East Germany

1949–1990 country in central Europe, unified into modern Germany

East Germany, officially the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was a statelet that existed from 1949 to 1990 in middle Germany as part of the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.


  • East Germany, apparently the most successful Communist regime, although with its economy wrecked by ideological mismanagement, was on the edge of bankruptcy in the autumn of 1989. It had only been able to continue that long thanks to large loans from the West, notably West Germany. As a sign of good relations, Erich Honecker paid an official visit to West Germany in 1987. However, the East German government could no longer finance its social programmes. Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, to which Honecker reacted critically, intensified the regime’s loss of legitimacy and, by September, East German society was dissolving as people, especially the younger generation, left in large numbers. Hungary’s opening of its Austrian border on 2 May had permitted substantial numbers of East Germans to leave for West Germany via Hungary and Austria. They abandoned not only economic failure but also the lack of modern civilisation in the shape of free expression, tolerance, opportunity and cultural vitality. Hungary refused to heed pressure from East Germany to stem the tide of departures, and Gorbachev was unwilling to help. In the first nine months of the year, 110,000 East Germans resettled in West Germany. Others took part in mass demonstrations in East Germany, notably in the major city of Leipzig from 4 September, with steadily larger numbers demonstrating. A sense of failure and emptiness demoralised supporters of the regime, while West German consumerist democracy, and what had been pejoratively termed the fetishism of ‘things’, proved far more attractive to the bulk of the population. The repressive state, moreover, no longer terrified. Indeed, it had suffered a massive failure of intelligence, with a serious inability to understand developments, let alone to anticipate them. All its intercepted letters and spying availed the Stasi naught. In addition, the situation was very different to that when East Germany had faced disturbances in 1953 and 1961: unwilling to compromise its domestic and international reputation, the regime did not wish to rely on force. The old ruthlessness was no longer there: the Leninist instinct for survival had been lost. The East German army anyway was unwilling to act. Moreover, the nature of the demonstrations – both peaceful and without central leadership – lessened the opportunity for repression; not that that had stopped the Chinese authorities earlier in the year.
  • A persuasive way of understanding the collapse of Communism in Europe and the Soviet Union is to think of nineteenth- or twentieth-century slum clearance. For in many respects the Soviet Empire was a slum of continental proportions. Beyond the grotesque architectural assertions of an alien ideology, public housing – almost all housingconsisted of anomic and primitive concrete barracks where the smells of cabbage, damp and low-grade tobacco combined. Rivers and lakes were polluted by chemicals, with the Pleisse river in East Germany alternately turning first red then yellow.
    • Michael Burleigh Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, From the Great War to the War on Terror, New York: NY, HarperCollins Publishers (2007) p. 415
  • An attempt is being made by the Russians in Berlin to build up a quasi-Communist party in their zone of Occupied Germany by showing special favors to groups of left-wing German leaders. At the end of the fighting last June, the American and British Armies withdrew westwards, in accordance with an earlier agreement, to a depth at some points of 150 miles upon a front of nearly four hundred miles, in order to allow our Russian allies to occupy this vast expanse of territory which the Western Democracies had conquered. If now the Soviet Government tries, by separate action, to build up a pro-Communist Germany in their areas, this will cause new serious difficulties in the British and American zones, and will give the defeated Germans the power of putting themselves up to auction between the Soviets and the Western Democracies. Whatever conclusions may be drawn from these facts - and facts they are - this is certainly not the Liberated Europe we fought to build up. Nor is it one which contains the essentials of permanent peace.
