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National Exhibit
National Exhibit
History
Communism and the German Democratic Republic

Coming so soon after Stalin’s death, the rebellion in the GDR threatened the very existence of the SED regime and, by extension, vital Soviet interests in Germany. When the leaders of the Soviet Communist Party realized that the East German police and security forces would be unable to cope with the unrest, they decided that some of the several hundred thousand Soviet troops on East German soil would have to intervene to crush the revolt. Seventeen Soviet tank and mechanized infantry divisions, supplemented by artillery, communications, and logistical regiments and battalions, moved into action. Although the Soviet army put down the rebellion rather easily and with relatively little bloodshed — roughly three dozen demonstrators were killed, several hundred wounded, and many thousands arrested — the military intervention was crucial both in forestalling an escalation of the violence and in reasserting Soviet control.

From Ulbricht to Honecker

The uprising in East Germany and the subsequent arrest and denunciation of Lavrenty Beria in Moscow ended up saving and strengthening Ulbricht. For several days after the rebellion was over, Soviet leaders were inclined to get rid of Ulbricht and bring in a new official who would act more boldly in introducing reforms. But the post-Stalin succession struggle in Moscow unexpectedly changed Soviet policy toward Germany. The timing of Beria’s downfall was such that his rivals decided they could blame him for the situation in East Germany as well as for other imaginary (and some real) crimes. This domestic maneuvering had the effect of rigidifying Soviet foreign policy and restoring Soviet support for Ulbricht.

With Moscow’s renewed backing, Ulbricht moved forcefully to strengthen his hold over the SED. With the endorsement of the Soviet High Commission in Germany (SVKG), he launched a sweeping purge to eliminate “hostile and anti-party elements” at all levels of the party. In the latter half of 1953 alone, some 15,370 people were expelled from the SED. Many of the senior East German officials who were dismissed from their posts were also brought up on charges of “un-partylike behavior during the fascist provocations” of 17 June 1953. On the SED Politbüro and Secretariat, too, Ulbricht gradually removed the last few officials who dared to stand against him.
Although some degree of high-level rivalry in East Germany persisted until February 1958 (when Ulbricht dislodged Karl Schirdewan, Ernst Wollweber, and Fred Oelssner), the most serious challenge to Ulbricht’s position had been surmounted in mid-1953. This remarkable turnaround, from imminent defeat to clear-cut supremacy, was a telling indication of how crucial the Soviet Union’s influence was — and would remain — in the politics of the GDR.

Under Ulbricht’s leadership, East Germany entered the Warsaw Pact in 1956 (a year after the Pact was founded), built a sizable army, and became a steadfast Soviet political and military ally. During the 1968 Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, Ulbricht was among the earliest proponents of military intervention to put an end to the Czechoslovak reforms, which he feared might spark political ferment in the GDR.

When Soviet leaders decided to invade Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and bring a halt to the Prague Spring, Ulbricht wanted to contribute East German combat troops to the invasion. But Soviet leaders ultimately decided (in consultation with Polish officials) that the GDR’s contribution should be limited to communications and logistical personnel. The morale of these East German troops declined when Czech protesters accused them of serving as a “new Gestapo,” and the East German units were soon pulled out. But Ulbricht was pleased that the reformist “virus” in Czechoslovakia had finally come to an end.

In the aftermath of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, which had solidified the Eastern bloc, the Soviet Politburo decided to move ahead with détente in Europe, including an improvement of relations with West Germany. Ulbricht was averse to this new approach, and Soviet leaders ultimately concluded that he would have to go. In May 1971, Ulbricht was forced to step down “for reasons of ill health,” and Erich Honecker took over all the top posts in the SED, with Moscow’s backing.

Over the next fifteen years Honecker hewed closely to Soviet foreign policy, including the establishment of diplomatic ties with the FRG and other Western countries. Honecker was vehemently opposed to the rise of the Solidarity independent trade union in Poland in 1980-1981, and he urged Soviet leaders to crush the Polish union with military force. Although the imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981 eliminated any need for external military intervention, Honecker showed during the eighteen-month-long Polish crisis that he was no more tolerant than Ulbricht had been of sweeping liberalization in a Warsaw Pact country.

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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