East Germany Table of Contents
East Germany, according to its Constitution, is a "socialist state of workers and peasants" in which "all political power is exercised by the working people." Theoretically, the people exercise their power through socialist ownership of the means of production. In other words, the workers, through the SED and government organs, control and coordinate the use of social and economic resources and wealth for the public good. According to the ideology, in the perfect communist society there would be no exploitation of one person by another, and class distinctions based on ownership of property and material goods would not exist.
The communist leaders who assumed control of the government after World War II took upon themselves the task of transforming society from a capitalist system based on private ownership to a socialist (and eventually communist) system based on collective ownership. They inherited a prewar social system stratified into three relatively distinct social classes. Power, wealth, and prestige resided in a small upper class of large landowners (the remnants of the Prussian nobility of an earlier period), wealthy industrialists and entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and top government officials and military officers. The middle class was composed of businessmen, public officials, academicians, professionals, merchants, artisans, and medium-sized landowners. It, in turn, was divided into an upper middle and lower middle class, depending on income, education, and occupational status. The largest social grouping was the lower class, which consisted of urban workers, farmers, and agricultural laborers. Social structure was fairly rigid; birth was the primary criterion for membership in the upper class. It was possible, however, to rise in the social hierarchy through marriage, education, or achievement in such areas as politics or the arts.
In order to carry out the restructuring of society, immediately after the war East German officials implemented programs aimed at "de-Nazification" of society and socialization of the means of production. Officials in government and elsewhere who had cooperated with Nazi authorities were removed from their positions and replaced by loyal communists. The estates and businesses of wealthy landowners and industrialists who were accused of supporting the Nazi regime were confiscated. Industries and private enterprises were nationalized and/or brought under the umbrella of state control, and agricultural lands were initially redistributed among rural workers and later consolidated into collectives. By the early 1960s, these program were largely completed. During this time, many members of the former upper and upper middle classes fled to the West, while those who remained made the adjustment to the new communist regime.
East German officials consider theirs to be a transitional society that still contains elements of the past social order. The primary function of party and government leaders is to reconcile those differences that still exist and eventually to mold the various social groupings into a collective whole. The Constitution, in fact, notes that "the inviolable foundations of socialist society are provided by the firm alliance of the working class with the class of cooperative farmers, the intelligentsia, and other sections of the population."
As of 1987, it was difficult to describe the stratification of society in other than general terms. Official data from 1986 broke down the socioeconomic structure of the labor force as follows: workers and salaried employees, 89 percent; members of cooperatives (including farm, craft, and lawyer cooperatives), 9 percent; owners of semistate enterprises and commission dealers, 0.3 percent; private farmers and gardeners, 0.1 percent; and other privately employed persons (including craftsmen, merchants, and professionals), 1.7 percent. These figures showed that the percentage of workers, salaried employees, and members of cooperatives had substantially increased, while the percentage of private farmers, craftsmen, merchants, and self-employed professionals had decreased. Other official data indicated that of the workers and salaried employees, 836,374 were agricultural workers. This figure is a substantial decrease from 1965, when 1,041,960 individuals worked in agriculture.
Ignoring the official structural breakdown of the population, however, it was possible to speak in the broadest terms of four social strata. These included the workers (the so-called backbone of the socialist society), the political elite (those who gained their power and influence through loyalty to the SED), the intelligentsia (those who achieved a relatively comfortable position in society as a result of their specialized knowledge or creative abilities), and privately employed persons (those who were generally part of the prewar middle class and who continued to practice their trades and professions under the communist regime). Stratification, particularly at the elite level, was based primarily on technical/intellectual competence and political power. Education and loyalty to the SED were the main means of upward mobility.
Data as of July 1987
East Germany Table of Contents