  • The creation of two German states, an event unforeseen at Tehran, Yalta, or even at Potsdam, was a signal Cold War phenomenon. Foreshadowed by the dual occupation of Korea, Germany’s partition in 1949 combined both real and symbolic elements as a means of stabilizing Central Europe as well as a punishment for the Nazis’ crimes. Four-power occupation had worked in Austria—thanks to the smaller strategic stakes, a moderate socialist government, and the Allies’ Tehran decision to treat this country gently as “Hitler’s first victim”—and the country remained intact. In the more populous, resource-rich Germany, which lacked a central government, the occupiers were able to dominate the revival of local politics. East Germany became the first “workers’ and peasants’ state on German soil,” and West Germany a liberal, robustly capitalist state. Both regimes represented not only a renunciation of the Nazi past but also the revitalization of two opposing political traditionsMarxism and liberalism—each claiming redemptive power over Germany and Europe’s future and each mirroring the Cold War itself.
    • Carole C. Fink, The Cold War: An International History (2017), p. 74
  • I find it difficult to say whether the leadership's 'second echelon' could have preserved the German Democratic Republic. Helmut Kohl later told me he had never believed that Egon Krenz was capable of getting the situation under control. I do not know - we are all wiser after the event, as the saying goes. For my part, I must admit I briefly had a faint hope that the new leaders would be able to change the course of events by establishing a new type of relations between the two German states - based on radical domestic reforms in East Germany.
  • During the Cold War, while West Germans were confronting their Nazi past, East Germans were avoiding it. The Communist state of East Germany managed to detach itself from all connection to or responsibility for the Nazi period. Hitler and the Nazis were said to represent the final stage of capitalism. It was they who had started the war and they who had killed millions of Jews and other Europeans. East Germany was socialist and progressive and had always stood side by side with the Soviet Union against fascism. Indeed, a significant number of East Germans grew up thinking their country had fought on the Soviet side in World War II. Although the East German regime made memorials of three of the concentration camps, the only deaths remembered were those of Communists; Jews and Gypsies were not mentioned.
  • The decay of the Soviet experiment should come as no surprise to us. Wherever the comparisons have been made between free and closed societies -- West Germany and East Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, Malaysia and Vietnam -- it is the democratic countries what are prosperous and responsive to the needs of their people. And one of the simple but overwhelming facts of our time is this: Of all the millions of refugees we've seen in the modern world, their flight is always away from, not toward the Communist world. Today on the NATO line, our military forces face east to prevent a possible invasion. On the other side of the line, the Soviet forces also face east to prevent their people from leaving.
  • The authorities in the German Democratic Republic kept an even more rigid control over their people than was achieved by Hoxha in Albania, whose mountainous terrain and village traditions made things difficult for the central state authorities. Walter Ulbricht aimed to turn his state into a model of contemporary communism. It was his constant pestering that pushed the Soviet Presidium into sanctioning the building of the Berlin Wall. Competition was joined with West Germany to raise the quality of material and social life, and Ulbricht constantly claimed that the German Democratic Republic was winning. In 1963 he introduced a New Economic System which provided enterprises and their managers with somewhat wider powers outside central planning control. Output rose but never as quickly as in West Germany. Although people were better off than previously, Ulbricht’s unpopularity deepened. His ideological rigidity made even Brezhnev appear flexible. No one could forget that he bore responsibility for stopping people from meeting their relatives in the West. He was fired in May 1971, utterly convinced of the correctness of his policies to the very end. His successor Erich Honecker was only marginally less gloomy. Political presentation was made somewhat livelier but the basic policies remained the same. Far from being a workers’ paradise, the German Democratic Republic was eastern Europe’s most efficient police state.
  • In their native countries, Roosevelt and Churchill are regarded as examples of wise statesmen. But we, during our jail conversations, were astonished by their constant shortsightedness and even stupidity. How could they, retreating gradually from 1941 to 1945, leave Eastern Europe without any guarantees of independence? How could they abandon the large territories of Saxony and Thuringia in return for such a ridiculous toy as the four-zoned Berlin that, moreover, was later to become their Achille’s heel? And what kind of military or political purpose did they see in giving away hundreds of thousands of armed Soviet citizens (who were unwilling to surrender, whatever the terms) for Stalin to have them killed? It is said that by doing this, that they secured the imminent participation of Stalin in the war against Japan. Already armed with the Atomic bomb, they did pay for Stalin so that he wouldn’t refuse to occupy Manchuria to help Mao Zedong to gain power in China and Kim Il Sung, to get half of Korea!… Oh, misery of political calculation! When later Mikolajczyk was expelled, when the end of Beneš and Masaryk came, Berlin was blocked, Budapest was in flames and turned silent, when ruins fumed in Korea and when the conservatives fled from Suez – didn’t really some of those who had a better memory, recall for instance the episode of giving away the Cossacks?
