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East Germany


THE GERMAN DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC (East Germany) came into existence on October 7, 1949, when the German Economic Commission formed a provisional government in the Soviet zone of occupied Germany. This move occurred in response to the action taken by the United States, Britain, and France, which in 1948 had agreed to unite their respective occupation zones into a West German republic. The division of Germany and the founding of an East German state signified several historical reversals. First, the postwar partition of Germany represented a return to the country's previous existence as a divided nation. As of 1945, Germans had been united in a single sovereign state for only the last seventy-four years. Second, for at least 1,000 years Germans had expanded eastward, conquering territories previously controlled by Slavs and the Baltic peoples. As part of the settlement ending World War II, Germany lost territories to Poland and the Soviet Union that German rulers had controlled for centuries. Third, the lines of economic, cultural, military, and political influence had historically run from Germany to Eastern Europe and Russia. However, after World War II the Soviet Union imposed on East Germany a brand of Marxism-Leninism developed on Russian soil, the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands--SED), patterned itself after the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), and East Germany adopted a governmental system modeled in most respects on that of the Soviet Union.

Historically, East Germany has been the Soviet Union's most pliant and loyal ally in Eastern Europe. Lack of international recognition made East Germany dependent on the Soviet Union. Until the Four Power Agreement on Berlin and the signing of the Basic Treaty by the two Germanies in the early 1970s, the noncommunist world treated the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) as the "real Germany" and East Germany as nothing more than an artificial state lacking international legitimacy. For a time, this sentiment seems to have been shared by the Soviet leadership as well. In 1954 Viacheslav Molotov, the Soviet representative at the Four Power Foreign Ministers Conference in Berlin, proposed simultaneous elections in both Germanies leading to the creation of a unified German state. If such elections had been held, the SED would have lost power. The presence of West Germany also made the SED regime more dependent on the Soviet Union. Before the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, 2.5 million East German citizens had walked across the border to live in West Germany. A common language, family ties, and access to West German media left the East Germans much less isolated from West European culture than were their counterparts in Eastern Europe. All these factors tended to impede SED efforts to win popular legitimacy for the Marxist-Leninist regime in East Germany. Without legitimacy, both in the eyes of most of the world and in the eyes of its own people, the SED could turn only to the Soviet Union and its allies for support. To ensure Soviet loyalty to the cause of the SED regime, East Germany had to act as Moscow's model ally.

East Germany is a one-party state. Although four other parties exist, they have been co-opted by the SED. These four parties--the Christian Democratic Union, the Liberal Democratic Party of Germany, the Democratic Peasants' Party of Germany, and the National Democratic Party of Germany--have the appearance of power without actually sharing it with the SED. In fact, these four parties act as "transmission belts" for SED decisions and policies to social strata such as the intelligentsia and the peasantry (see Alliance Policy , ch. 4).

The operative principle of SED decision making is the Leninist precept of "democratic centralism." According to this principle, free discussion of policy alternatives by all SED members concerned with a given decision is followed by a vote; then the minority submits to the position of the majority. In fact, the SED is a monolithic party in which the lines of decision making run from top to bottom. In East Germany, as in the Soviet Union and the other Marxist-Leninist regimes in Eastern Europe, the communist party is the real locus of power. In mid-1987 Erich Honecker, who took over as first secretary of the SED from Walter Ulbricht in 1971 (the title changed to general secretary in 1976), was the most powerful political figure in East Germany by virtue of his party position. The top governmental position, that of the chairman of the Council of Ministers, had long been occupied by Willi Stoph, who held a position subordinate to that of Honecker in the SED Politburo. Other leading governmental figures--such as Horst Sindermann, the president of the People's Chamber, and Erich Mielke, the minister of state security--were also members of the Politburo. According to the operative rules of democratic centralism, at any given level government officials carry out decisions made by the party. Stated simply, the government implements and administers policies decided by the SED.

