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About this book

A clear, concise and thought-provoking introduction to the history of East Germany which engages critically with key debates and advances new interpretations of the origins, development and demise of the GDR. Peter Grieder also offers an original conceptualization of the GDR as a totalitarian welfare state.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Concepts

Abstract
Despite its middle name, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was a Communist dictatorship from the day it was founded on 7 October 1949. This is hardly disputed by historians. When East Germans went to the polls, they could not change their government or even alter the balance of forces within it. The Marxist— Leninist ‘Socialist Unity Party of Germany’ (SED) always occupied a hegemonic position within the political system and its ‘leading role’ was enshrined in the 1968 and 1974 constitutions. As for the so-called bourgeois parties and mass organizations, they were satellites of the Communists. Before 13 August 1961 the only way of voting meaningfully was with one’s feet, but even that possibility was removed once the Berlin Wall went up. Power was concentrated in the SED Politburo, often referred to as the ‘Council of Gods’ [39: 192]. The entire state was structured hierarchically in accordance with the Leninist principle of ‘democratic centralism’, the media was tightly controlled, the rule of law was more honoured in the breach than the observance, there was no separation of powers, and independent societal organizations were heavily proscribed.
Peter Grieder

1. Conception, 1945–9

Abstract
During the Cold War and after, controversy raged over whether Stalin aimed for a Germany united under communism, a democratic but neutral Germany, or a separate Communist state in the east [134: 26]. Wettig, Raack and Spilker have argued that he countenanced a united Germany only if it was to be controlled by the Communists and their allies [223; 180: 128, 141; 201]. Conversely, the German historian, Wilfried Loth, has claimed that Stalin was prepared to accept a ‘bourgeois—democratic’ Germany, so long as it was neutral [127; 128]. Most historians now agree that the dictator never originally set out to transform the Soviet Occupation Zone into a separate Socialist republic. According to Naimark, the Soviets did not even pursue a single or clearly defined goal [154: 466]. Ross concurs, observing that ‘the picture of Soviet policy that emerges is one of improvisations and contradictions, especially on the part of Stalin himself, whose single most consistent desire was to keep his options open and not commit himself any earlier than absolutely necessary to either a separate Socialist Germany or a unified neutral Germany’ [190: 161–2]. Indeed, if one surveys Stalin’s policies in the late 1940s and 1950s, they do — on the face of it — seem inconsistent.
Peter Grieder

2. Construction, 1949–60

Abstract
East Germany’s first constitution, promulgated when the GDR was founded on 7 October 1949, differed little from that of the Weimar Republic and other ‘bourgeois democracies’. Yet pseudo-democracy is a defining characteristic of totalitarian regimes. It manifested itself in the first (delayed) elections to the GDR’s national, regional, local, and communal parliaments held on 15 October 1950. According to Communist propaganda, they were the most democratic ever held in Germany [84: 63]. In reality, they were uncompetitive in nature and the distribution of seats had been decided in advance. Voters were asked to endorse or reject single lists of candidates comprising members from all the political parties and mass organizations. The lists were drawn up by the Communist-controlled National Front. The proposed candidates could only be confirmed, not chosen at election meetings [122: 71]. Many bourgeois party nominees were Communist stooges. As for those from the mass organizations, most were allied to the SED, giving this party an absolute majority. Voters were expressly forbidden to reject some candidates on the lists and support others. Very few dared to vote ‘no’ to the lists in their entirety.
Peter Grieder

