** The Cold War country trends Germany East Germany GDR DDR

The Cold War: East Germany (1945-89)

Cold War East Germany
Figure 1.--The sign here tells us just where this snapshot was taken--9 km from Potsam. Thus we know it was in the the Western Sector of Berlin. (Potsdam is a suburb if Berlin.) It shows how open the border was for many years. The border was not perhaps as open as suggested here. West Berliners could freely approach the border. East Germans could not. On the Soviet side there were checkpoints which made it difficult to easily reach the border with a vehicle. There were places to cross in Berlin and there were trams that could be used. All of this of course changed when the Berlin Wall went up (1961). The entire border between East and west Germany was hardened in to the most impassable frontier ever contructed--all to keep East Germans from leaving. We are not sure just when this photograph was taken, we suspect about 1950. It might be possible to be more specific as the signs may hasve been changed from the Soviet Zone to East Germany/German Democratic Republic. Hopefully our German readers will know about this.

The German Economic Miracle underway in West Germany proved an increasing embarassment for East Germany. Rather than a worker's paradise, East German workers increasingly envied the rising living standards in West Germany. This proved to be more than an embarassment. Professionals and skilled workers fleeing to the West through Berlin and the still relatively porous border was a significant economic loss to the East German regime. East German leaders pleaded with Soviet authorities to take action. Thus in the Cold War Berlin became the hot spot of the Cold War. The ome place where American and Soviet tanks were mussle to mussle. It was especially dangerous because the Western position was so exposed because West Berlin was surronded by East Germany. The Soviets threatened to sign a peace treaty with East Germany which would undemine the World War II agreements which guaranteed the Western control of West Berlin. The action ultimately would be a massive wall to effectively imprison Germans in East Germany.

German Communist Party (DKP): Background

At the end of the World War I, the Communists attempted to seize control of Germany. After the Communist success in Russia, many left-wing Germans concluded that their time had come. Marxist doctrine for saw revolkutions in the developed industrial countries. Surely if Communis could seize control of bcjward Russia, the proleterit in Germany would help seize control of Germany. The Socialists made common cause with the Freikorps to defeat them. Later the Communists (DKP) would made common cause with the NAZIs to bring down the Weimar Republic. Stalin saw the Socialists as the major threat to the Communists. This Stalin ordered the DKP to work to undermine the Weimar Republic and to refuse to cooperate with the Socialits. The result was the destruction of the Weimar Republic, but with the NAZIs taking over. Hitler's was appointed Chancellor (January 1933). He immediateky moved to estanlish a police state and the first targets were the Communists and Socialists who had oppsed him, especially the Communists. The first NAZI concentration camp was set up at Dachau (March 1933). Here political enemies could be dealt with outside of the complications of German law. Thousands of German and later Austrian Communists were arrested, few surviving the concentration camps. Arresting Communist deputies meant that the NAZIs were able to gain control over the Reicstag which passed the Enabling Act, essentually converying the Weimar Republic into a duictatorship. Some Communists managed to flee the country, many seeking refuge in Stalin's Soviet Union. This proved to be only a temporary escape. The NAZIs had gone after the DKP leaders, nit the rank and file as long as they did not remin politically active. The Communists seeking refuge in the Soviet Union had far worse experiences than those that stayed in Germany. Stalin used the NKVD to murder a greater proportion od Germabn Communists than Hitler's GESTAPO. [Gates] Most of the emigre German Communists, especially those working in the Comintern apparatus, were arested by the NKVD anmd either shot or sent to Gulag. Even worst was to come. Stalin approved the NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, permitting the two dictators to launch World War II (1939). And to placate Hitler, Stalin ordered the NKVD to turn over the survivors of his DKP purge to the NAZIs. Some 300 emigree German Communists were duly turned over (1940). [Buber-Neumann] At the same time Stalin was providing Hitler vast quatities of strategic materials to support the NAZI war effort. Stalin went after DKP emiogrees in the West. Hitler never completely destroyed the Communist resistance in Germany. [Singer and Valtin] Clandestine Communists played an importanht roke in the anti-NAZI spy ring. One of the most important was organised by Leopold Trepper. At the end of the war when the Red Army stormed into Berlin and eastern Germany, Stalin ordered the NKVD to arrest the surviving Communist spies, including Trepper himself. He would spend 10 years in the Gulag and was not released until after Stalin's death (1955). [Trepper]


