Socialist Unity Party of Germany

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Socialist Unity Party of Germany

East Germany 1946


In 1946 East German Communists and Socialists merged into a single left-wing party, the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party of Germany, SED). Originally, the new party pursued a relatively open and independent policy that included de-Nazification, political pluralism, and state intervention in the economy. Starting in 1947, however, tensions increased between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. As a result of these tensions, Germany divided into two antagonistic states in 1949, and the SED became a cold-war organization that exchanged political flexibility for postwar confrontation.


  • 1926: Britain paralyzed by a general strike.
  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1936: The election of a leftist Popular Front government in Spain in February precipitates an uprising by rightists under the leadership of Francisco Franco. Over the next three years, war will rage between the Loyalists and Franco's Nationalists. The Spanish Civil War will prove to be a lightning rod for the world's tensions, with the Nazis and fascists supporting the Nationalists, and the Soviets the Loyalists.
  • 1941: Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on 7 December brings the United States into the war against the Axis. Combined with the attack on the Soviet Union, which makes Stalin an unlikely ally of the Western democracies, the events of 1941 will ultimately turn the tide of the war.
  • 1946: Winston Churchill warns of an "Iron Curtain" spreading across Eastern Europe.
  • 1946: Three months after the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in London in January, the allbut-defunct League of Nations is officially dissolved.
  • 1946: At the Nuremberg trials, twelve Nazi leaders are sentenced to death, and seven others to prison.
  • 1946: Building of the first true electronic computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC).
  • 1951: Six western European nations form the European Coal and Steel Community, forerunner of the European Economic Community and the later European Union.
  • 1956: Elvis Presley appears on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town, where he performs "Hound Dog" and "Love Me Tender" before a mostly female audience. Nationwide, 54 million people watch the performance, setting a new record.
  • 1961: President Eisenhower steps down, warning of a "military-industrial complex" in his farewell speech, and 43year-old John F. Kennedy becomes the youngest elected president in U.S. history. Three months later, he launches an unsuccessful invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.

Event and Its Context

Founding of the SED

The Red Army entered Berlin on 2 May 1945, and the Wehrmacht surrendered on 8 May. On 9 June the Soviets established a military government in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany. Its Order Number Two of the following day contemplated the legalization of anti-Fascist parties. The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) became legal that day, followed by the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the Liberal Party (LDP), and the Christian-Democratic Union (CDU).

The circumstances of the fight against the common enemy, Nazism, allowed the German Communists to experience the advantages of collaboration with other political forces. On 14 April 1945 the KPD participated in the establishment of a "United Front of anti-Fascist Democratic Parties," the Antifabloc, which included Socialists, Christian Democrats and Liberals, and immediately took control of local governments and public services.

The KPD's politics of anti-Fascist fronts demanded a flexible political line in the confrontation of non-Marxist democratic forces. On 11 June the Communists issued a statement in which they declared their intent to postpone revolution until after a period of de-Nazification and democratization of German society.

Together with restoration of democracy, the second cornerstone of KPD policy during the immediate postwar period consisted of beginning a process of unity with the SPD. On 19 June 1945 both parties signed an agreement on unity of action for a program of de-Nazification, trade union unity, nationalization of key economic sectors, agrarian reform, and the establishment of a parliamentary republic.

The SPD welcomed the policy of unity of action with the Communists. The KPD's proposal of unity, however, inspired a bitter debate within the SPD: Leading Socialists such as Kurt Schumacher in the non-Soviet occupied zones of Germany opposed unity, and East German figures such as Otto Grotewohl agreed to the establishment of a single left-wing party in Germany. Between 5 and 7 October 1945, an all-Germany meeting of the SPD took place in Wennigsen (Niedersachsen). The meeting culminated in the independence of the eastern and western SPD organizations. This opened the door to Grotewohl's agenda for the Soviet zone. A joint conference of 30 Communists and 30 eastern Socialists convened in Berlin on 20 and 21 December of 1945 to discuss the issue of unification.

The "Conference of the Sixty Ones," as it would be called thereafter, agreed to a process of unity that began in February 1946 on both the regional and local levels. On 19-20 April 1946 the eastern KPD and SPD organizations met in two separate congresses of unity. The process culminated in a joint congress that took place on 21 and 22 April. The meeting's principle outcome was the decision for the merger of the KPD and SPD into a new unitary party, the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED).

The New Party

The congress of unity elected the Socialist Grotewohl and the Communist Wilhem Pieck as cochairs of the SED. The rest of the party's politburo comprised six Socialists and six Communists, including ex-SPD members Erich Gniffke and Max Fechner, and ex-KPD members Anton Ackermann and Walter Ulbricht.

Together with the carefully balanced composition of the leadership, another distinctive characteristic of the SED was the enormous size of its membership. In April 1946 the ranks had swelled to 1,300,000 members (600,000 Communist and 680,000 Socialists), in Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Thü ringen, Mecklenburg, Brandenburg, and East Berlin, an area with a population of 19 million. The party developed a powerful propaganda apparatus that included the Deutsche Volkszeitung,Einheit, and Neues Deutschland newspapers, and the Neuer Weg publishing house. This, combined with the support of the USSR, soon made the SED the strongest political organization in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany. In the municipal elections held in September 1946, the party accrued 19 percent of the vote but made a relatively weak showing in the larger cities. By October, however, SED votes had risen to 50 percent, and the party triumphed over regional governments in Saxony, Thü ringen, and Mecklenburg.

