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History Essays – East Germany

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

What continuities do you see in the Soviet relationship with East Germany from 1945-1989? 

East Germany was created as a result of the circumstances surrounding the defeat of Nazi Germany and the onset of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States plus their respective allies and satellite states. The post-war partition of Germany between the four powers decided at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences had only meant to be temporary, to prevent any resurgence of German military power. Germany was supposed to have been reunited after the completion of denazification and demilitarisation programmes. With the Cold War though the three zones controlled by Britain, France and the United States were merged to form West Germany in 1949 with the Soviet Union duly responding by turning its zone into East Germany later that year (Bullock, 1991, p1026). As will be discussed below various continuities could be observed in the relationship between the Soviet Union and East Germany in the forty-five years between 1945 and 1989.

The first continuity that can be seen between the Soviet Union and East Germany was the leading role of the Communist Party in both countries. Occupation by the Red Army meant that Stalin could impose single Communist Party rule on East Germany as it was maintained in the Soviet Union. The Communist party (KPD) and the Social Democrats (SPD) in East Germany were merged to form the SED or Socialist Unity Party that became the leading party if not the sole party in East Germany. Other parties were allowed but their independence from the regime and their positions within parliament were purely nominal. The merger between the KPD and SPD had occurred to ensure the Communists could win elections prior to them taking over the government of the Soviet zone (Fullbrook, 1991, p.136). Walter Ulbrecht was a devoted Stalinist and was keen to toe the Moscow line. He became the SED leader who gladly imposed the Stalinist version of Marxist-Leninism on East Germany. East Germany was counted, as one of the countries of ‘really existing socialism’ or a Peoples democracy along with the Soviet Union’s other Central and East European satellites. Communist rule was legitimised by claiming the leading role of the Communists would eventually over take capitalism and provided socialist utopias (Hobsbawm, 1994, p.373). The government of East Germany were also sure that the Red Army would help to maintain communist rule at gunpoint if needs be. The Soviets believed that a communist East Germany was in their best interests, the SED regime in turn looked to the Soviet Union (Roberts, 1999, p.513). The adoption of communism in East Germany was meant to show a greater break from Nazism than was the case in West Germany as all those capitalist that had co-operated with the Nazis regime lost their economic and political influence in the East. For the Soviets it would have been unacceptable that East Germany could be allowed to be a capital liberal democracy. Communism was the strongest cause of continuity between the Soviets and East Germany (Pulzer, 1995, p.7).

A continuity in the relationship between the Soviets and East Germany was the insistence that unless it came about on their terms Germany reunification would not happen at all. The Soviet Union saw the maintenance of East Germany as vital to the success and continuance of the Warsaw Pact and its hegemony over Central and Eastern Europe. The ruling SED in East Germany realised that reunification on West Germany’s terms would lead to East Germany being absorbed into West Germany and the very real prospect of their regime being removed. When the Soviets did offer the chance of reunification it was on terms unacceptable to West Germany and her allies. Both the Soviet Union and the East German regime saw the continuance of two German states better than the prospect of a united Germany firmly in the Western camp.

At the council of Foreign Ministers in May 1949 held in Paris the four powers were not prepared to compromise to achieve reunification (Bullock, 1991, p.1034). For as long as there was a Cold War the Soviet and East German regimes needed each other. The division of Germany was allowed continue to maintain the balance between the superpowers. As soon as the Soviet Union ended the Cold War it meant East Germany no longer had a viable future. For that meant that the Soviets were no longer prepared to use its armed forces to prop up the hard line East German regime of Eric Honecker (Hobsbawm, 1994, p.252).

For much of the period 1945 to 1989 the Soviet Union’s relationship with East Germany was closely bound to the formal, military, political and economic links operated through the Warsaw Pact and COMECON (the Council for Mutual Economic Aid). The Warsaw Pact was established during May 1955 in response to NATO allowing West Germany to join it and re-arm. East Germany had its own separate Soviet equipped armed forces by the end of 1956. The East German military complimented the Soviet forces already on East German soil. As well as being used to counter the threat from NATO it was used for internal security duties within East Germany. The East German army was important for the continuance of the Soviet-East German army relationship as it supported the East German regime and worked closely with the Soviet forces in East Germany (Watson, 1997, p.89). The East Berlin uprising and unrest throughout the rest of East Germany had been put down by the Soviets. The East Germans may have taken over internal security duties yet it and the East German regime survived due to the presence of the Soviet’s garrisons and the guarantee that they would be used to keep the SED in power (Watson, 1997, pp.170-71). Added to this was the National People’s Army around 200,000 strong that tried to prevent its fellow east Germans crossing the border and later the Berlin Wall into the West (Fullbrook, 1991, p.180). As the East German regime was officially anti-Fascist and anti-capitalist it naturally led to a continuance of the political, military and economic relationship with the Soviet Union, as it was the world’s most obviously anti-Fascist and anti-capitalist state (Pulzer, 1995, p. 9).

A further continuance that can be seen in the relationship between the Soviet and East Germany was in the area of economics. The Soviet Union had been driven by two aims in East Germany, to gain economic reparations and to make the East German economy a command economy. The soviets gained an estimated $30 billion from East Germany in the decade after 1945. The economy of the Soviet zone was well on the way to being turn into a Stalinist style command economy prior to the formal emergence on East Germany in 1949. Most private land estates and businesses were taken into state control on the grounds that they were owned by pro-Nazi’s landowners and industrialists. Private sector businesses and industries had already been forced, cajoled and taxed into becoming state controlled by 1955. The imposition of state controlled socialism was viewed as elementary to the foundation and maintenance of East Germany plus its relationship with the Soviet Union (Fullbrook, 1991, p.154-55). The Soviet Union had decided to integrate East Germany economically with itself and the others people’s Republics of Central and Eastern Europe as part of COMECON in 1952. Officially, COMECON would direct economic development and trade between its members until 1989 (Fullbrook, 1991, p.179).

Therefore, the continuities that can be seen in the Soviet relationship with East Germany included the leading role of the Communist Party in countries, the CPSU and SED respectively. Ultimately, the viability of the East German State was heavily dependent on the strength of the Soviet Union plus the continuance of both the communist controls of the Soviet Union and the Cold War between the East and the West. East Germany was the frontline border between East and West. It was thus vital for Soviet interests that its regime was communist and pro-Soviet. Soviet military presence ensured that uprisings like those of 1953 would fail. East Germany was re-armed to make the Warsaw Pact stronger and also integrated into COMECON. The East German regime had to maintain strong links with the Soviet Union because without them it could not survive. The flight of East Germans to West Germany was as big a threat as rebellion. The Berlin Wall for a time stemmed the flow. The Soviets were happy to see East Germany use repressive measures as they used similar methods themselves.  The Soviets rather than the East Germans in fact ended the continuities of the Soviet Union’s relationship with East Germany. It was the political reforms of Gorbachev that ended the Cold War and meant that the Soviet Union was no longer willing to impose communism on any of the satellite states of central and Eastern Europe. Once this happened the Honecker regime was moribund and unable to prevent immigration to West Germany and its own replacement.


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