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East Germany (German: Ostdeutschland), officially the German Democratic Republic (GDR; German: Deutsche Demokratische Republik or DDR) was an authoritarian Communist country and satellite state of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, East Germany became genuinely democratic, and a year later, at the end of the Cold War, the East German people voted to reunite with West Germany to form the current German state.
Its longest-serving, and most famous, leader was Erich Honecker. It was widely said to be the most prosperous and nicest of the Eastern Bloc states, but that is a bit like saying Molluscum contagiosum is the best STD. It ignores the estimated 327 people who died trying to cross from East to West Germany, many shot by guards or killed by mines, as well as other human rights abuses catalogued below.
Nevertheless, Herr Honecker fell out with the Russians and openly disobeyed Moscow, especially when that dubious Mikhail Gorbachev guy started to speak about a less authoritarian style of leadership. However, Honecker still failed to bring any major improvements to East Germany, and he was finally ousted just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall.[note 1] After falling from power, Honecker escaped to Chile[note 2] and became the butt of numerous German jokes (yes, such things exist). The fact that Honecker was from the West German Saar area (bordering France) but still sounded like a stereotypical Easterner in his incredibly bland, hour-long speeches must have helped.
Like most communist countries, East Germany had a secret police, the Stasi[note 3] (short for Staatsicherheit—"State Security"). The Stasi had the stated aim "to know everything about everyone"; it has been estimated that one in eight East German citizens collaborated with the Stasi (in a country of 16 million people). Other subsequent estimates indicate that the Stasi maintained a greater degree of surveillance over their population than any other domestic intelligence force in history. Off the back of this, the Stasi counted as one of the world's most effective secret police forces;[note 4] they even helped (à la the KGB) to set up "state security" organizations for other countries. Other activities included supporting West German anti-Semitic groups and running a brothel to entrap homosexuals. There is speculation about how closely the Stasi were involved with the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof gang) and West German terrorism, but they definitely had some links.
They also used female prostitutes to extract information from Western visitors during trade fairs in Leipzig, as well as a "Project Romeo" where Stasi agents were to cultivate relationships with people who had access to classified information (so they knew occasionally in the biblical sense in order to know in the literal sense).
Economic failures of East Germany
Much like most other Communist states, East Germany suffered poor economic performance throughout its existence. The 1950s comprised two Five-Year Plans, both of which failed miserably. The First Five-Year Plan was implemented in June 1950 and concentrated on widespread nationalisation of the economy. Both small- and large-scale businesses would be brought under centralised "People's Enterprises." Walter Ulbricht, the First Secretary of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED),[note 5] announced plans for expansion of heavy industry, despite low productivity and access to technology. There subsequently emerged widespread social dissatisfaction at the long working hours and continual underinvestment in consumer goods—as regional managers would push for higher productivity without wage increases. The First Five-Year Plan would struggle to rival the economy of West Germany, leading the SED to adopt the Second Five Year Plan (1956–1959).
Not dissimilarly to North Korea, the DDR was one of the strongest economies in the Eastern Bloc because of its exports to other communist countries. However, when the Warsaw Pact collapsed, demand for inferior East German products collapsed, resulting in the region's economic collapse. East German cars such as the Trabant and Wartburg were highly desirable to those in the East who faced 15-year waiting lists, but laughable (albeit cheap) death traps when compared to Western cars.
|East Germany||West Germany|
|Sleifer (2006)||Merkel and Wahl (1991)||Maddison (1995)||ICOP|
Many tankies bring up how East Germany was always poorer than West Germany to explain the poverty of East Germany throughout its communist period, but estimates suggest that East German GDP per capita was 3 to 7 percent higher than West German GDP per capita in 1936, and East German GDP per person employed was 2 percent higher than the West German figure, so that claim just isn't true. Moreover, the share of the gap between the GDP per capita (adjusted for 1990 international dollars) of West Germany and East Germany increased from 1950 to 1990, so East Germany couldn't keep up:
|East Germany||West Germany|
|GDP (1990 Int$, millions)||Population (thousands)||GDP per capita ($)||GDP (1990 Int$, millions)||Population (thousands)||GDP per capita ($)||East as a % of West|
|Angus Maddison Data|
After unification, life got much better for East Germans and many gaps in various indicators between East Germany and West Germany decreased. Around nine-in-ten Germans living in both the West and East say that German unification was a good thing for Germany. Life satisfaction in East Germany has skyrocketed since 1991 and now is closing in on opinions in the West. In 1991, 15% of those living in former East Germany said their life was a 7, 8, 9, or 10 on a 0-10 scale, but in 2019 that ballooned to 59%. Meanwhile, life satisfaction in the West has also increased since 1991, from 52% to 64% today. 83% of people in East Germany approve of the transition to a market economy that occurred in 1989, and only 13% disapprove of it.
