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Sudden Revolution or Long Turn? – What grievances statistics tell us about the end of the GDR

Project manager Dr. Marian Krawietz and Prof. Ulrich Kohler. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Project manager Dr. Marian Krawietz and Prof. Ulrich Kohler. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Above a gray cabinet in an open-plan office filled with folders standing in pairs is a map of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Its former districts are marked in various colors with small pins distributed over the whole area. It looks inconspicuous but what lies behind is quite spectacular. It is an unexpected treasure uncovered by Prof. Ulrich Kohler, Dr. Marian Krawietz, and their team: The folders contain so called "Eingabenstatistiken", statistics based on assessments of official complaints and suggestions but also letters of praise from almost every corner of the GDR – spanning almost 20 years from 1970 to 1989. The social scientists want to gain deeper insight into the sociology of everyday life in the GDR and hope to even be able to answer an important question: Was the peaceful revolution of 1989/90 in fact as spontaneous as it was often claimed, or might it have instead been the logical consequence of the GDR’s long-term decline and a widening gap between the citizens and the state?

When Prof. Kohler speaks about “statistics”, you can feel his enthusiasm. Kohler, Professor of Methods of Empirical Social Research, wants to achieve something others can only dream of: making statements about the “big picture” based on analyses genuinely representative of its entirety – such as life in the GDR. Up to now there has been hardly any comprehensive and quantitative research on social change in the GDR, primarily because nationwide and long-term data about the relation of GDR citizens to their country have not been available. That will change after analyzing the grievances statistics.

Grievances were the usual – if not only – way for citizens in the eastern part of Germany to communicate with administrative and governmental authorities, to stand up to arbitrary state power, and encourage or demand change. How intensely this instrument was used could therefore help the researchers draw conclusions as to the relationship between citizen and state – and how this relationship changed. “A variety of reasons determined whether to write a grievance letter,” explains Kohler. From a sociological viewpoint, these can be grouped in three categories: (1) the opportunity to participate, i.e. to actively take part in shaping one’s own society, (2) the perceived individual quality of life, and (3) a shift in values. Writing a grievance letter depended, among other things, on how people perceived the quality of life in their country and, in particular, on whether they lacked anything. Exactly because writing a grievance letter was so fraught with hurdles, grievances reflect what was particularly important to people. Examined over a longer period, the entries show a change in momentous issues. The contemporary experience of the often limited opportunities for participation played an important role throughout.

The collected grievances might be read like a mirror of the situation in East German society. It could be analyzed, for example, when and in which region people wrote grievance letters concerning the housing situation – and how this correlated with the local housing and population development. However: “The ‘population’ of the original grievances filed in the GDR, which could have been the basis for a random sample, no longer exists,” Kohler explains. They were usually destroyed after a few years, often for reasons of space. “So, we initially faced a seeming unsolvable problem, yet we kept finding references to documents in which the grievances had been summarized and reviewed,” says Kohler. At that point it was not clear where to find them.

Since grievances were usually filed at the district level, it could be assumed that even their “traces” were to be found in the institutions that took over the GDR district archives. But where exactly? At first, Kohler and the academic project manager Dr. Marian Krawietz were unable to find the grievances statistics – probably the key to a quantitative-empirical social analysis of the GDR. We searched many places in vain, or findings turned out to be uninteresting or insufficient, Krawietz says. The decisive tip came from the Potsdam city archive. “They said; ‘Have a look at this and that provenance, documents of the organization and instructors’ department of the Potsdam city council, an intermediary level between the party and administration’, and there we found the statistics,” Krawietz describes the happy ending to their search. Random samples in other district archives gave them hope that such statistics had been compiled nationwide at the district level and archived nearby—not always commonly done—often dating back to 1970. For almost 20 years, they formed the basis of the quarterly district council discussions about grievances, so-called grievances analyses. They now eloquently bear witness to this period, and since the grievance letters themselves are no longer available, they are a real “treasure”, which makes the hearts of empirical social scientists race. “Of course, it would have been nice to have the original grievances,” says Kohler. “But I now believe that the statistics have their own unique and special quality.”

Based on their initial discoveries, Kohler and Krawietz obtained project funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG) to collect data in East German archives for a comprehensive corpus of around 200 former GDR districts. Shelves were filled with the aforementioned gray folders in the project office on the Griebnitzsee campus. The map of the former German Democratic Republic pinned on the wall soon became colorful. Only former districts not part of the random sampling remained without color. More and more pins marked the district archives they wanted to visit: Greifswald, Schwedt, Aue – in March 2015 up to eight student assistants at a time were on the road across the country sifting through council minutes and the statistics contained therein with the help of local archivists. Equipped with camera phones, they took photos of all available grievances statistics, annotated them with metadata, and uploaded them directly to “the cloud”. They continuously tweeted about the progress of their detective work. At the same time, colleagues in Potsdam checked the incoming documents: How complete are the volumes? Are these the correct – annual – statistics or only the biannual or quarterly ones? Do these statistics refer to the whole district or only to some individual municipalities? When they noticed any gaps or mistakes, they asked the fieldworkers to “readjust” their search and to look through other provenances. “All this created a digital database of over 50 gigabytes and approximately 17,000 individual documents,” Krawietz outlines the project’s scope. In order to handle the investigation properly from the outset, all data collectors were first trained in cooperation with the Potsdam city archives. Furthermore, the method was tested and refined on a small scale as part of a BA thesis. “The data can only be as good as your initial decisions,” Kohler is convinced. “Only those who know what they are looking for can collect good data.”

