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Exploding Socialism: East German Society Facing Industrial Disasters

General Programming

dateSeptember 30, 2013 timeMonday, 6:15pm EDT location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University
  • East Central European Center at Columbia
  • Image Credit/Caption: Courtesy of BStU, Berlin
B&W photo of ruined industrial area

Professor Lindenberger will talk about East German term "havarien" that serves to illuminate history of Cold War East Germany as an incessant sequel of technological and human disasters. "Havarien" is a frequent key word in finding aids of the communist archives of East Germany, whether they come from the infamous Stasi (the secret police), the communist party, or the official trade union. This term signified industrial accidents and interruptions of production leading to substantial losses of material values and eventually also of workers' lives. Although much has already been written about the economic disfunctionalities and eventual decay of state socialist economies, such incidents of extreme emergency and crisis have rarely been investigated in a systematic fashion (the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 confirming the exception from the rule.) “Havarien” will be used here for a close inspection of industrial relations in the planned economies under communist rule.

Through the high number of casualties and their disruptive impact on relevant sectors of the national economy (electrical energy, chemical industry), such events triggered reactions and after-the-fact activities by a broad range of actors on all levels of the party and state structures. Despite the supreme authority of the communist party leadership with regard to their official communication and interpretation, different actors invested considerable efforts in laying out their respective ‘reading’ of their causes. By examining three cases from 1959 to 1968, the basic logics of negotiating the causes and meanings of such catastrophes will be reconstructed. Particular attention will be paid to the SED’s attempts to demonstrate its leadership in such states of emergency and to exploit them in order to create a sense of socialist community while at the same time looking out for culprits among the workforce and managers through the ‘unofficial’ channels of the secret police. It can be argued that the promises of the communist state to provide better and above all safer working conditions than capitalist employers in the West established a permanent and widening gap between claim and reality, undermining the people's confidence in a viable future of the polity they were living in and working for.

This event is free and open to the public.
No tickets or registration is required.
Seating is on a first come, first served basis.

  • Thomas Lindenberger Director of the "Communism and Society" Research Department, Potsdam
  • Deborah Coen Professor of History and Chair of History of Science and Medicine Yale University
  • Volker Berghahn Seth Low Professor of History Columbia University