The Berlin Wall itself was a response to one simple point. The abject failure of socialism to satisfy the citizens of the German Democratic Republic to want to stay. For with many east Germans able to receive west German television, and all able to receive western radio broadcasts, the contrast was clear. Coca-cola, the Beatles and capitalism were far more attractive than the dreary sameness of the GDR. Most importantly, if you had any degree of self motivation, ambition and desire to succeed, beyond shooting and spying on your fellow citizens, you had to leave.
In 1945, with the Red Army having taken around a third of conquered Germany. The remaining territories, which would be known as west Germany were occupied by American, British and (don’t laugh) French troops, until the Federal Republic of Germany was established in 1949.
Stalin’s plan was clear.
- In association with the Allies, a quarter of territory was taken for neighbouring states, including separating Austria once more.
- A third of east Germany’s industrial equipment and facilities were removed for use in the Soviet Union.
- The Red Army became firmly based in east Germany as the front line between east and west;
- East Germany would become the location of a new German society on Marxist-Leninist lines, rejecting the Nazi past.
Elections were held in the Red Army occupied east in 1946 for some form of local administration, and while past political parties (pre-Nazi) were legalised, Stalin forced the merger between the largest social democratic party and the communists, into the Socialist Unity Party. It won the election, given extensive Soviet propaganda, much based on fact, about the horrors of the Nazi era.
However, for women and girls in east Germany there wasn’t relief with the defeat of the Nazis. The Red Army unofficially tolerated widescale rape and sexual abuse
of German women and girls in the years after the war. Conservative estimates put the number of female victims of the Soviet occupation at the hundreds of thousands. These stories have only been allowed to be told and confronted in the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
As the Soviet occupation continued, Stalin was concerned about Berlin. Berlin had been divided between American, British, French and Soviet zones, but surrounded by Soviet occupied east Germany. Three single access corridors were guaranteed by road and rail between the west German occupied zones and the Berlin equivalents. However, Stalin had decided this shouldn’t continue, and he wanted the west out of Berlin. He started having trains stopped and inspected on the corridor trips, and then demanded that land access be closed. This was due to frustration at the money being poured into west Germany under the Marshall Plan and the establishment of the Deutsche Mark, both of which he opposed. He closed land access and electricity supply to west Berlin
on the pretext of there being no formal agreement between the allies on such corridors of access, the allied response was what is now known as the Berlin airlift. The subsequent months are well known, as planes flew every four minutes on average into Tempelhof airport, supplying food, fuel and other supplies to west Berliners. At the time, Berlin was still a devastated poor city, and malnutrition was not unknown at all in post war Germany. Stalin responded by offering “free food” to west Berliners to move east, few did. Ultimately, the airlift succeeded, Stalin blinked and land access was restored. 70 pilots are aircrew had died in crashes during the airlift, indicating the risk involved in aviation at the time.
A protest at the Brandenburg gate at Stalin’s attempts to form a single municipal government for Berlin (bear in mind no wall at the time), saw the start of the serious division of the city. Half a million rejected attempts at communist domination of the Berlin council. The response was for the Soviet sector to establish a communist local authority, whilst the western sectors remained under military control.
When the Federal Republic of Germany was declared, it incensed Stalin further. An independent liberal democratic German capitalist state, that would become a NATO ally and be at the front line of the Cold War was not how he envisaged Germany. So the German Democratic Republic was hastily created in the east, using east Berlin as its capital, although it was meant to nominally be Soviet territory.
“Don’t mention the war”, as east Germans were all told they are new socialist citizens. The official line for most was that they were members of the anti-fascist resistance. The Socialist Unity Party would lead a so-called “national front”, but in effect had a monopoly on political power.
The usual communist policies were introduced, with all property nationalised and almost all businesses state owned and controlled, except crafts. Walter Ulbricht
was the Stalinist leader of the GDR, and he created the Stasi, the secret police that would be many times more pervasive than the Gestapo. 2.5% of the population worked as Stasi informers. Whilst the Nazis were militarily aggressive outside Germany, and genocidal maniacs, the communists were totalitarian towards their own on a grand scale.
In the early 1950s, large scale industrialisation was the focus, but a growing problem was the exodus west. By 1953, an average of 37,000 were migrating from east to west, as skilled and talented east Germans rejected the totalitarian society being inflicted upon them, so by the mid 1950s, the extensive land border between the two German states was sealed. This culminated in the Berlin Wall in 1961, as east Berliners were swelling west Berlin with talent, and getting passports as a result. By the time the wall was completed, east Germany had lost a quarter of its population since the war.
