Last modified on September 4, 2021, at 16:45

German Democratic Republic

Deutsche Demokratische Republik
East Germany loc 1989.png
Flag of East Germany.png
Capital East Berlin
Government Communist; socialist republic
Language German (official)
President Manfred Gerlach (last; 1990)
Area 41,828 sq mi
Population 1990 16,111,000
Currency East German mark
The GDR was a totalitarian Communist dictatorship that only lasted 40 years and 10 days.

The German Democratic Republic (GDR) (German: Deutsche Demokratische Republik, abbr. DDR), usually called East Germany, was the Communist state that controlled the eastern third of Germany (as well as most of Berlin) from 1949 to 1990. It had its own government and army, which were controlled by the East German Communist Party. That party in turn was controlled by Moscow, making the DDR a satellite of the Soviet Union. East Germany was the Cold War counterpart of West Germany. The capital was Berlin (that is, East Berlin). The GDR was not officially recognized by non-Communist nations until after the Basic Treaty with West Germany was signed in 1972. It joined the UN in 1973, at the same time as West Germany. It was part of the Warsaw Pact, the Communist counterpart to NATO.

In 1989 a popular uprising overthrew the Communists. The Soviets refused to intervene, and the country soon reunited with West Germany and is now part of Germany.

As historian Gerhard Ritter has argued, the East German state was historically defined by two dominant forces - Soviet Communism and German traditions filtered through the interwar experiences of German Communists - always constrained by the magnet of the increasingly prosperous West. The Communist transformation was strongest in industry, agriculture, the militarization of society, and most of the educational system, while the science-engineering professions, the churches, and even petty-bourgeois traditions preserved niches. Social policy, which became a critical legitimization tool in the last decades, mixed Communist and traditional elements about equally.

Danish historian Feiwel Kupferberg (2002) shows the rigid communist system in the GDR inculcated passivity, helplessness, and amoral pragmatism in its citizens. By depriving them of individual freedoms—such as freedom of creative expression and freedom to travel and to learn—the Communist system relieved citizens of individual responsibility and necessary risk-taking. They were trained to look to external sources for cradle-to-grave security. Indeed, many came to think of their narrow security blanket as a better system.


During World War II, the Allies (U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union) agreed on dividing a defeated Germany into occupation zones,[1] and on dividing Berlin, the German capital, among the Allied powers as well. Initially this meant the construction of three zones of occupation American, British, and Soviet. Later, a French zone was carved out of the American and British zones.

In 1945 the Soviet armies swept into the eastern parts of Germany, and destroyed both the Nazi government and the local political, religious, business, landowning and cultural leadership. All land was taken over and turned into collective farms; all large businesses, banks and factories were nationalized. Many small-scale shops remained in the private sector. The economy declined as the new bosses were chosen for party loyalty not expertise. Most of the old leadership that escaped execution fled to the west. A ruthless Communist dictatorship, backed by Soviet armies took control. No forms of popular democracy was allowed, and all media were tightly controlled by the state.

The people had been brutalized by the Russian army, with many women raped in 1945. Nevertheless, the official promise was that a socialist utopia was at hand. The horrors perpetrated by the Russians were a state secret and could never be published or even mentioned without severe punishment from the Stasi.

DDR created 1949

The ruling Communist party, known as the "Socialist Unity Party" (SED), was formed in April 1946 out of the forced merger between the German Communist Party (KPD) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). As Walter Ulbricht noted, everything was made to look democratic while in realty Communists retained control in the background. They were totally loyal to Stalin, and realized their regime would collapse if it lost the backing of the Soviet army—as indeed happened in 1989. Historians debate whether the decision to form a separate country was initiated by Stalin or by the SED.[2]

As West Germany was reorganized and gained independence from the occupation, Stalin established the German Democratic Republic in 1949. The creation of the two states made permanent the 1945 division of Germany.[3]

In 1949 the Soviets turned control of East Germany over to the Communist Party, headed by Wilhelm Pieck (1876-1960), who remained in power until his death in 1960. The old Socialist Party was taken over by the Communists, and Socialist leader Otto Grotewohl (1894-1964) became prime minister.

West Germany saw itself as the legal successor to the Third Reich, shouldering the burdens of legal responsibility for its crimes, East Germany renounced ties to the Nazi past, styling itself the "anti-fascist rampart" and proclaiming itself the first socialist state on German soil. It refused to admit the existence of anti-semitism and refused to recognize Israel or reimburse victins of the Holocaust.

