Ever since 1917 the creation of a workers state in Germany had been the dream of the international communist movement. A socialist revolution in the largest industrial country of Europe, the birthplace of Marxism and home of the most numerous and best-organized proletariat of the world, would finally end the disastrous isolation of backward, Bolshevik Russia from the centres of advanced capitalist culture and technology. In this sense, then, the creation of the German Democratic Republic in October 1949 was a truly historic occasion. Yet today, over three decades later, it is clear that the existence of the ‘first German workers and peasants state’ has done little to advance the cause of socialism in Western Europe or to overcome the bureaucratic deformations of the Soviet Union. The gdr is the second largest economic power in comecon, and eighth in the world; it has a per capita Gross National Product higher than Britain’s or Italy’s; and therefore (with the partial exception of Czechoslovakia) is the only member of the ‘socialist camp’ to rank with the most developed capitalist countries.footnote1 These achievements have served to buttress the strategic position of the Soviet Union and have enabled the gdr to supply valuable aid to anti-imperialist movements and states. But the gdr has not developed into a pole of attraction for the workers of the world, and has perfected a Stalinist system which negates the socialist potential of its advanced economy.

There are two chief reasons for this. Firstly, the creation of the gdr itself was not the result of a popular revolution ‘from below’, or even a domestic putsch ‘from above’, but essentially a ‘revolution from the outside’—imposed on the German working class by the victorious Red Army following the military defeat of German fascism. Consequently the East German ‘model of socialism’ has been marked by the bureaucratically repressive features of the Soviet original, which are highlighted rather than obscured by the advanced nature of gdr society. Secondly, the post-war ‘revolution from the outside’ covered only a fragment of Germany: the Soviet zone of occupation in its quite arbitrarily defined borders with only one half of Berlin as its capital. Quite apart from the social and economic difficulties that arose from such an artificial severing of the territory’s organic links with the West, the new regime in the gdr found itself lacking not only in democratic but also in national legitimacy. Millions of refugees left for West Germany before the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and among the remaining 17 million gdr citizens the influence and attraction of West Germany remains strong down to the present day. Rather than the long-awaited victory of socialism in Germany, the gdr therefore is primarily a product of the post-war settlement between imperialism and Stalinism in Europe, built on the fragile foundations of military conquest and national partition—in contrast to other East European countries which experienced the Red Army’s victories over Hitler’s forces as liberation rather than humiliation and could then build on established and popular national (or multinational) identities.

Thus the historical evolution, as well as the present and future dynamic of the gdr, cannot be interpreted merely in terms of the general contradictions common to all the bureaucratically-deformed transitional societies. The most significant incisions in its political history are in fact, not the stages in the socio-economic transformation of East German society, but the turning points in its relationship with West Germany, and, to some extent, the Soviet Union: the granting of ‘sovereignty’ by Moscow in 1955, the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, and finally Walter Ulbricht’s resignation as party leader to make way for a ‘normalization’ between the two German states in 1971.

The division of Germany was never a declared aim of any of the powers united in the anti-Hitler wartime coalition. As late as the Potsdam Conference, over two months after the German capitulation, the Allies agreed on a joint administration for all of Germany (except the territories east of the Oder-Neisse line which were to come under Polish administration) in an ‘antifascist-democratic spirit’. The diplomatic niceties, however, could not conceal the fact that once German fascism, the common enemy, had been decisively defeated, the old antagonisms between the workers states and imperialism were inevitably to erupt again and doom the alliance. It is clear today that Soviet policy towards Germany in the late 1940s was no means committed to the creation of a ‘satellite’ state out of the Red Army’s occupation zone. East Germany was to be a bargaining counter in the negotiations with the Western powers: the key to Soviet influence over the whole of Germany (particularly the heavy industry of the Ruhr region) at best, a fall-back position at worst. Responsibility for the division of Germany lies clearly with the Western Allies under the leadership of us imperialism, whose insistence on creating a strong West German bulwark state to spearhead President Truman’s anti-communist crusade in Europe forced Stalin’s hand at every stage from 1946 onwards.footnote2

