- German Democratic Republic
- (GDR)At the end of World War II in 1945, the Soviet Union was left in control of the eastern half of Germany. By 1949 the Soviets had managed to convert the zone into a fully fledged, independent communist country, one that was to rigidly follow the Marxist–Leninist schema until its demise in 1989. The German Democratic Republic became one of the most orthodox, authoritarian countries in the Eastern Bloc, following the policies of the Stalinist era even past 1985 as surrounding countries subscribed to Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformist glasnost and perestroika programs.Initially, the Soviet-controlled area was run by the military with little sign of political intervention. However, the Soviets quickly moved to reeducate the east German population in anti-fascism and the merits of Marxism–Leninism. German communists, exiled in the Soviet Union throughout the tenure of the Third Reich, were drafted back into the country and handed control of local government and the media to disseminate the communist mantra. Among these was Walter Ulbricht, a hard-line Stalinist who oversaw the Soviet-enforced merger into the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, or, Sozialdemokratische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED) of the German Communist Party and the German Social Democratic Party in East Germany in April 1945. Moscow stooge Ulbricht, as the first SED general secretary, immediately began work to sideline other political parties by wresting control of the east German political machine for the communists, so that as the 1950s approached all opposition was rendered impotent. As the Cold War began to take hold, differences between the communist-occupied east of Germany and capitalist-held west were exacerbated. With such tangible tensions abounding, and given the strong position of the heavily Sovietbacked SED, the proclamation of the east as an independent communist state came on 7 October 1949 when a new constitution was approved by the 3rd People’s Congress creating the GDR. Wilhelm Pieck became the infant state’s first president, though in common with the Soviet Union and its other satellite states, real power rested with the party general secretary, in this case Ulbricht.The SED was quick to proceed with the Sovietization of the GDR. It rapidly asserted its political will as the sole one in the country, embarking upon a centralization program that in 1952 saw five self-autonomous Länder abolished in favor of ceding control to the party organs of Berlin. The SED became one of the most pervasive political parties in the communist Eastern Bloc, with every element of society infiltrated and under the influence of party nomenklatura. To support this vigilant grip on the GDR the “Stasi” secret police was created, which rapidly accumulated detailed files on several million unsuspecting East Germans. The economy was remodeled according to the Soviet Stalinist prototype, with strict central planning, target setting and the implementation of Five Year Plans overseeing a newly nationalized industrial and commercial landscape. In addition, agriculture was collectivized and also subject to centrally ordained targets. To eradicate any ideological competition for Marxism–Leninism, as well as the liquidation of political rivals, religion came under harsh repression, with religious meetings and organizations outlawed at the start of the 1950s. The cultural sphere faced SED interference too, with the regime acutely aware of the importance of propaganda to legitimize its rule in the eyes of the public. Finally, General Secretary Ulbricht sought to underpin the education system with the concept of the “new socialist man,” demanding a rewrite of the curriculum along Marxist–Leninist lines in order to cleanse the GDR of “bourgeois” culture, and create pupils devoted to the noble cause of communism. In the space of a few years, the GDR had been forcibly sculpted by the all-powerful SED into a Moscow-oriented “People’s Republic.”The death of Josef Stalin in 1953 created pressure from reformist groups, which aspired to see adherence to the Stalinist course relaxed throughout the Soviet satellite states. Though the orthodox Ulbricht did not wish to hand down genuine reform, he did, under pressure from Moscow, reluctantly consent to the introduction of a “New Course” scheme. This purported to pay heed to errors made toward, among other persecuted groups, small farm holders and artisans, and offered as a solution to resultant problems a price freeze and an increase in the production of consumer goods. To fulfill this pledge, demands to raise productivity levels were meted out to industrial workers. What followed was widespread protest, beginning in Berlin in June 1953 and soon engulfing most of the GDR, and only quelled by the intervention of Soviet troops on the government’s behalf. The reforms proposed in the New Course were annulled, and with Moscow, given that the alternative was a distinct undermining of the communist regime, now firmly behind the anti-reformist Ulbricht, and de- Stalinizing tendencies within the SED defeated, the leader emerged with a firmer grip on power than ever.Further integration with the Soviet Union followed, and in 1956 a National People’s Army was formed to work closely with