Consumption and jobs

The existence of two German states created questions of legitimacy for both states, particularly in the 1950s when the outcome of the Cold War and the future of Germany remained much in doubt. Both German states used consumerism to promote their unique visions of Germanness (Deutschtum). For West Germany, the resumption of prewar patterns of consumption would signify a return to normalcy. This meant not only an end to the difficult shortages of the "hungry years," but also the curtailing of female employment outside the home. People who were disgruntled resorteds to nasty jokes at the expense of the oppressive regime; their names were recorded, and too many jokes would land a man in prison.

Throughout its history the main criterion for getting a good job was unblinking loyalty to the Communist party bosses. Even in the electronics industry, a relatively modern and competitive sector of the GDR's economy, the criteria of professionalism were secondary to political criteria in personnel recruitment and development. Dubious loyalty meant exclusion from the university and from good jobs.

With a very low birth rate and a high rate of exodus, East Germany was losing workers. The solution was to import low-skilled workers from other Communist countries. Beginning in 1963 with a series of secret international agreements, East Germany recruited workers from Poland, Hungary, Cuba, Albania, Mozambique, Angola, Vietnam, China, and Korea. They numbered more than 100,000 by 1989. Their working conditions were bleak, and although they were officially equal to their German counterparts, the foreign workers remained at the bottom of the social ladder with almost no rights.

Gender roles

Ideal economic roles were gendered in West Germany. The phenomenon of widespread female wage labor was associated with the crisis years of the Third Reich and the devastated condition of Germany after the war, when "rubble women" (Trümmerfrauen) were seen literally rebuilding Germany brick by brick. By trying to enable women to return to their traditional roles as homemakers (where they were also expected to be primary household consumers), West German political and cultural elites sought to put the dislocations of fascism and war behind them. East Germany, by contrast, found the phenomenon of female employment outside the household less problematic. Indeed, female employment was officially promoted by the ruling SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands: united socialistic party of Germany) regime, since gender equality in the field of labor was one of the ideals of socialism. But equality in employment (which was limited largely to the proportion of women employed outside the home, since women were relegated mainly to textile, craft and other "feminine" occupations, and remained vastly underrepresented in management jobs and professions other than teaching) did not bring equality in consumer patterns. East German elites still expected women to be the primary household consumers, creating what scholars and many of the women themselves term a "double burden" where women participated in the economy as both consumers and workers. Moreover, consumption consistently proved more challenging in East Germany, owing to the endemic shortages of consumer goods and basic household items, and the unofficial and informal patterns of procuring goods, which required a great deal of effort on the part of women. Female consumers also had to devote large amounts of time to waiting in long lines for limited quantities of goods, and many women complained that this was compounded by the failure of most East German men to pick up the slack in other household chores.


Beginning in 1950, a powerful secret police called the "Stasi" infiltrated every part of society, and used hundreds of thousands of secret informers to ensure that bad ideas were immediately identified and rooted out. No one trusted anyone outside their family.

see Stasi

1953 uprising

One of the first major upheavals in the Eastern bloc occurred in East Germany. After the SED regime announced an unreasonable increase in production norms for workers, strikes and demonstrations erupted in East Berlin and other industrial centers around East Germany. The disturbances, known as the East German Uprising, began on June 17, 1953, as a spontaneous outburst of discontent, and quickly spread to more than 400 locations around the country. Coming so soon after Stalin's death in March 1953, the Uprising left the SED leadership reeling. Gradually the workers' protest turned more explicitly political, with chants of "Down with communism!" and "Long live Eisenhower!" The response from Moscow was swift repression, with Soviet tanks and troops crushing the protests and killing at least 125 people. The East German Uprising and its brutal suppression caused international disgrace to the Soviet Union. Because the border between East and West Berlin was fairly open at the time, a number of Western observers knew of the events and spread the news around the world. Nonetheless, East Germany's geopolitical and strategic importance to the Soviet Union made the Kremlin more willing to tolerate world condemnation in keeping the GDR on a short leash. Indeed, the Soviet response to the East German Uprising set a pattern followed in Soviet-led interventions against the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, and the overthrow of a Communist regime in Afghanistan in 1979.[4]

The even large uprising in Hungary in 1956 led to political crisis throughout Eastern Europe and seriously threatened the position of Ulbricht. He was able to remain in power and to prevent an uprising because Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev needed a strong ally in East Germany. In addition, German intellectuals were unorganized, and citizens feared a world war as their radios blared warnings of an American invasion. Soviet support was in all likelihood the key element in Ulbricht's political survival.[5]

A preserved section of the Berlin Wall.

