Germany. Some historical remarks


East Germany or DDR.

Founded on the basis of the Soviet occupation zone After the Second World War, Germany was divided into four military occupation zones, administrated by France, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union. It was the intention that Germany should function as one country. This agreement was, however, unworkable in practice. The Allies represented two different systems: the Western democratic system and the Soviet Communist system.

The Soviet zone ended up becoming East Germany or DDR, Deutsche Demokratische Republik, and the other three zones West Germany or BRD, Bundesrepublik Deutschland.

The Socialist Unity Party (SED) won the elections in the Soviet occupation zone in 1946 with the help of the powerful Soviet authorities. DDR was declared in 1949. The Communist regime nationalized all industry and property. Some other political parties were permitted but the Communist party held all power.

Member of the Warsaw Pact.

Strong armed forces and an extensive secret police East Germany was a member of the Warsaw Pact, the military-treaty organization of Communist states in Eastern Europe. West Germany was member of NATO, the Western counterpart to the Warsaw Pact. East Germany had its own army, considered to be the most advanced among the Warsaw Pact countries given that it was at the Cold War frontline.

The regime was supported by a strong and extensive secret police, the Ministry of State Security, popularly known as the Stasi. It considered itself to be the “shield and sword of the (Communist) party” and its main task was to eliminate “the class enemy”.

The exodus from East to West

From the end of the Second World War on, a large number East Germans fled to the West due to political oppression and poor living standards. In the mid-1950s, the border was more or less closed between East and West Germany.

Berlin was given special status as the former capital of Germany and was divided in four zones. Here it was still possible to cross the border until 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built. It is estimated that 4 million people fled East Germany between 1945 and 1990.

A bloody 1953 uprising was suppressed by military force

The most critical protest against the Communist regime came with the uprising of 1953. It started among Berlin workers because of economic and social problems. The protests spread until there were more than a million people on strike and demonstrating in 500 towns and villages. The uprising was violently suppressed by Soviet troops together with East German army forces and police. Fifty people were killed and it is estimated that more than 10,000 were arrested.

The end of the Communist regime

Various economic and political circumstances were to change the situation in the East German state radically, including:

  • The continuing decline in the East German economy since the end of the 1970s.
  • The policies of perestroika (openness in the society) and glasnost (reconstruction of the society) introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in the mid-1980s.
  • A strong and increasing dissatisfaction with the Communist regime and the economic and social conditions (which led to demonstrations at the end of the 1980s).

The historical turning point came when Hungary opened its border with Austria in August 1989. It was now easy for East Germans to go to the West. It was also clear that Communist East Germany was only able to continue to exist behind strong, secure borders and walls. The Berlin Wall thus fell on November 9, 1989. The first free elections in 40 years gave only 16% of the vote to the former Communist party. The East German parliament (Volkskammer) decided in 1990 to join the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and East Germany thus ceased to exist.


The agreement between the Second World War victors: One German country and one capital

Following the Second World War, the remaining national territory of Germany was divided into four military occupation zones administrated by France, the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union. It was the intention, in the common agreement between the Allies that Germany should function as one country without borders between the zones.

It was also decided that Berlin, as the capital with all national administrative functions, would be separately divided into four administrative zones but that it should function as one city. Berlin was located in the middle of the Soviet zone. This would not be a problem as the Allies were able to move freely anywhere. In practice: two countries and two Berlins The agreement regarding one Germany and one Berlin could not function in practice because of two different systems: the Western democratic system and the Soviet Communist system. It was immediately clear following the war that the Soviet Union had simply occupied the countries in which their army was present when the war finished. Former independent countries were annexed to the Soviet Union. By 1946 Churchill was already talking about “the iron curtain which lies across Europe”. The result was that the Western zones formed the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) while the Soviet zone formed the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik). The countries were informally known as West Germany and East Germany, and similarly Berlin was known as West Berlin and East Berlin. East Germany chose East Berlin as its capital, while West Germany chose Bonn.

Battle ground of the Cold War.

Historical events in Berlin During the Cold War period, Berlin was the scene for several historical events, including:

  • The Berlin Blockade (1948-49), a land-based blockade of West Berlin as a Soviet protest against Western efforts to integrate their zones into West Germany. The roads through the Soviet zone to Berlin were closed. The Allies responded with a massive airlift that delivered supplies to the two million inhabitants of West Berlin.
  • The uprising of 1953 in East Germany. A strike by East Berlin workers due to serious national economic and social problems. The uprising was violently suppressed in Berlin with the help of Soviet tanks.
  • The Berlin Crisis of 1961. The Soviet Union wanted to change the wartime agreement on Berlin with the overall purpose of preventing the many refugees that were attempting to move from East to West Berlin. A Soviet ultimatum to withdraw Western troops from Berlin and have a “free and neutral city” was rejected. This culminated in 1961 with Soviet and U.S. tanks facing each other at Checkpoint Charlie. This was one of most serious Cold War crises, along with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. All military alternatives were prepared by the Allies and the Soviet Union, including the use of nuclear weapons.
  • The construction of the Berlin Wall (1961), which encircled the Western zones, was part of the Berlin Crisis in 1961. The wall was constructed physically to stop the hundreds of thousands of fugitives that were fleeing each year from the eastern to the western sector. Many people died in the ensuing years, trying to get across the fortified wall area.
  • U.S. President John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963.
  • U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech in 1980.
  • The collapse of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. In 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, East and West Germany were reunified as the Federal Republic of Germany, with Berlin as its capital.
Historical sites and museums