the Red Army under the auspices of the freshly signed Warsaw Pact. That same year, Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” denouncing Stalin had caused shockwaves throughout the communist world, and emboldened reformist thinkers to propound liberalizing measures. In the GDR, however, these “revisionists” were condemned by the regime in the strongest terms, and faced long-term imprisonment. The SED was not going to allow widespread demands for reform such as those which occurred during the 1956 Polish and Hungarian Uprisings to seep through and spread in the GDR. Where other Soviet brother states undertook measures to turn away from Stalinist orthodoxy, Ulbricht and the SED embraced the doctrine with renewed vigor. The erection of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 stood as further affirmation of the SED government’s commitment to communist orthodoxy, officially and literally sealing the GDR from the capitalist West. With Pieck now deceased, in abolishing the position of president and placing himself at the helm of the new Council of State, Ulbricht was able to confirm and accentuate his status as the monolithic strong leader in accordance with Soviet Stalinism. The SED had become the most unbendingly loyal apostle of Moscow rule and Marxist–Leninist orthodoxy, a fact illustrated by the strong assistance lent to the Soviet-led crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring. Inside the country, with living standards rising continuously, disquiet toward the regime was rare, and where dissent existed it faced harsh institutional repression. Yet Ulbricht’s unflinching devotion to orthodoxy meant his position as general secretary came under intense scrutiny as the 1970s began. Moscow, perhaps sensing the need for the GDR to reform in order to preserve, demanded that Ulbricht steer his country toward closer relations with its neighbors in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, or West Germany). Ulbricht vehemently opposed any such alliance with a capitalist country, and was duly replaced in 1971 by another Moscow partisan, Erich Honecker.Honecker, though never attempting to alter the climate of state-led repression, managed to increase the legitimacy of the SED government by offering social reform programs, for example, creating a fully developed welfare state and introducing measures to end societal gender inequalities. Primarily through improved relations with the FRG, the economy rapidly grew to the extent that the GDR became something of a beacon for communist economic development. Such progress (in comparison with the other communist Eastern Bloc states) coupled with the SED’s deep-seated commitment to ideological orthodoxy gave Honecker the confidence to reject in 1985 Gorbachev’s landmark glasnost and perestroika reform initiatives. The SED general secretary argued that as the GDR had already undergone significant economic reforms in the 1970s, a new wave of changes was not necessary. It was these reforms that allowed the GDR to avoid the economic slump afflicting surrounding Soviet satellite countries, as its trading relationship with the FRG underpinned a relatively healthy performance. The decision to assuage Gorbachev’s proposals was also ideologically motivated; if the GDR adopted strict market economics it would in effect cease to be any different from the FRG, thus ending its life as a separate, communist, state. To reaffirm the supremacy of orthodox Marxist–Leninist doctrine the SED ignored calls for political reform, banned the circulation of reformist Soviet newspapers, and in February 1989 stated its intention to tread its own path to communism, one that would allow for continued political monopoly and state ownership of industry and commerce. Having been ceaselessly loyal to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for over 40 years, the SED now found itself vainly attempting to resist edicts emanating from Moscow. The party had become one of the few left in the world still steadfast in its faithfulness to the ideological orthodoxy of mid-20thcentury Soviet communism.Inevitably, such isolation left the GDR on the brink of collapse. As communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe began to weaken, fatigued by decades of communist repression, jealous of perceived higher living standards enjoyed in the FRG and sensing the tide of revolution elsewhere, large numbers of the GDR population began to desire change. From September 1989, the restless natives were able to flee west as Hungary demilitarized its border with Austria, and a widespread protest movement was born. In a hasty October reshuffle the SED replaced Honecker with Egon Krenz, but regime and party were already aboard the inexorable slide toward oblivion. The following month saw the epoch defining opening of the Berlin Wall, an event that sparked the rapid decline of both the SED and the GDR, and the creation of modern Germany. As Gorbachev had warned the SED on the 40th and final anniversary of its inauguration, the price of ignoring the need for reform was the death of party and state, and furthermore the extinction of orthodox Marxism–Leninism as a ruling ideology in Eastern Europe.
Historical dictionary of Marxism. David Walker and Daniel Gray . 2014.
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