Communist Parties Revisited: Socio-Cultural Approaches to Party Rule in the Soviet Bloc, 1956-1991. Closing Conference of the Potsdam Project on the East German SED – Social History of a Soviet-Style Communist Party, 1961-1989

Communist Parties Revisited: Socio-Cultural Approaches to Party Rule in the Soviet Bloc, 1956-1991. Closing Conference of the Potsdam Project on the East German SED – Social History of a Soviet-Style Communist Party, 1961-1989

Centre for Contemporary History, Potsdam
Haus der Brandenburgisch-Preußischen Geschichte, Lecture Hall, Am Neuen Markt 9, 14467 Potsdam
Vom - Bis
05.12.2013 - 07.12.2013
Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung, Potsdam

The communist ruling parties (CPs) of Eastern and East Central Europe after 1945 can be considered to be the most effective political organizations of the 20th century. They claimed to put utopian societal models into practice, determined their million members’ biographies and efficiently bound them to their basic organizations – even through their demise and erosion in the late 1980s. Yet, although there is no question about their societal and cultural shaping power, recent historiography is still dominated by classic narratives of political history. CPs are mainly interpreted as isolated, monolithic power machines.

In contrast, it is this conference’s aim to re-interpret the highly normative party life and the CPs’ power-securing practice at all levels. Analyses of the party organizations’ inner workings will shed light onto the ‘closed society’ of the CP as well as gain insights into the logic of the party leaderships and their apparatuses’ actions; the social composition of the membership; and their value systems respectively. In addition, there is the question of the mid-level party functionaries’ room for maneuver which should open up new perspectives on Soviet-style political systems. Further questions to be discussed include the parties’ local social practice and the efficacy of the CPs’ ability to endow meaning on party membership through rituals and ideology.

The main aim of this conference is to develop a comparative perspective that can be implemented across the broad spectrum of Eastern Bloc CPs. The conference will focus predominantly on the East German SED, the CPSU and the Polish United Workers' Party.

Please register before November 21, 2013, by sending an email to:



14.30: Registration

15.15–15.30: Welcome

15.30–17.15: Panel 1 – Governing State and Society

Rüdiger Bergien, Potsdam: From Stalinist Bulwark to Mediation Agency? The SED Central Party’s Bureaucracy after 1956

Christoph Boyer, Salzburg: Communist Party Apparatuses as Steering Organizations. Paths of Development in East Central Europe

Dariusz Stola, Warsaw

19.00–21.00: Public Evening Lecture (in German)

Jens Gieseke, Potsdam: Die SED – Staatspartei in der ostdeutschen Gesellschaft. Fragen und Befunde eines soziokulturellen Zugriffs



9.00–10.45: Panel 2 – Mechanisms of Power and ‘Informal Rule’

Andrea Bahr, Potsdam: Paternalism in Local Practice: Logics of Repression, Ideological Hegemony and Everyday Management of Society in a SED district secretariat

Krzysztof Dąbek, Warsaw: PZPR – Polish United Workers’ Party in Retrospective. Mechanisms of a Totalitarian Regime

Jay Rowell, Strasbourg

11.15–13.00: Panel 3 – Grassroots Party Life – Practices of the Everyday

Sabine Pannen, Potsdam: Behind Closed Doors. Erosion of SED Party-Life in the Last Decade

Edward Cohn, Grinnell: The Paradox of Khrushchev-Era Party Discipline in the Soviet Communist Party


14.30–16.15: Panel 4 – Self-perceptions and Challenges of Social Composition

Jens Gieseke, Potsdam: What Did the Comrades Think? SED Membership in Secret Opinion Polls and Police Reports

Michel Christian, Geneva: "It Is not Possible to Allow Past Mistakes to Come again", Recruting Policy in the CPS between 1968 and 1989."

Thomas Lindenberger, Potsdam

16.45–18.30: Panel 5: Party Leaders and Leadership Styles

Martin Sabrow, Potsdam: Erich Honecker – the 'Leading Representative” in Generational Perspective

Mark Kramer, Cambridge: Communication and Decision Processes in and amongst the Eastern Bloc’s Communist Party Leaderships

Jürgen Danyel, Potsdam


9.00-10.45: Panel 6: Decline, Downfall, Transformation

Frédéric Zalewski, Paris: On the Way of Party Pluralism? The PZPR and the Reform of the Socialist Party System in 1988-1989

Jan. C. Behrends, Potsdam: What Is to Be Done? Gorbachev's Komanda and the End of Communism in the USSR


11.15–12.30: Conference Resume: Old Parties, New Perspectives?

Mark Kramer, Cambridge
Padraic Kenney, Bloomington

Concluding Discussion


Stephanie Karmann

Am Neuen Markt 1, 14467 Potsdam