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The Foundation of the DDR

This week marks the two important, and not at all separate events, in both German and socialist history: The 69th anniversary of the the DDR and the 28th anniversary of German reunification.

Many perceive one of these events as something to celebrate and the other as something to condemn. Certainly in the English speaking part of the world, there are preconceived notions of the DDR (German Democratic Republic; Deutsche Demokratische Republik) -“East Germany”- as being ‘a Stasiland’[1], ‘a Soviet Satellite’[2], ‘a Stalinist regime’[3], and ‘a Nazi hideout’[4]. Perhaps strangest of all is the idea that the DDR is the party responsible for the partition of Germany while the the BRD (Federal Republic; Bundesrepublik) -“West Germany”- was merely the unlucky recipient of the Berlin Blockade, an embargo on UK, US, and French supplies reaching Berlin.

However, as shocking as it may seem, history tells another tale which contradicts the received conventional wisdom most seem to possess regarding the DDR. The people of the DDR were not unilaterally oppressed by the police, the USSR was not a natural ally of the DDR, socialism was not imposed by the USSR on the German people, and Nazis were most certainly not welcome in the new found democratic republic.

Soviet Occupation 1945-1949

By the end of World War II (WWII) 50 million lives had been lost in Europe. The conflict had taken an enormous toll on ordinary German people, and most of the population demanded change from the disastrous imperialism of the Nazi regime. According to Brunhilde de la Motte “there was widespread demand for the expropriation of the big banks, utilities and Nazi-supporting industrialists, a genuine denazification and democratic reform – and these demands were being made not only by left-wing parties, but across the political spectrum”.[5]

In particular, it should be noted that the communists (Communist Party of Germany, KPD), social democrats (Social Democratic Party of Germany, SPD), and other anti-fascists enjoyed an unprecedented degree of popularity due to their involvement in the German resistance movement.[6]

On 10 June, 1945, only a month after the end of the war, Soviet occupation forces encouraged the re-establishment of political parties, trade unions, and cultural organisations. The KPD emerged on 11 June with a manifesto calling on “all those willing to help in the reconstruction effort to join together under the leadership of the united working class”.[7] This proposal of unity was taken up by the KPD, SPD, CDU (Christian Democratic Union) and LDPD (Liberal Democratic Party) forming a Bloc policy front, while maintaining their political independence, for the purposes of rebuilding the country.

In August 1945 the Potsdam Agreement stipulated the denazification and democratisation of Germany. In order to achieve this it was necessary to dismantle the arms industry and monopolies. Furthermore, the agreement outlined the redrawing of Germany’s eastern frontiers, a reshaping which would forfeit territory to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the USSR. Finally, the agreement bound the German people to pay war reparations for the damage wrought during the war.[8]

These demands were very popular with the German population, as referendums passed showed, and the anti-fascist Bloc. “However, the western powers went about implementing the resolutions of Potsdam in a perfunctory and inconsistent fashion, then increasingly disregarded them, and ultimately, they sabotaged them altogether”.[9] For example, referenda were held in Soviet-occupied Saxony and US-occupied Hesse in 1946, polling the populace on the expropriation and nationalisation of land, industry, and banks seized from Nazi supporters. Both referenda passed with 77% and 72% respectively, however the US ignored the results of their referendum.[10] British-occupied Berlin and North Rhine-Westphalia had similar referenda which were subsequently ignored by the British occupying forces.

In the Soviet-occupation zone there was a great undertaking “to eliminate Nazi ideology and to remove those who were either war criminals or top Nazi activists from all positions of power”.[11] In 1948, 520,000 former Nazis were removed from office.[12] The GDR “carried out a thorough denazification of teaching staff in schools and other learning institutions” immediately following the end of WWII, so as to eliminate the indoctrination in racism and other undesirable ideologies in education, from the perspective of the Bloc party.[13] In the Soviet-occupied zone there were 39,000 teachers, of whom 28,000 had been members of the Nazi party. These teachers were dismissed and replaced with 40,000 new teachers from working class backgrounds with no prior teaching experience who had to be trained very quickly.[14] This undertaking, coupled with post-war conditions, made the rebuilding of the state more complicated, as many new workers lacked the administrative experience required for civil service. Thus, schools of administration were established in 1946 in each province of the Soviet-occupied zone. Interestingly, the first leaders of the German Democratic Republic were all from Nazi persecuted groups, including Social Democrats (Otto Grotewohl), Communists (Walter Ulbricht and Wilhelm Pieck), and Jews (Albert Norden, Hermann Axen, Klaus Gysi, Markus Wolf, Rudolph Herrnstadt, Alexander Abusch, and Hilde Benjamin).

