Nothing represents the superiority of capitalism over socialism better than the sight of tens of thousands of East Germans clamouring to get into the West, fleeing their drab, oppressive police state; the end of a forty year mistake, a totalitarian nightmare, that only survived due to the tanks of the Soviet Red Army. In contrast West Germany was a triumph of democracy, consumer capitalism and liberalism, where America proved its moral superiority by committing itself via NATO to the defence of democracy in Europe.
What a reassuring fairy story. But in reality the interpenetrating history of the two Germanys was always much more complex; the role of the West German Federal Republic rather less blameless; and the Eastern German Democratic Republic much more successful society than the simplistic Cold-War narrative allows.
Firstly, we need to understand how the divided Germany came about. The conventional interpretation is that the Soviet Union simply seized the territory as imperialist expansion, and rolled an Iron Curtain over Europe, trapping the populations behind.
There are a number of problems with this analysis, because it simply doesn’t fit the known facts. Initially the strategically important capital city was entirely in Soviet hands, but the USSR voluntarily agreed to allow Berlin to be divided between the three victorious allies (later including France as well). This made no sense if they had already been planning to set up a satellite state.
None of the allied powers had a plan for what should happen to Germany after the war, and its formal division into two states in 1949 was an ad hoc adaptation to developing Cold War rivalries. Even after the formation of the two states, reunification was anticipated. Stalin offered Soviet withdrawal in March 1952, and Beria made the same offer during his brief period in control of the USSR during the summer of 1953. However, the West was unwilling to concede to the demilitarisation of West Germany.
Indeed, the preferred objective of the USSR was that Germany should follow the Austrian path. Austria was also originally under shared occupation, but the USSR favoured unification on condition that it was militarily and diplomatically neutral. This was achieved by 1955.
As Mary Fullbrook explains in her bibliographic essay Interpretations of the Two Germany’s 1945-1990 : “analysis of the actual steps through which the division of Germany proceeded reveals that the Western Powers repeatedly took initiatives to which Soviet measures came largely in response”. The pace was forced by the Western powers; the formation of Bizonia merging the British and American zones into a proto-state, the formation of West German military forces, and crucially the creation of a new currency that excluded the Soviet occupation zone.
It is very important to understand that the unilateral introduction of the Deutschmark by the Western powers in June 1948 was the trigger for dividing Germany. Two currencies means two states – but the Soviet occupation zone could not accept the Deutschmark without surrendering all control of its own economy.
Britain and the USA rapidly adjusted due to their own domestic economic interests. Britain couldn’t even feed its own population, let alone Germany’s, and therefore needed Germany’s economy to be rebuilt. The USA now saw the USSR as a direct military threat and wanted to rebuild Germany as an ally. De-nazification was suspended, and the USA overrode British objections to prevent state ownership of the German economy. Marshall Aid rebuilt the German economy in circumstances of remarkable continuity of personnel, social and economic structure and attitudes from the Nazi era.
The controversial figure of Konrad Adenaeur played a crucial role. Elected as the first Kanzler in 1949 by a majority of only one vote, he was a conservative Rhineland Catholic more than willing to jettison the protestant East, and who was closely aligned to the USA’s anti-communism and militarism. Adenaeur ensured that the new Federal republic represented considerable continuity with the Nazi past. Senior Nazis were included in his government, and it was only a few years before Nazis were allowed to join the CDU (Christian Democrats). The economy stayed in the same hands who had controlled it during the Nazi era. West Germany retained the Nazi anti-homosexuality law that imposed a long prison sentence on gays who even looked at another man in a lewd manner, they retained the ban on abortion, and state and church promoted and enforced highly conservative roles for women and girls.
So how did this look from over in the East? We need to remember that they did not have the benefit of hindsight that we have now. It was entirely reasonable in the 1940s and early 1950s to anticipate that West Germany’s Nazi continuity, the militarisation, the conservative social agenda and the anti-Communist rhetoric were a prelude to war and fascist revival. Britain had promoted an anti-Communist civil war in Greece, and was fighting Communists in Malaya. The Cold war became a real war in Korea that left millions dead. Nor were their expectations of the benefits of a state owned economy unreasonable. Free market capitalism had seen world wide depression in the 1930s and had led to fascism and war. Meanwhile the USSR’s economy had achieved staggering success in the same period, including a significant improvement in working class living standards, despite the Stalin’s terror.
