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East Germany Table of Contents

East Germany

Chapter 1. Historical Setting

THE GERMAN DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC (East Germany) was proclaimed in October 1949 in the post-World War II Soviet occupation zone. The postwar division of Germany had enabled the German communist Walter Ulbricht and his Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands--SED) to consolidate political power and establish a Soviet-style dictatorship. In 1961 the construction of the Berlin Wall effectively terminated the exodus of East Germans to the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), forcing citizens to reconcile themselves to the communist regime. However, Erich Honecker, who succeeded Ulbricht in 1971, negotiated a détente that normalized trade and travel relations between the "two Germanies." This détente has resulted in strengthened ties and contacts between East German citizens and their West German neighbors.

Germany had not been united as a nation-state until 1871, when authoritarian and militaristic Prussia subordinated the traditional German monarchical states and created an empire headed by the Prussian king. Imperial Germany was consolidated politically on the basis of an alliance between landed aristocracy and the financial and industrial bourgeoisie. These groups launched the German pursuit of global politics, establishing overseas colonies and spheres of influence. They succeeded in stirring the nationalistic sentiment of the masses by promises of world power status and in diverting interest in domestic reform by emphasis on foreign policy. Throughout its existence, Imperial Germany competed against Britain, France, and Russia to maintain its place within the European balance of power; this competition culminated in World War I.

The Weimar Republic, established in 1918, was the first attempt to institute democratic government in Germany. The Social Democrats proclaimed the republic, and in the throes of military defeat the German people supported a democratic coalition cabinet. The republic's strong presidency, however, reflected the German authoritarian tradition. The Social Democrats soon allied with elements of the old Imperial Army to suppress the radical left, and the party failed to implement social reform. Within two years, the Weimar coalition had lost its parliamentary majority, and in 1925 the German public elected Paul von Hindenburg, the former World War I army commander, to the presidency. During the depression years (1929-33), Adolf Hitler's National Socialists (Nazis) acquired a mass following, emerging in November 1932 as Germany's strongest political party. Hindenburg appointed Hitler to the German chancellorship in January 1933, thus enabling the führer to accomplish the "legal revolution" that transformed Germany into a totalitarian dictatorship. The defeat of Hitler's Third Reich in World War II resulted in the division of Germany into the two states that continued to coexist in the late 1980s.

The Basic Treaty between East Germany and West Germany, signed in 1972, politically recognized two German states. About the same time, the Honecker regime instituted a policy known as Abgrenzung (demarcation--see Glossary), which emphasized East Germany's distinctiveness as a nation and state. East German citizens continue to be attracted by the democratic politics and material wealth of West Germany, however, and the Honecker regime became increasingly involved in the repression of dissidents who called for political democratization and German reunification.

Data as of July 1987