Police State

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The official GDR image of the Volkspolizei.

There is no doubt about it: The GDR was a quintessential police state and this was especially evident in the center of East Berlin. There the police seemed to be everywhere, both in police cars and on foot, mostly in teams of two or more, never alone, always vigilant and often armed with automatic weapons. For many East Germans this highly visible police presence was threatening. I did not find it menacing, however. On the contrary, I always felt very safe walking around East Berlin and other cities in the GDR, even at night when I was by myself. There were no guns in the hands of private citizens and crime of every sort was low. As long as you played by the rules and obeyed the laws, the GDR police state was one of the safest places to live and visit. But if you stepped out of line, you would in all likelihood find yourself in trouble. I confess that I stepped out of line on a number of occasions, but luckily I never had to pay the piper.

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Deutsche Volkpolizei on duty, circa 1965.
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Police cadets of the East German Volkspolizei, 1989.

The official name of the GDR’s national police force was Deutsche Volkspolizei (German People’s Police), abbreviated to DVP or VP, and colloquially known as the VoPo. The Volkspolizei Agency was formed on October 31, 1945 and dissolved in 1990. The Agency had its headquarters in East Berlin and was responsible for most law enforcement throughout the GDR. Because of its organization and structure it was also considered to be as much a paramilitary force as a civilian police force. In contrast to the police forces of most other countries, the VP was equipped with armored personnel carriers and artillery, and its recruits received military training. It also executed traditional police duties such as investigation and traffic control. People in the GDR made fun of the police because everyone knew, as a friend of mine who grew up in East Germany put it, that they were not the sharpest knives in the drawer. There were also agents of the VP working at the local level, the so-called Abschnittsbevollmächtigten (ABV), community policemen who were responsible for patrolling neighborhoods. They were at the bottom of the totem pole and commanded the least respect. At the top of the totem pole was the secret police agency, the Stasi, one of the most feared and hated institutions of East Germany’s communist government.