It is also necessary to understand the degree that the German communists had been traumatised and brutalised. Some like Horst Sindermann had survived the Nazi death camps, others had endured long exile and war. The myth that Hitler’s Germany was liberated by the Red Army was literally true for the tiny minority of German communists and socialists. They genuinely feared and hated any sign of fascist revival.
The social experiment they sought to engage in to construct a socialist society was in the worst possible circumstances. Cities had been destroyed, almost the entire population was homeless; three and a half million ethnic Germans had been driven West from land now lost to Poland and the USSR. Millions of German men were in prisoner of war camps some returning as late as 1955, people were living crowded into cellars and among ruins; women were raped, there was no food, people were dressed in rags and had no shoes. Famine and disease threatened catastrophe. A generation of children were orphaned and had witnessed Apocalypse: leading SED member Manfred Ushner described how as a seven year old boy along with his four year old sister he had seen his Grandmother hit by an incendiary bomb and burnt before his eyes, and the next day they had to crawl over mountains of burned corpses after RAF raids on Magdburg.
Popular social attitudes in both Germanys remained anti-democratic, racist and anti-socialist for many years. Large numbers of middle class professionals: school teachers, doctors, lawyers and engineers were members of the Nazi party. Nearly 50% of GPs were Nazi party members by 1945, school teachers were even more likely to be Nazis.
The East German experience of de-Nazification was rather more complex than the state sponsored amnesia in the West; because the Communists promoted an acceptance of German guilt for the war suffering, but externalised that blame to the fascists. A number of former Nazis were rehabilitated as individuals, but the social structures and institutions that had sustained fascism were torn up by the roots.
Despite the lack of any long term objectives for their zone of occupation, the USSR, and their few German allies, carried out a dramatic and rapid social revolution. Farms over a certain size were collectivised along with all land owned by former Nazis. The Junker class was dispossessed; industry and finance were nationalised; and the education system systematically favoured the children of manual workers and peasants. By 1949 the economy was almost entirely socialised. This social revolution had taken place not only without the support of the population, but largely without any reference to it. However, in this regard there was little difference between East and West – the occupying powers disposed of the areas under their control largely regardless of German wishes, although both the USSR and the Western powers found local allies. In particular the local populations became bound to the occupying governments through simple dependency; and this dependency transferred onto both the German states – without direct state assistance the peoples would have had no shelter, and would have starved.
But the polarisation between the economic and political blocks centred around the USA and the USSR pulled in different directions. The Anglo-American interest was in technology transfer and economic aid inwards towards Germany. (I ignore the experience of the French zone for simplicity here) But from the point of view of Eastern Europe, despite the war devastation, Germany still had higher levels of capital investment and concentrations of modern technology. Germany and Austria were plundered to transfer high technology eastwards, where it contributed to a net increase of productive capacity. The resulting history of the two Germany’s reflected these differing starting points.
East Germany was already less industrially developed, and was part of an economic block with less access to capital to invest, and less access to new technology. The most important social gain was the guarantee of full employment. This removed the “reserve army of labour” and the fear that makes worker buckle down – the immediate effect was the loss of work discipline and productivity. SED reports from shop-floor factory members in the 1950s complain that their fellow workers work much less hard than they did before the war, and still (noch) hadn’t been inspired enough by socialism to work hard. A highly progressive tax system also taxed white collar workers, managers and supervisors more than manual workers, to the degree that shop floor workers often took home more than their bosses.
Remember that for the first 16 years after the war, the border was open. There was a stream of managers, dispossessed Junkers and capitalists, professionals of all sorts, particularly teachers, and ex-Nazis going West, along with many of the 3.5 million refugees who had only entered East Germany in transit. The discrimination for university places in favour of the children of manual workers and peasants meant that many middle class youths went to the West instead. The passage was not all one way, gay people, single women wanting to be sexually active without stigma, pensioners, Jews and socialists went from West to East, and around a quarter of those who fled from the East to the West changed their minds and returned.