The Economic Miracle that occurred in the West did not occur on the other side of the Iron Cutrain. The Soviets moved to separate the East German ecomomy fom thsat of the West after the United Ststes decided to nsack the cirrency reform promoted by Bavarian Finance Minister Ludwig Erhard. Stalin refused to accept Msrshall Plsan aid or allow his Eastern European satallites participate. The Soviets and Eas Germa Communist allies moved to create a socialist economy. The Soviet occupation zone that becamne the DDR (1949) was a largely agrarian part of Germany without the heavy industry thst had developed in the west. The primary factor here was raw materials. The heavily developed Ruhr Basin for example developed around the abundant coal resources there. And the Soviet occupiers ininited a massive program of dismantlingh the factories that survived the War and shipping them east as reparations. Even after actual reparations ended, the trade agreements negoitiated by the Soviets were heavily in their favor. The East German economy thus stagnated while the West Germany ecomnomy exploded. The German Economic Miracle underway in West Germany proved an increasing embarassment for East Germany. Rather than a worker's paradise, East German workers increasingly envied the rising living standards in West Germany. This proved to be more than an embarassment. The East Germans could not very well blame the lackluster economic performance on their fratenal socialist ally or the socialist economy they created so they blamed in on the flood of trained workers and profesionals from the worker's paradise to the capitalst west. A huge dispsarity in living standards developed between East and West. And unlike the situation in Russia, the East Germans could not hide the disparity. East Germans could listen to West German television and radio. Aparently the commercials had more impact than the political content. The Berlin Wall and extensions dividing the two Germanies ended the flow (1961). It probably did impair the East German economy, but it was not the central problem. Even with all the limitations, East Germany became the most profucvtive part of the Soviet Empire--COMECON. The East Germans published impressive production statistics. Very little of this production could be excported to the West. It was either consumed in Germany or traded within COMECON as barter of barter sarragemets. While it was some of the best indusdtrial product within COMECON, it was not up to Western standards. Thus when the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was unified, few East German industries could survive in a market economy.

Stalinism in East Germany

The DKP had been one of the world's most important Communuist parties. Hitler and the NAZIs largely destroyed the Party. Surprisingly, Stalin;s NKVD murdered or sent many syurvivors to the Gulag. As the Red Army first stopped the Whermacht abnd then drive it back west, Stalin began to prepare for governing Germany after the defeat of the NAZIs. He began to gather together the survivors of his purge of the DKP as well as the children of those purged who had been raised in Soviet orphanasges. They were sent back to Soviet occupied eastern Germany. As in the rest of Eastern Europe, Stalin attempted to hide his political suppression of the occupied countries abd the creation of a Soviet empire. As a kind of fig leaft, the Soviets for consumption in the West made a public shoe of legalizing capitalist and Christian Democratic parties. This was all for show and non-Communist parties had not real opportunity to contest free elections. It did influence people in the West like former vice president Henry Wallace who complained that President Truman's foreign policy was too confrontational toward Stlin abnd the Soviets. There were several all to real developments at the Soviets began to lay the groundwork for a Stalinist state. First, was to force the union of the Communists and Socialistrs into the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party of Germany -- SED) which woiuld eventually become the ruling East German ruling party. Second, Stalin made sure that there would be no proletarian democracy in East Germany to replace NAZI rule. That does not mean that thar there was no democratic facade. Remember that Stalin's Soviet constitution of 1936-37 was a beautifully crafted democratic document. It provided the facade for Slalinism which apeased the clueless in the West. The NKVD unhindered by the Constitutiion prioceeded to murder of hundreds of thousands of Communist Party members and Red Army officers, sending even more to the Gulag. The same ioccurred in East Germany. German Communists who went back to East Germany after the War offer graphic testimony as to what happened. [Pollck and Lenohard] And there are also descriptiosd from the Soviet side. [Kopelev] Stalin crushed working-class opposition to Stalinism. Concentration camps were set up to deal with individuals who were even suspected of opposition. Third, came constant purging, of both East German Communists as well as the Communist movement in West Germany to make sure there was no criticsm of the Soviet Union. This turnedcwhat once had been the hot bead of the Euroopean Communist Party into impotence. Fourth, Stalin was determined to punish the Germans. At Yalta he suggested shooting 50,000 Whermavht officers, a kind of reopeat of Katyn. And in the final days of World War II unleased the Red Army to an orgy of rape on German women. And then Stalin orderd the NKVD to dismantling the industrial plant in the Soviet occupation zone and ship it to the Soviet Union as war reparations and at the same time reduced the potential military capability of Germany. . For Stalin, Germany was the most important part of his new empire. He wanted to make sure thast there would be no duiscebt in East Germany. The Germans had come very close to destroying Soviet Communism and Stalin was determined to make sure that it never occurred again. But in doing so, almost from the point of launching the Cold War, he insured that the Soviet Union would fail. Germany was the griund zero of the Cold War. It wiuld begin and end uin Germany. No country was more important. If Germany went Communist, the Soviets would dminate Europe. If Germany developed into a bulkwark for free enterprise and democracy, backed by Ameruica, the Soviets could not dominate Western Europe. And West Germans not only watched Soviet behavior in East Germany, but experienced the German economic miracle while noteing the abject economic failure of Communist economic plnning theroughout the Soviet Eastern European Empire.