Even after the formal proclamation of the German Democratic Republic, a month after the frg in October 1949, the survival of the ‘first German workers and peasants state’ remained negotiable. The strategic interests of the Soviet Union, as conceived by Stalin and his immediate successors Berija-Malenkov-Molotov, demanded the prevention of a re-militarized West Germany joining the nato alliance, and abandoning the gdr may have seemed a small price to pay for the neutralization of the Rhine-Ruhr military-industrial complex within a non-aligned, ‘Finlandized’ united Germany. In March 1952 Stalin proposed immediate negotiations with the three Western powers with a view to concluding a peace treaty with a re-united Germany, and followed this offer up in April with an acceptance of free elections under four-power supervision. Again after Stalin’s death in May 1953, contacts between Churchill and the new Soviet leadership led to ‘rumours within the sed that the party had to be prepared to return to opposition or even illegality’.footnote3 It was only the failure of the 1954 Berlin and 1955 Geneva Four Power Conferences to agree on a solution to the ‘German Question’ and the eventual admission of the Federal Republic to nato in 1955—after the collapse of the ‘European Defence Community’ project—that caused Moscow to end its equivocation on the future of the gdr: on his return from the Geneva Conference Krushchev declared in East Berlin that a ‘mechanical re-unification of the two German states’ was now impossible and that the gdr’s ‘socialist achievements’ were irreversible. The gdr, now a full member of the Warsaw Pact alliance, was granted ‘full sovereignty’ and a mutual friendship and assistance pact was signed in Moscow.

The prolonged uncertainty as to the long-term Soviet plans could not, of course, fail to affect the internal politics of the young republic. On the part of the Ulbricht leadership of the Socialist Unity Party (sed), the obvious need was to create—as far as the obligatory loyalty to the official Soviet line allowed it—a social, economic and political fait accompli. By 1949 the transformation of the economic system was already well advanced: private enterprise accounted for only 39% of industrial production and at the time the ‘transition to socialism’ was proclaimed by the Second Party Conference in 1952 its share had further fallen to below 20%.footnote4 Politically, the sed had established itself as the dominant force: founded in early 1946 out of a merger between the Communist Party (kpd) and Social-Democratic Party (spd),footnote5 the social-democratic element had been squeezed out of all positions of influence by the time of the Third Party Congress in July 1950 and the formula of ‘a party of a new type’ only served as a euphemism for a return to the Stalinist bureaucratic centralism and the unquestioning subservience to the cpsu of the old kpd. The remnants of the post-1945 bourgeois parties, the Christian Democratic Union (cdu) and the Liberal Democratic Party (ldp), were now locked with the sed, its satellites—the National Democratic Party (ndp) and the Democratic Farmers League (bd)—and the ‘mass organizations’ in the National Front of the Democratic Germany which presented the only list at gdr elections from 1950 onwards.

As long as the national question remained relatively open, however, cracks continued to appear in the political system both within and outside the party. In the working class, social-democratic and dissident-communist currents remained active, especially in the trade unions. The decreed abolition of the factory councils in 1948 had provoked a lot of dissatisfaction, which was amplified by the worsening economic situation in the early 1950s. Matters came to a head after Stalin’s death, when a Moscow-inspired ‘New Course’ made concessions to the farmers and middle class, but failed to rescind the recently increased industrial work norms. Over 300,000 workers struck and demonstrated on the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th June 1953 in the major industrial centres of the gdr, initially against the work norms but increasingly against the regime as such. The ‘17 June’, as the movement is now commonly referred to, was not only the first: mass working-class uprising against Stalinism in Eastern Europe after the war, it was also a movement led by the socialist and communist cadres who felt their hopes had been betrayed by the Ulbricht regime. Its collapse after the granting of economic concessions by a panicking sed Politbureau and the restoration of order by Soviet tanks was followed by purges: 71% of all local party secretaries were fired, and a very large proportion of the expelled and disciplined party members were representatives of the pre-1933 communist generation.footnote6 The defeat of the 17 June movement, the demoralization in the ranks of the workers caused by the defeat itself, and the passivity of the West German labour movement when confronted with the uprising;footnote7 the purges of his potential rivals in the leadership as well as of unreliable lower functionaries; and finally the unequivocal backing of Moscow following Berija’s downfall and the Western decision to re-arm the Bundesrepublik; combined to consolidate Ulbricht’s regime and end the uncertainty as to the longer-term future of his state.