Following the end of the Second World War, Germany was carved up, to be occupied by the US, UK, France and the Soviet Union. In 1949, the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic in English) was established in the Soviet-occupied eastern side of Germany.
The DDR, as it was colloquially known, was effectively a satellite state of the Soviet Union, and as the westernmost edge of the Soviet bloc, became the focal point for Cold War tensions until its dissolution in 1990.
Where did the DDR come from?
After the Second World War, Germany was occupied by the Allies. The West had long mistrusted Stalin and Communist Russia. In 1946, under some pressure from Soviet Russia, the two leading and long-standing rival left-wing parties in Germany, the Communist Party of Germany and the Social Democratic Party of Germany united to form the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED).
In 1949, the USSR formally handed the administration of East Germany over to the head of the SED, Wilhelm Pleck, who became the first President of the newly-created DDR. The SED placed a heavy emphasis on de-Nazification, accusing the West of not doing enough to renounce Germany’s Nazi past. By contrast, in East Germany former Nazis were barred from government positions, and it’s estimated that up to 200,000 people were imprisoned on political grounds.
Where did it sit in global politics?
The DDR was established in the Soviet zone, and although it was technically an independent state, it maintained close ties to the Soviet Union and was part of the so-called Eastern Bloc. Many in the West viewed the DDR as nothing more than a puppet state of the Soviet Union for the entirety of its existence.
In 1950, the DDR joined Comecon (short for the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance), which was effectively an economic organization with exclusively socialist members: a foil to the Marshall Plan and Organisation for European Economic Co-operation of which most of Western Europe was part.
The DDR’s relationship with Western Europe was often fraught: there were periods of co-operation and friendship with West Germany, and periods of heightened tensions and hostilities. The DDR also relied on international trade, exporting a high level of goods. By the 1980s, it was the 16th largest producer of exports globally.
Like many socialist states, the economy was centrally planned in the DDR. The state owned the means of production, and set production targets, prices and allocated resources, meaning that they could also control and ensure stable, low prices for vital goods and services.
The DDR had a relatively successful and stable economy, producing exports including cameras, cars, typewriters and rifles. Despite the border, East and West Germany maintained relatively close economic ties, including favourable tariffs and duties.
However, the nature of the DDR’s state-run economy and the artificially low prices led to barter systems and hoarding: as the state desperately tried to use money and pricing as a political tool, many became increasingly reliant on black market foreign currency, which had much more stability as it was tied to global markets and not artificially controlled.
Life in the DDR
Although there were some perks to life under socialism – such as jobs for all, free healthcare, free education and subsidised housing – for most, life was relatively bleak. Infrastructure crumbled due to lack of funds, and your opportunities could be limited by factors beyond your control.
Many of the intelligentsia, predominantly the young and educated, fled the DDR. Republikflucht, as the phenomenon was known, saw 3.5 million East Germans legally emigrate before the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Thousands more fled illegally after this.
Strict censorship also meant that creative practice was somewhat limited. Those who lived in the DDR could watch state-sanctioned films, listen to East German-produced rock and pop music (which was sung exclusively in German and featured lyrics which promoted socialist ideals) and read newspapers that had been approved by censors.
Isolationism also meant that goods were of lower quality and many imported foodstuffs were unavailable: the 1977 East German Coffee Crisis s a perfect example of the issues faced both by the people and government of the DDR.
Despite these restrictions, many living in the DDR reported a relatively high level of happiness, particularly as children. There was an atmosphere of security and peace. Holidays within East Germany were promoted, and nudism became one of the unlikely trends in East German life.
The Stasi, (East Germany’s State Security Service) was one of the biggest and most effective intelligence and police services ever run. It effectively relied on an extensive network of ordinary people to spy on each other, creating an atmosphere of fear. In every factory and apartment block, at least one person was an informant, reporting on the movements and behaviour of their peers
Those suspected to be transgressing or dissenting found themselves and their families the subject of psychological harassment campaigns, and could quickly lose their jobs, Most were frightened into conforming. The sheer prevalence of informers meant that even within their own homes, it was rare for people to voice discontent with the regime or commit violence crime.
The DDR reached its zenith around the early 1970s: socialism had been consolidated and the economy was flourishing. The arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev and the slow, gradual opening up of the Soviet Union contrasted with Erich Honecker, the then-leader of the DDR, who remained a hardline communist who saw no reason to change or ease existing policies. Instead, he made cosmetic alterations to politics and policy.
As anti-government protests began to spread across the Soviet bloc in 1989, Honecker asked Gorbachev for military reinforcements, expecting the Soviet Union to crush this protest as it had done in the past. Gorbachev refused. Within weeks, Honecker had resigned and the DDR collapsed not long afterwards.