Another important tool in the consolidation of the SED as the hegemonic political force of the Soviet-occupied part of Germany was the gamut of party-controlled mass organizations that were established between 1946 and 1949: the Freie Deutsche Gewerkschaftsbund (Federation of Free German Trade Unions), a unitary trade union that comprised Communists, Socialists, and Christian Democrats, had been founded in February 1946. In its second congress of April 1949, however, the SED won almost all of the leadership posts. The Freie Deutsche Jugendliche (Free German Youth), the Demokratische Frauenbund Deutschlands (Women's Democratic League of Germany), and organizations such as the Kulturbund zur Demokratischen Erneuerung Deutschlands (Democratic Cultural Alliance for the Renewal of Germany) followed similar processes.

The SED After 1947: Cold War and Stalinism

In 1946 the SED platform did not differ substantially from those of the KPD and SPD in 1945. Party theoreticians argued that the establishment of socialism in Germany had to consider the country's particularities and, accordingly, it should follow a different course from that in the Soviet Union, which consisted in bringing the bourgeois revolution to a conclusion before taking up the task of building a proletarian society.

This was also the policy of the Soviet military government from 1945 to 1948. It developed the thesis of anti-Fascist unity and people's fronts formulated in the 1935 VII World Congress of the Third International in the face of the spreading of Fascist regimes. The USSR made clear, however, that it would not tolerate anti-Communist political forces in its jurisdiction. The Soviets agreed to the legalization of nonleftist parties such as the CDU and the LDP, but they exercised a tight control on these parties and vetoed Christian-Democrat and liberal politicians who were hostile to SED hegemony. Eventually, this led to the CDU and the LDP becoming mere puppets, with the task of providing the military government and, later, the German Democratic Republic with a mask of political flexibility.

The democratic shortcomings in the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany increased after 1947. By then, the Fascist menace had faded away, and disagreements about German and European politics at large began between the allies and the Soviet Union and its diverse political parties. That year, the French and the Italian Communists were ejected from their respective governments of national unity. The situation worsened in 1948: in March, the USSR quit the all-Germany allies' governing board, the "Control Council." In June, Soviet representatives also abandoned the military government of Berlin and began a blockade on the western part of the city; the Allies decided on the economic division of the country by issuing a new currency, the Deutsche Mark, in their jurisdiction. The process from anti-Nazi collaboration to cold-war confrontation consummated in May 1949, when the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic were proclaimed.

In 1943 Stalin dissolved the Third International in response to Allied pressures on the USSR. In September 1947, however, the first meeting of Cominform, a board of information among the European Communist parties, convened in Poland to discuss the course of the international situation. This signaled a turning point in the policy of alliances on anti-Nazism that international communism had pursued to that point. The new coordinated strategy of confrontation partly abandoned the earlier politics of democratic fronts and political pluralism.

The SED was not an exception to these politics. In 1947 the party proposed the establishment of a new coordinating body of anti-Fascist forces, the Volkskongreßbewegung (Congress of People's Movements). The Antifa-bloc had pursued a program of de-Nazification and stressed the autonomy of its party members. The Volkskongreßbewegung, in contrast, had a more assertive political scope and operated, de facto, as the embryo of the German Democratic Republic.

The first party conference of January 1948 consummated the conversion of the SED into a cold-war Marxist political force. The members approved an organizational structure defined as demokratischer Zentralismus that made the SED a hierarchical organization. In addition, the conference decided to take up the fight against "opportunist" parties and began a policy of open confrontation with the West German Socialists. Finally, the membership acknowledged the guiding role of the Soviet Union, thus signaling the end of any attempt to establish an original "German road to socialism."

Key Players

Grotewohl, Otto (1894-1964): Leader of the German Social Democratic Party in the Soviet-occupied zone. Grotewohl was elected cochair of the SED following the April 1946 merger of the KPD and the SPD. He was prime minister of the GDR from 1949 to 1964.

Pieck, Wilhelm (1876-1960): Leader of the German Communist Party. Pieck joined the Social-Democrats in 1895 and participated in the foundation of the KPD in 1918. Together with Grotewohl, Pieck cochaired the SED from 1946 to 1954. He was president of the GDR from 1949 to 1960.

Ulbricht, Walter (1893-1973): Ulbricht joined the SPD in1912 and the KPD in 1919. He was elected member of the German Parliament in 1928. After Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Ulbricht went into exile in the Soviet Union; he returned to Germany in 1945. Thereafter he was regarded as Moscow's man in Germany. Ulbricht was elected member of the politburo of the SED in 1946 and presided over the GDR from 1960 to 1973.



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Ross, Corey. Constructing Socialism at the Grass-roots: The Transformation of East Germany, 1945-1965.Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 2000.

Stariz, Dietrish and Weber, Hermann, Einheits Fronts, Einheits Partei: Kommunisten und Sozialdemokraten in Ostund Westeuropa, 1944-1948. Cologne, Germany: Verlag Wissenschaft und Politik, 1989.

Various Authors. Geschichte der SED, Abriß, Politbü ro0des ZK der SED and Institut fü r Marxismus-Leninismus.Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1978.


Ackermann, Anton. "Gib es Einer Besonderen Deutschen Weg Zum Sozialismus?" Einheit, 9 February 1946.

Benser, Günter. "Mit Welchen Sozialismusvorstellungen war die SED angetreten?" Hefte zur DDR-Geschichte, n. 60. Gesellschaftswissenschaftliches Forum e.v., 1999.

—Juan JoséGomez Gutiérrez

and Valeria Bruschi

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Socialist Unity Party of Germany

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