Despite strenuous efforts to remove Nazi ideology, there persists a strain of literature that claims that the GDR is the inheritor of Nazi Germany, claims that entirely ignore the measures taken to purge Nazi officials from key positions.[15] By contrast, equivalent measures were not taken under western powers. Indeed, in the FRG “in fact, many ex-Nazis were reinstated and even promoted”[16] in teaching positions following the war, as part of the 1951 amnesty for civil servants.[17] Worse still was that many former Nazi party members moved into the West German CSU and regained prominence, including Dr. Hans Globke who wrote the Nuremberg Race Laws. Indeed, one third of West Germany’s first cabinet (1949-1963) were ex-Nazi party members.[18]

These efforts of bureaucratic reform by the DDR also required a significant cultural shift. Due to years of targeted Nazi propaganda, there was a distinct anti-Bolshevik sentiment “whereas there was little hatred for the USA, Britain or France, despite their also being ‘the enemy’”.[19] This made the process of denazification in the Soviet-occupied zone especially difficult.

In July 1945, the Cultural League for the Democratic Renewal of Germany (Kulturbund) was established in the Soviet-occupied zone “to assist with the reopening of theatres, music venues and cinemas and to promote Germany’s democratic cultural legacy as an antidote to Hitler’s fascist deculturalization and xenophobia”.[20] In fact as early as 28 April 1945, during the Battle of Berlin, the Soviet city commandant of Berlin granted “permission to reopen theatres, cinemas, and sports grounds in liberated parts of the city”.[21]

The seizure of industry and agriculture from former Nazis, being tremendously popular policies, changed the Soviet occupied zone with immediate effect. Due to the result of the aforementioned Saxony referendum in 1946, a policy of expropriation and nationalisation became the basis of legislation in other Länder (German regional provinces). “By the spring of 1948 a total of 9,821 business concerns belonging to former Nazi activists and war criminals were confiscated without compensation”.[22]

The ‘Junker’ class (the aristocracy) had been the main financial supporters of the Nazi party, and various other incarnations of German imperialism, and had controlled virtually all farm lands in Germany. When farmers began protesting for “Junkerland in Bäuernhand” (Junker lands in farmers’ hands) in the summer of 1945, talk of agricultural reform began within the Bloc party. All landowners with holdings exceeding 100 hectares were expropriated without compensation.[23] A total of 2.5 million hectares were redistributed to 300,000 farmers and peasants.[24] These land reform policies further boosted the reputation of the Bloc Party.

There were, however, many difficulties faced by the Soviet-occupied zone. Firstly, the Soviet-occupied zone was only a half the size of the western-occupied German territory. The economic starting position of the Soviet-occupied zone was, in 1945, significantly less than that of the western territories. The western forces had gained 70% of industry, of which 20% had been damaged during the war, while the Soviet-occupied zone gained only 30% industry, of which 45% was damaged by war.[25] By the end of the war, many “last ditch efforts by the Nazi forces to halt the Red Army”, resulted in the destruction of entire cities.

Secondly, while western-occupied Germany gained significant financial aid from the Marshall Plan, the USSR invested nothing into the new eastern German economy during these years. In fact, the USSR hindered growth in the German territory by dismantling and transporting 2,000 factories (about 30 percent of the Soviet-occupied Germany’s industrial capacity) and 12,000km of rail track (48% percent in the region). By 1949, up to 100% of automotive, chemical, military, and fuel industries were Soviet controlled (of which had fixed quotas to be exported to USSR territories). Hence, it should be noted when the Soviet-occupied zone is mentioned the policies that benefit eastern Germany are not Soviet but rather the USSR only stationed soldiers and authorities to prevent military rebuild-up and extract German resources.

One of the greatest problems faced by the new government of 1946[26] was the displacement of millions of Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia. By January 1947, 4.3 million of the 11.6 million displaced Germans arrived in the Soviet occupied zone.[27] More than a third of the land confiscated from Junkers went to those resettling in Germany.

The economic reforms of the Soviet-occupied zone led to a trade and transport (rail and transit) blockade from western powers in March 1948[28]. As the eastern side of Germany lacked the same industry as the west and was dependent on intra-German trade, it was now isolated from their primary source of raw materials. These kind of Cold War tactics were an attempt to destroy the Eastern Germany’s economy. This was not the only instance of such tactics. Western occupied territories also evaded payment of USSR reparations.