The Berlin Wall

Throughout the 1950s, the border between East and West Berlin remained fairly open. Many residents of East Berlin went back and forth to West Berlin. Othere did not come back and instead emigrated to West Germany. From 1949 to 1961, 2.6 million East Germans defected to the West via West Berlin. A large number of these emigrants were talented professionals and intellectuals, facilitating a sort of "brain drain" from the GDR. As the rate of defections rose to unbearable levels, the Communist leaders of Eastern Europe decided to put a stop to it. In early August 1961, members of the Comecon decided to seal the border between East and West Berlin. The SED leader Walter Ulbricht signed the order to seal the border on August 12, 1961. On the night of August 13, East German troops sealed the border, and construction began on a massive barrier that became known as the Berlin Wall (Berliner Mauer).

After the Berlin Wall cut off escape routes, popular grievances changed from fundamental resistance to opposition aimed mainly at reforms. The apparatus of repression also changed: open terror by the Stasi and the courts was replaced by extensive surveillance and undermining by the secret police. In 1968 the Stasi suppressed support for the "Prague Spring. The covert repression dictated by the Party became one of the major characteristics of the last twenty years of its rule.

World outrage

The Wall generated international outrage and became one of the most poignant symbols of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War division of Europe and Germany. The Wall actually existed in three different incarnations, each intended to make breaches of the border more difficult. Nonetheless, escapes through, around, over and under the Berlin Wall occurred throughout its existence. Some ingenious methods were devised for circumventing it, many of which are on display at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum in Berlin. From the sealing of the border on August 13, 1961, to the fall of the Wall on November 9, 1989, 192 people were killed in escape attempts, and at least that many were wounded.[6]



At the beginning, the Communist party had asserted the compatibility of Christianity and Marxism in East Germany and sought Christian participation in the building of socialism.

At first the question of atheism received little official attention. in the mid-1950s, as the Cold War heated up, atheism became suddenly a topic of major interest for the regime for propaganda purposes, both domestic and foreign. University chairs and departments devoted to the study of 'scientific atheism' were founded and much literature (scholarly and popular) on the subject was produced. Then this activity rather quickly subsided in the late 1960s amid perceptions that atheistic propaganda was becoming counterproductive; but official and scholarly attention to atheism was renewed beginning in 1973, though this time there was more emphasis on scholarship and the training of cadre than propaganda. Throughout, attention paid to atheism in East Germany always reflected politics and was never intended to jeopardize the cooperation that was desired from those East Germans who were religious.


East Germany historically was about 90% Protestant. Between 1956 and 1971 the leadership of the East German Lutheran Church changed its relations with the state from hostility to cooperation. From the founding of the GDR in 1949, the Communist Party tried to weaken the influence of the church on the rising generation. The church therefore adopted an attitude of confrontation and distance regarding the Communist authorities. Around 1956 this firm stand against the regime began to wither in favor of a more neutral stance and conditional loyalty. The regime was no longer regarded as illegitimate; instead, the church leaders started viewing the authorities as installed by God and, therefore, deserving of obedience by Christians. But on matters where the state demanded something which was not in accordance with the will of God, the church reserved its right to say no. There were both structural and intentional causes behind this development. Structural causes included the hardening of Cold War tensions in Europe in the mid-1950s, which took away the temporary character of the East German state. The loss of church members and discrimination against young Christians also made it clear to the leaders of the church that they had to come into some kind of dialogue with the authorities. The intentions behind the change of attitude varied from a traditional Lutheran acceptance of secular power to a positive attitude toward socialist ideas. There was also a will to cooperate in order to have the ability to criticize from within a position of loyalty.

Manfred Stolpe (b. 1936) became a lawyer for the Protestant church in 1959 before taking up a position at church headquarters in Berlin. In 1969 he helped found the Bund der Evangelischen Kirchen in der DDR, where he negotiated with the Communist government while at the same time working within the truly democratic system of the church's institutions. The international outlook he gained through the church's ecumenical activities helped him in his new job after winning the regional elections for the state of Brandenburg at the head of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) list in 1990. Despite accusations of having colluded with the Communist government, Stolpe, cleared of the charges, remained at the head of the Brandenburg government until he joined the federal government in 2002.


The smaller Roman Catholic Church had a fully functioning episcopal hierarchy that was in full accord with the Vatican. During the early postwar years, tensions were high. The Catholic Church as a whole and particularly the bishops were resistant to both the regime and Marxist ideology, and the state allowed the bishops to lodge protests, which they did on issues such as abortion. The bishops were, however, closely observed by the Stasi.