East Berlin Worker Riots (1953)

The 1953 East German worker uprising was the first in a series of violent uprisings that would periodically rock the Soviet Eastern European empire. Workers in the German Democratic Republic (DDR) began protesting working conditions conditions (June 17, 1953). Factory managers imposed unreasonable production set by DDR authorities quotas on (June 17). he uprising began as a demonstration against those quotas, but quickly spread to over 400 cities, towns, and villages throughout the DDR. The resulting riots threatened the very existence of the Communist East German regime. The spontaneous outburst shocked the leadership of of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) as well as their Soviet masters. This was not how workers were expected to behave in a Socialist workers paradise. The riots occurred only 3 months after Stalin's death and the Soviet empire was still in a state of turmoil adjusting to a new political reality without Stalin. It was East German workers which set off the event, but it wsas soon embraced by a wide cross-section of East German society. And as it developed, the demonstators began expressing concerns far beyond factory quotas. The movement began to express a much wider range of political and social issues--including free elections. This of course was anethma to the the SED and the Soviets. And most shocking of all was when chants began to appear like 'Death to Communism' and 'Long live Eisenhower!' One historian writes, ... "for the first time ever the proletariat had risen against the 'dictatorship of the proletariat'." [Ostermann] This was a critical turning pont in the Cold war. Living conditions and political oppression in the Soviet Union could be hidden from Western Communists and the freedom and affluence of the West could be hidden from the Soviet people. But Germany was different. East Germans could listen to West German radio and television at a time when the West German Economic Miracle was taking hold. Some observers believe that vthe commercials may have been more influential than the programming. It was this in divided Germany that the stark dispsaities between East and West became starkly apparent. The worker protests quickly turned violent. At the time as the workes were quickly supressed, the riots were not seen as particularly important. Some historians now believe that the impact of the riots were more significant than believed at the time. The confidence of the SED leadership including Walter Ulbricht.was badly shaken. The East German workers were brutally suppressed. The Soviets while shocked, reacted immediately by sending tanks into the streets and ordering Red Army troops to fire on the demonstratirs. At the time, the Soviet leadership was involved in a struggle for power following Stalin's death. The arrest of KGB Director Lavrentii Beria has been explained on his attitude toward Germany, although obviously other more practical matters were involved, namely the fear of other Politburo members for their saftey. Similar reactions occurred at different times in the Soviet satellite states: Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), Poland (1970, 1976, 1980)