Of the 100 billion Deutsche Mark paid in war reparations, 98 percent was paid by East Germany.[29] This took an enormous toll on the economy which resulted in East German income per capita being only 40 percent of the West German level. Despite this setback, by 1989, due to successful economic strategies, the East German income per capita had risen to 66% of the West German level.[30] This disparity in income would later result in various problems for the DDR.

In 1947, at the Council of Foreign Ministers held in Moscow and London, western powers rejected the Soviet proposal to establish a democratic German government and to sign a peace treaty with that government and Austria. Furthermore, in June 1947, the US announced the launch of the Marshall Aid Plan. The western-occupied zones received 3.7 billion US dollars, “of which ⅔ was a gift and ⅓ was credit”.[31] Fearing that Germany was being partitioned, the Bloc policy front initiated the Movement of the German People’s Congress for Unity. In May and June 1948, in an initiative started by the People’s Congress, 14.7 million registered voters, of which 1.5 million were from the western-occupied zones, called for a referendum on the unity of Germany. Despite meeting the criteria for referendum under the Constitution of the Weimar Republic, which was viewed as the last valid constitution by occupying forces, the western powers ignored the calls for plebiscite by 37% of voters.[32] The People’s Congress; call to unite Germany was instead met with an announcement on 1 June 1948 when western powers declared the merging of the western occupied zones. This was followed by the unilateral introduction of a separate currency on 21st June, a move that was a clear violation of the Potsdam Agreement. In response, the Soviet Union closed transit routes to West Berlin as the new currency would, inevitably, undermine the economy of the Soviet-occupied zone. These events triggered the Soviet Blockade and the Berlin Airlift.

In September 1948, a Parliamentary Council was set up in Bonn. It adopted a “Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany” in May 1949, formalising and founding a separate, partitioned Germany. In September 1949, the first government of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) met in Bonn. The SED and CPSU deliberated on what counter measures need be taken. The Bloc policy front decided to convene the German People’s Council on 7th October 1949. To pursue the cause of a unitary and democratic German state, as outlined by the Potsdam Agreement, the Council enacted a Constitution of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), thereby founding the state.

Ultimately, East Germany was not established out of a desire for a separate German state but rather old imperial powers (UK, US, and France) played their hands to hinder the rise of socialism in Germany. These western-occupiers were satisfied to allow amnesty for Nazi war criminals and the political re-establishment of Nazi officials.

While one half of Germany scrambled to rebuild a denazified, democratic Germany, the other did the opposite. Only the Soviet-occupied Germany followed all the accordences of the Potsdam Agreement. Hence, we can say that the foundation of East Germany was for democratic, unitary Germany, not for a partitioned Soviet satellite. In contrast, West Germany was founded on the basis of imperial interests. The ignoring of referenda that promoted socialist values by the western-occupiers shows their position: to defend the interests of capitalism whatever the costs.

Although East Germany no longer exists, 7 October marks the victories of anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, and the working class; a day to celebrate.

 

[1] Funder, A (2003). Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall. London: Granta.

[2] Merkl, P. H. (2004), German Unification, Penn State Press

[3] Schwarz, P. (1998) Stalinism in Eastern Europe: the Rise and Fall of the GDR. World Socialist Website

[4] Hawes, J. (2018). Germany’s far right never went away, but festered in its eastern stronghold the Guardian

[5] Green, J. and De La Motte, B. (2015) “Stasi State or Socialist Paradise?: The German Democratic Republic and What Became of It.” p.10

[6] Heitzer, H. (1981) DDR – Geschichtlicher Überblick (GDR historical outline) Verlag Zeit im Bild Dresden p.13

[7] Webb, A. (2017). Longman Companion To Germany Since 1945. [S.L.]: Routledge, p.86.

[8] Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers, The Conference of Berlin (The Potsdam Conference), (1945), Volume II – Office of the Historian. [online] Available at: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1945Berlinv02/d1383 [Accessed 17 Sep. 2018].

[9] Heitzer, H. (1981) DDR – Geschichtlicher Überblick (GDR historical outline) Verlag Zeit im Bild Dresden p.24

[10] Broszat, M., Weber, H. and Braas, G. (1993). SBZ-Handbuch. München: R. Oldenbourg, p.395.

[11] Green, J. and De La Motte, B. (2015) “Stasi State or Socialist Paradise?: The German Democratic Republic and What Became of It.” p.11

[12] Traverso, E. and Weissbort, D. (1995). The Jews & Germany: From the ‘Judeo-German Symbiosis’ to the Memory of Auschwitz. Lincoln [etc.]: University of Nebraska Press, p.136.

