Germany (German Democratic Republic)

Communist Dictatorship in East Germany (1949-1990)

The German Democratic Republic was established in 1949 and designated by Soviet authorities to become an example of the Socialist system. This state, established in the Soviet Zone of occupied Germany after defeating the Nazis, resorted to extensive violence from the beginning. The invading Red Army had already subjected Germany’s civil population to criminal violence, including murder, rape and robbery.

The ensuing political terror targeted not only Nazis, but Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and other democratic parties. Tens of thousands were arrested and interned in former Nazi concentration camps, where death rates were comparable to the previous regime. The Socialist system founded after suppressing political dissidents was soon surpassed by West Germany’s economic and social development.

This led to an East German uprising in 1953, which was crushed by Soviet tanks. At least 50 people were killed in clashes and 10.000 arrested. As residents escaped to the West in growing numbers, the Berlin wall was erected in 1961. Under orders from GDR authorities, border guards shot dead at least 133 people attempting to cross the border. In the following decades, East Germans were terrorized by the ultra-efficient STASI intelligence agency. Potential dissidents and resisters were persistently tracked down and persecuted. Despite the atmosphere of fear thus generated, East Germany’s Communist system collapsed within months in 1989.

Historical overview

The interwar period in Germany was a time of fierce political competition, especially in the early 1930s, when the Communist Party of Germany (KPD, established at a congress held from 31 December 1918 – 1 January 1919) struggled for power with the Nazis grouped in the NSDAP. Eventually, the latter triumphed and on 30 January 1933 Paul von Hindenburg, President of the Weimar Republic, appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. The Nazis started to build a totalitarian state and brutally crushed the opposition, including the communist activists. At the beginning of March 1933, the KPD was outlawed and those members who managed to avoid concentration camps fled abroad, often to the USSR. In 1939, the Hitler-Stalin Pact which divided Europe into the spheres of influences of the two totalitarian powers was signed; soon after, World War II began. In June 1941, Hitler turned his war machine against Stalin's USSR. After several years of military success, the tide turned between 1942-43, after which the Third Reich was pushed to the defensive. At that time, the National Committee for a Free Germany was formed in the USSR at the initiative of the Kremlin. Its members, including Wilhelm Pieck and Walter Ulbricht of the former Communist Party of Germany, waited for the final defeat of Germany to return to the political scene. They were transferred to Berlin at the end of April 1945, a few days before the capitulation of the Third Reich.

In the wake of the lost war, Germany was divided into four occupation zones (American, British, French and Soviet) alongside Berlin, which was also split into four sectors. The Soviet occupation zone comprised five German states (Brandenburg, Mecklenburg, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia) and was governed by the Soviet Military Administration in Germany headed by Marshal Georgi Zhukov. From August 1945, authority over the entire territory of the occupied Germany was assumed by the Allied Control Council. The policy of the great powers came down to the so-called “four Ds”: demilitarisation, democratisation, denazification and decentralisation. However, the victors of World War II soon got lost in a vast array of disagreements which ultimately gave rise to the Cold War that would last several decades. One of the sources of contention was a different vision for the future of Germany. The USSR pushed for the unification of the country, hoping that politicians loyal to the Soviets would take over the reins of the new Germany, but the other powers were against these plans and sought to create a separate state comprising their three zones of occupation. The apogee of the conflict was the blockade of Berlin by the USSR, which resulted in cutting the city districts administered by France, the United States and the United Kingdom off from the rest of the world. During the blockade (June 1948–April 1949), all supplies were delivered solely by air; in total, 280,000 flights were made in this period.

The division of Germany became official when the Federal Republic of Germany was established in September 1949; the new country consisted of the American, British and French zones in the west. In response, the German Democratic Republic was established on the territory of the Soviet occupation zone on 7 October 1949. In this way, Germany was divided into two separate countries that existed for over 40 years: a democratic one whose economy was capitalist in the west and a dictatorial state with a centrally controlled economy in the east.

East Germany gradually became a relatively sovereign country. Although in 1949 the Soviet Military Administration conferred power to the leadership of the GDR, the former was not immediately liquidated; instead, it continued to operate as the Soviet Control Commission and, after 1953, was known as the High Commission. The USSR also reduced the burden of reparations imposed on the GDR and decreased the amount of payments for the maintenance of the Soviet troops stationed in East Germany. At the same time, the GDR became increasingly integrated as part of the Soviet bloc. The East German state signed bilateral agreements with other countries of the bloc and joined the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance as well as the Warsaw Pact in 1950 and 1956 respectively.