Throughout its tenure, the Honecker regime has attempted to form a distinct East German political culture. This undertaking involves the inculcation of values, attitudes, and casts of mind that strengthen the citizenry's sense of the regime's legitimacy and authority. Since the early 1970s, for example, the Honecker regime has pursued a policy of Abgrenzung (demarcation-- see Glossary) to stress differences in political values, history, and culture between the two Germanies (see The German Question Today: One Nation or Two? , ch. 2). Another important component of political culture is tradition, which justifies the existence of a given polity and gives it a sense of rootedness. Hence, the SED has portrayed itself as the culmination of the German revolutionary tradition, as represented by theoreticians and activists such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Liebknecht. In an effort to locate its rule within the broader course of German history, the SED depicts itself as the heir to the positive achievements of historical figures such as Martin Luther, Carl von Clausewitz, and Otto von Bismarck. These personages have no connection with Germany's revolutionary past (in fact, Bismarck made every effort to suppress the Social Democratic Party of Germany), and the regime had previously linked them to the discredited ideology of German nationalism. During Honecker's tenure as SED party chief, official East German political culture has evolved to incorporate a significant element of the German national heritage.

Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, East Germany has managed to make itself economically and politically indispensable to the Soviet Union in a variety of ways. Economically, East Germany has demonstrated to the world that a centralized, planned economy modeled on that of the Soviet Union can work (see Economic Policy and Performance , ch. 3). East Germany, for example, boasts the highest standard of living among the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. Its economy is highly developed, and chemicals and machinery constitute its most important products. It was the first among the socialist economies to move into the field of high technology and other intensive forms of production. East Germany is also important to the Soviet Union because it acts as a conduit between the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) and the European Economic Community (EEC). The origin of this role lies in West Germany's desire to facilitate an eventual German reunification. In the West German view, creating a special economic relationship with East Germany has been one means of achieving this objective. This relationship has eased the transfer of EEC goods to East Germany. From East Germany, the merchandise can be exported to other Comecon countries (see Appendix B). Equally important, the special relationship between the two Germanies has also provided East Germany (and hence Comecon as a whole) with a much-needed source of hard currency.

Throughout its existence, East Germany has proved to be a vital political ally of the Soviet Union. In 1956 the Ulbricht regime roundly condemned the Hungarian revolt. Twelve years later, East German troops, together with those of the Soviet Union, Hungary, Poland, and Bulgaria, marched into Czechoslovakia to quell the reform movement initiated during the Prague Spring. The East Germans also heavily criticized the Solidarity labor union movement in Poland as well as the Polish United Workers Party, which allowed the Solidarity reform movement to persist on Polish soil. The East Germans routinely call for tighter integration of the Soviet alliance system in Eastern Europe and for adoption of a unified position on political issues ranging from the United States Strategic Defense Initiative to those of strategy and tactics in the Soviet-led world communist movement. Indeed, because East Germany has so often followed the Soviet political lead and has continually tried to persuade other Soviet allies to do so, Western observers describe East Germany as the Soviet Union's "junior partner" within the Warsaw Pact (see Appendix C).

East Germany's role as the Soviet Union's junior partner also comes into play in the Third World. Here, East Germany has carved out a role for which it has no peer in the Soviet alliance. East Berlin provides many forms of military and economic assistance, police training, and technical education to selected Third World allies of the Soviet Union (see Policy Toward the Third World , ch. 4). To be sure, in extending this aid East Germany has gained political recognition from other countries as well as access to raw materials. However, in undertaking these activities East Germany acts for the Soviet-dominated socialist community. East German aid serves primarily as a means to extend Soviet influence throughout the world.

For most of its existence, East Germany has been a model socialist state in the sense that it has experienced little public dissent. The spontaneous uprising in 1953 against communist rule in East Germany confined itself to the most important industrial centers and did not grip the country in the way that rebellions or reform movements in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, or Poland were able to do. From 1953 to the early 1980s, the SED used both rewards and punishments to keep the East German citizenry politically passive. Because food and rent were subsidized by the government, consumer prices remained low. Thus, East German workers had no economic impetus to follow their Polish counterparts and organize an independent labor union to press for economic reform. The party also penetrates into most aspects of daily life in East Germany. With no areas of social life free of party domination, it has been difficult for East Germans interested in independent political action to join together, create a program, and attempt to further their common political ends. To repress manifestations of open dissent, forces of the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of State Security combine to form a powerful and pervasive police apparatus. The ultimate guarantors of SED rule in East Germany, however, are the National People's Army (Nationale Volksarmee-- NVA) and the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany (GSFG). The NVA unites the border guards and ground, air, air defense, and naval forces into a total strength of 175,000. The NVA is a competent, well-trained force (see Armed Forces , ch. 5). The GSFG numbers over 380,000, it ensures the political quiescence of East German society as well as East Germany's continued membership in the Warsaw Pact.

