Science and dissent in East Berlin: Robert Havemann and the crisis of communism in East Germany

Date of Completion

January 2001


Biography|History, European|History, Modern|History of Science




This dissertation addresses the failures of communist science and the crisis of communism in East Germany through the lens of Robert Havemann's career. Havemann built an outstanding scientific career under National Socialism and was tried and imprisoned for resistance activities in 1943. Convinced that communism offered humanity a brighter future, he abandoned a prestigious scientific appointment in West Berlin and immigrated to East Berlin in 1950. East German leaders generously supported Havemann's scientific teaching and research, engaged as they were in economic competition with West Germany. After an impressive start, the East German communist system ultimately lost the race to develop Germany's scientific resources. Havemann broke publicly with the Socialist Unity Party in 1963 and 1964 because he perceived the impending crisis of the East German state. Havemann's ostracism from the communist party occurred after he delivered controversial lectures on Marxism and natural science at Humboldt University. In these lectures, he expressed disillusionment with the science policies of the communist state and demanded as a remedy freedom of information and political pluralism. The party's rebuke of Havemann and his ideas revealed the fateful limitations of communist reforms following the construction of the Berlin Wall. ^ Havemann continued to criticize the East German regime even while isolated by state security agents in East Berlin's suburbs, unemployed, legally persecuted, spied upon by friends and surveillance experts. That Havemann succeeded, notwithstanding state oppression, in building a reputation as a political dissident before his death in 1982, showcases the ways that global, civic, and moral pressures conspired to undermine the dictatorial system. Havemann's faith in communism endured nonetheless, a fact that has made his political legacy in a united Germany ambiguous. He refused invitations to emigrate westward, arguing until his death for the possibility of reforms from within that would establish a more humane and democratic form of socialism in the East. This engagement on behalf of the East German socialist ideal prefigured the calls of civic activists following the fall of the Berlin Wall, activists who quickly found themselves overtaken by calls for political unification with the Federal Republic. ^