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National Exhibit
National Exhibit
Communism and the German Democratic Republic

Author:  Mark Kramer Mark Kramer is Director of the Cold War Studies Program at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He has taught international relations and comparative politics at Harvard, Yale, and Brown Universities. He was formerly an Academy Scholar in Harvard's Academy of International and Area Studies and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. Many of his publications have dealt with the nature of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and he was, among other things, translator and editor of the English edition of "The Black Book of Communism," published by Harvard University Press in 1999.

The German Democratic Republic (GDR), often known as East Germany, was formed in October 1949 out of what had been the Soviet Zone of Occupation in Germany. At the Yalta and Potsdam conferences in 1945, the three main Allied powers — the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain — had agreed that Germany would be divided temporarily into four zones (under American, Soviet, British, and French rule, respectively) until the fate of the country was permanently settled.

Over the next few years, as Cold War divisions intensified, it became clear that no lasting settlement on Germany was going to be feasible. The USSR and the three Western countries began preparing to set up separate German states — one aligned with the Soviet Union and the other tied to the West. In May 1949 the United States, Britain, and France merged their sectors to form the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), which, though an independent country, was still formally under American, British, and French occupation. The establishment of the GDR five months later under Moscow’s auspices consolidated the bifurcation of Germany.

The Soviet occupation of eastern Germany from 1945 to 1949 was unusually harsh and violent. Although some hostility and excesses were inevitable after a rampantly destructive war, the Soviet reprisals against the German population went far beyond what could be regarded as the “normal” abuses under occupation. Soviet forces embarked on summary executions and torture of perceived enemies and “hostile” elements, and Soviet soldiers raped hundreds of thousands, and perhaps as many as two million, German women. The sheer brutality of the Soviet occupation left long-term scars on the public psyche of the GDR.

The Soviet occupation forces and administrators did not immediately move to establish a full Communist system in the eastern zone of Germany, and the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin initially urged the leaders of the Communist party in the region (known after April 1946 as the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, or SED) to adopt a “cautious approach.” Nonetheless, from the beginning, the Soviet occupation authorities took a number of steps that — perhaps unintentionally at first — ensured that the SED would eventually gain preeminent power and eliminate all potential challengers. By the time the East German state was formally created in October 1949, a Soviet-style polity was firmly entrenched under the SED leader, Walter Ulbricht, a devoted Stalinist. Stalin himself by that point had abandoned any further hope of creating a unified German polity that (he believed) would gravitate toward Moscow, and he was willing to move vigorously ahead with the establishment of a Communist system in the GDR.

Under Ulbricht’s iron hand, the GDR conducted Stalinist show trials and mass repressions. In July 1952, at Stalin’s behest, the East German regime embarked on a crash program for the “Construction of Socialism” (Aufbau des Sozialismus). This program, as endorsed by the SED’s Second Conference, called for much higher output targets, an all-out campaign against private enterprise, a further shift toward heavy industry at the expense of consumer production, forcible collectivization of agriculture, and the formation of an East German army. These measures were accompanied by a stepped-up “class struggle” (i.e., harsh repression) against “bourgeois” and dissenting elements, as well as a crackdown on the Protestant church. The program quickly led to severe hardships and deprivation, including widespread hunger and food shortages, rationing and higher prices for basic consumer goods, and prolonged interruptions of heat and electricity during the winter. East Germans had been fleeing to West Germany in large numbers from the time the GDR was founded, but the “Construction of Socialism” program spurred a vastly increased flow of refugees, causing even greater strains and economic dislocation in the GDR.

The Advent of the Post-Stalin Era

Stalin’s death in March 1953 had far-reaching repercussions in the Communist world, but initially it seemed to make little difference in the GDR. The mass exodus of East Germans to the West continued and indeed escalated. Among those fleeing in the spring of 1953 were many hundreds of East German police, internal security troops, paramilitary soldiers, and border guards, whose morale had plummeted amid growing hardships. The East German authorities had tried to combat the problem by imposing strict border controls and a “prohibited zone” along the demarcation line with the FRG (an area that until mid-1952 had been largely open on both sides), but the closing of the border failed to stem the efflux.

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[East] Germany
Location:  Central Europe
Capital:  [East] Berlin
Communist Rule:  1949-1990
Status:  03.10.90 - German reunification
Victims of Communism:
70 000