Dynamics of Protest and Repression


Source: Robert-Havemann-Gesellschaft/Nikolaus Becker

Dynamics of Protest and Repression in the German Democratic Republic: A New Dataset.

Christian Gläßel and Katrin Paula.

Various disciplines of the social sciences have contributed to the great amount of current theoretical approaches on contentious politics. The theories allow for a multitude of logically consistent and plausible hypotheses about the dynamics of political mass mobilization. Nonetheless, even mass public uprisings regularly take us by surprise. Recent more disaggregated research contributes to our understanding of the mechanisms that have been deemed to drive the behavior of protesters and security forces. The bottleneck for disaggregated analyses, however, often appears to be the lack of sufficiently fine-grained, valid and reliable data. To account for this we are currently building a new database that compromises geo-referenced protest events and repression by the security forces in the German Democratic Republic between August 1989 and April 1990 on a day-municipality-level. We draw on a multitude of sources, including archival records of the German secret police (Stasi) as well as various other state and non-state institutions.

Short Overview


Sometimes less is more: Media censorship, news falsification, and protest in 1989 East Germany.

Christian Gläßel and Katrin Paula. In preparation for the Annual Conference of the European Political Sciences  Association, Milan, 22-24 June 2017.

Recent studies show that authoritarian regimes carefully apply media censorship. For example, Chinese censors selectively block and divert attention away from content that might spur public mobilization, while general regime criticism remains largely unaffected. This gives rise to the question why many authoritarian governments do not pursue full-blown, but differentiated censoring strategies? We argue that more censorship does not mean more stability. Instead, overly bold censorship may generate major backlash for authoritarian regimes – especially if the people can verify media information. Using the example of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), we show how excessive media censorship on GDR refugees fueled dissatisfaction and promoted demonstrations during the initial phase of the revolution in 1989. Before the public uprising, thousands of GDR citizens had left the country and occupied West German embassies (most prominently in Prague) to force their emigration to the West. For months, state controlled East German media largely refrained from reporting on the asylum seekers until the regime decided to release the refugees from statehood and let them emigrate, but only if the evacuation trains passed through GDR territory. Subsequently, emigrants were portrayed as vicious traitors without whom the GDR would be better off anyway. Using news transcripts, daily media approval ratings of state television and geo-referenced municipality-level protest data, we can quantitatively show that the blunt media coverage poorly resonated with the audience. It further promoted demonstrations along the railway tracks of the evacuation trains, from which protest subsequently spread to other communities. We argue that those who stayed often knew emigrants in person and were able to unmask the news reports as clumsy propaganda, which only exposed the regime’s inherent weaknesses.