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German Democratic Republic


One of the unintended and initially unforeseen consequences of World War II was the division of Germany. At the end of the war, Western forces controlled and occupied Western Germany, while Soviet forces occupied Eastern Germany and Eastern Europe. The Allied powers, including Russia, agreed to divide Germany and Berlin into occupation zones. The tensions resulting from the joint administration of Germany, as well as the emergence of the Cold War, led in 1949 to the formal division of Germany into two separate states.

In 1949 occupied West Germany was transformed into the Federal Republic of Germany, a democratic state with close ties to the Western powers. In East Germany, the German Democratic Republic was founded. The Soviets had allowed political parties to form in their section of Germany as early as 1945, but had used pressure and coercive measures to achieve a merger between the socialist and communist parties during April of 1946. The result was the Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) or SED, which came to exercise near-complete control in East Germany. The GDR, like other communist governments established in Eastern Europe, had a central committee, and power came from the party leadership, which also assumed key roles in the state bureaucracy. The government used repressive measures such as censorship and arrest, and began to require communist ideology to be taught in schools. Walter Ulbricht, the head of the German Democratic Republic, had been part of the German Communist Party from 1919, the year it was founded, and had served as a communist deputy in the Reichstag during the Weimar Republic. Ulbricht was flown from the Soviet Union to Germany after the Soviet army had invaded Germany. Ulbricht, a hard-line Stalinist, stated in 1952 that East Germany could pursue the construction of full socialism, further restricting workers and reducing the availability of consumer goods. Although the Soviet Union had been exerting considerable pressure upon Ulbricht to reform and alter his repressive policies, the Soviets used force to suppress the rebellion his policies provoked in 1953.

Since the Soviet occupation of East Germany had begun, hundreds of thousands of Germans had fled to the West. The desire to escape Soviet-occupied territory intensified during Ulbricht's tenure, a fact illustrated by the 400,000 Germans who left East Germany in 1953. The Soviet Union was able to lessen this massive emigration by patrolling the border between the two German states and making it impassable, but until 1961, Germans could take public transportation from East Berlin to West Berlin and then declare themselves to authorities. In 1961, the Soviets officially sealed off East Berlin, as well as the last breach in East Germany, by building the Berlin Wall.

The erection of the Berlin Wall led to a stabilization of the situation in East Berlin and the end to the constant drain on the population. Ulbricht introduced the New Economic System in 1963. The New Economic System did not succeed in substantially altering the centralized structure of the East Germany economy, but it allowed for a relaxation of the rigid economic policies and for some independent decisions. As a result of these changes, the East German economy became the strongest of all of those countries within the Soviet sphere of occupation, while still far below the economies of Western Europe. Ulbricht appeared to be at the height of his power in 1968, but many of his policies were unpopular. In 1971 Soviet authorities forced Ulbricht to step down. Ulbricht died in 1973, and his death paved the way for improved relations between East and West Germany. The East German minister, Willie Stoph, negotiated and signed several treaties with the German Federal Republic. Stoph briefly served as the effective head of state but was replaced by Erich Honecker in 1976. In 1989 the changes and reforms initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union and the reluctance of the Soviet leader to use force to suppress rebellions elsewhere led to uprisings in Eastern Europe. In East Germany the Berlin Wall symbolized not just the repressive Soviet-style government that had been in place since 1949 but also the single largest cause of resentment among Germans. The Soviet control of East Berlin and East Germany necessitated the forced separation of family and friends who were unable to secure travel permits or permission to emigrate from the notoriously inefficient and reactionary bureaucracy in the East. The uprisings in Eastern Europe and the discontent in Germany led the SED to replace Honecker and to pass a new law regarding travel and emigration. It was too little too late, however, and crowds swarmed the crossing point arguing that restrictions had been relaxed. When Soviet guards, unsure of the situation, opened the gate and allowed them to pass, Germans began to dismantle the Wall, and it was not long until the communist government in East Germany collapsed. The noncommunist leadership of the German Democratic Republic immediately arranged to meet with authorities from the German Federal Republic. The initial focus of these talks was on the financial situation and the request for a loan to East Germany, but the question of German reunification also hung in the air. These developments led to the "Two plus Four" talks, encompassing the two German states and the four powers that had occupied Germany. The Two plus Four Treaty, concluded on September 12, 1990, dealt with all international issues regarding affairs in Germany, to the satisfaction of the major powers. The support of the president of the United States, George H. W. Bush, was instrumental in securing the approval of the French, who had grave concerns about the renewal of Germany. At 12:01 a.m. on October 3, 1990, the GDR ceased to exist, and the German Federal Republic became the sole authority for a reunified Germany. Reunification has greatly impacted all Germans socially, economically, and politically as the complicated process of reintegrating East and West Germany has taken place within both a national and an international context.

See also: communist bloc; communist international; germany, relations with


Detwiler, Donald S. (1999). Germany: A Short History, 3rd edition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Turner, Henry Ashby, Jr. (1992). Germany from Partition to Reunification. Binghamton, NY: Vail-Ballou Press.

Melissa R. Jordine

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