Voluntariness and Dictatorship

Voluntary participation in the ‘Neuererwesen’ of the German Democratic Republic


Poster "Woche des Neuerers/Planmäßig Rationalisieren"
Plakat_Woche des Neuerers_DDR Museum

Taking a subject-focused analytical approach, our study foregrounds voluntary participation among “Neuerer” – members of the GDR’s workplace inventor and suggestion scheme known as the “Neuerer- und Rationalisatorenbewegung” (Innovator and Rationalizer Movement). Our analysis focuses on individuals’ interpretations of their own actions, while also exploring the relationship between self-regulation and external guidance with respect to involvement in a politically orchestrated mass movement. Motivations for individual participation span a broad spectrum, in which coercion and violence play important roles.

This subproject is informed by three dimensions of voluntariness. First, voluntariness can be understood as a norm within the fluid discourse revolving around the principles of state-based mass and workplace organizations. Second, we examine voluntariness as a resource of self-empowerment and self-efficacy available to those who were committed to the (supposed) improvement of living and working conditions. This aspect centers on workers’ individual room for maneuver between loyalty to the state, prevailing organization-specific principles, ideological convictions, and personal reasoning. Third, we explore voluntariness as a discursive strategy: in the GDR, voluntary participation served in part as a means by which individuals could assure themselves of their status as “volunteers” in accordance with the dominant normative discourse. However, after 1990, the meaning of voluntary participation in the GDR took a negative turn. Thus, this subproject also inquires into the changed meaning of voluntariness in the context of contemporary history.

The subproject has three goals. First, we aim to open up a new perspective on the GDR’s workplace suggestion scheme, which has usually been studied primarily in terms of economics. By interweaving the study of subjective sense-making and collective principles, we seek to make an innovative contribution to our understanding of the social history of, and everyday life in, the GDR. Second, we take a new approach to explaining conformist behavior in dictatorships, which goes beyond the issue of ideological convictions. Third, the project intends to enhance our understanding of the specific character of state and governmentality in the GDR. By linking normative aspects of dictatorial concepts of governance with acting subjects’ self-interpretation, we seek to provide an updated and nuanced understanding of dictatorial rule.



Workplace Culture   |   Eigen-Sinn   |  Mass Organization   |   Dictatorship   |   Participation

Research Field

Recent German History

Project Period



University of Erfurt

Department of History

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