The ability to leave wasn’t the only response by east Germans. Increases in minimum production quotas saw workers strike in 1953 in what became known as the 1953 Uprising. Tens of thousands turned out to protest in east Berlin, before the police and army turned on them, arresting hundreds and killing up to 100. This was the first major uprising in the eastern bloc.
The subsequent years saw Stalinism rolled back slowly in the 1960s, Ulbricht followed Czechoslovakia in allowing more autonomy for industrial units, hiring management based on skills and ability, more than politics. Technical competence would be rewarded. The results were improved levels of production, but although Ulbricht supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, forces within the Socialist Unity Party were moving to overthrow him.Erich Honecker
conspired with Brezhnev to overthrow him on the pretext that he was moving away from Marxism-Leninism to a more pragmatic economic policy, although at the same time Ulbricht participated in discussions on normalising relations with western countries including the Federal Republic of Germany.
Honecker pushed Ulbricht to the sidelines in 1971, and refocused propaganda on Marxism Leninism. Meanwhile, the movements of Ulbricht on improving relations with the west continued, so by 1973 the Berlin and Basic Agreements saw significant changes in the relationship. Postal and telecommunication links were reopened, and greater freedom of movement for westerners to the east (though not vice versa). This allowed families divided by the Cold War to have some contact.
East Germany had a reputation for the highest standard of living in the communist bloc, which was true. Industrial production had become more oriented towards (poor quality) consumer goods, partly because there was so much awareness of the west through broadcasting. It was virtually impossible to enforce bans on listening or viewing foreign broadcasts, although the Stasi would certainly use evidence of such activities as a reason to harass.
One way the GDR pushed national pride was sports, with the tragic use of steroids and hothouse training conditions for GDR Olympic athletes. Arts and culture were focused on socialist realism, but from the 1970s on east German cinema also went beyond the stultifying Stalinist themes and had an unusual genre of American Western type films, which would have the native Americans as heroes against the imperialist USA. There was strong support for classical music, but also underground rock and pop music bands would appear, occasionally harassed by the authorities, influenced by Western broadcasts.
Ultimately, this pervasiveness of Western broadcasts meant that it became increasingly unsustainable for the GDR regime to resist change whilst perestroika was being carried out in the USSR. Notwithstanding that, Honecker insisted in carrying out 40th anniversary celebrations for the German Democratic Republic, months before he was removed and the Socialist Unity Party surrendered its monopoly on power.
Honecker had been inspired by Tiananmen Square and had ordered a “shoot to kill” policy to respond to protests which culminated in Leipzig. Fortunately, the military refused, and so the murderous tyranny he ran, ran out.
The fall of the wall has already been discussed, but the subsequent events demonstrated how weak and insubstantial the whole German Democratic Republic was. The Peaceful Revolution resulted in the first and only free elections in east Germany in March 1990, which ended months of protests calling for the reformed communists to leave power. The former communists got 16% of the vote, against 48% for a centre right coalition and 22% for the centreleft opposition. The result was for the GDR to be dissolved and for east Germany to be incorporated into the Federal Republic of Germany.
A third of Germany had been shifted from a genocidal totalitarian nightmare to a more Orwellian totalitarian nightmare. No doubt the GDR was less murderous than Nazi Germany, but it did execute opponents, it executed those seeking to leave. It ran a prison state, it ruined the lives of many through psychological torment, and it wasted the lives of millions in stagnation and mediocrity. Most of all it showed the utter destruction of humanity in being a contrast between two systems. The difference in living standards made it clear, and the inability to censor broadcasts from the west meant east Germans knew only too well they had the raw deal, and all the state wanted to do is make sure they shut up and trusted the Party. East Germans were all “in it together”, but individually they were nothing, just a part of a machine. Aspiration and success would only be rewarded if it fitted in with the goals of the party, and east Germans had to go underground to have some sense of freedom.
East Germany was also the frontline of ambitions to destroy the west. The Red Army was there to be the footsoldiers for any future advance, and east Berlin sponsored terrorism in the west, with the Red Army Faction
including the infamous Baader-Meinhof gang. Murderous thugs to the letter as they were.
Nothing in Europe exemplified more the economic, intellectual and moral bankruptcy of “really existing socialism” than east vs. west Germany. As JFK once said “at least we don’t have to build a wall to keep our people in”.
As a footnote, Erich Honecker fled to Moscow after the end of the Berlin Wall, to escape charges of conspiracy to murder - because he decided on the shoot to kill policy for escapees. He took refuge in the Chilean embassy, but extradited by the Russian government of Boris Yeltsin where he faced trial. However he was too ill for trial in 1993, so it was discontinued and he had his final year in Chile, dying of liver cancer.
His wife remains in Chile, she had been a Minister under the communist regime and she still argues life was better then.