M. Müller: A Spectre is Haunting Arabia

A Spectre is Haunting Arabia. How the Germans Brought Their Communism to Yemen

Müller, Miriam M.
Edition Politik / Political Science 26
Anzahl Seiten
440 S.
€ 39,99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Markus Bassermann, Hamburg

At a casual glance, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDYR), declared in 1970 and dissolved in 1990, might appear as a carbon copy of many states that entered the world stage during the Cold War: Born from anti-colonial struggle, throwing in its lot with one of the superpowers and (with the benefit of hindsight) doomed to fail. However, such an overly simplistic narrative misses key aspects that make South Yemens‘s story fascinating: Primarily, it was the only revolutionary state on the Arabian peninsula and in the Levant that did not embrace a variant of Arabic Socialism. Instead, the National Liberation Front's (NLF) leadership adopted Marxism-Leninism as their core ideology and declared their ambition to ultimately create a communist society. This created a space for foreign actors in which East-Germany could deploy and develop a foreign policy of its own. An astonishing feat, given the USSR's overbearing dominance.

This fascinating but so far almost completely unexplored chapter of East-German history is the subject of Miriam M. Müller’s book: A Spectre is Haunting Arabia. How the Germans Brought Their Communism to Yemen. Her guiding thesis: The GDR's activity in Yemen can be interpreted as a “Weberian ideal type” (p. 30) and as such understood as blueprint for further foreign policy, had the GDR persisted beyond 1989. Thus, Müller argues, South Yemen should be regarded as a test bed for the East-Germany’s broader concept of “socialist state-and-nation building" (p. 71).

As the thesis’ thrust highlights, the book is not primarily a historiographical work, but can best be described as historiographically informed political science: To verify her hypothesis, the author draws on an impressive amount of previously non-evaluated archival files as well as interviews with former GDR officials.[1] It is thanks to this wealth of utilized sources used and their in-depth interrogation that the book can easily be recommended to historians. The interdisciplinary approach is further expanded through the author’s four analytical core concepts – Foreign Policy, the Nation State, Sovereignty and Identity – which the author approaches not from a purely political scientific perspective but by drawing on a wide range of scholars, among them Benedict Anderson, Ernst-Otto Czempiel, Helga Haftendorn and Jochen Hippler. The author draws on these varied perspectives with good reason, as they allow for a more nimble and varied interrogation of a fairly unexplored but extremely nuanced topic. There are shortcomings to this approach – discussed further below – but overall, it’s commendable how Miriam Müller attempts avoid the constraints of a purely political science approach.

The accessed archival material primarily covers the activity of the Ministry for State Security (MfS) and Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MfAA) in South Yemen, stored at the Stasi Records Agency (BStU). While the MfS main administration A (HV A) destroyed its files in wake of the GDR’s dissolution, archives of other sections (“Hauptabteilungen”, HA), mainly HA II (counter-intelligence), HA III (signals intelligence and counter-measures) and HA X (international liaison with partner agencies), are preserved in good shape. Supporting material is drawn from the Archives of the Political Parties and Mass Organizations of the GDR (SAPMO-BArch), while files present at the Political Archive of the German Foreign Office could only cover the early phases of East-German activity, due to their 30-year probation rules. The aforementioned interviews are utilized sparingly and mostly as illustration, rather than sources of their own. Only in a few instances they are consulted to prove a specific argument or to help rectify contradictory archival material. Still, it is an abundance of primary sources which allows the author to relegate use of secondary sources to areas outside the book’s focus, namely the broader aspects of East-Berlin's foreign activity and its relationship with the USSR and the FRG.

Conversely, the Yemeni perspective is depicted exclusively through the lens of the few scholars who have tackled this “niche topic” and who, as Müller critically considers, are in their majority “Marxist scholars”, thus bearing the risk of “transferring ideologically inspired opinions” (p. 38). However, the extent to which this reliance on secondary sources might distort the Yemeni perspective, on which primary sources the given scholars relied on, or whether some of them should be considered primary sources themselves, is not discussed. While this is understandable given the book’s focus on the GDR’s activity, it still seems at odds with the book's emphasis on a postcolonial approach in order to “recover agency of the ‚subaltern‘“(p. 28). A few more pages spent on discussing the state of sources, as well as the recent surge of scholarly interest in Southern Yemen (as briefly acknowledged by the author) might have reconciled this gap.

The analysis of the sources, which makes up the bulk of the book at about 280 pages, first traces the GDR’s path from a nascent but hardly independent foreign political actor towards establishing itself as “nation-builder” in South Yemen. The author argues persuasively that East-Berlin's path to Aden was hardly the result of clear-cut policies, but just as much consequence of East-Germany's failings, both domestic and abroad. Conversely, the PDRY, "marginalized by its fellow Arab states" (p. 185), was a state which lacked alternatives.

