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The GDR’s Failure to "Overtake without Catching Up" (July 30, 1970)

A conservative West German journalist describes East Germany’s failed attempt to surpass the Federal Republic in terms of economic productivity by investing heavily in technological innovation in key industries. He then compares productivity and the cost of living in East and West.

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The Slogan: Overtaking without Catching Up

The economic problems of the “GDR” stem, among other things, from the shortcomings of the New Economic System of Planning and Management (NES). Three important elements are missing from this system: a free, self-regulating market that is freely regulated, prices that react flexibly, and local initiative instead of centralized regulation attempts. Even NES ideologues are well aware of these drawbacks.

But according to party dogma, no one is allowed to even conceive of such an analysis, lest he be accused of Ota Sik* revisionism, and as always administrative ideology proceeds according to the recipe: whatever the party says is wise and always correct, law so to speak. So now the “blue ants” of the Schöneiche Gardening Production Cooperative [Gärtnerischen Produktionsgenossenschaft (GPG) “Schöneiche”] are building mini-tents out of scrap iron and foil, under which they want to cultivate 85,000 heads of cauliflower.

The “serious shortfalls” in the production of industrial consumer goods are also described in the “GDR” press as being “caused by the weather.” Horst Werner, deputy minister for light industry, reported to the alarmed Volkskammer committee for trade and supply that production in fifty light industry plants had been temporarily suspended, and he estimated the plan deficits at 195 million marks. How this relates to the “weather” – when the consumer goods factories have problems not with volume, but with assortment, quality, delivery dates, and contracts – remained unanswered. Committee members expressed doubts regarding the clothing, furniture, shoe, knitwear, and stocking industries – a bad omen for what will soon await central German shoppers in stores.

Forging ahead at all Costs

As so often in the history of the “GDR,” the SED leadership is trying to get out of the economic crisis by forging ahead at all costs. When Khrushchev announced the program of catching up with the United States, Ulbricht came out with the short-term, economic slogan of catching up with the Federal Republic. Today, after the gap in labor productivity between the “GDR” economy and the West German economy has remained constant at 34% (internally they conceded 25%), and has even grown in some important branches, the SED chief cannot once again serve his followers the same old slogan of chasing after [the FRG] and gradually getting closer. The new magic words to spruce up the self-confidence of the functionary elite and the people of the state are “overtaking without catching up.”

* Leading Czech economic reformer, discredited by the Soviet intervention in 1968 – ed.

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