[13] Green, J. and De La Motte, B. (2015) “Stasi State or Socialist Paradise?: The German Democratic Republic and What Became of It.” p.40

[14] Heitzer, H. (1981) DDR – Geschichtlicher Überblick (GDR historical outline) Verlag Zeit im Bild Dresden p.35

[15] See Connolly, K. (2007a); Connolly, K. (2007b); Hawes, J. (2018).

Connolly, K. (2007a). Hitler’s honour lives on in G8 summit town. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/mar/12/germany.kateconnolly [Accessed 17 Sep. 2018]; Connolly, K. (2007b). I’m no hero, says woman who saved 2,500 ghetto children. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/mar/15/secondworldwar.poland [Accessed 17 Sep. 2018];

Hawes, J. (2018). Germany’s far right never went away, but festered in its eastern stronghold | James Hawes. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/02/germanys-far-right-never-went-away-but-festered-in-its-eastern-stronghold?CMP=fb_gu [Accessed 17 Sep. 2018].

[16] Green, J. and De La Motte, B. (2015) “Stasi State or Socialist Paradise?: The German Democratic Republic and What Became of It.” p.40

[17] Article 131 [Persons formerly in the public service]

The legal relations of persons, including refugees and expellees, who on 8 May 1945 were employed in the public service, have left the service for reasons other than those recognised by civil service regulations or collective bargaining agreements, and have not yet been reinstated or are employed in positions that do not correspond to those they previously held, shall be regulated by a federal law. The same shall apply mutatis mutandis to persons, including refugees and expellees, who on 8 May 1945 were entitled to pensions and related benefits and who for reasons other than those recognised by civil service regulations or collective bargaining agreements no longer receive any such pension or related benefits. Until the pertinent federal law takes effect, no legal claims may be made, unless Land law otherwise provides.

[18] Graf, W. (1984). Anti-Communism in the Federal Republic of Germany. Socialist Register 1984: The Uses of Anti-Communism, 21, p.172.

[19] Green, J. and De La Motte, B. (2015) “Stasi State or Socialist Paradise?: The German Democratic Republic and What Became of It.” p.12

[20]  Green, J. and De La Motte, B. (2015) “Stasi State or Socialist Paradise?: The German Democratic Republic and What Became of It.” p.11

[21] Heitzer, H. (1981) DDR – Geschichtlicher Überblick (GDR historical outline) Verlag Zeit im Bild Dresden p.33

[22] Heitzer, H. (1981) DDR – Geschichtlicher Überblick (GDR historical outline) Verlag Zeit im Bild Dresden p.46

[23] Heil, W. (2013). Zeitgeschichte. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.

[24] Schwartz, M. (2004). Vertriebene und “Umsiedlerpolitik”: Integrationskonflikte in den deutschen Nachkriegs-Gesellschaften und die Assimilation Strategien in der SBZ/DDR 1945-1961. Veröffentlichungen zur SBZ-/DDR-Forschung im Institut für Zeitgeschichte. Oldenbourg Verlag, p.649.

[25] Heitzer, H. (1981) DDR – Geschichtlicher Überblick (GDR historical outline) Verlag Zeit im Bild Dresden p.48

[26] The new Socialist Unity Party of Germany, a merger between the KPD and SPD, won 57.1 percent of the vote in local election. The ministers of the Soviet occupied zone were a combination of SED (21), LDPD (9), CDU (8), and Independents (1).

[27] Amos, H. (2011). Vertriebenenverbände im Fadenkreuz. München: Oldenbourg, p.6.

[28] Heitzer, H. (1981) DDR – Geschichtlicher Überblick (GDR historical outline) Verlag Zeit im Bild Dresden p.55

[29] Siegfried Wenzel: What was worth the GDR? And where has this value remained? 7th edition. The New Berlin, Berlin 2006, p. 43

Die Reparationen der DDR betrugen insgesamt 99,1 Mrd. DM (zu Preisen von 1953) – die der Bundesrepublik Deutschland demgegenüber 2,1 Mrd. DM (zu Preisen von 1953). Die DDR trug damit 97–98 % der Reparations Last Gesamtdeutschlands – pro Person also das 130-fache”.

[30] Gregory, P. and Stuart, R. (1995) Comparative Economic Systems. Houghton Mifflin: Boston.

[31] Green, J. and De La Motte, B. (2015) “Stasi State or Socialist Paradise?: The German Democratic Republic and What Became of It.” p.13

[32] Thomaneck, J. and Niven, W. (2001). Dividing and Uniting Germany. London: Routledge. p.26

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