While the researchers were busy filling the folders on the shelves with printouts of the collected grievances statistics, they were also working on the data entry tool. “The trick is to enter the very heterogeneous documents via a data entry mask and then convert them into machine-readable data. This is not a task to be taken lightly,” Krawietz says. They therefore developed a tool to ensure accurate transcription of the tables in the grievances statistics. It includes, for example, an automatic error control that checks all entered sums. “Errors at the beginning are difficult to discover later on – and have fatal consequences on the results,” Kohler adds. The entry tool also merges data into similar categories, making them comparable.

After the statistics have been digitized and compiled, they are expected to be published at the GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences – so other researchers can have permanent access to them. “It is quite uncommon to share data we are collecting, but I think it’s absolutely necessary,” says Kohler. “After all, we do research with public money. It also shows that making data available for research is actually a research achievement.” They also want to comply with the project’s interdisciplinary approach and provide the data not only to social science insiders but also to researchers across disciplines. Krawietz thinks that contemporary historians, for example, could draw on and benefit from these findings. “My dream is to have such a perfectly prepared set of data that researchers can go the respective district or national archive with only the call number of the file and conduct further searches, for example based on the written grievances analyses. We all have to be highly concentrated and attentive at this stage, including the many student assistants engaged in the project,” says the project manager.

The working group itself is focusing on validating the data. “We take our statistics and – proceeding from our three categories: participation, quality of life, and shift in values – combine them with other data we have on the GDR, e.g. GDR censuses, macroeconomic indicators of the German Bundesbank, statistics on migration and emigration, border incidents, or number of prisoners,” says Kohler. The aim is to show whether the collected data are in fact as significant as the researchers hope. With regard to participation, they want to examine whether the so-called Exit-Voice Model applies to the GDR. The concept assumes that members of an organization have essentially two ways of responding to grievances: by attempting to influence it (voice) or by withdrawing their affiliation (exit). The more loyal they are to their organization, the more likely they are to choose ‘voice’. With regard to the GDR, the grievances belong to the category ‘voice’ and the (attempted) departures to ‘exit’. By comparing the grievances statistics with data on exit strategies, the degree of repression and the socioeconomic development of the GDR will now show whether grievances were actually viewed and used as a means of participation. In the same way, the researchers want to determine whether the statistics reveal that GDR citizens used grievances to express their own quality of life, for example housing, health, employment, childcare, social security, supply of goods and services, and the state of the environment. A third validation study is expected to show whether a shift in values can be deduced from the grievances statistics – from materialistic values and to post-materialist ones, as it happened in the Western Hemisphere in the 1970s and 1980s.

Validation studies are often disposed of afterwards, explains Kohler. “Their content, however, could be interesting in itself and might even result in a separate publication.” Ideas for the actual analysis often arise during the validation process, which is next on the docket. The potential of this process seems enormous. After all, Kohler and Krawietz want nothing less than to “study participation, development dynamics of the quality of life, and processes of value shifts in the second decade of the GDR between 1970-1989,” Krawietz explains. The potential “icing on the cake” and the chronological target of this analysis is to find out if there was ‘fertile soil’ for a revolution in the GDR long before 1989 and if the sociopolitical changes were of a longer-term nature than previously thought,” says the project manager.

The project’s horizon is even wider. The selected former GDR districts where the grievances statistics were collected generally correspond to the statistical area “subsample C” of the Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP). This follow-up survey of over 12,000 German households conducted annually since 1984 is seen as representative of the German population. Subsample C includes Eastern Germany and has been conducted since 1990. Since the SOEP categories are similar to those that developed for the evaluation of the grievances statistics, they might even be used for comparative analyses, fortunate for Krawietz and Kohler. “A particularly exciting question for us is whether we will be able to extrapolate what we derive from the analysis along the three categories beyond this turning point," says Krawietz.

The project group is prepared for whatever may come: The folders sorted in pairs in the office already spatially combine the grievances statistics data and the SOEP. The analysis will show the outcome with initial results expected in spring 2016.

The Researchers

Prof. Ulrich Kohler studied sociology, history, and law at the University of Konstanz as well as sociology, social and economic history/modern history, and public law at the University of Mannheim. Since October 2012 he has been Professor of Methods of Empirical Social Research at the the University of Potsdam Faculty of Economic and Social Sciences.

Contact

Universität Potsdam
Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliche Fakultät
August-Bebel-Straße 89
14482 Potsdam
E-Mail: ulrich.kohler@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Dr. Marian Krawietz studied medieval and modern history, sociology, and Eastern European history in Cologne and Bonn. He earned his PhD at the University of Hannover in 2010 with a thesis on the shifting values in transition countries. Since April 2012 he has been a senior researcher at the chair Methods of Empirical Social Research at the University of Potsdam. Prior to this post he worked at, among other institutions, the Center for Contemporary History.

Contact

E-Mail: marian.krawietz@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Grievances statistics were categorized statistical overviews of grievances submitted to administrative bodies of the GDR. The statistics were part of the so-called grievances analysis that were presented to the councils and discussed quarterly. Here: grievances statistics of the town of Wismar, 2nd half of 1970, Archive of the Hanseatic Town of Wismar, call number 2.2.1 – 109.

The Project

“Sudden Revolution or Long Turn?” A Sociological Analysis of die GDR and its Decline using Eingabenstatistiken between 1970 and 1989.
Participating: Prof. Ulrich Kohler (overall project management), Dr. Marian Krawietz (scientific project management), Fabian Class (PhD student), Maximilian Schultz and Sophia Albrecht (project assistants),
Martin Asmus, Isabell Fettweiß, Carolin Höroldt, Felix Huß, Natalia Schindler, Theresa Schlegel, Andreas Schmidt, Maria Seidel (research assistants).
Duration: 2014–2017
Funded by: German Research Association (DFG)

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Text: Matthias Zimmermann, Translation: Susanne Voigt
Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa
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