Before further examining specific activity of the GDR in South Yemen, Müller shifts her perspective to better understand the Yemeni perspective. This requires investigation of how a Marxist state could arise in a poorly developed country, neither united nor with a truly unifying national identity. She convincingly highlights the key role of the British occupation as the “unifying force” (p. 208) that brough together the “Urban Adeni” (p. 200) with the hinterland, characterized by complex tribal relations. Unfortunately, the chapter's concluding assumption is poorly argued: As Müller posits, it “was only due to lack of clear communication of the NLF’s true intentions”, that a society dominated by tribes could align itself with a revolutionary socialist movement. This is both unconvincing, given the arguments provided on the prior pages, and unfortunate: By positing tribal structures as incompatible with socialism – to such an extent that the NLF has to “trick” their fellow Yemenis – Müller reproduces the modern-against-pre-modern-dichotomy which she herself (rightly) argues against. This reading is also encouraged by the choice of describing socialism as an ideology “alien to the Yemeni people” (p. 390), which is also claimed prominently on the book’s back cover. It’s a puzzling statement, raising the question which ideology should be considered "endemic” to Yemen; or in fact anywhere?

This shortcoming, however, does hardly mar the book as a whole. In fact, it is in the following chapters were it truly shines: Having established these central aspects, the growth of a burgeoning socialist regime and the GDR’s path to Aden, Müller can ultimately develop East-Germany’s involvement in Yemen. She identifies four distinct phases, beginning with the heydays of ideologically informed idealism towards the “Musterländle”[2] and a gradual shift towards realism and realpolitik at the end. She shows how East-Germany’s “socialist state-and-nation-building” was heavily rooted in two ideological aspects: Centralization of the State and Homogenization of the populace. To achieve this, East-Germany relied on a “considerably diverse” (p. 263) engagement in both the security and civilian sector. So much so, that the GDR’s constitution "had been South Yemen‘s blueprint in many different ways.“(p. 258). As the relationship began to deteriorate in later years, when Aden “appeared to develop a mind of it is own” (p. 328), Müller shows how the GDR shifted towards a realist perspective without ever truly letting go of its ally. In fact, as she demonstrates in the final pages of her analysis, East-Germany had developed enough political self-confidence to stand against the USSR’s position on South Yemen: Following the January 1986 coup in Aden, Honecker refused to align himself with the new Moscow-backed regime and upheld his loyalty to former president Ali Nasir. Thus, Müller demonstrates how events in South Yemen reverberated throughout the entire Eastern Block, emphasizing the fissures growing during its fateful final years.

Thanks to this thorough empirical analysis, Müller can conclusively answer her guiding hypothesis: East-Germany’s activities in South Yemen did indeed represent a “Weberian ideal type” that would have served as a blueprint for further foreign political activities; provided East-Berlin had had “the autonomy, scope of action and the resources to do so” (p. 381). From a historiographical perspective these trailing qualifiers highlight the rigidity of the overarching methodology, given its tendency to subsume empirical data towards the thesis, rather than unfolding it on its own, at times contradictory, merits. However, one can hardly reproach Miriam M. Müller’s book for this. The author never claims to write from an exclusively historiographical perspective and takes great care to emphasize how much she is breaking new ground. Rather, her work stands as a great example of the strength of an open-minded interdisciplinary approach and should serve as both an encouragement and a reminder that the history of the GDR's foreign policy (not only) in Yemen has not yet been conclusively written.[3] Thanks to Müller's book, future scholars will have a strong and solid foundation from which to continue writing the history of this peculiar “Spectre”.

[1] These are: Günther Scharfenberg (Ambassador to the PDRY in the 1970s), Fritz Balke (Vice Consul 1969 to the end of 1972, later returned to Aden in an official capacity), Wolfgang Bator (ambassador), Hans Bauer (active for the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (HV A), the GDR’s foreign intelligence service in the PDRY from 1982 to 1985), Werner Sittig (last serving ambassador from August 1989 onwards) and Heinz-Dieter Winter (Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, from 1988 assigned to Section Near and Middle East).
[2] A "model state“, according to interviewee Hans Bauer (p. 321).
[3] Fortunately, more pieces have been added to this mosaic in the last few years, namely: Matthias Bengtson-Krallert, Die DDR und der internationale Terrorismus, Marburg 2017; Georgie Bodie, Global GDR? Sovereignty, Legitimacy and Decolonization in the German Democratic Republic, 1960–1989. Doctoral Thesis, University College London, London 2020; Guy Lamb / Theo Stainer, The Conundrum of DDR Coordination. The Case of South Sudan, in: Stability: International Journal of Security and Development 7, No. 1 (2018), pp. 1–16; Lutz Maeke, DDR und PLO. Die Palästinapolitik des SED-Staates, Berlin 2017. However, Müller’s book remains the only work specifically dedicated to the GDR-PDYR relationship.

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