What was the German Democratic Republic

Life in the GDR

The founding of the GDR

After the end of the Second World War in 1945, the victorious powers France, Great Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union decided to divide the German territory into four zones of occupation. In addition, each occupying power got a part of the capital Berlin. The goal was to end National Socialism and get the economy going again.

After just two years, the relationship between the Eastern and Western powers was split. Both sides accused each other of wanting to enlarge their spheres of influence. The West, especially the United States of America (USA), followed the principle of a capitalist free market economy. The East, the Soviet Union, endeavored to spread its own communist worldview to the west.

Capitalism and communism - the two seemed incompatible. As early as March 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke of an "iron curtain" separating the west from the east. A year later, the USA decided with the Marshall Plan, named after the then US Secretary of State George C. Marshall, to tie the European states closer economically and to curb communism in Europe. The cold war began.

On October 7, 1949, the Soviet occupation zone (SBZ) finally officially became the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The area included the present-day federal states of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Brandenburg, Berlin (eastern part), Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony and Thuringia. The new state continued to maintain a close relationship with the Soviet Union, but was now an independent state with its own government and economy.

In 1952, the Soviet head of state Josef Stalin proposed a reunified, neutral Germany with his "Stalin Note". However, this was rejected by the Western powers on the grounds that Stalin wanted to undermine the ties to the West with the Federal Republic of Germany. To this day, there are different opinions in academia about how seriously the Stalin Note was meant.

The Soviet Union as a model

The GDR was declared a socialist state based on the Soviet model. This meant, for example, that the majority of private property - especially shops and companies, but also rental houses - passed into state ownership.

At first it was only the large companies, but when Erich Honecker came to power in 1972, it was increasingly also all smaller companies. All production of goods and goods was henceforth subject to the state.

Like the economy, GDR policy was also centrally regulated. The ruling party was the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). At the urging of the Soviet Union, this emerged from a forced unification of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Wilhelm Pieck became the first state president, Otto Grotewohl became prime minister.

According to the constitution, four other parties were allowed in addition to the SED: the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Liberal Democratic Party of Germany (LDPD), the Democratic Peasant Party of Germany (DBD) and the National Democratic Party of Germany (NDPD).

Outwardly, it appeared that each of these parties was pursuing its own political direction. However, they did not have their own party platform. All were subordinate to the SED.

Their actual task was to address system-critical citizens - those who could do little with the political orientation of the SED. If they instead identified with the smaller parties, the SED indirectly got the support it wanted.

Dictatorial governance

The SED was structured strictly hierarchically. District, city and municipal councils belonged to the lower and middle levels. Important offices in the areas of economy, education, culture and security belonged to the party leadership, the nomenklatura. This was the real center of power in the GDR.

It is true that all members of the party had the right to elect the leadership of the SED. However, the nomenklatura determined which candidates were actually eligible for the open positions. The members in the lower committees neither had the opportunity to propose candidates nor to put themselves up for election.

The choice was thus possible, but severely restricted. The party also demanded unconditional loyalty from the lower committees. The members had to approve the resolutions of the management level. Anyone who resisted was not tolerated within the government.

The citizens of the GDR could hardly influence the politics of the state. There were no free elections. Each eligible voter received a ballot paper with a list on which the candidates for the SED were presented. Anyone who submitted a blank note agreed to all candidates.

It was possible to delete candidates from the list and thus reject them. But very few made use of this. Anyone who went to the voting booth to process the ballot became suspicious. The SED put pressure on the voters. Typically, people simply folded the ballot and cast it. That is why the elections in the GDR were also known as "going to fold."

The heads of the party

Erich Honecker and Walter Ulbricht were among the most famous politicians in the GDR. Ulbricht was General Secretary of the Central Committee of the SED from 1950 to 1971 and thus the most powerful man in the state. His main concern was to establish and consolidate socialism in the GDR. When more and more people left the country and went to the West in the early 1960s, Ulbricht had to do something to keep the people in the country.

It is from him that the sentence "Nobody intends to build a wall" comes from. However, the construction of the wall fell during his term of office. In 1971 Ulbricht had to resign because he lacked support within the government.

Honecker replaced Ulbricht. He tried to improve the state's relations with the rest of Europe and the United Nations. Relations with the FRG also improved under Honecker. But he clung to the ideology of socialism.

Despite many reforms, Honecker did not succeed in turning the GDR into a state with a stable economy. The discontent in the population grew. Persistent mass protests finally forced Honecker to resign on October 18, 1989.

The nationalized economy

In the free market economy, supply and demand determine the market. In the GDR it was different, here the state regulated the economy. The SED nationalized the industrial and commercial enterprises. Agricultural businesses were collectivized and merged into agricultural production cooperatives (LPG). The State Planning Commission (SPK) prepared five-year plans. The commission recorded in it how many goods were needed to supply the GDR citizens.

The party leadership decided on the basis of the five-year plan how many raw materials the companies needed for production, how many workers they should employ and how high their wages should be. The price of the end product was also specified.

The companies had to adhere strictly to this economic plan. That restricted the economy, which made it less flexible. If the consumer behavior of the citizens changed, the market could only react slowly.

Cheap rolls, expensive pineapples

Many operations in the wholesale and retail trade as well as in the catering trade were in the hands of the state. They were operated by the trade organization (HO) or the consumer cooperative. The state subsidized the food and clothing industry and guaranteed basic supplies at fixed prices.

A bread roll cost five pfennigs for more than 40 years. Nothing more, nothing less.

Products from the West and imported goods such as coffee, cocoa and bananas, on the other hand, were more expensive than staple foods and were also less likely to be found in stores. Shops like "Delikat" or "Exquisit" offered high-quality luxury items, food and clothing. But the prices for it were high. For example, people sometimes paid 18 marks for a can of pineapple and 150 marks for a shirt.

In Intershops, citizens could buy western goods that were rare in the GDR, including records, gold jewelry and luxury items. There were no customs duties, customers paid in D-Mark or other Western European currencies.

Buyers often had to wait several years for luxury items such as electrical appliances and cars. The waiting time for a Trabi was up to twelve years.

Despite careful planning, there were always supply bottlenecks in the GDR. In particular, imported goods such as tropical fruits, cocoa and sugar were often only available in small quantities. People then had to queue up early in the morning and wait to go shopping.

It was not uncommon for the goods to be sold out when it was finally their turn. Many therefore bought straight away in stock. Even groceries like bread and meat were here and there shortly after noon.