Classnotes and Study Guides:
Part 4: The German Democratic Republic: The Other Germany
for Students in my First Year Seminar: From Holocaust to German Unification
at McDaniel College, compiled by Dr. Mohamed Esa

Source: Thomas, Rüdiger. "The Other German System: A Look at the German Democratic Republic".*

What are the social, political and economical differences between the FRG and the GDR?

  • Political: Federal democracy vs. Communism (Real Existing Socialism)
  • Pluralism of parties vs. One single party (SED = Socialist Unity Party [Sozialistische Einheitspartei])
  • Social: free, liberal, Western oriented vs. restricted, planned, controlled by the party
  • American way of life vs. no official unemployment
  • Economical Capitalism, Free Market Economy vs. Centrally planned economy, cooperatives & collectives individual enterprises
What are the periods in the history of the GDR? Characterize them.

Phase I: (1945-49) Formation Phase or the stage of the "Socialist Revolution" from above

    • KPD (Communists) and SPD (Socialists) unite into SED
    • Leaders: Wilhelm Pieck and Walter Ulbricht
    • Landreform: "Junkerland in Bauernhand" ("aristocrat's lands into farmers hands")
    • Nationalization of industry by "expropriation of war criminals and Nazi activists"
    • VEB: Volkeigene Betriebe (People's Enterprises)
    • SAG: Sowjetische Aktiengesellschaft (Soviet Corporation)
    • Introduction of "uniform school system"
    • Increased access of working-class children to universities and higher education ("workers' and farmers' faculties")
    • Propagandistic mobilization of the masses
    • No elections at establishment of GDR
    • Division of Berlin
Phase II : (1949-61) The Socialist Revolution Stage
    • Problems:
      • SED governed a state without international recognition and without citizens (they weren't elected)
    • Solution:
      • Soviet style socialist system
    • Problems:
      • 45% of industrial productive capacity had been destroyed (20% in the West)
      • extremely poor in raw materials (except for coal)
    • Solutions:
      • export, foreign trade, restructuring
      • reduction of the reparation to the Soviet Union
      • acceleration of economic growth through a five year plan
      • conversation of individual farms into "agricultural production cooperatives"
      • administrative measures imposing higher work norms
    • Results:
      • mass exodus
      • uprising of June 17, 1953
      • building the Berlin Wall
      The line dividing Germany at the same time became the line dividing Europe (East and West)
      NATO and Warsaw Pact were established in 1955
Phase III: (1961-1985) The Post Revolutionary Phase
    • "Age of socialism has begun on German soil."
    • science as the direct source of productive power
    • scientific and technical revolution
    • specific applications of cybernetics, information theory, electronic data processing, social forecasting
    • "A new economic system of socialism" was initiated by Walter Ulbricht
    • June 1971: Erich Honecker becomes new Secretary General of the SED.
        • He introduces the "principle of unity of economic and social policy"
        • December 21, 1972: Treaty on Intra-German Relations
        • World-wide recognition of the GDR
        • Increase in trade from FRG to GDR had a great effect on economy in the GDR
        • Integration of the GDR in the "community of socialist countries"
    • October 1974: Changing article 1 & 8 of the constitution (elimination of the reference to one German nation and the prospect of possible German unification)
    • August 1975: GDR signs the final act of the CSCE (KSZE)= Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in Helsinki
      • People demand more freedom of movement, human rights, freedom of expression (especially public criticism) and for political pluralism
      • Reaction of state: more repression, expulsion, expatriation, social isolation
      • Reaction of the people: Birth of a peace movement (1974-1975) as a result of the expatriation of the musician Wolf Bierman
    • Writers, religious groups, students
      • were critical of arms build up and military propaganda in the GDR
      • avoided blaming the West for the East-West military confrontation
      • demanded more freedom of movement and pluralism
    • Reaction of the state:
      • No public criticism was allowed
      • Ideological propaganda
      • expansion of socialist welfare policy

Phase IV: (1985-89) The Beginning of the End (Click on From Division to Unity to see more dates and events)