Communist regimes do not believe in elections, at least real elections. Only show electioins were allowed. This was the case from the very beginning. In the Russian October Revolution when relatively small cadres of Bolsheviks seized control of Russia from a fledgling Parlimentaery demnocracy. And from that point on there was not a real election in Russia until the fall of the Soviet Union (1991). The Bolsheviks were a small mimority and thus elections had no real appeal. Stalin for some reason, at the end of World II allowed some elections in Eastern Europe, but when the Communists did poorly, he had the NKVD step in to ensure Communist electoral vicotories. The Soviets unlike the modern Chinese Communists at least paid lip service to democracy. East Germany would become the German Democratic Republic, despite the fact that it did not permit a single real election in its entire history. Communist regimes without the legitimization of real elections turnd to carefully orchestrated mass demonstrations to show wide-spread public support. This of course is the standard tactic of a tolitarian state. The NAZIs were probably the masters of it, but the Communists were very good at it as well. All of the Soviet clent states in their Eastern European empire used them, including the East Germans. They gave the impression of broad public support which in fact did not exist. A common feature of these demonsrations was the use of appealin children, this part organized by the Pioneer Movement imported from the Soviet Union. The DDR Pioneer organiaztion was the Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organisation named in honor of the the former German Communist Party leader killed by the NAZIs at the Buchenwald concentration camp. In the 45 year history of the Soviet Eastern European empire, these Eastern European Communist demonstraions only went wrong once--a poorly organized demostration in Bucharest that led to the execution of the Ceaușescus (1989).

Berlin Flash Point

Berlin was ground zero for the Cold War. It was here that Soviet tanks eere mussle to mussle. And it was surronded by Soviet-controlled East Germany. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev famously said, "Berlin became one of the most critical places on Earth. As the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev allegedly said, it was ‘the testicles of the West: every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin." Thus in the Cold War Berlin became the hot spot of the Cold War. The one place where American and Soviet tanks were mussle to mussle. It was especially dangerous because the Western position was so exposed because West Berlin was surronded by East Germany. The Soviets threatened to sign a peace treaty with East Germany which would undemine the World War II agreements which guaranteed the Western control of West Berlin. The action ultimately would be a massive wall to effectively imprison Germans in East Germany.


Mass demomstratiins was mean to show case public support. In fact, it masked wide sopread popular dusaffection. The failure of socilist economics was felt by the German people, and millions dispairing of a decent life in East German wanted npohing more than to go west. East Germans were well aware of the properity of the West because they could see West German televiion. The commercials were apparently especially impactful. This put the Sovietsand their East German pupets in a bad position. Living in a police state,East German had no way of changing, even criticia=sing the system. The only option was to defect and go west. Millions of East Germans did just that, defected and going West. The easiest route was through Berlin. It was a was very sihnificant brain drain. The DDR was losing its most talent people. Professionals and skilled workers fled to the West through Berlin and the still relatively porous border. It was a significant economic loss to the East German regime. It was very costly to train these people. And they were needed for the economy to operate. East German leaders were not about to change the system to retain these people, but they wanted thenm to reamain. DDR officilas pleaded with their Soviet masters to take action. Seizing West Germany would have been the optimal action, but the Sovirt were not going to risk that. Building a wall beegn to be consiudered. .

Berlin Wall

The most visible aspect of the Cold War was the Berlin Wall - the Wall the Communists built between East and West Germany. Until 1961, East Berliners and other East Germans could take a subway car to flee to West Berlin and on to West Germany. The number of East Germans fleeing to the West was an embarrassment to the Communists who after all claimed to be creating workers' paradises. The glaring differences between the vibrant economic life of Berlin and the gray, drudgery of a Communist People's Republic was particularly apparent. The number of trained professionals in particular threatened the economy of East Germany. The Wall changed this. It did stop the flow of people West, although heart rending sights of small numbers of people braving the increasingly lethal dangers of the Wall moved West Germans. President Kennedy visited Berlin in 1962 to demonstrate American resolve in this vulnerable outpost of freedom. He told Berliners. "There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin. Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us." The Wall effectively separated Germans for nearly 30 years. Once completed only small numbers succeeded in crossing it. Many died in the process.