After 1945, the Church did fairly well in integrating Catholic exiles from lands to the east (which were given to Poland) and adjusting its institutional structures against the threats of an atheistic state. Within the Church, this meant an increasingly hierarchical structure, whereas in the area of religious education, press, and youth organizations, a system of temporary staff was developed, one that took into account the special situation of the Caritas, a charity organization. They were hardly affected by Communist attempts to force them into line. By 1950, therefore, there existed a Catholic subsociety that was well adjusted to prevailing specific conditions and capable of maintaining Catholic identity.

With a generational change in the episcopacy taking place in the early 1980s, the state hoped for better relations with the new bishops, but the new bishops instead showed increasing independence from the state by holding unauthorized mass meetings, promoting international ties in discussions with theologians abroad, and hosting ecumenical conferences. The new bishops became less politically oriented and more involved in pastoral care and attention to spiritual concerns.


West Germany was far superior to East Germany in virtually all crucial sectors of economics, freedom and society, but the GDR succeeded in beating the FRG in the Olympic Games. The GDR could not compete on the soccer field, however, winning only once (in 1974) against the FRG national team. Being aware of their inferiority, the East Germans consistently avoided matches against the West German national team. Comparisons between individual clubs were also subject to strict monitoring. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm of East German soccer fans for West German teams remained constant during this epoch of the divided nation and could not be suppressed by repressive measures on the part of the Stasi.

East and West Germany not only competed for medals but also fought a battle of ideologies in the Olympic arena. Therefore, parts of the successful East German sports system were thoroughly protected almost as state secrets to prevent an imitation of its programs by the 'class enemy.' Sports complexes and schools were hidden from the public, press coverage was censored, academic communications were hindered, and the doping system was guarded by the Ministry of State Security. On several occasions, even the Soviet Union complained about the East German mystery-mongering. Ultimately, sports in East Germany—although highly successful in the Olympic medal race—became estranged from the public.


One of the most lucrative exports of East Germany was live humans. After discovering West Germany would pay ransom, East Germany sold people who were likely to be troublemakers. The government accumulated 3.5 million West German marks in a special hard-currency account from money paid by the West German government to buy the freedom of political prisoners. The propaganda machine said this would buy scarce consumer goods, but over three-fourths of the money was used to reduce balance-of-payments deficits and to support international Communist allies.

Collapse of Communism, 1989

The dissidents in East Germany were actually pro-socialist, critical of the West, and merely wanted to reform, not destroy, the Communist system. Since the more democratic East Germans had already fled, the remaining dissidents were more leftist than in the rest of the Soviet bloc, posed no ideological alternatives, and represented an alternative counterculture, not unlike protesters in the West.

As reforms in Hungary in 1989 led to the dismantling of the secure border between Hungary and Austria, large numbers of East Germans began taking "vacations" to Hungary, from which they never returned, using vacation visas to travel to Hungary, and from there via Austria to West Germany. As East German authorities began blocking travel to Hungary, East Germans began going to other Eastern bloc countries, especially Czechoslovakia, where they stormed the compounds of the West German embassy in Prague and refused to leave until granted permission to leave for West Germany. The GDR regime relented and allowed those East Germans camping out at West German embassies to travel on sealed trains through the GDR to West Germany.

At the same time, protest movements in East Germany began to growth, fueled in large part by the explosive growth of the "Prayers for Peace" demonstrations help every Monday evening at the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig. This rising protest, along with the exodus of GDR citizens to West Germany, led to pressures for liberalized travel permissions. The SED Politburo discussed such measures in early November 1989, promising to ease restrictions. However, when Gunther Schabowski, SED chief for East Berlin, read the Politburo report on East German television at 7 p.m. on November 9, 1989, he looked surprised as he read the vague language in which the party promised the border would be opened for "private trips abroad." Immediately, thousands of East Germans began to flood the border checkpoints and crossings in East Berlin, and the torrent of people opened the borders in effect, leading to joyous celebrations around the Berlin Wall. Many Germans began to destroy the Wall literally, using sledgehammers, axes and other tools to chip away at the concrete. The symbolic and then literal fall of the Berlin Wall marked an end to an important psychological barrier separating the two Germanies, leading to widespread desires for unification of East and West Germany. On July 1, 1990, an economic, monetary and social union of the two Germanies was created, preparatory to the incorporation of East Germany's six Bundesländer (federal states) into the Federal Republic on October 3, 1990, when the GDR became part of the FRG.[7]

World Clock on Alexander Platz, East Berlin.