    • 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev becomes new Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party
      • He initiates the new Soviet policies: glasnost and perestroika
      • He attacks corruption in the Communist Party, initiates free and open discussions and "genuine self-criticism" (glasnost policy)
      • He demands a  "restructuring" of the Communist economy with greater efficiency (perestroika policy)
    • 1988 First demonstrations against the East German system in East Berlin. Members of the peace movement "Church from the Grassroots" are arrested. Thousands support them and attend services. Their numbers grow constantly. They demonstrate for human rights, free speech and freedom of the press.
    • Summer 1989 Young people flee the GDR through Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Between July 15 and 31, GDR refugees crowd into the West German embassies in Budapest and Prague.
    • August 24, 1989 Hungary agrees officially to let GDR citizens go west.
    • October 1989 GDR celebrates the 40th anniversary of its founding with great pomp and ceremony, while mass demonstrations are held, primarily in Leipzig. The demonstrators shout "We are the people!" (Wir sind das Volk) and "Democracy Now!" (Demokratie jetzt!) Under the pressure of the protests of the people, Erich Honecker, the GDR head of the state, resigns as do the council of Ministers and the SED politburo.
    • November 8, 1989 1 Million people demonstrate in East Berlin for major reforms of their state and society. The people demand:
      •  greater freedom to travel
      •  admission of political opposition groups to SED
      •  freedom of speech
      •  free elections
    • November 9, 1989 The spokesman of the East German State and SED party, Günter Schabowski, announces over state-run television that the GDR Council of Ministers decided to "liberalize travel restrictions and travel to the West would be allowed on short notice". When asked whether "short notice" meant "now," or "for any reason," Schabowski responds in the affirmative without checking first with his superiors. This prompts thousands of people to cross the border on the evening of November 9, 1989. The authorities can only watch numbly. The wall is open.
Mention three important dates in the history of the GDR. What happened on these days?
October 7, 1949 Establishment of the GDR
June 17, 1953 First people's uprising in East Germany in protest against their life of bondage. This was "savagely" put down by Soviet tanks.
August 13, 1961 Berlin Wall was built to stem the tide of east Germans fleeing to the West
June 1971 Erich Honecker becomes Secretary General
December 21, 1972 Treaty on Inner German Relations
November 9, 1989 Berlin Wall became meaningless after Günter Schabowski, press secretary of the SED  announces that visas would be granted without formality

Describe the political system of the GDR.

  • Central role of the SED
  • based on a scientific "Weltanschauung", namely Marxism Leninism"
  • Decisions of the party (called directives) are implemented through measures of the state (laws)
  • Elimination of competition

  • The function of the political system is not  "to resolve conflicts among competing programs and parties" (p.216) It has been transformed into an "alliance of policies," i.e. politics as "joint action."
  • Article 3 of the constitution states: "The alliance of all of the power of the people is expressed organizationally through the National Front of the German Democratic Republic."
  • Social Planning
    • Volkeigene Betriebe (VEB) = (People's Enterprises) - Nationalization of industry
    • Agricultural Cooperatives
  • Mobilization of the masses
    • "Work together, plan together, and govern together."
    • Political and social memberships are highly recommended
    • Promote and develop a uniform "socialist consciousness"
  • Legal system
    • Judges are subject to directives and controls of the state
    • They can be removed from office by legislature
    • Basic rights are only guaranteed insofar as they "don't question the political system" (p. 217)
  • Integration in the Community of Socialist Countries
    • Close relationship to the Soviet Union is mentioned in the constitution
    • Article 8: "The GDR is an inseparable part of the community of socialist states."
Describe the System of State Organs in the GDR.
Click on image to enlarge!
Source: Thomas, R., The Other German System: A Look at the GDR, p. 219

Describe the organizational structure of the SED.
Click on image to enlarge!
Source: Thomas, R., The Other German System: A Look at the GDR, p.

What are three reasons for the mass exodus from the GDR in the late fifties?

  • Revolutionary restructuring (nationalization; expropriation; elimination of land ownership, )
  • Lack of freedom of speech, movement, choice,
  • Visible success of the "economic miracle" in West Germany.
What was the reaction of the state to the people fleeing the GDR?
  • improve living standards by promises
  • attaining and surpassing West German per capita consumption of food and essential consumer goods
  • using governmental actions to decree the collectivization of agriculture
  • building a wall in Berlin and around the GDR to the West
What were the results of these measurements?
  • brutal division of families
  • economic stability and an acceleration of economic growth by keeping everyone in
  • monopoly on political power by the SED
  • changing the system of economic reward
  • increased and improved social benefits
  • acquire educational qualification - get success free ride with the elite.
Name two important leaders from the GDR. When did they rule the GDR?
Walter Ulbricht (1949-1971)
Erich Honecker (1971-1989)
What was the Stasi? Describe what they did?
State Security Force (Secret police) like the Gestapo. 100.000 full time agents and 2 millions part time operators. They spied on and observed almost every single citizen. They controlled all political activities of the people. They didn't allow any kind of protest or organization outside of the SED party.
What did the GDR achieve? Where had it failed?
  • Social areas, women issues, sports 
  • 0% unemployment
  • Good health system 
  • Low crime rate 
  • Negligible prostitution & drugs 
  • People felt safe on the streets
  • Non-violent society 
  • No homeless people 
  • No poverty 
  • Low prices for essential of life (food, rent, ) 
  • Higher education was free 
  • University classes were small 
  • Considerable assistance to young families and working mothers
  • Dismal record on human rights
  • No right to leave the country
  • Enormous army
  • Stasi controlled everyday life
  • Reading private mail
  • Observation and bugging
  • Telephone taping
  • State controlled media
  • Churches were under tremendous pressure
  • Corruption at senior level
  • Mismanagement
  • Focus on army and sport more than environment and working mothers
  • Ecology and safety were second to industrial growth

What was the role of women in the GDR?

Describe the image and situation of the women in the GDR.

Describe the gender relations in the GDR.


  • Source: Rüdiger Thomas. "The Other German System: A Look at the German Democratic Republic". In: Contemporary Germany: politics and Culture. ed. by Charles Burdick, Hans-Adolf Jacobsen, Winfried Kudszen. Westview Press, 1984. P.203-232
© Dr. Mohamed Esa, Dept. of World Languages, Literatures and Cultures at McDaniel College
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