The Soviet Union in the countries it occupied set up secret police forces modeled on the NKVD/KGB. The force established in Germany after World war II was the Staatssicherheit (Ministry of State Security --STASI/MfS). Like the KGB, it combined foreign and domestic operations within the same organization. It developed into one of the most sucessful secret police forces. It also operated a notable foreign espionage operation. The STASI engaged in extensive phone taps and other electronic surveilance. Huge numbers of East Germans were involved with the STASI. Wives spying on husbands and children on parents. Notably, half of its agents inserted in the West working were working on scientific and technological espionage. In this effort they achieved some success. The benefits to East Germany, however, seem limited. The STASI had 8,000 people in Berlin working on spy devices One author maintains that "technology was at the heart" of te STASI's spy operations. [Macrakis] The STASI both borrowed frim abroad and developed their own devices.

Living Standards and Well Being

Prosperous living standards are determined by productivity, both worker productivity and nterorise productivity. As SED productivity was a fraction of that in the BRD, living standards were far below that of the West. This was the case throughout the Communist world and the centrl reason that the Soviet Union lost the Cold War. That said, the SED had the most efficent economy in the Communist world and thus the Communist country wih the highest living standards. East Germany established a state-run social welfare program. The German social welfare organizations before the NAZI era were mostly private voluntary entities many Church based. Some of these instititiins dated from the Middle Ages. Germany implemented a national social policy through an extensive decentralized and pluralistic network of voluntary agencies. The NAZIs sought to centralize this system and had established a state agency to do this--the Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt (People's Welfare Organization--NSV). NAZI organizations were outlawed after the Allied vicyory in both East and West Germany (1945). The NSV was replaced with different welfare organizations in East and West Germany. The Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands--SED) or East German Communist Party achieved a virtual monopoly of over all social and political institutions, including social welfare agencies. The DDR retained separate social insurance plans inherited from before the War. DDR authorities moved to combine these plans. This had laargely been aschieved (1956). The DDR had two compulsory, centrally controlled, and hierarchically organized systems that provided universal flat-rate benefits. Special programs were designed for technical and scientific specialists, civil servants, police, the Nationale Volksarmee (National People's Army--NVA), and other security organizations. All these programs were heavily state subsidized, unlike the West Germany. The the right to work was guaranteed in East Germany. The state assigned jobs to East Germans. There was no as a result, no unemployment insurance. The state also provided housing, child care, and health care.

Life Experiences

One interesting topic that is oftern poorly covered by historians are invididua; life exoeriences. Here we will collect the exoerienceds thst we have been able to collect. Interestingly, many East Germans have rather affectionaste memories if life in the DDR as long as they steered away from critivising the Government. It is also clear that living comditions were much less affluent than in West Germany. One problen was Government restrictions on personal development. While the Government supported a fine educatiinal system, access to a quality education was affected by political factors. We hope that former East German residents will provide more information that we can add to this section.


The German Democratic Republic (DDR) also did not immediately institute school uniforms. We do not yet have any information on the quality or methods employed in the East German school system. We suspect that academic standards were fairly high (which was not the case in NAZI schools), but highly politicized (Which was also the case in NAZI schools. We do n0t yet, however, have much information on this. Nor do we know how the schools made the transition from NAZI to Communist schools. One might think that there would be little difficulty with math and science teachers, but history teachers might be more difficult. German school children had never worn iniforms before. This is interesting as the model for the DDR was the USSR, and Soviet children did have to wear school uniforms. Soviet proconsuls controlled every aspect of German life. The lack of school uniforms in the DDR probably reflects the deep-seated rejection of German militarism and ideas (such as uniforms) associated with it. Eventually school uniforms were adopted, but I am not sure precisely when, apparently about 1960. The uniform was used for both school and for the German Young Pioneers. The Young Pioneers were a youth group primarily organized around school classes. Unlike Scouting in the West, the famly did not play a major role. We are not sure how common the uniforms were. One source tells us that the children only wore their Pioneer uniforms to school on special days. We have not yet been able to confirm this.

