and television, but despite this it is not possible to manipulate the opinions and thinking of the masses by means of the state monopoly of information. Even within the structural fibres of the state machine, the thinking of state and party officials is completely schizophrenic. They know what they ought to think, but, at the same time, they think somewhat differently. It is only possible to learn the true opinions of these people in a tête-à-tête and only then when people are not afraid of their remarks being recorded by a secret bugging device! –

‘So long as the official is reliable, carries out unquestioningly all instructions from above and transmits them to his subordinates, his career is safe; but one single, independent idea which suggests the slightest doubt about the validity of the official line can mean the end of his career. His competitors watch his every step with keen eyes and listen to every word he utters.

‘This pressure from below, this constant competition for his job, makes him more royalist than the king so as not to arouse the suspicion that he is a compromiser, a liberal or even a weakling.’

For those who step far out of line, punishment is severe. Havemann quotes the words of his friend, the dissident Communist singer Wolf Biermann:

‘I know some comrades who have been in prison here for years. They were also people who got to know the prison well in the Nazi times.

‘What depressed them was not the jail itself. They were depressed that, as old Communists they had to sit in our prison, not because they had violated the laws of the state but, in the last analysis, only because they had different views from the Politburo. And these were often views which, in other Communist Parties, not only went unpunished but were sometimes the official line.’

When Havemann himself was finally removed from his job,

‘not merely the rector of the university who brought about my instant dismissal, and the state secretary on whose orders it was made, but also the President of the Academy who was the cause of my political punishment ... had been members of the Nazi party ...’

The book ends with an account of the trial and imprisonment for 18 months of Havemann’s son in 1968 for painting the name ‘Dubcek’ on a wall. The most revealing comment on the East German regime’s socialist pretensions was the censorship it imposed on the books the prisoner was allowed to read: there was a ‘reading ban’ on Lenin’s State and Revolution.

The book is full of such fascinating accounts of the realities of East German life. However, the conclusions drawn by the author himself are not very clear. His politics seem to be similar to those of the ‘Communist reformers’ around Dubcek in Czechoslovakia in 1968. He sees the faults of the existing system, but his answer, basically, is to rely on those who run the system to recognise the error of their ways and introduce changes. Yet at other points he sees that this is virtually impossible.

The result is that the valuable descriptive passages of the book are interspersed with reflections of broader political issues of little value. But this should not put anyone off from reading a book that is, on the whole, extremely interesting.

Last updated on 16 November 2009