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East Germany


Dissent has taken several forms in East Germany. Each year a number of East German dissenters attempt to leave the country, through either emigration or escape. Beginning in the 1980s, there also emerged an organized opposition. Under the auspices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, one area of group dissent revolved around the issues of peace and the demilitarization of East German society. A second category of dissent involved members of the intelligentsia who were independent Marxists.

From 1945 to 1961, a relatively large number of East Germans left the country through emigration or escape. Since the construction of the Berlin Wall, however, the numbers departing have been smaller. According to official statistics, approximately 320,000 persons have left since 1961; the unofficial estimates are much higher. According to some West German estimates, another 400,000 to 500,000 East Germans have applied to emigrate and await exit permits. In 1984 the East German regime allowed over 40,000 people to emigrate, and in 1985 the figure was over 20,000. Successful escapes were few in number. The Wall and the heavy fortifications along the entire length of the east-west border ensured that risks were great for those trying to escape. Nevertheless escape attempts continued.

Many of those who escaped enlisted the aid of middlemen or organizations (known as Fluchthilfer) that have made a profession of arranging escapes. The help of these organizations is expensive, and many of those who took advantage of such services were necessarily relatively prosperous by East German standards. This group of refugees has included members of the intelligentsia and professionals. Escape was generally effected by way of third countries where border security was not as tight as in East Berlin.

An organized opposition within East Germany emerged only in the 1980s. There are several reasons why organized dissent had failed to appear before this time. Paradoxically the existence of West Germany hindered the persistence of active dissent. In the past, the East German regime had simply exiled activists to West Germany and thereby isolated them from the country. Most notable among those expelled were the singer Wolf Biermann and the independent Marxist thinker Rudolf Bahro. The regime had also used repression to curb dissent. In 1986, according to West German sources, there were 2,000 political prisoners in East Germany. Finally, the regime had been able to co-opt the vast majority of the country's intelligentsia through a combination of privileges and rewards (see The Creative Intelligentsia; The Technical Intelligentsia , this ch.).

The roots of the organized opposition involving the independent peace movement go back to the early 1960s, when considerable resistance emerged to East Germany's remilitarization, especially in Protestant circles. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Protestant activists objected to the introduction, in the summer of 1978, of compulsory pre-military training for fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds. Soldiers, who had fulfilled their military obligation through work in special military construction units, pressured Lutheran Church leaders to support nonviolence and disarmament. In February 1982, the term peace movement began to be used in connection with peace initiatives that originated outside official party or government circles. The initiatives stemmed from a forum organized by the Lutheran Church that challenged the official government view that peace can be maintained only through armed strength. In the mid1980s , the independent peace movement has sought the formation of a civilian peace service as an alternate to military service and the demilitarization of East German society.

In the 1980s, work for peace began to be decentralized and extended to areas outside East Germany's major urban centers. For example, by the mid-1980s the Protestant student community in Rostock had organized a monthly Peace Worship Service. Every six months a "Retreat and Meditation Day" on the theme of peace took place in the Land-church of Mecklenburg. Standing workshops for peace were formed in numerous student communities, and peace seminars, often attended by hundreds of people, were held in Karl-Marx-Stadt, Meissen, Waldheim, Zittau, Kessin, and elsewhere.

Independent Marxist opposition among the intelligentsia was also present in the 1980s and had attained an importance in East Germany that far exceeded its influence elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Although the independent Marxist group was very small, the regime nevertheless considered such dissent to be very dangerous. This opposition had been inspired by the late Robert Havemann, whose thought, as expressed in Fragen, Antworten, Fragen (Questions, Answers, Questions) and Dialektik ohne Dogma (Dialectics Without Dogma), centered on the gap between the theory and practice of socialism. Havemann advocated a pluralistic socialism inspired by a return to the humanism developed in Marx's early writings. Bahro's Die Alternative, which attacked party and government bureaucracy and called for an organized communist opposition in the socialist countries, had also influenced East Germany's independent Marxists. In the 1980s, these ideas were gaining support among East Germany's young adults, who had been trained in Marxist-Leninist ideology throughout their years in the country's educational system.

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In the 1980s, scholars have devoted significant attention to the study of East German society. G.E. Edwards's GDR Society and Social Institutions deals extensively with the family, women, youth, and the elderly. Jonathan Steele's Inside East Germany: The State That Came in from the Cold treats living conditions, social programs, daily life, and education. Henry Krisch's The German Democratic Republic: The Search for Identity contains useful information on society, as does C. Bradley Scharf's Politics and Change in East Germany. Roy E.H. Mellor's The Two Germanies: A Modern Geography and Norman J.G. Pounds's Eastern Europe are two valuable works on geography and demography. Gebhard Schweigler's National Consciousness in a Divided Germany is an important contribution to the study of an emerging East German national consciousness, although a number of more recent studies disagree with his conclusion that East Germans are developing a separate identity. Information on the social structure is contained in the works of Peter Christian Ludz, Thomas A. Baylis, and John M. Starrels and Anita Mallinckrodt. The family, mass organizations, and educational system are dealt with in the works of Arthur M. Hanhardt, Jr., Arthur Hearndon, Margrete Siebert Klein, and Harry G. Schaffer. Robert F. Goeckel's "The Luther Anniversary in East Germany" covers the politics surrounding that celebration. B.V. Flow, Matthew Boyse, and Ronald D. Asmus have written fine articles on religion in East Germany. Dissent in East Germany has been covered by Pedro Ramet, Michael J. Sodaro, Klaus Ehring, and Roger Woods. Ramet's "Disaffection and Dissent in East Germany" is an especially penetrating article. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of July 1987

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