Walter Ulbricht (1893-1973) was the party boss and dictator, 1950–71. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Ulbricht fled to Moscow, serving as a Comintern agent loyal to Stalin. As the war was ending Stalin assigned him the job of designing the postwar system that would centralize all power in the Communist Party. Ulbricht became deputy prime minister in 1949 and secretary (CEO) of the Socialist Unity (Communist) party in 1950. His harsh regime provoked an open rebellion in 1953 and a stream of refugees to West Germany, stopped only by the Berlin Wall, built in 1961. The wall prevented the exodus of talented Germans and allowed East Germany to far surpass other satellites, although remaining poverty-striken in comparison with West Germany. Ulbricht lost power in 1971, but was kept on as a nominal head of state. He was replaced because he failed to solve growing national crises, such as the worsening economy in 1969–70, the fear of another popular uprising as had occurred in 1953, and the Kremlin's anger at Ulbricht's détente policies toward the West.

Honecker and Stoph

Erich Honecker (1912-1994), was party boss and dictator from 1971 until his regime collapsed in 1989. In 1946-55 he headed the Free German Youth organization. He became a member of the Central Committee of the ruling Socialist Unity party in 1946, a member of its Politburo in 1958, first party secretary in 1971 (succeeding Ulbricht) and chairman of the Council of State in 1976, The change from Ulbricht to Honecker led to a change in the direction of national policy and efforts by the Politburo to pay closer attention to the grievances of the proletariat.

Willi Stoph (1914-1999), was chairman of the council of ministers (prime minister) of East Germany from 1964 to 1973 and from 1976 to 1989. He became minister of the interior (1952–55) in charge of the Stasi, the dreaded secret police, and minister of defense (1956–60). A close associate of party boss Erich Honecker, Stoph was forced out in November 1989.


The end of the Cold War division of Germany and unification in 1990 inspired initial euphoria. But for many East Germans, this joy quickly turned to dismay. West Germans often acted as if they had "won" and East Germans had "lost" in unification, leading many Ossis to resent Wessis. Additionally, the dislocations associated with the end of communism, the disappearance of East Germany and German unification were hardest for East Germany, where unemployment skyrocketed and many East German professionals quickly fled for better jobs in West Germany. These and other effects of unification led many East Germans to begin to think of themselves more strongly as "East" Germans rather than simply as "Germans." This produced in many former GDR citizens a longing for certain aspects of the former East Germany, such as full employment and other perceived benefits of the GDR state, termed "Ostalgia" (Ostalgie), and depicted in the Wolfgang Becker film "Goodbye Lenin!"

Danish historian Feiwel Kupferberg (2002) argues that the real difficulty in German reunification was the discrepancy in the ways the West Germans ("Wessies") and East Germans ("Ossies") have viewed their Nazi past. The West Germans grimly faced it, atoned for it, and transformed their half of the country into a prosperous, free democracy that valued both individual freedom and responsibility, By contrast the East Germans absorbed the Soviet-made myth that East Germany was the "victor of history" that successfully resisted the fascists. They blamed their western compatriots for the Nazi atrocities, because West Germany—like Hitler's Germany—was a capitalist economy.

See also

Further reading

  • Allinson, Mark. Politics and Popular Opinion in East Germany 1945-68 (2000)
  • Augustine, Dolores. Red Prometheus: Engineering and Dictatorship in East Germany, 1945-1990. (2007) 411pp
  • Grix, Jonathan. The Role of the Masses in the Collapse of the GDR (2000)
  • Kupferberg, Feiwel. The Rise and Fall of the German Democratic Republic (2002) 228pp; conservative interpretation of the collapse onliner review
  • Pritchard, Gareth, The Making of the GDR 1945-53: From Antifascism to Stalinism (2000)
  • Spilker, Dirk. The East German Leadership and the Division of Germany: Patriotism and Propaganda 1945-1953. (2006). online review
  • Stokes, Raymond G. Constructing Socialism: Technology and Change in East Germany, 1945-1990 (2000)
  • Zatlin, Jonathan R. The Currency of Socialism: Money and Political Culture in East Germany. (2007). 377 pp. online review


  2. See Spilker (2006)
  5. Johanna Granville, "Ulbricht in October 1956: Survival of the 'Spitzbart' During Destalinization," Journal of Contemporary History 2006 41(3): 477-502,

External link

  • Goodbye Lenin - a comedic look at the collapse of the East German state and the challenge of re-integrating a generation of Germans raised on socialism.