Christian Möller’s monograph Umwelt und Herrschaft in der DDR is a major contribution to the environmental history of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Based on a 2018 Bielefeld dissertation, the dense empirical study explores issues of governance and participation to capture the full trajectory of East Germany’s environmental history. Möller positions himself against interpretations that approach the subject with a focus on the late 1980s when state authorities had lost control over industrial and infrastructural decay and thus over pollution. He also rejects views that the GDR leadership simply did not care about the environment (pp. 46, 337). Methodologically, he has reservations about an uncritical transfer of the analytical toolbox honed for West German environmental history, for instance the idea of measuring East German environmental engagement with scales developed for the New Social Movements in the Federal Republic (p. 256). To correct a teleological narrative of East German environmental decline, Möller offers a finely-honed analysis of the development of East German environmental policy from the 1950s forward, in particular the “authoritarian-corporatist” model of participation (autoritär-korporatistisches Mitgestaltungsangebot) that the SED leadership offered its citizens. His goal is to elucidate how state and societal actors negotiated environmental problems under the socialist dictatorship.
Möller’s study is based on three premises: First, East German environmental history needs to be written from the 1950s forward, not backwards from its 1980’s failure (p. 18). Second, scholarship should acknowledge the full range of environmental actors and their methods—not only the better-known church-affiliated groups that eventually opposed the SED leadership, but also those who acted within the permissible framework of political participation (p. 22). Third, the tableau should also include second-tier state actors like the hygiene inspection offices, the Office of Water Management (AfW), and others, that scholarship has thus far neglected (p. 20). Taking such a more encompassing view of the range of actors who shaped East German environmental policy and practice allows Möller to engage existing scholarship on a number of issues, from drawing attention to the reform efforts of the late Ulbricht era, to the valence of petitions (Eingaben), and the assessment of the role of Hans Reichelt as environmental minister. Although Möller at times writes against a somewhat streamlined ‘decline narrative,’ his main sparring partner is clearly Tobias Huff’s 2015 environmental history of the GDR that he challenges rigorously throughout.
The approach of narrating East Germany’s environmental history forwards is particularly profitable for the 1950s and 1960s. Möller counters the claim that the SED leadership simply denied environmental problems in favor of untrammeled economic growth (pp. 46, 56). Both in water management and in air pollution control, the need for environmental protection was beginning to be theorized and administrative structures were developed to track pollution. These efforts were not undertaken for the sake of ‘nature’ per se, but to ensure continued industrial viability. By the mid-1950s, for instance, water management experts predicted that industry would need to purify 80 percent of its effluent in order to meet its increasing water needs (pp. 63, 65). Möller pays particular attention to the budding infrastructure of air pollution control (Lufthygiene), a bureaucracy that already sought to insert itself at the planning stages of industrial plants. Instead of casting the various representatives of industry as villains, Möller skillfully traces shifting constellations between the various players in the morass of bureaucratic and governmental agencies. Whereas industrial leaders at times showed themselves to be amenable to air hygiene stipulations during the planning of a plant or project, they protested if such interference affected ongoing production (p. 88). However, already in the first two decades “structural deficits” (p. 90) marred any effective environmental protection, from the paucity of meaningful and enforceable sanctions to the lack of access to credit in order to finance environmental technology.
The institutional and legal framework of the GDR’s environmental policy took shape and solidified in late 1960s and early 1970s. The mandate to avoid pollution and preserve the natural environment entered the revised constitution of 1968; an environmental protection act (Landeskulturgesetz) followed in 1970; and in 1972 several environmental agencies were merged into a Ministry for Environmental Protection and Water Management. Möller emphasizes that the reform initiatives of the late Ulbricht era owe much to grassroots engagement. Conservationists, organized in the Cultural Association (Kulturbund), found ways to influence the legal framework, and the number of petitions that included environmental complaints increased in the mid-1960s, signaling to the SED leadership the rising significance of the issue. Indeed, Möller sees the Landeskulturgesetz as a primary example of the socialist dictatorship having room for “participatory negotiation processes” (p. 180). The protection of the natural environment became an integral part of the “socialist community” (sozialistische Menschengemeinschaft), deliberately mobilizing citizens for its protection. Möller is fully aware of the propagandist dimension of this calculated mobilization (pp. 215, 219). It is, however, the core of his argument that the strategy of inviting environmental engagement, participation, and criticism raised expectations and backfired once the SED leadership could no longer uphold its end of the bargain (pp. 159, 187).
Central to Möller’s argument on the participatory nature of environmental politics in the GDR is the role of petitions (Eingaben). While their legal status was nebulous for a while, over time various decrees clarified that state authorities had to respond to individual and collective petitions within a certain period, a response that could also take the form of public meetings. Eingaben were neither subservient in tone (p. 260) nor merely instruments of complaint, Möller asserts, but a way for ordinary citizens to engage with various environmentally relevant planning processes. At times, researching for an Eingabe initiated a petitioner into longer-term environmental engagement (p. 316). More important, however, was the effect of collective petitions in constituting limited publics: groups coalesced around mostly local issues and doggedly pursued them over time, turning the petitioners into the equivalent of the West German Bürgerinitiativen, or citizen initiatives (pp. 150, 263). Church-based environmental groups compounded the effect of Eingaben by educating the readers of their samizdat publications on how to petition effectively (pp. 314–15). The Stasi used petition activity to gauge public opinion and came out of the shadows once such activities crossed an invisible line and turned into coordinated campaigns with e.g. identical texts (p. 267). Möller’s larger point here is that environmental engagement at the grassroots should not be discounted only because it used state-sanctioned methods like the Eingaben (p. 255). Staying within the limits drawn by the state did not mean that the petitions were uncritical or apolitical. In quantitative terms, the volume of Eingaben indicates that by the early 1980s, environmental issues had become a matter of general concern (pp. 260, 279). In qualitative terms, an analysis of the petition practice shows that these tools were consciously deployed to hold authorities accountable and push the envelope on permissable public engagement.
Möller’s three hefty chapters are peppered with revisions to German-language scholarship (English-language works on East German environmental history are underrepresented in the bibliography). Hans Reichelt, Minister of the Environment, appears as a far more compliant, even nefarious player than in Huff’s account, let alone in his own memoirs (pp. 237–39, 255). The 1972 founding of the Environmental Ministry was less a strategic move to gain entry to the UN conference in Stockholm than the result of the dynamic domestic environmental reform (pp. 195–96). Nature conservationists do not appear as endowed with a “restrained and subservient-conformist attitude” (p. 95), but as critical stewards of the environment within the framework set by the party, and in some cases moving beyond it. The reader even encounters “whistleblowers” within the environmental ministry of the 1980s (pp. 250–55).
Moeller’s book convincingly shows that the environmental outcome of state socialism was not predetermined, but readers must put in some work to keep track of the argument’s arc and to piece together how the promises of the late 1960s nonetheless ended in the disaster of the late 1980s. The point is most successfully made in tracing the erosion (dare I say decline?) of the participatory promise in environmental policy: it moved from a conditional invitation to participate that allowed citizens to support and shape environmental engagement to an increasing sense of powerlessness. The rise of alternative groups that no longer targeted only environmental failures but the SED regime as a whole was the result of these “failed negotiation processes” (p. 22).