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East Germany Table of Contents

East Germany

Political Stability, Legitimation, and Succession

Despite its continuing search for political legitimation, since its formation East Germany has enjoyed a relatively stable political system. During the span of Ulbricht's rule, from approximately 1950 to 1971, only the workers' uprising of 1953 and one large-scale purge of the SED ranks, which occurred in 1957, disrupted his regime. As of 1987, there had been no major upheavals during the sixteen years of Honecker's rule, although there had been periodic personnel reshuffling in the ranks of the party and the government, and important changes had occurred in the occupational and educational backgrounds of political decision makers. These changes reflected the rise to power of a more educated and technologically aware generation, a trend that is especially apparent in the rosters of the SED Central Committee and the Council of Ministers.

Although stability marked the East German regime in the 1970s, three noteworthy political changes took place during that decade. The first and most significant political change occurred when Ulbricht was removed from the post of first secretary. Ulbricht's ouster was extremely significant even though it was not followed by a purge of the party and state apparatuses. As a result of this change, over time the status of certain key SED officials was enhanced. In virtually every instance, the individuals involved were close associates of Honecker's or people responsible for policy areas that Honecker, the general secretary, considered necessary for stabilizing his leadership. Of particular importance in this regard were the promotions to full Politburo membership of Werner Krolikowski and Werner Lamberz, individuals with substantive experience in the agitation and propaganda apparatuses of the SED. The promotions of Krolikowski and Lamberz reflected Honecker's heightened sensitivity to the need to improve the public's level of political education.

The second important change within the leadership of the SED took place on October 29, 1976, when Willi Stoph and GŁnter Mittag were returned to their former respective positions as chairman of the Council of Ministers and secretary in charge of the economy on the Secretariat of the Central Comittee. The previous incumbents in these positions, Sindermann and Krolikowski, had been thrust into the political limelight in the aftermath of Ulbricht's death in August 1973 but replaced by Stoph and Mittag three days later. The move may have been motivated by Honecker's desire to bring back two key veterans who had gained considerable political influence during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s. Honecker also used the occasion to assume the post of chairman of the Council of State in addition to his position as general secretary. The third change in the SED hierarchy occurred in the spring of 1978 after the death of Politburo member Lamberz in a helicopter crash in Libya. Lamberz's death was significant because of his close ties to Honecker; after Honecker he was the party's second most important ideological spokesman, and he was a leading proponent of the regime's increasingly ambitious policy toward Africa. Lamberz was replaced by Joachim Hermann, former chief editor of Neues Deutschland.

Honecker's control of the party and state apparatuses has been secure since the early 1980s, and his leadership has been able to balance domestic policy priorities with expanding foreign policy demands. Honecker also has devoted considerable attention to the concerns of lower ranking functionaries and initiated a more active program of agitation and propaganda within the party and state structures than had been the case under Ulbricht.

An enduring problem for the SED has been the desire to attain political legitimacy in the eyes of the East German public. The multiparty system introduced at the end of the 1940s left some room for political participation outside the SED, but repression constituted a vital element of the system. Repressive factors included the stationing of Soviet troops on East German territory, a sealed border, and an extensive network of political informants employed by the State Security Service (see Agencies of the Ministry of State Security , ch. 5). None of these aspects of the political system can be challenged by public questioning or debate. The regime erected the Berlin Wall in August 1961 to halt illegal emigration after 2.5 million people had escaped to the West. Since that time, the SED has attempted to strengthen its political authority through repressive measures when necessary, to encourage increased political participation and influence public opinion, and to improve the standard of living and economic performance.

The SED has continued to place significant emphasis on mass participation. The regime attempts to demonstrate that "socialist democracy," a term used to describe public participation, is an integral part of the political process. The concept, however, emphasizes not the individual rights and liberties that define citizenship in Western Europe and North America but the opportunities for individuals publicly to participate in organized political activities. Thus it is common for East German sources to emphasize the variety of opportunities for participation. For example, in the mid-1980s, approximately 195,000 citizens were members of national or local assemblies; 500,000 citizens were active in commissions of these local assemblies; 335,000 citizens participated in various committees of the National Front; 95,550 working people were engaged in the almost 10,000 production consultative bodies of the country's industrial enterprises; and 105,000 parents were active members of the parent associations that worked with teachers in the country's educational system.

The political function of mass participation is largely one of mobilization for goals that have already been articulated by the party and state. Nonetheless, the public has some influence over both the content and the administration of policies formulated by the political leadership. Whether in the end the country's citizens supported the goals of the party and state apparatuses remains an open question.

Despite its extremely powerful position in the society, since the mid-1970s the SED has been aware of the importance of public opinion. East Germany's research institutions have been particularly active in analyzing opinion on such issues as work, family life, the position of women in society, and leisure. The focus and results of public opinion research are carefully guarded secrets, and it is known that the Politburo itself makes the final determination on basic emphases and content of the Central Research Plan. Two party institutes have played especially important roles in this area: the Institute for Opinion Research of the Central Committee of the SED and the Institute for Marxist-Leninist Sociology of the Academy for Social Sciences.

In the mid-1980s, empirical research provided the SED with an up-to-date profile on the attitudes and feelings of the public across a range of major sociopolitical issues. Such data have provided the party with information that has helped it more effectively to communicate its goals and purposes to the public. Since the 1970s, the SED has deliberately attempted to make respondents feel that their needs were being taken seriously. In other words, since the 1970s the regime has used public opinion research as another means to develop political legitimacy. Given the authoritarian character of the regime, it is worth considering whether citizens were willing to answer questions in a totally honest and open manner.

The SED has used the instruments of socialization and control to achieve political passivity on the part of society, if not legitimacy. For example, the East German educational system has had an impact on the political values and expectations of the East German citizenry (see The Educational System , ch. 2). The military is also an important instrument for the inculcation of regime values (see The National Security System and the Citizen , ch. 5). Hence, there is reason to suggest that many of the social and political goals of the SED have been accepted by large parts of the public. (How strongly they support these goals is another matter entirely.) Still, the country's increased vulnerability to the industrial West, and particularly to West Germany, made the problem of legitimacy a troubling one for the SED. Despite efforts to instill an "East German consciousness" in the 1970s and 1980s, closer ties between the two German states have made that task increasingly difficult. All that can be said is that the political leaders remained aware of their legitimacy problems.

Data as of July 1987


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