This very important volume explores the relationship between East Germany (the German Democratic Republic) and various African countries from a multitude of perspectives and across a wide geographic range. Following in the stead of earlier edited collections such as Quinn Slobodian’s Comrades of Color: East Germany in the Cold War World, editors Eric Burton, Anne Dietrich, Immanuel R. Harisch, and Marcia C. Schenck aim to demonstrate the significance of Eastern Europe and Africa to processes of twentieth-century globalization and modernity. They add to a growing body of literature contending that Eastern Europe and Africa, long excluded from scholarly conversations on globalization that centered and prioritized the West, were instead critical players in the development of transnational linkages and nodes of power during the Cold War. More specifically, the authors contend that we need to think about “globalizations in the plural” (p. 14), that is to conceive of global flows as multiple strands that created different networks, some of which had origins in Africa or the Soviet Bloc. There was for instance an effort to shape a global socialism, which was also comprised of multiple, contrasting strands that included African socialism(s), Maoism, and Marxism-Leninism.
The words “Moorings” and “(Dis)entanglements” in the title provide the book’s conceptual framework and a through-line for the chapters. The book is divided into three sections, the second of which shares the title “Navigating the GDR: Moorings and (Dis)entanglements” with the book. Yet the theme also echoes through all of the book’s chapters. “Moorings” as the editors describe them in the introduction refer to the “temporary and fragmented character of many relationships (p. 6).” This gets at the idea that the connections between Africans and East Germans were not meant to last, but rather to be conditional and constrained - they were impermanent by design, “moorings rather than rootings (p. 7).” Nations, institutions and individual lives could thus become “entangled” for short periods but did not produce more lasting, rooted relationships, and instead “disentangled” with the shifting fortunes of the Cold War. Constraints on more permanent affiliations could be both concrete – as in scholarships or labor contracts limited to a fixed amount of time - or more intangible, as with the widening divergence between socialist beliefs in the East and in the South. It is also important to note that in the process of movement between Global South and East, Africans could also become unmoored from their own societies. For example, Christian Alvarado’s chapter on Kenyan students in the GDR and Yugoslavia during the 1960s addresses the ways in which the students felt unsettled both in Eastern Europe and in Kenya, and therefore never solidly “moored” in either context. The vision of education in the Soviet Bloc and its significance for development that Kenyan students in the GDR and Yugoslavia embraced was sharply at odds with the educational objectives of the Kenyan state, and made the students feel isolated (p. 103).
The book’s first section, “Shaping Pioneering Institutions”, covers the evolution of institutions that played key roles in the development of the GDR’s Africa policy. These included language training centers like the Herder Institute and its antecedents, African Student Unions, the Free German Trade Union Federation (FDGB) College in Bernau, and various other governmental entities. East German Africa policy was expansive and encompassed political, economic, social, and cultural fields. The German language itself became a motor of policy, for instance, as well as a means of competing with West Germany in Africa. Indeed, according to Jörg Depta and Anne-Kristin Hartmetz, language teaching became a “central part… of cultural diplomacy in the 1960s (p. 62)” at places like the East German Cultural Institute in Cairo, and within the context of German-German competition. While Depta and Hartmetz focus on cultural entanglements, Franziska Rantzsch examines institutional interconnections on a political and economic level, addressing how the GDR worked with Mozambique to devise labor accords that would bring Mozambican contract workers to East Germany in the 1980s.
The significance of African agency to the functioning of such institutions are interwoven throughout the section. Despite their different emphases, both the chapters by Depta and Hartmetz and the chapter by Rantzsch highlight the significance of African power. Egyptians used the German-German struggle for cultural predominance for their own political purposes, especially after the Six-Day War with Israel in 1967 (p. 74). Most of Rantzsch’s primary sources come from the GDR and she therefore reconstructs the history of the labor accord from that perspective. Nonetheless, as she points out, the East German documents show that Mozambicans were actively involved in shaping the agreement and promoting their own specific interests. As the title of Eric Angermann’s chapter, “Agency and its Limits” suggests, however, agency could also be circumscribed. He argues that while the African Unionist students at the FDGB College were able to exert control in Bernau, for instance by getting a director at the school fired, the monolithic power of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) acted as just a powerful constraint on their agency as it did for East Germans (p. 118).
The second section of the book, “Navigating the GDR’, concentrates primarily on how Africans encountered the GDR as well as how it influenced their later lives. It is especially notable because it contains previously unpublished primary source accounts by J.A. Osei, who was a student at the FDGB College in Bernau in the early 1960s, and Francisca Raposo, who attended the School of Friendship for Mozambican children and teenagers in the 1980s. Marcia Schenck, who introduces Raposo’s narrative, also contributed a chapter grounded largely in an interview she conducted with former Mozambican contract worker Ibraimo Alberto, who later became a boxer in the GDR. Moreover, Fernando Aghostino Machava’s chapter on the influence of returning Mozambican contract workers in Maputo is similarly based on a series of 10 interviews that Machava conducted with “Madjermanes”.1 The chapters with these sources are in a way the heart of the book, as they are direct testimony of African experiences in East Germany. This was so despite mediation in documents like Osei’s, which, as Immanuel Harisch points out in his annotation of the source, was destined for publication in the college journal Correspondence, and thus heavily edited by an East German editorial board (p. 194).
The third and final section of the volume, “Sourcing Visions of Solidarity”, turns to how solidarity was imagined and concretely visualized in the East German media, collective diaries, and private photographs during the 1970s and 1980s. Georgie Bodie’s subject is journalist Ulrich Makosch, whose reporting on Africa presented the continent in general and nations like Mozambique in particular as sites of solidarity. Journalistic work such as Makosch’s reproduced SED narratives on the importance of solidarity with the Global South, and was designed to “elide distance between Africa and the GDR, while at the (same) time reproducing gendered and othering depictions which distanced the continent from the East German state (p. 268).” The young East Germans who went to Angola as members of Friendship Brigades, discussed in Paul Sprute’s chapter, likewise hewed to official SED narratives on solidarity in the collective diaries they compiled. The diaries also replicated longer-standing dichotomies of German “modernity” and Angolan “backwardness (p. 296)” that reflected a more general developmentalist discourse. Katrin Bahr turns to another group of East Germans who worked abroad, technical experts in Mozambique, and looks at the photographs they took while there. Intriguingly, Bahr shows that personal photographs captured a side of the solidarity project rarely present in “state-official portrayals” of East German-Mozambican cooperation. Personal snapshots foregrounded the texture of everyday life, including the presence of women (p. 338) and the reproduction of colonialist rhetoric that visually set East Germans apart from Africans (p. 343).
All of the contributions in the volume are strong and embody the ideas of mooring/ unmooring and disentanglement as intended. This is not to say that the volume is without its flaws. I questioned the titling and organization of the three sections. Institutional issues feature prominently throughout the book, and I am not sure whether it was useful to group the chapters in section one together as the most reflective of “pioneering institutions.” The concept of solidarity, so central to official East German policy on relations with Africa, is also present throughout, though the chapters in the section on solidarity are more grounded in analyses of visual sources. In that vein, however, I was surprised that only Bahr’s chapter contained the images that she discussed, and wondered why there were no pictures accompanying the visual analyses in the chapters by Bodie and Sprute. But these are minor issues. Navigating Socialist Encounters is still a volume that should have considerable staying power in the field and represents a significant contribution to the historiography of relations between the Socialist East and the Global South.
1 This was the nickname given to those Mozambicans who had been contract workers in the GDR.