Thursday, February 21, 2008

Red Prometheus

Red Prometheus: Engineering and Dictatorship in East Germany 1945-1990
By Dolores L. Augustine
MIT Press

There used to be a joke to the effect of: “only Communism could make Germans lazy.” Lazy really is not the right word—inefficient or counter-productive would have been more apt. The blame fell squarely on the shoulders of a dictatorial system and those who served it as enforcers. As Dolores Augustine makes clear in Red Prometheus, East Germany’s engineers and technical professionals maintained a high level of professionalism and a resolute work ethic throughout the Communist era, but were consistently undercut by systemic failings beyond their control.

East Germany’s engineers were in a peculiar position. Having largely collaborated with the National Socialists, many were coerced into a kind of temporary servitude in the Soviet Union. Yet, many former collaborators found the Soviets and then the East Germans more than willing to sweep their Nazi history under the rug in return for their loyal service. Augustine explains:

“Due to their Nazi past, they were predisposed to get along tolerably well in the Soviet Union. They were accustomed to being the privileged but politically impotent helpers of a dictatorship, and to putting ethical concerns regarding military research out of mind.” (p. 32)

Once back home, East German engineers were able to lean on a well established professional ethos to maintain their prestige and sense of worth. However, Augustine details how their work was frequently sabotaged by poor planning, shortages of goods and foreign exchange, and in some cases, the deliberate actions of the Soviets themselves. Almost as asides, Augustine reports some fascinating incidences of scarcity in the East, as when: “the central planners allowed all the glue produced in the GDR in one year to be used to create the Venusian landscape for the country’s first science fiction film, The Silent Star.” (p. 228)

The Stasi was not particularly helpful either, although Augustine suggests confidential informants were at times able to use their handlers to address health and safety concerns. Still, there are plenty of horror stories like the case of Werner Hartmann, who championed microelectronics to a leadership intent on misallocating resources elsewhere. According to Augustine:

“Hartmann was scapegoated for failures that he had worked mightily to prevent. Taken into custody several times in 1974-1976, he was relentlessly questioned for days at a time by the Stasi.” (p. 179)

Hartmann was eventually broken, but belated efforts to step up East Germany’s microelectronic industry were doomed to failure. Espionage came to replace innovation as engineers were increasingly called upon to copy smuggled western technology. This caused manifold problems, as Augustine explains:

“First, patent infringements made it difficult to sell [East] German equipment in the West. Second, purely imitative ‘research’ demoralized personnel, whose work was robbed of creativity. Third, the costs and difficulty of copying foreign microelectronic components increased exponentially as miniaturization progressed.” (p. 309-310)

Reading an entire book on East German engineering may sound like a dare, but a film like Frank Beyer’s Trace of Stones illustrates the very real drama of engineering and central planning in the GDR. It was deadly serious. The professional tradition of German engineers often placed the field in an ambiguous position. The East German television tower which graces the book’s cover in many ways symbolizes the ambiguities in Augustine’s study. It was an unqualified success of East German engineering, but Augustine adds: “It should not be forgotten, however, that one of the most important aspects of the tower for its many visitors was the view it afforded of the entire city—including West Berlin.” (p. 212)

In truth, Prometheus does make dense reading, but that should not be considered a criticism of Augustine’s prose. She is actually a good writer, but there is a great deal of information compacted on each page, which requires some unpacking on the reader’s part. There is also, by necessity, a high concentration of acronyms. Yet it requires no prior knowledge of engineering, and should not be considered simply a specialized academic text. Augustine relates some fascinating Cold War history in Prometheus. She writes in an even-handed manner on the engineers, and of the regime which squandered their talents. The book is even attractive as an object, with a dramatic cover image, black and white photos throughout, and some color plates.

In reality, a history of East German engineering is probably a tough sell, but one hopes it finds its way into most academic libraries. Students of both the Cold War and engineering history may well find it rewarding reading as well.