East Germany

German Democratic Republic (East Germany)

The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was established in 1949 from the area of Germany occupied by the Soviet Union. East Berlin became the capital of the new country. As West Berlin remained part of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) the capital was the cause of great conflict.

The main political figure in the German Democratic Republic was Walter Ulbricht who served as General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party (1946-1971) and Chairman of the Council of State (1960-1971).

On 7th June, 1953, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of East Germany in demonstrations which began as a protest against increased work quotas and spiralled into demands for free elections. Red Army tanks were brought in and the Soviet military commander declared a state of emergency. More than 50 people were killed. Of these, about 20 of were executed, while more than 1,000 were convicted in the East German courts of having taking part in an "attempted fascist coup".

In 1955 the government of East Germany signed the Warsaw Treaty of Friendship Cooperation and Mutual Assistance with Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Soviet Union. The Warsaw Pact was created in response to the decision to allow the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

In the fifteen years following the Second World War over 3 million people emigrated from the German Democratic Republic to Federal Republic of Germany. In August 1961 the Berlin Wall was built to stem this flow of refugees.

In 1966 Willy Brandt became Foreign Minister in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany). He developed the policy of Ostpolitik (reconciliation between eastern and western Europe). In 1969 Brandt became Chancellor of West Germany. He continued with his policy of Ostpolitik and in 1970 negotiated an agreement with the Soviet Union accepting the frontiers of Berlin. He also signed the Basic Treaty with the German Democratic Republic.

In 1972 the German Democratic Republic was admitted to the United Nations. With the collapse of communism in 1989 the two German republics were united.

Primary Sources

(1) Waltraut Krugler, quoted by Hubertus Knabe in his book 17th June 1953: A German Uprising (2003)

The street was full of people, saying 'come with us, do this with us'," she remembered. "At 2 o'clock in the afternoon, the street was black with people. The police said: 'All of you go home, and we will fulfil your demands.' But people shouted at the police and threw stones. Then the tanks came and people were killed.

(2) An East German joke about Walter Ulbricht and Willy Brandt told during the 1970s.

'Have you a hobby, Herr Brandt?'

'Yes, I collect jokes that people tell about me,' says Brandt. 'And you?'

'Oh, I collect people who tell jokes about me,' says Ulbricht.

(3) An East German joke about Walter Ulbricht told during the 1970s.

The Interior Minister telephones Walter Ulbricht.

'Thieves have broken into the Ministry this evening.'

'Have they stolen something?'

'Alas, yes. All the results of the next elections.'

(4) An East German joke that circulated in the 1970s.

A West German Communist was travelling on a train through the GDR. He got into conversation with an old lady.

'Back home in West Germany,' he told her, 'shirts cost forty marks each.'

'Shirts?' said the old lady ruefully. 'We had those here once.'

'Butter is terribly expensive in the West. We are forced to eat margarine,' he continued.

'Yes,' said the old lady, 'we had margarine here once, too.'

'Now look here!' shouted the West German, by now thoroughly exasperated, 'You don't have to tell me these fairy-stories, you know! I'm a Communist!'

'A Communist?' sighed the old lady. 'Yes, we had those here once, too.'

(5) Jeevan Vasagar, The Guardian (17th June, 2003)

A German historian has accused the British of "betraying" an anti-communist uprising in the early years of the German Democratic Republic which was eventually put down by Soviet tanks. In a book published to coincide with today's 50th anniversary of the uprising, Hubertus Knabe claims that the western powers, in particular Britain led by Winston Churchill, declined to intervene because they feared a reunited Germany.

Churchill rebuked a British commander who protested about the execution of a west Berlin student caught in the east and praised the Russians for their restraint.

Mr Knabe, author of 17th June 1953: A German Uprising, said: "The demonstrators were bitterly disappointed, after the west's rhetoric about the liberation of Europe, and the encouragement of resistance, that when they went out on the streets, they received no support"

The anniversary has been trailed for weeks by political debates, television documentaries and theatre productions. In his book, the historian quotes Churchill expressing surprise that the British commander should have issued a complaint to the Russians without consulting London.

The then prime minister asked whether the Soviet Union should have allowed "the eastern zone to collapse into anarchy and revolt", according to a private message quoted by Mr Knabe, and went on: "I had the impression that the unrest was handled with remarkable restraint."

The west feared reunification. The foreign secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, told Churchill in a memo on June 22 that the allies felt "a divided Germany is safer at present. But none of us dare say so in public because of the impact on public opinion in Germany". The first East Germans to go out on the streets in 1953 were construction workers on Stalinallee, the Communist-era highway that slices through east Berlin.