Between Dictatorship and Dissent: Ideology, Legitimacy, and Human Rights in East Germany, 1945-1990 Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
Creator
  • Richardson-Little, Ned
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
Abstract
  • The project examines how the idea of human rights developed in East Germany, first as a tool of legitimization by the socialist state, and eventually by East Germans themselves, in a citizen-based social movement, to radically alter the Cold War status quo in 1989. In response to West German attacks against their control over East Germany after the Second World War, the ruling East German Socialist Unity Party (SED) adopted the language of human rights in order to undermine its opponents and legitimize its rule. The deployment of the language of human rights by the East German state went well beyond simple sloganeering: in 1959, the SED created the Eastern Bloc's only state-sponsored human rights organization - two years before the founding of Amnesty International. East German intellectuals loyal to the state developed a unique ideological conception of socialist human rights, that reimagined the SED dictatorship as a champion of human rights superior to those in the imperialist West. These ideas were internalized by the SED leadership, disseminated to the population, and became central to diplomatic efforts to secure support from the developing world. The project examines how the idea of human rights developed in East Germany, first as a tool of legitimization of the socialist state, and eventually by East Germans themselves, in a citizen-based social movement, to radically alter the Cold War status quo in 1989. In response to West German attacks against their control over East Germany after the Second World War, the ruling East German Socialist Unity Party (SED) adopted the language of human rights in order to undermine its opponents and legitimize its rule. The deployment of the language of human rights by the East German state went well beyond simple sloganeering: in 1959, the SED created the Eastern Bloc's only state-sponsored human rights organization - two years before the founding of Amnesty International. East German intellectuals loyal to the state developed a unique ideological conception of socialist human rights, that reimagined the SED dictatorship as a champion of human rights superior to those in the imperialist West. These ideas were internalized by the SED leadership, disseminated to the population, and became central to diplomatic efforts to secure support from the developing world. The SED's appropriation of the discourse of human rights works to explain how a dissident movement that was non-existent in 1985 could grow so rapidly as to underpin a revolution by 1989. East German human rights activists were not working in an ideological vacuum, but were fighting against an entrenched hegemonic discourse of human rights to legitimize state socialism and the status quo. Only in the late 1980s did activists re-appropriate the language of human rights for the cause of democratization, drawing on inspiration from Western activists, Eastern dissidents, and South American human rights activists, to claim that they - and not the state - were the true champions of both socialism and human rights. The successes of the human rights movement in 1980s East Germany was thus not simply the result of Western diplomatic pressure, but of a transnational process that began with the SED appropriation of the mantle of human rights, and ended in 1989 when East Germans finally took it back.
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  • In Copyright
Advisor
  • Jarausch, Konrad Hugo
Degree
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Graduation year
  • 2013
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