East Germany - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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East Germany

East Germany, common name of a former republic of central Europe, bordered on the north by the Baltic Sea, on the east by Poland, on the south by the Czech Republic, and on the south and west by the former West Germany. East Germany had an area of 108,178 sq km (41,768 sq mi). It was established officially as the German Democratic Republic (GDR; German Deutsche Demokratische Republik) on October 7, 1949, as one of two successor states—West Germany (officially the Federal Republic of Germany, or the FRG) being the other—to the nation of Germany after its defeat in World War II (1939-1945). East Germany ceased to exist when it reunified with West Germany on October 3, 1990.

East Germany occupied the areas which are now the German states of Berlin, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Saxony (Sachsen), Saxony-Anhalt, and Thüringen. The republic named East Berlin (see Berlin) as its capital, a selection which other nations refused to recognize. At the time of reunification, the republic had about 16 million inhabitants.

East Germany, established under Soviet auspices in 1949 in reaction to the Allied-sponsored founding of West Germany, insisted on international recognition as an independent Communist state. Despite Soviet demands for heavy reparations, it developed a potent economy and held a key position in the Soviet bloc.


Walter Ulbricht, a longtime member of the German Communist Party, presided over the destiny of East Germany for more than 25 years. He helped found the Socialist Unity Party (German Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands), a Communist organization, in 1946, and was general secretary of the party from 1950 to 1971, first deputy premier of the republic from 1949 to 1950, and chairperson of the Council of State from 1960 to 1973.

Determined to transform his country, ravaged by World War II, into a major Communist power, Ulbricht designed a foreign policy to foster friendly relations with other Communist states. In 1950 East Germany made a treaty with Poland ratifying the Odra-Neisse border, and joined the other Communist nations in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. In 1954 the republic’s stature grew when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) ended its demands for reparations and granted East Germany diplomatic recognition. The next year East Germany helped found the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet answer to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and in 1956 East Germany formed an army. Ulbricht made a pact with the USSR in 1964 to maintain Communism in Eastern Europe, and negotiated an unfavorable trade agreement in 1965 in return for Soviet political support. Ulbricht sent East German troops to help the Soviets crush a 1968 uprising in the former Czechoslovakia.


In the 1950s East Germany’s relations with capitalist West Germany became strained after West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer claimed that all Germans were one nation and insisted on dealing with the Socialist Unity Party rather than with the East German government. Relations became even more strained with the division of Berlin into separate zones. Berlin lay deep within East German territory, but had been divided into eastern (Communist) and western (non-Communist) sectors. To stop the flow of dissatisfied East Germans to the West, a situation draining East Germany’s trained workforce, Ulbricht set up a police-guarded corridor along the country’s western frontier, leaving Berlin as the only practical escape route. Ulbricht finally blocked that exit in 1961 by ordering the construction of the Berlin Wall, a heavily fortified cement barrier that cut off East Berlin from West Berlin; in 1968 Ulbricht imposed new restrictions on already limited travel from West Germany to West Berlin.


In domestic affairs Ulbricht’s first concern was to rebuild the East German economy. After World War II East Germany was left with only one-fourth of its prewar resources, but was required by the USSR to pay three-fourths of overall German reparations to aid Soviet war recovery. Ulbricht attained his goal by imposing an iron discipline comparable to that of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The Socialist Unity Party completely controlled the government, which had already taken over all large industry and agriculture and which gradually acquired all small holdings as well. Emphasis was on heavy industrial production to satisfy Soviet requirements. In 1953 increased production quotas and food shortages caused worker revolts, which were put down by Soviet troops.

With the New Economic System of 1963, a policy characterized by partial decentralization and computerized planning, economic recovery in East Germany occurred rapidly. As workers’ incomes and benefits improved and many of them were given advanced technological education, they became somewhat more reconciled to the Communist government. A new, fully socialist constitution was adopted in 1968.


From 1968 to 1989 East Germany was governed under a constitution that defined the country as a sovereign socialist state in which all political power was exercised by the working people. In practice, power resided with the Socialist Unity Party. The 1968 constitution guaranteed the party a leading role in national affairs, and its general secretary, as head of the party’s political bureau, was the most powerful person in the country. East Germany’s unicameral parliament, the People’s Chamber (German Volkskammer), consisting of 500 deputies, met only for short sessions. To carry out its functions at other times, the People’s Chamber elected a Council of State.


After 1971, when Ulbricht was succeeded by Erich Honecker as party leader (Honecker was subsequently president of East Germany from 1976 to 1989), no single figure dominated the East German government. Relations with West Germany improved after West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and East German Premier Willi Stoph agreed to ease West German travel restrictions to West Berlin in 1972 and instituted formal diplomatic relations in 1973. New trade, aid, and travel agreements were signed with West Germany in 1984, and in 1987 Honecker became the first East German head of state to pay an official visit to West Germany.


Communist rule unraveled in 1989 after Hungary, suspending a 20-year-old accord with East Germany, allowed thousands of East German citizens to cross the border from Hungary into Austria and thence to West Germany, where they received asylum. As the political crisis mounted in 1989, Honecker was forced out of the presidency in October, and Egon Krenz became president and party leader. In November the Berlin Wall was opened, other barriers to emigration dropped, and tens of thousands of East Germans streamed into West Berlin. Meanwhile, revelations of corruption among high officials during the Honecker era left the Socialist Unity Party in turmoil.

In the face of rising popular discontent, Krenz lost his state and party posts, and in December 1989 the Socialist Unity Party, bowing to demands by opposition groups, agreed to hold free elections for a new People’s Chamber, to consist of 400 members. This transitional body, freely elected in March 1990, was charged with working out the constitutional arrangements under which the GDR (East Germany) would merge with the FRG (West Germany). The two republics merged their financial systems in July 1990, and in October the GDR dissolved. The Christian Democratic coalition, led by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, scored a decisive victory in elections for the new German government in December 1990, and Kohl became chancellor of the unified Germany. The newly elected Bundestag (the legislative body of the German parliament), representing both East and West, named Berlin the capital of Germany on June 20, 1991. The transfer of administration from Bonn, the capital of the former West Germany, was expected to take several years.

Although the economy thrived in what was formerly West Germany, unemployment and failing businesses continued to plague what was formerly East Germany. To fund investment and welfare programs in the East, the government raised taxes, generating opposition among citizens of the West who resented having to support the East Germans. The influx of more than 200,000 ethnic Germans from other East European countries seeking asylum in Germany also strained the economy. By 1992 the unemployment rate had returned to about normal in the western states, but remained high in the eastern states.

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