The early years of the GDR (1949–1961) were dominated by the development of a socio-economic model following the Soviet example. This, however, did not happen without conflicts and tensions. June 1953, when manifestations and strikes took place in a number of East German cities, was a most notable caesura. The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 and divided the city into two distinct parts, thus finalising the complete physical division of Germany. The next period (1961–1971) was marked by stabilisation and modernisation throughout the country which also experienced a constant improvement of the standard of living, while maintaining the monopoly of power within the hands of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). In 1971 Erich Honecker replaced Walter Ulbricht as the head of the SED. The policies implemented in the period of Honecker’s leadership (1971–1989) did not differ significantly from the course adopted by his predecessor. However, the GDR struggled with increasing economic problems and growing social dissatisfaction, which manifested itself in the gradual development of the political and societal opposition. Although Honecker opposed the liberalisation undertaken by Gorbachev, it did not prevent the system from its eventual collapse. Following mass demonstrations in October and November 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall (7-8 November), the GDR was dissolved on 3 October 1990 and the two German states united.


In June 1945, after the establishment of “anti-fascist” political formations was allowed, a group of emigrants from Moscow (led by Wilhelm Pieck and Walter Ulbricht) created the Communist Party of Germany for a second time together with communists who had survived the camp and prison system of the Third Reich. The leadership of the KPD was assumed by Wilhelm Pieck, a pre-war communist and member of the Reichstag. The party grew fast and in April 1946 it already numbered 500,000 members. Soon afterwards, the Social Democratic Party of Germany was formed with Otto Grotewohl as its chairman, followed by the establishment of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Liberal Democratic Party of Germany (LDPD). These parties cooperated as the Anti-Fascist Democratic Bloc, in which the communists played a dominant role. Quickly and not without pressure from the Soviets, the communist and social democratic parties united, and on 21 April 1946 the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) was formed. Following the formation, Grotewohl and Pieck became its co-chairmen. At that time, the party had around 1.2 million members, and new applicants were constantly joining its ranks. Gradually, the communists gained an advantage over the socialists in the party. This was achieved through a large-scale purge carried out at the turn of the 1940s and 1950s, which resulted in the removal of hundreds of thousands of members. In 1950, Walter Ulbricht assumed the chairmanship of SED; he also held many other important functions, including deputy prime minister, and from 1960 he served as the chairman of the Council of State of the GDR.

Following rapid denazification in East Germany, 12,807 Nazis were sentenced. However, the action was carried out in a chaotic and superficial way. Many of the former members of the NSDAP and other Nazi organisations quickly acclimatised in the new state and, after signing a declaration of loyalty, joined the state apparatus. It was not without reason that the SED was called “a big friend of the small Nazis.” In 1950–1951, there were about 175,000 former Nazis in the Communist Party (8–10% of all members).

The power of the communists was consolidated by the time of the People’s Chamber elections of 1950. Because all the opponents of the dominant position of the SED had been expelled from the CDU and LDPD before the election, both parties were completely subordinated to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. Moreover, only one common list of the National Front was created, as it was assumed that the seats would be divided according to a predetermined key in a way that would guarantee the communists’ dominant position in the People’s Chamber. Subsequent elections would follow a similar procedure. According to official data, the National Front received 99.7% of the vote, the SED took over all important positions in the state and controlled all spheres of life. This was formally confirmed in the constitution of 1968, which effectively ensured the leading role of the SED in the country.

In 1971, Erich Honecker replaced Ulbricht as the head of the party and held this position until October 1989. Throughout these years, the number of party members grew: in 1971 it stood at 1.9 million, and by 1986 it had reached 2.3 million. Egon Krenz was the last chairman of the SED, presiding over its liquidation in December 1989.


In 1950, the Ministry for State Security (commonly called Stasi) was established to preside over the actions of intelligence and political police. Initially, Soviet advisers had decisive influence on its activities. Their role decreased in 1958, and from that time on, the relations between East German and Soviet secret police were increasingly based on cooperation rather than submissiveness. The first head of the Ministry was Wilhelm Zaisser, who simultaneously became a member of the Political Bureau of the SED Central Committee. Erich Mielke headed the Ministry for the longest time (from 1957 to 1989); in 1976, like Zaisser before him, he also became a member of the Political Bureau of the SED Central Committee. The Stasi was subordinated to the party, and above all to its first secretary. Mielke worked closely with Ulbricht and later with Honecker.