Starting from a very low base line the DDR’s economy improved, but in particular, the East German state quickly built a layer of beneficiaries who were loyal to it. Paradoxically, the professionals and managers moving West opened up social mobility and advancement; and a layer of working class university students could never have enjoyed such an education or prospects in the West.
The East German leader Walter Ulbricht is a real paradox. While the label “Stalinist” is bandied around as a meaningless insult on the left, he was the real deal, personally committed to Stalin as a person, and who regarded Stalin’s model of political rule as an example to follow. Famously he provoked the 1953 uprising by demanding an extraordinary rise in productivity to support the drive to heavy industry announced in 1952. Ironically he survived the fall out of the uprising, but it provoked a coup in Moscow, removing Beria who had been committed to removing Ulbricht in order to allow political liberalisation in Germany.
But Ulbricht was also a man of extraordinary vision and ability, who was unafraid to pursue a very modernising liberal agenda over issues of women’s equality, sexual freedom, decriminalisation of gay sex, and promoted industrial and scientific progress. Like most Germans of his generation, including those communists who had been in the USSR during the 1930s, he had a low opinion of Russians, and would not have felt compelled to use the USSR as a social exemplar.
The other paradox of the East German state is what has been described as “the benign and malign honeycomb of decentralised power”. The mass organisations of the state enjoyed genuine voluntary participation and identification, especially in the rural areas, and a great deal of responsibility and decision making was devolved to state owned companies and mayors (elected under the cadre system, around 70% were SED members). Complaining and petitioning were state encouraged and led to the development of extensive social networking that both allowed consumers to work around the shortages but also almost comically reduced the presumptions of the state to be in control of production and distribution – particularly given the culture that developed of good humoured sarcasm in letters of complaint.
But there was also a devolved repressive participation in the Stasi, that had mass popular support in enforcing social conformity. It is important to understand that social non-conformity was regarded to be the danger, not open political disagreement. Preconceptions of “totalitarianism” derived from Cold War political theories, and cultural images from Orwell’s novel 1984 are very wide of the mark; the DDR enjoyed mass popular support for much of its lifetime.
Arguably the DDR very much took on the same character as Ulbricht. A surprisingly socially liberal, modern and pragmatic society in many ways, and exhibiting occasional brilliant achievement, but also deeply repressive, and conformist.
Into this mix we need to add the deliberate destabilisation and sabotage from the West Germans. Remember, the initiation of a divided Germany came from the West, but once the Eastern state was established, the Federal Republic engaged in diplomatic sabotage, refusing trade and diplomatic recognition to other countries if they had friendly relations with the DDR, the East Germans were blocked from membership of international sporting, cultural and scientific organisations. The East German state was blocked from accessing Western finance capital. West Berlin was massively subsidised to destabilise the economy and social stability of the East, and automatic citizenship and a welcome payment were made to any East German defecting.
The tragic building of the wall and closing the border in 1961 was the result. This was the result of a number of factors. the big social changes restructuring the economy were coming to an end, and had just seen the final wave of collectivisation in agriculture. As with any big change in agricultural policy this impacted on food supplies, and although East Germany was almost unique among advanced industrial societies in achieving food self sufficiency, there were bread shortages in 1961. As the economy stabilised, there was also a reduction in prospects for rapid personal advancement. Generally there was a disappointing perceived failure of the youth who had now grown up in the socialist education system to enthusiastically support the government.
Paradoxically, if we set to one side the issue of personal liberty, the wall was a great success. it stabilised relations between the two Germanys, and led to a period of reform within the DDR. The interesting contrast of course is Yugoslavia, whose citizens could travel freely to the West. But the difference is that there was no equivalent of the West german state seeking to poach all Yugoslavia’s citizens, and to destabilize its economy.
This account has been partial, I have not addressed some of the obvious shortcomings, nor some of the less obvious but significant achievements of the DDR. Instead I have sought only to show how the divided Germany and the Berlin Wall were the result of policies by both of the Cold War power blocks, and the actions of both of the German states.
When the DDR was dismantled, good things were lost, as well as bad things.