In the 1980s, an independent peace movement had succeeded in establishing itself in East Germany (see Dissent , ch. 2). Several factors explain the emergence and persistence of this form of political dissent. First, the movement revolves around peace and disarmament, issues to which the SED has publicly committed itself. The independent peace movement seeks to compel the East German regime to abide by its own rhetoric; it does not question the fundamental political bases of the Marxist-Leninist regime, such as one-party rule, alliance with the Soviet Union, and a planned economy. Second, from its inception the independent peace movement has been nonviolent. Third, the independent peace movement grew out of the Lutheran Church, an institution that is somewhat independent of the regime. The church offered peace activists throughout the country channels of communication insulated from regime control, an institutional setting in which activists could come together and formulate a program, and a forum in which to air the program for a nationwide constituency. Having gained in strength, the peace movement has proceeded to speak out against the militarization of East German society, environmental pollution, and the development of nuclear power in East Germany.

In the 1980s, other events have diminished East Germany's status as a model ally of the Soviet Union. East Germany derives many economic and political benefits from its relations with West Germany. As a result, East Germany's desire to maintain good relations with West Germany has clashed with the Soviet interest in curtailing relations between Warsaw Pact countries and those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Soviet policy changed because of a general cooling of superpower relations brought on by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the declaration of martial law in Poland, and NATO's decision to deploy Pershing intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in West Germany. In this public quarrel, Hungary backed the East German position, while Czechoslovakia, East Germany's hardline ally in alliance affairs, together with Poland, supported the Soviet position. The disagreement culminated in 1984 with Honecker's indefinite postponement of a planned trip to West Germany.

The SED leadership has also differed with the Soviet Union on the need to emulate the economic and political reform program of CPSU general secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Soviet reforms under Gorbachev envisage the institutionalization of measures to encourage efficiency and innovation in the Soviet planned economy; the introduction of greater openness, reform of the party, and new electoral procedures in the political sphere; and the liberalization of the cultural sphere. The East German response has been generally to maintain that reforms tailored to Soviet conditions are not necessarily applicable to East Germany. The Honecker regime has argued that for years East Germany has been introducing measures to facilitate technological innovation and economic modernization and that East German economic successes prove the viability and vigor of its economic system. If changes are required, the Honecker regime contends that solutions must correspond to local conditions. Politically, the SED leadership has averred that problems such as corruption and immobilisme, which the party reforms advocated by Gorbachev seek to eliminate, do not exist in East Germany. In the realm of culture, the Honecker regime offers the dubious claim that it has already introduced many measures to ease state control of the arts.

East Germany's success as the Soviet Union's junior partner provided the foundation for its resistance to Soviet policies in foreign and domestic policy. East German economic performance, partially due to the special relationship it enjoys with the Bonn government but primarily due to indigenous factors, increased East Germany's clout within the Soviet alliance. East Germany's status and power enabled it to pursue policies contrary to Soviet interests, if only to a limited degree. Hence, Soviet-East German friction demonstrates the emergence of East Germany's coming of age as an actor within the socialist interstate system. Like other small states of Eastern Europe, East Germany has achieved a sufficient amount of legitimacy, international recognition, and economic power to be able to express occasional public disagreement with the Soviet Union.

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From September 7 to September 11, 1987, First Secretary Erich Honecker paid an unprecedented visit to West Germany. Several factors accounted for this trip, which had been scheduled for 1984 but indefinitely postponed since that time. The prospect of a Soviet-American agreement on IRBMs in Europe had increased the chance for better inter-German relations. West Germany had facilitated the prospect of an accord when Chancellor Helmut Kohl pledged to scrap his country's seventy-two IRBMs, which carry American nuclear warheads. In addition, in 1987 the Soviet Union itself had been seeking better relations with West Germany. Honecker had to obtain Soviet permission for the trip, and Soviet approval may be seen as an effort to reward West Germany for its missile stance and as an attempt to improve relations with that country. From the East German perspective, Honecker's trip marked another effort to obtain West German recognition of East Germany's independent statehood. The practical significance of Honecker's trip was rather limited. East Germany and West Germany signed agreements on scientific-technical cooperation, environmental protection and nuclear safety, and several measures to ease travel and communications between the two countries. Ultimately, the primary importance of Honecker's visit lay in its reaffirmation of the existence of two independent German states in the heart of Europe.

September 15, 1987
Stephen Burant

Data as of July 1987

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