  • To my mind, imperialism is something very simple and clear and it exists as a fact when one country, a large country, seizes a certain strip of territory and subjects to its laws a certain number of men and women against their will. Soviet policy after the beginning of the second world war was precisely this. There is no difficulty in pointing this out, but the difficulty lies in the fact that when one quotes from memory one will forget one or other argument. Because the Russians, thanks to the second world war, have quite simply annexed the three Baltic States, taken a piece of Finland, a piece of Rumania, a piece of Poland, a piece of Germany and, thanks to a well thought-out policy composed of internal subversion and external pressure, have established Governments justifiably styled as Satellites, in Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Sofia, Bucharest, Tirana and East Berlin - I except Belgrade where the regime is unique thanks to the energy and courage of Marshal Tito. If all this does not constitute manifestations of imperialism, if all this is not the result of a policy consciously willed and consciously pursued, an imperialist aim, then indeed we shall have to start to go back to a new discussion and a new definition of words.
  • If the Soviet zone, after the initial chaos, for a while seemed to work better than the west, this was due not so much to Stalin as to Red Army administrators and the German Communists who had come back with them. They were more than ready to take over the centralized planning systems that had existed in Nazi Germany and to rely on them in order to get basic infrastructure and production going wherever possible. After a while former Nazi officials at the lower levels—those the Soviets decided not to put on trial—also found it remarkably easy to collaborate; the Communist ideas of planning were not, after all, that different from those of their former masters. Publicly, however, the new east German authorities held high the banner of anti-Fascism. They were the “good Germans”; the bad Germans, plenty of them, were all collaborating in the western occupation zones, or so German Communist propaganda claimed. Many Left-wing Germans fell for the disinformation, especially intellectuals and artists, some of whom moved east, including top names in German literature like Stefan Heym and Bertolt Brecht, who both moved there from wartime exile in the United States. In the spring of 1946 the Soviets and the German Communists forced the Social Democrats in the east into a Socialist Unity Party (SED), in which the Communists under Wilhelm Pieck and Walter Ulbricht had full control. Again, some non- Communist Left-wingers joined enthusiastically, believing that they thereby made up for the failure of the German Left to cooperate against Hitler in the 1930s. Most Social Democrats were made of sterner stuff, however, and fought to keep their party separate, even if it meant relocating to the western occupation zones. Still, the SED scored enough successes for Stalin to be convinced that there would be a future for Soviet political influence in a united Germany.
  • The French writer, Albert Camus, once lamented that "man eventually becomes accustomed to everything". I have always believed that this is an unjustly pessimistic view of our human condition; and in recent weeks I have seen enough to convince me that Camus, on this point at least, was wrong: 30,000 East Germans abandoning home, friends, jobs, everything, to escape to a new life of opportunity but also uncertainty in the West; thousands of Soviet miners striking not for more pay, but for better supplies; the joy of Poles as they greet their first non-Communist Prime Minister in 40 years; over a million inhabitants of the Baltic states forming a human chain to protest against the forced annexation of their nations; demonstrators in Prague braving the security forces to mark the 21st anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion; or in Leipzig calling for freedom of speech. Clearly the peoples of the East have not become accustomed to their lot. Totalitarian rule has not made people less attracted by freedom, democracy and self-determination. The opposite is true. Nor has it made them incapable of exercising these values through political organization and self-expression: look at the debates in the new Congress of the People's Deputies, the activities of the popular fronts, Solidarity in Poland or the opposition parties in Hungary. The demand for pluralism and reform can now be heard in every Eastern nation.

See also