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East Germany

Crisis Control

The beginning of the 1960s marked a new stage in the history of East Germany. Although it certainly had not solved all its security problems, the country had made significant progress. Control over society had been stabilized, and party authority was well established. The basic governmental structures necessary to guarantee the internal and external security of the state had been created and were functioning at a surprisingly high level of efficiency. In grudging acceptance of these realities, the Soviet Union had given the republic increasing authority over its own internal affairs, and the neighboring East European states had accepted it as a full member of the Warsaw Pact.

There were, however, serious national security problems to be faced. The most serious was the mass exodus of East German citizens to West Germany from East Berlin to West Berlin and through the east-west border. The figures are indeed monumental. In 1959 about 144,000 persons fled; in 1960 the figure rose to 199,000; and in the first seven months of 1961, about 207,000 left the country. The damage caused by this exodus was compounded by the fact that the defectors represented a high proportion of the young, better educated, and most productive members of society.

An equally important though less pressing problem concerned international recognition. Although the East German government received formal recognition within the communist world, the noncommunist world either ignored it or refused the regime recognition on the basis of its being a puppet government. National security efforts during the 1960s were devoted to resolving these problems.

During the early months of 1961, the government actively sought a means of halting the emigration of its population to the West. By the early summer of 1961, Ulbricht apparently had persuaded the Soviets that an immediate solution was necessary and that the only way to stop the exodus was to use force. This presented a delicate problem for the Soviet Union because the four-power status of Berlin specified free travel between zones and specifically forbade the presence of German troops in Berlin. Although it is not known who made the actual decision to erect the Berlin Wall, it is generally accepted that overall operations were directed by Marshal Ivan Konev, commander in chief of the GSFG. Apparently Konev appointed Major General Martin Blek of the NVA as the operational commander.

During the spring and early summer, the East German regime procured and stockpiled building materials for the erection of the Berlin Wall. Although this extensive activity was widely known, few outside the small circle of Soviet and East German planners believed that East Germany would be sealed off.

It may have been that neither the Soviets nor the East Germans were certain of the reaction that they would have to face from the East or the West. For this reason, 8,000 Working-Class Combat Group's personnel from East Berlin, Saxony, and Thuringia were employed as the so-called first line of the operation. The Working-Class Combat Groups, a workers' militia, were present in a police capacity to ensure that the troops and the local population remained passive during the construction of the Wall.

Approximately 32,000 NVA combat and engineer troops were used in building the Wall; they constituted the second line. Once their efforts were completed, the Border Police assumed the functions of manning and improving the barrier. The third line consisted of the Soviet Army, which was present to discourage interference by the West and presumably to assist the NVA in the event of large-scale riots.

The operation started at 2:00 A.M. on August 13, 1961. Construction of the Berlin Wall proved three important facts. First, the NVA could plan, organize, and rapidly execute a large-scale operation in complete secrecy. Second, the government could and would take tough and brutal measures to ensure its own survival. Third, the operation resolved questions concerning the reliability of People's Police units that had originated during the June 17, 1953, uprising.

Differentiation between the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of the Interior was still in progress in the 1960s. Another issue in this process was the subordination of the Border Police. On September 15, 1961, by order of the National Defense Council, the entire Border Police was transferred to the NVA and redesignated the Border Troops of the NVA. Various explanations for this shift have been offered by different authorities. The official reason stressed improvement in the level of training through closer relationship with the NVA and provision for reinforcement of the Border Troops with other NVA assets. The actual reason probably had more to do with standardization within the Warsaw Pact since similar reorganizations occurred in roughly the same time period in all the non-Soviet Warsaw Pact armies.

By the end of the 1960s, the security forces had probably achieved the maximum strength possible under existing conditions. Military service was not extremely popular with the postwar generation, and any move toward conscription during the 1950s would have only added to the flood of emigration. After the building of the Berlin Wall, however, this restriction vanished. On September 20, 1961, little more than a month after the Wall was built, the People's Chamber passed the Act on the Defense of the German Democratic Republic, which, among other things, prescribed personal obligations for national service. Although the act did not legislate conscription, it set the base for the National Service Act of January 24, 1962, which required military service for all males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six and made all males up to the age of fifty liable for military service. In a declared "state of defense," males were made liable for service until sixty years of age, and women between the ages of eighteen and fifty could be drafted for medical or supply service in the NVA.

As the 1960s progressed, Soviet confidence in the new republic and its armed forces reached ever higher levels. As the decade drew to a close, the position of the country within the socialist camp was far more certain than it had been at the beginning of the 1960s. All was not well, however, in the rest of the socialist camp. Liberalizing forces were appearing, their most apparent manifestation occurring in the Prague Spring in neighboring Czechoslovakia. Given East Germany's own uncertain history, liberalization was then, as it continued to be, an unsettling thought for the East German leadership.

For this reason, Ulbricht was willing to support a Soviet initiative to re-establish a "reliable" government in Czechoslovakia. When the Warsaw Pact states declared the situation in Czechoslovakia "absolutely unacceptable," East Germany was in full agreement and was ready to follow the Soviet lead. On the night of August 20, 1968, when the forces of five Warsaw Pact nations invaded and occupied the country, NVA troops were among the participants. Although NVA participation was minor (limited to two divisions that were kept out of populated areas) and its forces were withdrawn after only five days, the invasion of Czechoslovakia marks a watershed in the history of East Germany. For the first time since World War II, German troops marched upon foreign soil.

East Germany's participation in the invasion of Czechoslovakia showed the world that the NVA could--and would--use its newly created military might to function effectively outside its borders. In addition to the other political repercussions in the world, it was now clear that East Germany could no longer be ignored. The invasion also had an internal impact. East Germans, who were able to watch footage of the invasion on West German television, were well informed about the events in Czechoslovakia. Within seven days after the invasion, over 5,000 East Berliners went to the Czechoslovak embassy to sign protests against the occupation. Throughout the country, there were numerous antiregime and anti-Soviet incidents. In Erfurt, People's Police Alert Units went on patrol to forestall planned protest demonstrations, and in Leipzig the Soviet consulate had to be protected. In Schwerin police used water cannons to disperse demonstrators.

East German reaction to the invasion clearly showed that the government had not captured the hearts and minds of a significant portion of its citizens. The use of massive repressive measures demonstrated that the government was not in complete control. In contrast to the situations in 1953 and 1961, however, East German security forces quickly and effectively managed the 1968 crisis without Soviet participation or support.

Data as of July 1987

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