Perceptions of Inequality in a Socialist Dictatorship: Evidence from the German Democratic Republic

Project description

Aims and Key Questions:

This project examines perceptions of inequality in a socialist dictatorship, the extent to which individuals justify their demands on the regime through comparisons with third parties, and how these factors influence state responses to expressed demands. We focus on the German Democratic Republic (GDR), which offers us a unique opportunity to incorporate historical data. We rely on written archived letters of complaint, or "Eingaben," from citizens to state authorities. This official channel also allowed the authorities to assess the extent of public discontent as well as to record citizens' complaints about their daily lives.

We will collect and digitize the original submissions and state response letters from officials from the archives of the former GDR districts. Our main focus is to determine how pronounced the justification of individual claims was through comparisons with third parties, and how this influenced the regime's response to expressed claims.


Numerous authoritarian regimes of the present and past are based on a socialist ideology. Inequality is a fundamental political challenge for such regimes, whose legitimacy, after all, rests on the claim of being able to produce equality and well-being for their citizens.

Previous research on subjective status comparisons has found that it is perceived rather than actual inequality that can explain political attitudes. It follows that individuals' subjective assessments of inequality can have far-reaching consequences: A socialist dictatorship that allows unequal treatment and unequal success of its citizens fails one of its basic premises. This could lead to widespread discontent and ultimately pose a threat to the regime. It is therefore crucial for the survival of socialist autocracies that they maintain a perception of prevailing equality among their populations. Analyzing submissions allows us to measure perceived inequality-at least to the extent that citizens have voluntarily disclosed it-and to assess its importance for the response of state institutions to voiced grievances.


In the first phase of the project, we will collect historical data from the archives of the former GDR districts and digitize the contents of the archival material. We will then code information on the extent of perceived inequality and comparisons with third parties, as well as the main themes of the submissions and the response of the authorities. In our project, we will systematically analyze whether government officials are more inclined to respond to claims in submissions when the claimants cite (perceived) inequality as a justification. Furthermore, we will investigate whether systemic threats, such as electoral renunciation or emigration, are also made in the petitions where unequal treatment is at stake.


Political Science

Starting date:

October 1, 2020