East Germany in Brief

After World War II ended in 1945, Germany was occupied and divided into four zones that were administered by the main Allied Powers (the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union). Initially, each of these countries was responsible for the administration of a single territorial zone. However, after tensions mounted between the Soviet Union and the three Western powers, the US, Great Britain, and France merged their zones and enabled the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, commonly known as West Germany) on September 21, 1949. The Soviets responded on October 7, 1949, by facilitating the creation of the communistic German Democratic Republic (GDR, commonly known as East Germany) within their occupation zone. The US maintained that the GDR was without any legal validity; it refused to recognize the GDR formally as a state and did not establish diplomatic relations until 1974. The US gave its full support to the government of the FRG located in Bonn, which was in the process of building a free and democratic Germany. In 1955, the US established formal diplomatic relations with the FRG. While the GDR and the FRG acknowledged each other’s existence, they never had official diplomatic ties.

The status of Berlin was an especially problematic and contentious issue during the forty-five-year period that preceded the reunification of the two Germanys in 1990. In 1949, when the FRG was created in the West, the small Rhineland city of Bonn became its de facto capital. The government considered it to be a provisional capital because Berlin had become the symbol of resistance and the FRG never abandoned the idea of a re-unified Germany. Toward the end of 1949, the sectors of Berlin occupied by the Western Allies became “West Berlin,” which aligned itself politically with the FRG. The Soviet occupation zone in the eastern part of Germany completely surrounded the city of Berlin. East Germany considered East Berlin to be its capital, and the Soviet Union as well as all the other Eastern Bloc countries recognized East Berlin as the GDR’s capital. However, the Western Allies disputed this recognition, considering the entire city of Berlin to be occupied territory governed jointly by the four Allied Powers. Berlin was eventually divided into East Berlin and West Berlin, even though it was situated deep inside the area of Soviet occupation.

Emigration from the GDR to the West, and in particular to the FRG, was a major problem for the GDR, especially since many of the emigrants were well-educated young people. It weakened the state economically and prompted the government to fortify the western borders and ultimately, in 1961, to construct the massive Berlin Wall. From that point on, the East Germans were unable to travel to West Berlin or any Western country. For all practical purposes, they were all living under what one could call “homeland arrest,” confinement within the borders of the GDR, a country about the size of Tennessee. Many people attempting to flee were killed by East German border guards, landmines, or other types of booby traps. Those who were caught received lengthy prison sentences for committing a crime known as “Republikflucht” (desertion from the republic).

I am concluding this concise overview of East Germany, the country that disappeared suddenly and unexpectedly, with a bit more basic information that my snapshot readers should find useful. The GDR was a country that existed from 1949 to 1990; it was part of the Soviet-ruled Eastern Bloc throughout the Cold War and also the Soviet Union’s most powerful ally. Although it began to function as a sovereign state in October 1949, Soviet occupation forces were stationed in East Germany throughout its nearly forty-one years of existence. The GDR was governed by the communistic Socialist Unity Party (SED), which made the teaching of Marxism-Leninism and the Russian language compulsory in schools. It described itself as a socialist “workers’ and peasants’ state” (Arbeiter- und Bauernstaat). The economy was centrally planned, most businesses were state-owned and operated by the government, which avidly confiscated land, private dwellings of every type, and valuable personal property such as antiques. Even though the GDR had to pay substantial war reparations to the Soviets, it nevertheless managed to develop the most successful economy in the Eastern Bloc. In 1989, numerous political, social, and economic forces in the GDR, the Soviet Union, and other Eastern European countries led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and then in 1990 to the reunification of Germany. Snapshots on both of these important topics may be found in the section labelled IN RETROSPECT.

[Note: For the information presented above, I relied chiefly on three online sources: The Office of the Historian’s “A Guide to the United States’ History of Recognition, Diplomatic, and Consular Relations, by Country, since 1776: East Germany (German Democratic Republic),” “Wikipedia – History of East Germany,” and “Wikipedia – East Germany.”]

Addendum: Snapshot readers will surely be interested to know that Russian leader Vladimir Putin, when he was a young KGB officer in the Soviet secret service (KGB), was stationed in the East German city of Dresden. He arrived there in the mid-1980s for his first posting as a KGB agent. In an article entitled Vladimir Putin’s formative German years (March 27, 2015), BBC News correspondent Chris Bowlby describes the “devastating, life-changing shock” (p. 2) Putin received as he witnessed directly the implosion of the GDR in December 1989. The East German ‘bloodless revolution’ that swept away the GDR’s political leaders, its communist ideology, and eventually the GDR itself left Putin with “a huge anxiety about the frailty of political elites, and how easily they can be overthrown by the people.” (p. 3) “We would have another Putin and another Russia without his time in East Germany,” his German biographer Boris Reitschuster is quoted as saying. The 11-page online version of Bowlby’s fascinating article may be found at https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32066222