Everyday Subversion: From Joking to Revolting in the German Democratic Republic

Overview

This important book traces the evolution of grassroots social movement in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) and reveals the democratically spirited, subversive forms of communication that were practiced behind the Wall before it fell on November 9, 1989. From the political jokes that were shared in private, to the informational events, small group work, underground publications, and weekly "peace prayers" that were sheltered by Evangelical-Lutheran churches, to the demonstrations of 1989, to the ...

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Overview

This important book traces the evolution of grassroots social movement in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) and reveals the democratically spirited, subversive forms of communication that were practiced behind the Wall before it fell on November 9, 1989. From the political jokes that were shared in private, to the informational events, small group work, underground publications, and weekly "peace prayers" that were sheltered by Evangelical-Lutheran churches, to the demonstrations of 1989, to the onslaught of exposé work after the fall of the Wall, East Germans resisted and rebelled against the state in a number of humble but rhetorically brilliant ways. 
     Kerry Kathleen Riley provides a new way of looking at the East German revolution in an English-language rhetorical history, as well as an analysis of GDR grassroots persuasion that draws on research (especially German language research) from several disciplines. Working from firsthand interviews and other primary source materials, her approach brings readers closer to the people who helped bring down the Wall and heightens our appreciation for the subversive impact of everyday political communication. Here we see how speech, social interactions, and rudimentary print materials can keep democratic sensibilities alive for a populace while courageous individuals do the painstaking work of opening up the space, both physical and rhetorical, for social change to occur. We see the power of a private political culture, the role that can be played by churches, the importance of small group activities to social movements, the crucial work of intermediaries and "hidden hands," and the step-by-step winning of the street for political action. We also see what happens to the hard-earned tradition of GDR truth-telling when the East German story is finally open to all.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780870138010
  • Publisher: Michigan State University Press
  • Publication date: 12/5/2007
  • Series: Rhetoric & Public Affairs Series
  • Pages: 375
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Kerry Kathleen Riley has spent a great deal of time in Eastern and Western Europe as well as in the former Soviet Union, as both a student and a teacher. An additional three research trips to the former East Germany inform her account of dissent behind the Wall. She is now an independent scholar and resides in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

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  • Posted January 22, 2009

    the people of East Germany subvert the Communist totalitarian system

    'This is a story of how average people, relying on their everyday symbolic resources, can counter repressive propaganda, harassment, unmitigated ideology, and existential deprivation.' Riley's focus is East German society in the decades leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism throughout Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union itself. The 'symbolic resources' whose effects the author describes range from civic disobedience of individuals, jokes told between persons or to small groups, sit-ins and other public protests of church groups, to mass street demonstrations of tens of thousands of East Germans. In dealing with each type, the author always also relates how the Communist authorities reacted. This dynamic between natural and in many cases inventive resistance and attempts to repress it and often punish it to varying degrees of severity is the crux of the story. Since political parties, most social groups such as clubs, and even public gatherings were forbidden in East Germany, the types of 'oppositional strategies' treated were not coordinated though taken together they had the single aim of undermining and thus changing the totalitarianism of the Communism state. The range of resistance was a social movement to bring about an ill-defined political change (often called democracy for lack of a better word) rather than a political movement since political activity as this is commonly understood in free societies was impossible in East Germany. A part of the publisher's Rhetoric and Public Affairs Series, this work by an independent scholar who traveled to East Germany as well as the Soviet Union and other parts of Europe as part of her research not only relates the 'oppositional strategies,' but analyzes and evaluates them. Not all were effective in a pragmatic or tactical respect. But as Riley sees, even the apparently ineffective or self-destructive acts indicated a way of social life including hopes and visions beyond the official Communism repressive ideology and repression and had meaning because they took shape at all and made a statement if nothing else. Moving from the dynamic of resistance and repression leading to the collapse of Communism in East Germany to evaluating the 'everyday subversion' as a rhetoric, Riley cites its 'additive-aggregative' nature. 'Oral expression is aggregative rather than analytic,' she explains. 'Orality relies on formulas, clusters, parallel terms, phrases clauses, antitheses, and epithets--all devices that high literacy rejects as cumbersome....' Boldness alone would not have been enough to put an end to Communism. East Germans had to be nimble-witted as well in their resistance. As Riley elaborates with numerous instances from East Germany society and related skilled sociological, psychological, and historical analysis, Communism was eventually brought down by a kind of irrepressible folk wisdom.

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