3. Consolidation, 1961–71

Abstract
During the first 12 years of its existence, the GDR’s greatest export was its people. By the time the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, 2.68 million citizens — most of them young workers and peasants — had fled the ‘Workers’ and Peasants’ State’. Its population in 1949 was only 18.79 million, so that represented an average loss of more than 200,000 inhabitants per year [197: 214]. Since its borders with the FRG were closed in 1952, most absconded through the open border in Berlin, a bleeding wound in the East German body politic. They left for a variety of reasons, although ‘material motives were undoubtedly paramount’ [189: 30]. As Mark Landsman demonstrates, the Cold War was as much about consumption as ideological propaganda, spying, and the nuclear arms race. The SED was torn between its devotion to the Soviet model, which favoured heavy industry, and the need to keep pace with West German consumerism [118: 2, 13]. Apart from the pull of the increasingly magnetic Federal Republic, there were ‘push’ factors from within the GDR itself. The more repressive SED policies became, the greater the refugee outflow. Construction of the Berlin Wall, code-named ‘Operation Rose’, commenced on 13 August 1961. It was organized and overseen by Ulbricht’s deputy, Erich Honecker. By 1970 there were ‘165 km of concrete slabs or metal fence, 3.5–4.2 m in height combined with ditches, anti-tank obstacles, watchtowers, floodlights, [and] dog kennels’ [107: 58].
Peter Grieder

4. Conservatism, 1971–7

Abstract
When Honecker came to power in 1971 East Germany reverted to being Moscow’s most dependable ally. This is reflected in the constitutions of 1968 and 1974. While Ulbricht did no more than assert ‘all-round co-operation and friendship’ with the USSR, Honecker declared the GDR ‘forever and irrevocably allied’ with the Soviet Union [84: 183]. During the 1970s, the ‘Workers’ and Peasants’ Power’ achieved full international recognition, joining the United Nations as its ‘133rd member’ on 18 September 1973 [220: 319]. The two Germany’s recognized each other on 21 December 1972 when they signed the Basic Treaty. Before that month, the GDR enjoyed formal diplomatic relations with only 38 countries. By 1978, the number had risen to 123 [221: 432–3]. To quote Jonathan Steele, this was ‘the state that came in from the cold’ [207].
Peter Grieder

5. Crisis, 1977–89

Abstract
Fulbrook has dated the start of East Germany’s ‘destabilization’ to 1980 [58: 377]. In the view of Schroeder, the ‘SED-State’ entered its period of ‘stagnation and crisis’ in 1981 [196: 255]. Weber avers that the country’s ‘paralysis’ commenced in 1982 [220: 178] and Steiner identifies that year as the beginning of the GDR’s final phase [208: 171–96]. There are, however, four reasons for suggesting 1977–8 as the key turning point.
Peter Grieder

6. Collapse, 1989–90

Abstract
The annus mirabilis of 1989 got off to an inauspicious start when, on 18 January, Honecker proclaimed that the Berlin Wall ‘will still be standing in 50 or 100 years, if the reasons for its existence have not been removed’ [211: 592–3]. As if to emphasize the point, border guards shot dead 20-year-old barman Chris Gueffroy as he tried to escape to West Berlin on the night of 5–6 February. Chris was about to be conscripted into the NVA but wanted no part in defending a state he detested. Instead, he yearned to travel abroad, particularly to the United States. His death unleashed a storm of international protest, prompting the SED General Secretary to revoke, albeit secretly, the ‘shoot-to-kill’ order in April [211: 588–90]. Hence Gueffroy became the last person to die this way. Honecker himself seemed blissfully unaware of the profound midlife crisis that plagued his beloved ‘workers’ and peasants’ paradise’. He would soon discover that the existential danger came not from the Capitalist devil but from the guardian angels in Moscow.
Peter Grieder

Conclusion: Obituary

Abstract
The adage ‘the past is a foreign country’* seems particularly apt for the 40-year-old GDR, which can now only be visited in the history books. More than two decades after East Germany vanished from the atlas, the expanded Federal Republic is still grappling with its legacy. Almost totally discredited in 1990, the GDR has undergone something of a popular rehabilitation since then, at least among its former inhabitants. The neologism ‘Ostalgie’ (‘nostalgia for the East’) was coined to describe this phenomenon. According to one survey in 2009, more than half of east Germans thought the GDR ‘was not a bad country’. Forty-nine per cent agreed that it had ‘more good sides than bad’; a further eight per cent thought ‘that people lived better and more happily in the GDR than today’ [216]. Many miss the country’s welfare provisions. But there is also affection for its material culture [191: 226]. While nostalgia for the Third Reich faded as the West German economy boomed, memories of the GDR have followed the opposite trajectory.
Peter Grieder
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