07/23/2013 11:18 am ET Updated Sep 22, 2013

The Fall of Utopianism

The word "utopia" comes from the book of the same name by Thomas More, which he published in 1516. The English philosopher and humanist imagined an ideal society on an island somewhere in the New World which had abolished private property and lawyers, but maintained a system of slavery and restricted travel. The island's welfare state presided over a largely agricultural society that required everyone to work. The word "utopia" can translate into either "good place" or "no place." Ideal societies are indeed notoriously difficult to find, always shimmering just beyond the horizon.

For many people, East Germany began as a utopian project built on the ashes of Nazism. It was billed as an ideal worker's state that would bring prosperity to all. From the very beginning, many people in what had initially been the Soviet zone after the collapse of the Third Reich were sufficiently skeptical to pull up and leave. Between 1945 and 1961, around 15 percent of the population went West. In 1961, the government built the Berlin Wall to stop the hemorrhaging.

Twenty-eight years later, the Wall collapsed, and the people of East Germany entertained a new set of utopian dreams. Eventually, these coalesced in a desire for reunification with West Germany and the prosperity of capitalism. But for a short period of time, there were other utopian aspirations.

"I hoped that ordinary working people would begin to take matters into their own hands by setting up workers councils and neighborhood council and grassroots democratic institutions capable of wresting control of their lives from the state and from capital--or state-capital in the case of East Germany," Gareth Dale told me. "I didn't think that was particularly likely at all, although that was what I hoped would happen."

Dale is senior lecturer in the department of politics and history at Brunel University in London. He was living in East Germany in 1989 and working as an English language and literature assistant at a university in Potsdam. He was also working closely with left-of-center political movements just before and after the Wall fell. He calls that period of time of rising popular involvement in the political life of East Germany a "short autumn of utopianism."

"There were a few weeks or a couple of months where the dissolution of structures that for so long had been so rigid completely discombobulated the establishment figures throughout society, including the managers of institutions such as my own," he remembers. "The obverse of that was an explosion of desires and dreams, and utopian thinking, and political activity, and political education, and people simply talking to each other. Lots of people were talking -- on the streets. Neighbors who had shown no interest in anything beyond their own picket fence were suddenly not doing washing up for three weeks because they were so embroiled in activities, and debates, and reading the newspapers, reading, say, five newspapers a day, and, for example, writing to their pen pals in France to describe what was going on."

This period of heightened civic activity, of a world turned upside down in which the rulers no longer ruled, did not last long. The story of emancipation became the story of reunification, and the various plans for an autonomous East Germany faded away quite quickly.

"A lot of individuals involved in those movements have since flourished, reoriented their lives in different ways, used the opportunity of 1989 to begin to implement certain projects and dreams that they have had," Gareth Dale concludes. "They used that 'moment of utopia' to begin that process. However, those projects have been made much more difficult by the savage austerity and the de-industrialization and the unemployment, which led to a general depression in the area, in economic and psychological terms, and has continued to make itself felt in a continued hemorrhaging of young people from the eastern region."

In a café in London in January, we talked about the trajectories that East Germany and Eastern Europe have taken since 1989, the state of the Left in Germany, and what it was like to break into the Stasi building in Potsdam 24 years ago.

The Interview

Between the fall of the Berlin Wall and December, when reunification became more of an issue, what did you think would happen?

After the fall of the Wall there were various possibilities. At one end of the spectrum, very unlikely but still possible, was some sort of coup in Moscow that would lead to an attempted re-clamp down in East Germany and a rebuilding of the Wall. It's very difficult to recall precisely what I was thinking at the time, but I am pretty confident that I thought that was almost impossible. At the other end of the spectrum, there could have been some sort of process of increasing radicalization, which would lead in the direction that I was hoping it to lead: in a more libertarian, Trotskyist-Marxist direction. I hoped that ordinary working people would begin to take matters into their own hands by setting up workers councils and neighborhood council and grassroots democratic institutions capable of wresting control of their lives from the state and from capital -- or state-capital in the case of East Germany. I didn't think that was particularly likely at all, although that was what I hoped would happen. In between those two extremes, it was difficult to predict.

Even at the time, it was very clear that once the Wall was opened, Bonn was going to have a very strong say over what took place. And that West German society -- relatively prosperous, relatively democratic -- would exert an enormous pull on the East German population. I think most of us -- including all the analysts -- underestimated just how quickly that change was going to occur. One of the complexities for somebody of my political persuasion was that a major reason for the rapidity of the reunification was not simply the bold statecraft of Helmut Kohl, but above all the rapidity of radicalization and the urgency to secure the gains that had been made so far in terms of social justice and living standards. The desire to rapidly secure the achievements of the revolution was born of an understandable insecurity that things could be pushed very sharply backwards. We were aware of this insurgent push to achieve those goals from the working classes of East Germany, particularly in the south. Increasingly over the course of December, those goals congealed around the demand for unification.

In one of your essays, you quote Roland Jahn's critique of the movements in East Germany -- the women's movement, environmental movement, human rights movement, and peace movement -- as being distant from the concerns of everyday East Germans. Did you agree with that, or was that an unfair characterization?

I'd say yes and no. In some ways, New Forum was far from being distant from the population. New Forum made a great effort to bring very wide layers of the population in behind it. Other groups also made considerable efforts, not as successfully as New Forum, but they did. And some of the key demands of those 'civil society' movements resonated throughout society, such as freedom of association, freedom to travel, and so on. To the extent that some groups in the mid-1980s had been distant from the population -- well, that can be a very good thing. If we are to achieve political and social progress, then we have to have groups who are trying to see a bit further and to chart a way forward, and that will inevitably mean that their views are out of sync with the wider masses. To some degree, distance is not something to be worried about.

My difficulty with the movement in the 1980s in East Germany, or my gentle criticisms of many people involved with it, was really that they were not sufficiently self-reflective and critical of the way in which their own milieu had become ghettoized. This is the analysis in the book of mine that you've read. The movement attracted groups of relatively marginal people of the sort that I was describing earlier, or very middle class people: physicists, university teachers, and so on. All of which is fine, but if you have real ambition to become a mass movement, you have to be critically aware of the limitations of those very particular niches. This connected also to the shift toward an emphasis on a MLK or Gandhi-esque ethical politics. Instead of pushing for direct political change or agitating openly, there was a more diffuse emphasis upon living your life in a decent, moral fashion, which could lead to quite a judgmental attitude toward people who didn't happen to be blessed with such insight as yourself.

That was the basis laid in the 1980s, with some considerable help from the Stasi, which used the many means available to them to ensure that the opposition would remain in that peculiar little ghetto. So long as they were a bunch of kooky, priestly people talking about what sort of consumer goods they should be buying when they go to the shop on Saturday, the Stasi could be safe in the knowledge that their views would not electrify the population. New Forum and Democracy Now and so on succeeded in breaking away from that mentality to some degree, but there remained a stark divergence between the civil society opposition and the mass of the population, particularly the working-class population that eventually came to support German unification as a simple means to address at least some of their grievances.

So, in September-October you had to apply to teach 1984, and then after the Wall fell it was: anything goes?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.