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Behind Das Iron Curtain

Alexander Gurshtein

Science under Socialism: East Germany in Comparative Perspective. Kristie Macrakis and Dieter Hoffman, eds. xv + 369 pp. Harvard University Press, 1999. $55.

At first glance, this seems to be nothing more than the result of narrowly focused research that would draw the attention of but a handful of specialists. This, however, is not the case. This excellent book will be of broad interest for its use of rich materials that support both its general theoretical stance and its factual basis.

This work was composed by 13 authors with a variety of backgrounds: Six of them are Americans, three are from former West Germany and the remaining contributors from former East Germany (GDR). The German authors' experience includes positions with such established groups as the West German Institute for Science and Society in Erlangen and the East German Institute for the Study of the Theory and Organization of Science, part of the GDR. The latter belonged to a chain of similar institutions led by the Institute for History of Science & Technology of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Coverage is restricted predominantly to the GDR, which became an extraordinary scientific crossroad in this century. Science flourished in Germany before World War I but did poorly under National Socialism. When Max Planck complained to Hitler of the loss of scientists, the dictator replied, "We'll have to do without science for a few years." A fresh advance of scientific activity took place in the newly formed GDR, this time with vigorous government support but once again under a rigid hegemony of centralization and dogma.

The book's value is partly for its wealthy archival component, which includes many documents from the Communist Party and the Ministry for State Security, also known as Stasi. The book even includes an interview with infamous spy chief Markus Wolf, who comments on scientific issues.

Topics include the hard transition from Nazi science to GDR socialist science after 1945, the East German scientist exodus to the West, the establishment of socialist intelligentsia policy, GDR–Soviet scientific relations, the survival of a German scientific tradition and many others. These pieces form a great basis for an analytical comparison of GDR and West German science and an analysis of scientific conflicts with ideology and a centrally planned economy.

These essays form a well-organized, unified treatise. The authors succeed soundly in what they set out to do: describe the workings of a scientific movement without condemning the GDR for having been a totalitarian outpost of socialism.

This will be a very valuable addendum to the recent investigation What Have We Learned About Science and Technology from Russian Experience by Loren Graham (see American Scientist, January–February 1999). To be sure, the book will be of great value to strategists responsible for national research and development policies, but it is not in the least for them alone. It will be of great interest for everyone dealing with the sociology, philosophy and history of science.—Alexander Gurshtein, Astronomy, Space Research and History of Science, Mesa State College, Colorado

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