Sports and the Olympics

The abject economic failure of the Communist countries was a great disappointment to the Soviets and Wast European Communists. Markxist doctrine predicted that Socialism would be the wave of the future and create worker paradives. Economic failurewas thus very difficult to explain. Ironically East Germany was the most econmically successful of all the Soviet satellite sates. The problem for the East Germans was tht their sucesses pailedin comparison to the West German economic miracle. And despite theWall and attempts to keep out publications and bradcasts, the East Germands would could receive West German TV and radio broadcasts knew about the differences. The East Germans thus sought to score public relations victories. The most notable effort was in sports. It was not as one might expect from a Communist country, an effort to bring the joy of sports to all children. Rather it was an effoirt to identify gifted children and to prepare them in elite schools, including boarding schools where they woul not have to deal with parental interference. And then the East German authorities took it on step further--the administration of drugs including steroids to young atheletics, many children just entering into puberty. The secret Government approved Plan (B14-25) was administed by the Stasi. This was done without the knwledge of the children (who thought they were receiving vitamins) or their parents. Any one who objected tor asked questions was disciplined or kickedout of the program. A state pharmecutical company developed he drugs and scientists and coaches developed the training protocols and drug dosages to achieve maximum results. The Stasi required the scientists, doctors, and coaches working in the program to sign confidentisality agreements. Most of the children affected were girls because they competed at a younger age and the drugs had a greater enhancement impact on girls than boys. Over 10,000 East German atheletes over the years were subjected to the drugs. East Germany was not the only Communist country to engage in dopeing, but they thad the largest and most sophisticated program. And individual aththeletes in the West took drugs. The East Germans not only administered drugs as a matter of state policy, but they also had a sophisticated research program enabling them to elude the drug tests administered in international competitions. The results were spectacular. Easter German athletes beginning at the Montreal Olympics (1976) amazed the world. Tiny East Germany ranked second in gold medals behind the Soviet Union,. Their success was especially notable with their young girl swimmers. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989), some details on the East German program have become public. And many former atheletes have reported serioys health problems, especially the younger giels who received the dress. This is an issue which the German Government today has little desire to pursue.

Nostalgia: Post-Unification Reflections

Opinion polls in 2009 showed that about 15 percent of Germans would prefer the old DDR to modern unifified Germany. What they miss is all the "free" stuff like day care and guaranteed jobs. The German economy is not really a free market capitalist country. There is a very substantial saftey net including a national healtcare system. But there is much more individual choice and freedom. This has resuilted in a much higher living standard than was possible in East Germany. It also means there is greater desparities between the successful and unsucessful. In countries like the old FFR, there are fewer disparities because most of the population is poor or of limited ecionomic success. And just as there are winners in a more competivie society, there are also loosers. The loosers include some individuals who have seriously tried, but in many cases are the individuals who hasve not made a erious effort in school or who have used drugs and alcohol or had children out of wedlock, And many of those individuals who have not done well or those who have a nostalgic view of the old DDR.


Buber-Neumann, Margrete. Under Two Dictators. Buber-Neumann was the widow of executed German Communist leader Heinz Neumann. She escaped Germany seeking refuge in the Soviet Union (1933). She was anong the DKP emigrees arrested by the NKVD and turned over to the NAZIs (1940). Somehow she managed to survive the War to write a book about her experiences. She was the daughter of the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber.

Gates, William J. Enemies Within the Gate: The Comintern and the Stalinist Repression, 1934-39, (Yale University Press, 2001). Gates draws on material from the Soviet archives which was bruefly opened to Western scholars after the fall of Communism.

Kopelev, Lev. No Jail for Thought Kopelev was a Red Army officer who was senternced to 10 years in the Gulag for being soft on German civilians.

Leonhard, Wolfgang. Child of the Revolution.

Pollck, Stephen. Strange Land Behind Me.

Singer, Kurt. Duel for the Northland

Trpper, Leopold. The Great Game.

Valtin, Jan (Richard Krebs). Out of the Night

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Created: 2:49 AM 5/10/2008
Last updated: 7:31 AM 4/18/2021