The primary tasks of the Stasi included surveillance of the society and counterintelligence. Its structure underwent numerous transformations, consisting, at different times, of departments responsible for performing the most important functions: intelligence, counterintelligence, control of economy and transport, combating the underground, supervision of political life and state institutions, combating political opponents, and supervision of the German People’s Police as well as the National People’s Army. In addition, there were special units responsible for searches, wiretapping, surveillance, investigations and protection of the authorities. Apart from the Berlin headquarters, after 1952 there were fourteen district offices, and fifteen in 1989. Its personnel grew rapidly: from 1,100 employees in 1950 to over 10,000 in 1952, almost 15,000 in 1955, almost 30,000 in 1965, about 60,000 in 1975, to 91,015 in 1989. Thus, in the last year of the Stasi’s existence, there was one officer for each 180 citizens of the GDR. No other socialist state had a similar ratio, which suggests that the society of East Germany was subjected to deeper surveillance than citizens of any other Soviet bloc country. A more complete picture of the degree of control over the society emerges if we consider the statistics about the number of the Stasi’s secret collaborators. In 1989, there were 174,000 secret collaborators, which means that 1 in 10 East German citizens cooperated with the Stasi.

In the years 1950–1989, the Stasi carried out a total of about 90,000 preliminary proceedings, which in most cases led to the imprisonment of suspects. It should be noted, however, that the majority of proceedings were conducted in the 1950s (around 3,200 per year). Over time, the sentences became less harsh – while suspects were commonly sent to prison for many years in the 1950s, similar punishments were rather rare in the 1980s. According to preliminary estimates, in the years 1945–1989 a total of 170–280,000 people were sentenced for political reasons. From 1945-1950, another form of repression was deportation to a labour camp operating under Soviet command. This punishment was typically employed against alleged or real Nazis, but also political opponents. Initially, there were ten special internment camps, later three; some of them were created on the sites of former Nazi concentration camps (e.g. in Buchenwald). According to the most conservative estimates, about 122,000 prisoners were detained in these camps before their liquidation in 1950, and about a third of them died in captivity. The list of victims of the regime should also include 327 people who died while trying to illegally cross the border into West Germany.  


In 1945, the Soviets took control of a large part of the East German industrial base. The production was mainly used to pay off war reparations to the USSR (the GDR regained full control over industrial plants in 1953). In the late 1940s, the authorities initiated a programme of nationalisation which transformed numerous private factories into state-owned enterprises. In the mid-1950s, the state sector consisted of 5,700 enterprises employing 2.2 million workers. The private sector still existed, primarily in trade and services: a total of 13,000 companies employed 500,000 people. This situation lasted until 1972, when the state took over the vast majority of this type of companies.

The Soviet military authorities also liquidated land estates with an area exceeding 100 hectares as well as those belonging to war criminals and former NSDAP members. State-owned farms were also taken over. As a result, about 35% of farmland was allocated for parcelling and distributed among poorer farmers and exiles from territories that were transferred to Poland. Therefore, most agricultural land was divided into many small farms. In 1951 they were also liquidated in the wake of forced collectivisation and replaced by the State Agricultural Production Cooperatives. The end of this process was triumphantly announced in 1960; of course, there was no mention of farmers’ resistance and their emigration to West Germany.

As it was the case in other communist countries, the economy of the GDR was based on the command-and-quota system. The first five-year plan (1951–1955) was primarily intended to intensify the development of heavy industry. However, it made no attempts to improve the material situation of the East German population. Dissatisfaction turned into an open rebellion in June 1953, when the authorities decided to raise the quotas, which in turn led to a reduction in workers’ wages. The June uprising spread to over 250 towns and forced the SED leadership to adjust its economic policy so that the material needs of the society would be taken into account. It led to an improvement in supply and the abolition of the food rationing system. However, an increasingly greater problem for the economy was posed by the emigration of working-age population to the Federal Republic of Germany combined with a low birth rate. In the years 1948–1961 almost 3 million people emigrated, which was one of the reasons for the decision to seal the border and erect the Berlin Wall.

In 1963, a new economic plan was introduced, which allowed for certain forms of decentralisation and a margin of freedom for enterprises (e.g. the possibility of determining their overheads, prices and profits). It brought about an improvement in the economic situation in comparison to other countries of the Soviet bloc. At the time, the state began to introduce extensive and expensive social benefits and housing programmes and to subsidise staple foods and rents. This trend was reinforced after Honecker assumed power. The new leader also departed from the economic policy to date and once again increased state control over the economy.

These social expenditures generated considerable difficulties because one of the sources of their financing was foreign loans. Another problem was posed by the increase in the prices of raw materials (mainly oil) imported by the GDR in the 1970s. It led to an unfavourable trade balance and skyrocketing indebtedness. Apart from the failure of the centrally-controlled economy, it was these factors that were the main causes of the GDR’s economic decline in the late 1980s. Different measures were used to mitigate these negative phenomena, including the “export” of political prisoners to West Germany (in the years 1964–1989, the West German government “bought” more than 33,000 prisoners, paying the GDR the gigantic sum of almost 3.5 billion Deutschmarks). However, the East German authorities never managed to solve the mounting problems and prevent the country’s economic decline.