Despite this, East Germany is still the poorest region of Germany to this day, and many East Germans long for the time of guaranteed economic security under the DDR.
Good things it did
Well those traffic lights look kinda retro...
In 1972, Fidel Castro's Cuba renamed the island of Cayo Blanco del Sur after German communist politician Ernst Thälmann.[note 7] Ernst Thälmann Island was gifted to East Germany, although the Cuban government claims this was symbolic and it's really still part of Cuba. The micronation of Molossia, in the vicinity of the US state of Nevada, formerly affected to be at war with East Germany, and having outlived the DDR, Molossia now claims to be at war with Ernst Thälmann Island.
- Talk of too little, too late.
- (West) Germany sought his extradition to be prosecuted for his crimes as head of the DDR, but dropped these proceedings as Honecker was already dying from cancer of the liver (he died in Chile in 1994).
- A colloquial abbreviation of "Ministerium für Staatssicherheit" or "MfS", meaning "Ministry for State Security"
- German efficiency!
- This was created in 1946 when Stalin ordered a merger of the Communist and Social Democratic Parties in the region of Germany that the Soviets controlled after the Nazis were defeated. Said region became the GDR.
- GDP data is from 1990 and population data is from 1989. Sure, the measure isn't year for year, but it's still going to give us a rough GDP per capita figure between 1989 and 1990.
- Thälmann was the leader of the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, or KPD in German) during the late 1920s and early 1930s; he was one of the first politicians arrested by Adolf Hitler after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. Thälmann spent 11 years in solitary confinement until he was shipped off to a concentration camp and shot.
- East German border claimed 327 lives, says Berlin study, BBC, 8 June 2017
- Steve Rosenberg, "Computers to solve Stasi puzzle", BBC News, 25 May 2007.
- Like Ethiopia.
- E. Germany Ran Antisemitic Campaign in West in ’60s by Marc Fisher, The Washington Post, February 28, 1993. From the website of Paul Bogdanor.
- The Stasi–Meinhof Complex?, David Vielhaber, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Volume 36, Issue 7—2013, published online 14 June 2017, https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2013.793637.
- Bruni de la Motte, "East Germans lost much in 1989", The Guardian, 8 November 2009.
- Paul Hudson, "Trabant and Wartburg – cars that evolved behind the Berlin Wall", The Daily Telegraph, 6 February 2018.
- Sleifer, Jaap (2006). "Chapter 3: East German GDP". Planning Ahead and Falling Behind: The East German Economy in Comparison with West Germany 1936–2002, pp. 50 and 66.
- Sleifer, Jaap (2006). "Chapter 3: East German GDP". Planning Ahead and Falling Behind: The East German Economy in Comparison with West Germany 1936–2002, p. 49
- Maddison, Angus (2006). "Development Centre Studies The World Economy Volume 1: A Millennial Perspective". MIT Press. p. 406
- Sleifer, Jaap (2006). "Chapter 3: East German GDP". Planning Ahead and Falling Behind: The East German Economy in Comparison with West Germany 1936–2002, p. 53
- Maddison, Angus (2006). The World Economy. Paris, France: Development Centre of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). pp. 178. https://www.stat.berkeley.edu/~aldous/157/Papers/world_economy.pdf
- CIA 1990 GDP per capita list, CIA World Factbook.
- Bundesbalances—Eastern and Western German fortunes since reunification, The Economist.
- "European Public Opinion Three Decades After the Fall of Communism", Pew Research Center.
- "Nostalgia for East Germany is not surprising" - The Irish Times
- See the Wikipedia article on Ernst Thälmann Island.
- See the Wikipedia article on Republic of Molossia.