“I still sense an awkward feeling at the economics faculty at Humboldt when it is reminded of the GDR past, as if things went too far” – an interview with Till Düppe

We were delighted in our current tissue, to publish Till Düppe‘s new article, “The generation of the GDR: Economists at the Humboldt University of Berlin caught between loyalty and relevance.” The article is an account of a particular generation of economists at Humboldt – socialized in Nazi Germany, growing up through during the Second World War and the Stalinist period, becoming committed to a state career in the GDR, but whose careers then ended very suddenly, in the ‘ultimate reform’ of 1989. The article draws on Karl Mannheim’s theory of generations to present a very particular historicization of the GDR, one that limns the tension between ‘the ideological and productive functions of knowledge in socialism, that is, between loyalty and relevance.’ Angus Nicholls, one of the editors of HHS, spoke to Till about the GDR economists.

Angus Nicholls (AN): Till, can you tell us a little bit about your own academic career, and how and why you came to be interested in economists in the German Democratic Republic (GDR)?

Till Düppe (TD): I’m trained in continental philosophy and in economics which led me into the history and philosophy of economics. In my previous work, I was interested in how economics became mathematical, and how that development was related to the U.S. during the Cold War. In this paper I am working on the same period, but on a very different group of people, GDR economists, who I met during my post-doc in Berlin. But they are in fact not so different from the American mathematical economists: both operate within rather closed discourses, such that there is little understanding of how they see themselves. This is how I felt when I was at the faculty in Berlin (at Humboldt) from which the GDR generation had been excluded after German reunification, even though they still feel attached to ‘their’ institution. I try to create more understanding, Verstehen, just as I did when I was working on mathematical economists in the US.

AN: In your paper you mention Karl Mannheim’s theory of generations and its importance for the sociology of knowledge. Can you tell us about what you mean by ‘the generation of the GDR’ and why this generation is important for understanding GDR history? 

TD: In a narrow sense, by ‘the generation of the GDR’ I mean the generation that passed their entire professional career, roughly from age 20 to 60, in that state (which existed between 1949 and 1990). The article is thus about the life-paths of those born in the early 1930s. Mannheim was interested in generations because they share similar memories, a similar understanding of current events, and also similar hopes and fears regarding the future – all of which shapes a specific mode of thought. It’s the historical equivalent of a ‘class.’ The style of thinking of the economists at Humboldt University at times of the GDR (most of them were born in the early 1930s) was indeed quite distinct from what preceded and followed, such that they stick out historically. When I speak of the generation of the GDR, I also think of this epistemological aspect that a generational experience ‘generated,’ ‘brought about’ the belief in the project of the GDR. The life-path of this generation ultimately helps us to understand how the GDR was stabilized, was maintained, and then fell apart.

AN: What are the advantages and disadvantages of using generations as a conceptual tool to analyse the history of the human sciences? What does this category make visible from an historical point of view?

TD: Well, the disadvantage is of course that the notion of a generation is really a cultural fiction. It was indeed challenging when writing the article to refer to individual experiences, while focusing on an entire generation, and this trying to avoid making claims about individuals. But what I like about this notion is that it is somehow in between the individual and the social structure. You know, an event like a war imposes itself on an individual, just like social structures, but it is still lived experience. But whatever the advantages or disadvantages, the notion suggested itself to me because the Humboldt economists saw themselves as a collective group through their shared memories, and their shared understanding of their historical task. It was they themselves who did not wish to be singled out as individuals and who acted as a generation.

AN: What distinguished the role played by academic economists in the GDR? How was their role in society different to those in other academic fields?

TD: Economists are interesting, compared to other disciplines and professions, because they had to represent the leading beliefs of the state – i.e. Marxism-Leninism – but they also had to solve practical problems of running the state, in this case educating financial administrators. They lived through a tension that was characteristic of the entire GDR project: a tension between loyalty to the state and a commitment to be practically relevant to the state. That’s what they had to negotiate at different stages of their careers.

AN: To what extent did GDR economists of this generation have freedom to pursue their own research interests, independently of questions of state ideology and Marxism-Leninism? Was, for example, party membership a precondition for an academic career in this field?