Society and culture

Immediately after the war, the Soviet authorities took steps to revive cultural life. Within a short amount of time, the first theatrical performances and music concerts were organised across the country. The intention was to create an impression of a return to normalcy after the years of war and turmoil. For this reason, attempts were made to attract well-known German artists and performers (especially with leftist views), who were initially given a relatively great degree of creative freedom. The intention of the Soviet authorities was to use them as a fig leaf masking the repressive nature of the newly-created totalitarian system. The situation changed around 1948, when these somewhat frequent appearances were no longer allowed and socialist realism became the only acceptable form of artistic expression.

At the same time, significant changes were occurring in education. In schools and universities, particular emphasis was put on ideological subjects. An attempt was made to increase the percentage of students from peasant or working-class families. Special preparatory courses were organised to adapt these youths to study at university. This was especially successful in the first half of the 1950s, when the percentage of such students increased to 53%. Teachers and academics were under pressure to join the SED and exhibit loyal behaviour.

In 1956, a short thaw took place after some artists began to criticise the cultural policy. However, at the turn of 1956 and 1957, the SED regained the initiative, seeking to restore ideological discipline in both science and the arts. As a result, critics were subjected to repression and a new course in culture was developed in 1959; this course focused on the close connection of the world of culture and work. Socialist realism as an art style became obligatory for artists until the dissolution of the GDR, albeit in various forms and to a varying degree of intensity. This was coupled with the separation of East Germany from scientific and artistic works created abroad, including in other socialist countries. Paradoxically, books or films rejected by censors in East Germany would sometimes be allowed to appear in the USSR. East German scientists often managed to widen their academic freedom only by referring to ideas that had already been expressed in Soviet science. The then popular joke about a new emblem of the GDR, depicting three chilli peppers to indicate that it was the smallest, reddest and hottest (harshest) country, did reflect the reality to some extent.

This does not mean, however, that all artists blindly obeyed the policy proclaimed by the party. One of the most famous critics of the regime was the poet and singer Wolf Biermann. For this reason, in 1965 he was banned from appearing publicly, and in November 1976 the authorities went one step further, depriving Biermann of citizenship. Although this move triggered a wave of protests in the creative milieu, the party and state leaders remained unmoved, subjecting sympathisers of Biermann to further repression. Some intellectuals then lost all illusions about the true nature of the communist dictatorship, which prompted them to leave the GDR.

It is worth mentioning that sport was also used for propaganda purposes. Particular emphasis was placed on successes during the Olympic Games because they contributed to strengthening the prestige of East Germany in the international arena and increased public support for the authorities. In order to win as many medals as possible, illegal substances were given to athletes. Although it translated into many gold medals, it also had very serious side effects. After 1990, as many as 167 athletes were awarded damages for having their health ruined.


Initially, there were no regular armed forces in either German state. The victorious powers opted for the total demilitarisation of Germany. In the eastern zone, however, paramilitary police forces were created (functioning from 1952 as the Barracked People’s Police). They constituted the nucleus of the regular National People’s Army, which was finally established in January 1956 and almost immediately incorporated into the structures of the Warsaw Pact. The creation of the German armed forces on both sides of the Elbe occurred in reaction to the changing international situation. The world had entered the Cold War era, which is why both superpowers sought to use the military potential of their German allies. “Create a People's Army – quietly. The pacifist period has ended,” Wilhelm Pieck wrote down after his meeting with Stalin. The army was quickly expanded and in the 1960s it consisted of 140,000 soldiers. The East German army was strengthened by the introduction of obligatory military service in 1962; in total, 2.5 million East German citizens served in the army. All of them also underwent ideological training, the aim of which was to instil soldiers with a “socialist personality”.

The strategic location of East Germany meant that the authorities put a lot of emphasis on the topic of defence. For this reason, they took steps to ensure that the subject of the military would be strongly present in the life of every citizen. From the early 1950s, schools organised shooting exercises, field games, drills and other events to promote the idea of joining the army. In 1978, Honecker stated that “[t]here is no area of our social life which is not penetrated by the interests of the national defence!” These were not empty words. At that time, measures such as the introduction of military instruction in secondary schools were instated, comprising theoretical classes as well as field exercises. Girls attended a civil defence course. In addition, militarist contents were included as elements of other subjects, e.g. course books had texts about brave soldiers of the People’s National Army; students sang military marches in music classes and drew tanks and cannons during art lessons. Civil defence education was even present in kindergartens, where, according to the curriculum, “Children deepen knowledge about the armed forces. They collect pictures and talk about them with teachers; if possible, they establish friendly contacts with representatives of the armed forces.” Military subjects were very often raised in television and radio programmes as well as in books for children and youths. What is more, “working class combat groups” were established in 1952 at industrial plants. But it was not only workers who had to participate in the defence system and the accompanying propaganda activities. People employed in offices or scientific institutes were also obliged to take part in military or civil defence programmes.






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