German Democratic Republic from the Mid-1970’s to 1989

By | January 18, 2022

In the mid-1970s, the GDR presented a picture of consolidation and relative economic progress, after the critical 1969-70 two-year period. Alignment with the USSR, both diplomatic (ratified by the new pact of friendship and assistance of 1974) and ideological, was fully re-established once the legacy of the last Ulbricht was eliminated; the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) rejected both the positions of the Chinese Communist Party and those of Eurocommunism, and yet managed to bring together 29 European Communist Parties at the East Berlin conference in 1976. Internationally, the GDR enjoyed the formal status that its leadership had coveted since always; at the same time, it tended to sever the last links of a common nationality, with the elimination of any reference to German unity from the new program of the SED in 1976, postulating on the contrary a GDR “ socialist nation ” and advocating nothing with the BRD. more than mere relationships of peaceful coexistence.

The results of the Ostpolitik, the new relations with the BRD and the participation in the CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) were destined to cause substantial repercussions, even if at first only partially perceptible, on the GDR: the act of Helsinki raised hopes and promised a minimum of protection for some elementary rights hitherto not open to discussion in a communist state. Isolated voices of opposition, also influenced by Eurocommunist ideas, such as those of R. Havemann and R. Bahro (Die Alternative, published in the West in 1977), rose to demand a democratization of communism and some basic elements of the rule of law. Numerous citizens instead availed themselves of the new possibilities to apply for legal expatriation. The regime soon resorted to a policy of repression of dissent, with prison, oppression of all kinds or, especially against dissident intellectuals and artists known even abroad, with expulsion (eg N. Biermann and R. Kunze).

In this context, the policy of the Abgrenzung was reactivated, with measures aimed at reducing the flow of visits from Western Germans, and with the “ requests for Gera ”, in Thuringia (October 1980), consisting in the recognition of a DDR citizenship, in the transformation of permanent representations into embassies, in the revision of the border on the Elbe and in the suppression of the Salzgitter institute, in charge of documenting the acts of violence and inhuman sentences in the GDR. At the same time, the SED leadership was, at least initially, advocating a military intervention in Poland.

However, Honecker (who in 1981 made a surprising mention of possible German unitary perspectives in a future ” socialist ” framework, while the revaluation of many moments and characters in German history and of the Prussian heritage itself could not go unnoticed) showed a growing desire to safeguard a certain inter-German detente even in the crisis of East-West relations, following the invasion of Afghānistān and the subsequent state of siege in Poland. In fact, he spoke of an appropriate “damage limitation” and of a “community of reason” between the two German states. An essential reason for this approach was an economic concern: caught in the pincer between growing external debt and a drastic reduction in consumption to reduce debt, a compromise with Bonn – such as those of 1983-84 (see above) – opened the way not only to the entry of hard currency and a recovery of credit in Western markets, but also to an injection of investment and consumer goods, the former indispensable for the modernization of the East German economy and the latter also useful for the internal political climate. In return, the SED leadership agreed to dismantle some of the most inhumane devices along the wall and along the border, such as minefields (1985), to facilitate inter-German transport and with Berlin, to increase cultural exchanges (cultural agreement of 1985) and contacts in general (first twinning between cities in 1986), and to relax the restrictions placed on visits in both directions. In 1986 the movement of these visits reached a first climax with 1.6 million travel permits in the BRD, for retired citizens, and another 200,000 for people under the retirement age, granted by the East German authorities.

Under the banner of this relative ” normalization ” and a certain moderation of its policy, the SED leadership and personally Honecker, undisputed leader of the GDR since 1971, managed to improve the image of the GDR in the West; in particular, it was able to collect some prestigious successes on delicate terrains, with an agreement of ” principles ” concluded in 1986 with the SPD, relating to a nuclear-free zone in central Europe, with the establishment of a joint working group in subject of security policy and subsequently with an ideological document (“The struggle of ideologies and common security”) agreed between the two parties (1987). The greatest diplomatic success, however, was Honecker’s solemn visit to Bonn in 1987.

The comparison with the other states of the then COMECON, very flattering for the GDR, concealed from many observers the substantial backwardness of the East German economy. This was also, and particularly, true of new technologies: although by the late 1970s these had received increasing attention and the 1986-90 Five-Year Plan had prioritized computers, robots and microelectronics, the SED leadership failed to catch up. the technological delay, which can be calculated, already around 1985, in about 5 ÷ 6 years compared to the more advanced Western countries. By the end of the decade, the economic race was clearly lost in key sectors; and in 1988 results below the objectives set by the plan were officially admitted for almost all sectors of the economy.

However, the movement of exodus, between legally expatriates, refugees and political prisoners redeemed by the federal government, had reached a first peak with 41,000 in 1984, to oscillate between 19 and 40,000 in the following years. This indicated the persistent dissent of a large part of the population against the regime: from 1949 until the erection of the wall (August 1961) 2.7 million were expatriates, while another 616,000 were expatriates from 1961 to the end of 1988, adding together expatriates lawsuits, escapes through third countries or through the wall, and the approximately 30,000 political prisoners rescued by the federal government.

In recent years, widespread protest began to manifest itself also publicly, in particular with the demonstrations held in central Berlin in June 1987, for the demolition of the wall, and then in January 1988 on the occasion of the 69th anniversary of the assassination of R. Luxemburg and K. Liebknecht, under the banner of the Luxemburgian saying “freedom is always the freedom of those who think differently”. In the meantime, we were witnessing the establishment, especially within Protestant Christianity, of discussion circles and groups with a pacifist, anti-nuclear and ecological orientation (Umweltbibliothek), feminist and third worldist. If these nuclei of dissent found a certain shelter, without confessional discrimination, in the Churches, the only institution that could enjoy any autonomy in the GDR, however, the currents more decidedly committed to human rights or in claiming non-fictitious forms of political participation (such as the Initiative Frieden und Menschenrechte, born in 1985, and Kirche von unten) also clashed with the more cautious exponents of the Protestant hierarchy which, since the 1971 synod, had defined the position of the Church “not against, not alongside, but in socialism “.

To this internal pressure which, by virtue of the CSCE process, had the advantage of also being able to avail itself of the support of external opinion, the government responded with partial easing of the oppressive system: in 1987 for the first time an amnesty also included political prisoners, and the death penalty, in force in all states of the Warsaw Pact, was abolished. With a new regulation of 28 March 1989, some limitations established in December 1988 were lifted and the categories for travel permits to the West were extended (especially for degrees of consanguinity). Finally, on 1 July, in the GDR, lacking administrative justice in its legal system, the possibility of appealing in court against administrative decisions regarding travel permits was created.

German Democratic Republic from the Mid-1970's to 1989