TD: Party membership was not a formal but an informal requirement. In fact, a vanishing minority of professors were not party members – which is different to the preceding professors’ generation, and also different to middle-rank university positions. As for independent research, this was hardly encouraged: the economists hardly had the time because their main task, in contrast to economists at the Academy of Sciences, was teaching; most research was commissioned, subject to the planned economy, and controlled by so-called ‘practice partners,’ in this case the ministry of finance and the State Bank, among others. Additionally, international contacts, though existent, were complicated, not least due to language barriers. All of this made research, compared to today, a minor aspect of these professor’s lives. Research was generally confined in specialized fields that could more easily draw from research on an international level, such as demography or also some parts of sociology.

AN: That’s interesting. Is the research produced by this generation of GDR economists now only of historical value, or are some of the scholars discussed in your paper still taken seriously by academics in the field of economics? Who were the standout scholars of this generation?

TD: Most Humboldt economists were specialized in public finance, which was more a matter of administration than understanding the complex system of an economy. The bureaucratic character of the GDR made the kind of knowledge they produced comparable to what educators in administration do today, i.e. explaining institutional rules of conduct rather than offering law-like ‘theories’ on the economy. In that sense, the idea of truly inquisitive economic research is limited to a ‘capitalist’ economy. So this paper is not written in order to assess the quality of their scientific contributions, but to show what role economic knowledge plays in a socialist context. Even posing the question of quality of research would be a category mistake, and in fact this is exactly what happened after 1990. One could have renamed the faculty into administrative sciences and just begun another faculty in economics, as we understand it. Indeed, one of the professors did exactly that: he founded a school for local administrators. In political economy, I should mention one scholar, Dieter Klein, who indeed stood out. He was a reformist intellectual  close to the party. What he wrote would count today as a mixture of political theory and economic sociology, which is interesting in its own right. But also he as one of the most progressive economists somewhat talked past the political activists when it came to the first protests in the late 1980s.

AN: How did these academic economists view the fall of the Berlin wall and how did this impact on their careers? What role did they play in the reform of the GDR, which led to the ‘ultimate reform’ of the wall coming down?

TD: When the wall came down hardly anyone in this generation thought of the end of the GDR. The society was moved by a strong desire for actual democratic reform and, after all, one could hardly see the wall as a symbol of democratic values (though the planned economy could be so interpreted, as I show in the paper). The fall of the wall was a moment of pride for them, because it happened peacefully and they all remembered the violence at comparable occasions such as in 1953. They themselves played no role in this movement, which came largely from the youth. The misunderstanding was that for the ‘GDR generation’ it was all about finally getting over Stalinism. But that was simply not what the younger generation had in mind. Sadly, the younger generation had great difficulties finding a professional place in the new state. The GDR generation instead retired, and hardly changed their mind about the nature of the GDR.

AN: On that note, how was economics treated as a subject by the German authorities following reunification, and how did this affect the eventual fates of economics institutes of the former GDR and the professors within them?

TD: Universities in Germany are run by provinces, so each province treated their economists differently. The Berlin Senate, which governed Humboldt, distinguished between different disciplines: philosophy, history, law, and also economics had to be closed down and then relaunched. These disciplines were thus put under general suspicion while others passed without much change (though mathematicians, for example, were known to be even more party-loyal). The reform to economics was radical. Hardly any of the GDR staff were kept on, which was unseen in the history of the faculty, even compared to 1933 and 1945. I still sense an awkward feeling at the economics faculty at Humboldt when it is reminded of the GDR past, as if things went too far. The judgement of low scientific quality, which was misplaced anyway, made the reform appear as an act of force. But anyhow, this did not really concern the generation that I describe in this paper, since they mostly went into retirement.

AN: Is this paper part of a larger project? How does it fit into your broader research programme?

TD: Yes, it’s part of a series of historical studies on economic knowledge in socialism that I started some years ago. I am still working on the secret service archives of the GDR, exploring how the line between expertise and ideology was drawn in this context. I am also organizing a conference on this topic in 2018 with scholars from all sorts of fields. So stay tuned.

Till Düppe is Professor of Economic Sciences at the Université du Québec à Montréal. He is the author of The Making of the Economy: A Phenomenology of Economic Science (Lexington) and, with Roy Weintraub, Finding Equilibrium: Arrow, Debreu, McKenzie, and the Problem of Scientific Credit (Princeton).

Angus Nicholls is Reader in German and Comparative Literature at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author Myth and the Human Sciences: Hans Blumenberg’s Theory of Myth (Routledge) and Goethe’s Concept of the Daemonic: After the Ancients (Camden House)