Saving Nature in Socialism: East Germany's Official and Independent Environmentalism, 1968-1990 Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
  • Ault, Julia
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
  • This dissertation explores the social, political, and environmental implications at home and abroad of East Germany’s (German Democratic Republic, GDR) mounting pollution problem. Placing the rise of environmental consciousness in East Germany in conversation with developments in West Germany and Poland, my project examines how the communist dictatorship and the small but growing opposition each grappled with the mounting pollution problem. Specifically, the dissertation considers why the dictatorship embraced environmental protection—even codifying the right to a clean environment in its 1968 constitution—and how it implemented this mandate. Yet, as the new environmental regulation and social policies raised East Germans’ expectations for a cleaner environment and a higher quality of life, their failures became increasingly manifest. As a result, a protest movement formed in the only institution not controlled by the communist party, the Protestant Church. I argue that Christian activists formulated a critique that challenged not only official environmental practices, but ultimately, the system as a whole. Although this criticism figured prominently in the Round Table discussions leading to reunification in 1990, our understanding of the connections between the environment and communism as well as their legacies remain as yet understudied. This examination of pollution, policy, and protest challenges traditional narratives about environmentalism. First, within the GDR, studying the interactions between institutions, politics, and society illuminates the complex negotiations between state and society under communism. Because environmentalism was not strictly viewed as oppositional, actors engaged in a range of activities for a common cause. Second, I argue that environmental consciousness arose for a variety of domestic and international reasons under communism, neither simply borrowing from western, liberal democracies nor developing in isolation from them. In fact, environmentalism in the GDR drew on a multitude of outside influences, such as western green movements, Christian texts, Soviet rhetoric, and Eastern European dissidents, to respond to serious, local degradation. This broadens the accepted narratives of environmentalism as originating solely in western, liberal democracies and highlights how both Germanys engaged with the environment to support their claims to legitimacy. Environmentalism in the GDR bridged the Iron Curtain, demonstrating the limitations of bipolar understandings of Europe during the Cold War. Its largest success, perhaps, was how uncontentious environmental cleanup proved to be during the unification process in the 1990s. Both East and West Germans had accepted its importance.
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Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Raleigh, Donald
  • Jarausch, Konrad Hugo
  • Bryant, Chad
  • Browning, Christopher R.
  • Pennybacker, Susan
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2015
Place of publication
  • Chapel Hill, NC
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